Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Woman with Many Shopping Bags

On a busy Jerusalem thoroughfare, I spotted a lady about to get on the bus.  She caught my eye because of the amount of bags she was carrying – no less than ten. She must have come directly from the shuk and couldn’t seem to maneuver with them. A kilo of tomatoes, another of salatim (humus and tehina of course), cucumbers, chicken and fresh challot for shabbat. How was she possibly going to get on that bus with all of those bags? As she fumbled for her Rav Kav, I heard the voice of legendary Israeli folksinger Arik Einstein through my earbuds and I began to beam with joy.  The happy tune of Giveret im Salim became the soundtrack for the scene:

לאוטובוס נכנסת
גברת עם סלים,
תראו איך היא תופסת
את כל הספסלים:

על ספסל אחד -
סל עם לחמניות,
על ספסל אחר -
סל עם עגבניות,
על ספסל אחד -
סל עם גרעינים,
על ספסל אחר -
סל עם מלפפונים,
על ספסל אחד -
סל עם מרגרינה,
על ספסל אחר -
סל עם חומוס טחינה,
על ספסל אחד -
סל עם כל מיני,
על ספסל אחר -
סל עם עיתוני.

Onto the bus
A woman with baskets,
Look how she’s taking up
All the benches:
On one bench -
A basket
with bread rolls,
On the other bench -
A basket with tomatoes,
On one bench -
A basket with sunflower seeds
On the other bench -
A basket with cucumbers,
On one bench -
A basket with margarine,
On the other bench -
A basket
with Hummus and tahina,
On one bench -
A basket with all sorts of things
On the other bench -
A basket with newspapers.

Miraculously, the woman managed to heave those heavy bags onto the bus and took up about three seats. I, on the other hand, stood on the sidewalk, trying desperately to hold myself back from dancing with joy.

It had been twenty years since I had last heard that fun children's song. Our high school Hebrew teacher, G'veret Taylor, had taught us the lyrics as our Friday treat so we would be excited about Hebrew language and Israeli culture. She also used song to demonstrate practical applications of verb tenses and idioms.

This particular song is a good didactic tool. The common food terms, the present tense, and it's fun and rhythmic; the words so simple. But back then, we hardly understood a word of it, and I for one, certainly couldn’t comprehend why a grown woman was schlepping around her groceries in baskets from an open-air market. 

As I stood watching this woman come out of the Jerusalem shuk, I realized that music has an amazing power that can awaken vivid memories. (See, for example, "Music Brings Memories When Words Fail” about nursing home patients’ reactions to hearing music from their younger days.) Yet, it also is a potent tool for foreign language learning and, more importantly, retention. In my case, what amazed me was that I recalled every word after not hearing the song for nearly two decades.

When my bus finally arrived, the driver noticed my joy. As I scanned my Rav Kav card, I mentioned randomly how much I like Arik Einstein. “The radio has been playing his music all day”, he said, “it’s his first yahrtzeit. Gone too soon.”  I had not realized it had been a year already.

"He’s a legend in my book,” I tell him. He agreed.
As years go by, I have picked up phrases just from listening to Hebrew music. There’s a unique rhythm to each language that gets the cerebral “wheels turning”, if you will. When I want to refresh my Spanish skills, I put on some good Spanish music to get into la ritma de espanol.

To improve your Hebrew language skills and enjoy it at the same time, here are some recommendations:
1)      Listen to Israeli radio often. And if I had a television, I would watch Israeli television often, too. Hearing the language on an ongoing basis will acclimate you to the sound and rhythm of the language and will make you accustomed to hearing certain phrases which you can then repeat and try out on your own. Personally, I recommend Galgalatz, which combines contemporary American pop with Israeli music so it keeps my attention piqued.

2)      As you listen to Hebrew, try to concentrate on the rhythm and the sound patterns. A ר in Hebrew is not the same sound as a R in English or in Spanish. Try to imitate some of the words, but don’t get frustrated if it is difficult to imitate the sound precisely; just do your best. 

3)      Once you have identified a song that you enjoy listening to, hum it to yourself and then find the corresponding video on youtube. The visuals will give you some context about the storyline of the song, and you can also see and hear how the singer pronounces certain words and sounds.

4)      Jot down some of the words as you hear them.  You will likely have to listen to the song many times until you’re able to discern the words. It would be even more helpful to go over the song with someone who speaks the language and practice the word or phrase over and over again.

5)      Once you can pronounce it with some semblance of confidence, be sure to use the word of phrase that very same day in a natural environment: on the bus, in the supermarket, on the phone, etc. Find reasons to speak if you have to. ("The weather is beautiful today, yes?")  And yes, you’ll probably have to listen to the song or at least hum to yourself to recall the vocabulary words. Once you use it on your own volition, it will come more naturally to you.

6) Remember to keep practicing! No matter how many Israelis insist on you speaking English - you have to be tough and insist that it's crucial for you to practice Hebrew! 

The woman with all those grocery bags brought worlds together. Arik’s song, once just a foreign, almost invented scene for me, came to life, and I reflected on how grateful I was for having a dedicated teacher who instilled a passion for Hebrew in me, for having the opportunity to see this scene live, and to finally understand Israeli music without a dictionary.