Saturday, July 14, 2007

Sof Ha-Shavua

Last day of the first week and everyone is tired and a bit sick—it’s the food thing. I don’t think that anyone is laid out badly, but everyone is adjusting to new intestinal flora, new diets, and new schedules. I know that I am, anyway.

I have until Sunday morning to relax, do grocery (or other) shopping, observe Shabbat, and do my homework. All of us have to do a presentation on a topic of our choice. I volunteered for Monday, which means I get to write mine over the weekend and turn it in to be corrected on Sunday. However, it will be done and over with by Tuesday, when we go to Mishmar ha-Emek (Guardian of the Valley). (The same day that Harry Potter comes out. Which I did order at the campus bookstore. Our midterm is next Thursday, though, so I may not get to finish it as promptly as I would like…).

This whole experience is very interesting. Here I sit, overlooking a hazy valley with squares of farmland, a few ponds and hills in the background. It looks very much like Livermore, but…not quite. The roads are smaller, the cities less overwhelming and shine a bit brighter—the white stone, instead of wood and paint, and also the humid air affects the look of the place.

The first day of class, I found myself in the fourth of six levels of Hebrew. This pleased me mightily. I am very much at the head of the class in some ways, but one of the weaker ones in understanding and speaking. (Over the course of the week, however, both skills have improved tremendously, so that I can understand some fraction of the Israeli spoken by passersby, and feel like I’m cheating when I speak English.) The class has a wide variety of people from a wide variety of places: Danna from Long Island, who is fluent in Hebrew, but can’t conjugate a verb; Hanni, who is preparing to study for the Reform Rabbinate; Viola from Germany; Helaine, an anthropologist from Wisconsin; Liz, who is here from Manchester, England with her husband, a retired college professor; and many others—eighteen in all. Range of ages from maybe 20 to 70. Everyone is capable in some areas and lacking in others. Despite different personalities and goals, everyone has some desire to learn—although I don’t really know how getting grades (for those taking it for credit) affects their relationship to the material. I am, however, paying attention to how my own sense of Torah lish’ma is affecting my relationship to the material.

Class runs from 8:30 to 1:00 PM. To get there, I leave my apartment at 8 AM and walk down a flight of stairs, across an outside terrace, with plants and cats wandering around, to a set of stairs. I climb two flights, cross another terrace and climb another two flights of stairs. Then I am in the main area, near the community hall and mini-market. I climb another set of stairs and walk through the guard booth and I’m on campus. Pass by the Multi-Purpose Center to the law building which I enter. I climb four flights of stairs inside, then outside climb another three flights to a stretch of grass between the law building and the main building. I enter this building, pass by the library, the Hecht museum, the bookstore, climb one set of stairs, pass by an art exhibit, and then exit the building in front of a set of shops. Cross the street to the education building, where I open my bag so that the guard can make sure I have no bombs, then climb one more set of stairs and walk down a hall to my classroom. Have I mentioned that Haifa is built on a mountain?

After class, my inclination is to simply study—deciphering the texts is fairly intense. I can spend five hours on the material and not get bored. Having a single focus is a really interesting experience—I don’t think I’ve had that for the last 27 years. Not an experience I’d want for long—I need connections and community too much. But to know what it’s like is a gift. I have been told for years how different my experience in grad school is from those around me, as I have this other life. I have denied it for years, saying that everyone has responsibilities; it’s just different responsibilities at different stages of life. But really, that isn’t the case. I have never really known what it was like to be able to choose what to do—to simply be responsible for myself. To fix food for myself alone—or not. To have only one small room to care for. To be able to go to town or not go to town.

On the first day, I went to the bookstore and as I searched for my books, someone called out “Trish.” It was Dina, one of my teachers from GTU several years ago. She has since come to Haifa University to teach midrash. Very strange, indeed—the Jewish world is indeed a small world. She invited me for Shabbat lunch, so that should be interesting.

One other thing—I chose Haifa for the diversity of people who live here. So I don’t know why it came as a surprise to hear Arabic all over the university. There are plenty of Muslim women, dressed modestly, wandering around campus with that university look to them (gotta get to class on time, hope I’m prepared). And in the campus shops and cafes, I hear as much Arabic as Hebrew. Despite wanting this, I find myself somewhat hostile—a bit like my reaction to the German language prior to having German exchange students. I don’t intend to get to know any of the students (Jewish or Arab), simply because they have their lives and it would be an intrusion, but simply hearing is enough. As I listen, I begin to hear the ordinary language of college students, not a language of hate and destruction.

On Tuesday, we went to Akko. Jumped on the bus right after class and didn’t get back until after 8 PM. We were led on a tour by an Arab guide (named Abdul, of course) who addressed us in Hebrew and English. He was absolutely fantastic—funny, smart, an actor and teacher, and passionate about the city. I’m not going to detail that—I’ll post pictures, but really it was one of those “had to be there” times. Okay, there’s a trip to a Haifa bar planned and I’m going. L’hitraot!

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