To Russian, with love

Kak dilla, my friends?

The fact that I've lived in Israel all my life, have Russian-speaking friends, have been seeing and hearing it all around me, and still don't know any Russian, is beyond me. I love languages. I've read Russian literature in Hebrew and in English translations. I've been baffled by the language, attracted to it, and at times extremely annoyed by it.

In the late 1950s there was a [relatively] large wave of immigration from Poland and the USSR to Israel. Our elementary school, like the other schools in town, got a boost of Russian- and Polish-speaking kids. I became quite close with several of them. Chief among my Russian friends at the time was one Shoshana Kaufman, who later became a math teacher. The practical Shoshana both liked me and saw how we could help each other. I wrote brief compositions for her in Hebrew, checked and corrected her English homework; she started teaching me Russian. Though I don't recall getting much beyond the alphabet, both print and script. Her handwriting, using a fountain pen with a flexible nib, was beautiful.

Another way Shosh helped me immensely was with War and Peace. I was supposed to write a paper about Love in the novel, and there was no way I could read the entire novel and write the paper by the deadline. Shosh took my Hebrew volume and her Russian volume for comparison, and marked in my volume the chapters that had to do with love... And thus I skipped all the war descriptions and philosophical discussions, concentrating only on the romantic story-lines. Mind you, though I got a good mark, my teacher -- the unforgettable David Levithan -- did find my paper lacking. "What about the love of God? Love for one's country? Love between friends?" he wrote in his comment. But I was 17... To me, only romantic love mattered.

As I wrote here in the past, it can get very annoying when you're in your homeland and you don't understand a word of what it said around you. But that's not the main reason I've finally decided to learn Russian. First of all, it's a challenge, and my aging mind (tfu, tfu!) can use the exercise. Second, we're about to take a trip to Russia! More about that, I hope, when the time comes. (August)

So once again, I'm collaborating with a friend. This time it's Anna, the woman who usually occupies the exercise mat to my right on Monday and Thursday afternoons. We meet at our usual table in the nearby mall, an hour before class begins. Yes, it's a bit noisy, but it's air-conditioned and convenient for both of us. I'd been nagging Anna for a while now to let me help her practice her English. Like me, she has a daughter in Canada. But unlike me, she also has a granddaughter there, who no longer speaks Russian -- she's Canadian through and through. Anna was reluctant to take me up on my offer, until I came up with the suggestion that she teach me Russian in return. So we spend roughly half an hour on English and half an hour on Russian, then wipe the sweat off our brow and rush to exercise class to unwind from the effort. Yes, it's a big effort. Whatever text she reads or hears in English, Anna first translates in her head into Russian, then into Hebrew. And whatever word Anna teaches me in Russian, I make her repeat it half a dozen times before I even attempt to reproduce it. No matter how hard I try, I cannot reproduce the trilled R nor the glottal(?) L. I can barely hear the difference between a hard consonant and a soft one, let alone pronounce them properly.

So far, I'm nearly comfortable with the alphabet; I have a list of words that are [nearly] the same in English and in Russian; I'm collecting easy, useful phrases, and am enjoying some cute words, like "ootka" - утка -- meaning "duck", and despairing of ever being able to order ice cream -- мороженое --  in Russian.

До Свидания!