VIDEO: Tel Aviv tour teaches English speakers to read the Hebrew graffiti on the wall

VIDEO: Guy Sharett’s outdoor ulpan takes foreigners to hidden alleys and gritty side streets for a look at contemporary Israeli culture – in Hebrew.

The four strangers meet at the appointed street corner in Florentin, a bohemian district in south Tel Aviv, and smile politely at each other.

They have seemingly little in common. There is Claudio, a middle-aged and well-dressed Italian journalist based in Jerusalem; Isabel, a vivacious Brazilian doing her PhD in neuroscience at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; Fiammetta, or Fia, an Italian with an Israeli boyfriend and a job bartending at the trendy Dancing Camel; and Lili, a white-haired retiree from Amersfoort, in central Netherlands, who has come prepared with sturdy sandals and a spiral notebook.

There to welcome them is Guy Sharett, their Hebrew-teacher-cum-tour-guide for the next hour, holding a small white board and wearing a T-shirt reading “Are you stolen?” – the meaning of which is completely lost on anyone who does not know both how to translate the question into Hebrew (“Ata Ganuv?” ) and enough slang (“Are you nuts/cool?” ) to get it.

And that is precisely what these four foreigners, who all stare blankly at the 39-year-old’s joke T-shirt, have, or rather don’t have in common, after all: knowledge of street Hebrew.

“Israel has a lot of experience with ulpans [intensive Hebrew study programs], dating back to the early 1950s, when the language had to be taught efficiently and quickly to a large number of people arriving in the new state,” says Sharett. “But the way ulpan is typically taught – formally, for four-five hours at a time, and in classes of 30 people – is not for everyone. I get a lot of ulpan survivors.”

What Sharett, who has a degree in Hebrew and a handful of other languages in his repertoire, from Italian to Indonesian, offers, at NIS 50 an hour, is an alternative, or supplement, to the ulpan grammar books, for those who want to get out of the classroom and learn something about the way Hebrew is really spoken and written on the streets.

“Hebrew was a dormant language for so long, and then, suddenly, it was alive. As a result, it’s not as rigid as many European or Asian languages. It’s more socialist and egalitarian,” Sharett says. “And I am interested in that transformation − and in teaching my students about the social and political context in which this occurs.”

During the social-justice protests last summer, for example, Sharett led students through the tent city that sprouted up on Rothschild Boulevard − navigating and helping them making sense of the signs and slogans calling for justice and equality. Another class he has on offer has students coming to his apartment to watch “Kochav Nolad,” Israel’s uber-popular version of “American Idol,” in which the jokes are explained and stereotypes dissected over mint tea.

The graffiti tour of southern Tel Aviv, for which Claudio, Isabel, Fia and Lili have signed up this evening, is one of Sharett’s best sellers, mixing Hebrew study with some history on the district and the needed anthropological context to understand the slang and colloquialisms they encounter there.

“What does this mean?” he asks the small posse, walking them into a smelly back alley and looking up at the spray-painted four-word message on the wall.
Claudio begins reading: “Niga?” Close, but no, it’s “Niva,” the name of a girl.
Everyone writes down the new word in their notebooks. Claudio gamely continues, slowly working out the next one: “Bar-manit.” Fia jumps. She knows this one! “Ani barmanit!” she exclaims, pleased. And indeed, so she is. It means a “barmaid.” Wonderful. Next one: “Oo” − that’s easy, it means “or.” Just one last word: Claudio stumbles and then gets it: “zona?”

Hmm. They are stumped. Isabel takes a picture of the sentence with her iPhone. Claudio tries saying the last word using different intonations, wondering if one will spark some recognition. And Sharett gives hints, descriptions, does some pantomimes. Finally, it becomes clear: “Prostitute.” “Ahhhh!” says Fia. “Ohhh?” says Lili.

“Niva − barmaid or prostitute?”

Lili is still confused. Who is Niva? Who wrote the sentence? And why? What happened? Sharett doesn’t have a clue. “Maybe it’s a philosophical question,” he suggests, “one which I will leave you to figure out.” But the main thing, he points out to the class, is that they have just deciphered their first bona fide Hebrew graffiti! True, they nod, and walk out of the alley, heads held high, ready to tackle any spray-painted sign in sight.

“Lo rozim − lo tzarich,” reads Fia out loud, laboring over every word of the slogan stenciled onto a cement wall, and looking puzzled by the picture of a man with a beard under the writing. After some back and forth, some explanations by Sharett on the white board relating to the roots and tenses of “rozim” and “tzarich,” they agree the sentence means “You don’t want? No need.” Again, it is incomprehensible until it is made clear that the man with the beard is Theodor Herzl and that the slogan is a take on his famous line “If you will [want] it − it is no dream.”

“So does that mean you don’t want this country?” Isabel asks. “Or that it’s no dream?” Lili tries to comprehend. “I think it is someone who is not a Zionist writing that,” Claudio says, struggling to formulate the thought in his halting Hebrew. “Let’s just say, another philosophical question,” replies Sharett, moving them on to the next wall, “which you can interpret as you please − as long as you do it in Hebrew.”