By Matthew Granovetter
When we first moved to Israel, we attended the "Ulpan" Hebrew school for immigrants. where most of our classmates were Russian. We met and befriended a nice couple our age; Raffi had served in the Russian army as a musician, and his wife Elana, who like us, had two children. Raffi and Elana spoke Russian. Sarah and I spoke English. So we used our new Hebrew to communicate.
We invited them over to our seder, our first in Israel. They arrived a few hours early, which was good. A wise person once advised us how to keep guests from having the "when do we get to eat" Seder blues: feed them BEFORE the Seder. At 4 pm we ate some salads and hot borscht we had made from a Russian Tea Room cookbook, and everyone was politely stuffed. It was then my duty to inform them that the real Seder was coming later!
Our wives and the little girl lit the Holiday candles, and we began preparing for the Seder. Communication was not easy. Despite six months of Ulpan, my Hebrew was not great, to say the least. Americans seem to have the worst aptitude for learning Hebrew, where Russians and Europeans pick it up much faster than English speakers.
Our greatest difficulty in Hebrew grammar were the tenses, so we all used the present tense. When talking about the past, we would say it in the present tense, and then wave our hand behind our back. For the future tense, we waved our hand in the front. We were all immigrants - and we talked with our hands.
Sitting down to the Seder, where the emphasis is more on discussion than on food, we realized our problem. How could we ever discuss intricate issues of Judaism and the Exodus, when we could hardly discuss the weather? I wave my fingers to say "rain."
This was the first time I read the entire Haggadah in Hebrew. (Okay, I cheated a bit with an English translation on the left-hand pages, allowing my eyes to occasionally slip over.) We took turns reading each passage. When we got to the Four Questions, our two boys stood up and recited it fluently. Our children had attended only religious schools, both in America and here, and were well prepared. But I was concerned about our guest's children, who attended a standard Israeli secular school and had no prior Jewish background.
Surprise! Not only did they recite the Four Questions perfectly; they sang them so beautifully! I looked at their parents' faces as they sang, and tears welled up. This was why they had moved to Israel, to see their children raised as Jews!
Apparently, even the secular schools here teach the basics, and by the time the boy and girl finished singing, we all needed fresh napkins.
We continued reading, clockwise around the table, and our Hebrew seemed to improve as we went along. I knew some of the passages from our Shabbat services. Raffi didn't know the tunes but, as a musician, picked them up quickly and joined in.
After the meal, we came to the Afikomen. "More to eat" I motioned by moving my hand toward my mouth. Raffi and Elana held their stomachs to say they were full. Surely not a third meal! No, I explained, this was the Afikoman, and never was it eaten with more astonishment.
This was seven years ago, and we now live in Jerusalem in an Iraqi immigrant neighborhood. The Russian children eventually switched to a religious school, but I must admit that my Hebrew hasn't improved; I still talk a lot with my hands!
Matthew Granovetter (Matt@bridgetoday.com) is the co-author, with his wife, of the book, Learn to Play Bridge in 9 Minutes, illustrated by Charles M. Schulz (Perigee).