Traveler’s Corner: Ben Howdeshell in Israel

Category: Culture

On a recent trip to Israel, one of the things that caught my eye was the interplay of the country’s two official languages, Hebrew and Arabic, with the equally ubiquitous but not officially official third language, English.

Before my trip, concerned at the thought of not being able express my desire to find a restroom or, heaven forbid, a bar, I spent several weeks trying to become familiar with basic Hebrew. I got to a point where I could eke out “Eifoh efshar liknot beerah, b’vakashah?”  “Where can I buy beer, please?” which was functional if not absolutely grammatically correct; victory enough despite its glaring inelegance. So what if I had to play the bumbling, awkward tourist for a few days? Phrasebook and dictionary packed, I boarded the plane.

Landing at Ben Gurion airport, I was secretly relieved to see that advertisements for Bank Hapoalim — a local Israeli bank — were painted in both Hebrew and English on the outside of the jetways leading up to the building.

Inside the airport, signs leading to Customs were in Hebrew, Arabic, and, predictably enough for an airport, English. No big surprise. Once admitted and passports duly stamped, my friends and I made it to the Avis rental office, tucked away in the back corner of a parking structure. Inside, two gentlemen smoked and casually chatted. We approached. It was go time. My weeks of linguistic labor might finally bear fruit! “Hello! Welcome! You have a reservation? What is your name, please?” they said, in slightly accented but otherwise perfect English.

My brain, as though digging through couch cushions for loose change, had until then been wrestling with the conjugation of the first-person plural, past tense of the Hebrew verb “to reserve” and was also valiantly trying to remember the correct word for “car” (which is close to the word for “taxi,” but not close enough to be an understandable faux pas). I relaxed as my friend who made the reservation conversed with them in English as easily as he would have in an Avis office in, say, Topeka. Bad metaphors aside, we were no longer in Kansas, but shortly thereafter we were in our car, fiddling with the radio and heading north on the Ayalon highway into Tel Aviv — whose directional signs were all in English, in addition to Hebrew and Arabic.

The rental car office scene would play itself out time and time again, in a variety of situations. The ability, and also the gracious willingness of many people to speak English, surprised me. Having been a tourist in countries where English is spoken either haltingly or begrudgingly, I had not expected to get off so easy. For the rest of the trip, I happily practiced my awkward Hebrew where possible, knowing that a simple “Slikha, b’anglit b’vakashah?” (“Sorry, in English, please?”) would probably get me out of really difficult communication jams — and it did, in most cases. Walking into some stores, I was occasionally greeted in English right off the bat. They had me pegged…not that I’m complaining.

As in many other countries, English instruction is mandatory in Israeli schools, so most everyone gets some exposure to it. Surprisingly, Hebrew and English not only coexist but play fairly well together in Israel. Store names reference English words in a tongue-in-cheek manner; a popular café chain’s name in Hebrew phonetically spells Kappajo, or “Cuppa Joe.” Another is named “Aroma.” I also saw several branches of a bank whose name spells “Discount”…perhaps not the best name for profit-focused business, but eh, it works.

Maya, who lives in Israel and writes a blog called How To Be Israeli, spotted some much better examples: a floral chain that bills itself Zer4u (zer being the Hebrew word for a floral bouquet); all together it is a very creative pun on the phrase “they’re for you,” spoken with an Israeli accent. And perhaps her best example is in Haifa, where a large mall, called a kenyon in Hebrew, is named…wait for it…Grand Kenyon. Coincidence? Ha. Intelligence! And a sense of humor. (Props to Maya for a fantastic blog on all things Israeli, including amazing recipes for hummus and a cucumber/tomato salad.)

Over tapas one night, I mentioned my surprise about all of this to some Israeli friends, and asked them if they fear the encroachment of English will lead to a loss of Hebrew as a common tongue, as some Québécois in Canada fear losing French. They laughed. “No,” said one, “we are still Israelis and we still speak Hebrew. That won’t change. People like speaking English because it’s exotic.” For an exotic tongue, most Israelis do a bang-up job, which is a lucky break for Anglophone tourists.

But, this is not to say that Israel is a predominantly English speaking country. Far from it. Hebrew is, without a doubt, heard and seen everywhere, in all areas of the country. Second to that is Arabic, although it is more seldom heard than seen, at least in most of the places where we traveled. However Arabic slang shows up in Hebrew, notably sababa (“cool”) and yalla! (“let’s go!”). Admittedly, there might have been more Arabic spoken around me than my ear was letting on; distinguishing between the two was a little difficult at first as my brain adjusted to the new surroundings.

And this is also not to say that travelers to Israel would not benefit from a basic understanding of Hebrew. On occasion, taxi drivers and shop clerks weren’t all that fluent or comfortable in English, so leaving the phrasebook at home is ill advised. As in any international location, a smile, and the words “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me/I’m sorry” in the local language will do wonders. In Israel particularly, the greeting shalom (“peace,” also “hello”) is a must-know. If you‘re driving, you should also know your knisah (entrance) from your yetsiah (exit), otherwise you will get a quick lesson in Hebrew slang from the drivers you have just inconvenienced. Israeli drivers do not play around.

At the end of my trip, sitting in a lovely bar on Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv whose logo (in English) smirks “so bar, so good,” drink comfortably in hand, chatting in perfect English with our delightful waitress, I realized that my anxiety at not being understood/not understanding was unjustified after all, well intentioned though it was.

My takeaway from my trip is this: when traveling abroad, don’t assume you will be able to get by anywhere with English, because you likely won’t. Learn a few simple words, and practice them. But, don’t assume either that your foreign hosts won’t enjoy practicing their English with you, because they might. An attempt to meet in the middle is usually best. Give a little, get a little, share a lot.