Turning all you once knew upside down | Masa Israel

Journey Blog

Turning all you once knew upside down

Posted August 20th, 2007
From translation blunders to coffee confusion, Hebrew Union College student Jen Gubitz describes her first two months in Israel and the comical side of foreignness.
After being here for two months, I’ve concluded that my life in Israel is most easily compared to the only coffee beverage I can successfully order.  Café Ha-fuch - translated simply as "Coffee Flipped/Upside Down" - is neither latte nor coffee, nor espresso by its lonesome. What is it? It’s tasty, caffeinated, complicated, indescribable at times, and a drink you will be served, regardless of what you order. Living in a new country can really turn all that you once knew – Upside Down.
While I'm a huge fan of iced coffee - the beverage of choice that I injected into my veins via syringe in order to stay awake throughout my various post-college jobs - my desire for iced-coffee faces two extreme challenges in Israel. First, there's simply no ice in Israel. If you ask for a cup of ice water, you get a cup of water. That's it. It's so hot here that even if ice cubes did exist, they'd melt immediately in order to cool themselves down.
The second glitch frustrating my coffee habits: freshly ground, freshly brewed coffee is hard to come by in Jerusalem, so naturally, going back to the absence of frozen water, neither does ICED fresh brewed coffee. You can order "Cafe Kar" - literally "Cold Coffee" - but it consists of a shot of espresso poured into what my classmate Hannah refers to as 85% milk. If you can imagine pouring a cup of cottage cheese into your coffee beverage of choice, you can understand why Cafe Kar generally makes me nauseous.
Coffee notwithstanding, as my six week Ulpan concludes, I’m beginning to realize that I can no longer speak any language fluently. I am confronted daily by a language barrier irreparable by all of the Bat Mitzvah training days of yore or even a Hebrew minor from college.  My English vocabulary is rapidly diminishing as my Hebrew vocabulary slowly grows. I remember the days of the week, a few songs in Spanish from elementary school and maybe a few Czech words on occasion from a semester abroad in Prague. The only language that seems to come out with any coherence is oddly enough, high school French. Although as I sit here writing, looking for a funny French phrase to tell you - I can only think in Hebrew. C'est la vie.
At restaurants, I've been trying to order off of the Hebrew menu, know as the Tafrit. Unfortunately, the words for napkin, mapit, and menu sound similar to me. Last week, I asked for a "Mapit Ivrit" - a Hebrew napkin. Sometimes I ask for a "Capit Ivrit" - a Hebrew teaspoon, too. 
As an international language, English words regularly show up in the Hebrew language, but obviously written in Hebrew characters. Most recently, I debated ordering what sounded new and exotic. I sounded out the letters over and over...Sh....riiiii M Psssss. Hmmm....Shriii Mpsssss....OH. Shrimps. Not quite as appealing as I had thought.
In a cab last week, I tried to make a tiny conversation with my driver. As usual, I was having trouble remembering a few words that would make my sentences more than jibberish. I tried to tell the driver I was having trouble finding the words. First I said - "I "return" the words" because the words for return and remember are nearly identical. I realized I had the wrong choice of wording - and corrected myself. "I No Remember! " Really, at this point, there was no turning back. It’s true. I had forgotten the word for - to forget.
Most memorably, one day, lacking any ability to form sentences and really praying for Ulpan to end early, I intended to tell my teacher that I had had enough for the day and was ready to leave. What came out? "Cheshbon, B'vakasha. Check Please."
Jen Gubitz is a graduate of Indiana University's Born's Jewish Studies program and most recently worked for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Hillel's Schusterman International Center in Washington, DC.  Jen is a first year Rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion


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