The first time I went to Israel, I was 16.
And from Los Angeles.
We’re talking triple threat.
I was on one of those summer programs in Israel–you know, those Jewish hookup fests thinly disguised as “educational and spiritual trips” where hormonal teenagers hike, swim, and share mono together.
(I think most of our parents imagined that we’d all be earnestly singing Hava Nagila and Hinei Ma Tov around a camp fire, but no.)
It was a great time to be in Israel: The dollar-to-shekel exchange rate was in our favor, and Ben Yehudah Street was our motzei Shabbat smorgesboard, teeming with other Jewish American hormones teenagers helping the economy.
We’d sidle in and out of shops, duped into thinking our novice haggling actually made a difference in the prices, and inevitably, we’d buy too many T-shirts at Mr. T’s. But hey, you can’t leave Israel without an olive-green IDF T-shirt (in English) or a fire engine-red Coca-Cola T-shirt (in Hebrew.)
During that summer, I spoke Bat Mitzvah Hebrew. And I was fluent in my mistakes.
Not that it mattered.
Whenever we would have exchanges with “the natives”– and by “the natives” I mean rich kids from Ramat Aviv who spoke English as well as we did– I’d inevitably end up playing around in their language: An ingénue tripping adorably over words with “Chet,” “Ayin” and “Resh.” But in a cute way.
And every time I’d stumble through the language, the Israelis around me would hold my hand and help me through.
And who can blame them? I was 16, from Los Angeles, and blonde.
Well, that summer was a long time ago, and things have changed.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me break it down:
I am closer to turning 40 than I am to being 16.
I have two children, and a postpartum tummy to prove it.
I can feel the first signs of early arthritis twisting my fingers like the roots of a begonia plant. Really.
Retinol is my weapon of choice in the War on Aging.
While it’s true my Hebrew has improved a little, the language is still new to me.
In Hebrew, I misplace words, leaving them somewhere buried deep in memory.
In Hebrew, I’m a time traveler, turning past tense into present, future tense into past. My passive verbs go running. My active verbs are stoned on a beach in the Sinai. I confuse my masculine and feminine verbs and nouns so often that it’s as if they’re cross dressing.
In Hebrew, I’m 16 again: breathless and giddy as I stumble over new words, wrapping my lips and twisting my tongue over unfamiliar sounds. Speaking Hebrew gives me butterflies in my stomach.
And like that summer, as I trip through the language, I’ve found that others are still willing to pick me up and walk me through the nuances of something that is both a little familiar and yet utterly foreign.
(After all, I may no longer be 16, but I’m still from Los Angeles, and I’m still blonde.)
But this time, I am not going home in eight weeks. This is my home. I’ve got two children who need a mother and not a 16-year-old friend. They need badass, not breathless.
They need a grownup.
And so, I must continue to practice.
Instead of grunting and pointing at something on a menu, I will speak up and order. In Hebrew.
Instead of wandering around lost for an hour and a half, I will ask for directions from a shopkeeper. In Hebrew.
Instead of letting B. do the talking for me when we speak with M.’s preschool teachers, I will find out how my daughter’s day was. In Hebrew.
And even though I know that I will inevitably fall hard on my ass, I will take these first few steps. And somehow, someday, I will toddle toward linguistic adulthood. In Hebrew.