Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Prologue: There is a kind of story, mostly found in children’s literature, that I really love. The shape of the story can vary tremendously, but part of the dĂ©nouement has a scene where the protagonist’s soul is recognized, nurtured, and loved. For example, in Bridge to Terebithia, a boy longs for his father’s love, but his father is overworked and not comfortable showing love for his son (as opposed to his daughter. After the death of his best friend, he is angry at himself and her and runs until he collapses. It is his father who picks him up and holds him, giving him the love that he needs so badly. There is a completion—the Hebrew is sh’lamut, from the same word as shalom, and it conveys that sense of peace that comes when something is whole and complete. I have often wondered whether it was a real feeling—or simply something found in literature, a way of evoking pure emotions. Here’s my story of how sometimes one word can be enough.

The back story: When I began at Berkeley, I began with not quite enough Hebrew. The summer before I began, I took an intensive program—an Ulpan of sorts—that was designed to bump me up to third year university Hebrew. It was pretty intense—an immersion program that felt more like drowning. But I went into the third year class of Hebrew, taught by one of the few people in the world (let’s call her Rosanne) I strongly dislike—oh, let’s go with hate, my visceral reaction is that strong. Rosanne is an anti-Israel Israeli whose teaching style is entirely aural, lacking in formal structure, and, as discussion material, uses as texts literature and essays that show Israel at its worst. I endured her classes for two years, then gratefully moved on.

At the end of my fourth year, I was informed that the Jewish Studies department had decided that sociology would be a better fit for me. It was, as anyone who was around knows, a fairly traumatic experience. Despite sociology being a better department in terms of breadth, structure, and care of its grad students, enough slipped out for me to understand that my Hebrew ability (or lack thereof) was part of the problem.

So I put Hebrew aside for Marx, Durkheim, and Weber. I closed the Hebrew Harry Potter books and left them on the shelves for old times’ sake.

Sociology has been a challenge—in many ways, I am indeed, a sociologist, although having had the one rejection, part of me is always defending against another. Also, it was hard to embrace sociology fully, as that felt (rational thought notwithstanding) like agreeing with the rejection. But, of course, I did agree—somehow, I allowed that stupid Rosanne to define my ability. And, despite putting the Hebrew away, I knew that I still wanted to learn Hebrew and knew that the only way for me was to go to Israel where I could hear the language spoken.

The next chapter: In these first few days of the Ulpan, Rosanne has been present in my thoughts. My teacher, Etty, is an actress and a woman who uses both structure and care in her presentation. I only understand about half of what she says (well, more but it feels like half), but she uses the board and her acting training to demonstrate what she means to say, so that, by the end, I am understanding almost everything. I sank into her class with the feeling that “this is how it is meant to be.” It turned out that another person in the class was from Berkeley. Miri’s about twenty and had taken Hebrew with Rosanne. When she mentioned the name, my fists clenched and I said that I had taken classes from her and she was terrible. Miri agreed and catalogued her deficiencies as a teacher. It was liberating, but strange. It has been five years since I’ve needed to take a class with Rosanne, but I am still carrying that baggage with me.

Yesterday’s homework included an essay on the story we had read. The lovely thing about the Ulpan is that I am responsible for no one and nothing—only for learning. So, despite going to Acco yesterday (oh, yes, I will get to filling in those gaps, but don’t know when!), I spent a glorious five hours (8:30-12 and 6-7:30) doing homework. I didn’t finish, but I read every story about four times, translated every word, and wrote my essay. After class, I asked Etty to read it and she looked through it quickly and asked me something in Hebrew. I couldn’t understand and explained that I process the Hebrew very slowly. She asked if it had taken me a long time. It hadn’t—maybe half an hour for a couple of paragraphs on the sociological underpinning of the story (yeah, I know, I AM a sociologist; I can’t help myself). She read through it more carefully, fixing the plentitude of errors of first draft variety, but finding no serious errors of understanding. She finished and wrote “Mitzuyon” (Wonderful! Excellent!) at the bottom. I said, “So basically, then, it’s okay.” She looked at me like I was nuts and said, “No, basically, it’s mitzuyon.”

That’s the word. I really heard it and believed it. And in the hearing and believing, I recognized the amount of damage that I had allowed Rosanne and the whole Jewish Studies program to do to my belief in my own ability. Suddenly, too, my work over the past few years does not seem like the work of someone who isn’t very good and is barely hanging on by a thread, but the work of someone who is very determined—because without that determination, I would have given up long ago. Suddenly, I feel complete—I feel a sense of shlamut. What a gift! How wonderful!

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