Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Shtetl Judaism

October 12, 2010

Yesterday we had a class with Avital, our volunteer coordinator who also knows every single thing in the world there is to know, about the history of Yafo. It was really interesting in and of itself, but it made me think about one specific thing that had been bothering me but I hadn’t been able to really put my finger on before.

She showed us this postcard that was a Zionist advertisement geared at Eastern European Jews back in the day. Here is a link to the image. In case it’s too small to see the details, here is what’s happening: In the left hand corner is a seated Jewish man, hunched over, with yarmulke and peyes, caged in with barbed wire. Standing over him is some sort of angel whose arms and wings are pointing across the postcard. On the right hand side is the image of an upright man farming and working his land in front of the setting sun. In the bottom corner, right across from the barbed wire, are stalks of wheat.

We talked about how this postcard is encouraging you to not only come to Israel, but to slough off your shtetl identity and burdens and become a strong farmer. You are supposed to get rid of your culture of oppression and fear, cast off everything Eastern Europe, and the diaspora, has done to you and become one with the land, as you “once were.”

We also talked about how 2.4 million Jews left Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1914, and while 2 million of them came to America, about 75,000 of them came to Israel and became the first wave of Aliya. The Jews who came to America did not slough off their shtetl identities. They lived in Jewish areas of Jewish cities, and basically had a smaller, less dangerous version of what they had in Eastern Europe. The Yiddish, the culture of kvetching and kvelling stayed strong. Not so, however, for those that came to Israel. They moved to the Middle East, became farmers or what have you, and their identities completely changed. Jews in Israel are not diaspora Jews, they have not clung to their Eastern European pasts (those with Eastern European pasts) the way American Jews have.

And I think this where a lot of the Jewish culture shock comes from. The Eastern European shtetl identity is one of the defining factors of my Jewish identity. The Bulbus song is, I think, the best example of that kind of Judaism there is. But for Jews here, that’s not really how it goes. It’s a very different type of Judaism, and I think this lack of shared history and culture is a major reason.

I’ve also seen this change in the languages. I realized about a week ago that Hebrew is not nearly as fun or funny a language as Yiddish. Learning Hebrew is like learning French or Chinese – interesting, and relevant because I’m living here, but nothing I feel very connected to. But learning Yiddish, oh yeah, that was the language of my people. Yiddish I felt, and still feel, very connected to, in a way I never will with Hebrew. And Yiddish is so Jewish! And by that, of course, I mean Eastern European shtetl Jewish. My favorite example: in Yiddish, there are 5 acceptable answers to the question “how are you,” which range from the equivalents of “SUPER GREAT” to “you’re better of not knowing, I’d rather be dead.” When we learned them, my teacher told us that there is never an appropriate occasion to say the “super great” one; it can always be worse, and you should never be that happy. It’s best to just go with the middle one, which is rather like “ehh.” That, to me, is so hilarious because it is so Jewish. They don’t have hilarious stuff like that in Hebrew.

The intentional casting off of shtetl-ness and oppression has served to create a culture of Judaism here in Israel that is completely different from any kind of Judaism I’ve ever experienced. In Israel, Jews call us “Diaspora Jews.” They differentiate themselves from all other Jews, because we are still in diaspora and they are not; they are “home,” they are “back,” they have “returned,” they have “come up to the Land of Israel” (which is the actual definition of “making Aliya,” by the way.) They are different from us. No kidding.

Reading Out Loud

October 12, 2010

There are two major things I wanted to talk about after yesterday, so I’m making them two separate posts so it isn’t super long.

Today our Hebrew class was the first with our new teacher, the intermediate guy Ofir. During class, we were going around in a circle and reading this passage out loud. It was really complex and I didn’t know a lot of the words. As it got closer and closer to my turn, the speaker slowly snaking around the circle, I stopped paying attention to what any of the words meant. I stopped trying to understand the vocabulary, stopped trying to read along before the reader said the words. All I felt was an overwhelming fear and panic that I was going to have to read out loud. At the last moment, he switched the direction of the circle so after all that worry and woe, I ended up not having to read. Then we had to answer questions about the passage in pairs, and I couldn’t do it. Even though I knew most of the words in the passage, and in other circumstances I would have easily been able to answer every question without checking back. But because of my extreme performance anxiety, I couldn’t remember anything.

I feel like I finally understand a tiny sliver of what it’s like to read out loud in elementary school (and middle and high school!) for kids who can’t read well. I, as the speediest reader in existence, was always just bored with those kids, and was never able to completely put myself in their shoes and think about how incredibly terrifying it is to know that soon it will be your turn to read and you can’t do it well. And the fact that I couldn’t process any of the words, and wasn’t able to remember any of what had been read out loud makes a lot of sense. Of course you can’t comprehend if you’re that scared of reading out loud. I even found myself skipping ahead to where I thought I was going to have to read and writing out transliterations so I would be able to read easier. No wonder I didn’t learn anything!

But what do we do? We can’t have kids who don’t read well just not read out loud. And it’s important for my Hebrew for me to read out loud. And how do you make this work for speed demon readers and for incredibly slow readers?

In my classes with our old teacher (SHIRA I MISS YOUUUUUU) I didn’t feel that pressure and worry. Which I think is attributed to two main factors: (a) we combined with the class above us, who are all better readers than we are, so I feel like when I’m slow I’m pushing down the level and I worry (and, of course, because I’m neurotic, become convinced) that they are very frustrated with us. And (b) Shira created an environment where mistakes were just a part of learning, and it didn’t feel like a big deal at all. For whatever reasons, Ofir has not been able to create that environment with us, so it is super stressful.

How do you create that environment? How do you do this so that everyone learns but no one is either so bored or so scared that they check out of the conversation? I have no idea. Are leveled reading circles the answer? Most of the progressive education literature says no, but I don’t really see any other solution that actually works.

What do y’all think/know?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Israel as a Pressure Cooker

October 7, 2010

Over the past few days, I have had very interesting conversations about Israel as a place and as a people. In a session with Tamar and Avital, our volunteer placement coordinators, they were talking about how there is so much tension in Israel, and that is very apparent in the schools. When Tamar and Avital were 12 it was the first gulf war, and they had to go to school at staggered times so they could all have class in the bomb shelter. They had to bring gas masks with them at all times, and had a gas mask decorating class so they would be pretty. And that was their middle school experience. Plus, I’m sure, all the bullshit that comes with being 12 no matter where you are. Wtf.

And later the day (I think? Maybe the next day?) Amy and I were talking about Israel as a whole and about the conflict. I was saying that I think if I were to design a sociological/psychological experiment (without any sort of ethics, mind you) to test how long humans can undergo tension and fear before they annihilate each other, I could not have designed it any better than the Israel/Palestine situation. A situation born of overwhelming fear of annihilation for the Jews; fighting about religion, which is one of the most tense and overwhelmingly personal identities a person can have; living in a tiny area with dwindling resources where it is very hot; with global support torn between the two; with generations of propaganda and hatred having become an essential part of the cultures; and with the militarization of nearly every single Jew in Israel…honestly how could it be any worse?

And it is super tense. Every time you walk into the bus station or the mall your bag is checked by a security officer and you are wanded with a metal detector. There are often fireworks set off here in Yafo, and every time you wonder if they are gunshots or not. Every single apartment and house and school has a bomb shelter in it. There has not been a single day that I have walked outside my apartment and not seen a gun. Seriously, it could not be a worse situation.

And you see that tension in the people. The way everyone pushes and is rude, the way the kids at the kindergarten are fighting with each other – it is clear that a huge part of Israeli identity, for those who are accepted into the Jewish majority of society and for the Arabs who live on the margins of it, is determined by this immense pressure cooker of a county and a conflict. And for me, that explains so much. It explains why things aren’t getting better, because it is being passed down to the children every day. It’s not just the conflict that’s tense, it’s not just when you talk about Palestine that’s tense. It’s like the whole country is tense all of the time. How can you possibly live your life like that and not be profoundly fucked up? I don’t think it’s possible. I think this country and this life, and especially the life for those who serve in the army, is profoundly fucked up. And how can we expect people who are so fucked up from living here to be able to solve this conflict?

I don’t know. I don’t know any of the answers. I know that neither side would accept a third party coming up with and instituting a solution. Obviously that would not go over very well. But every day I am doubting more and more how much they can do on their own.

Earlier that day, Hannah and Dante and I were talking about how in the entire history of the world we cannot think of a single example of an invading/colonizing force that didn’t exterminate, convert, or enslave the local population that ended up living and coexisting peacefully there. “Americans” exterminated and relocated Native Americans. Spaniards converted the native peoples in South and Central America. Colonizers in Africa and India eventually had to leave those nations because of civil wars or civil unrest. Never has this Israel/Palestine situation worked out. And Israel should have known that. This is a “nation” built in the 1950s. They should have learned the lessons of history. They should have learned from the mistakes of America and England and the brutal histories of ethnic cleansing and enslavement. With all those centuries of knowledge behind them, how did they not see that this would never work out? Obviously I’m not saying the Jews should have exterminated, converted, or enslaved the Palestinians. Obviously. I’m saying they should have known that this was never going to work. They shoulda gone to Baja.


Also, happy birthday to Samantha!!! Manfa, I hope you have a lovely day, and I hope I get to see you sometime when I come back to the states!

First Day of Volunteering

I am sorry for not writing for so long. I’m picking up with today, and will be writing about the profound things that have come up in the last week, but not all the minutia. Here is yesterday!

October 6, 2010

Today is our first day of volunteering. I went to two sites: the Daniel Kindergarten and the Arab-Jewish Community Center. At the Daniel Kindergarten I thought we were just going to talk to the people and find out what classes we’re going to be in and observe some. Of course, in true Israeli style, we got there and the lady was like, “Okay, here is a class, you’re here until 3, yes? Okay.” And left. So we observed for a while and then waded in and started playing. It is fascinating in there.

In the “kindergarten” there is a big range of ages, possibly 4-7. The kids are a mix of Arab and Jewish, but I’m not sure how they are split up or what language the instruction is in. I only heard the teachers speaking Hebrew, but maybe in their individual classes there is some Arabic, I’m not sure. The physical set up is very interesting, with a common playroom and then small personal classrooms off of it (Mickey Mouse style).

There are so many differences in the way the children act here and in America. There is a huge amount of pushing, grabbing, violence and running crazy here. There is an intense lack of personal space, and the kids are constantly touching each other. There is much less teacher interaction and facilitation, and the kids end up resolving almost all of their altercations by themselves. And by “resolve,” I mean whoever grabs harder wins. I’m sure this was compounded by the fact there was only one teacher for a whole lot of kids, but I imagine that even with more teachers, it would still be this way.

I see a lot of adult Israeli behavior in this setting. Israelis are constantly pushing each other, there is no such thing as line, and people get all up in your personal space. The short version is that Israelis are not known for their excessive politeness or turn taking. At the supermarket, you can be waiting in line for 20 minutes and people will come around to the front of the counter and buy their soda or whatever without waiting, and that’s totally acceptable. It’s clear these kids are socialized to do these things from day one. This kindergarten is tiny version of real Israeli society, like all kindergartens are tiny versions of their societies, I suppose.

And this is a coexistence school, with many Jewish families with money and many local Arab kids without money. The Jewish families mostly belong to Beit Daniel, a temple in Tel Aviv, that started this kindergarten inside an existing elementary school. So, in theory, it is awesome that these Jewish and Arab kids in the same classes, getting to be friends and getting to know each other. However, after brief time there, I wonder if instead of getting to be friends and getting to know one another, they are just learning to fight with each other from a younger age. I didn’t notice too much of Jewish-looking kids only fighting with Arab-looking kids, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that is the case. I hope this early interaction isn’t actually making thing worse.

When we entered the school, the security guard who let us in was about to undo the lock, and then he stopped and asked: “Do you have gun?” We were all quite taken aback, and said no, to which he replied: “Any weapon?” We said no, and then he let us in. None of us failed to notice the loaded gun on his hip. I’ve gotten very used to seeing giant guns around everywhere, and his little sidearm was much smaller than the giant things the soldiers carry around with them, but still. Seeing him walking around dozens of 4-year-olds with a gun on him completely weirded me out. I know the kids are completely used to guns, and that when they grow up most of them will serve in the army and use a gun, but still. Seeing it inches away from them was not something I enjoyed.

It also struck me when I was sitting at a table with them playing with plastic animals, that most of these kids are going to be in the army in less than 14 years. And they are going to carry guns and shoot things and maybe die. And that is so terrifying.

After the kindergarten, Stephanie and I went to the Community Center, which is about a 15-minute walk from our house. Usually I will be there on Thursdays, but I went today to get an orientation. Like the kindergarten, there was no real orientation, we just worked with/talked to to the kids. There weren’t very many today because it was a weird schedule, but we did talk to two 13-year-old girls for quite a while. They were the sweetest girls ever, and super impressively spoke Arabic, Hebrew, and English fluently. Wtf, I wish I were as awesome as they are. The girl who runs the center is very nice; she’s American and made aliya a few years ago, so it’s nice that there is zero language barrier with her. Sadly, the two girls we bonded with today won’t be there on Thursdays, which is my regular day, so I’ll have to start all over tomorrow. But I think it will be fine.

And tonight we went out to Margoza, the local bar we tend to frequent, to have a party for our ulpan class with our teacher, Shira. Since our orientation month has ended, now we are all sharing one teacher, unfortunately the one from the intermediate class I HATED. So we went out with Shira, and it was hilariously fun. We’re going to miss her tons and tons, but she says she’ll come visit us. She gave us her cell number, so we’re going to force her to. We are all very concerned about having the intermediate teacher because none of us have had good experiences with him. Also, we are either joining with the intermediate class and having one giant class (their class only has 4 people and is at the same point in the book that we are?) or splitting our class into two groups and having the more advanced of us join with the intermediate class. I don’t really know which one would work better; mostly I just wish Shira were staying.

After the bar we came back to my apartment and watched NCIS, which thankfully is improving after the super weird first episode, and then bed! The end!