Studying in ulpan is something of a rite of passage for many Israeli immigrants -- a place to learn the Hebrew language, peppered with a big dose of Israeli culture. Ulpanim offer several levels of classes: Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, is an introductory course for those starting from scratch (and scratching their heads), and so on through the sixth letter, vav. (This is similar to the system used in schools, with “kita aleph” being first grade.)
But the alphabet doesn’t just play a role in the subject matter and tracking system; its first letter is also the root of the word “ulpan.”
In addition to meaning a Hebrew language course, “ulpan” also means “studio,” usually a recording, television or radio studio. Channel 2 television’s weekly news wrap-up is called “Ulpan Shishi,” literally “Friday Studio.” Oddly enough, an art studio is typically referred to as, well, a “studio.”
The root “aleph” can also be found in words like “alfon,” an address book or phone list, since they are ordered alphabetically, and “analfabeti,” which brings together a negative prefix (like “non” or “un”) and the word for “alphabetical” to get “illiterate.” There’s also “aluf,” which can mean a high rank in the army as well as “champion,” both in the more formal sense of, say, Israel’s judo champions (“alufei Yisrael b’judo”) as well as the more colloquial sense of “He’s a champ at baking cookies.”
And there’s the related “alifut,” as in “Alifut Ha’olam Beshahmat” (pronounced be-shakh-MAHT), the World Chess Championship, which was extensively covered in the Israeli press this year because it pitted Israel’s Boris Gelfand against the defending champion (who retained his title).
Sometimes these words also show up as people’s names -- like those of the editor-in-chief of this newspaper, Aluf Benn, and his immediate predecessor, Dov Alfon. Coincidence or conspiracy? You decide.
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