Adam’s Adventures in Learning Hebrew

I moved to Israel (made “aliyah” with my family) on August 3, 2010 with very rudimentary Hebrew. At the time of’s inception on May 10, 2014, I’ve still got very rudimentary Hebrew.

So what’s gone wrong? And how can I right this ship? Are there people out there in the same boat? What resources are readily and inexpensively available for us? And why isn’t there more Hebrew-learning stuff provided by the Israeli government? It seems to me that there is a disconnect between the government’s goal to aid immigrant absorption and the Hebrew instruction provided (5 months of classroom “ulpan”).

I hope to tackle these questions here, and in the process, to learn Hebrew. I aspire to be an activist of sorts, to find out who is in charge of the ulpan system, and to see if more can be offered to folks like me.

My Background

I grew up in Bethpage, NY, a 48 minute train ride from Manhattan. I was a successful student, but I’ve never been very good with languages. I went to public school and took Spanish, and I didn’t get particularly good grades in my Spanish classes. I think my brain just put language into a “not important because I’ll never live there” box. I did have “Hebrew School” at my Conservative shul, but I spent all of that time reading Truly Tasteless joke books in the back of class with my friends.

When we decided to make aliyah, I started doing the Pimsleur audio series, and I completed all three levels (90 hours) on my drive to/from work in Los Angeles. By far, that was the greatest Hebrew instruction for me, to date. It had me listening (parsing-out increasingly fast questions) and answering out-loud in my car. By the end of those tapes, I felt fluent. However, the reality is that Israelis don’t limit themselves to Pimsleur Hebrew 🙂 Too bad they didn’t make more levels!

I’ve also got books, flashcards, computer programs, podcasts, and iPhone apps designed to teach Hebrew. I’ve tried them to different degrees, but none have been very effective for me, mostly because I have trouble concentrating. It’s all optional boring stuff. I think I need more of a sink-or-swim situation to really learn the language.

I hoped to somehow get into an immersion environment when we arrived in Israel. I considered trying to work at a falafel stand, just to start interacting in Hebrew in a situation where I wouldn’t fall back into English. But during that time there was too much pressure to find real work, and the job hunt plus ulpan plus dealing with a whole family trying to acclimate to Israel left me with no time to pursue the Falafel Stand Plan.

Now I live and work in an “Anglo bubble” in Modi’in Israel. My only immersion is a weekly volleyball game with real Israelis, but even there I’ll often just talk in English, though I have picked up a few v-ball terms like “higati” “nagati” (I touched it), “chiluf” (switch/rotate), and “nigmar” (game over). The official language of our synagogue is Hebrew, so all announcements, speeches, and Divrei Torah are in Hebrew even though most congregants are English speakers and almost all socialization is in English. I sometimes try to follow the rabbi’s speech in Hebrew, but it’s difficult and I’ll often be lazy and read something in English instead.

I think the most damaging area of deficiency is interacting with our kids’ teachers at school. They pretty much universally don’t speak English (or don’t let on if they do), and I fumble through every interaction pretending to understand more than I do (which is really perhaps 10% – 20%). That’s freaking embarrassing. I feel like the classic SNL characters Chico Escuela (“Baseball’s been berry good to me!”) and the Bill Murray character in the cheeseburger sketch. Ilana (my lovely wife) fares better, but not much better, and we know we are ineffective at helping our kids academically here. That is a really bad feeling, as we both know that in the US we would be really on top of this stuff.

I would like to be conversational. I would like to understand most people’s questions to me, and not panic. I’d like to be able to interact with my kids’ teachers most of all. I’d also like to be able to incorporate more of my personality into my life here. In English, I joke around quite a bit. In Hebrew, there are things I’d like to say here-and-there, to just be friendly with strangers, and instead I just clam-up. That’s kindof depressing.

I aspire(d) to work through books on my commute to work in Israel, translate easy Hebrew newspapers, etc, but I haven’t been motivated enough even though in the back of my head I really do want to learn.

So What’s My Problem?

I don’t know, man. I’m pretty sure I’m not stupid, but in this area of my life I feel stupid. I finally got a diagnosis for ADHD, which I believe I’ve had all my life but I didn’t realize it until adulthood. I tried Ritalin, but I don’t take it regularly. I managed to survive, and often times excel, in school and grad school without that diagnosis by finding other ways to cope, often staying up very late reading/studying/getting work done after everybody else goes to sleep.

Ulpan wasn’t the right environment for me to learn, I think. It was classroom based with about 15 people, the classic 5-5-5 plan: 5 days a week for 5 hours a day for 5 months. My teacher was dynamic and lovely. My classmates were great. For a long time, I had perfect attendance, though as I started interviewing for jobs, I started missing classes and skipping homework. I was in “aleph plus” which basically was a half-level above folks who knew no Hebrew at all. By the end, I suppose I rightfully advanced a level. Looking back on it, the thing which stands out to me that I got from ulpan was an understanding of the existence of seven “binyanim” (verb forms), and the fact that each is pronounced with its own “tune”. So now, when I see words, I have much better luck pronouncing them. That’s really my main “take away” from 5x5x5 = 125 hours of instruction.

I had hoped to come out of ulpan “fluent”, or at least conversational. The fact is that, for me, there was not enough speaking in ulpan to achieve fluency. Again, we were 15 people in a classic classroom setting with a teacher at the front of the room, so at best we each got to speak 1/15th of the time during the times when our teacher would go person to person to drill what we had learned.

I’m pretty sure different people learn different ways

I hope to learn more about this topic. I have an appointment to meet with a language acquisition specialist this week, who can maybe start enlightening me. A quick Googling sez there’s three main types of learning styles:

  • Auditory – Hearing
  • Visual – Seeing/Reading
  • Kinesthetic – Touch/Hands-On

Here are some things that I know about myself:

  • I am definitely a “hands-on” learner.
  • Classroom lectures aren’t great for me.
  • I don’t really absorb material until I write up a “cheat sheet” and drill it again and again.
  • I am very competitive – give me a challenge versus a like-individual and I will be very motivated to beat him/her.
  • I am very motivated by the threat of humiliation/embarrassment – if you tell me I have to present something in front of a crowd tomorrow, I will likely stay up all night preparing.

What time do I have to learn?

I have a busy life. I’ve got a full-time job and a full-time family. I also need to exercise. Those things together already don’t leave me much time.

My best resource for self-development is my commute to work. I take public transportation to work: a 50 minute bus, then a 5 minute light-rail, then a 5 minute walk. I usually rely on my iPhone for commute-entertainment, usually reading, surfing the web, listening to podcasts, or watching videos/movies. I could also read a regular book on the bus, but if the print is too small I can get a little carsick, and it is hard to do much writing on a shaky bus.

I also have the time after the kids get to sleep (8pm) and before I go to sleep (???). I have really bad sleep habits. I sometimes/often go to sleep really late. It’s 2am as I write this.

  • Two nights/week I play sports from 9:30pm until around midnight, and often I’ll go for a run after that, because I’m an animal.
  • The crazy late hours at the computer are often quite unproductive. Like, in the olden days, when I had a paper due or an exam in the morning, these are the hours where my heart might be racing, and I would be very productive. But these days without a clear goal/deadline, I’m more likely doing some online shopping or checking social media. Really, I need to go to sleep earlier… when I go to sleep at a decent time it improves my life in myriad ways.
  • I’m Shabbat observant, so Friday nights are out regarding electronics and writing.

What don’t I have?

I can’t find a decent part-time ulpan which could fit into my current schedule.

Let the adventure begin!!!

11 thoughts on “Adam’s Adventures in Learning Hebrew”

  1. STUUUUU! Actually read through all of this. Have you considered training with your presumably fluent kids? Like, tell your older ones to only talk to you in Hebrew for periods when you interact with them? Could help. Good luck!

    1. It’s a good point, Dave. At this point, they do serve as my walking dictionary/phrase book. I could find ways to step that up, though.

  2. 1. Move out of Buchman to a mostly Israeli area. You say you need immersion, that will be the best way.
    2. Force yourself to ONLY speak Hebrew for certain time periods (start small, with an hour, and gradually increase)
    3. Start listening to your kids speak Hebrew and occasionally have Hebrew conversations with them. Make friends with Israelis through your kids, then speak to them in Hebrew, no matter how hard
    4. Prioritize Hebrew over exercise, at least in the short term
    5. Forget Ulpanim and apps – they haven’t worked for you in the past and they aren’t a magic bullet
    6. Take the time you’ll be writing this blog and instead learn Hebrew 😉
    7. Read one newspaper article every day in Hebrew, looking up the words you don’t know. Force yourself to watch the news and one TV show in Hebrew every night. Ramzor is very good…

    It ain’t about shortcuts, it’s about putting in the work like #33…

    1. Nice, nothing like a Knicks fan being advised to put in Larry Bird work ethic. Then again, he is Larry Legend. You’re totally on point with your advice, Eric. I think your comments sparked my Commute Epiphany #1, which I’m kinda stoked about. I don’t think we’re moving, as I need to find the right balance of learning Hebrew, staying married, and remaining in Israel 🙂

  3. There is a Shabbat minyan in the Giva C neighborhood called “HaGivaa.” It’s 85 percent Israeli, and most congregants are in their 30s and have young kids (your demographic). There is lots of socializing, especially in the adjacent park.

    You could kill three birds (exercise, learn Hebrew and assimilate) with one stone (and you can even carry the stone thanks to Modi’in’s Eruv…).

  4. Hi Adam, this is a really interesting blog. I have heard similar complaints from other friends who are also working in ICT and so don’t have good Ivrit. I will follow your blog with interest. Good luck, Yvonne

    1. Yvonne! One of the lovely people from my lovely ulpan class! Lovely! Thanks, I need all the luck I can get.

  5. I think this may have been mentioned but something that I did that helped (a little): Read (or attempt) to read to your kids in Hebrew. No matter how much they laugh at you or correct you, it actually helps and is a good bonding time…

    1. Yeah, some of my kids are more patient, and some are less. I should start with the “mores” with the goal of eventually reading to the “lesses”.

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