Thursday, July 19, 2007

Halfway Point

Half the Ulpan is over and with it, half of my trip as well. This is Thursday, July 19—I left California on June 19. It seems like a very long time ago, but also like only a short time remains. Time is a funny thing, I suppose.

The past two weeks have really enabled me to come to terms with Hebrew and with the whole Jewish Studies to sociology switch. I no longer feel particularly spectacular in Hebrew ability, but I don’t feel bad about that. I am not defined by how I learn or how fast I learn and I didn’t realize to what extent I have come to feel that simply by being in the university system. Instead, I realize that when I learn Hebrew, I focus on my strengths: reading and writing, which are things I can do at my own pace and correct them as I go. So I can look up words while reading or cross out sentences and rewrite an essay. But the same things do not apply while talking. I have to keep the words in my head and on my tongue. I have to hear and comprehend without translating. To do that requires a whole different set of skills and they are skills that I haven’t properly valued, except with piano. I have to hear the sounds of the different words—the music of the words. So the future tense of the verb structure (banyan) “nifal” has the music “ee-AA-ah, like a donkey bray. That’s a little extreme, I suppose, but gets the idea. Seeing it, copying it over, really doesn’t help hearing the sound. The other half of that is speaking. It shouldn’t surprise me, I suppose, that making the sounds correctly takes practice. I’m sure I’ve said to my B’nai Mitzvah students that they need to practice out loud so their mouth gets comfortable with the words. But I haven’t tried the same thing with my own practice. It also reminds me of piano practice—it is easy to understand the theory, but making the fingers move in the correct pattern and timing—well, that’s another story. So this has been a real experience in learning about my own learning.

On the other hand, the Ulpan really does stress grammar out the wazoo. This makes me happy—I like to understand the rules and the structures—the map, if you will. It is the kind of stuff that I was never clear on in the past, but this is giving me really clear tools.

The midterm was interesting, both in studying and in taking it. I studied with other people and alone and had my students in mind as I studied. It also struck me how very different this kind of study is from studying for the oral exams. Here, I was simply following directions; there I am making up the directions as well. The exam itself was (I hope) not too bad. I was fortunate in that the reading was on Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who revived Hebrew as a spoken language. It is a subject I know pretty well so even if I didn’t know the vocabulary, I could figure it out. So a crap shoot and I won—unlike some of my fellow students. Then one of the essay questions asked about what traditions did for family unity. Again, made for me; I wrote about Shabbat dinners and it was easy (except for the part where I felt so nostalgic for them that I got a bit teary—stop laughing, my evil daughters). However I did, it’s over.

This week’s field trip was split—some to Galilee and my group to a collection of places. We went to Beit HaShearim, where Judah HaNasi who redacted the Talmud in 210 CE, is reputed to be buried. It is a necropolis—a limestone hill into which all kinds of caves have be carved. The caves go on forever and ever—one cool, dark room after another. They are full of sarcophagi, which are decorated with a variety of symbols—some Jewish, some not. They have all been looted. I had the impulse to put stones on the sarcophagi, but no one was in them—why would I? It felt very old, but not really sacred, can’t say why. Then to a nature park, where we took a short walk on one of the few areas that are handicapped accessible. Finally, a tour of Mishmar HaEmek, one of the oldest kibbutzim, and one that is very successful. After the tour, we spoke briefly with one of the first children born in the kibbutz (the founders have all died), and then had dinner in the dining hall. It is a bit like eating at Fresh Choice every night (although the food definitely has an Israeli flavor. The kibbutz philosophy strikes me as a lot like homeschooling, in that it is very difficult to explain, but if you’ve lived it, you get it. But the community feeling is very strong and compelling.

Had an interesting conversation with the friend of one of my roommates. It was illuminating in a number of ways. The guy, who ended up staying here a few days due to other plans falling through, is probably about my age and very much a wanderer. He builds “ecologically correct” houses and is also a chemist. He enjoyed talking, so until he left, the flat was full of conversation. But it was interesting to see how he heard or didn’t hear what people (by which I mean me—really can’t speak for anyone else) said. I think this comes out of different life experiences. So, I am really falling in love with Israel. I said before that I feel whole here in a way I have never felt before and wouldn’t mind living here. Which I said in conversation. He picked up on it—asked how many years I’d been married and said that it sounded like it was my turn. My immediate reaction was distaste—almost revulsion. I find that kind of language completely inappropriate in thinking about marriage. I responded (he quoted back—I actually don’t precisely remember) that I loved my husband. By which I meant that marriage isn’t—or shouldn’t be—based on equity, but on love and on care. That isn’t to say that some sort of fairness doesn’t apply, but making sure that the halves of the cookie are even doesn’t work with children, with spouses, or with anyone else that I care about. The right question is “what do you need? What can you give?” There are of course, negotiations involved about how those needs are met, how that giving takes place, and there are places (who sits where in the car on what day) that fairness absolutely applies. However, in general—not useful.

I never could make him understand the point. I think he saw me as a woman who was submitting to her husband, who somehow kept her down. What I see, though, is someone who hasn’t been rooted in a place and with people long enough to understand the nature of long-term human relationships. Part of the reason I wouldn’t move to Israel is because I wouldn’t leave Dave to do so. And, assuming I could make him move (which I couldn’t—the man is remarkably stubborn when he wants to be), I wouldn’t because the level of misery I would cause in doing so would be too high. Why would I do that to someone I love?

Now, the other side of that is that I don’t, in fact, want to move here. I can say that I would be happy here, and I think that is true, but I have enough ties to home—meaning the US—that I would not do so. Which is another difference in perspective. For this guy, to want to go somewhere is to do so—he has no ties to anywhere. No roots. I really value my roots, my friends, my family.

So this conversation was the flip side of the walk through Winsen with Ilka’s mother-in-law. There the roots were centuries deep, so compelling that leaving would be very difficult indeed. What is the balance between being rooted and being free (roots and wings, I suppose)? Both individuals and societies need some of each, I think.

A bit later—just came in from an hour and a half of flat-out Israeli dancing. It was out of this world fantastic. I could do it every night and not get tired of it. Which tells me that I need to find a place to do it on a regular basis.

And I’m checking out places to stay after I leave the Ulpan. I emailed Nurit and she called me within the hour—I’m going to Tel Aviv for Shabbat and they extended an invitation to stay there as long as I like. Other contacts will follow, but that’s the most exciting.

1 comment:

Lani said...


I've had the conversation about marriage and its various balancing acts a couple of times, and invariably the ones who aren't married are the ones who take the position that I must be another oppressed housewife.

I experienced that sense of belonging today, and thought of you. I was reading a cookbook from The St. Paul Baking Club, which included stories from the bakers. Reading the names of the towns they came from - Hibbing, White Bear Lake, Edina, Eden Prairie - brought up a longing to go back to Minnesota that shocked me with its immediacy and intensity. I have no desire, not even of any kind, to live in Minnesota, but part of me desperately wanted to be there right then.