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Destinations, Dreams and Dogs - International adventure with a fast-track family (& dogs) of Old World values, adopting the Russian-Italian-American good life on the go…!

The Ben Yehuda Experiment

One of our sons has been to Israel time and again. He’s done the Dig for a Day archaeology, hiked Nahal David, floated in the Dead Sea and slathered himself with mud, bargained in the Old Jaffa flea market, and come close to becoming a professional halvah taste tester in Mahane Yehuda. He loves the bedouin and their camels, the Israeli army and their tanks, felafels and their fillings. After the Temple Mount tunnel, the synagogues of Safed, and churches and castles dating from Crusader days… what’s left to do?

I am traveling to Israel for one week of non-profit work benefiting olim. Accompanying me is my 14-year-old son. It was in the early morning hours one day, pre-departure, that a wonderfully wild plan came into my mind: we would only speak Hebrew for the whole seven days-! The two of us would name it “The Ben Yehuda Experiment” after Eliezer ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew who did almost the same.

He arrived to Jerusalem in 1881 with his family and spoke only Hebrew. The problem was, Hebrew at the time was an ancient language, and used only for prayer and Bible readings. So he had to create many words of modernity, using ancient roots to make them fit into proper groups and meanings. Hopefully, my son and I would not be making up any new Hebrew words, at least not intentionally.

As I said, Petya had been to Israel before. Adopted from Russia at 7-1/2 years of age, I first took him when he was eight, not wanting to leave him home with Papa who lacked much Russian vocabularly. Petya loved the Old City of Jerusalem, where he donned his kipah and proudly prayed at the Wall, afterwards strolling through the shuk and feeling drawn to the Russian icons.

“May I help you?” Arab shopkeepers swarmed, speaking English to us, and glancing repeatedly at his kipah.

“Marhubba,” I greeted them.

“Ahlahn,” they responded back.

Moving him from the icons to an old Turkish coffee pot for Papa, the guys missed nothing as I told Petya in Russian, “Etah m’nogah” (It’s a lot).

“Pachemoo?” (Why?) they protested back in Russian.

Somewhere along the line, the shopkeepers switched to negotiating with me in Hebrew.

“It’s HIS purchase,” I informed them, “talk with him.”

They looked back and forth, up and down. What language to speak?

Well, this visit we’ll solve the problem for them. We’re going to embark on “The Ben Yehuda Experiment” and do Hebrew cold-turkey, the ulpan way (minus the ulpan), even if it makes us faint and fall down under the hot, desert sun.

I learned Hebrew in the ulpan, the total immersion program for new immigrants. My husband and I had met in Israel, where we both worked in the field of archaeology, he as a professional, and I, as a volunteer. After marrying, we went back to live in Jerusalem, and I attended ulpan, the Hebrew school for new immigrants.

Most of the students in those days (late 70s) were from France, Great Britain, and the US. There were one or two exotic “refuseniks”, Russians who had somehow made it out of the USSR and home to Israel.

When I returned to the ulpan in the early 90s for a refresher course, imagine my surprise when all of the students, save a couple of us, were from Russia. It was there that I hatched my idea for a non-profit helping them with affordable and attractive rental housing. If I survived non-stop Hebrew, Hebrew, Hebrew ‘round the clock for five months straight with Scuds, sealed rooms, and masichot (gas masks), he could do it during peace time.

I wondered if I needed to take away his i-Pod, which he was using to bring along his schoolwork of Biology, Algebra, French, and History. I figured that was enough for our week-long getaway, and would prove difficult to ask him to do it in Hebrew, since he actually knew very little Hebrew. Petya had made it through his Bar Mitzvah Hebrew, but not much beyond.

Would it be too much to ask him not to speak Russian for a week, as well? Many of our tenants in our low-cost rental properties were Russians and they liked chatting with this cute “American boy” who “spoke such good Russian”. When I said that he was actually from Russia, they couldn’t believe it, and we all agreed that it was probably my crummy Russian that was corrupting him.

So now I was to lead him down the non-stop Hebrew highway in seven days or less. I could act out “glidah’” (ice cream) and other, similar essential words. We would listen to Israeli radio and TV.

A small twist in the plans came when he learned just before departure that he’s scheduled for his first tennis tournament one day after we’ll return home. That means I’ll need to find him a place or two to play tennis in Israel—not to mention in Hebrew.

“Mama, how am I going to do that? If the coach says something, how will I know what he’s saying?” he laughed in disbelief, unsure of whether or not we were going to pull this off. I had already scheduled him to speak French only on the plane via Paris….

“First of all, that’s ‘Ima’ from now on, not ‘Mama’, and your most important words will probably be ‘yamina’ (right), ‘smolah’ (left), and ‘hazak’ (strong),” I pointed out.

“Oh, no…” he moaned.

“Loh” (no), I coached him. “In the words of the great Zionist Theodor Herzl, ‘Eem tirzoo, ayn zoh agadah.’”

“If you will it, it is no dream,” he intones, right on schedule.

So, it all starts next week. Should be interesting. I’ll let you know how it goes. Pray for us.

Please (b’vakasha).


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