The truth is, I never used to start my sentences “ha’emet sheh…” (“the truth is…”) the way I do now. I’ve taken on expressions I had once only distantly known, heard in background murmurs from others – the Israelis, the “real” ones. Tzabarim. The cacti. I have accumulated a collection like sweaters “long-term borrowed” and tee shirts left behind from dear friends, an assortment of “ashkarah,” “ba li…,” “yesh matzav she…” I’m not even trying anymore; these words flow from me naturally. Which is to say that, on some level, I must be thinking in these terms.
So when I’m trying to catch my wandering train of thought, or come up with the right word, I now stall with a smooth emmmm, where it used to come out ummmm. My intonations have changed, even in English sometimes. I formulate sentences weirdly, but I still get the point across, I guess.
I used to overuse abundantly the word tachlis, which is difficult to translate. Most things are. It basically means “basically,” or “bottom line.” I used to say it way too often; I still do, but I also used to.
Can you like, not say that? G was just becoming my friend and that soft insult somehow made me like her more. I soon learned her blunt tone was nothing but a reflection of her “city girl” (my words) roots. But her call-out made me hyperaware of how often I dropped that esoteric, guttural, excessive word, tachlis, lest I irk her again. We were just hitting it off. And besides, it’s not very inclusive.
But it’s one of my favorite words because of its transformation over time; its journey is symbolic somehow, to me, at least, of the old-meets-new evolution characteristic of this place, this People. In Hebrew, tachlit (takh – leet) means “purpose” or “end goal.” Then, undergoing the process of Ashkenazi pronunciation, the word transforms to tachlis, with the T sound from the original word softened to an S. Tachlis then adopts a persona associated with Eastern European, yeshiva-learning types, who incorporate the word in their Talmudic debates in the study hall. From academic discourse to the everyday parlance, tachlis joins the vocabulary of the “amcha,” the people.
Eventually (a precise historic date, naturally), tachlis makes its way into Israeli slang, this time with a modified spelling, an entirely different end letter to make it end in an S deliberately. It’s a new word, one marked by smudges from places it has been and hands it has touched throughout Jewish linguistic journeys. Now it belongs to everyone.
And when I say it, it’s rides this borderline between irony and sincerity; between my Torah-learning, “frum” persona and my evolving Israeli identity – or perhaps a fusion thereof. Tachlis.
The first time I dreamed in Hebrew was a Moment. I have no recollection of the dream itself, but I know it happened; I woke up feeling like a true native.
There was the time I asked for a menu and the woman who handed it to me said, as she passed it, “Ken, zeh b’Anglit, aval,” “Sure, but it’s in English,” and I blushed and felt grateful for whatever is coming over me and giving me this Look, like I belong here.
My list of imaginary gold stars self-congratulating me on communicating beyond ordering a Goldstar keeps growing: I am no longer decidedly opposed to naming my future children anything with an R sound in it, out of fear of butchering it with my unseemly diasporic accent. I bought a second pair of Blundstones, the official shoe of both Israelis and anti-Zionist activists (ah, unity), and I guess I “pass” enough to get asked for directions I usually can’t give (but not because I’m not from here; just because I’m the worst at directions). I walk with a confidence I say is from my New York years; maybe it is, but it works damn well here too.
I can flirt in Hebrew! I can do Kundalini yoga in Hebrew! I can have difficult conversations and resolve interpersonal conflicts in Hebrew; I can be vulnerable in different words than I have used for instances like these before. The best part is the rawness is not from the courage of speaking a new language itself; the words are a sturdy vessel for that which needs to be conveyed.
I guess I say more or less the same things I would in English; but this whole process is made of more than translation. I commute far less often nowadays between my mental indexes, the islands of English and Hebrew; I float and glide somewhere between them now. I don’t have to think as much anymore. Or maybe I just think differently; would that conversation have had the same resolution in a different verbal code? Oolai. Maybe.
I always rolled my eyes at American olim’s claims that they have “forgotten” their English; the aspirational posture seemed inauthentic and implausible. Except I get it now. I open my mouth and wait to see which language comes out first. I switch back and forth and am no longer comprehensible to anyone sometimes.
How much does this cost? I gesture to the decaf hafuch with soy milk. I tell him I’ll pay in a few minutes. I am sitting outside on the porch-like seats, the worn cushions, leaning against a Jerusalem stone wall. The hipster barista, smoking a cigarette outside where I am sitting with my laptop, answers me without looking:
A middle-aged man in the same hipster-stoner sweatshirt as the barista is sitting next to me and chimes in:
You shouldn’t tell her the price now; she comes in to pay – you tell her the price! What if the price changes?
What if the price changes?! Is this nonsense all arbitrary? Achi, bro – tell me, when’s the last time you changed your prices here? I turn to the barista, the authority on this matter.
I don’t know, maybe Passover…
Okay, I’m sorry, is it about to be Passover in the next few minutes?
Okay, sir – I think I can safely bet on the odds that the total will still be 18 shekel in the next few minutes it will take me to find my wallet and piece together the exact coins.
B’seder, fine, he relents while maintaining a sort of triumphant stance.
I return to my computer, look up that GIF that helps calm me down and reconnect to my breath. But for some reason, despite my best attempts at stoic coolness, I care what he thinks. For some reason, instead of leaning into the benefits of anonymity, I feel the need to appeal to this somewhat rude stranger, to reconcile.
But, like, b’emet (for real) are we b’seder? I just — I just want to make sure that we are b’emet cool; sofo shel davar, at the end of the day, I just want things to be b’seder. I have no problems with you.
You’d be the first one to have no problems with me.
I mean, I’ve only known you a few minutes…
You don’t have to take everything so seriously.
Studies show that language, at least to some degree shapes the cognition of the speaker. Some researchers go so far as to frame this phenomena as resembling being “two people.” Bilinguals are said to have “greater mental flexibility,” as in, the ability to switch between viewpoints and directions of thinking. I am sitting here gloating for no reason at all, tachlis. But when many of my new relationships begin in Hebrew and continue for the most part in that key, is my voice someone else’s? Have I transformed?
It’s more than translation; I have to explain the cultural references of Broad City to a close friend, a “native,” and it makes me realize how American I am, in the slight comforts I glean from Abbi and Ilana’s “classic” dynamic, and the reminder that “Bed Bath and Beyond coupons never expire!” The things M won’t get, at least not in the way I do. He doesn’t get excited like I do when I see a subway in a scene, or I recognize the Upper West Side in a quick frame. I feel so at home here; I did not notice how much I felt at home there too. The words slip out, the intermittent “chill,” “intersectionality,” “ja feel” (that’s not even English, actually), or even the sprinklings of “like” competing with the newer “ke’ilu” for territory in the empty spaces in my speech.
The relationships I have in Hebrew would simply be different entities in any other words than the ones in which they are expressed, the ones we exchange. Am I the same? English Liz and Hebrew Liz share a lot of things; maybe they even bring out each other’s beauty. Maybe they dance, alternating who takes the lead; they bend towards each other, and sometimes sway away, shaping each other’s creative moves. They refuse to be tamed, to be choreographed into obedience. They do not compete, but harmonize in their way. These days, I find myself speechless; still, I am hardly short on words.