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On the sidelines

Today, a local journalist came to visit us. The reporter wanted to mainly focus on the efforts of my mother- and father-in-law, who in their retirement are trying to volunteer as much as possible in the local community, including working at a school nearby, where they teach English to children with special needs.

However, the reporter also spent a little time asking Avi and me questions about our decision to make Aliyah, about what we plan to do here, our first impressions, and what some of the challenges are here for new olim.

“Em, sooooo… I imagine thee situation here makes you nervous,” he asked me confidently in English.

“No, not really,” I responded. “What makes me more nervous is trying to navigate Kupat Holim (the health-care system in Israel), Beit Sefer and Gan (school), and other important mommy-related things without speaking very much Hebrew.”

The hot young sabra was surprised, but nodded sympathetically.

“Look, I’m used to knowing things,” I told him. “To listening to conversations and actually contributing to the discussion. In the States, I’m not someone who sits by with an inquisitive look and complacent smile. I have an opinion! I am in control! I am stubborn and strong-willed. Here I have no choice but to sit on the sidelines. I am not comfortable on the sidelines.”

My Hebrew is rusty, at best. I am a decent eavesdropper, but if someone trys to ask me a direct question in Hebrew, I am the proverbial deer in headlights.

“Huh? Who me?” My options are few:

1. Respond with a friendly smile and say in Hebrew, “Sorry I don’t speak Hebrew.” Which is not entirely true, so I feel like (a) a liar and (b) a coward.

2. Respond with a friendly smile and show off my three years studying Hebrew at The George Washington University. “I am a new immigrant. I am still learning. Please speak slowly,” I could say in Hebrew. This unfortunately would require a lot of heavy lifting on my part, though. I would have to listen carefully to the person slowly repeat their question, and then pray super hard that I understand it this time. It’s unlikely.

Or, 3. I could take the easy way out by throwing my hands up in the air and say in a heavy Italian accent, “I no-ah, speak-ah, da Hebrew!”

Many of the officials I’ve had to talk to here so far have asked me when I will take ulpan, the intensive Hebrew language institute.

I’d love to take ulpan — Can you imagine? Every day, five days a week, I’d wake up and travel by myself on a bus 30 to 40 minutes away from my children to a big city where I’d be with other adults from 8:30 am – 1:30 pm. I’d study the language, which would help me acclimate to society and, most likely, make friends. Then, I’d get back on a bus and ride 30 – 40 minutes by myself back home, maybe take a little snooze on the way, or read a book.  This would be lovely! What mom of three young children would not want to take ulpan?

Alas, taking ulpan is the stuff of dreams for the new immigrant mom.

Can someone explain to me what mother has the luxury of ulpan? When she’s trying to get her kids ready and off to school?  Not to mention, there’s all the stuff that has to happen when the kids are at school. (This assumes that my children are actually in school right now, which they are not, thanks to  bureaucratic snags.)

There’s the tedious, yet necessary “life” stuff like signing up for utilities; buying a cell phone plan; researching ridiculously expensive used cars to buy; learning the metric system; and registering, registering, registering for everything…school, health insurance, bituach leumi

And what happens if (when) one of the kids get sick? Or if I need to be home for one of the many utility workers to get access inside my house? And what about earning money? Sure, ulpan sounds great, but between parenting, setting up house, and trying to find work, I’m not sure I have time to learn your language.

Don’t think I’m not grateful for the support of the Israeli government and our sponsoring organization, Nefesh B’ Nefesh. I am grateful. Thank you for the financial assistance, the free health insurance and the tax breaks. But, you know what would be a really great benefit for a new olim?

An Israeli au pair.

A cute young girl, perhaps fresh out of the army, who would come to my home every day at 7 am, get my kids ready for school, make their lunch, see them off. Then, she’d clean up their breakfast plates, go food shopping, do a couple loads of laundry. In between, she’d search the internet listings for job opportunities for me or my husband. She’d open the door for the guy from Bezeq. She’d be home for the big kids when they get home from school, and she’d help them with their homework (which is all in Hebrew).

Somewhere around 3 pm, I’d saunter in. All flush with excitement over the useful new phrases I’d learned that day in ulpan.

“Do you sell gluten-free bread?” 

“In which aisle might I find extra virgin olive oil?”

“How much longer will it take for you to complete my transaction?”

Or, if I want to speak like a true Israeli in line while waiting my turn for a customer representative at “Pelefon,” Israel’s version of Verizon Wireless, I might learn how to say:

“You’re nothing! Who are you?  Where is your manager? Where is someone who can actually help me?”

Yes, an Israeli au pair would be a wonderful gift for new immigrant mothers. I wonder if there isn’t a generous female philanthropist in the United States who might consider creating a fund just for that.

Then, I just might have the time to go to ulpan.

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