You might think because I have an Israeli wife that I learned Hebrew very quickly. Well, I did pick up a few phrases and quite a bit of vocabulary, but when I moved to Israel in 2003, I could hardly form a sentence in Hebrew, much less carry on a conversation. Elana and I met in English, and our relationship was in English.
So, I wasted no time getting enrolled in ulpan. What is ulpan? It is where immigrants go for Hebrew immersion. The root of the word (I just noticed 18 years later, while writing this article) is Alef—our equivalent of "A" in the alphabet, or alpha.
The ulpan experience was created very soon after Israel won her War of Independence in 1948. Immigrants were pouring in from post-Holocaust Europe and Arab nations that were turning on their Jewish citizens because of Israel's re-creation. The goal was to help these new immigrants assimilate into Israeli life as soon as possible, so they could join the workforce and become a part of the country.
The idea was to speak only Hebrew in the ulpan classes and have the students figure things out from context. You start off with learning the alphabet, or what we call the "aleph-bet," and then gradually build up your vocabulary, verb conjugations, and the building of sentences. In addition, you have to learn how to use prepositions. Not all prepositions in English work in Hebrew. For instance, in English, I would "use the computer," but in Hebrew, I would "use 'in' the computer." In English, you "confront someone," but in Hebrew, you "confront 'with' someone."
A group of religious kids came to our class to perform (top). Ulpan is not just about language, but cultural interpretation. We studied poetry in Hebrew and learned history in Hebrew. All the articles we had to read in Hebrew had a purpose. Some students came as Doctors, but needed to learn how to administer medicine in Hebrew. (bottom left)
Climbing a Mountain
Ari Sorko-Ram, one of the first pioneers in the Israeli Messianic movement, said to me, "when you first start learning Hebrew, it is like climbing a mountain, where you cannot see the top. It is very intimidating. After a while, you look down, and you cannot see the bottom, but you still cannot see the precipice. But eventually, if you don't give up, you will be able to see the top."
It was very much like that. As I began my journey in the ulpan, I can vividly remember sitting in that classroom, not just thinking but knowing that I would never, ever become fluent in this language. And then one day I was.
The United Nations!
I joined our city ulpan, and my class probably looked a little like a class in 1950. We had immigrants from England, the US, different South American countries, France, Ethiopia, and Russia. We all sat in cliques, according to our native tongue. We would whisper to each other what we thought the new word might be. It was incredibly fun, and stressful, and depressing, and exhilarating.
Every day, just after the kids went to school, I would hop on my bike, dressed in shorts and a white T-shirt, and go to the ulpan, about 10 minutes away. It was inside what is called the mercaz klita, or absorption center. Many new immigrants, who did not have the luxury of a support team behind them, praying for them, and helping them financially, would live there for six months to a year while they got on their feet. After the ulpan, I would ride my bike home, pick up the kids from school, and we would all have lunch together.
Sharon (now 31) and Yael (now 28) pose for a photo with the super cool security guard at the absorption center where I studied Hebrew. They were also new immigrants, and had to get ready for their first year of school in Hebrew!
After doing several courses in the city ulpan, I dropped out and began to study on my own. Every day, I would memorize dozens of verbs and then conjugate them on paper. Sounds romantic, right? Finally, I hired a private tutor, who herself was once an immigrant from England. Over the next several years, we developed a real friendship—which is why it pains me that I cannot remember her name.
One funny story came when she was having me watch the news in Hebrew. Three Israelis had been taken captive by guerrillas in Colombia. Along with them was a hiker from Germany and one from England. A film crew was allowed to interview them, and it was clear that the hikers from Germany and England were terrified. When the camera went to the Israelis, no doubt, traveling after their service in the Israeli Defense Forces, one of them held up his cup of coffee and said in Hebrew, "Mom, I am dying for a miracle."
Even though my teacher had been there long before me, she did not see the pun. You see, in Hebrew, the word for miracle is nes. But it is also the name for Israel's infamous, disgusting instant coffee. It's taken from the English, nes café, but Israelis just call it "nes." So, it was a play on words. Indeed, they needed a miracle, but he was talking about coffee. She was impressed that I picked up on it.
The coffee mug says, "A Great Miracle" or "Nes Gadol." Nes can mean instant coffee or miracle.
But that story gives you a real insight into Israeli charm. During the worst situations, Israelis know how to find humor and figure out a way to laugh amid tragedy. We're a country that has endured wars and constant terrorist attacks. We came out of the Holocaust. I spent most of my life listening to people tell me to be serious. What a joy to be in a country where I don't have to be serious all the time! Very few things are off-limits when it comes to humor in Israel. Things that we laugh at would get you canceled in the United States.
The Matrix and Hebrew
My plan from the beginning was very clear. I would learn Hebrew and be preaching flawlessly in two years. I told my supporters not to expect too many testimonies for 24 months. However, after 24 months, I was in no way ready to give a sermon in front of anyone beyond my family members. I despaired.
I remember asking the Lord in prayer to supernaturally give me Hebrew. I had in mind the scene from the Matrix, where they just plug you into a computer and download anything from karate to a foreign language into your brain. That was what I needed. And the Lord spoke to me.
"You are learning so much more than Hebrew. You are learning humility. You are learning compassion and brokenness."
I knew what He meant. I'm at my best when I am preaching or teaching. I have no fear of getting up in front of a crowd without preparation and speaking for however long they want. I love it. But that gift, and that's what it is, a gift from God and nothing that I learned, led to pride.
But, having to do something you're really good at in a foreign language is like asking a world-class sprinter to race with his feet tied together. That which you were once great at becomes a liability. It becomes humiliating and embarrassing. So, God knew exactly what I needed to bring me to a deeper place of dependence upon Him.
I enrolled in Tel Aviv University and began to take several intensive courses. Now when I say intensive courses, I mean that you study Hebrew for five hours every morning, and then you go home and do homework for another three to five hours. Those courses were a huge help. They lasted anywhere between four to seven weeks—you couldn't do it any more than that without burning out.
My first message
In 2009, seven years after I made Aliyah, seven years after I entered the ulpan for the first time, I finally gave my first message in Hebrew in a congregation. I had taught in homegroups in Hebrew, and I had preached many times in English with interpretation. My friend, Pastor Avi Mizrachi, had me minister at his Tel Aviv congregation.
I felt like King Saul when they had to go look for him when he was being inaugurated as king. He was scared, nervous, and probably a bit embarrassed. I knew I was going to make a fool of myself in front of all these people. A far cry from the guy who could not wait to grab the microphone in Africa, in front of 100,000 people. Now I was in front of 40 people, and I wanted to run!
I don't remember what I preached on that day, but I do remember that there was an unbeliever in the front row. When we went out to dinner afterward, she came with us. I was so happy when she told me that not only did she understand my message, but she was moved by it!
In the beginning, preparing a message would take me an entire week. Oh, how the Lord humbled me! In English, I could jot down a few notes on a napkin during the worship and bring a message. Now, I was in my apartment for seven straight days preparing to give a one-hour teaching. I would practice on my wife and my children and anyone else who would listen.
Thankfully, things are different today. While I am fluent in Hebrew, I'm still an immigrant—which means I make mistakes and sometimes can't think of the right word. Of course, the problem now is that when I preach in English, I sometimes can't remember the word in English, but only in Hebrew!
A few weeks ago, one of the elders called me up on a Friday morning and said he wasn't feeling well. He asked me if I could preach in his place at our weekly service that afternoon. For the first time, I walked into the congregation with literally no preparation—other than prayer—and gave a message, pouring out my heart, in Hebrew. It only took 18 years.