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.

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