Somehow during those first days I got word that the Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) organization was having a party on the Tel Aviv beach my first Thursday night in Israel (equivalent to a TGIF gathering). Looking forward to an evening with English-speakers, I ended up meeting an English-speaking woman from Mexico, who invited me to join her at local Conservative services on Shabbat, after which she was driving down to visit American friends in Ashdod. And so the social networking began.
After my first week of Hebrew class in Beit Millman, I was one miserable student. The teacher seemed to violate all the norms of good teaching I had learned: she played favorites in the class, practiced public humiliation of students, didn't check homework, expressed her political opinions as if she herself were running for office, and generally struck me as very small-minded. And worst of all, none of my classmates seemed to mind.
Being somewhat scientific, I decided to experiment with a different Ulpan, to find out whether the problem was with me or the teacher. If there had been another beginner's class section at the Beit Millman Ulpan I would have tried that first, but there wasn't. Osnat (the wonderful shlicha in Philadelphia) had told me about the Tel Aviv Ulpan system, so I knew I wasn't obligated to stay at the one in Beit Millman. Ulpan Meir in central Tel Aviv had the best reputation at that time, so I decided to transfer.
The administrators at Beit Millman didn't hesitate to express the opinion that I was foolish for wanting to commute for ½ hour by bus to a downtown Ulpan every day instead of simply walking for 2 minutes down two flights of stairs, but they didn't try to stop me. After commuting to work every day for the previous 15 years, I was pretty certain the get-up, get-dressed, and get-out routine would actually be beneficial in my case. Besides, I would have a chance to explore Tel Aviv and observe and meet a wider variety of people: Ulpan Meir was not attached to an immigrant dormitory, so it was patronized by a mix of immigrants living on their own, temporary residents, tourists, and Christian volunteers.
The teacher of the older beginner's class at Ulpan Meir was no better than the one at Beit Millman, although I was much amused by my classmates: a middle-aged Tennessee Southern Baptist couple's struggle with Hebrew was charming. Nevertheless I transferred myself to the younger beginners' class because they were rumored to have a really good teacher, Ruti (gossip sessions during simultaneous class breaks elicited this information). By this time I had concluded that the immersion system was overwhelming me and that, all my former learning strategies would fail, so I might as well just experience the course in as pleasant an atmosphere as possible and hope for a miracle. It was either that or drop out, which I wasn't ready to do. At least in Ruti's class I made friends with diplomats' wives from the USA and France, I remained for the full term (five months, with interruptions for numerous holidays), and even later continued with some private tutoring at Ruti's house in North Tel Aviv. I'm still in contact with the Frenchwoman I first met in Ruti's class, even though she returned to Versailles many years ago.
My two most vivid memories of Ulpan Meir were:
1) the day we listened to a sample news broadcast and studied the sentence "Two soldiers were lightly wounded" (Shnei chayalim niftzau kal…). This introduced an entire lesson on the vocabulary of a besieged country: terrorist, bomb explosion, weapons, win, defeat, retreat, reserve duty, general, captain, lieutenant. I thought: I bet immigrants to the USA at the beginning of the 20th century never learned this vocabulary in their Settlement House night schools. [How 9/11 has since changed all that…crackdown on immigrants…no Settlement Houses…]
2) Ruti's 3-hour lesson on davka, probably the only one I really grokked instantly and can't live without to this day (this word will get a post of its very own; Hebrew-speakers are invited to contribute examples).
After several years of fruitless, frustrating evening classes, one very enjoyable three week session at Ulpan Akiva, – the Five-Star Ulpan, in Netanya – and private lessons, I studied art instead.
Facts vs. truth
It used to be that I would try to speak Hebrew and some Israeli would ask me how long I've been here and as soon as I answered, would proceed to lecture me on how my Hebrew should be better by now. I haven't learned Hebrew yet, but I have learned the art of answering Israeli questions properly: now when I speak Hebrew (I still keep trying) and an Israeli asks me how long I've been here I answer, "Too long."