Photo Credit: Jewish Press

With two months of ulpan (intensive Hebrew lessons) under my belt, I’m afraid I still have a lot to learn. I have slaved away attempting to remember whether an inanimate object is considered zachar or nekeivah (male or female) and to memorize the seven different forms of verb conjugation.

I have watched Hebrew videos, listened to Hebrew songs, and worked my way through my kids’ Hebrew book collection. But, as the saying goes, the more you know – the more you realize you don’t know.


This past week in ulpan I lamented to the class that my chicken soup just hasn’t tasted the same since we moved to Israel. I explained that despite searching at multiple supermarkets and butchers, I could not find basar lavan (literally translated as white meat) on the bone. All I could find anywhere was deboned schnitzel!

My non-religious ulpan teacher looked at me in disbelief. “Aviva” she demanded, “I thought you were a religious woman?! How can you use basar lavan in your soup?!” Apparently, in Israel, basar lavan is another way of saying… pork. No wonder none of the religious stores were able to fulfill my requested order.

(As a side note, even when using the right terminology, Israeli stores generally only carry deboned cutlets. If you really want white meat on the bone, you have to buy a whole chicken.)

A lesson like this drives home the point that while Google Translate is a helpful tool, it’s not reliable. The literal translation of Hebrew words is often not the actual translation in practice. So much of contemporary Hebrew involves slang words and phrases not contemplated by Eliezer Ben Yehudah when he developed modern Hebrew over a hundred years ago.

The WhatsApp group for my daughter’s gan (daycare) has been a great resource for learning some of the more colorful Hebrew slang expressions. Upon receiving some adorable pictures of the kids, a parent inevitably responds “Ani cholah aleihem!” or “Ani maytah aleyhem” – which literally translates as “I am sick over them!” or “I die over them!”

While these responses sound tragic, they actually mean that the parent is crazy (in a good way) about the pictures. Another favorite response is “Chavlaz,” which is an acronym for “Chaval al hazman!” – which technically translated means “A waste of time!” Oddly enough, this phrase actually means that the experience is amazing and you only wish there could be more!

Want to describe to someone how your day has gone? If things went poorly, you might lament that it was “al hapanim” (literally translated as “on its face,” but used to mean really bad). Perhaps you made a mess of something – that could be described as “la’sot salat” (literally, making a salad).

Think that despite it all, things are going fine? Perhaps you “chai b’seret,” live in a movie – i.e. not in reality. (Someone who is a drama queen is referred to oddly as “l’echol sratim,” someone who “eats movies.”) If indeed your life is really good, one may say that “hachayim shelcha tutim” (literally translated as your life is strawberries).

Ever ask an Israeli for directions anywhere? Blame it on the traffic circles perhaps, but, regardless of the destination, the directions always seem to be an endless sequence of left and right turns. It comes as no surprise, then, that in Hebrew slang, the middle of nowhere is referred to as “sof haolam, smola” (at the end of the world, turn left).

Israelis have a whole vocabulary for terms of endearment that they liberally apply to even near strangers. A male is often referred to as “achi” (my brother) or “chabibi” (my dear). A female might be referred to as “imalah” (mommy) or “neshama” (soul). While these terms may seem condescending or even sexist in America, here they are part of the daily vocabulary of Israelis. (These terms don’t seem to have caught on as much among olim, though).

As I was reviewing my article this afternoon, my son Adi added that he’s experienced a similar learning curve during recess. A popular game among kids is dag maluach (salty fish), which is a bizarre name for the familiar game of “red light, green light.” (Even a Google search could not uncover the source of this odd Israeli name.)

When Eliezer ben Yehudah lived, many saw Hebrew as an antiquated language reserved for prayer and religious studies. I don’t think in his wildest dreams Ben Yehudah could have imagined Hebrew developing the vibrant and dynamic vocabulary we use today. And while I may gnash my teeth at times, I am determined sof sof (in the end), I will be able to master it. As they say here in Israel, le’at, le’at (little by little).

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Aviva Karoly made aliyah to Israel with her husband and two children on March 19, with Nefesh B’Nefesh, in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel, and JNF-USA. She can be reached at [email protected].