I Am Hyman Roth

Let me explain for a moment. As you may have guessed, I am not the fictional gangster in The Godfather, Part II that was based on Meyer Lansky. Other than our Jewish heritage, Roth and I don't have that much in common. In this case I'm referring to a point in the film when Roth falls ill in Cuba on the eve of the Castro revolution. Unable to understand his Cuban doctor, Roth says "Get me my doctor. I don't trust a doctor who can't speak English." I laughed at Roth's provincialism, arrogance and condescension. But now, after three weeks in Israel and one in Hungary, I must admit that I am Hyman Roth. That sounds slightly better than saying that I am the Ugly American.

My wife Sarit is Israeli, and while Hebrew is her native tongue, she also speaks fluent English. I attended Jewish Sunday school as a kid and later a Jewish private high school. During that time, I had many Hebrew classes. From them, I retained maybe one percent on a good day. In my defense, I took Spanish for four years and don't remember any of that either. The Spanish classes were useful, though, because they got me out of the foreign language requirement in college.

Sarit understandably wanted me to learn Hebrew and got me the Rosetta Stone instructional CD-ROMs. I took the lessons, passed the tests easily, then promptly forgot most of it. Sarit has often demanded I pay her back the $500 she spent for the lessons. To her chagrin, I can remember every Super Bowl winner and most World Series champs. I quickly recall tons of film information Ė titles, directors, actors, screenwriters, even cinematographers in some cases. And my range goes even further than that: "Simpsons" dialogue, "Seinfeld" guest stars, "Cheers" trivia, etc. But I blank if you ask me the Hebrew word for blue. This drives Sarit crazy, although it makes perfect sense to me.

Like many skills, I can take communication for granted until it's severely limited. While in Israel, I heard people talking in Hebrew everywhere around me, including TV and the radio. As irrational as it may have been, there was a voice inside of me screaming "Speak English!!!" I made some progress. I picked up a few words and phrases, and I stopped assuming that people will start understanding English if I speak it loud and slow (HOOOW MUUCH IS THAAT??!!!). Hungary was different because there I didnít even know any words and phrases. I just started talking in English and hoped for the best.

Objectively, I don't claim English as a superior language. After all, it's America's language taken from the country we fought against for our independence. It has many quirks and inconstancies that make it difficult to learn. For example, as one of my high school teachers explained, "ough" can have several different sounds depending on what words it is used (e.g., cough, dough, tough, thorough).

My objectivity and reason fade, however, when faced with realities in a non-English speaking country. I grew irritated at a restaurant that lacked an English-language menu. Talking to an Israeli pharmacist, I struggled to understand what he was telling me about a medication. I would have paid hundreds for an English-speaker. That was my Hyman Roth moment.

I needed to remind myself that an English speaker in Israel (or Hungary) is much more fortunate than a Hebrew speaker in America. One of the reasons I was surprised that the restaurant did not have an English menu is that most restaurants readily provide them. Finding tours in English is easy, and every Israeli museum I have seen has English with the Hebrew. Instead of being grateful, these conveniences often add to my sense of entitlement: Everything I see and hear should readily have an English translation.

My mother-in-law speaks a little English, and my father-in-law almost none. They always have been warm and generous to me, especially when Sarit and I have stayed in their house. For all of their kindness, there's a limit to how much we can connect. Sarit patiently translated for me as much as she could. But I still felt isolated and alone sometimes. Perhaps I would trade some of my film/TV/sports recall for a little more language ability.

So I might try the Rosetta Stone again. Maybe this time it will stick, although I wouldn't put money on it. Towards the end of The Godfather, Part II, Israel refused Hyman Roth entry. Hopefully, that won't be me next time.

Adam Spector
October 1, 2013

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