Having spent two evenings last week socializing exclusively with English speakers, I’m feeling guilty. And lazy.
Why? Well, Thursday night was my monthly English speakers meeting of children’s-book writers and illustrators (SCBWI*), and Friday was our community’s English Speakers Oneg Shabbat.
At the book meeting, I mentioned the oneg, and one of the Israelis there asked, “Why only English speakers?”
So then I felt ashamed. And lazy, like I wasn’t making an effort. And I almost felt racist (linguist?) for eliminating Hebrew speakers from my social circle so deliberately. Why move to Israel and then spend so much time hanging out in English???
I didn’t even mention that we’re going to the annual Nefesh b’Nefesh Go North English-speaking Shabbaton next week. Even more English ! Are we just obstinately refusing to integrate into Israeli society?
On the way home from my SCBWI meeting, and for the 2 days since, I’ve put more thought into it. Because this is something all olim will have to balance in their lives somehow: how much time will you spend “out and about” mingling with the natives and how much time will you spend all huddled and insular with your Anglo “peeps”?
I’ve concluded that it’s not just about laziness. Though your mileage may vary, here are 5 really good reasons from my own life that I deliberately spend time hanging out with English speakers…
1. Israelis are busy
Israelis have lives here that are busy and well-established. Sort of the way we did back in North America. Many Israelis are too busy to stop and realize that we are here and we need a little extra TLC.
Think about it this way: how many times, back in Canada, did I invite an immigrant family over to our home? Not very often. Honestly, though there were lots of newcomers to Canada all around me, we never invited any. Perhaps a better parallel is new Jews in the area, and then we definitely did invite sometimes, but probably not as often as we could have. Mostly, we invited over the people we already knew from shul, school, work, whatever.
I don’t like to impose on the people around me, like the mom who’s just rushing in to pick up her daughter after a busy day. I’ll make small talk, but I’m not going to try to turn her into my new best friend. She probably has a best friend; she definitely has an extended family here. So I’m… just kind of incidental.
2. We are extra-lonely and extra-isolated
This is actually the flip side of #1. Israelis are busy running around with their lives and their families. Sure, olim are busy, too, but not in the way that Israelis are. If you’re like us and you don’t have extended family here, with tons of simchas all the time to attend, there may be gaps in your schedule that you didn’t have back wherever you came from.
(Some olim do have extended family here, and lots of simchas; they are very, very lucky.)
So all those busy Israelis don’t realize you have these gaps in your life. That there are lonely olim in their midst who are kind of dying for an invitation to anything. Or even a pleasant smile in the grocery store.
Forget simchas; every Friday night, we have to make Shabbos without our extended families. This can be very isolating indeed. And when yom tov is coming, many of us are doing things all on our own and feel it very painfully. So it just makes sense to call up another English-speaking family, or plan an English-speaking community potluck, to get together with other people who are in the same boat.
(Of course, I have known olim who are totally sociable and outgoing and make tons of friends in their first week or two… but most of us are not like that, so we need a little help from other olim.)
3. Speaking Hebrew is exhausting
Yeah, my Hebrew has gotten better, better, better. And I’m happy and proud that I can carry on a conversation, though people who mumble and small children continue to be a problem. (The world is full of mumblers and children, so it’s a BIG problem.)
But at the end of the day, literally, my Hebrew falls apart. It depends how tired I am, how busy I am, but at some point, at least a few times a week, I am literally too tired to think and speak in Hebrew. If I have to, I push through, like for a late-evening parent-teacher conference. But I would rather surround myself with the soothing sounds of my native tongue if I have to.
Since I live most of every day out in the world in Hebrew, I don’t think there’s any shame in retreating into English when I can.
4. Keeping up our kids' English
Some people make aliyah to areas where there are lots of other English speaking kids, where this isn't so much of a factor. Not us. Here, our children are the only English speakers in their class, and despite the fact that they’re avid readers and we speak English exclusively at home, I can already see that their English is slipping a little.
For olim whose children were born here, things are even more odd, as they end up with kids who speak little or no English at all. Or whose English is accented and strange. It’s hard to imagine, if you grow up speaking and loving the English language, that you could have children who have little or no English, or who just don’t sound… normal and comfortable speaking it.
I guess it also depends how important English is to you. I’ve known English speakers who come here, start speaking Hebrew, and that’s it – their kids and grandchildren are Hebrew speakers and they don’t mind. But for me, well, maybe I’m a snob, but English is important to me. Sure, it’s not the holy tongue, but it’s worth preserving. There are a ton of great books in English that are just not the same in translation, for one thing. And I have anything to say about it, my grandchildren will speak English, too.
(See that apostrophe, up above, in “kids’ English”? As a grammar nerd, I also want to be sure my kids will be able to use it just as comfortably as I do!)
So it just makes sense to give my kids an opportunity where they can get out and run around with other English-speaking children. Sure, they’ll switch between languages depending on who’s there, but I’m happy that they have both at their disposal. And there’s also the deep commonality of experience that these olim kids share, which is also the last big reason for us big people…
5. Other olim get it
Even if we are not talking about aliyah constantly, other English speakers are usually olim who have been there, done that, and know all the stories. If they’ve been in Israel for a while, they can relate to what we’re telling them, but it goes beyond kvetching about waiting in Misrad HaPnim or driving tests. It goes to a deeper level, where they understand just how isolated you can feel sometimes, or how alienated, or how baffled by Israeli society whizzing around you in a blur.
Which means sometimes you can just kick back and NOT talk about it. That’s okay, too.
Israelis… and I mean native Israelis, the ones who were born here… they may have great English (in our area, most don’t), they may be deeply compassionate for what you’re going through… but they don’t get it in the same way. Exactly how it feels to uproot your life and re-establish yourself in a place that sometimes feels completely foreign and even a little bit frightening.
This isn’t always, you understand. Most of the time, Israel is lovely. And Israelis are awesome; almost every one we’ve met has been exceptionally nice and happy that we came, and compassionate when they find out we have no family here. I have absolutely nothing against socializing with Israelis (of which I am one!).
But after thinking this through a little, I’ve realized there’s no shame in hanging out with people whose experience is more like mine. People who share my language and many of my cultural assumptions. This is okay.
So you, too, have my permission to socialize with other English speakers, as much or as little as you feel comfortable. You may find you need it less as you’re here longer. Or you may want to maintain that precious connection for the rest of your life in Israel. Either way is A-OK.
* And if you write and/or illustrate children’s books, we have a small but cute and fairly active SCBWI group here that includes both Hebrew- and English-speaking writers and illustrators. In addition to giving me a chance once a month to socialize in English, I’ve met some terrific, talented people there. Wherever you are in the country, I’d love to meet you and have you come along to one of our meetings!