Israel and Language

By Ed Bleiberg

One aspect of my relationship with Israel has always included my interest in languages. My year-long stay in Jerusalem in 1974-75 was primarily to learn Hebrew. On the recent CBE congregational trip to Israel, language took many forms. I was, for example, delighted to hear familiar Park Slope language from Israelis, including the language of peace, tolerance, and social justice. This is language that rarely makes international news reports about what Israelis believe.

At Givat Haviva, a kibbutz/school for Jews, Arabs, and others, we heard hopeful language of mutual respect from Samer Atamneh, the Israeli-Palestinian director of the program. At the Bialik Rogozin School for migrant children, I heard Jews speak the language of welcoming the stranger. I also heard Israeli-Palestinians and Anat Hoffman speak the language of civil rights. This language was inspiring—from Jews in the state of Israel speaking the true language of Jews.

Of course, I saw the pro-Trump signs in Jerusalem and listened to a construction worker tell me that Trump is number one. On advice from our guide, I did not engage.

So when I returned to Brooklyn, happy but perturbed by Trump’s popularity with some Israelis, I remembered that in 1974, Nixon was just as adored by Israelis then as Trump now. My grandfather’s childhood friend from Poland, whom I regularly visited in 1974, told me the following bilingual joke dependent on yet another language.

In his Polish-Yiddish accent, he told me, “In America, “Vahter geht [Watergate]. Literally “water goes” and figuratively, “water is okay.” “But in Israel,” he continued, “Vahter geht nischt.” Literally, “water does not go”, and figuratively, “water is not okay.” Israelis disregarded our President’s scandal because they needed Nixon then and need Trump now, I found the joke funny at the time.

He was glad that I laughed, because, as he regularly reminded me, a Jew needs to understand as many languages as possible. His knowledge of Polish, German, Russian, Ukrainian, and ultimately Hebrew was the reason he escaped from Europe and was able to make a new life in Israel. The CBE trip helped me learn which languages will contribute to Israel’s survival in the future.

Visit to read more reflections from the May 2019 Israel Trip.