My main goal in visiting Israel was to better comprehend the people who inhabit this oh-so-influential piece of real estate (with all its ramifications for the rest of the world). And for a few minutes after our arrival Saturday night, things seemed promising. We and the other passengers from our Royal Jordanian flight from Amman breezed through immigration (negating all my worst fears about thorough Israeli screening procedures). The airport ATM efficiently popped out some shekels, and we jumped into a clean looking taxi at the front of the taxi queue. The driver was a fat, jolly guy who promised to be talkative. But the first thing he asked us as he accelerated away from the terminal was to repeat the address that we had given him. He asked again. And again, seeming only with great difficulty to finally grasp that we were saying “Gordon Street” (a major thoroughfare in Tel Aviv's beach area). It finally seemed to click, and he asked where we were from, but then lapsed into silence, listening to the radio. A few minutes later, thinking of the recent terrible quake in Asia, I asked him if Israel ever got bad earthquakes. And once again, it took some doing for him to understand my question; to simply grasp the words.
He was born in Israel, we learned, and as such is a native Hebrew speaker. But what surprised us most our first full day here (Sunday), is how much of a comprehension gap seems to derive from that language. As a language, it's unique — the only one in human history that has almost gone extinct and then come back, to be spoke by millions. By the late 1800s it hadn't been used for everyday activities for thousands of years, instead being employed exclusively for prayer and study. But the early Zionists worked to revive it as part of their quest to reclaim this ancient Jewish home. When Jews flooded into Palestine fleeing the Nazi terrors and then eager to create a modern Jewish state, they spoke dozens of languages. They needed one to unite them. So Hebrew it became, and along with it, its own baffling alphabet.
Of course lots of countries use a non-Roman alphabet, but in our experience, more of them supplement the signage in major cities with romanized versions of the text (if not outright English translations) than they seem to do in Tel Aviv. One exception has been the street signs, which aren't bad. (They're in Hebrew, English, and Arabic.)
Another are the warnings not to climb up the (inviting) electric polls. You see them everywhere.
But then you see signs like this one next to city bicycles available for rent:
Would any non-Hebrew speaker have a clue how to access them? (Everything on the screen was in the Hebrew alphabet only.) Some restaurant receipts also are presented only in Hebrew to the bafflement of tourists.
We've been told that all Israeli children also study English in primary school (starting in the sixth grade, one person told us.) But clearly, whatever they learn leaves a number of folks (like our taxi driver) pretty uncomfortable with easy conversation.
On the other hand, we had a stimulating and interesting 3-hour meeting and lunch with a group of extremely bright and successful CAD software experts. They all spoke good to excellent English and seemed to understand every word we said. When we walked (for hours and hours) through Tel Aviv's beach area and a couple of historic districts, at least 2 or 3 friendly passers by asked us if we needed help (as we studied our maps).
So I'm confident we'll find our way here, over the next 10 days. We may just have to strain a bit at times to make sure we understand.