IN TEL AVIV A HEBREW CLASS IS TAUGHT ON THE STREET, AND MANHOLE COVERS ARE REQUIRED READING.
In this Hebrew class, the required reading is on flyers, on manhole covers and in graffiti
Iam rushing because I am late for class. Past Tel Aviv’s sprawling food market, past its Bauhaus architecture. Rushing is hard in Tel Aviv, with the mishmash of city planning. But I finally make it to the street corner where my teacher, Guy Sharett, is waiting, portable wipeaway board in hand, in hipster Florentin, a Mile End-like neighbourhood with its old warehouses, bakeries and bars.
I am taking part in Streetwise, Sharett’s Hebrew language lesson. Our classroom is the raw, unedited street, as Sharett’s teaching method takes students to shop signs, 1930s manhole covers and walls plastered with flyers and graffiti, examining and decoding colloquialisms in each, and their place in Tel Aviv’s political and social schema. The idea is to understand the life of the city as much as the revived, ancient language spoken in it. “Because it’s real life and contextual, we remember things better than if we were reading a boring textbook,” he says.
Florentin, with its mix of immigrants, artists and creatives, provides great course material. The neighbourhood, named after Greek native David Florentin, was originally populated by fellow immigrants from Salonika. It became home to furniture manufacturers and carpenters. In past years, cash-strapped artists have moved in. Now, creative bars and cutting-edge graffiti join elderly kippah-wearing artisans.
Our lesson begins with a bill posted on a wall by a local offering moving services. Sharett delves into the shoresh, or root, of the word. “Movers is hovalot in Hebrew, which literally means ‘leadings,’ as movers ‘lead’ things from one place to another.” He points out a mistake that gives a hint into changing demographics. “Instead of writing hoVAlot, he wrote ‘hoVOlot,’ In Russian, an unstressed O becomes A. Basically, they implemented a Russian phonetic rule on a Hebrew word. It’s a mistake but an interesting one, and we can see it’s written by a Russian immigrant.”
Sharett is a linguistic prodigy. He speaks seven languages, switching to, say, fluent Ladino, Arabic, French or English, as he explains how words from these and other languages find their way into the vocabulary of the street. A journalist by trade, Sharett grew up in a home that was a gathering of intellectuals and poets. His great uncle was Moshe Sharett, one of Israel’s early prime ministers.
We look at comical-sounding anglicized elements in signs like “Reubenim” (for a sandwich shop) and “Juiceim” (“im” is the plural end of masculine nouns). Tel Aviv requires half the text on every business sign to be in Hebrew. Businesses are not entirely happy about this, Sharett says, because “if it’s written in Hebrew, it’s provincial, and if it’s in English, it’s cool.”
Sharett came up with the idea for his Streetwise tours in 2011, when Occupystyle social protests in Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Blvd. sprung up.
His regular languagelesson students asked about slogans and colloquialisms on the posters around the encampment — many of which managed to reference the Bible and pop lyrics in one phrase — so he took them around to decipher the signs.
Most of his language students have a smattering of Hebrew, but he adapts lessons to different levels. Recent tour attendees included an American Reform rabbi who knew biblical Hebrew but wanted to bring himself to “street-level Hebrew;” a German diplomat based in Tel Aviv, who came for “Israeliness 101;” and, Sharett says, “people who cannot sit in a classroom for four hours and do verbs and roots.”
Montrealer Lesli Green recently visited Israel with her family and took one of Sharett’s tours. “We like to feel a part of the city we’re visiting, feel its pulse. Sharett’s tour not only teaches language, it teaches the culture, as well as taking us to hidden spots we wouldn’t know otherwise,” she says.
A 1935 manhole cover becomes my next subject. “The text on sewage covers is really interesting,” Sharett says, reading “irija” on the cover. “The word municipality in Hebrew, irija, was written with one letter “iud,” (equivalent to our “y” sound) and today we write it with two. In the ’50s, we had reforms in our orthography, as the spelling was ambiguous. So today, the spelling for the word municipality back then means chives. From a small sewage cover, you can learn a lot of history.”
Like any good teacher, he knows students don’t do well on an empty stomach, especially here with the aroma of baking and spices in the air. We stop at a longtime, familyowned bourekas shop.
Everywhere are signs of gentrification. Construction cranes building condos abound. The old shoeshiner I remember from a previous visit — who dispensed elderly wisdom while he buffed — died recently, Sharett tells me. But on the western edge of Florentin in the workshop area, crumbling but atmospheric façades are still intact — and covered in graffiti. Unsurprisingly, much of it is political. Beside a stencil of Theodor Herzl, founder of Zionism, there is a riff in Hebrew on his famous quote, “If you will it, it is no dream”: “If you don’t want to, you don’t have to.”
We stop in front of work by Tel Aviv’s seminal graffiti artists: The stencils of body parts and Band-Aids and kippa-sporting doves on roller skates is the work of Dede; the Kufsonim expressive box-shaped faces are by Adi Sened. Although illegal, graffiti is an accepted part of the dynamic debates that characterizes Israeli society.
Lesli Green says the graffiti especially interested her: “Seeing the respect the street artists have for each other, not painting over other graffiti. It’s a living, breathing art community.”
Sharett’s love of his grittychic neighbourhood is transmitted through these tours. And I feel like he’s giving me a real window into Tel Aviv itself.
The liberal, pro-peace art and graffiti (including braille graffiti) shows how Tel Aviv is politically engaged, although, say critics, to a largely fashionable extent.
A spontaneous exam happens near the end of my lesson when we run into a guy I’d met two days earlier at a wine festival in Galilee. There’s nothing like bumping into acquaintances in a foreign city to make you feel like a local. Especially when you can chat in their language.