Breaking the Hebrew Code

13 Jul

Lotto Kiosk in Tel Aviv

You say "Ibis." I say "Lotto."

Sunset on the Mediterranean

The view from Al Hamayim restaurant.

When I learned that we would be moving to Israel, one of the things foremost in my mind was dealing with a foreign language that uses a different writing system. I’d been in that situation before when we moved to Japan. I’d managed to learn how to read and speak hiragana and katakana and even a few kanji characters.

But I knew from the start that Hebrew would present a different challenge. Not only is Hebrew written from right to left but Hebrew words are written without vowels. Vowels can be (but rarely are) indicated by a complex system of dots placed above, below and inside the consonants. Those dots are like training wheels for youngsters learning the language. This means that even if I learned the Hebrew alephbet I still would have difficulty sounding out the words. I’d have to guess at what vowel sound comes after the consonant, if any.

I signed up for two different Hebrew classes, one run by the IWC and the other by the Embassy. I felt I needed all the help I could get and I have benefited in different ways by both classes. For example, one instructor has chosen to teach us the block letter alephbet (used in books, magazines, newspapers and most printed signs); the other instructor taught us the cursive alphabet (used in any handwritten correspondence). The block letter alephbet has been much easier to learn even though, to my untrained eye, many of the characters look so similar I often mix them up. The cursive alephbet has proven to be quite a challenge for me. The characters seem to bear no resemblance to their block letter counterparts and most of the handwriting I’ve seen is highly irregular and nearly, if not completely, impossible for me to decipher.

Another way that I’ve tried learning Hebrew is by studying street signs, traffic signs and posters. Street signs are the most revealing because most of them show both the Hebrew and English version of a person’s name. A name can be sounded out. Learning how to read my street’s name in Hebrew was one of my first accomplishments. I’ve been able to decipher movie star names and some movie titles from posters.

One of my first revelations in learning Hebrew was when I finally read the name on top of one of the little kiosks you will see on various corners around town. For weeks, even months, I’d walk by reading the name Ibis. Then one day it dawned on me. Why am I reading that word left to right? And aren’t those actually Hebrew cursive characters, not English letters? Yes! Oh yes! It says Lotto in Hebrew!

Another revelation came when I was thinking about the name of a seafood restaurant we had gone to in Herzliya. Transliterated, the name is Al Hamayim. Then I remembered that mayim means water. I already knew that Ha means the. And my traffic sign study had taught me that al means to or in this case at or on. On the Water, that’s the name of this restaurant, I exclaimed to my startled hubby. I was as excited as Patty Duke playing Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker when she finally makes the connection between the sign language for the word water and water itself.

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