Week 30: Natalie Portman

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 207 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 118 hours
I have reviewed 2,747 individual flashcards

I took my own advice and took it a little easy this week, adding only about half as many new flashcards as I usually do and even taking a day off from studying, and it helped. I have been feeling overwhelmed and panicky, and now I feel less so.

The truth of it is, I am at a point in my studies of increasingly diminishing returns. Any new word I learn is something I will use infrequently, and at this moment I should know enough Yiddish to be able to create circumlocutions for any word I do not know. I have memorized between 300 and 400 complete sentences, including idioms, commonly spoken phrases, and proverbs, which gives me a pretty representative sample of Yiddish sentence structure. It's a solid grounding in Yiddish, and it's probably more important for me to master what I already have than to keep piling new stuff on.

I will, of course, continue to pile new stuff on anyway. That's just my way.

At the start of this project, I used a metaphor I often use in discussing a particular phenomenon, the Dunning–Kruger effect. This is the rather perverse situation in which people who know nothing at all about a topic believe themselves to be pretty competent, while people with real competency tend to underestimate how skilled they are. It is, I wrote, like climbing a mountain, and near the base there is a covering of cloud that hides the top of the mountain. So you start climbing and think, oh, this shouldn't be any trouble at all, because you're only seeing a fraction of the mountain. But then you pass through the lining of clouds and suddenly see how high the mountain actually is.

I don't know if there is a word for that moment when you suddenly realize what you don't know, but it doesn't happen just once when you're learning something new. Instead, again and again, you learn just enough to realize what you haven't learned and need to.

I had another of these moments this past week. I watched a trailer for the film "A Tale of Love and Darkness," which Natalie Portman directed and stars in, and is based on a novel by Israeli author Amos Oz. Now, as many of you already know, Ms. Portman's name at birth was Neta-Lee Hershlag and she was born in Jerusalem, so her first language was Hebrew and she remains fluent in the language.

"A Tale of Love and Darkness" was filmed in Hebrew, and that is the language of the trailer. I studied Hebrew for quite a long time -- throughout childhood as a result of your typical religious school instruction, and then at a Jewish High School, and then as part of a Jewish Studies major at the University of Minnesota. I estimate that I studied the language for eight years, but it may be more.

And yet I barely speak Hebrew. Part of this is because it has been 20-some-odd years since I studied the language, and so I have lost a lot to the sort of attrition of memory that occurs over time. Part of it is that I never really progressed beyond a very basic level of competency -- it's not as though every year of my studies build on previous years, but instead it was like I started over every few years.

But watching the trailer for "A Tale of Love and Darkness," I was sort of able to follow it, and, even when I couldn't understand, I felt comfortable hearing Hebrew sentences. And this is often the case with work in Hebrew; I have a sort of baseline comfort with the spoken language.

I do not have this with Yiddish. When I watch Yiddish movies, I am completely lost, and I thought this was because the accents in the film are different than the one I have learned, but the more I am exposed to Yiddish accents, the more I realize they are not so very different as to cause the complete cloudiness I experience watching the films. And even when I listen to Yiddish songs that are in the accent I know, it takes a few listens before I can get the gist of the song, and more before individual sentences become clear, even if I know every single word in the sentence.

I think I know why this is, and I don't know that there is anything I can do about it. When I learned Hebrew, Hebrew conversation was baked into the process. The teacher would speak to us in Hebrew, and we would respond in Hebrew, and we would have stumbling conversations with each other in Hebrew. And so I learned to listen to a spoken sentence and spontaneously pick it apart in my head, listening for words I know and trying to understand based on that.

I currently have no opportunity for conversational Yiddish in Omaha. I could probably seek out some old Jews and try to convince them to talk with me, but, at the moment, I barely feel I have time for the stuff I am doing. I imagine it would be possible to hire a tutor to speak to me via Skype, but, again, I just don't feel I have the time for it, and , honestly, I feel that I am as comfortable with Hebrew as I am as a result of college courses where we spoke Hebrew for three hours a day three days a week, and who has the money to spend on that much tutoring?

For the moment, I feel I must be satisfied that this is a gap in my education, and know that it is something I shall have to address in the future. But it is immensely frustrating to be aware that, were somebody to come up to talk to me, and speak slowly and clearly in easily comprehensible baby Yiddish, it is very likely that I would respond with uncomprehending panic.

I have dreams sometimes in Hebrew. I don't know if my Hebrew is actually all that good in my dreams, because sometimes I also dream that I can play piano, and I can't, but it feels like real Hebrew. I have yet to dream in Yiddish, and I really think if I did I would wake with a start, like when a monster suddenly appears in a dream and you wake to get away.

I am not studying Yiddish to be afraid of it.