Learning Hebrew: The Greatest Challenge of my Life - 05

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