Dispatches from Jerusalem: Language

IT WAS UNMISTAKABLE. Practically written on their foreheads — enlarged by their receding hairlines and distinctive buzz. Their stride, caramel Chelsea boots, stone-washed torn jeans, a Hollister shirt and too-tight, brightly colored v. Around me, the boozed banter whirled on as the two walked by, step by step, past the porch of our house down Fraternity Row. I gazed across the way, making eye contact with the darker one. He even donned a Jewish star necklace, glistening against the reflection of light above his path. The taller, vaguely eastern European one gazed, not for entry, but for curiosity’s sake. The signs were clear enough. I was absolutely certain.

“Achim, mah koreh?” (“My brothas, what’s happenin?”)

Their strides ground to a halt, and their faces turned, now focused intently on my words. The two approached. Around the table, other conversations slowed as people murmured on what they had been saying, listening, wondering why these late twenty-somethings had stumbled onto our porch. We went back and forth — who we were, where we were from — leaping between English and Hebrew, recounting names of people and places we knew in common, the waitress at a tiny café, Sonya Getzel Shapira, the bouncer at Shelvata, a club set atop the port in Tel Aviv. They were two Israeli exchange students from IDC Herzliya. It was Jewish geography at its finest. For that moment, and it being quite late and my mind’s eye fuddled by that time of the night, I had the distinct feeling of being somewhere I was not, somewhere I had been.

Jerusalem in the winter is not the sunlit, biblical oasis of the 1950s Soviet realist “Come to Palestine” posters. More weather — wind, rain, snow even — than Zionist boosters let on. Limestone, after all, is probably the second slickest surface to try to walk on wet, narrowly beat by banana peals. What no poster could fail to misrepresent is the Israeli accent. Their ‘L’ is pronounced delicately in a franco-frank fashion, with the tongue flattened, never curled. ‘Salmon,’ is not ‘salmon,’ but ‘salmone.’ The ‘R,’ too, demands a disciplined tongue, not like the crimped American — seductive and rolling from the back of the throat, though eerily reminiscent of a cat’s dry-heave. Yet another throaty feature of the Israeli lingual palate is the ‘Chet.’ To the uninitiated, it sounds of overdone, chalky falafel obstructing someone’s pharynx. But to the initiated, as spittle catapults forth, the guttural notes of the ‘chet’ pound your ear drum — think ‘hummus’ and ‘tehina’ pronounced correctly and not like the waiters at California Pizza Kitchen — it is immediate and mellifluous gratification. Then there is the sound of Israeli contemplative reverie, not ‘um’ but ‘em,’ which can often go for what seem like hours. The accent of Netflix Original Series, Wet Hot American Summer’s Israeli exchange camper, Yaron — the raucous pronunciation of whose name is itself a recurring joke, with his curly if not public keppi of hair, irrational love of soccer and cigarettes, awkwardly aggressive advances towards Lake Bell, his excessively short shorts, caramel Na’ot sandals, the Israeli equivalent of Birkenstock — is not the only accent in Israel.

A stone’s throw from the Old City of Jerusalem in Mea Shearim (“Hundred Gates”), you won’t hear much Hebrew. Designed in 1874 by a German Christian architect, Conrad Schick, as a ghetto — this was before ‘ghetto’ was shorthand for Holocaust, or N.W.A. — for the ultra-religious Jews. Hebrew, for these Jews, is sacred and cannot be sullied by everyday conversation. Here, the lingua franca is Yiddish, English or some jumbled Yinglish. Take Meir Kleinman, a Hassidic Jew born in New York who wraps phylacteries for a living at the Western Wall and whose home I was fortunate enough to be invited to for Friday night dinner to welcome the Sabbath. Although conversation was cordial enough, we had certain marked points of departure from one another — the big bang, evolution, God’s gender and other epistemological conundrums. Mostly in English, too. For words and phrases which formed a part of the predetermined lines of argument connected to his religious ideology, though, he relied on his wife — as close to ‘egalitarian’ marriage as I could find in these parts — for English translations of his INGSOC Yiddishisms (even Arendt would’ve been proud). As a guest, I was given the honor of wrapping up the evening by reading the prayer said at the end of the meal. I knew the abridged, bubble-gum pop version from summer camp, not the one they wanted to hear. I mimicked caricatured memories of my ultra-orthodox cousins reciting the prayer as best I could. Though I could still hear Meir muttering an ‘s’ sound for every ‘t’ sound I made — a custom meant only to identify a Jew as Ashkenazi, or of Eastern European descent, and not Sephardi, or Iberian.

Or take the modern orthodox Yeshiva boys, freshly out of private Jewish high school in Los Angeles or New York City, soaking up Torah for a year before entering university life. Pining to take on a ‘real frat bro’ in beer pong, the Yeshiva boys invited my friend and me to their apartment in Tel Aviv. We arrived to find the Yeshiva boys dismantling a bong, rinsing it meticulously, rubbing their sidelong eyes, still reconciling their belief in the goodness of the helium balloon inflating inside their heads and their untried throats’ unwillingness to acquiesce to their overzealous, ashen puffs. My friend, Charlie, a practiced hand at the game, sank the final cup. The Yeshiva boys tensed up, smiled nervously, rubbed the sweat away from their upper lips, murmuring not “rebuttal,” but “redemption.” This was not a gentleman’s game, but a game for the faithful.

If, at a bar, you find occasion to befriend an Israeli man, or dare to approach an Israeli woman, it all comes down to language. Say you know someone on someone’s military ‘team,’ you will be out of a companion within minutes. Say ‘tsevet,’ the proper Hebrew word for it, and will have demonstrated you are not a floozy American stumbling around Israel wasted and unawares, but are capable of an ethical appeal to cultural and social esteem. In Israel, a young country, and veritable village, where the yearning to accentuate single threads of an interwoven identity is exigent ever more, language proves not a collection of chance utterances, but a deliberately fabricated assemblage of symbols, the totality of which is the individual.

Insight like this comes not from explanation but from experience, from age. My father spent time in Israel, too. When I was younger my father spoke to us in Hebrew, pronounced words properly in Hebrew, or Jewish somehow with a Hebraic accent. It evoked the sort of irrational, burning annoyance so distinctive of youth. I would often come across, whether at my synagogue or around my neighborhood, people who knew my father from his days as director of a camp program in Israel called Ulpan. In their catching up and reminiscing the peoples’ and places names’ were pronounced obnoxiously different from the rest of the sentences. It was not alienating. Without fail both would crack that wistful smile and peer at one another but really be looking elsewhere else-time, absorbed in honeyed memory.

Returning home, it turned out that many people — cousins of mine, parents of friends — who lived in my Jewish suburb had gone on the same program as I had, walked the same paths up to class on Mt. Scopus as I had, even eaten at the same restaurants as I had. At moments of penetrating specificity, English, without fail, fell away. As the deluge of details shot up from memory illuminating reaches long opaque, the most iconic, the most sensory, of the recollections were the preserve of an all too familiar Hebraic accent.

At unexpected times of the day I will come across a scene or scent that reminds me. Sometimes trick, but sometimes true, links to memory can be found in the most unexpected places. Language is alone among these links. It is not a function of circumstance, but the instrument of its creation, and we the creator. It can lend an air of authenticity to ideas otherwise fabricated. Hummus is, to you and me, homogenous. If, when you order it at California Pizza Kitchen, Three Kings, or any other restaurant in America next, try pronouncing ‘hummus’ as if you were choking on your breath. Imagine your waiter doing the same. Neither will comprehend. Language is at once a reflex and a conscious choice that brings you close to a place, and that place close to you. It is how experience makes sense of us, and we of it. Language lets us arouse even the most distant episodes to the fore, to dip our faces beneath the tumultuous surface of our routine and take pleasure in memories, maybe long forgotten, but frozen in time in all their amber sumptuousness — if only for the moment you speak — to indulge in the most satisfying of recollections.

Like what you read? Give Ari Jonah Meyers Spitzer a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.