Stepping Stones

by David Bogner (Efrat, Israel)

While we were in the U.S. this past August, I spent quite a bit of time browsing bookshops. The English language book selection isn’t terrible in big Israeli cities like Tel Aviv or Jerusalem… but there is something about wandering into a really well stocked bookstore with no plan other than to skim titles that I have not been able to replicate here.

While I was paying for a few books in a store out on Cape Cod, I found an interesting box of magnetic words next to the cash register. Truth be told, I had been looking for these words since we arrived in the states, but had sort of given up by the time they found me.

For the uninitiated, I’m talking about Magnetic Poetry. The basic box comes with what seems like two gazillion words. There are additional sets one can buy that have specialty words, but at the time the one box seemed quite adequate.

When we got back home, I completely forgot about the box of magnetic words… and it languished under a pile of things that had somehow never been properly put away (shocking, I know).

As I was straightening up before this past Shabbat, I rediscovered the box of words, and (much to Zahava’s chagrin) I abandoned my chores to immediately place all two gazillion of them on our front door. Stop looking so smug… like you’ve never gotten sidetracked!!!

My initial inclination was to organize the words by parts-of-speech (nouns with nouns, prepositions with prepositions, etc.), but decided that part of the fun would be the randomness of the arrangement.

It wasn’t until all the words (including a few prefixes and suffixes) were on the door that a few interesting things became obvious:

First of all… it turns out that there were way less than two gazillion words… probably closer to 150-200.

Also, I noticed that this random collection of words was eerily similar in size and make-up to the limited collection of words in my Hebrew vocabulary (ok, maybe I have more than a 200 word vocabulary… but some days it feels that way!).

So, what’s the first thing I did once all the words were up on the door?

That’s right, I figured I’d take a couple of seconds and ‘throw out’ the first ceremonial sentence… maybe even leave a witty poem!

Heh, yeah right.

You see there were other lurking similarities to my Hebrew vocabulary… meaning that searching around for exactly the right word was an exercise in futility. Humorous sentences were considered and discarded because I was missing essential words. As a thought would take shape, I would have to change direction/intent based on the words I could find. Fifteen minutes later I actually had my first sentence, but it bore no relation to where I’d been heading when I had started out.

This too was very much like what happens when I try to express myself in Hebrew. The words are there (at least a modest collection of them) but nearly every cogent thought is hijacked by not having ready access to the right words.

Like most immigrants, my conversations are slow, plodding affairs with lots of hand gestures and facial expressions filling in for perfect grammar. They bring to mind the image of a careless person crossing a stream on stepping-stones who hasn’t picked out the route all the way to the other bank. Most of the time I am able to get to the other side (meaning that I almost always manage to finish my thoughts/sentences), but occasionally I still find myself stranded mid-stream.

Just so you don’t think I’m complaining…it’s really amazing how many more ‘stones’ there are in the stream today than there were a year ago! The progress is glacial, though.

Since putting up the magnetic words, several new sentences have sprung to life. A few are Zahava’s doing, and one or two belong to Ari and/or Gili. I haven’t asked, but judging by the Asian syntax and ersatz proverb nature of the sentences, I would say that others have encountered the same challenges that I found. Maybe I’ll have to order one of the additional sets of magnetic words and surreptitiously add them slowly to the mix. I wonder if anyone will notice?

Once we become more familiar with what words are available to us, I’m sure the ‘poetry’ will flow more freely. But in the mean time, it’s kind of neat to have stumbled upon such a tidy little parallel to my ongoing language issues.

David Bogner, formerly of Fairfield, CT, lives in Efrat with his wife Zahava (nee Cheryl Pomeranz), and their children Ariella, Gilad and Yonah. Since moving to Israel in 2003, David has been working in Israel’s defense industry in International Marketing and Business Development. In his free time David keeps a blog, Treppenwitz http://www.treppenwitz.com(where this piece originally appeared) and is an amateur beekeeper.

“Stepping Stones” is reprinted here with permission of the author.

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Filed under American Jewry, Israel Jewry, Jewish identity

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