The North: where my Arabic can breathe

Who is wise?  He who learns from everyone.

That’s what my cover photo says.  That’s what Rabbi Ben Zuma said 2,000 years ago.

Did I find this in Bnei Brak or Jerusalem?  No.  I found it in a Druze village- Yanuh- with a Jewish population of 0.  An absolutely gorgeous place with stunning greenery all around.  Super friendly people.  And- at least when I was there- not a single tourist.  Due to my clothing and my fabulous blue sunglasses, everyone knew I was from out of town.

And when I opened my mouth to speak Arabic, the smiles were constant.  The laughter, the joy, the jokes- jokes with me.  Because I can speak to them in their native tongue.  I am a polyglot- I speak 8 languages fluently or proficiently.  I have an “ear” for language, undoubtedly, but I also use them.  A lot.  I don’t memorize vocabulary on my phone- I hang out in Druze villages.  I talk to cab drivers in Arabic.  The other day I got my friend a discount on strawberries at the market in my Jewish neighborhood because the Arab vendor was so excited that I spoke Arabic.

Why would Arabic speakers here be so excited to hear me speak it?  I can think of a few reasons.  For me, it honestly just feels natural.  I love speaking Arabic.  And unfortunately due to the extremists trying to tear down the border fence in Gaza to “liberate” my neighborhood, I’ve felt further and further from the language.  When certain Palestinians decide to fly burning kites over the border fence to set my country’s farms on fire, I have a hard time connecting to the language they speak.

Which reminded me- not only Palestinians speak Arabic.  A lot of times, the news media and even leftist Israelis who choose to learn the language are exclusively focused on Palestinians.  It’s not a bad thing to want to dialogue with them- the more people learning languages the better.  In all societies, especially here.

It’s just that Palestinians are not our only neighbors.  Certainly not our only neighbors who speak Arabic.  About 20% of the Israeli population- citizens- speaks Arabic as a first language.  And lucky for me, the Arabic-speakers up north, in the Galilee and Golan, speak the dialects closest to mine.  Syrian.

Why do I speak Syrian Arabic?  Besides the fact that it, perhaps alongside Lebanese, is in my opinion the most beautiful Arabic dialect, it was a bit due to circumstance.  At my university, I studied Fusha, Modern Standard Arabic (more of a literary language).  Only after 3 years did I have the chance to learn 3ammiyya, or spoken Arabic.  I had the choice of Egyptian or Syrian, and I chose the latter because it was mutually intelligible with Palestinian.  And I also care about dialogue.  My professor was from Damascus.  He was homophobic and somewhat anti-Semitic, but his Arabic was astounding and I learned so much.

Since then, Syria was plunged into civil war and I never got the chance to visit.  Though, along with Lebanon, it would be my dream to do so.  Inshallah- God Willing.  In the meantime, the closest thing I can get to speaking my Damascus Arabic is to simply hop on a bus up north.  Or speak with my Syrian refugee friends, which I do each week.

The Druze, in particular, migrated to northern Israel over the past 800 years.  From Aleppo, Lebanon, and beyond.  Of course the Druze in the Golan Heights were living in Syria just 50 years ago, so their Arabic is very close to mine too.

And to a person- everyone is excited to hear me speaking their language.  And their dialect.  Not Palestinian Arabic- Syrian Arabic.  Quite often people actually ask me if I’m Lebanese or Syrian.  The most flattering thing I’ve ever heard.

Today the coolest thing happened.  I was visiting Isfiya, a Druze village with significant Christian and Muslim minorities.  After visiting a Bedouin shop and some churches (the Christian dialects up here are also super close to my own and fun to hear), I had dinner at a Druze grocery store.  Yes, because the grocery store also doubled as a roadside food stand with kebabs.  I love my country.

While my kebabs were roasting, I popped over to the cellphone shop.  I want to buy a portable phone charger so I can travel at ease and get some extra juice when I need it.  I initially approached the young man in Hebrew.  And then, just like every Arab and Druze person does here millions of times a day, I slipped into Arabic.  Five Arabic words here, one Hebrew word there- it’s the most beautiful and fun thing.  Kind of an Arabic Yiddish with amazing wordplay.  A young kid said to me today: “ani rotzeh sheanja7“.  I want to win.  The italics Hebrew, the bold Arabic, and it flowed perfectly as we giggled at the combination.  It’s fun when you can enjoy the best of each other’s cultures.  To the point where they’re hummus and tehina.  You can’t fully separate them and they’re delicious together.

I’m at the phone store and my Arabic starts flowing and a Druze man, no more than 20 years old, lets out an “Allahu Akbar!” to shake the ground.  In such shock and delight at seeing a Jewish American-Israeli speaking his language, he simply praised God.

I had this deep inner sense of joy and satisfaction.  I felt so, so complemented.  It was funny.  It was sweet.  It was sincere.  And it was a beautiful way to take a phrase that radical Islamic terrorists use to blow people like me up- and instead use it to bring us together in unity.  In a cellphone store.  It tickled me.

This kind of reaction happens to me a lot, especially up north.  When I tell some of my Israeli Jewish friends about the villages I’ve visited- a good number of them have never even been.  Or in some cases, even heard of them.  Or even think they’re worth visiting.  It’s not universal- I’ve hitchhiked with Jews who were visiting these villages.  But it’s an extreme, extreme minority.  Jews here do not speak Arabic.  Other than older generations of Jews from Middle Eastern countries and a few dedicated young people who paid attention in school (or the army), Jews don’t care to learn Arabic here.

It makes me sad.  On a few levels.  One, because I understand why.  There is a 70 year old trauma-inducing conflict here, separate educational systems for Jews and Arabic-speakers, and largely separate residential patterns.  And while there are people in both societies who want to mix, overall there is a desire to retain communal identities.  Which can make it hard to learn each other’s languages.  Especially Arabic, whose spoken varieties aren’t standardized and really require in-person experiences.

And yet, only about 10% of Jews here speak Arabic but 77% of Arab Israelis speak Hebrew.  About 29% of Arabs here can’t read Hebrew- which is an issue for employment, social cohesion, and communication.  But let’s just say Arab citizens of Israel are way, way more invested in learning Hebrew than vice-versa.  Which is a national shanda.  That’s Yiddish for scandal.

While this may be par for the course for majority-minority relations (after all, how many non-Latino Americans speak Spanish?  Answer: about 10%, the same as Jewish Israelis with Arabic), it’s not acceptable.  While I value the smiles I get from young Druze and Christian Arabs and even Muslim kids (in those villages I feel are safe enough to visit- which is not all of them), I don’t want to be an oddity.  I want more of my countrymen to stop whining and pick up a book.  Take a class.  Visit your neighboring village.

Arabic speakers in Israel are almost universally happy to help.  And eager to see you give a shit.  I don’t really care how many times you voted for Meretz or how you do a once-a-year interfaith Seder.  Stop being a lazy (fill in the blank with something that will motivate you) and get to work!  If you spent half as much time learning Arabic as you did complaining about your salad dressing, you’d be fluent.  Arabic takes practice but it’s so much fun!  It will take you on new adventures- musically, socially, geographically, historically, and beyond.  It’s a true civilization.

And the good news is that even when some people who speak the language are becoming increasingly extremist, you can find great places in Israel to practice the language safely.  Basically, any Druze or Christian village, most Bedouin towns, and even some other Muslim villages like Abu Ghosh.  Or beyond, when the conditions are right.  I’ve traveled in some deeply conservative Muslim villages and had some close calls- so I can understand if you don’t want to start there.  The vast majority of people I’ve met in all places were cool.  It is true that it just takes one nutjob to end your life.  So do some research if you want to go far off the beaten path.

In the end, the North of Israel is the best.  It’s the place where I dabke dance on the street with Druze kids, where I counsel a bi-curious young man in Arabic, where I get private tours of churches followed by tons of homemade pastries.  It’s a land of generosity, of green hills, of smiles.

When I leave a Druze village, a place where my Judaism and my Israeliness and my Arabic-speaking identity are all validated, I hate getting on the bus.  Tel Aviv is a vibrant, energetic, queer-friendly coastal city.  With a beach.  There are things here that are unique and maybe it made sense for me to start here.

As I spend more time in other parts of the country, especially the North, I wonder if Tel Aviv will really be home for me.  Maybe I’ll split my time (perhaps people up north will want to trade apartments once in a while 😉 ).  Maybe I’ll live here but keep traveling a lot.  Maybe I’ll just move up north.

What I do know is this: Tel Aviv smells terrible.  And when I hop off the bus, the stench is overwhelming, the noise is loud, the nature is nonexistent.  Yes, there are exceptions.  There are beautiful areas near me just south of the city.

But would I rather have a late night pizza place or make some at home and sit in a forest and stare at the stars in awe?

Where my Arabic and my soul can breathe.

Author: Matt Adler - מטע אדלר

A compassionate multilingual Jewish explorer. Author of "More Than Just Hummus: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic": & Join me on my journeys by reading my blog or following me on Facebook May you find some beauty in your day today. :)

4 thoughts on “The North: where my Arabic can breathe”

  1. Can you say a little more for those of us who are less gifted in languages? I’d love to start arabic but I’ve got limited time (and am really still exhausted when I spend a workday in Hebrew). How would you recommend using natakallam, or something else, for those of us who are beginning and, um, linguistically-well-meaning-but-slow?


    1. Hey Dr. Chavi! What a great question and I’m so glad you want to learn Arabic! Kol Hakavod, kil al-ihtiram! Depending on where you live in Israel, you could find a relatively inexpensive in-person tutor through I highly suggest finding a native speaker, because with the exception of some polyglots like me, the best teachers are ones who grew up with the language. I personally prefer in-person tutoring to get started. That being said, another option is, which is virtual. I used it for Greek which was a great way to get started. Just make sure you choose someone Palestinian, Jordanian, Syrian, or Lebanese- those are the dialects closest to here. Otherwise, I love Natakallam. They just opened a course for beginners: It’s a good foundation, but keep in mind it’s the standardized Arabic, not the spoken (although you might ask them to integrate the two). It’ll help in learning the spoken, but the best way to learn if you have little time is to go straight for that. My advice for learning languages is always this: fall in love with the language. Music, poetry, history, food- whatever connects you emotionally. Because once you love something, you always want to speak it 😉 Binija7- good luck on your journey 🙂


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