The Real Hebrew You Were Never Taught in School
By Danny Ben Israel, illustrated by Chris Murphy
Plume, 160 pages, $13
Israelis barely speak Hebrew. The language on the streets, in cafes and along the beaches is a hybrid of adapted and adopted expressions mined from Arabic, English, Russian, Yiddish and dozens of dialects. When I first arrived in Israel in 1987, I thought the handful of half-remembered words from my few years spent at a yeshiva would help me get around Jerusalem. But I sounded like an autistic teenager from the pages of Genesis. I shouted at a guy hassling a female friend, “ Lech lecha! ” thinking this might send him on his way. He was too shocked by my biblical imperative to do anything but laugh. Perhaps if I had stuck the newest installment in the Plume foreign slang series, “ Zubi!: The Real Hebrew You Were Never Taught in School,” in my back pocket, I would have sounded cooler. Of course, if I’d told him in the latest slang to go be fruitful and multiply, I might have had my jaw broken.
The book’s author, Danny Ben Israel, identifies “ Zubi !” as a “characteristically Israeli” expression of defiance and a healthy marker of Israel’s ability to survive with its “distinct language and culture” intact. Never mind that “ zubi ” is actually Arabic and means, literally, “my penis.” Idiomatically, the term works as an insolent and exuberant “No!” Most of the “real Hebrew” we were never taught in school turns out to be Arabic. (I don’t recall being taught much Hebrew in Hebrew school, either, but that’s another matter.) Just as slang in America derives from underclass subcultures — the rap that reaches the bourgeois — so, too, has slang entered Hebrew from Israel’s have-nots. Historically this has meant that Arabs and Mizrahim, Jews from Arab lands, have made outsized contributions to Hebrew slang. Terms used by other marginalized groups — especially the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community — have also infiltrated the mainstream.
But the single most dynamic source for modern Hebrew slang is the Israel Defense Forces. Ben Israel earned his own stripes in the ranks of Israeli pop culture as the soloist for a touring musical troupe of soldiers in the 1960s. Think “Glee,” but with guns. So asking 66-year-old Ben Israel to write a book about Hebrew slang is like asking Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary to do the same for American slang.
Thanks to compulsory military service, raw recruits from nearly all strata of Israeli society find themselves caught in a parallel world where baby-faced superiors exercise absolute and seemingly arbitrary authority. Bewildering acronyms, bizarre metaphors and a hodgepodge of mispronounced foreign words are the new norm. Young men and women fresh out of high school bond quickly and develop a new group lexicon. The irreverent words and expressions they create spread upward in the military hierarchy as they are promoted and outward into society after their discharge. The half-life of many Israeli slang terms can be determined by the amount of time that has elapsed since their coinage in the military. Given the author’s age and his distance from the army, it’s a disappointment but no surprise that he skips over vibrant military slang in about five pages.
Ben Israel’s book works best when it offers an anarchic travelogue through the criminal, the obscene and the vulgar. It seems to be a world he knows well. “ Zubi!” transliterates and translates dialogue that amounts to a phrase book for Tel Aviv sex tourism as written by David Mamet:
Man: “ tistovevi : turn around” Woman: “ totsi miyad : take it out immediately” Man: “ tiftchi : open up” Woman: “ al tafsik : don’t stop” Both: “ achshav : now” Woman: “ Haya lecha tov ?: Was it good for you?” Man: “ Likro lach monit ?: Shall I call you a cab?”
The “shall” is a particularly nice touch. Who says chivalry is dead?
Ben Israel also relates his walk-on part in the apparently true story of the origin of the slang word “ koksinel .” The term — from the famous French transsexual, Coccinelle — refers, often pejoratively, to a transvestite or to a male-to-female transsexual. The Hebrew borrowed it during Coccinelle’s first cabaret performances in Israel in the 1960s, when the author claims he tried to bed her.
Ben Israel’s personal anecdotes help bring to life the slang he discusses. Too bad he gets a number of his facts wrong. Coccinelle had already undergone sexual reassignment surgery by the time Ben Israel claims that she “casually took out a huge, uncircumcised penis and started urinating right next to me.” Despite the widespread legend, Orthodox Jews do not have sex separated by a sheet “with a hole in the middle to allow genital access.” And some of his “idioms that incorporate body parts,” like “stiff-necked,” are not properly slang at all: They derive from the Tanach, the real Hebrew I was taught in yeshiva.
Still, “ Zubi!” should be applauded for presenting readers with a bilingual approach to slang, supplying the original Hebrew terms as well as transliterations and English translations. Unfortunately, many of the transliterations are hopeless, and the book contains inconsistencies, editorial gaffes and bizarre shifts in tone. At times, Ben Israel’s translations read like something out of Damon Runyon (“good-looking dame”); at others, “Happy Days” (“daddy-o”). And why he decided to modestly use “G-d” in a book that teaches readers how to say “ass face” and “gang bang” remains a mystery.
The real problem with “ Zubi!” is that it won’t illuminate the context of Israel’s slang for non-Hebrew speakers. For that, English speakers will actually need to learn contemporary Hebrew. And if they do, they can turn to journalist Ruvik Rosenthal’s relatively recent Dictionary of Israeli Slang (2005), or to the hilarious two-volume World Dictionary of Hebrew Slang (1972; 1982), compiled by Dahn Ben-Amotz and Netiva Ben-Yehuda (no relation to Hebrew-language pioneer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda). Their illustrated dictionary is equal parts travesty and lexicography. It remains untranslated and untranslatable. Any attempt to adapt into English the high-voltage slang they collected would short-circuit. Ben Israel’s effort lacks the energy of these Hebrew volumes, and succeeds only in offering a dim sense of the holy tongue’s profane power.
Adam Rovner is assistant professor of English and Jewish literature at the University of Denver. He is also the Hebrew translations editor for Zeek.