Monday, June 21, 2010

It's Just an Ocean

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Some of you are old enough to remember this hoary maxim (although in my day, more cynical minds had shortened it to “All work and no play makes jack [money]). We in the Casden household are firm believers in that aphorism – in its original form – for we are neither dull nor wealthy. Even though neither of us is gainfully employed, we are still putting in a lot of effort and have well-established routines, which we can easily get caught up in to the exclusion of life around us. A simple remedy for the I-can’t-do- such-and-such-today; I-have-to-do-the-laundry syndrome is to get off our duffs and go on a tiyul to somewhere in The Land; although it’s usually Barbara who has made the initial suggestion and yours truly who is initially resistant (every marriage needs a pusher and a pushee). Often my hesitation stems from financial considerations; but that was not the case as far as the proposed trip to the old city of Jaffa was concerned. Here it had to do with the need for us to be on a bus out of Ma’ale Adumim at 6:15AM, an hour which I normally don’t ‘do.’ Of course, in the end, I succumbed to my sweet wife’s wishes. We could, after all, sleep on the bus (we did; we did). And Jaffa was left on a diminishing list of places which we visited in 1980 and have not been back to since. No doubt, there would be plenty to photograph, and the laundry and the shopping would wait another day.
And so, on the day after my efforts with my Ethiopian student, chronicled in my most recent article, we set out on the frightfully early bus which would take us straight to Tel Aviv, where we would get a second bus, one which would meander through that city and forty minutes later bring us to the best known landmark in Jaffa, the migdal schaon (the clock tower). Fond memories of this Ottoman monument, in whose shadow we had some unforgettable couscous and chicken thirty years ago. I have remarked to Barbara about our failure to have kept better records of some of the places we went to on our first trip. Not that this restaurant, or other places of fond recall would still be there today; but it would be nice to know where things were and what’s there now. (What isn’t there now in old Jaffa is the kind of kosher place where one can get a coffee and a pastry at 9AM, so I wound up spending eight shekels for a four and a half shekel container of yogurt, although the Arab grocer did throw in a plastic spoon at no extra charge.)
It turns out that there were two English-speaking tours which began at the aforementioned clock tower at 9:30 that Wednesday morning: one, the regular tour which goes on every Wednesday and is FREE, and a private tour sponsored by an organization which is held every so often and for which there is a forty shekel charge. Now I’m convinced that some of you are running out to place your bet with your favorite bookie as to which one we went on; but, not so fast, because for once you would be wrong. Barbara, not even thinking about the regular tour, had signed us up for this special tour, touted as going to unusual places which the regular tour wouldn’t go to.
Sometimes I have no choice but to reveal details that are not so pleasant, all in the service of ‘a fair and accurate account,’ a stern taskmaster in the best of times. Otherwise, I would gloss over the way our tour began. The woman who was our guide began by climbing onto a two foot high pedestal to address the group and ten seconds later, descended and put her head between her knees, in obvious distress. One of the other women led her off to ‘the facilities,’ from which she emerged fifteen minutes later, having up-chucked whatever had offended her digestive system, ready to resume her work. But she was not herself; or at least we hope she would have been more in command of the situation on another day. The group reassembled and we headed off through a side street, definitely off the beaten track, where stopped for an explanation of where we were. As our guide began speaking, Barbara pointed out to me a doorway with the following legend in large white letters on a sky blue background written vertically and horizontally: B-R-O-N-X. (Homeland, homeland, you’re forever in my memory…) I sensed that there was a fine photograph there, but I couldn’t take it just yet. Half of our group was blocking my view. No matter. The sign wasn’t going anywhere; I would wait until the lady was finished talking and would move on. She continued to talk and continued to talk, and after a while, those of us with cameras began peeling off, in search of something to photograph. I moseyed around, keeping an eye on the group. Sometimes one has to be patient. F-i-n-a-l-l-y, she finished talking and moved on, leaving me to get my photograph.
The pattern continued. The guide would stop somewhere and talk and talk. Barbara, whose role it is on tours to actually listen in case the leader is saying anything of interest, reported that whatever message she had, she was not staying on it. People would distract her with irrelevant questions, and off she would go on a tangent, like the fact that the eucalyptus is the second tallest tree in the world (only the California redwood is bigger). Now I’m not writing this to complain. Half of her group chose to listen, and the rest of us were free to wander around, fairly confident that if we returned ten minutes later, she would still be there. Thus I got to take many more photographs than I would if I were constantly running to keep up with the guide.
And what a place to wander around in! What a collection of amazing streets with eclectic stores! There were shops chocked filled with wild stuff like a 1920 vintage windup Victrola (why do they always ruin it by putting an LP on a machine that was designed to play 78 RPM shellac disks?). Some had huge collections of lesser-value items (a/k/a junk). I could have been back at a Brighton Beach flea market, where one man’s drek is another man’s gelt. There were stores with legitimately old furniture in better or worse condition, and I suspect that every restaurant in town was furnished with idiosyncratic tables and chairs obtained locally. Another block was filled with restaurant supplies, second hand stainless steel sinks of all sizes and shapes, just the place if you want to buy a machine to make the sludgy ice café that is ubiquitous here in The Land. In fact, as we passed one of these stores, the proprietor came out with little cups of some kind of iced desserts to cool us off. But how did it happen that all these stores wound up on adjoining streets in this old city? There is a story here, and while the tour leader was trying to explain the history of the area, in general, her audience was too distracted to discern a coherent thread to her narrative about a city dripping with history.
Then we changed direction and began walking up a hill, and suddenly we were passing some beautiful buildings in the Bauhaus style. What were they doing there, when were they built, and by whom? At that precise moment in time, someone spotted an ice cream store across the street. “Ooooh, can we stop for ice cream?” The entire group including the leader traipsed across the street. I looked at my watch and then at Barbara. It was now twelve noon, and the tiyul was scheduled to end at 12:30. The nutritional effect of the eight shekel yogurt I had eaten at 9:15 was dissipating rapidly, as was my attention span. It was time for lunch, not ice cream. We said goodbye to the group and headed off.
Earlier in the morning, we had spotted a kosher dairy restaurant on one of the streets, and we made a note of where it was, trying to create the same kind of mental map that you would need if you had deposited your car in an enormous parking lot. (My friend Ron tells this great story of when his parents were at Disneyland and his mother thought she had everything under control. She knew exactly what section their car was parked in, except the sign didn’t say 1N, it said IN…) Because this was, all in all a good day, the restaurant was exactly where it was supposed to be, and we hastened inside, out of the sun and into the air-conditioning. We had our choice of tables, all different, with similarly mismatched chairs; again, this being de rigueur in Jaffa. The English speaking waitperson came over to explain what was on their extensive menu and to give his personal recommendations – it took him almost as long as our tour guide, but for him I was all ears. The food was very good, but the coffee was, as they say, to die for, probably the best cup of cappuccino available on the planet.
[Note: the following is an official, authorized digression: When we arrived in 1980, the only coffee available here, as far as we could tell, was ‘bots’ (mud), Turkish strength coffee that you would prepare like instant. By 2004, the world-wide coffee revolution had arrived in Israel, and now you can get better coffee here than I was getting back in The States. Regular American style is not as common in restaurants, but cappuccino or hafuk is ubiquitous and generally speaking is better than what you would get at Starbuck’s. Technically, there is a distinction between cappuccino and hafuk (opposite or upside down), and it has to do with whether the coffee or the frothed milk is poured in first and the strength of the coffee, but it’s all the same and it’s all irresistible – which is not good for my reflux disorder.]

After a leisurely lunch, we were ready to resume our perambulation – this time self-guided – through Old Jaffa, heading up to the park and down to the beach, passing a series of inexpensive meat and fish restaurants along the way. Oh yes, we passed by what looked like the beginning phase of an archaeological dig. Wouldn’t you know it; several days later, we read about the week’s Hareidi riot. Where? In Jaffa. About what? An archaeological dig. I showed the article to Barbara and said, “I’ll bet you I know where they were rioting. How did I know???
It was definitely déjà vu all over again as that well-known man of letters, Yogi Berra once put it. We were walking up a hill with a wooded park area to our left, and, yes, I remembered that exact spot from 1980 although I hadn’t been certain where it was. Here we were in the non-commercial, restful part of the old city, filled with monuments, statues, artifacts, old Christian churches and monasteries for those of that persuasion, small museums, something called the Wishing Bridge, an amphitheater. Simply a wonderful place to take in the scenery, which includes a stunning panoramic view of the Mediterranean, looking as blue as ever, and the shoreline of Tel Aviv. It was there, sitting on a bench out of the direct sun, when we met a couple with their two sons, one post-bar mitzvah and one pre. I had noticed the man because, even though he was wearing a cap, he looked a tad too sunburned for comfort and I assumed he was a tourist. We noticed that they were speaking proper American English, and they noticed that we were doing the same, so we got to talking. He told us that the he was born in The Land and his parents had moved to The States when he was a young child. They had spent the day running all over the place. His two sons thought that the Palmach Museum, which they had visited in the morning, was cool; but by the middle of the afternoon, their attention spans were in dwindling in the heat of the day. The father called his older son over to the edge of the promenade to look at the view. The boy reluctantly walked over and returned to his mother moments later. “It’s just an ocean,” he announced. The father tried something similar with his younger son, with about as much success.
Time for them to call it a day. They told us, but I don’t remember, where they were staying, but it was somewhere in the area near the shore. The fellow, who was involved back in Atlanta in the financial sector, was talking about booting up his computer and getting some work done. For what he needed to do, it mattered not a whit if he was in an office with his tie on or on the deck several thousand miles away in shorts. No one would know, or needed to know where he actually was; as far as anyone knew, he was a phone call or a computer screen away. The marvels of the modern world! I have no idea if he actually intended to get to work or whether he was merely ruminating on the possibility. But I have seen that expression, that wistful look, too often here not to recognize it. “I could be here; I’d like to be here; in truth, I want to be here. But my being here is an illusion. I am chained to my life in Atlanta/Teaneck/Cleveland/London. My children, who go to ‘Zionist’ schools, are as interested in living here as they are in the blue waters of the Mediterranean. My wife is the co-chairperson of our Sisterhood; the thought of any of her children serving in the IDF horrifies her. We have three more days here, during which I can engage my fantasy that I am here to stay. Then we are going back to reality. By the time Father’s Day arrives in a few weeks, we’ll be in the backyard having a barbecue, and the whole trip will be a distant memory. Maybe we can get back here for a week or two in four or five years, or when one of my sons spends his one and only year in yeshiva here.”
Barbara and I took our last look around before heading back to the bus stop. I kept thinking of what the older boy had said, “It’s just an ocean. It’s just, it’s just. The two most dismissive words in the language. It’s just our homeland; it’s just The Land we’ve been yearning for the last two thousand years. It’s just that spot where the enormity of the world’s water meets the tiny bit of land we are trying to hold on to, to develop, to live in. Is it air conditioned? Is it in 3-D? How far is it?
The stop for the bus which would return us to the Arlozeroff station in Tel Aviv was not near where we had gotten off in the morning, and we spent fifteen minutes looking for it before we stumbled on it. It was on Yerushalaim Boulevard. Of course. The street in Jerusalem which begins at the gates of the Old City and keeps going is……Jaffa Street. It’s the same street. In days of yore, one would disembark in Jaffa after a perilous journey across the It’s just Ocean, and head east on that to the City One Could Only Dream About. Today that old road has been superseded by modern highways and you don’t get the same effect as you would making the final ascent to Jerusalem – on a donkey. It’s just a road.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Az ma?

It’s nice being retired. It’s nicer being retired in The Land. It’s nicest still being retired as an English speaker in The Land because then there is always the possibility of tapping into a HUGE network of opportunities to volunteer and do something interesting. Stuff you probably wouldn’t get a chance to do elsewhere. You think there’s any chance that I would get to be listed as the editor of a Hagaddah if I had stayed in Teaneck? No way!
Now I have another venue to use my well-honed writing skills in our never-ending battle to bring English language literacy to Israel (not to mention the yeshiva world). Sometime before Pesach, there was a posting on the Nefesh B’Nefesh e-mail group on behalf of Hebrew University. Their English as a Foreign Language Department was soliciting for a few volunteers to serve as tutors for some of their weaker students. (Even though it’s called Hebrew University and, by and large, the courses are taught in the language of The Land, in many subjects the textbooks are in English; and the students have to be able to read fluently in this universal tongue. Believe it or not, there are kids who grow up here in English-speaking homes who sound like they are from New Jersey but who can’t read a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip.) I saw the post and thought to myself: Is this a volunteer job right up my alley, or is this right up my alley?
So every Tuesday, when Barbara is heading off to Hadassah-Mount Scopus to volunteer in their Occupational Therapy Division, I am about a mile away at the university, trying mightily to get S____ up to speed in his third language. My student arrived here from Ethiopia when he was fifteen and he has picked up enough Hebrew to qualify for university. English is another matter. Here is someone who, quite frankly, would have been a weaker student in my very slow eighth grade English class in J.H.S. 113 Bronx – where I labored for two years. However, he will not fail his level one course; even if his efforts to master English are insufficient, he will not fail. For better or worse, the Department has decided to have rachmones on this young man – who took time off from his studies to do his miluim (reserve army duty) when others wouldn’t have bothered to show up. It’s not a matter of misplaced liberal guilt. The sentiment on Mount Scopus is that this young man has gotten this far on sheer determination, and if he can get by even with a sub-standard understanding of the English language text books, let him at least try. They are going to construct the equivalent of the target which has been painted on the barn after the archer has shot his arrows. He will pass!!! Nonetheless, I am spending two hours a week trying to teach him strategies to extract information from articles in which he knows only some of the vocabulary – which is exactly what I was struggling to do in Hebrew during my Ulpan days.
The articles which the Department of English as a Foreign Language uses in its 178 page stapled-together book (Social Science-Humanities, Level One) are models of brevity and clarity and it was relatively easy to show S____ where to find main ideas and summarize what he has read. But then came the kicker. He had to take an article from one of his regular classes and prepare a summary of that for his English class. As S____ is majoring in international affairs, or something like that, he chose an article, the subject of which his teacher had discussed in class – in Hebrew.
To the day I die (may it not be soon), I will remember with regret the day I first set eyes on “Europe’s Border Relationships and Internal Migration Relations” by Andrew Geddes of the University of Sheffield (which for those of you who are geographically challenged is somewhere in England, which is why they spell funny.) Here’s the Abstract:“This article explores the impact of the changed border relationships within and between EU Member States on the increasingly important external dimension of migration and asylum policy. The article distinguishes between types of borders and identifies key patterns in the post-cold-war migration policies of Europe. It then links these to new forms of international migration relations between EU states and their neighbours.”
But suppose the article’s abstract had been written on the annual I-Cannot-Tell-a-Lie-Even-If-I- Want-To Day. I suspect it would have come out quite different, perhaps something like this:“This article has been written mainly to satisfy the university’s policies on publishing. It allows the author to make reference to fifty two other publications on the subject. The author does not claim to have any original thoughts or ideas or anything new to add to the discussion, although he hopes that you would not have noticed that on your own.”
I took S___’s article and asked the office staff to make another copy for me. After stapling it together (my copy is stapled on the left; his on the right), I began reading it with increasing trepidation. How was I going to fit it into the neat pattern I had constructed for my student: Usually the main idea of an article is contained in the first paragraph; therefore, so there’s no point in going on if you don’t understand the first few sentences. Here the first part is the introduction; it doesn’t say anything, so let’s skip it altogether……… The author maintains that it is important to distinguish between three kinds of borders, territorial, organizational, and conceptual. We can put that distinction in a summary; so what’s the difference between them? Territorial borders we understand. What about the other two? “Organizational borders are not necessarily co-terminus with territorial borders.” And then, “Conceptual borders can be but need not necessarily be co-terminus with territorial and organizational borders.” Are we working on a summary or a flow chart? My general rule of thumb is: any time you see the word ‘co-terminus’ used in a sentence, understand that the user is trying to dazzle you with you-know-what; don’t waste your time trying to figure out what he means because he doesn’t mean very much. This article is the very model of a modern verbal enema, and even I was afraid of tackling it.
We were working on this article for three weeks and the summary for two, and during our last session, S____’s teacher, whose first name is Peter, came in to check on our progress. He mentioned that each of his students was required to give a two or three minute presentation, describing the article being summarized. The point of this exercise was to get the students used to speaking in English in front of a group. He and I both understood that S____ was not fully prepared for the task at hand, but, as always, we would do our best.
So I turned to my student and asked him to start talking about some of the main ideas in the article; we could start from there and do some polishing. So S____ began with the three kinds of borders. What else? What are the reasons why people move from country to country? He continued: to work, to study, to join with family members, to seek refuge (being from the University of Sheffield, the writer did not consider that people might move to another country to restore a homeland from which their ancestors were driven from two thousand years before; but we’ll let that pass). And then the following question, which I re-phrased several times to get a response: do all immigrants have the same experience when they get to the same new country? No. Why not? What does the article say about different kinds of immigrants? With prompting, S____ continued: there are highly skilled and lower skilled migrants, seasonal workers, family migrants, and asylum seekers. (Again, nothing about zealots.) And depending on varying demographic distinctions, one’s experience in adjusting to life in a new country is markedly different.
I looked at S____, and I had a flashback to the morning almost three years ago when we arrived on our Nefesh B’Nefesh flight, and the frenzied welcome we received: dozens of female soldiers and hundreds of well-wishers; a reception with government officials, speeches – too many of them; refreshments; the whole nine yards. In the midst of this hoopla, many of us noticed a minibus transporting twenty or thirty Ethiopians who had also landed that same morning at Ben Gurion airport – to much less fanfare – and we burst into applause. Whether they heard us or not, I have no idea. The contrast between the two groups of olim couldn’t have been more striking. They were probably on their way to the Spartan accommodations of an absorption center. Most of us were headed to apartments, cottages, villas of our choice which we would be renting or had purchased. All of the Ethiopians’ possessions would fit inside some of the large canine crates that a number of our delegation had brought – once you removed the family pet, of course.
There is always the knee-jerk reaction: look at the discrimination; see how the Ethiopians are being treated compared to the royal reception we are receiving. But once one’s knees have been returned to their proper anatomical position, consider the following: consider under what conditions most emigrants from Africa historically have been ‘invited’ and given ‘free tickets’ to scenic places like Mississippi – not of their choice. It is certainly not Israel’s fault that some olim arrive with college degrees and serious employment qualifications and others can’t read or write. All are welcome and all will receive the same package of benefits. But there is no way around the fact that our and their klita (absorption) would not be the same.
I did not describe my experience in so many words to S_______, but even bringing up the subject got a response from my student: after all, he was one of those arriving here with absolutely nothing – at least materially. At which point, I brought up the matter of az ma. (Did you think I would give an article a title and never refer to it?)
Here’s an expression I’ve encountered more than once on the streets. The first time I heard it was in a conversation between two guys walking up Hamitzadim, where we used to live. The first guy said something and the second guy answered with these two Hebrew words. The first guy continued speaking, and again az ma. This went on for about five minutes until the two of them passed out of my range of hearing. The literal meaning is ‘then what,’ which can have more than one nuance in English. If I have it right, az ma is more of an interrogative challenge: ‘so?,’ ‘what next?,’ but ultimately, ‘why are you telling this to me?’ As I explained it to S____, if you are writing or speaking, there has to be an az ma, there has to be a reason why you’re taking someone’s valuable time; you have to be saying something of interest. You have to make your audience care about what you’re saying, something which our friend from Sheffield most likely didn’t consider. If S____ just repeated that there were three kinds of borders, and four major reasons for migration, and five distinct classes of immigrants, (and perhaps a partridge in a pear tree), would anybody be interested, let alone stay awake?
I explained to my student that I am on occasions required to speak in public, as I was recently at my older daughter’s wedding, and I am usually successful in keeping my audience’s attention. Those who know me understand that it’s not because my speaking voice is so mellifluous or my diction so clear – neither of which is the case. It’s because I only talk (or write about) what I know, what is important to me. I told S_____ that I sent out an approximate version of what I said at the wedding, to which I had received a response from friends in The States, suggesting that I might be asked to prepare a similar speech when their daughter got married. Now I don’t know if they were saying this simply as a compliment, but I asked S____ if he thought I could prepare the same kind of effective wedding speech for someone else’s daughter. He pondered the matter for a minute or two before replying “no.” “He’s learning,” I thought. Of course, it would easy for me to have gone through this turgid article on borders and migration and put together a few choice thoughts for S____ to regurgitate, but would it be the same as if he had done it himself? Would it have the same az ma?
S____ would soon be giving his presentation to a class of his peers, students whose common denominator was a weakness in English. Some of them were foreign students, some, like S____, were themselves immigrants. But the rest? Surely their parents or their grandparents had made the difficult journey from Elsewhere to The Land. There are, after all, only so many seventh generation Yerushalmis at Hebrew U. Would any presentation on migration patterns be of interest to the group; would his be? Could he, would he make it interesting? That would be entirely up to the young man I was tutoring. Would he get his mojo and his az ma working? We’ll soon find out.