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A whirlwind month of Hebrew immersion in Israel

Student Voices

Photo for A whirlwind month of Hebrew...

Left: Elizabeth Ho with fellow UCLA student Marisol Fernandez in front of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Right: Ho enjoying a visit to the Negev Monument in Beersheva (Photos courtesy Elizabeth Ho)

After studying Hebrew for three years, incoming senior Elizabeth Ho decided to spend a month in Israel over the summer immersing herself in the language thanks in part to support from the Nazarian Center.

This past summer, I went to Israel for the first time ever. It was an incredible four weeks and a whirlwind of a month. In many ways, it felt like I was living out a dream—how did I, a non-Jewish Chinese-American, end up here? Coincidentally, I have both asked myself and been asked that very question many times over the past three years.

What initially began as a desire to invest my college years in a subject I was truly interested in led me to declare my tentative major as Jewish Studies before I had even set foot on my college campus.

Since the first day of my freshman year—which was also my first day of Hebrew class—I have never once regretted that decision. It took less than a year for me to fall in love with the musical sounds of Hebrew, to rally my floormates into attending a Passover Seder with me, and to know that I had chosen the right major.

The natural arc of my studies soon led me to Israel—the only country in the world in which Hebrew is a national language. I began to enroll in courses about Israeli music, literature, and cinema, and began learning more about the unique characteristics and complexities of the modern Jewish state.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in particular, stood out to me as a situation necessitating my careful study of culture, history and language. I did not want to solely study the conflict through the lens of political science or international relations, but rather wanted to view both sides as what they truly were—two peoples with distinct histories that deserved to be studied and understood.

Learning Hebrew then became doubly important to me. It was no longer simply a rich and beautiful language steeped in history—it was also the language through which Israel communicated and expressed itself. If I wanted to begin to understand Israel at all, I needed to understand Hebrew.

This past Spring, I completed the highest level of UCLA’s Hebrew sequence with Professor Lev Hakak’s course on Hebrew Poetry and Prose. I had spent the past three years studying Hebrew in the university setting, and knew that the crucial next step in my Hebrew education was immersion in Israel itself. Because of that, I applied to spend four weeks in a Hebrew intensive at Ben Gurion University in the Negev.

For a month, I rose at 7 in the morning to enter the classroom where my teacher and classmates spoke solely in Hebrew—with the occasional smattering of German, as half of the class was visiting from Germany.

For the first time in my life, everywhere I turned I found Hebrew. I found it in the local falafel stand behind my Ulpan classroom, where you could get falafel, chips and a small juice for only 20 shekels. I found it in my tour of the old city of Beersheva, where I heard musicians expressing themselves through beautifully worded sentences and melodies, and found it in the shook, where street vendors shouted out what they had for sale—fresh orange juice, only 15 shekels!

It was as if I had stepped out of one of my Israeli cinema classes with Dr. Anat Gilboa and into one of the films themselves. The entire month flew by so quickly— each week punctuated by a fun and noisy Shabbat dinner with friends, with weekend trips to Jerusalem and Ein Gedi, and with my growing understanding of how to decode even the quickest volley of Israeli slang and Hebrew. By the end of my short stay, I knew two things—one, I was much tanner than I had been before, and two, this was definitely not the last time that I’d be in Israel.

This past month was an incredible experience and I have made incredible memories that will last me a lifetime. As I head into my senior year at UCLA, I know that my adventures in Jewish Studies and Israel Studies are far from over, and that maybe not too long from now, I’ll be back in Israel munching on falafel


Elizabeth Ho is a senior majoring in Jewish Studies and minoring in Arabic & Islamic Studies. Her passion is facilitating cross-cultural interaction and putting the beauty of different cultures on display for others to learn more about them.