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Feb 23, 2012


A Guest Post by By Dr. Harold Goldmeier

Going back to school as a pensioner was not the first thing on my bucket list as I entered semi retirement. Certainly not undertaking learning to speak a foreign language, and on top of it, a language spoken probably by the fewest people in the modern world: Hebrew.

But here I am in a classroom with fourteen other seniors; at 66 years old I am one of the youngest-a kid as a man from Venezuela put it. There are determined women from Peru and South Africa, several husbands and wives from Russia, two elegant and feisty women from France with beautiful smiles, two working class couples from America, and the doyenne is a bit hard of hearing Spanish expatriate with the most elegant name trying hard so she will be able to speak the language of her great grandchildren.

My wife and I enter a classroom like the one I used in high school fifty years before. Desks and chairs lined in neat long rows facing the blackboard behind the teacher’s desk. Only now it’s a white erase board using colored magic markers. It smells the same like my old homeroom.

Our teacher is a vivacious, middle-aged Russian woman dressed rather modestly but stylish with her henna colored hair. She pops around the room fluently and impressively addressing each of her students in our native language including Africans, Spanish, Russian, English, and French. Americans never really learn to speak more than English during our school years, and are quizzical why the rest of the world just doesn’t know English.

We start with a quick review of the aleph-bet (A, B, C’s). Everybody seems to have this down pretty good, but we will repeatedly review it to learn to recognize script and upper case letters. Right away the teacher asks us our names in Hebrew. In unison we repeat, “my name is….” Then we turn to one another and ask, “What is your name?” and answer in Hebrew, “My name is….” It’s like first grade all over again.

Our teacher, Fina, not a Hebrew or Israeli name, spelled out on the board phonetically, asks very simple questions in Hebrew, and expecting us to answer, though my wife and I have barely spoken three connected words in Hebrew in our lives. “Where are you from?” “I am from Buenos Aires. I live in Beit Shemesh.” “I am from Madrid. I live on Dolev Street.”

Grown men and women stuffed into chairs behind school desks hoping we can learn to speak Hebrew as good as our six year old grandchildren. Fumbling with vocabulary and grammar. Feeling like we are embarrassing ourselves, as we stand in front of the class in pairs being urged on by Fina to ask, “Do you want, coffee, chocolate, or tea?” Cajoling the language partner to answer in Hebrew, “I want coffee.” One man answers, “I want a scotch,” at 11 in the morning, and I tell him I’ll join him.

Fina is good. No writing, don’t take notes. Humans learn to speak their language long before reading and writing it. After a short break, class resumes, and no one has dropped out yet. Another hour flies by of baby talk, humor, some pathos, and a lot of emotional struggle over verbs and adjectives. Then she has us stand. Fina leads us in a Hebrew song with gestures about raising our hands, placing them atop our heads and shoulders, bending and standing, turning side to side. It’s exercise and a fun break from sitting and speaking to one another. It’s a song our grandchildren sang to us when we returned home and tried to sing to them.

Every student in the class deserves a pat on the back. We are really brave to tackle a new language; you have to be very self-effacing to repeatedly make mistakes that often result in wrong words that you would not use in proper company. The hardened group full of life’s experiences floundering and stumbling through four hours of intellectual and emotional trauma is among the bravest people I have met.


  1. The hardened group full of life’s experiences floundering and stumbling through four hours of intellectual and emotional trauma is among the bravest people I have met.

    Absolutely! Nice going.

  2. Much success, Dr. Goldmeier! It is quite an undertaking, but hopefully a very rewarding one, eventually. Hatzlacha Rabba!

  3. They say that continuous learning into old age (no offense) is a kind of exercise too, the exercise of the mind. And recent research has shown it to really have a positive effect at keeping the brain well-functioning and reducing the effects of aging.

  4. Ellyn Robbins robbinsFebruary 24, 2012 9:30 PM

    Ellyn robbins

    I'm proud of you both and I know that you'll do well.
    much love,


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