Like the MamaLand Empire!

Have you Liked the AliyahLand adventure?
      ...and sign up for weekly aliyah tips by email (it's free).

When nouns meet nouns (and other Great Lies of Hebrew School)


You know how much I love exposing the Great Lies of Hebrew school.  (Having been a Hebrew school teacher, millennia ago, I’m allowed.)  So here’s today’s.

How do you say “of” or “belonging to” in Hebrew?  Every schoolkid knows this, right?  Shel (שֶׁל)… easy!

Not so fast, kiddo.

In fact, the second part is more correct than the first.  “Shel” means belonging to… and not so much “of.”

Imagine you’re signing up volunteers for a school trip, so you want a list of parents.  So in Hebrew-school Hebrew, that ought to be רשימה של הורים / reshima shel horim.  But, in fact, that probably means something closer to “list belonging to parents,” which is not what you want to say at all.

Another example:  I went to the University of Toronto (yay, BA in philosophy!).  The first few times I struggled to say this in Hebrew, I was saying אוניברסיטה של טורונטו / universita shel Toronto.  It didn’t sound right, even to my ears. 

Why?  Because there’s no belonging – the university and Toronto go together, but not in an ownership way.  Neither one owns the other – they are simply two nouns kind of leaning together for mutual support. 

In English, we most often do this with “of”:  list of parents, University of Toronto, children of Israel.

But in Hebrew, when you have two nouns walking along together, leaning on each other, with no clear possession, you use the “leaning” form:  סְמִיכוּת / smichut.

(say it!  smeeeeeeeeee-chhhhhh-oot)

Did I mention Hebrew school?  That’s actually a great example of smichut.  Even in English, you wouldn’t say “School of Hebrew” (though you might say School of Rock!).  You just say “school” and “Hebrew” and everybody understands how it fits.

In Hebrew, the word for school, as you learned in School of Hebrew, is actually two words:  “book house” /  בֵּית סֵפֶר / beit sefer.  You take the book and the house and you just kind of lean them up together.  And everybody understands.

For singular masculine nouns, it really is just that easy (Well, okay, not quite – why is it  בֵּית / beit and not בַּיִת / bayit sefer?  Shh… never mind.).

If the first noun is feminine, you’ve got a little more work to do:  add a “tav” at the end before joining it with the second noun.  University, for instance.  Ends in “a” and so it’s a regular feminine noun.  And instead of אוניברסיטה של טורונטו / universita shel Toronto, my alma mater becomes אוניברסיטת טורונטו / universitat Toronto

And that list of parents?  רשימת הורים / reshimat horim.  The little “t” sound tells you there’s another noun coming – very handy.

Which is all well and good until you come to the plural.  What’s the plural of beit/bayit?  Yeah, okay, it’s irregular, but you may have learned it anyway:  בתים / batim

But if you have more than one school, you don’t say batim sefer.  In that case, when you’re using smichut, the final “mem” falls off:  בתי ספר / batei sefer.

Which brings us to the Children of Israel.  Child = בֵּן / ben.  Child of Israel, two nouns together, would be בן ישראל / ben Yisrael (leaving out “of”).  But even though children = בנים/ banim, when it’s “leaned” against another verb in smichut, the final “mem” falls off, leaving בני ישראל / bnei Yisrael.

Lots of olim, it turns out, have problems when they try to simply translate English sentences, word for word, into Hebrew sentences.  Compared to Hebrew, English is a wordy language, and often unnecessarily vague.  Often, the little words turn out to be meaningless, or at least, untranslateable in a literal way.

Even though I say these are the Lies of Hebrew school (שקרי בית ספר עברית – quadruple smichut!), they’re not really lies at all:  they’re just oversimplifications.  Useful, perhaps, for teaching kids.  Less useful for speaking Hebrew without getting laughed or stared at.

And that is all my words (מילים שלי / milim sheli – no smichut!) on this fascinating subject.  What about you, blog readers (קוראי בלוג / korei blog – smichut!)… If you’re already in Israel, what Lies of Hebrew School have you discovered here?

Tzivia - signature

More fun with smichut:

The two saddest things and why

Keep in mind that this was a pretty sad visit.  But there were 2 things people said that stayed with me.

The first one:

On our last day, I got to make an airport run to pick up a close family member.  This is somebody I have picked up at the airport maybe a million times... well, at least once a year.  Anyway, we have a regular routine.  I have a regular parking spot.  So I drove to the airport, parked, went in, waved and met and hugged her.

And as we walked out to the car, she said, "I never thought this would happen again:  you picking me up at the airport in Toronto."

I admit, I thought I'd never have that chance again either.

The second one:

Sitting with a close family member (not the same close family member) at her kitchen table.  Chatting, catching up on each other's lives, with perhaps an unspoken undercurrent of "hurry, this moment won't last forever," but trying not to consciously rush, which would ruin the moment. Mainly, it just felt like a regular thing, like the same thing we have done often over the last very-many years.

And just in the course of catching me up on her life, she said, "While you were away..."

While I was away.

Ouch.  It wasn't like I went to camp... we moved here, started working, sent the kids to school.  To me, that's not away, it's just - being me, somewhere else.  But to her, it absolutely was "away."  A continent away; an ocean away.


The new ordinary

I think these moments were so sad because in both cases, they were just ordinary moments - nothing special at all.

And in their ordinariness, they were a surreal echo of the life I lived there for many, many years.

(I also went out for coffee with somebody I didn't normally socialize with one-on-one, and that didn't feel weird or sad at all.  Because it wasn't ordinary, like these two moments were.)

Despite their tantalizing familiarity, moments like these are the farthest thing from ordinary now.

This is the new ordinary.

Moments like these - glimpses of the half-fantastical Narnia that is the life we left behind in Toronto (or is it Israel that's Narnia in this analogy???) - drive home how strange and new our Israeli life still feels; how cozy and reassuring it can be to sink back into our old lives.

In the end, neither Toronto nor Israel is Narnia.  In the Narnia books, the children could be gone a decade and return home with only a second having passed.  In real life, we're all growing and changing, living and dying.  The Toronto we left behind on Monday is not the Toronto we'll return to, God willing, next summer (for a real vacation, this time).

But how strange it is to leave the people we love behind, missing us, in some sense waiting alone, whether at the airport or at their kitchen table, even as their daily lives move on without us.

Fleeting and precious

Did you notice the picture at the top?  That's YM, 19, playing with the 2 younger kids at the Legoland Discovery Centre where we went last Friday.  Another very ordinary moment - one that probably won't happen again for a while.  And I think we all knew that; last year at this time, he wouldn't have deigned to hang out with his mommy and the kiddies for the day.

(He actually got out of bed before noon!)

If there is a plus, that is probably it - that we all acknowledge and appreciate the fleeting preciousness of the time we have together.

Sure, people talk about this a lot, but when you're close together, it's tough to remember that no matter what you do, no matter where you live, your moments together are numbered.  When that number is a big number,  or seems that way, I guess it doesn't matter so much.

So that's the payoff, if you look for it.  Living each conversation, each airport pickup, each play centre, each carefree morning in Starbucks or Value Village, each barbecue, hanging out around the wading pool in the grassy backyard of the parental home base, as if it were your last.

Even as you hope, of course, that there are many more to come.

Are you listening? I’m speaking to you…


Or am I?  In Hebrew, sometimes not so much.

Here’s an ad I spotted on the train this morning showing a smartphone with headphones trailing out:  “I’ll talk to you when I get home.  Meanwhile,  I’ll listen to music with headphones.”  The ad is part of a campaign aimed at getting Israelis on trains to be more polite:  not squish together on the platforms, let people out of the train before attempting to get on, not putting feet on seats, not shouting into cell phones the whole way home.

(Is it working?  Can it work?  I have my doubts.)

But anyway… that’s what the ad says.  Except for this:  remember what I told you back in October, all about Hebrew prepositions (of course you do)?  It doesn’t really say “listen to music.”  It says “hear music.”  No preposition whatsoever. 

This is one of those freak situations where in English you need a preposition and in Hebrew you don’t.

But the verb is different, too.  In English, you listen to music.  In Hebrew, you hear it.

This isn’t a trivial switch because of its centrality in Jewish life and prayer.  Many people would consider our most important tefillah (prayer) to be the… (you guessed it!) Shema.  And I have seen more than a few “progressive” translations that transpose its initial phrase into English as “Listen, O Israel.”

Because listening means paying attention; hearing is more passive.  Hearing means music is coming in whether you care or not.

And who’d want that when they’re praying? 

Surely, in a perfect world, it ought to be “listen, O Israel” instead – who wouldn’t care deeply about such an urgent call to prayer?  Indeed, words with the same “קָשַׁב” root appear throughout the siddur (if I recall correctly, they’re mostly asking Hashem to listen and pay attention to us, rather than the other way around).

But if you think that’s something (and it is, really), it’s nothing compared to “saying” (לוֹמַר)vs “telling” (לְהַגִיד), a distinction even Google Translate isn’t really able to make, since it suggests both as suitable translations for say and tell.

This is one that drives me crazy when people do it in English.  My students this year never could get it right:  “last week, you say me” being an all-too-common example (this is actually three different mistakes, at least).

But I must admit – my Hebrew probably sounds just as bad, judging from the number of times people gently try to steer me in the right direction. 

But here I am, bumbling along through Israel once again, telling bus drivers to “say” me when it’s my stop.

Warts and all (figurative warts only, lest you get the wrong idea about me), I’m an olah and my Hebrew may still be lousy but diving back in like this, reading signs, asking questions, ordering dinner (in Hebrew, off the English menu) reminds me of what a vast journey this really is, and how far I’ve come so far. 

And then I relax, lie back, and allow myself to sink ever deeper in the chaotic flow of this crazy holy modern language I love so much.

So green it hurts: notes from a shiva in Canada


“So green it hurts.”

Canada in June is so beautiful, so green, so clean and fresh and full of life and moistness that it breaks my heart.  But then, there’s a lot breaking my heart this week.

My brother went missing here in Canada two months ago, just as, at home in Israel, the last rains were ending… just as the earth was drying up for the summer and the last inklings of hope, of possibility were shrivelling. 

And then he died, and we left our home in Israel… to come home to Canada.

We have lived in Israel for ten months.  Not enough to be fully Israeli, but enough time that we don’t feel completely Canadian either.

And then, to get on a plane, on an otherwise sunny day in Tel Aviv, and feel the earth tremble beneath the plane’s engines, feel the rumble of the wheels on the runway, feel the body of the jet shudder as we tore ourselves away from that awesome holy place we call our home.

flowers3It hurt.

And then – arriving in Toronto after the interminable 12-hour flight, the city so green my eyes had to continually adjust, that first morning.

Too much clay; not enough sand

A friend who grew up in Israel came to the shiva, looked around, and said, “not enough sand.”  Indeed, there’s hardly any sand around here.  The earth beside Eli’s grave was clumpy, like clay.  I could barely shovel it, but shovel I did; fulfilling the right and obligation to bury our own dead as quickly as possible.

“Small clumps,” I whispered to YM, my 18-year-old son, passing the shovel so he, too, could bury his strange mentally ill uncle.  It was a cheap coffin, the most basic one they had, and I worried that the heavy blocks of damp clay would smash the wood, letting bright sunny daylight in where it didn’t belong, and revealing untold horrors.

Unlike on TV, nobody had to identify the body.  The police were very, very sure… plus, they didn’t think we’d have recognized him anyway.

The coffin didn’t crack.  Eli stayed buried, a few feet away from where we’d stood together to bury our grandparents, and then our father.

During the ten days before Yom Kippur, the year my father died, he asked if I would come visit him there, in the cemetery.  He knew I went every year anyway.  He didn’t know, at the time, that we would move so far away that regular visits would be impossible.

Travelling – but not alone

flowers2We decided to move to Israel the year after my father died.  Perhaps because of my father and his crazy-wonderful decision to send us to Israel in the first place.

It is a weird-but-true comfort, knowing that this sad journey, being torn away from Israel and thrust back into the hometown they’ve left behind, is a common journey for many olim.

We are not the only ones blinking at all this green, gawking at these great huge bodies of water (lakes the size of an ocean!), holding our hands under the tap to catch mouthfuls of the delicious, familiar cool water.  Staring, perhaps, deep into mud puddles, pooling in the bottom of a springtime grave, and be awed at all this green, all this water.

Canada is an amazing place.  The beauty here has almost knocked me over, almost literally, more than a few times since we got back.  I’ve always been a sucker for springtime, and a mid-June garden is the most beautiful kind there is, here in Toronto. 

An August garden?  Take it or leave it.  But June…. June here is utterly irresistible.

But Israel is our home. 

Tearing ourselves away – and the journey back

The first time I came back from Israel, for my father’s early January funeral, it was Israel that was green, and Toronto was trapped under a layer of grimy snow and ice.

I’m sure it’ll be a shock to fly in the other direction now – from the comparative rain forest of springtime here to the imponderable dust bowl that is the Israeli summertime.

Right now, we don’t completely belong in either place; at least, I don’t.  Too Israeli to feel at home here, and too Canadian to feel at home in Israel.

In the car, I started crying as I told my mother, “it’s just so easy here.”  Whatever you want, just ask for it; the clerks will understand.  Wherever you want to go, just drive there, on clean, well-marked streets. 

I’m sure Canada was perplexing and almost impossibly difficult when my grandparents arrived here nearly a century ago, but now, here, today, I am not an immigrant.  I am competent and even a little content.

Until that moment, in tears in the car with my mother, I had no idea how hard we’d been struggling, all those ten months in Israel.  Honestly, all along it has just felt like daily life.

imageReturning to Israel means returning to the struggle; sort of like making aliyah all over again.  Leaving all this green behind and returning to the sand, the heat, the summer.

This past week – our time out from being Israeli – reminds me of that minute or two between boxing rounds when the boxer is in his corner, getting towelled off, buffed up, fed sips of water… and then he has to get back up and get his head smashed in a little more.

Leaving Israel hurts.  Coming back to Canada hurts.  And going back, I’m sure, will hurt all over again.

Israel’s Weather – a hot topic


Brrrr.  Temperatures here in Toronto ducked down to around 10 degrees (Celsius) last night, making me wish I was back in Israel.  But I know I should be careful what I wish for… there’s a long summer still ahead.

I'm in Canada right now sitting shiva for my brother, but I hope this reprinted article will give you some insight into how Israelis feel about their weather!

In Israel, weather is a "hot" topic - a bad summer means particularly high temperatures and humidity, unlike Europe where it means a particularly cold and rainy season. While tourists flock to Israel to lie in the sun, Israelis leave the country in droves to get away from the summer heat.

In 2010, Israel weather forecasters saw the hottest year since records began. It started in early Spring with excessive heat waves and reached a peak in August with average temperatures over two degrees higher than in previous years. On one of the days, the meteorological office in Be'er Sheva, in the south of the country, recorded an all time high of 43.8 degrees celsius!

According to a study conducted at Tel Aviv University in Israel, weather in the Middle East is being affected by global warming, as everywhere else. Hotter summers and shorter, drier winters are going to be the trend for the future. The study also predicts more extreme weather conditions with heavy rains and storms in the winter and hot, dry heat waves in the Spring and Autumn.

Even though it is such a small country, Israel's varied topography means it has more than one type of climate. The hot, humid summers and winter rains are typical of the Mediterranean climate in the northern and central areas of the country. But in the south, in the Arava and the Judean deserts, the desert climate means hot, dry summers with low humidity and some rainfall in the winter. Mount Hermon and the surrounding mountainous region in the far north, has a temperate climate with generally cooler temperatures year round and even some snow on high ground in the winter.

But even on Mount Hermon, there has been less snow in recent years, and therefore less water from melted snow and ice flowing into the tributaries which feed the Sea of Galilee (also known as Lake Kinneret) and the Dead Sea. The combination of higher temperatures and lower rainfall is endangering these two beautiful wonders of nature. Water is lost through vaporization during the hot, dry summer months and despite the relatively high rainfall at the end of the winter and the more moderate summer temperatures in 2011, the Sea of Galilee dropped 32 cm in August alone and the water level continues to be below the red danger line.

For a solution to the water shortage in Israel, the weather forecast for winter, 2012 needs to be rain, rain and more rain.

[Note:  although this was written for 2012, Winter 2013/2014 didn’t see enough rain either.   According to, the water level in the Kinneret (sea of galilee) is currently at –211.45 as of June 15, 2014.]


image Sara Turgeman is the editor of, an insider guide to the Galilee and Northern Israel. More information about the water shortage in Israel can be found at

Copyright: you may freely republish this article, provided the text, author credit, the active links and this copyright notice remain intact. Any changes must have written authorization from the author who can be contacted at the above website (Contact Me).

Article Source:

I’m told it takes 2 years to adapt to the weather in Israel.  If you’re a veteran olah, how long did it take you?

Positively aliyah - considering the decision to move to Israel

From a comfortable vantage point in North America, making aliyah can seem as daunting as climbing Masada.  Luckily, at Masada, there's a cable car... and for aliyah, there's this blog, and other great resources.

I'm in Canada right now sitting shiva for my brother, but I hope this article will be helpful in deciding whether this move is the right one for you.   Its writer, life coach Yehudit Yosef, M.S.W., A.C.C., E.F.T.-CC, made aliyah from Chicago to Jerusalem in 2000.

Aliyah is the term used to express when someone moves to Israel.

1) Is it for you?

If this question applies to you, the only way to answer it properly is to have a chat with yourself. Sounds crazy doesn't it? What I'm referring to is to get quiet with yourself and meditate; think/ponder/play with the idea in your mind.
You can also get really crazy and ask yourself for a sign, a message that will help you to
know if this is the right step for you. Your inner self knows your truth.

2) If yes, then, where to start??

IF the answer to number one, appears to you or becomes clear in some way
or message in your life. What to do next? Your entire life is set up where you
are now. What about your spouse, kids, job, community? Well, you asked yourself,
and got your own answer.
So, is it time to buy a plane ticket? Not necessarily.
Now, it might be a good time to write down all the reasons worth making the move.
How will you and your family benefit? What helped you to "see" your answer for
yourself or get clarity?
What value will this move have for you/your family?

3) Maximizing your resources?

Once you are clear about your desire and values associated with this decision,
how to begin to bring the dream to fruition?
This might be a good time to begin to gather information to your situation.
There are specific organizations which assist with the Aliyah process.
They have websites and meetings.
On a personal level, there is a free tool which can be found
at: which has a survey called the VIA which allows people to get a clearer picture of their character strengths [NOTE:  I think this link is now broken; sorry!]. It consists of 240 questions which can help one determine their 24 greatest strengths. Equipped with these strengths, you can now apply your greatest assets to accomplish the more technical details of making the move.

4) Defining your dream?

Once you have gathered some information and have begun to gain clarity
about how others have successfully completed the process, it is an opportune
time to become specific about details such as community, employment and schools.
Our subconscious mind cannot differentiate between reality and fantasy.
By taking time to get quiet once again, and this time, visualize with purpose how you
want your successful Aliyah to look, feel, smell, taste, and sound. You are building and
enhancing your relationship with your subconscious mind. As you visualize this picture
and the circumstances of your ideal Aliyah situation, you are explaining to your inner self,
our spiritual connection, what shape you would like your reality to take/reflect.

5) Focusing your efforts?

It is normal for our dreams to be intercepted and negated by our inner
critical messages. For example:
"You want to do WHAT??"
"You can't do THAT!"
These messages need not hinder us in ANY way.
As we have been working to develop the relationship with our inner
self/subconscious mind, here too, we can show ourselves a new way of thinking.
When those messages crop up and they do, in a variety of forms, we can take
active steps to let go of them and the need to hold on to them.
There is a very popular technique known as EFT, Emotional Freedom Therapy,
which addresses just that.
There are other techniques as well.

6) Taking positive steps?

Prepared with a well thought out plan and making use of all available resources,
such as the various Aliyah organizations and support systems, now, it might be
time to set a date and take care of all the physical, financial, legal, and family
and community issues which you have organized towards embarking on your journey.
Here is yet another area where utilizing your stronger character traits in creative ways
will bring about a smoother transition.

7) Staying open/flexible?

Throughout this process and for an undetermined amount of time, it will be of great value
to maintain a positive attitude. To regularly focus on "what is working", and not on the
bumps in the road.
One easy way to do this is to keep a daily gratitude list.
Simply by recording daily, morning or evening a list of 3-5 items which are functioning
and working well, can provide just the needed reprieve from frustrations and irritations
during the move and subsequent klita/absorption.
Lastly, an attitude of being open to the miracles and amazing "small" things in life
which occur all around us, all the time can remind us to be flexible about those things
over which we may have no control.

Article Source:

Article Source:

If you're thinking about aliyah, what other big questions are you asking yourself these days?


Where I’m at – and a eulogy

Suddenly, terribly, painfully ripped from the holy land yesterday after getting the call no oleh wants – a death in the family in chu”l (outside of Israel).

If you’re interested, here’s my eulogy for my brother Eli.

We will be in Canada for the next little while…

The perfect pilot trip to Israel: 10 things you MUST include


Planning aliyah?  Mazel tov!  Or rather, b’shaah tovah, another common expression when something great (like a baby’s birth) is about to happen, but hasn’t yet.

A year ago, we had only the faintest idea of where we wanted to end up.  Today, we’re living here.  And we’re apparently experts on Life in Israel.  Having spoken to lots and lots of olim, I now have a way better idea of how to plan a pilot trip and what to expect while you’re over here.

Please note:  Nefesh b’Nefesh has a great site, where they have comprehensive information about where to go and what to do on a pilot trip, and what serious things you should consider.  These things are important, and they are written by professionals who work in that business full-time.  I am not a professional.  I can only write from my own perspective.

I’m going to leave it up to you to put together your list of Places to Include on the pilot trip.  It’s important, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.  I’m talking about steps that will help you FEEL the country and get to know what it’s like to live here on a daily basis.  If we were coming today, these ten things would be among my top priorities.

1) Supermarket visit – ideally more than one. ** WE DID THIS

We actually spent a lot of time in supermarkets on our pilot trip.  I was fascinated with seeing what brands there were, and all the different types of meat and dairy products.  Another store that’s fun to visit is

Telling the boys from the girls… and other delights of learning Hebrew.


Know what I haven’t seen a lot of here? Posts, books, anything, really, talking about the tremendously tough transition from a lazy-tongue language like English to a precisely-gendered language like Hebrew.

Am I the only one having problems?

Teaching English in Israel (even in the amateurish, bad way that I do it!) has sensitized me to many nuances of this language, and the differences and difficulties both ways.

Like gender – a pleasure when I’m teaching English (no problem, just do NOTHING!). And a royal pain to absorb when I’m learning Hebrew.

Separating the boys from the girls

My sister, who’s very familiar with French, another gendered language, was surprised when she was here at how very gender-oriented this language is. In French, there are masculine and feminine, but verbs conjugate the same for both of them.   No such luck in Hebrew.

In Hebrew, nothing is the same if you’re a boy or a girl. All verbs, past, present and future shift when you’re talking about girls or boys.

If you went to Hebrew school, you probably know the rule: the default gender is masculine, always. Feminine verbs are used only if the group you’re talking about is exclusively female. If there’s a male – a single boy in a bunch of seventy girls – you use the masculine form.

In Israel, this takes on a weird physical reality: the ulpan teacher looks around before speaking, unconsciously, I’m sure, to see if the one man remaining in our class has bothered to show up. He hasn’t: she switches to all-feminine without a second thought. If he’s there, all her verbs are masculine.

Imagine living in a country where buses were masculine and trains were feminine, with a totally separate set of verbs for each. Oh, yeah, I don’t have to imagine it: I’m living it every single day. The bus (male) yotzei (leaves), while the train (feminine) yotzeit (leaves). More importantly, the train “titakeiv” (will be late) while the bus “yitakeiv” (will be late). Or – even better – tagia/yagia (will arrive) on time.

(If there’s more than one of each, all is good again – the plurals are the same; they all “yagi’u” (will arrive) on time.)

In the early days of ulpan, the teachers manage to get the message across slowly, going around the classroom, singling out the men to repeat: “ani yoshev” (I’m sitting), ani yoshev, ani yoshev. Then she goes around again for the girls: “ani yoshevet” (I’m sitting), ani yoshevet, ani yoshevet.

Our teacher also used hand puppets: “Zot sara. Sara gara b’kiryat yam.” (This is Sara. Sara lives in Kiryat Yam.) “Ze Dani. Dani gar b’Haifa.” (This is Danny. Danny lives in Haifa.)

(One fun thing about teaching English to kids here: they have no cultural referents for English names. If they read a sentence about “Harold,” they have no idea whether Harold is a boy or girl, and often guess wrong – “This is Harold. She lives in the United States.” I don’t laugh, but I do snicker a bit inwardly.)

Eventually, through clever tricks, the message gets through: boys and girls have different verbs. Each ulpan student hopefully becomes familiar with his or her own gender enough to talk about their own activities without making too many mistakes in this area. And hopefully also comfortable enough with the other one to ask questions and speak semi-intelligently.

But long after ulpan it is still hard… so hard.

I consider myself on the “pretty good” side of switching genders now when I speak, but one of the toughest things remains the supremely basic “to you” – which comes out either as “lecha” and “lach,” depending on if you’re speaking to a boy or a girl. I always have to hesitate and ponder the gender of the person I’m talking to, in a way I know even Hebrew-speaking toddlers don’t have to. To them, it comes intuitively… to me, not so much.

(Israeli adults DO make mistakes or just get lazy with their Hebrew – very often, in fact, and much to my ulpan teacher’s chagrin…)

How do you get to… ?

Still, knowing that the default is masculine can be helpful. For instance, when it comes to “generic” verbs.

What do I mean by generic?

This is something we don’t do so gracefully in English, but I’ve encountered before in French, in the form of the weird neutral “on” form.   “Ici on parle français!” – “here, we/one/everybody/you/they speak(s) French!”

In English, it used to be okay to say: “one always eats lunch at noon.” Nowadays, we don’t speak this way because it sounds like something the queen would say, not an ordinary person.

In modern English, we say things like “we eat lunch at noon,” or “we pay our bills at the post office,” implying that the “we” is part of a generic whole-of-society.

Or you use a generic “you” – “you press the button, like this.” Sometimes, you also refer to “people,” “people love to dance at a wedding.” Finally, there’s the pathetic alternative of using the passive voice: “it’s just not done.” By whom? No clue.

I spent a long time trying to recreate this form somehow in Hebrew. “In Canada, people don’t get married so young?” (“anashim lo…”) “We celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut?” (“anachnu chog’gim…”) “When you travel, it’s important to…” (“k’she ata noseya…”)  “How do you get to Sesame Street?” (“eych ata magia l’Rechov Sumsum?”)

But all these still use the English forms. They’re correct, but to Israelis they sound… weird.  Like a translation by somebody who doesn’t really know the language (hey, that’s me!).

In Hebrew, it’s actually simpler than in English (for a change!).

You accomplish this generic form of speech with the “unspecified” masculine plural. Pretend you’re talking about some mythical “they,” but leave out the actual pronoun, and you’re there. “(They) love (masculine, plural) dancing at a wedding.” “(They) pay bills at the post office.” “(They) use the Internet to find love.” “How do (they) get to Sesame Street?”

Yes, there is a passive voice, and I’m learning that too (“Where is Sesame Street found?”). But it’s far less used than these mythical-male forms, which crop up everywhere.

Yesh!  Another Big Lie of Hebrew school…

Another thing that confused me a LOT at first is the terms “yesh” and “ayn.” I consider these words one of the Big Lies of Hebrew school.

It’s simple, they tell you: “yesh” means “there is,” and “ayn” means there isn’t. “Yesh chatul al ha-gag.” (there’s a cat on the roof) “Ayn kesef ba-bank.” (there’s no money in the bank)

In learning halacha (Jewish law) from books in Hebrew, I encountered another form, slightly more subtle: “Yesh,” meaning “there are those who.” For example, “there are those who end Shabbat after 72 minutes.” (or however-long) It’s optional, or at least, some do it and others don’t.

So it took a while to figure out that that’s not what “yesh” means when you see it on packages here. When it’s on a package, or on a list of rules… it means you MUST.

This confused me because I had already learned the words for “you must” in ulpan. There are even varying degrees of “mustishness”: ani tzarich (I need), ani muchrach (I must), ani chayav (I am obligated) (all male forms, by the way; don’t try saying these if you’re a girl!).

Note to anglos: avoid “muchrach” unless your accent is 100% native. I cannot get out the two guttural R’s with a CH in the middle without sounding like a cat with a hairball, so I stick with the other two.

But back to “yesh.” When it’s on a package, it means you MUST. As in “keep in a cold place.” In English, we drop the pronoun and just refer to nobody in particular keeping the cream in the fridge. Here, it comes out more like “yesh lishmor bimkom kar.” Do, please, O consumer, keep this beverage chilled.

I didn’t know this. Having come from Hebrew school (“there is to keep it in a cold place?”) and from learning halacha, with its optional use of yesh (“some people keep it in a cold place?”), I assumed the latter: keeping the drink cold was something you could do if you felt like it. Or as in, “there are those who sift this flour before using it.” Ah, how lovely for them, I would think.

It wasn’t until the cream went off from being left on the shelf (it was in the same tetra pack that the long-life “standing” milk comes in) that I started to realize that “yesh” wasn’t optional here (though I always sifted the flour; that much I knew before we came!). If the package says “yesh,” you’d better listen, or whatever’s inside won’t be as good when it gets out.

(The opposite is a little clearer - “ayn,” if you think about it, is more obviously an imperative NOT to do something.)

Another use of “yesh” is much more fun. Perhaps because of the sound, it’s been universally adopted here as the equivalent of the English “yessss!” (you say it like “yay-shhhh”, not “yesh” like you’re drunk and slurring the S)

When something works out just right, when life is good, when you win a prize: “yesh!” – sometimes with a fist-pump in the air. Kids use it, but adults do, too. And no wonder: such a clean, simple, gender-free word. Men use it, women use it... and there’s never any need to stress over whether you’re saying it right.

What can I say? Sometimes, despite the difficulties, Hebrew really is easier than English. Yesh!