Hebrew and Learning a New Language

לקרוא הזה בעברית תשלח לי מייל gabekatzman@gmail.com

I stared down at my tray, the image distorted through the tears filling my eyes. Muffled Hebrew bounced off the tacky linoleum and tired wood paneling at chadar ochel (dining room) at Kibbutz Ein Dor.  Catching wandering eyes and ignorant whispers I kept my palms pressed to my temples, head bowed, letting tears talk in their universal language.

Personality is the unique combination of patterns that influence behavior, thought, motivation, and emotion in a human being.

Source: Boundless.com

As I get older I figure out more about myself. So many experiences have shaped who I am.

The first time I stood up in front of Camp Moshava and sang a song, I was petrified. My knees shook and my voice wavered; however, that experience singing “Crazy” by Gnarles Barkley in my preadolescent voice kickstarted my joy of singing out loud.

The conversations about current events at the dinner table with my parents and brother shaped my thirst for knowledge and gave me the tools to think critically.

I love humor and jokes, and this goes much deeper than just gathering around a hotel television with my extended family in a DoubleTree in Omaha, Nebraska to watch Seinfeld. From the lunch table in elementary school to writing humorous scripts at camp, I found a cathartic awareness of my life in comedy.

But now I feel like it’s all been torn down and I have to start from scratch in Hebrew. It’s almost like my personality is just….missing.

What gives someone personality? Is it the way they smile? Is it the way they they keep an open mind? Is it how they spend their alone time? Or…is it the way they connect to others, the way they tell a joke, or the way they engage with people. Is your personality who you are or how you communicate who you are?

I feel that the perception from other people affects you. I don’t mean peer pressure or changing to fit in; I’m thinking about how a great way to get to know someone is to talk to people who know them. That’s where communication comes in. It’s essential to have self esteem and to know your identity, but humans are social creatures. We need to communicate. How do you know who I am if I can’t tell you?

I sat at that table uncensored, no longer trying to hide how I felt. The greasy rice and overcooked chicken leg was getting cold but all I could think about was if I could ever do it. Just nine days after making Aliyah, I found myself in a two-day seminar entirely in Hebrew. Just nine days after making Aliyah, I found myself struggling to move beyond simple conversations of where I’m from. Just nine days after making Aliyah, I found myself unable to feel like myself.

I don’t know how many readers here have tried learning a new language. For me, it’s like I’m in a state of  cognitive dissonance where I’m myself and some other person.  I’ve spent time learning spanish before, but now the stakes seem a lot higher. I’m not a visitor; I’m a citizen. Were those sabrim (native-born Israelis) meeting me? Or were they meeting this shy, soft-spoken, simple shell of myself?

It’s almost impossible to fully articulate what it’s been like. As I sat in that seminar—and the three seminars in Hebrew since—I completely empathized with everyone I had ever met in America speaking English as a second language. It feels like all of my culture and understanding of complex ideas exists within the realm of English and only English.

I want to clarify; these seminars use a very complex and academic level of Hebrew. I am learning a lot in ulpan (hebrew classes) and at the seminar this past weekend I was able to hold many conversations in Hebrew in small groups. However, there is only so much I am still able to say and explain in Hebrew.

Sometimes I have just broken down, crying. I have thought: What else can I do? If I just move back to the US, I can be fine and live my life. Everything would be easier.

But I won’t grow if I always stay in my comfort zone. I won’t get better if I curl up into a ball and weep. Every time I feel like giving up, I’m going to take that experience in the chadar ochel and use it as motivation, as fuel to ignite improvement.

And while I sat there sulking over wasted food, I felt a hand on my shoulder; it was a group of people who I had met just once (and didn’t remember any of their names). It’s easy to forget that I am constantly surrounded by partners and people who want me to succeed. That’s what being in a movement is. That’s what being in this movement is.

I know it will get better, because what do I have to lose? I have to adapt. I have to find me. One day—hopefully soon—I’ll get there, and all this will have been worth it.


Here's the chadar ochel in case you're curious.

Here’s the chadar ochel in case you’re curious.


7 thoughts on “Hebrew and Learning a New Language

  1. Thank you, Gabe, for sharing this very personal story and for letting us see you being vulnerable. I am so proud of you and all you are doing – most of all, that you are diligent in your quest to find yourself. Happy that you have learned through your family and Habo and all your experiences to be able to express your deepest feelings. I wish I could give you a big hug right now. Stick with it and you will figure out who you are and what you want in live. I love you very much!


  2. Gabe
    I remember the feeling of being less of yourself, and know how hard to try to connect and feel you can’t.
    You should remember this is just the beginning and it gets better as you learn…
    I think all El Hamerchav people should read this! And get to know a little bit of the feeling.
    Happy to be your partner and help you as much as I can.


  3. Gabe, I am very touched by your honesty, your vulnerability, your will to confront a very difficult task. And you are right, that learning a language is more than just learning tenses and vocabulary. It opens a door to a culture and a people in a way that is not truly possible without fluency. I am very proud of you and your development as a man. I love you. PS, the true test of your language development will be when you can watch Seinfeld in Hebrew!


  4. Gabe: I envy you! I grew up in Miami, where more and more residents speak Spanish. But I can only ask where the bathroom is (or the library…or weirdly, the meatballs!!). My conversational Hebrew is non-existent. And I can’t carry on a conversation in formal siddur Hebrew — I just don’t have enough verbs!
    But you have several advantages: you’re young; you already speak another language (Spanish). And you’re musical. I believe that really helps you hear the nuances in tone and inflection.
    You’ll succeed…because you want to, because you have encouragement from others, and because, most of all, you’re immersing yourself in the land, the culture, and the language.
    And while I’m not sure there’s Seinfeld in Hebrew, there is Homeland!
    Kol tuv…Carol


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