By Ed Staskus
Anybody with any sense would have thought Mendel was going to help me learn Hebrew, but he didn’t, not even for a minute. He was from Jerusalem, he had a boat load of friends who spoke Hebrew, and they yakked it up among themselves all the time. But, he never helped me, even though we lived together and I was the designated driver who drove him to synagogues.
I met Mendel when he was with the Cleveland International Group. We were looking at the same dinosaur at the Natural History Museum and afterwards I gave him a ride home. Everybody in that group loved him. He asked me for my phone number. He was a cute guy, but I found out he had no patience.
He was from a Kurd family, had been born in Haifa, and was an orthodox Jew. But, I always thought there was something fishy about him. He never said why he left Israel when everybody else was going to Israel. He didn’t always go to the same synagogue, either. He was supposed to walk to the service, but I always drove him. I dropped him off a block from whatever synagogue he was going to that day and he would walk the rest of the way.
He didn’t want anyone to see him in a car.
I was working at Time to Travel in Beachwood when I started thinking about learning to speak Hebrew. Beachwood was an ethnic neighborhood and many of the people who came to the agency spoke Hebrew. I thought, maybe I should learn it. It would help me get ahead in my job. Sami and Simcha encouraged me. They were the co-owners of the travel agency. They wanted me to guide tours to Israel.
They were sisters and both of them were fat, even obese. They were always at the head of the food line. Simcha worked hard, but Sami didn’t, since she had Simcha. She often fell asleep at her desk, her head lolling on her triple chins. They both smoked Virginia Slims like it was the most important thing in the world, next to the chuck wagon. They were from Israel, from when they were kids. They had never gone back.
Even though I wasn’t Jewish and only knew a handful of Hebrew words, I could speak Lithuanian fluently and some Spanish and German. I’m pretty good with languages. At least I thought so until I tried to learn Hebrew. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was like having grown up speaking hip-hop and trying to learn Old English.
Simcha told me about a language school on Shaker Boulevard, just 20 minutes from where I lived in Cleveland Heights. Classes were at night, twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 8 o’clock until 10 o’clock. I made sure to get there early my first night, but everybody was already in the classroom.
When the teacher walked in I could barely see her, she was so short, maybe five feet tall. She had dark hair and was from Yemen. Her name was Ayala. She handed notebooks out with the Hebrew alphabet to everyone. She started speaking in Hebrew, too, right away, and never went back to English unless she absolutely had to.
She was all business.
“Let’s go,” she said at the start of every class. We would stand up and sing the Israeli national anthem. Then it was down to business.
My biggest fear every Tuesday and Thursday was she would call on me and I would have to speak in front of everyone. I tried to keep my nose buried in my notebook, writing, taking notes. I kept my whole head down.
Everybody in the class was Jewish, except for me. We had to tell everyone our names the first day of class. Esther, Joshua, Miriam, Daniel, Alexander. One man’s name was Gilead, which Alaya explained means mound of testimony, although she never explained what mound of testimony means. We all called him Gil.
“Oh, my name’s Kristina,” I said when it was my turn. Right away somebody asked me, “What’s your Hebrew name?” I wanted to say, “What the hell, I’m not even Jewish,“ but I didn’t. I said most people called me Tina.
Ayala asked questions in Hebrew, and when everyone around me knew enough to answer in Hebrew, I realized they all knew at least a little of the language, while I knew nothing. It was a beginner’s class, but I was as far back from the starting line as could be. When Ayala found out I didn’t know anything, she eventually took more time with me.
I couldn’t make out the strange alphabet, and on top of that the writing was backwards. When the teacher spoke it sounded like she was clearing her throat. I decided soon enough I wouldn’t be able to make those sounds. I’m not coming back. But two days later I was back. I told myself I was taking the class for work’s sake. I wanted to travel overseas. I didn’t want to admit to Mendel I was quitting after one night, either.
I ended up taking the course from beginning to end, nine months of Hebrew.
You have to remember every symbol of the alphabet. I tried, but it was my downfall for a long time. Everything the teacher wrote on the blackboard, I wrote down in my notebook. I wrote sentences first in English and then in Hebrew. I wrote my name. I wrote, “We have three children in our family, two boys and one girl,” and then I wrote it in Hebrew, over and over.
The Pilgrims, when they landed in America, at first for a few minutes thought of making Hebrew the national language. It didn’t matter that it was the New World. But, there’s no word in Hebrew for history, so it didn’t become history.
The classroom across the hall from us was a conversion class. Everyone in the class was someone converting to being Jewish. My classmates would crane their necks, a sour look on their faces, to see them going in the door. They didn’t like them.
“Oh, they’ll never be Jews, those non-Jews trying to be Jewish.” they would say.
“Take a look at that shiksa.”
I think they thought my mother was Jewish, although I don’t know why. I have shoulder-length blonde hair. I don’t look Jewish, but if you say that in front of Jews, they’ll say, “What? There are plenty of blondes in Israel.”
Bruno, who was an Italian gay agent in our office, and I were talking about the Jewish look one afternoon when someone walked in and I said, “Tell me he doesn’t look Jewish.”
Everybody heard me. Sami and Simcha put down their cigarettes. Shlomit looked up from her typewriter. It just came out. Most people who came to the agency were Jewish, so it wasn’t any surprise, but this man looked like Barbara Streisand.
Bruno and I were outsiders because almost everyone else in the neighborhood was Jewish. Sami and Simcha would sometimes say, “I don’t know why Christians don’t like Jews.” They made it sound like Christians were a crazy clan. They made it sound like being Jewish was God’s plan.
The Jewish holidays start in September. Yom Kippur is the big one. Everybody in my class was talking about it. One of them asked me, “What synagogue do you go to?”
Most of the class lived on the east side, including me. I lived in Cleveland Heights, up the hill from Little Italy. I thought, “Oh, Jesus,” there are a lot of small ones, but they’re all ultra-orthodox. When I drove to work I passed the big Sinai Synagogue, so I said, “SInai.” It turned out it was ultra-orthodox.
Everybody was good with that, even though I didn’t wear a wig or have a Hebrew name. I decided I had to go to the Sinai Synagogue to see it. The men were all downstairs and the women upstairs, on a balcony, segregated. I took the stairs. It looked like most of the women were wearing wigs.
Everyone in class knew I lived with Mendel. He would drop me off at school and pick me up sometimes. He was OK with me saying I was orthodox. Since everyone thought I was Jewish I had to start being careful about my craftiness. I ran into them where I lived and where I worked, especially around Corky and Lenny’s in the little plaza beside Time to Travel.
An old lady, the mother of someone I sat next to in class, called me one day. It was a week before Christmas.
“What did you do today?” she asked.
“I just finished all my shopping,” I said. I almost said Christmas shopping, but I caught myself. It was the day before the last day of Hanukkah.
“But it’s the last day of Hanukkah tomorrow,” she said.
“In my family that’s how we do it, we do everything the last minute,” I pretended. “I’m not breaking tradition. Oh, I bought some donuts, too.” Someone had told me to say donuts if I ever felt I was being called out.
“Oh, I see,” she said.
I don’t know if I ever got a good grasp on Hebrew. After every class I always thought, I’m never going back. One day I didn’t go. I just couldn’t. That night Alaya called me at 11 o’clock, just as I was going to bed.
“Why weren’t you in class?” she asked.
I wanted to tell her, “You should be asking me why I go, not why I didn’t go this one time.” But I told her I was orthodox and because of the holiday coming up, I had to clean my cupboards, getting rid of all the yeast invading my kitchen.
If you’re orthodox you have to remove any yeast you have in the house, sweep away crumbs, look under cushions for moldy donuts, remove every trace. Most of the people in class were reformed Jews and didn’t take the class too seriously, but because I had somehow mistakenly made everyone believe I was more conservative than them, I was expected to be serious about it.
It had never been my intention to say I was Jewish, but a good time to admit I wasn’t never came up.
After Alaya called me I had to meet her on Sunday morning, just her and me, to make up the 2-hour class. It was impossible to keep my head down with her breathing down my neck. She said I was making progress.
Mendel’s brother from Israel visited us for two weeks in the spring. He was a big help, taking the time to talk to me in Hebrew, helping me get the sound of it. It sounded somewhere between Arabic and French when he spoke it. He helped me more in a few minutes than Mendel ever did.
Since Mendel’s brother was visiting, they went to services together on Friday, dressed up in business casual. Mendel turned off all the lights in our apartment when they went, walking to the synagogue. He had never done that before. He even unscrewed the light bulb in the refrigerator. When they left they left me sitting in the dark.
At the end of the class I got an A, even though I more-or-less staggered through it like I was wandering in the desert. My reading and writing were shaky, but by graduation time I spoke the language tolerably well. Even still, I was glad when it was over.
I started taking Time to Travel tours to Israel soon after.
I stayed with Mendel’s mother the first time we were in Jerusalem. His brother still lived with their mother and he took me to a wedding. He told me how to dress for it. I wore a black dress. The men sat on one side and the women on the other. After the ceremony I sat at a table with women who passed around platters of food.
We were separated from the men by a low wall. The women sat and talked, most of it too fast for me. All the men wore black hats and were having a great time, drinking, singing, and dancing, sweating up a storm, their hats bobbing up and down on the other side of the wall.
The groom wouldn’t say a word to me. He and his bride didn’t dance together. I danced with the other women.
The more often I went to Israel the better my Hebrew got. One day I was walking around Jerusalem by myself. A young man with red hair wearing a yarmulke asked me something as he was passing by.
“What?” I asked him.
“Do you know where Jaffa Road is?” he repeated.
Our group was staying in a hotel on Ben Yehud Street exactly where it joined with Jaffa Road.
I pointed over my shoulder.
“It’s over there,” I said in spotless sparkling throat-clearing Hebrew.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.