Photo Credit: Jewish Press

One of the greatest challenges for olim is getting comfortable with Hebrew. From the moment you arrive in Israel, you are buried in Hebrew paperwork – forms to register your children in school, forms to open bank accounts, forms to apply for credit cards. You are also thrown into important conversations with doctors, realtors, and salesmen.

While olim eventually have the opportunity to go to a formal ulpan (intensive Hebrew class), the first few months after aliyah are essentially a Hebrew immersion crash course.


As I last attended a formal Hebrew class in 2007, my Hebrew was a bit rusty when I made aliyah. With the help of Google Translate, I kept up for the most part – until I had my first run in with the Israeli dental system.

About a month ago, I chipped a dental filling. Due to coronavirus concerns (and the fact that I’m terrified of dentists), I avoided going to get it fixed at first. After a couple of weeks though, I had to face reality. The pain in my tooth needed to be addressed.

I logged onto my healthcare system’s app, expecting to easily make an appointment. Unfortunately, a pop up-appeared on my screen and informed me that first-time dental visits need to be made by phone. It was time for a Hebrew language pop quiz.

I navigated my way through the phone menu, pressing the appropriate numbers to connect to an agent to schedule a dental visit. That’s when things became more complicated. The agent shot off a series of questions that left me completely confused.

I asked the agent to repeat the questions more slowly, but even upon repetition, I found myself unable to understand all the questions. Seemingly frustrated by my lack of Hebrew, the agent announced that an English speaker would call me back and hung up the phone.

After days with no return call, I was desperate. My Israeli friends advised me to show up at the dental clinic as an “emergency case” and insist on being seen.

I appeared at the clinic and explained to the secretary at the dental clinic that my dental work was dachuf (“urgent”). The stern older Israeli woman assured me in no uncertain terms that my need could not be dachuf as a dentist has not looked at my teeth and said it was dachuf.

She instructed me to schedule an appointment like every other Israeli who had pushed off their dental work. However, the next available appointment would not be for another month. After much back and forth, the secretary finally agreed to fit me in for an appointment – in another week.

I appeared for my appointment as scheduled. I swiped my medical card to check in, received a number (like the tickets you receive at a DMV), and waited to be called. After a short wait, I was called into one of the offices. Even before I had a chance to say anything, I was sat down in a chair, covered in an x-ray protector, and the dentist left the room. Following the x-rays, the dentist returned, took a quick look at the pictures, and proclaimed that my teeth were “b’seder.”

I insisted in my best stubborn Israeli voice that things were not b’seder. Reluctantly, the dentist tapped around the tooth I pointed to and, not surprisingly, found my cracked filling. I can only imagine that what followed was an explanation about replacing the filling, but honestly, I only understood about every third word.

What I did gather was that the dentist was not going to do anything that day and I would have to see the secretary for another appointment.

Dropping my facade of Israeli bravado, I approached a different secretary to make the appointment. I explained that I was an olah chadasha and asked for her help. Blessings on this woman’s head, she had mercy on me and found a way to slip me into a different dentist’s schedule for the next morning.

My experience with the dentist the next day was much better. While this dentist also only spoke Hebrew, she repeatedly asked if I understood or had any questions. While I can’t say the procedure was painless, it was quick. Before I knew it, the filling was done, I had paid my bill (only 32 shek), and I was heading home with an intact tooth.

While I may not have aced my pop quiz, I learned an important lesson. After three months here, I don’t have to be fluent in Hebrew. All I have to do is try my best and ask for help when needed. With a little help and a lot of practice, I hope to successfully polish my Hebrew back to its original shine.

While I doubt I will ever speak it as a sfat eim (“mother-tongue”), I hope one day soon I will be able to complete my paperwork effortlessly, maybe even without any help from Google Translate.

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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].