Monday, September 17, 2007

My First Day At Ulpan

“So far, we are adjusting well to the loss of Labor Day; we have other things on our minds. I just hope I have the strength to make it through the 5, 5, 5 of Ulpan.”
Some of my audience, reading the ending to my previous entry, sent me solicitous responses, expressing full confidence in our ability to survive and conquer Ulpan. Here is how we began our studies.
First of all, Barbara had previously called one of the ulpans, Morasha, and speaking to the woman-in-charge in Hebrew ascertained that the starting date was Sunday, Sept. 2. However, the lady-in-charge said, since neither of us was a beginner, we could come in on Monday, and they would figure out in what level we belonged. So we came in on Monday to find out that they had only one level, beginners. What they proposed we do was that I should start from the beginning, and Barbara, who is more advanced, should go into a class that had started two and a half months ago, which, if nothing else, would mean that she would get only half of her government allotted five months. To put it in its rawest form, the lady-in-charge had told us to come in, knowing full well that she had nothing to offer us, was offended when we didn’t like her suggestions, and made believe that we had no alternative but to take her up on her offer.
Perhaps at this time it might be useful to explain my current working attitude towards living in Israel, which is as follows: it is very easy (you have no idea how easy until you live here) to criticize what goes on, from the current inept government, the overwhelming bureaucracies, down to the supermarket shopping carts, each of whose wheels go in a different direction (if that isn’t a metaphor for life here, I don’t know what is!) But when you take a step back and look at the larger picture, you realize what has been accomplished here since 1948, since 1968 (when Barbara was living here and telephones were rare and black and white TV’s were just being introduced) all in an environment of unending enmity from its neighbors. And it was all done without any help from me (OK, I have prayed everyday for the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and we have purchased a few Israel bonds, but let’s be real.) So I’m willing to cut the average Israeli who by his presence built and defended this country a little slack. But there is a level of Israeli chutzpah, to quote Winston Churchill, “up with which I will not put.” And so we told the lady-in-charge what she could do with her suggestions.
After a calming down session, Barbara and I sat down with the list of ulpans in the Jerusalem area (fewer than you might suppose) and Barbara called Ulpan Beth HaAm, which is an entirely different kind of operation, and we went over there and registered. Now Beth Ham has a reputation for being “left-wing,” probably because the strength of its program invites many non-olim to study there, usually to qualify for an Israeli university. So who would these non-olim be? Mostly Israeli Arabs, some Christian, but mostly Muslim. So you can be sitting in class next to a young woman, her head wrapped in a scarf. But she will know more Hebrew than you do. Of course, every non-olim is not an Arab: take Uxu for example; she is originally from Korea, but she comes to class with a German-Hebrew dictionary! She and others in the class speak three or four languages. Almost everyone speaks some English, although I am the only Anglo in my class. I am also one of only four Jews (assuming they all show up), ¼ of the class. There is something disconcerting about being a minority in an Israeli ulpan, something which I would never have expected. I discussed this with our art historian friend Orli, who is in the same program, although in a higher class. How did she put it? Something about having to examine her attitudes and pre-conceptions. Nonetheless, the program is well run, and Barbara, Natania (who is now in the same class as Barbara), and I are all progressing reasonably well.
Because they let us out from ulpan on Fridays, we were able to join 50 other olim, NBN and tour staff on a Nefesh B’Nefesh outing on Sept. 7, a bus ride and mini-hike at a park in the forests west of Jerusalem, the site of a village called Sataf that had been abandoned by Arabs in 1948. Of course, we didn’t have Danny Chazin, Teaneck’s resident hike leader with us. In his place, we had Peter Abelow, (also with Teaneck connections) a noted tour guide and writer. As we stood at the top of the trail prior to descending, Peter pointed out that examples of five of the seven species mentioned in the Torah as indigenous to The Land were located within twenty feet of us: an olive tree, a pomegranate tree, a fig tree, grape vines, and a date palm tree. Many of us walked over to the tiny date palm tree -- about five feet tall – and there growing from the trunk, straight and tall, was a lulav (one of the four species used on Sukkot.) Now most of us were familiar with lulavs packaged in the dozens or hundreds, on sale on tables in synagogues and on street corners in Jewish neighborhoods. But this was the first time that I and the others had seen one actually growing. We were amazed, astonished, and awestruck by this slight amount of vegetation, although I would have a hard time explaining why. I mentioned this to our neighbor Suri, who understood exactly how I felt: one year they realized that a non-descript weed growing in their yard was actually an etrog tree, and there was a real live etrog (another of the four species used on Sukkot) on the tree.
There is a special feeling for the plants mentioned in the Torah, used on the holidays, or just able to grow here, a connection to Our Holy Land which is one of the reasons why we live here. I can look out the window where I am sitting and see in the back yard a large scraggly olive tree and a medium size cactus, the kind that grows prickly pears known as sabras. In our front yard, hanging from a wall is a long, skinny branch of a cactus, which all of a sudden produced an enormous (eight inches long) white flower which always last for one day. This year that day was Shabbat, so I couldn’t take a digital image to show everyone.
Near the bottom of the Sataf trail, we saw fenced-in plots of ground, given to Jerusalemites to cultivate, so that even urban dwellers can retain their love of the earth and what can grow in it. We had walked down a steep, rocky path, past a spring which gushed forth from a hole in the side of a hill into a small pool into which two Israeli boys were diving (of course ignoring the sign not to enter the water.) We had stopped midway for a break, resting and singing, accompanied by a guitar and flute.
From the bottom, we took the bus back to the top, where there are facilities and a place to eat. Barbara and I sat and had lunch at a table with two Chabadniks (followers of the departed Lubavitch rebbe) we had met on the hike: an older man who lives in Connecticut and his son who lives in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem. The younger man and I had a spirited, but friendly discussion about Modern Hebrew and Jewish education – no doubt prompted by my ulpan experience. His position, one I’ve heard many times, is that there is no time in a yeshiva curriculum to study Hebrew as a language. Concentrate on Torah studies as the basis for Jewish survival and continuity. From that study, one will pick up knowledge of Hebrew grammar and language skills. To which the reply is that Torah study is indeed essential, but insofar as our long term survival as a people is now dependent on our being in Eretz Yisrael, teaching Hebrew, now our national language, to anyone and everyone who can learn it is also essential. We went round and round on these points, but ultimately arrived at a compromise position: if Jewish schools were going to teach Hebrew language a period a day, five days a week, for twelve or fourteen years, then our children should learn a lot more Hebrew than they do. At this precise moment of amity, we got the signal to get back on our bus for the short journey back to the central bus station in Jerusalem, leaving me time to do the following calculation: there must be at least a million Israeli Arabs who can speak Hebrew. How many diaspora Jews (excluding expatriate Israelis who are temporarily residing outside The Land) can do the same? And why are there more Arabs than Jewish olim in my ulpan?


Unknown said...

Another Ulpan to check out is 15 Sokolov. That's where I went.

Yehudi said...

I love your stories and my wife and I are just dying to make aliyah! Very soon!