Monday, August 11, 2008

Hannah and the Mixed Condition

This is the story of Hannah and her mixed conditional sentence, contrary to fact, thus bringing together the study of languages and Tisha B’Av.

It was time for us to return to Ulpan: Barbara had completed her five free months at Beit Am; Natania had continued pretty much until she joined the IDF in the beginning of February; I lasted until January when I decided that I had done as much as I could do. I wasn’t thrilled with our teacher, and I had reached a point where I couldn’t absorb anymore of what was going on. It was as if the rest of the class was motoring along in an air-conditioned tour bus, and I was stuck on the side of the road, riding a very reluctant donkey. For the next few months, I made it a point of trying to memorize at least one new word a day and somehow using whatever Hebrew I had learned to get around. Most of the time, I can get by. My favorite place of all is the Mahane Yehuda shuk, and I have no trouble getting what I need there, although dealing with Israelis can be frustrating at times. Example: I hand the guy my bags of peaches, apricots, tomatoes, whatever. He weighs it, does a quick heshbon (calculation), and mumbles into his sleeve, “shloshim v’arba shekel.” Should I reply “lo shamati” (I didn’t hear you) or “od paam” (again), he will turn directly to me, and in a voice which can be heard throughout the shuk, scream “thirty four shekels” as if I were not only stupid, but deaf.
But Natania, responding to my snail-like progress, began to noodge me: “Daddy, when are you going back to Ulpan?” And Barbara had already registered at a different Ulpan, Mila, so I assumed that the time was propitious. Now there are several differences between Beth Am and Mila: this is a private Ulpan, so we are now paying about $250 for a ten week course which meets, instead of five mornings a week, two evenings, which I figured would give me enough time to do the homework, review and prepare. I figured I would register for a class that met the same two nights as Barbara’s, but that was not to be. Here you couldn’t just talk your way into whatever class you wanted – resulting in a class of students on wildly different levels. Here they actually make you sit down and take a brief written test to determine your level. I did my best, handed it in, and the guy-in-charge graded it on the spot. He said “beit plus.” I said “gimmel,” hopefully. He gave me the equivalent of a finger wag and said “beit plus.” Beit plus, the level I began with at Beit Am, although I soon discovered that beit plus here is equivalent to gimmel there.(Official digression: In The States, one indicates a negative by a sideways shake of the head. Here, it’s done by taking a forefinger and wagging it sideways at a rate of about one second per rotation, usually three or four times. A classic example of its use: waiting for my appointment with a urologist at the Maccabi clinic in Maale Adumim. The office door was open and there was no patient inside. Did the doctor know I was waiting? I stuck my neck in expectantly. He did not raise his eyes from the computer screen; he did not say a word; he moved exactly one muscle, the one controlling the motion of his forefinger. I returned to my chair and waited.)
And so, with my new note pad and the second volume of “Hebrew from Scratch,” one of the dozens of workbooks I have used in my career as a Hebrew student, I was ready to begin. Our teacher is a tall bundle of energy named Inbal, who I discovered, in response to a composition I handed in, had been a Hebrew instructor at the same base where Natania completed her Kurs Ivrit. As is typical of Ulpans in Israel, there are students from all over with different mother tongues. Most of them speak more than one language, and, of course, almost everyone in the class speaks English, from passably to extremely well. Which leads me up to the story of Hannah and her conditional sentence.
Last week one of the students asked if there would be a session the following Sunday, Tisha B’Av. Inbal said that there would not, whereupon Hannah, a young woman (I’m guessing she’s in her mid-twenties, about Tina’s age) who sits near me, remarked that she was not planning to show up in any event. I agreed that I also wouldn’t be there (I hadn’t even made it for the half fast day in Tammuz, two weeks earlier.) But after I left the class, I began to roll over in my mind her elegant construction: “If they had scheduled it (the class), I would not have come.” To the best of my knowledge, having spent my entire life learning, teaching, reading, and writing English, that construction seemed 100% correct; but I could not remember what to call it. (There is an on-going debate as to whether a true subjunctive exists nowadays in English, but, in any case, that ain’t it) With a good deal of help from my friends at Google, I pinned it down to a conditional construction, a mixed one at that (the condition taking place in a different time frame from the result), and certainly contrary to fact: there was no class scheduled for Tisha B’Av. How did she know to use that construction? In The States, the young women who work at the malls, the ones suggesting that you “Have a nice day” would be hard pressed to say that; even American college students wouldn’t be so eloquent. Plus, despite her excellent English, when she says two words, you can tell immediately that Hannah is not a native English speaker, but comes from the east coast of the English Channel. (As I later learned, from Strasbourg.) I ran all this by my friends Joan and Jerry in Brooklyn, and they were likewise intrigued by this Gallic mastery of English grammar. Nothing to do but ask. So at Wednesday night’s class, I reminded Hannah of what she had said, and asked her where she learned such good English. She asked me, a little apprehensively if she “had said it right.” Absolutely, I replied, but how and where did she learn to say something which 99% of Americans couldn’t replicate? “At the university.” Simple enough! What would Americans say, she inquired. At that moment, I was reluctant to try and imagine what Americans would say. However, after having given the matter some thought, perhaps “I’m not coming on Tisha B’Av.” Or Natania’s suggestion, “I wouldn’t come anyway,” in which American frankness replaces Gallic subtlety.
When I am with people who have managed to master several foreign languages, I invariably think of my own adventures and mishaps in studying, in order, three years of Spanish, two years of French, two years of Latin, three terms of Ancient Greek, and one term of Anglo-Saxon (I’ll discuss Hebrew in a little while). There are people reading this blog who were in my Spanish classes at DeWitt Clinton H.S. in The Bronx, and who can verify that Mrs. Moscoso had an obsession that all of her students (it was an all boys school at the time) were interested in staring at parts of her anatomy. Maybe twenty five year and forty pounds before, yes. But even with the extremely high testosterone count of the Clinton lads, no one was interested. My old friends can also vouch for me that there was a Ronnie Y. and that he did engage in the following futile exchange with another of our teachers: teacher: Yo ablo (I speak); Ronnie: Yo haBLOW; teacher: Yo ablo; Ronnie: Yo haBLOW. This butchery of the language continued until no one in the class could keep a straight face, but has lasted longer in the collective memory of some of us; Ronnie’s verbal infelicity will be remembered until the last of us is muerto. With all this, I did learn some Spanish, and to this day, if you were to give me one of the newspapers prepared for the Hispanic population of New York, I could read a good part of it with little difficulty.
Next came French at City College. What stands out most in my mind is my first term with Mr. Nesselrod, a rather smug, well-dressed Belgian with an eye for the innocent freshman girls. His class began at 8AM and he had a simple policy, diabolical but effective, to make certain that his students came on time: at precisely 8AM, he would close and lock the door to his classroom. If you came later, you were absent. You might as well have stayed in bed! Of course, because we were only allowed a certain number of “cuts,” you can imagine the level of stress in the student body. At every class, you would see students gasping for air, having run the eight blocks from the subway up the hill to the campus. To make matters worse, every once in a while, some doofus would forget to unlock the campus gate nearest our building. It would have been impossible to go around to the other gate and get to class on time, so there was nothing else to do but to climb the ten foot high fence at 7:55 in the morning. Still, when we were in Hebron in 1988 and the only available brochures for Maarat Hamachpela were in Hebrew or French, you know which one I grabbed. I would make the same choice today!
Back in the days when I went to City College, if you planned to major in English, you had to take 18 credits of Latin. And so I spent the next two years puzzling through parts of Virgil’s Aeneid, Caesar’s Gallic Wars, the less bawdy verses of Catullus, and everyone’s favorite, Cicero’s First Oration Against Cataline. Next, a little bit of The Iliad in the original, and enough Anglo-Saxon to get through parts of Beowulf; and I was all set to graduate from City College and get on with my life.
More than a decade later, it was time for me to attend Ulpan in New York, part of a process of entering Jewish observance and re-learning the Hebrew that I had forgotten shortly after our (my fraternal twin brother and my) bar mitzvah. If nothing else, I met Barbara at 515 Park Ave., (then the Jewish Agency building) so I rank my experience there a huge success. I have many fond memories of the wild assortment of people who were trying to learn Hebrew right around the time when Menachem Begin was first elected Rosh Hamemshalah (prime minister). But the one incident that more or less sums up my experience in trying to learn Hebrew: in one of my classes were two young women, very close friends who always came together. In the middle of one of our classes, the two of them burst into laughter simultaneously for no apparent reason. When they calmed down, they explained what was going on. The two of them had been studying Hebrew for a number of years, and it reached a point where they would keep going over the same material without it ever sinking in. Our teacher had just taught something which these two girls realized that they had studied time after time and still hadn’t learned. Their laughter was simply a recognition of utter futility.
Futility: that’s a good way to express my feeling about learning the seven binyanim (verb constructions) in Hebrew: Imagine someone juggling balls. Almost anyone in good health can throw one ball in the air and catch it. Most people unless they are drunk can toss two balls in the air. Many people can handle three. Four becomes more difficult, and so on. Each binyan individually is easy, even with learning present, past, and future tenses as well as infinitives and participles, first person singular, second person singular masculine, second person singular feminine, and the rest. But trying to remember and use them all is like juggling three oranges, a pencil, a salami, an axe, and a hand grenade at the same time. Or so it seems. Perhaps our bright young friend from Strasbourg is correct: “It’s like learning Chinese.”
But there is one significant difference: we are not in China (although at this moment half of the planet is there for the Olympics!), and we have no particular reason to live there or learn its languages. We are in Israel, and there is a reason why we are here. Perhaps the following story will help explain my persistence in “breaking my teeth” to learn Hebrew.
Back in my glory days at City College, in addition to the foreign languages and the courses in English grammar and literature – from Chaucer to the 20th century – I also took a course in Linguistics. The textbook was Leonard Bloomfield’s “Language,” written in 1933, (many times reprinted but apparently never revised), probably the most influential work in its field at the time. Like many of the college texts I used, this book got shoved into a bookcase after the course was over. Many years later, I needed to look up something, and picked up Bloomfield’s book. Out of idle curiosity, I turned to the chapter where he was cataloging the various language families and came to the section on Semitic languages, and then to the subheading, Northwest Semitic Languages. There on the page for anyone to see was an unqualified statement that Hebrew was extinct as a spoken language.
As some of you know, I simply adore irony. On the same bookshelf, a few volumes away from Bloomfield, was my much used paperback Latin textbook. I had spent so much of my college days studying truly extinct languages, one of them being Latin, which while it morphed itself into several modern languages – including the ones that Hannah and Maribel speak – is itself as dead as the proverbial doornail. There are very few people today who can read Virgil, Catullus, Ovid, or Cicero in the original, let alone translate the simple inscription on the Arch of Titus in Rome, built to commemorate the destruction of the Second Beit Hamikdash and the triumphant return of Titus with the temple treasures:
SENATVSPOPVLVSQVE·ROMANVSDIVO·TITO·DIVI·VESPASIANI·F(ILIO)VESPASIANO·AVGVSTO"The Senate and People of Rome (dedicates this) to Titus Vespasianus Augustus, now-a-god, son of Vespasian, now-a-god." Kind of gets to you, doesn’t it?
Sitting here yesterday, keeping out of the afternoon heat on Tisha B’Av, and dealing with caffeine deprivation, I had this fantastical notion which I share with you now:It is about the year 80 of the Common Era. A group of Hebrew slaves is being marched in chains through Rome near where the Arch of Titus is being built and where this inscription is being carved. One of them turns to his Roman taskmaster and says something like this, “Today, anyone in Rome who can read and write will understand this inscription and will know the honor due to Vespasian and Titus. But there will be a time when no will be able to read it. There will be a time when only a handful of trained men will know how to read your poets, your playwrights, your statesmen. But we will never forget our sacred texts. Someday, everyone will howl with derision at your list of gods and deified men; but our One G-d will redeem us one day. When that happens, our people will return to the Land from which you have expelled us. And as your monuments to yourselves begin to crumble, our Temple will be rebuilt.”
As is done from time to time, the Israel Museum is displaying “The Great Isaiah Scroll,” the only complete manuscript found in the caves near Qumran in 1947. Many Israelis have gone to see it, and, according to the newspapers here, are visibly moved because they, modern-day Hebrew speakers, are able to read the prophetic message written on this scroll more than 2000 year ago. Much has been made of the idea that within a generation or two, a majority of the world’s Jewish population will live in The Land for the first time since the destruction of the First Beit Hamikdash. The obvious corollary to that is that within two decades the majority of Jewish people will speak Hebrew as their native tongue – even if half of the vocabulary will be borrowed from English!
So here’s to you, Leonard Bloomfield, wherever you are!!!! We, the Jewish people, have spent the last two millennia mastering every language and dialect on the face of the earth – even creating a few pastiches of our own. And now, Jewish children in The Old City are once again mastering “hitpael” without even knowing that they are doing it or how hard it is. So we in Ulpan muddle on. It may seem like “Chinese,” but it’s our own beloved “Chinese” in our own beloved Land.
Tisha B’Av has come and gone, and maybe we are coming closer to The Final Redemption. Is Mashiach on the way? Whenever he shows up, if he addressed the crowd in Hebrew, I want to understand what he is saying.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I came across your blog after having seen pictures of the NBN conference. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, and look forward to reading more.