The Grandmothers in
My Hebrew Class
Another time, I was in the elevator after a class with one of my classmates on the older side of the spectrum.

"Greg," she said. "I have a question for you."

I had dealt with Israeli security's questions, so I figured I could deal with anyone's.


"Well," she said. "I have a granddaughter who just graduated college and came back to New York."

"Oh," I said, already queasy about the direction this conversation was taking. Although I was most definitely single, and always on the lookout for potential girlfriends, I still wasn't keen on being set up by grandmothers.

"She went to Cornell," she said. "That's Ivy League!"

"Yes." I nodded. "I know."

"Now, hold on," she corrected herself. "Actually, only part of the school is Ivy League. Part of it is not."

I nodded again, anxiously waiting for the elevator to reach the lobby.

"But she was in the Ivy League part."


"But she hasn't been in the city for four years now, so she needs to make some new friends. I thought maybe you'd like to take her out."

"I'd love to," I told her. "I'm just very busy at the moment --- with law school and everything."

She paused for a moment, clearly disappointed.

"Education is the most important thing" --- she nodded --- "but if you have time in the future, you must let me know."

We often performed little skits in class to practice our Hebrew, and whenever one called for a male part, the teacher assigned it to me. Many of the skits involved romantic dialogue or love scenes. In one interminably long scene where both parties pledged their undying love and devotion, I was reading opposite Ellen, who was well into her eighties.

In front of the rest of the class, we read the syrupy dialogue to each other. Then we did it again, translating to English as we went.

"You are the only one I long for," I told her as earnestly as I could.

"You are the only one I desire," she responded.

"You don't understand," I said. "You're the only one I could ever be with."

"I understand," she responded in her raspy Queens accent, "for you are truly the one that is made for me."

I looked at her, hunched over in front of me, the pages pressed up close to her wrinkled face so that she could read them. If any of my friends --- investment bankers and medical students --- knew how I passed my days, I would never live it down.

Things became worse when Ellen, who was straining her eyes even to read the words, came across a phrase that she translated as "You are the only one who lights up my world."

"No," the teacher said. "That's not quite the right translation. Can anyone figure out what the real meaning is?"

The rest of my geriatric class leaned forward, carefully examining the Hebrew script in front of them. It suddenly dawned on me, with a bit of horror, what the phrase meant, and I found myself forced to look toward this very old woman, bent over the page, still straining her eyes to read it, and say, "It means that I am the only one who turns you on."

"Exactly," the teacher said. "It means that Greg is the only one who can turn Ellen on."

These were awkward times.

But when my security clearance finally came through, it felt a bit like I was saying good-bye to my grandmother --- only in plural. These women, though so much older than me, were the kind of Jews I had always known. Had I actually met their granddaughters, they would probably have been exactly like the girls I had gone to school with back at Bialik Hebrew Day School in Toronto. Their world was one that I shared.

I knew, though, that I was now going to be surrounded by Jews of a wholly different kind, Jews whose world was entirely foreign to me.

--- From Shut Up, I'm Talking
Gregory Levey
©2008 Free Press
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