The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

How I Learned Hebrew

By Steven Pressfield | Published: May 5, 2014

[“The Book I’ve Been Avoiding Writing” (a.k.a. “Three Years of Writing and 40+ Years of Thinking About The Lion’s Gate“) is a mini-series about the writing of my new book, The Lion’s Gate. Thanks for tuning in as it runs Mondays and Fridays over the next few weeks.]

Back at the hotel a few nights later, after a second interview with Ran Ronen, a legendary fighter pilot and commander in the Israel Air Force. Danny is making coffee and toasting two-day-old bagels.

“We gotta have an ops meeting.”

Ran

Ran Ronen as a brigadier general in 1983.

An operations meeting is a meeting to plan combat action, to lay out a flight mission. We’re at Day Seven, Danny and I, of a three-week blitz of interviews. But we haven’t decided yet who I’ll interview over the next two weeks and why. Danny needs to know because he’s the one making the phone calls. He has to convince the individuals to meet with me—and then set up a time and place.

He and I have to sit down now and figure out a plan for the next fourteen days.

Danny flops onto the couch with bagels, cream cheese, and two mugs of single-malt Scotch. His question is, “What’s our kavanah?”

Kavanah, Danny has taught me, is “intention.”

This is different from matarah, “objective.”

In a mission order, kavanah supersedes matarah.

Today we were talking to Ran Ronen, right? He was telling us about leading the attack on Inshas Air Base near Cairo on 5 June 1967. His orders were to “destroy the runways and as many enemy planes as possible.”

That was his objective. His matarah.

But the kavanah, the intention, is one level above that.

The kavanah that day was “achieve air superiority.”

In other words, if for any reason Ran could not have achieved his matarah of attacking and destroying Inshas Air Base, he could have made the mental jump to his kavanah—“achieve air superiority”—and improvised in the moment, perhaps leading his planes to attack a different air base (or radar stations or anti-aircraft batteries.)

“Okay,” I say. “I’ll lay it out, Danny. I’ll explain my kavanah for these next two weeks. Then we can talk about each individual day and its matarah.”

Danny has taught me one other word in Hebrew.

Balagan.

Balagan means “chaos.” Technically the term is derived from Russian, but it has been absorbed intact into Hebrew.

Balagan is the most important word you’ll learn here, Steve. If you can understand this, you will understand Israel. And you’ll know why the IAF and IDF are so good.

A Jew by nature, Danny says, understands a balagan. A Jew is happy in a balagan. “Think about it. What skills do you need in a situation of chaos? Chutzpah. Imagination. The ability to improvise.”

I’ve been working with Danny for less than a week but already a dynamic has established itself between us. I’m the clueless American Jew. I know nothing. I would spread mayonnaise on a bialy if no one stopped me.

Danny is my rabbi.

He will bring me up to speed on all matters pertaining to the Jewish warrior and to being a Jew, period.

“Very soon,” he says, “I’m gonna take you to the Kotel.”

I’m staring blankly.

“The Kotel,” says Danny. “The Western Wall.”

Posted in The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

8 Responses to “How I Learned Hebrew”

  1. Mary Doyle
    May 5, 2014 at 5:22 am

    Many thanks to the clueless American Jew for sharing this journey with us. I also enjoyed the 12 videos you posted last week about bringing “The Lion’s Gate” into being. When a veteran writer exposes his own struggles with the creative process it gives the rest of us more courage to keep on keeping on.

  2. May 5, 2014 at 7:00 am

    I really enjoy reading about your journey in Israel Steven. And if you know the word ‘balagan’ you know a LOT about the Israeli mentality. There is never a dull moment here….
    Looking forward to read about your experience at the Kotel.

    • May 5, 2014 at 7:36 am

      I agree with the enjoyment. These posts help me learn more about Israel, which I like.

      The media input I get in the Netherlands is pretty diverse and not very balanced (either very positive or very negative), so insightful information like in these blog posts sure comes in handy!

      Reinout

  3. May 5, 2014 at 7:16 am

    When all the book stuff has quieted down a bit in a while, I’d like to hear your thoughts about the current military situation in Israel.

    Were Egypt and Syria to come rolling into Israel again with a nice juicy conventional armor column, the IDF would undoubtedly make mincemeat out of them again.

    But… in the skirmishes/occupation/whatever they’re in now, the IDF looks out of place. They look like a conventional army caught in a guerilla war, which often translates as “we don’t like ‘balagan’ very much”.

    I can very much see that a USA jewish kid ‘d love to join the IDF during the time of the six days war. I doubt there’s the same enthusiasm now: much collateral property/civilian damage, PR disasters, a sort-of iron curtain.

    Some insight or clarification or pushback or background would be appreciated! Perhaps a future blog entry?

  4. May 5, 2014 at 9:09 am

    I was just having a conversation about chaos yesterday. As I was driving down the street toward home I saw very near my neighborhood a beautiful house whose windows were recently shattered. I turned off the road to find that over night some one had completely desecrated the 100 year abandoned home by breaking every window, door, banister, wall and appliance. They threw a park bench through the front room wall. It looked like a bomb went off. I tossed and turned all night. I couldn’t stop thinking of the house. I called the city this morning. I intend to buy it and restore it. By myself.

    Perfectionists avoid chaos. Risk is the opposite of perfection mentality. One must risk to make chaos into order or walk away and just live the same, same, same. The rewards though! The house is going to be amazing.

    • Dennis
      May 6, 2014 at 12:12 am

      Erika

      We are always one step away from chaos. Most people try to avoid chaos at all cost, but if you understand that life is build from chaos than you can take the risk to create. Good luck building your new house!

  5. Sonja
    May 5, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    Love hearing about this continuous journey as well.

  6. May 8, 2014 at 9:57 pm

    Single malt Scotch, a balagan, classical and modern Hebrew – wow, wow, wow.
    Oh, and Yiddish .

    See here’s the thing: we Jews argue with each other – you know, two Jews, three opinions – because we understand that the kavanah of the balagan is to make sure we have the chutzpah to realize we’re all clueless. And thank G-d we are.