The first time I heard it, I was shocked.
Upon mentioning that I had in fact just moved to Gush Etzion directly from America, the Israeli I was talking to made this bizarre noise that sounded like air going out of a punctured bicycle tire. I wasn’t sure whether the person I was conversing with had just suffered some sort of a nervous breakdown, or maybe this was a new form of communication that we hadn’t gotten to in ulpan yet.
Of course, now that I have been here several months, I am well versed in “Pshhhhhhhh.” I know that it can be used as an expression of surprise, amazement, agreement, disagreement, or to rid one’s mouth of sunflower seed husks.
“Pshhhhhhh” is also very useful when I can’t understand completely what someone is trying to tell me. I just say “Pshhhhhh” and everyone starts nodding their heads in agreement. Some people say “Pssssssss” but maybe that is the Ashkenazi pronunciation.
Another interesting Israeli expression not in my Hebrew-English dictionary is “Whywhywhywhywhywhywhy.” It took me a little while to realize that a person using this wonderful figure of speech was not actually asking the question “why,” but rather making a point that would not be covered appropriately by “pshhhhhhh.” I certainly can understand now all the puzzled expressions I received when I tried to answer “because-because-because.”
All the yelling, and the pshhhhing, and the whywhying reaches its climax in the shuk. I would love to know if the guy who yells “banana-banana-banana-banana” actually sells more produce, or just does it because of the special atmosphere it creates. My daughter actually asked me why he was yelling, and I patiently explained that that is how people would know that he sold bananas. Of course my daughter pointed out that he was standing behind a table stacked with hundreds of bananas. So after some thought, I just explained that he was yelling for the benefit of any blind people that might come by.
Eskimos who live in Alaska, Siberia, and other really nasty, cold places have several hundred words for snow. It’s not surprising since their entire lives are spent dealing in, around, and with the stuff. In Israel, we simply have so many ways to express amazement because every day we are astounded by new events. Politicians swing from right to left and back, the Arabs unsuccessfully try every possible way to convince us not to make peace with them, and banks greet each new day with a new and very special fee. (It now costs only 10 Agarot a minute to wait in line at the bank!)
Yet we take all the changes in stride. Moving to Israel is less about emigrating to a foreign land and more about rejoining a huge, lovable and sometimes dysfunctional family. We yell at each other, but we also can laugh and cry with each other too. In just six months, we have been greeted by wonderful news, confusing news, and yes, occasionally tragic news. But we get through whatever we need to because we know we have each other. And as a new immigrant, that is a very comforting thought.