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Monday, September 3, 2001
By Paul Ford
Voices, and sounds, and sleeping.
I was raised on American English; it's a language of street signs and bullet points. Through that filter other languages take on unique tenors: French soaks into the loam; Italian fills a room, then overflows into the street; Spanish and Portuguese can be music; German is accurate, if raw.
Hebrew, which surroundss me all day, is rough as tree bark. The hard consonants become slaps in the air, firecrackers going off. The letters of its alphabet are stocky, carved out of butcher block, bold even at their lightest. Hebrew seems designed - by G-d himself, I guess - for arguing. Spoken with firmness - in meetings, in taxicabs, across the lunch table - it sounds like an argument, even though I'm promised these loud exchanges are only plain conversations. I've never heard a real argument in the language; I expect a good Hebrew argument could tear a door off its hinges.
Everyone is kind and considerate towards my expatriate state, but still I miss ready access to native English, and I miss the half-narcotic pleasure of certain voices. Thus I feel incompatible, non-Jew, American, monoglot, as if by speaking English I have the wrong kind of currency, even though people will accept it for transactions.
Last night I sat up going over words, speaking them quietly as I looked out my windows to palm trees, behind the trees the normal violet sky, with a full moon. The words are strange, like spells: "Ani lo medaber ivrit. Ani lo mevin. Walla, ken, beseder. Bevakasha. Ka'anaf. Inkoo inkoo inkoo inkoobahto! Sleeka." Ka'anaf means "rhino."
Alone, and quiet, in my baritone, Hebrew became gentle, the hard syllables forming rhythms as I repeated the words. I discovered - a trivial discovery - something kind inside the language's hardness, something fathers can use to calm their children. Eventually I lay on my back, mumbling to the ceiling, ani lo mevin, I don't understand, a slight bouncing resonance off the hard walls and marble floor, filling the room with Hebrew, then fell asleep, and dreamt of New York, in English.