Meet Our Students: Sam (Shmu) Swartz

Hey Sam! Thank you for taking part in this project. Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself?

Sure. I live in New York City at the “Integral Yoga Institute Ashram”, where I am a Yoga instructor who specializes in Adaptive Yoga. I use a wheelchair, so I teach people who can’t necessarily do conventional Yoga practice. We have a ‘level one’ class here, and thirty years ago someone said: You know, not everybody is able to do a level one class. So we should have a ”Gentle Yoga” class, where you don’t have to do everything that is in level one – but you can still get the same benefits of yoga class. I love it because I’ll do a “Sun Salutation” but people won’t have to put their legs back into a lunge, or somebody might stay in a chair the entire practice (majority are elderly, or middle aged with a condition like sciatica, arthritis or balance issues). I’m also a Ritual Coordinator at the Conservative Synagogue of Fifth Avenue.

How long have you been studying at Citizen Café?
I’m currently in my 4th Semester of Dark Green Level and it’s my 8th semester taking Citizen Cafe’s Hebrew courses. I started in Yellow.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Why have you started learning Hebrew in the first place?
It has always been a “bucket list” item for me to be truly bilingual in another language, I have always had an ear for accents and I’m a musician, so that helps. I have been able to say sentences and sound good, but I’ve never felt like I truly speak another language.

Has it ever bothered you not to be able to speak Hebrew?
Hebrew was introduced to me in Preschool, almost 50 years ago. So I’ve learned how to read, pray and say a few phrases, but it always bothered me that I couldn’t speak or really understand what I was reading, especially when I would lead a service at the synagogue. When someone would come up to me and start speaking Hebrew with me (assuming I was fluent) I would feel this inner frustration, like: “I should know this language! This is the language of my people”.

When the lockdown started I watched “Hashoter Hatov” (“The Good Cop”) on Netflix, it was a comedy I really liked, and I decided it was time to finally learn. I started with Rosetta Stone, and then Duolingo and then started seeing Citizen Café social media posts. I just knew it was “THE” program for me. I had my initial evaluation with one of the teachers, and I haven’t looked back since.

What is your goal in Hebrew? What is the endgame.
My goal, which is very Gemini (May 29) of me, is to be able to one day travel to Israel and everyone just thinks I’m a native because my language is seamless. I know it will happen when it’s supposed to happen. I’m a “meant to be” person. I feel that studying at Citizen Café was very meant to be, or else it wouldn’t have happened. Because in all practicality, on paper, it shouldn’t have happened, but something has always worked out to allow it to happen. I now sometimes surprise myself when I can translate things in my head almost automatically.

Any Advice to someone who is just starting to learn the language?
Speak as much as possible, be addicted to the practice groups. I go to 3-4 practice groups a week in addition to my lessons. When I speak with my friends they correct me and it feels judgmental, but in Citizen we are encouraged to make confident mistakes and that helps me relax and get better at speaking.

It has bothered me not to speak with Israelis and American Hebrew Speakers when they were either visiting or I overheard conversations. Today I try to engage more and it’s been amazing. In the last 6 months one Israeli asked me if I WAS Israeli and another asked me if I have ever lived in Israel, because: “your Hebrrrew is verry goood.”
I just said to myself: הלוואי שהמורים שלי יכלו לשמוע את זה (I wish my teachers could hear this).

One last question for dessert: what’s your favorite Hebrew word\phrase that doesn’t exist in your native tongue?
In English we say “thank god…” something happened, but I love the מזל ש.. (mah-zahl she…) because a few years ago a rabbi explained that “Mazal” was like “constellations”, “comes from the stars”, “comes from the heavens”, so I find it much more poetic. מזל שיש לנו גלידה! (mah-zahl sheh-yehsh lah-noo glee-dah).

Shalom, !

Shalom, !