The Pow-wow Paradox

I still remember the Ulpan class (perhaps only our third) in which our teacher Liora invited Dima to introduce himself. The Israeli man stood cautiously before us, shy but clearly eager to appear friendly. After he stumbled through some English and quickly reverted to Hebrew, Liora explained to us that he was interested to find a once-a-week speaking partner from our class.

“Maybe someone can take his phone number!” Liora suggested, always with a smile on her face. The eight other fellows and I looked at each other questioningly, no one ready to commit to the responsibility.

Though I didn’t volunteer at the time, I would soon realize the fortune of Liora picking me out of the group that day to become his contact.

I set up our our meeting over text, plugging in each incoming and outgoing Hebrew message with Google Translate. I tried to imagine what our meeting would be like, what we would talk about, and how we would divide the conversation between Hebrew and English. I brought along my friend Steph, and together we all sat at a nearby coffee shop, where we started to talk over steaming cups of tea.

Two hours later, Steph and I waved goodbye, completely exhausted. The conversation had been 90% in Hebrew, which required full active listening power to understand Dima’s many stories and questions, and even more so to put together answers with our limited Hebrew.

Back at home, Steph and I exchanged concerning looks. “Are we really going to do this every week?” We knew the challenge was good for us, but it felt like we had just spent two hours at the gym after a lifetime of couch potatoery. We wondered how we would ever survive such mental marathons.

In the following months, Steph and my friend Sarah would alternate between meetings, but I always made the effort to pow-wow with Dima when his busy schedule also allowed. The more we met, the better we understood how to communicate around our limitations, and the more fun it became to speak with him, on both a lingual and personal level.

Today, Dima invited me to go on a bike ride with him around Ashdod. I brought my friend Paul along, and the three of us spent the whole afternoon exploring an off-road sector of orchards and flowery hills that I never would have discovered on my own. The weather was a perfect 67 with clear skies, and Shabbat brought many families outside, while the streets remained quiet and sparse.

We all talked throughout the ride, learning from each other, joking and laughing. Dima snapped photos when we rested along the trail, as well as in the park, and by the ocean.

A victory shot on the main trail

A victory shot on the main trail

As we ended our travels enjoying ice cream on a city bench, I felt the satisfaction of the perfect weekend activity, exercising mind and body, spending time with fun and interesting people in new ways.

Ice cream selfie

Ice cream selfie with Dima, me, and Paul

Not soon after returning home, I started to receive messages from Dima with pictures from the day and comments on how much fun it was. In the last message I received, I could mostly understand, but not quite piece together the meaning. I plugged it into Google Translate, and read the following:

There’s nothing too bad I do not know good English, sometimes I want to tell you a lot, but I do not know how 😦

My heart twisted. I couldn’t tell if I was delighted or distressed by how much I could relate.

It’s fun to practice speaking in another language, but the limits of using simple language can be utterly frustrating. I sometimes feel stuck on a surface level of self-expression, though I try to be honest and true to my personality with whomever I speak. On the one hand, I was glad the feeling was mutual, to know that I wasn’t alone. On the other, the obvious problem was still a bummer.

Despite all of this, Dima has become someone I trust, and I would even comfortably say is my friend. For me, this is a major accomplishment among my experiences in Israel. To whatever extent he and I will stay in touch, the time we spend teaching each other now is undeniably valuable. We help each other reach parallel goals, just like the daily work I have with my elementary students. Here, I am constantly testing the patience of learning a new language, and learning to accept the mistakes, restrictions, and disappointment that comes with it. Honestly, it’s all very much worth it when you finally hear, “Ahh, havanti” for “Ahh, I get it now”… and even better when you get to say it yourself.

My “gam ani” response to Dima didn’t feel quite right, but what else could I say? “Me too” is such a simple response to such a complicated experience. Yet, I’m hopeful that on this point, we understand each other more than the language barrier would seem to allow, and that with time, the issue will shrink beyond worry.


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