And Yadda Yadda Yadda ... I Made Aliyah

Pay attention

New language acquisition is a journey that is part concentration, part commitment, and part willingness to look stupid.

Do not move to a non-English speaking country if you are proud. Until you master the native language, you spend most of your interactions with locals looking or acting like the village idiot.

This is particularly challenging for individuals who are a serial blushers, are easily mortified, or whom would rather die than be singled out in a crowd.

Now, since I have been singled out in a crowd for pretty much as far back as I can remember (one for being blonde and one for having an often uncontrollable impulse to say whatever is on my mind), I’m probably more qualified than most for the inevitable humiliation that comes with not understanding words being spoken to me and/or accidentally hurling an epithet when I meant to ask for water.

At the very least, I have built up a tolerance for shame.

There are days in Israel when I feel like an A+ student. Days when I navigate the train system without any assistance. Days where I manage to tell an EMT which of my veins usually works the best. Days where I manage to set up playdates on the right day and at the right time.

Then there are days when I’m the kid who needs the 504 plan.

Sometimes Hebrew is just too hard for me to pay attention to. Sometimes I just want a government-funded translator to accompany me through life.

Recently, I started taking my friend Tamar’s Pilates class. Now, Tamar is great. Once she finally realized how bad my Hebrew truly is (for months, I think she thought I was exaggerating), she started breaking her teeth to speak more English to me. She works really hard during Pilates class to make sure I understand what’s going on — when to squeeze my stretched out post-pregnancies pelvic floor. When to release.  When to breathe in. When to fall to the floor in agony.

Despite my petite and seemingly flexible frame, I’m not one of these dancer types. I hide my lack of coordination very well … until you get to know me better, or walk with me anywhere and discover quickly how clumsy I really am. So Pilates, even in English, is a challenge for me. I’m the girl in the class that never knows whether I’m meant to mirror the teacher or do the opposite — because, after all, her right is my left. Right?

I’m the girl who always does repetitions to her own beat even when the instructions indicate otherwise. I’m the girl who works really hard to pay attention when the teacher is looking at me because I know chances are I’ve been doing it wrong. Otherwise, I probably would have actually felt it when the teacher shouted, “Ladies, do you feel it?!” I did not, however, feel it. Not in my thighs nor in my lower abdomen, only in that place you feel embarrassment and reproach.

So taking a Pilates class that is offered in Hebrew is a real sign of courage on my part. And a sign that my belly is getting too flabby for a woman who is not having any more children.

I need something. And I’m willing to suck up the shame to look better in a bathing suit this summer.

The problem is I have to concentrate 100% of the time. I can’t let my guard down at all. This, of course, was true also in the U.S. whenever I took exercise classes because of the above-mentioned lack of coordination and confusion. But it’s more of a challenge here because when Tamar calls my name and asks, “Jen, did you understand?” I can’t honestly tell her, No.

The truth is, I wasn’t trying to understand. I was off in la-la land thinking about the woman I just found out was pregnant; wondering if people liked my Facebook post; or if anyone retweeted my zombie apocalypse article (or if the zombie apocalypse article was too over the top for my “target audience.”) When you don’t fully understand the language you don’t possess that fallback function.

You probably haven’t realized how adept your brain is, have you? Think about the last time you weren’t paying attention to your spouse or your child. They asked you a question and you either gave a half-assed nod or didn’t answer at all. As soon as they get pissed off at you or, in the case of my youngest child, stole your smartphone out of your hand and tugged on your left breast, what did you do? You quickly put “recall mode” into action, right? And somehow, you managed to recall some or most of what the person just asked you.

This does not happen when you are not listening to someone speaking your non-native language.

Recall mode fails.

But, while I’ll never be the dancer, lucky for me I did miss a calling to be an actress. I got the chops.

And when I’m caught by surprise, woken up from my mind’s wandering, I play the role of dumb immigrant really well.

Of course, I’ve had a lot of practice.

Jen Maidenberg is  a writer, editor, activist and former assistant editor at the Arizona Jewish Post. Visit her website at was first posted on her blog on June 1, 2012.