I have been living and volunteering in Israel for seven months but I am still not zorem. That is the Hebrew word for fluent, and I like to joke that I forget it often because it does not apply to me: the Hebrew language does not roll off my tongue easily and the Israeli way of life does not come naturally.
As an avid reader and writer, and a recipient of a BA in English Literature, I have always thought of words as my ultimate currency. Living in Israel has made me question that truth but has enabled me to enjoy the feeling of being lost in translation when it comes to both my words and my actions.
I do miss the comfort of effortless knowledge. I sometimes long for the days when I knew what every single street sign meant, could read every menu, and was able to eavesdrop on any conversation that piqued my interest. But discomfort has a way of making one work hard, and it is my complete lack of zorem that has shaped my experience in Israel.
When I first arrived in Israel I moved into an immigrant absorption center in Ashkelon with the other volunteers on my program. We were the only native English speakers in the three building complex; every other resident was an Ethiopian immigrant. We were encouraged to hang out and play with the children, but I was uncharacteristically shy. I felt embarrassed that I couldn't offer more than a smile or a high five to the kids who were willing to interact with me, and then I felt weird about worrying about myself rather than just being present and having fun with the children.
Then one day, while doing laundry, something happened. A group of children wandered in while my friend and I were doing about a month’s worth of laundry. They looked at us quizzically; one boy held up a slightly deflated basketball and waited expectantly. My friend nodded, and the boy threw the ball. Soon we were engaged in a lively game. We giggled when the ball landed out of my grasp, groaned when it rolled out of the laundry room, and applauded wildly when the smallest child in the group achieved a successful catch.
The game eventually dispersed naturally, and the children started humming a familiar tune. I was shocked when I realized what they were singing: “Baby” by Justin Bieber! Much to my friend’s embarrassment, I immediately started singing along, bopping up and down to the catchy tune and making the children laugh. We sang the same verses over and over. I have no idea if the kids understood what they were singing, but we could not stop smiling.
I now live in Haifa, Boston's Partnership 2000 sister city. I work at several different places, but the one where I am most comfortable is a woman’s shelter. In the afternoons I play with the children who live there while their mothers do work around the shelter or simply take some time for themselves. Lest I started to feel cocky about my somewhat firmer grasp on the Hebrew language at this point in my stay here, the shelter threw me a curveball: one little boy, Aron, does not speak any English or Hebrew. We do not have a single word in common.
Aron is four. He speaks Arabic and Russian. He is usually bubbly and happy, eager to play on the swing set outside or engage with the other children in arts and crafts activities. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, however, he was neither bubbly nor happy. One of the other little boys had pushed the bike he was riding too hard, and Aron was scared. I watched the scene unfold from a few feet away, not wanting to interfere immediately. I was feeling unsure about what I would say or do if I did step in, and I also wanted to give Aron a chance to handle the situation on his own.
But, Aron was not okay; his small hands rose to his face as tears started to leak from his eyes. His mouth opened wide and he began to sob. I rushed over and before I could even think about what to do, he reached both arms up, initiating a hug. I immediately hugged him back, rubbing his back and smoothing his hair until his tears subsided. When he pulled away he was laughing, and soon he rode away to continue his afternoon fun. Through the entire exchange I did not have to speak a single word.
I have surrendered my belief that language is my strongest tool. I am still working on strengthening my Hebrew, but I do not rely on it as a means to conduct my life in a satisfying way. I’ve found that the world can make sense even if I don’t have words to name the ways in which it all functions. Playing catch and singing silly pop songs are universal (guilty) pleasures that can be enjoyed even without the word for “ball” or the correct pronunciation of the word “baby.”
When Aron reached for me as a source of comfort, the action resonated in ways that transcend the word “hug.” My world is no longer hinged on nouns and verbs but rather on feelings, which are often difficult to contain in one or two words, regardless of the language.
I may be forgetting some of my English and most of my Hebrew, but thanks to Israel and my lack of zorem, I absolutely excel at feeling.