Voices from the Field
Eliezer Ben Yehuda, born January 7, 1858, was the driving force behind the revival of the Hebrew language. As we know, Hebrew is more than just a spoken language. It's an expression of culture, history, freedom, and Jewish identity. It's one of the core Aleph-Bet principles, and in celebration of Ben Yehuda's birthday, we've assembled a list of common Hebrew words, phrases, and slang that we frequently use but don't always know exactly what they translate to. Feel free to bring these phrases as a teaching tool into your classrooms in honor of Ben Yehuda's birthday!
"In spite of what you are doing, I will do the opposite." Just one word, often used in the middle of a sentence, says this much!
מה פתאום (ma- pee-tome)
This phrase is used to mean: "No way," or "What are you taking about?" The literal translation is "What all of a sudden."
This phrase translates to: "Hearty appetite." It is a lovely tradition similar to the French phrase "bon appetite." Israelis say it every time someone eats. Don’t be surprised to even hear it while eating a snack on the street, and said to you by a complete stranger.
יאללה ביי (ya’allah bye)
A very popular phrase said at the end of every phone conversation. It is a combination of Arabic and English meaning "ok, good bye!" Sometimes, Israelis add in an "mmm" before saying it as well. Spend a few weeks in Israel and it's hard not to start ending your phone conversations this way!
על הפנים (al ha’pa-nim)
This translates literally to "on the face!" Its meaning, however, is "horrible."
חבל על הזמן (cha-val al ha’zman)
This phrase has two very different meanings. The literal one means "it’s a waste of time." In slang, however, this same phrase means the exact opposite: "it was so great, it was unbelievable!" Interesting how slang changes everyday vernacular so drastically.
רגע (pronounced rey-ga)
This word means "wait" and must be accompanied by turning your palm up, placing your thumb on your 4 inward turned fingers and shaking it dramatically up and down in front of the closest person’s face. When Americans see it, we interpret it as a rude gesture, but it's not!
מצב (pronounced ma-tzav)
A word that literally means "situation." It has been used to describe difficult times in Israel.
But the big question is: !?יש מצב ללמוד עוד עברית (yesh ma-tzav lil’mode ode iv-rit?), which means: "Come on, doesn’t this make you want to learn more Hebrew?!"
Binnie Swislow was born in Milwaukee and moved to Tel Aviv when she was in high school. She served in the Israeli Air Force during the Yom Kippur War. Binnie has a BS in Linguistics and Bilingual Education and a Masters in School Administration. She was the Director of the Kohl Children's Museum Jewish Teacher Center, and has taught Hebrew in several cities across North America and Israel. She currently serves as a consultant for the iCenter to help strengthen Hebrew in Chicagoland public high schools.
One of the aspects of life in Israel that has always fascinated me is the balance of secular Western and Jewish culture, specifically the use of the Gregorian calendar and the Jewish calendar.
In Israel, the secular calendar is used by the Israeli government and businesses, while in religious communities, the Jewish calendar is used to mark the days of the year. State issued ID's, however, list both secular and Hebrew birthdays.
A few years ago I was at a Tel Aviv street party celebrating New Year's Eve. Similar to celebrations in America, there were fireworks and confetti, but what struck me as a bit different were the ways in which some were dressed. People were dressed in green and wearing leprachaun hats -- a scene more familiar at a St. Patrick's Day party than on New Years. In Israel, New Year's Eve is called "Sylvester," a name borrowed from other European countries and ironically derived from Catholic origins. While it's not commemorated in the Orthodox communities, much of Israel does celebrate demonstrating a desire to connect with the rest of the Western world.
Additionally, what fascinated me was that I didn’t once hear "Chag Sameach" (חג שמח) or "Shanah Tova" (שנה טובה) like we say on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Instead, my friends and the Israelis around me were wishing each other a "Shanah *Ezrachit* Tovah" (שנה אזרחית טובה), which means "Happy *Civil (secular)* New Year." With the addition of the word ezrachit (secular), this greeting (no matter who says it) classifies the holiday as one that originates from the "outside." On the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, there is no need for the added "Ezrachit."
To me, these examples demonstrate the duel identity of Israel as both a Jewish state and modern state that is part of the international community, with many Israelis taking part in European practices (like that of Sylvester) while simultaneously maintaining connection to their Jewish roots (with wishes like "Shanah Ezrachit Tovah").
Stories like this of bi-culturalism within Israeli society help remind me of my own bi-cultural identity as an American Jew, brought up with a connection to both Jewish and Israeli culture. Bridging these worlds has been a hugely enriching piece of who I am, and as an Israel educator, I hope to similarly enrich the lives of our future generations. Shana Ezrachit Tovah שנה אזרחית טובה!
What does it mean to be bi-cultural?
Ayal’s passion for Israel was cultivated early on from his home life and quickly became a major part of his life independently. He graduated from Brandeis University with a BA in Environmental Studies and International and Global Studies, and a minor in Hebrew Language. Ayal lived in Jerusalem as a JDC-BBYO Jewish Service Corps member. His work focused on utilizing community gardens as a way to empower low income communities across the country as well as organizing leadership programming for at-risk Ethiopian Israeli youth. He loves photography, playing music and being outdoors- and likes doing these things especially so in Hebrew and while in Israel.
Thanksgiving was an American tradition that my family didn’t part with. My parents made aliyah 30 years ago from North America, and while they were eager to learn Hebrew and feel comfortable in their new surroundings, celebrating Thanksgiving was one tradition they (my father particularly) were not willing to give up. The tradition varied over the years. At times we would celebrate it on the Thursday night in accordance with the American tradition, and then other times we would have Thanksgiving dinner as our Friday night Shabbat meal. For me this was a beautiful combination between traditions - we would eat traditional Thanksgiving food, every family member would say what they are thankful for, and then we would recite Shabbat psalms and Diverei Torah.
I enjoyed celebrating Thanksgiving with my family in Israel, though it was foreign to my friends and our community. My Israeli friends either did not know what Thanksgiving was or they mistook it for a religious Christian holiday. Growing up in an Anglo family, I was constantly being asked what language was more comfortable for me to speak. However, what I was really being asked was: Do you feel more Israeli or American? I would answer at times – “both” – though it always felt like I needed to choose. I am very comfortable speaking in one, dreaming in the other and in general enjoying the richness of both.
This year will be my first time celebrating Thanksgiving in the United States. The uniqueness this year is that the first night of Hannukah and Thanksgiving overlap – a once in a lifetime event. While speaking to other Jews living in the United States, I realize that during this night they will be celebrating an American tradition, along with Jewish and Israeli traditions. To them, their Jewish and Israeli identities are one. To me, Hannukah does not feel Israeli - it is distinctively Jewish. This probably stems from growing up in Israel where there is a clear distinction between Jewish and Israeli holidays, such as Yom Ha'atzmaut. Depending on your traditions, you may or may not celebrate the Jewish holidays but everyone celebrates the Israeli ones. And while during this year’s "Thanksgivukkah" I won’t feel that I am celebrating my Israeli side, I am thankful for an opportunity to express my American and Jewish identities together in a single night.
This post connects with the Educator's Backpack "The Things We Carry: Traditions"
Why do we keep the traditions we keep? Post your comments or send us an e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org!
Leah joined the iCenter team in January 2014, following her recent move from Israel to Chicago. She feels fortunate to be part of a team that shares her passion for Israel, and that is committed to advancing Israel education in North America. In Israel, Leah worked for the Mandel Foundation, a nonprofit organization which trains social and educational leaders, while completing her MA in Conflict Resolution and International Policy at the Hebrew University. Previously, she worked for the Foreign Relations Division of the Israeli Environmental Protection Ministry. Although this is Leah’s first time living in the U.S., she did spend time here as part of the Israeli delegation to Camp Moshava in Wisconsin during the summer of 2004. Leah resides with her husband Yitzi in Lakeview, Chicago.