June 18, 2019

Ben Yehuda’s nightmare

In Israel, every crappy situation can be turned into an opportunity.  A gunman on the loose in central Tel Aviv allows me to spend several extra hours at home with my three kids, only one of whom demands to return immediately to the U.S., where the shootings in our neighborhood are typically of a drug-related nature–and we made sure to stay on good terms with those guys.  When my friend Rafi fell asleep in the middle of a sentence (mine), I could have taken offense or helped myself to the homemade kubeh his Iraqi mother supplied him with for the week.  Instead, I looked forward to the discussion I planned to initiate when he woke up, about the recent advances in neuroscience that have led to the ability to turn off our nightmares like a light switch, but at the cost of simultaneously snuffing out our dreams. 

“Mr. Levy fell asleep,” I said when Rafi’s eyes opened.  A new immigrant to Israel with limited Hebrew, I knew the word for dream, but not nightmare. 

“Did you fall asleep too?” Rafi asked.

“I didn’t fall asleep,” I said, the conjugation of that tricky Hebrew verb nearly complete. 

So we had a grammar lesson instead of a science one, my thoughts of the day thwarted by the unavailability of a dictionary in the room.  I tried to convince myself that was simply a lateral move, and hoped that Rafi would stop accommodating his other friend Inbal’s Reverse Sleep Disorder schedule–which compelled her to stay awake at night and conk out during the day–and start paying more attention to mine.  But Inbal is a Sabra, and speaks in complete sentences.  On Rafi’s birthday she wrote him a card, while I gave him chocolates.     

When we lived in Virginia and my youngest son was in first grade, his teacher taught the class a poem which, had the gist of it been, We may have different colored skin, but inside we’re all the same, would have been bad enough.  But that wasn’t the gist; those were the actual words.  Until that bright idea, my son had never noticed different colored skin.  Now, suddenly, Adin’s friend Hector’s arms were decidedly brown.  I cursed all bad poetry that day, and when my own words fell short while stuttering something to Adin about the benefits of public school but the superfluity of first grade, I cursed those too.  

Last week I went to Jerusalem to visit an artist friend who is so absorbed by images, he can’t walk two steps without stopping to study something. (For most Jerusalemites, it usually takes three.)  After contemplating a nut that had fallen from a tree next to an ancient tomb on Alfasi Street, Ilan asked if I wanted to see his portfolio of furniture that he designed while studying at Bezalel.  What a question!

A new immigrant to Israel with limited Hebrew, I was looking forward to sitting in complete silence and letting my eyes feast on what I could not find the language to praise.  Encouraged by the widening of my pupils, Ilan spent the next half hour describing the structural frames of his chairs, the grain patterns on his coffee tables that folded into stools, the steam box he used to create waves in the wood for his kick-ass bookshelves.  Or something along those lines.  I can’t say for sure.  I was having a bad Hebrew day.

And then he grew quiet, and closed the portfolio.

“The last piece I designed was for a friend who replaced me when I was called up for reserve duty and couldn’t come in,” he said.  “It was during the Second Lebanon War.”

“And what did you make?”

“A prosthetic leg.”

It is known that Ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, yelled at his wife when he overheard her crooning a Russian lullaby to their infant son.  “The Hebrew language can live only if we revive the nation,” he wrote in 1881, a statement I couldn’t agree with more.

Lucky for me, a new immigrant to Israel with minimal Hebrew, the people of this land are a restful, resourceful bunch, prone to extralingual communication and improvisation.  Give them a dead language, and they will write a dictionary to resurrect it.  Put them in a pickle, and they will fight their way out of it until they have discovered how to convert a table into a chair, a piece of metal into a leg that can later run marathons, which Ilan’s friend does every year.

There are some situations that require the aid of a dictionary, and some words that can’t be found in one.  Ilan and I went for a walk then, stopping outside a photography store that featured a blown up, black and white portrait of a Jewish family from Poland, where Ilan’s great-grandfather, a rabbi, perished for refusing to vacate his synagogue before it was set on fire.   

“Tistakli,” Ilan said.  Look.