When I enter the boardroom to teach yoga, Israelis of every hair color and tattoo size welcome me with ahalan, borrowed from Arabic for hi, with an inaccessible guttural sound reminding me of my Rumanian-born Boba’s morning phlegm and a slangy substitute for shalom. Twenty-six years earlier, in ulpan—Hebrew immersion class for new immigrants—my teacher Sarit began with shalom for hello, goodbye, and peace. On November 4, 2007, the twelfth anniversary of Israeli former Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, we attended the circumcision ceremony of my nephew, where my brother announced the baby’s name, Shalom, for its biblical meaning complete, so intimately connected to Arabic’s saalam, meaning to be safe, secure, forgiven. As bodies and breath slip on the rubber mats, languages and cultures slide together on my tongue.
When I think about my connection to this land and to these foreign words with throat-throttled sounds, I come face-to-phantom with the Big Boss Upstairs—not because I’m a believer but because so many of the people who surround me are. In Arabic, Allah is kin with Hebrew’s El/Eloah (God), Elohim (Gods) and Ehyeh (I Will Be), but I find solace on my eggplant-colored yoga mat and cringe when my half-dozen Ultra-Orthodox Jewish nieces and nephews start every sentence with Baruch HaShem or Thank God, who gave Adam and Eve heaven, hell, and hope. I say thank who- knows- who for ice cream, created by (wo)man alone.
When I first learn Hebrew at Temple Beth Abraham Sunday school in Oakland, California circa ‘’73, we memorize basic words, including ice cream—glida—which I mistake for God, both hard G’s and stressed D’s. Now challenged by torrid summer temperatures and bewitched by hawaij, sumac, and other boundary-breaking savories of the Middle East, I know that glida and God go hand in hand, just like I know that hands must clutch cones like tongues at greased-lightning speed even under a speck of shade. In Buza (Arabic for ice cream), a shop founded by an Israeli Jew and Israeli Muslim, I ooh and ahh at its unconventional offerings like sabra, the prickly-pear cactus fruit of the species Opuntia ficus-indica and related to the Arabic word sabr for patience or perseverance and nickname for Jews born in Israel—thorny-spiky on the outside and soft-sweet on the inside—along with pine nuts and pomegranate and fantasize about the taste of peace.
When I hear hotheaded Israelis kvetch khalas this, khalas that, another Arabic-appropriated word for it’s done or I’m done to mean Enough! or Stop it! in impatient, ill-mannered, full-of-attitude tones, I question myself: how did I, still a well-mannered American immigrant no matter how long I live here, get here? Yet when I scratch beneath their gruff exterior, this melted pot of peoples—whether Jewish or Arab, Muslim or Christian, Druze, Bedouin or Baha’i, religious, secular, or somewhere in between—are huge-hearted. Like the muezzins during prayer time, our lexemes are callings to connection, recipes for and reminders of a common core of humanity. Every time I buy za’atar at Levinsky spice market or black sesame ice cream at Buza or barhi dates in the Carmel souk, I plaster on my fake-it-till-you-make-it face, coaxing teeth and throat in preparation to pronounce words with roller-coaster sounds, my baby-step efforts to sound like I belong, imbibing all the yoga-love-hope-forgiveness-peace lingua franca on planet earth: yes, ken, nem.
Jennifer Lang's shorts have appeared in Atticus Review, CHEAP POP, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. "Repeat the Enchanting" won first place in Midway Journal's flash contest. A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as Assistant Editor for Brevity. Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, she lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio and hunts for a special press for her memoir in vignettes.
Photo by Archana Reddy on Unsplash
I agree that learning additional languages gives us more insight into ourselves and the people around us. Hebrew/Arabic and English belong to different language families: English is Indo-European, and Hebrew/Arabic are Semitic languages. I think that knowing three different languages has helped to broaden my mind and makes me a better writer. Best wishes for your creative writing!
This one I had to read twice to fully comprehend all the meanings. Well worth the extra few minutes!
Again, a job well done!
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May 12, 2021
Jennifer has a way of conjuring up and conveying memories unlike any other writer. So talented, and so meaningful.