Tuesday, May 26, 2009

My (Babysitter’s) Big Fat Israeli Wedding

I went to Philadelphia this weekend to attend the wedding of my childhood babysitter, Orin. His bride, Shiri, was born in Haifa and moved to the States as an adolescent. Consequently, half of the wedding guests were either Israeli expatriates or relatives who made a special trip from Ben Gurion airport.

At the rehearsal dinner, I was like a kid in a Bamba store. I’ve been taking Hebrew lessons once-a-week for the past two years, and I grew giddy at the opportunity to practice. Quite literally I entered the restaurant, grabbed a cheesesteak from the buffet line, and picked my target – an older woman with light brown hair, white capri pants, and black rubber-soled sandals. Add to that layers of gold neck chains, and I knew I had myself an Israeli.

While there were younger native Hebrew speakers around, I chose Edna (as I later discovered her name to be) because I believed she’d be more patient with my nascent language skills and would desist from responding to me in English, which would curtail the entire aim in me talking to her.

I started with my usual introduction (all in Hebrew, mind you). “My name is Denise. I speak a little Hebrew. I study Hebrew once a week in St. Louis. Please speak slowly, slowly, slowly.” Edna smiled and seemed pleased that I was making an attempt. She asked for my name, even though that was in my opening line. Perhaps she was hard of hearing?

“My name is Denise…like the fish.”

You see, “denise” actually sounds like the word for “sea bream” in Hebrew. It’s a white fish, sometimes served with brown rice, oranges, or fennel. I’m not sure I have a lot in common with my namesake. I don’t have scales and am not a particularly strong swimmer.

Turns out that Edna was not deaf. In fact, she found my “like the fish” explanation a bit fishy. What kind of Jewish parents would name their child “sea bream”? (“Lox” is a different story). What Edna really wanted to know was my Hebrew name.

That’s a bit complicated as well. I don’t really have a Hebrew name so much as a Yiddish one— “Rayzel,” which means “Rose.” From my past endeavors into the Hebrew baby name websites, I know that the name “Rose” comes out as either “Shoshana” or “Vered.” I don’t much care about the translation, since Israelis just call me “sea bream” anyway.

Well, Edna did not. “Shoshana,” she said, “is old. Not modern. Vered is much better. I’ll call you Vered.” And so, for the rest of the wedding weekend, Edna introduced me as “Vered.” Sometimes she would scream “Vered” from afar and I wouldn’t realize she was asking for me until she was dragging me by the wrist, making me spill my limonada. I have to admit it was kind of cool having an alias among Edna’s Mah Jong buddies. If their absent grandsons ever in fact try to contact “Vered in St. Louis,” I think I’ll be sufficiently hard to locate.

Besides winning over the Israeli grandmothers, I also had some luck with the children. At dinner I was seated next to the bride’s half-sister, Neta, who is 12 years old and straight from Haifa. Even at such a tender age her Hebrew skills are far superior to my own. However, we got along well between my pigeon Hebrew and her pigeon English.

A humorous part of the night came when Neta pronounced, “לי קַר” or “car li.” Neta was cold. I understood that much! And so I offered her my shawl. She promptly refused it, pronouncing, “מְנֻמָּס לֹא” or “lo m’noomas.” I insisted she take the shawl, more with a gesture than with actual language. Yet again she refused with, “מְנֻמָּס לֹא”. I told her I didn’t understand “m’noomas,” and so she asked her cousin, Erez, who was sitting across the table (and who has been living the in the United States for twenty years), for a translation. Even though he is a financier on Wall Street, he was stumped.

A half an hour later, after I’d forgotten about “m’noomas,” Erez came back to the table with a translation. He’d obviously consorted with some of his relatives to produce it. “Polite,” he said. “M’noomas” means “polite.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. Of course “מְנֻמָּס” is a word so rarely used by Israelis that they don’t need a working knowledge of how to translate it. Erez has been living in the States long enough to get married and have two kids, and he still never needed to use it.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Israeli culture, no matter how gruff the cashiers are or how burdened the taxi drivers are by taking you to your destination. And if anything, Neta’s concern that accepting my shawl would seem impolite is a positive sign. Perhaps Israeli’s youths are becoming more sensitive to social cues. It’s more than I can say about America’s children— especially the camera phone-wielding one who blocked me from getting a clear view of the Liberty Bell this weekend. It’s a 2,000 pound bell in a large enclosed space. You’d think there’d be room for the both of us, but man that kid had long arms. Anyway, Neta had really short arms. She’s definitely a more polite kid.

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