Being an immigrant to any new culture means having nearly limitless opportunities to humiliate oneself. The cultural and linguistic land-mines that await the newcomer to Israel are so numerous as to force the newbie to constantly choose between the following options:
1. Stay close to home and only interact with folks from the ‘old country’… a strategy that pretty much eliminates the risk of public humiliation… but also reduces to approximately ‘zero’ the number of learning opportunities.
2. Venture out into the countryside and ‘go native’ as frequently as possible… a strategy that pretty much guarantees a steady acculturation, as well as a fair number of embarrassing stories with which to regale friends.
What follows is an example of the latter.
Shortly after we moved to Israel, Zahava found herself at Rami Levi, a popular supermarket chain in Jerusalem. As supermarkets go, Rami Levi is a cross between the extensive inventory of the gleaming American-style mega-stores, and the ‘everyman’ earthiness of an old-time, open air shuk.
While Zahava was navigating the nearly empty aisles… using a combination of intuition and knowledge to identify the mysterious contents behind the inscrutable Hebrew packaging… her cell phone rang. On the phone was a friend (another Anglo) who, knowing Zahava was at the store, asked if she could pick up a couple of mouse traps while she was there. Zahava quickly agreed… hung up the phone… and added the traps to her shopping list.
However, within seconds of closing the connection, Zahava realized that she didn’t know the Hebrew words for either ‘mouse’ or ‘trap’… a serious potential impediment to locating one.
When she tried to call the woman back (so she could ask her how to ask for mousetraps in Hebrew), she watched in horror as her cell phone beeped its ‘low battery’ swan-song and died in her hands. No amount of pleading or shaking would bring the phone back to life, so Zahava began wandering the aisles in search of an English speaker.
The thing is, there are very few English speakers in Rami Levy on a typical weekday morning. By eavesdropping on various conversations Zahava discovered that the few shoppers in the store were a mish-mash of Israelis, Russian immigrants and Arabs.
So, with no alternative and no prospect of help, Zahava scratched the mousetraps off her list and went on with her shopping.
Yeah right! If you believe that, you don’t know the first thing about my wife. You see, when it comes to personal challenges, my lovely wife has a personal tolerance for shame just slightly higher than door-to-door salesmen and street mimes. If Zahava wants something, she will ask anyone… and submit herself to just about any humiliation… rather than admit defeat.
Once the old ‘ask an Anglo’ option had been eliminated, Zahava marched up to the first stock-boy she could find and threw herself at the problem:
Zahava: “Slichah Adoni… Atah yachol l’azor li?” [translation: Excuse me sir/mister, can you help me?]
Teen-aged Arab stock-boy: [with a shocked expression on his face at having just been called sir/mister]: Ken [translation: yes]
Zahava: [continuing in broken Hebrew, but I’ll spare you the agony of transliteration and just write from here on in English] “I’m trying to find something, but I don’t know how it’s called. It’s about this big [holds her two hands about 6 inches apart with thumbs and middle fingers extended towards one another in the approximate dimensions of a mousetrap], and is used against [she didn’t yet know the Hebrew words for ‘trap’, ‘catch’ or ‘grab’] little animals. These animals are about this big [again, fingers were used to indicate size], they have little ears like this [she pantomimed mickey mouse ears], little teeth [she pantomimed an anthropomorphic rendition of mouse teeth by tucking her lower lip behind her upper teeth and making little sucking noises], they make little ‘eek eek’ sounds, and women don’t like to have them in their houses.”
After a few moments of standing in rapt amazement at the improv being played out before him, the stock-boy suddenly realized that this lunatic American woman was looking for a mouse trap, so he led her over to the housewares section.
Once there, though, the language barrier once again imposed itself:
Teen-aged Arab stock-boy: [reaching for one of several types of traps] Are you looking for a ‘Malkodet Achbar‘ [mouse trap]?
Zahava: [with a huge sense of relief sweeping away any vestige of her sense of self-respect] “Yes! But how did you say it again?”
Teen-aged Arab stock boy: [puffed up at having been elevated to the level of Hebrew teacher] ‘Malkodet‘ [indicating the entire device with a wave of his hand] ‘Achbar‘ [pointing to the picture of the mouse on the trap’s label].
Zahava: [who is nothing if not a quick study, immediately set about practicing her new phrase]: Malkodet [pointing to the trap] Achbar [pointing to the picture of the mouse], Malkodet Achbar, Malkodet Achbar, Malkodet Achbar…
The teen-aged stock-boy nodded enthusiastically along with the deranged-American woman’s new mantra, and when she had finished saying it a few dozen times loudly enough for people in the neighboring aisles to hear, he helpfully said it one last time himself: “Malkodet achbar!”
But something about the way the young Arab had pronounced it caught Zahava’s ear, and her Ulpan-trained instincts immediately set about trying to make a linguistic connection that, quite simply, wasn’t there:
Zahava: “Wait… ‘Malkodet Achbar‘… like ‘Allah Achbar‘? [long pause] Does that mean that Allah is a mouse?
It still isn’t clear to me after having heard this story from Zahava several dozen times whether the look of shock on the stock-boy’s face was due to having had his religious sensibilities offended, or if he was more concerned about Zahava’s shouted question perhaps sparking a mini-Intifada amongst the store’s Arab patrons and employees. Whatever the case, without dragging Allah into the discussion, he quickly shushed her and explained in a rushed whisper that “No… ‘Achbar‘ [with the ‘ch sound scraped deep in the back of his throat] meant mouse. Akbar [with the ‘k’ sound coming percussively from the roof of his mouth] , was… something completely different.”
When Zahava got home from having nearly started a holy war (not that there wasn’t already one raging back then in 2003), she related the mousetrap story to a few friends over a nice meal. Of course, any such story is bound to bring forth other similarly embarrassing immigrant tales, and someone dutifully offered one about a new immigrant who went into the local hardware store looking for a fly swatter and unflinchingly offered the following request in pidgin Hebrew:
“I’m looking for something to [pantomimes a fly buzzing around] zzzzzzzzZZZZZZZzzzzzzzZZZZZ [pantomimes swatting the fly] whap… whap… WHAP!”
Several more similar stories were told, and as the tears of laughter were dabbed away with tissues and hands, one of the women asked Zahava, “But wasn’t that humiliating for you? I mean, why would you subject yourself to that?”
To which Zahava shrugged and offered, “I don’t know… I figure I’ll probably never have to face any of those people again. And at the end of the day, I added two new words to my vocabulary that I will absolutely, positively NEVER forget!”
You can’t argue with that kind of logic. But still… every time I think about this story I have to giggle.
‘Allah is a mouse’, indeed.
David Bogner, formerly of Fairfield, CT, lives in Efrat with his wife Zahava (nee Cheryl Pomeranz), and their children Ariella, Gilad and Yonah. Since moving to Israel in 2003 David has been working in Israel’s defense industry on International Marketing and Business Development. In his free time David keeps a blog (www.treppenwitz.com) and is an amateur beekeeper.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.