Monday, August 6, 2007

Last week of the Ulpan and on to traveling alone.

August 4, 2007: I’m sitting on a bench in Biria, a village just outside of Tzfat. I’m staying with Hedva and Max, my first hosts with Servas. They are my parents’ ages, more or less, and retired here from Tel Aviv. I’ll say more about them later—now I just want to notice the quality of the air, dry and warm. There is a good wind picking up now. The air here, as I’ve noted before, is similar to that in Livermore and, thankfully, much dryer than in Haifa. It’s around 3 PM on a very quiet Shabbat afternoon. I think everyone is sleeping, although there are a few dogs barking and children’s voices sound from yards (and I can understand what they say!). I can very occasionally hear a car, but the sound is noticeable for its rarity. The bench is under a plum tree on a patch of lawn with many kinds of flowers spilling out of beds all around. From where I sit, I can see Mt. Meron in the distance; if I look through the window upstairs, all of Tzfat. I think it would take me all of ten minutes to walk to Tzfat, although the family has driven me from the bus stop and then to services. But more on that in the next post.

The last week of Ulpan—it went very quickly, almost without my noticing.

On Sunday, one more movie—Kayitz Aruch, which I found with the English title of Summer Story. Takes place during 1982, with a background of the first Lebanon war, but was really a coming-of-age story, which I am a real sucker for. It was a very well done movie and the reasons are telling. First—a strong and interesting plot that followed one character on a quest. The main character, a boy on the cusp of puberty, has a crush on an older girl, almost twenty. This girl has a bad heart and can’t do much. To amuse herself, she writes to soldiers in the war. Not surprisingly, one of these correspondences becomes something more. Ultimately, she dies from the bad heart, but not before the boy has gone on a quest to get a picture from the soldier she loves. Learning the difference between magic (that a picture will save a life) and reality (that he will grow up to be a doctor) was lovely and sad—and very funny. Second, the background of the war was absolutely serious, but never the point; it simply affected everyone’s life in very serious ways. To do this—to make the setting real and important, but not overpowering characters is difficult. Third, there were other stories mixed in to just the right degree; minor characters whose stories were resolved to greater or lesser degree. It’s a good movie from which to learn.

Two interesting things resulted—the next day, in conversation class (weekly session in trying to speak), we described the movie to the one person who hadn’t been there. This was a terrific and not entirely successful exercise that included lots of drawing on the board (maps, arrows indicating direction, and so on). Highly amusing and pretty instructive. Then, after class, I spoke with Jacob, grad student from Harvard. His original take on it was that it was highly symbolic, with the boy representing a new approach to life in Israel. I think I convinced him otherwise—it really wasn’t that deep a movie. Interesting that sometimes taking the more complex view can result in misreading a situation so badly.

Monday, there was a lecture on Jewish music. Here are the notes I took at the time:

“An expert from Beit HaTefutsot is discussing Jewish music. It’s a fairly academic lecture, which makes me happy. As in, he begins by explaining why it isn’t possible to define Jewish music and then explained the problems with defining it in depth and with examples. So, if Jewish music is music written by Jews, for Jews, and with Jewish uses in mind, what do we do with the Kaddish melody, which was composed by Ravel—yes, that Maurice Ravel? Or with all the old German and Hungarian melodies that become part of Hassidic tradition?” A few days later, I find myself still interested in the way that Israeli Jews understand their relationship to the Diapora—whether through music or anything other artistic medium.

Tuesday afternoon, I finally met with Avi and Amira. Avi had been a student of my dad’s back in the late 80’s. Turns out that Avi is just my age and their oldest child is Deborah’s age (a few months older). They were incredibly hospitable, but I must say, I felt quite uncomfortable with the effort they expended—sort of “I only deserve it because of my folks and why should that be enough?” I know people make connections with friends of friends, and I’d be happy and interested to be on the other end—it’s interesting to meet people who know people, etc, but I’m still not good at being taken care of. Much more comfortable on the other end.

The events however, are worth detailing, partly in and of themselves and partly because I know my parents want to know (hi, Mom!). First, Avi picked me up and took me to tour the Technion. I had commented that I was interested in it—really, just to be polite—but it was, in fact, fascinating. The kind of work (computers, robotics, biotech, security) all was interesting and all was part of a solid, intense world that is what comforts me about hard science—the idea that there are problems and that they are interesting, concrete, and ultimately solvable. (Yes, I know that is not the whole story, but that is the feel of institutes of hard science. This is somewhat refreshing after soc science, which tends to identify problems well, but is less successful in finding solutions.) I got to see where Avi works, including the plaque that commemorates those who died in the Lebanon War. These plaques are everywhere, he said. As in the movie, the plaques aren’t the story of the people who live here, but part of the background and demonstrate how that background intrudes into the story with great regularity.

We picked up Tal, a very silent fifteen-year-old, then continued our tour. There were two things that stood out to me as we walked around the campus: the intensity and focus of the students, all of whom seemed to have to get somewhere in a hurry; and the lack of traditional or religious dress of any kind. No tzitzitim, no veils, no long sleeves. Religion seemed not to exist. Avi pointed out the synagogue and also noted that he had never been in it. Later I commented on the difference between the campuses and he told me that when Technion had been established, they had agreed that it would be a campus without politics. This was a fascinating statement and I am still chewing on it. It implies that all religion is political and that dress is always a political statement. I think there is some truth to that, but the relationships are complex—what religion, what dress, what are the cultural and political structures and how does religion relate to them? It is clear that some groups very definitely dress to define themselves and, by doing so, state that their adherence to religion trumps all else. But I don’t see a compromise—there is a clear sense of either science or religion, not both. And that last sentence doesn’t really deal with the political piece and how Avi equated the two. Okay, I’m tired and not making much sense. In addition, it is complicated…

From Technion, we went to pick up Amira from their apartment. (As a side note, in both Europe and Israel, while apartments are common, I saw a fair bit of new single houses. This is a bit of shame—the US should be taking a lesson from the apartments of Europe and Israel and moving toward smaller, more efficient housing, but instead the reverse seems to be happening, at least to some degree.) She’s a teacher in a private school in Haifa, one of the few private schools there. Her first question to me was puzzlement as to why I would want to learn Hebrew—I knew English and who needs more? How to explain? I used the example of time—of how the weekend is different here and being part of a society that functions Jewishly is something I want to understand and experience, but I’m not sure they understood. I’m not sure there really is a way to explain it.

We drove to the Druze villages. Okay, here’s where I confess. Somehow the phrase “Druze village” conveyed “villagers in traditional dress, living in small houses, and herding goats.” Uh, not so much. The “villages” were small cities, seemingly quite prosperous, and apparently suburbs of Haifa. What makes them Druze? Just the people. And apparently the people want to keep the villages Druze; Avi said that non-Druze can’t buy homes there, because they want to maintain their way of life. But, as with many places, the few older men and women were dressed traditionally, while the teens and young adults wore pants and t-shirts. The real thing to do in a Druze village is to shop—which is what I did. I had a lesson in how to bargain and paid very close attention, as I presume I’ll be doing more of that on my own. Two lessons—know your bottom line and know that every time you add something to the mix the price changes (presumably down a bit). We went into many, many shops, looking for a couple of particular things. Most was tourist junk—ceramic plates with “Jerusalem” on the front for example. The Christian version included Nazareth; the Jewish version had the skyline. But, in addition to the junk, there were a few interesting things.

We went to a special bakery where Avi insisted on buying a delicacy made with honey, cheese, and pastry to take back to the other students (all of whom really appreciated it). And then we had dinner. They wanted me to experience many Israeli and Druze delicacies, so we went to a terrific Druze restaurant overlooking Haifa. The amount of food served was truly remarkable. I can’t remember all of it, but the strangest dish was a kind of hamburger with tehina sauce. It was extremely rich—way too rich for my tastes—but very good in small quantities. Between the table covered with dishes of tehina, hummus, baba ganouj, various vegetables, different breads, and more, I felt like I needed to be two people. In fact, I kept remembering the Gerald Durrell scene with the Countess. But the evening was lovely—all together interesting. We spoke about Israel and the US relations, and then a long conversation on homeschooling, since I mentioned our homeschooling. Amira and I share similar views on what children need in the way of education. Her view of education, she said is encapsulated by the story of the Nobel prize winner (can’t remember his name right now) who explained that his view of the world came from his mother. All the other kids’ mothers asked what they learned in school. His mother asked if he had asked any good questions. This is a story I know quite well, as it is one of the additional readings we include in our Seder (around the 4 questions, of course).

Lovely and tiring evening, although I never did hear any good stories about my dad as an advisor.

Wednesday was the day before the exam, so there isn’t much to say about that. We simply studied. And there was much exchanging of emails, taking of photos, and all the hullabaloo that goes with knowing you’ve been part of a temporary community that is about to end and that you want to hang onto. The day also included a rather odd conversation. Miri, the young woman I mentioned who had also taken a class from Rosanne in Berkeley and also sort adopted me a surrogate mom (yes, there were a few who did that—actually at one point, I said I needed a shirt saying “this is a Jewish mom” and someone else said that there was no need for the shirt; it just kind of radiated out from me), is a lesbian (or queer, or bisexual, or whatever—wasn’t clear and I didn’t particularly care). In the course of a conversation about the Jewish politics of dress (what does it mean when a man wears a kippah on the street in the States? In Israel? How about when a woman does?), I mentioned that I wore a tallit in synagogue and David said his wife does as well. Miri had an immediate, strong reaction—women don’t need to do either. Women are higher and better than men spiritually (this really is an argument for why traditionally, it is not incumbent on women to do many of the mitzvot), so it’s just wrong for a woman to wear a tallis. I’m still trying to understand the contraction between her sexual orientation and her traditional understanding of Judaism. Yet another example of how inconsistent and contradictory people are (and I don’t mean that’s a bad thing. In fact, attempts to make people consistent create all kinds of problems).

Finally, Thursday—the exam went well, I think. I had worked hard on the grammar so that was okay (I hope!). The reading wasn’t too bad. However, I found myself reaching for words in the essay, so I have no idea how that went. In any case, I don’t care. The Ulpan did precisely what I wanted it to and perhaps more. It provided a structure for the language. The emphasis on grammar and the clear exercises helped me organize the knowledge I had. While some people found the explanations difficult, I did not—maybe, too, because I had seen the material before. So it was really affirmed my ability to read and to write. And, by the end, I was more or less comfortable speaking when I need to (and the last few days—see upcoming post—I have needed to!).

Not much else to say—the last event of the Ulpan, a picnic; a trip to the mall (first and last) to buy a sleeping sheet for traveling; a visit to an Irish pub in Haifa just for the fun of it and that’s about all.

Next morning, up early, did my laundry and packed and headed out the door for Tzfat. I don’t remember if I mentioned in a previous post that I’d be traveling with someone from the Ulpan who is, like me, hanging around Israel for a few weeks. If I repeat myself, so be it. I’m traveling with Steven, a computer consultant from Sacramento. He’s done a lot of traveling around the world, so he’s comfortable getting around in strange places, while I can speak the language sort of, kind of, maybe. He’s in hotels; I’m in homes, but it will be nice to have someone to talk things over with. More on that in the next post.

No comments: