On the bus to Tel Aviv is the first time I really hear it. The buzz of it is familiar; the tones and consonantal sounds that surround me are not altogether foreign. But the fact remains–even with its baseline tone of familiarity–the words, the hum and occasional thunder of them creates a barrier, a wall of sound that brands me a foreigner, even within my own perspective. I’m the linguistic interloper, the invader, and even I am indignant about my own presence within the rhythms of Hebrew.
Who is this person, immersing herself in a language and culture so far from home, where she wades in sounds that will never truly be hers? As much as I ponder, as much as I muse and till the soil, turning over the roots and constructs in my mind, I know that a native’s command will always elude me. I’m forever branded an immigrant. My flawed vocabulary is a shibboleth of biblical proportions.
Fourteen years of yeshiva education assert themselves every moment as words and phrases–extracted from a memory both biblical and the Talmudic–pop up in the daily rhythms of life. I find myself thinking about relationships–not between people of similar backgrounds, for a change, but between words with similar roots.

It’s this analytical approach that enables me to retain as much as I have. My “otzar milim” (vocabulary, but literally, treasury of words) is impressive, they tell me. But by the same token, my Hebrew head knows that it’s a faker. Children speak Hebrew better and faster at age 7 than I ever will. And knowing how little I know, I lack the assertiveness to plow ahead.

Someone asks for directions and I beg off with the accepted response: “Ani lo mekomit.” I am not of this place. On an elemental level, none of us really are. This place itself is not of this place. We are all immigrant citizens in this place, in the nowhereness of this eclectic, patchwork present.

[Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, July 2006, reposted from MyUrbanKvetch]

About the author

Esther Kustanowitz

For more posts by Esther, see EstherK.com, MyUrbanKvetch.com and JDatersAnonymous.com.


  • It could be worse, you could have Israeli parents, and an Israeli first name, and not speak Hebrew… :-/

  • You’re right. You beat me. And now you’ve obliterated said Hebrew name (at least online) with the name of one of the fruits de mer.

  • Your mastery of English, however, is quite obvious. I was drawn into the first few words and couldn’t stop reading. Your observations were both emotional and thought provoking. I enjoyed it immensely – great post!

  • Esther: Oyster just worked on several levels. As in a Yinglish Oy’ster; one who says ‘oy!’, punning off of “Oy Bay!”, what does a bay have naturally in it, but oysters, and, lastly, just like an oyster, I am not kosher to eat. :-p