[lg policy] Learning Hebrew on the Streets, With Walls as Assigned Reading

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jun 22 14:12:56 UTC 2012

Learning Hebrew on the Streets, With Walls as Assigned Reading
Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times

Published: June 21, 2012

TEL AVIV — The texts, written on metal grates, stone walls and neon signs,
sometimes disappear from one class to the next. The themes are pluralism,
economic justice and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and grammar, always
a little grammar thrown in. Guy Sharett’s Hebrew lessons are taught in a
walking classroom, on the streets and alleys of Florentin, his neighborhood
here, where new vocabulary words are mixed into an ever-changing curriculum.

“Get out from the TV, start to live,” Mr. Sharett translated one scrawled
Hebrew slogan at the start of class one recent evening, trailed by a dozen
students thirsty to understand the life of the Tel Aviv street as much as
the revived ancient language spoken on it. He pulled out a little white
board to break down the graffiti before him. The first part of the slogan,
“Tzay mayhatelevizia,” used the imperative — get out — while “tatchil
lichayot,” start to live, was in the future tense. “It sounds to us too
pompous and too archaic,” he explained, “so we just use the future.”

A few minutes earlier, they had analyzed a sign exhorting dog owners not to
permit their animals to relieve themselves near a certain building. Next, a
picture of Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, with his famous mantra,
“If you will it, it is no dream,” twisted into “If you don’t want, you
don’t need.” Here, a verse by the street artist and poet Nitzan Mintz.
There, the iconic image of a forlorn child from the Warsaw ghetto,
captioned “Don’t Deport Me,” repurposed to the current crisis of migrant
workers from Africa flooding south Tel Aviv.

“They depend on a cultural knowledge that you don’t necessarily have,” said
one of the students, Marcela Sulak, who has been here two years as director
of the creative writing program at Bar-Ilan University. “He teaches you the
tools so you can figure it out on your own. You’re learning the Hebrew you
need every single day by looking at the neighborhood.” The hourlong
classes, which cost 50 shekels, or about $12, are organized on Facebook.
They grew out of last summer’s protests, when Mr. Sharett’s traditional
Hebrew students were mystified by the signs at the encampment along
Rothschild Boulevard, so he started taking them — and his little white
board — outside for lessons. After the protest tents came down, he decided
to make the graffiti-pocked walls of his gentrifying neighborhood the new

“It’s not only to teach language, it’s also to teach the culture,” Mr.
Sharett explained. “Someone took a line from a song we all know and changed
one word; it’s very hard to understand that if you don’t have someone local
to explain, ‘That’s a take on...’ ” Mr. Sharett, 40, has a day job at a
television company, but has been giving private Hebrew lessons for several
years. Besides the graffiti course, he offers one-offs touring the city’s
spice market (“Wake up and smell the Zatar”); shopping and cooking with a
famous chef (“While chopping, we learn the names of the vegetables”); and
watching the local version of “American Idol,” with frequent use of the
pause button to translate slang and jokes (“This is Israeliness 101,” he

The son of an artist and a tugboat skipper whose home in Ashdod was “like a
French salon,” Mr. Sharett is something of a language savant. “There was a
Turkish neighbor, so I started learning Turkish; there was a German au
pair, so I started learning German,” he said. At 16, he got a job in the
control tower of the port, “so I was able to talk on the radio with
captains in different languages and tell them to heave up the anchor — but
only maritime terms that I can’t really use in regular life.”

The students on his tours want terms they can use in everyday life; many
are dropouts from ulpan, the immersion classes that are free for new
immigrants. A recent graffiti tour included a Chinese postdoctoral fellow;
a 28-year-old Google employee from Rhode Island; a financial analyst and
poet who is married to an Israeli; a British teacher who has lived here 20
years; Ms. Sulak, whose 5-year-old daughter slept the entire hour in her
stroller; and a Middle Eastern politics professor at the City University of
New York who is on sabbatical.

“Street politics is where it’s happening,” said the professor, Dov Waxman,
37. “Most places, graffiti is tagging or art. Here, you can really read the
politics. I wander around and look at it myself, but I don’t always
understand it all.” Xioayan Wu, the postdoctoral fellow, has been studying
Hebrew with Mr. Sharett for three months, and was the first to answer most
of his grammar questions. “You get more contextualized memory,” she said of
on-the-street learning. “The good thing is I can come back to review any

Here, one finds a lesson on how easy it is to make up words — a tattoo
parlor called, essentially, “tattooism,” using the Hebrew letters yud,
zayin, mem to add “ism.” There, a black door features the ubiquitous road
signs pointing one way to Tel Aviv and the other to Jerusalem, only the
Jerusalem arrow leads to an ultra-Orthodox man at prayer. A tag declares
“Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.” A sign uses the word “agudah,”
association, which Mr. Sharett pointed out has the same root as the Israeli
bus company, Egged, because buses link places together.

Then there is a new ampm convenience store, one of many chains now dotting
the once-gritty streets of Florentin. “We pronounce it Ahm-Pahm,” Mr.
Sharett told the group. “If you want to impress your Israeli friends, say,
‘Ani holech l’ahm pahm,’ ” which means “I’m going to the ampm.”



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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