Israel: Learning Modern Hebrew at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Part 3)

❤️! שלום לכוללללללללם

I have just completed Level Heh with a final mark of 95%. The university is really strict about the attendance. Due to my application for work and residence permits in China, I had to be away from the class for 2.5 weeks, and I have thus lost 2.5% in the final grading 😭😭😭. Another 2.5% are lost in my mid-term and final exams. Luckily, my final grade is still an A+, and I should be happy about it 🙃🙂🙃 I will just work harder in Level Vav (the highest Modern Hebrew level available at the RIS) during the summer~

Anyway, here is an updated version of my Modern Hebrew learning resources:

1. Dictionary (מילון): Morfix is a free online dictionary that allows translation from Hebrew to English or vice versa. We can type in any morphology of the Hebrew term, and the search engine will offer us the possible base forms and their meanings. Sometimes, we won’t be able to find the appropriate meaning by typing in only a single word. In that case, we can try typing in the whole phrase. For instance, כוכב is a masculine noun for “star/asterisk”, while the term לכת means “walking”. If we type in the whole construct phrase כוכב לכת, we will get the more precise translation: “planet”.

2. Hebrew Verbs (פועל):

a. Hebrew Conjugation Tables is a useful website that contains comprehensive verb conjugation tables, so we can use it to quickly check how a particular Hebrew verb is inflected.

b. Since Modern Hebrew is a rather logical and thus predictable language, we won’t need to check those online conjugation tables so often once we master the logic behind the Hebrew verbal paradigms. To achieve such mastery, check out the clear and concise explanations laid out in Easing into Modern Hebrew Grammar, Vol. I, pp. 361–613.

c. The above textbook targets students at the beginner and intermediate levels, so the exercises in the book tend to be simple and straightforward. To challenge ourselves with more complicated language exercises, we can try working with הפועל בפעולה. פועל לרמת המתקדמים (for Level Dalet) and ספר הפועל החדש לרמה ה (a trial version for Level Heh). The former allows us to conjugate a variety of strong and weak verbs in all the Binyanim (verbal stems), while exposing us to interesting Hebrew passages on topics such as זוגיות בשלט רחוק (long-distance relationship, lit.: remote-control relationship) and ״אמבטים״ (a Hebrew adaptation of the “Little Mermaid” narrative). The latter contains more detailed explanations of the peculiarities of the Hebrew verbs, such as the way to recognise some Hithpael infinitives that look just like the Niphal infinitives (e.g., להיתמם, להיטהר, etc.). It also teaches the distinctions of some homographs, such as differentiating the context when someone wants to answer (לענות, Paal) the questions from the case when someone wants to torture (לענות, Piel) those who asked the questions. 😉

3. Hebrew Syntax (תחביר):

a. Apart from the verbs, the nouns, pronouns, adjectives, prepositions, and numbers, etc., can all be inflected in Modern Hebrew. Again, we are indebted to Easing into Modern Hebrew Grammar, Vol. I, pp. 3–358, for clearly laying bare the general rules for conjugating these other linguistic components.

b. Once we have studied the conjugation patterns of each linguistic component, we can then turn to Easing into Modern Hebrew Grammar, Vol. II, and learn how to build all these components into complete sentences, by deploying various linking words (e.g.חרף, יתרה מזו, בדומה ל, etc.).

c. While the above textbook provides the theoretical foundation for understanding different Hebrew sentence structures, the following textbooks encourage us to put theory into practice: עושים עניין. עברית לרמת הביניים (a trial version for Level Gimel), בין השורות. עברית לרמת המתקדמים (for Level Dalet), and תחביר משולב לרמה ה (for Level Heh).

Modern Hebrew syntax, as far as I have observed, is rather similar to some European languages. For instance, the Hebrew speakers, just like the English, usually place the main verb after the subject in a sentence: ואכן, חיים ללא שמץ של פרטיות נתפסים כבלתי נסבלים (“And indeed, life without a shred of privacy is conceived as intolerable.”). Still, certain Hebrew sentence structures resemble the German, by placing a verb in the second position of a main sentence, even if the verb comes before the grammatical subject: באותו בוקר של שלהי אוגוסט 1940 השתנו חייה וחיי בני משפחתה מקצה לקצה (“In the same morning at the end of August 1940, her life and the lives of her family members changed completely [lit.: from end to end] ). Note that in the Hebrew sentence, the verb השתנו comes straight after the temporal phrase, while the English translation has the verb “changed” following the nominal subject “her life and the lives of her family members”. Like most French adjectives, the Hebrew adjectives are placed after the nouns they describe: אנשים חכמים (“wise people”). Note the different positions of the adjectives in the Hebrew phrase and its corresponding English translation. Remember that we read Hebrew from right to left. I am not sure how these syntactical similarities have come about, but given that Hebrew and most European languages are alphabetic and the Jewish and European cultures have interacted quite extensively throughout the history, it is understandable that many features are shared among their languages.

4. Reading Materials (קריאה):

a. Whereas Level Gimel and Level Dalet textbooks offer Hebrew reading materials adapted to the need of intermediate level students, Level Heh textbook entitled כמו כלים שלובים compiles a plethora of authentic Hebrew texts read by the Israelis. Here, we find Etgar Keret’s quirky narrative (סיפור על נהג אוטובוס שרצה להיות אלוהים) about a bus driver who wanted to be God, Yehuda Amichai’s evocative poem (אדם בחייו) that challenges Qoheleth’s perspective of time, and many other genres covering Jewish history (e.g., a report on a Japanese consul who went against his government by issuing visas to thousands of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, the letters of David Ben Gurion), legal issues (e.g., discussions about the right to privacy, the right to education, and the Good Samaritan law), and social aspirations (e.g., interviews with the Israeli cultural elites about the characteristics of modern Israeli society). The range of materials covered in the book is indeed impressive.

b. The Jerusalem Post Ivrit: An Easy-Hebrew Monthly Magazine opens another door for Hebrew learners to improve their reading skills. I first found this amazing magazine through the library of Rothberg International School. All the articles in the magazine are fully or partially vocalised, and these interesting articles on Hebrew and Jewish culture are written in three levels – beginner, intermediate, and advanced.

c. Etgar Keret’s Missing Kissinger (געגועי לקיסינג’ר) is an anthology of 46 short stories filled with eccentricity and dark humour. It has been translated into English, so Hebrew learners can read the Hebrew original side by side with the English translation. The Hebrew language used in the anthology is a mixture of formality and informal slangs (some show influences of Arabic, some from Russian, etc.). The plot is full of surprising twists and turns. The narrative characters that impress me the most include a boy who relates more to a porcelain pig than to his own parents, a man who tries to prove his loyalty to both his mother and his girlfriend by killing both of them, and a simpleton who pushes a liar/fake angel off the roof out of the desire to see an angel fly (here I start wondering who the more stupid is: the simpleton or the liar). Okay, I must admit that I have difficulties understanding some of the Hebrew slangs appearing in the stories and I don’t get the humour/meaning of some of the short stories. However, in the cases where I seem to understand, the author’s refusal to look at everything through rose-tinted glasses and his allusion to the surreal brutality of life are simply provocative and amusing at the same time.

d. Micah Goodman’s Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War (מלכוד 67׃ הרעיונות מאחורי המחלוקת שקורעת את ישראל) is a Hebrew non-fiction that has been translated into English recently. In my short (almost) one-year stay in Israel, two major elections have already taken place: the Jerusalem Mayor Election in November 2018 and the Israel Election in April 2019. In the course of time, I have bumped into Israelis who identify themselves as either leftists or rightists, or who simply give up such labelling. I was confused about these categories at first, but politics is quite a favourite conversational topic in Israel, and everyone here is affected by the national politics one way or another, so Goodman’s book comes in handy for me to understand different sides of the Israeli political debates against the backdrop of the Six-Day War. Note that the book does not deal much with the Palestinian perspectives, since the author chooses to focus on the debates between the left-wing and right-wing Israelis. The language of the Hebrew original is not too difficult to understand, especially when an English translation can accompany the Hebrew reading.

5. More Multimedia Resources (מולטימדיה):

a. In the previous post, I have already mentioned my favourite podcast “StreetWise Hebrew” and the hilarious satirical TV show היהודים באים “the Jews Are Coming”, which can help improve Hebrew learners’ listening skills in a fun and creative way. Now I would like to introduce you to this awesome series סליחה על השעלה “Sorry about the Questions”, which is recommended by my Level Heh Hebrew teacher. The series is based on the Australian series “You Can’t Ask That.” In each episode, a particular group of people in the Israeli society, such as the Arabs, the refugees, the descendants of the Holocaust survivors, and those with terminal illnesses or of short stature, are asked to answer questions which people normally don’t dare to ask them. From this series, I get a taste of the diversity existing in this particular country. I personally hope that the next season would feature the Haredim, the Samaritans, the Ethiopian Jews, and the Kibbutzniks or even the foreign tourists, students, and workers staying in Israel. 😉

b. Out of such a small country comes surprisingly an abundance of TV dramas and movies. Here are more of my favourites: שטיסל “Shtisel” (TV drama set in the Haredim neighbourhood in Jerusalem), פאודה “Fauda” (TV series about the Israel-Gaza conflict), בשבילה גיבורים עפים “When Heroes Fly” (TV series touching on the issues of drug and cult in the South American jungle), נודל “Noodle” (a movie concerning the heartwarming relationship developed between an Israeli stewardess and a lost Chinese boy), זוהי סדום “This is Sodom” (a cheeky adaptation of the Sodom and Gomorrah episode in the Hebrew Bible), הכלה הסורית “the Syrian Bride”, and עץ לימון “Lemon Tree” (the last two deal with some thorny questions about the Israeli borders).

c. @hebrew_academy: This colourful instagram webpage belongs to the Academy of the Hebrew Language. Here you will find the most up-to-date information about the Hebrew language and some useful corrections of the common language mistakes. Thanks to my שותף שפה “language exchange partner” for directing my attention to this cool website! 😎

6. Afterword (אחרית דבר):

Last semester I was lucky to have Ms. Carmia Shoval, one of the authors of Easing into Modern Hebrew Grammar (mentioned above), as my Level Heh Hebrew teacher. Like the other RIS Hebrew teachers I have had, she is energetic, dedicated, professional, and knowledgeable. She taught us Hebrew in a highly creative and interactive manner. For instance, she encouraged us to go out to the streets near the time of the Israel election and to interview the Israelis about their opinions on the election. She organised the class to play and learn through the fun Kahoot! quiz game. One among many interesting topics that sparked intense discussions in her class concerns redrawing the boundary between animals and human beings in light of Yuval Noah Harari’s Hebrew interview (available on YouTube). Her moodle notes were always so neat and detailed that we were constantly reminded of what we learned and what we had to complete. Studying at RIS Hebrew courses makes me understand more deeply that effective teaching actually requires a lot of preparation, knowledge, and dedication. I have a lot of respect for these teachers!

Lastly, I would like to share with you one of the outcomes of my Hebrew learning: I can now speak Modern Hebrew~ The video clip below was submitted as part of the assigned project. All students had to speak for about two minutes about their thoughts and feelings on the Hebrew texts they read. From what I have said in the video, can you guess the content of the Hebrew passages I read? By the way, I scored full marks for this project. At the end of the course, Ms. Shoval kindly said that I am the type of student who is בור סוד שאינו מאבד טיפה 😉

Hebrew Project


About Lydia Lee liber noster orbis terrarum est; in eo lego completum, quod in libro dei lego promissum.

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