Of course retirement, with all its potentialities, is also a time that most people experience as a race with the inevitable losses of physical and/or mental vitality. What adventures can we pursue while we can still pursue them. Last year I had my own brush with a serious illness. One that I have thankfully moved beyond.
As I said before, one of my reasons for coming to Israel was to see people while I still could. Today, for example, I visited for the third time with my 84-year old cousin Adele who is in a nursing home in the town of Ra’anana. I’ve been staying with her son, Daniel, and spending time with him and his partner Shirley.
When I was nine years old, Adele stayed with us in Bellevue. I called her “Miss South Africa” because I thought she was about the most beautiful woman I had ever seen and, well, she was from South Africa. She was at the time very attentive to me, and left a positive impression. Later, I saw her when I visited Israel 25 years ago, and she came visiting with Danny in Olympia for a couple of weeks after that. We occasionally talked on the phone over the years and regularly exchanged new years greetings. I was left with a very positive reserve of affection for both Adele and Danny. I also got to meet several times, and visit with her younger sister Sybil and her family and infrequent visits and much more easily established internet voice, visual and text connections have allowed the fostering of real, emotionally rich connections.
Our visit today was filled with both sweetness and pain. Adele is in a severely limited state. It leaves her with difficulty in communication and an understandable melancholia. Danny visits with her virtually every day. His apartment – which used to be hers – is just about 2 miles down the road. He brings her food. He brings her magazines which she either does or doesn’t like or read. And mostly he brings her himself. Shirley is amazing with Adele, feeding her, stroking her hair, and generally giving, giving and more giving. These visits are reminiscent of my own visits with my mother, lost to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.
I called Sybil upon seeing Adele for the first time a couple of weeks ago. It was hard for her to understand the real condition of her older sister. After our call, Sybil decided to make the trip up from South Africa to see her. For me, it is a great joy to be able to see Sybil again. That will happen tomorrow when she arrives at the airport. But for her, I have no doubt that it will be a journey that will have moments of pain and reflection.
Sitting in the nursing home today with Adele, Danny and Shirley, I was mostly quiet. Looking at the scene. Not knowing the right thing to say or do. But taking it all in nonetheless, knowing that this too is what this trip to Israel is about. Part of the full range of experiences in launching into not just retirement, but being aged.
This Israel derekh – path – that I am on is in large measure a Jewish path. What does it mean to be Jewish? How am I Jewish? I know that Jewish identity is so much more complex than any particular theological belief.
At the age of 6 months, my parents moved me and my two older sisters across the country from New York City to Seattle (specifically Mercer Island) for dad to take on the job as the Director of the Caroline Kline Galland Jewish Home for the Aged. He was the first professional gerontological social worker to direct that institution and by all the accounts I have heard, he did his job well. Later he took on the position of Director of the Jewish Family and Child Service, thus leading two of the most significant Jewish social service organizations in the region.
Our parents sent all three of us kids to Jewish Sunday school. My sisters and I both attended as campers and counselors Jewish day and overnight camps. I played basketball for the Jewish Community Center team – in the Catholic Youth Organization league no less! I studied for and carried out the Bar Mitzvah ritual, which was a beautiful and life-affirming event with family and friends of many generations from throughout the country in attendance.
My father spoke neither Yiddish nor Hebrew. My mother’s mother tongue (mama loshen) was Yiddish. Theodore Bikel’s Yiddish records were played in the home and occasionally my mom would both begin to hum the songs (she rarely remembered verses; a trait I have unfortunately inherited) and burst into sweet tears at the sound of the Yiddish language. Late in life, mom would go back to her Yiddish roots and join a Yiddish Club and was active in JCC governance and elder activities.
Around the dinner table, the talk of politics and current events included discussions of Israel and anti-Semitism. I remember the little blue and white tin boxes where we would put our coins to plant trees in the Jewish State. Much of the Jewish identity that I derived from my parents was focused on an awareness of the Jewish People’s (our people’s) history of oppression, culminating most recently with the horrors of the Holocaust. I ended up sensing that my parents motive force for social justice was somehow a Jewish part of their being – even though they never quoted the Torah or Talmud or referenced Jewish liturgical or ethical precepts. (OK… “never” is not quite fair. I remember dad saying “choose life” and Hillel was quoted with his “if not now, when” from time to time. But really, does that count?)
One would think from the above description that I was instilled with a strong Jewish identity as a youth, and perhaps that is correct. And yet…
In moving to Seattle my parents took their children far away from family and the bosom of a large New York Jewish culture. Our nearest relatives at the time lived in Los Angeles, and we saw them less than a handful of times throughout my childhood. Eventually my Uncle and Aunt moved to Berkeley, California with their two sons, 700 miles to the south. But that was it. All other known relatives remained on the East Coast and were rarely seen. I spent my entire childhood (age 2 – 18) in Bellevue, across Lake Washington from Seattle. Our high school graduating class had less than 10 Jews among 700 graduates. I knew about half of them and was a close friend of one.
For a short time we joined a Reform Synagogue, though I never remember once going to Shabbat or any other services at the Shul. We never said prayers in our house, with only two exceptions: Hanukkah and during the Passover Seder.
We neither kept kosher in the home, nor observed in any manner shabbat rituals. Neither of my parents ever learned how to read Hebrew (or Yiddish for that matter). Growing up, I never remember them ever trying.
Even on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, we didn’t go to Shul. Sometimes I fasted. I don’t remember my parents doing it.
Both my grandfathers were actively hostile to organized religion. My father’s father, the only grandparent who lived long enough for me to get to know as a young adult, would rail against the “bombast and prejudice” of the religious.
While apparently my mother’s youth included some observance of kashrut in the home, she not only ignored that in her own home, but the kosher issue never came up during my childhood. The abundance of shellfish in Washington State didn’t make a kosher lifestyle any easier for those with creative palates. My mother’s father experienced horrible oppression from his religious father, being whipped when found to be reading secular books. He fully rebelled from religious life, and wrote poetry about that rebellion.
I left my childhood aware that I was a Jew, even generally proud of being a Jew, though I could understand only a few words of Hebrew or Yiddish, had never studied the Torah (after bar mitzvah), had never attended religious services, and was neither physically nor emotionally close to any religious (ritual-practicing) relatives.
Jewishly Dabbling – and a Bit More – in Adulthood
As a young adult, and beyond, my Jewish religious explorations have been sporadic. Sincere, but rather shallow.
A vivid memory from college days, is visiting the Chabad House down the block on Friday night because of curiosity and hunger (they provided free chicken soup and other Shabbat meal treats). During services the rabbi asked me to do a certain prayer. I responded, with embarrassment, that I didn’t know how to read Hebrew. “That’s OK,” he replied. “G-d understands English.”
I never seriously dated a Jewish girl/woman until I met Karen, who would become my first wife. She was more knowledgeable of Jewish ritual from her family and community life in New York City, though she did not practice kashrut nor attend shul herself when we met. We got married by Rabbi Vicki Hollander, one of the first female ordained (Reform) Rabbis the world has ever known, under a chupa and with smashing of glass. It all felt highly important for me to be somehow part of the ancient Jewish lineage.
When we moved to Olympia, we found out that coincidentally Rabbi Hollander was leading services part-time at the local temple. We went, felt the embrace of a nice, small and welcoming community of interesting people, and joined a temple for the first time as adults. Even though Vicki left a few months later, the temple has been a surprisingly large part of my life ever since. Our son Zac, went through all the main Jewish life-cycle events, from being given away by a Cohen, to you know what (sorry about that, Zac!), to Bar Mitzvah. And even after our divorce, and my remarriage to Jean, who is not Jewish, I found myself comfortable to be around other Jews, with the temple as somewhat of a refuge from the dominant Christian-oriented culture around us.
I say surprisingly large part of my life above, in that for one who has off and on played a meaningful role in temple governance (on the Board, committees, etc.), I have remained largely ignorant of Jewish ritual practice and observe less than I know. But as the temple has evolved over the years to affiliate itself with the Reconstructionist Movement, I found a theological home in the basic thinking of its principal founder, Mordecai Kaplan, in which he views Judaism “as the civilization of the Jewish people” without the need of supernatural explanations for that which is divine in the universe. And I have experienced endless delight in exploring with smart and more knowledgeable people than myself, the abundant, engrossing and at times highly humorous ideas and debates found within the Torah and Talmud.
In the last 25 years, I have been so fortunate to be able to connect with parts of my larger world-wide family (mishpocha). Whilst on a sabbatical year, touring the world with my mother in 1980, my father passed away due to heart failure while visiting the Museum of the Diaspora (Beit Hatfootsot) in Israel. This dramatic ending was at least part of the motivating force that resulted in my first visit to Israel in 1994 to be with my mother and return to that museum. Also it was an opportunity to reconnect with my Cousin Adele who had visited us in Bellevue in my youth, see her children Danny and Michal, and meet a whole set of relatives on my mothers side who grew up in Kibbutz K’far Giladi, in the northern tip of the country, adjacent to Lebanon.
The magic of the internet, and the technologies of connection, have permitted parts of our families, long thought dead or simply unknown, to miraculously come to life over these past years. Jean and I visited Adele’s little sister Sybil in South Africa nearly 12 years ago, and through Sybil, other family in that amazing country have become people we love and care about. 5 years ago, Sybil, her husband Arnold, Jean and my sister Laurie went to Israel and linked up with even more relatives that I hadn’t known existed. With a Jewish genealogy conference taking place in Seattle about 3 years ago, we found that there were a plethora of relatives from throughout the world that we knew nothing about but who were thriving participants in their communities. So a reunion on my mother’s side of the family was hatched, and 20 months ago, 90 people connected through our great grandparents (or closer) met in New York City to laugh and tell stories.
The diversity of our family’s Jewish identities is breathtaking. I have – and have met – relatives who are:
Haredi Jews, who live principally within their religious community and adhere strictly to religious rites in all their events and daily life. (You’ve got to watch Shtisel). There are literally hundreds of different groups within this category. Some are strongly attached to a particular rabbi (Hasidim) who see this individual almost with messianic attributes. Others are offended by such devotion to a man (always a man), and have leaders with less charismatic expectations. Some Haredi are anti-Zionist (these are often in New York and elsewhere in the diaspora) who believe that Israel should not be re-established prior to the arrival of the messiah. Many Haredi (most?) do not serve in the Israeli Army, instead are provided a student deferment. There is great political and legal conflict over this public policy. Some strains of Haredi believe that until all Jews fully practice Jewish ritual life, the messiah will not come. How do you think they view Reconstructionist Judaism?
Modern Orthodox Observant Jews, who follow Jewish ritual law (halakha), but also find ways of living in the larger society. For example, many hold jobs outside of religious institutions and interact with the non-religious.
Modern Orthodox Semi-Observant Jews, who pick and choose the halakha they follow and have mixed emotions about how observant (frum) they really should or want to be.
Conservative Jews, who are frankly mostly of American descent, and also pick and choose their adherence to halakha. They are just beginning to move to more gender-inclusive forms of ritual which clearly would distinguish them from the Orthodox, who have so far rejected that.
Reform Jews or otherwise Progressive Jews, who find in their participation in Jewish life and community both social purpose, friendships, and the comforts of ritual. Again, this is much bigger in the US than in Israel. The Israeli version of this group constantly is in a fight for credibility and legal status as “Jews” from the dominantly Orthodox rabbinate. For example, Israel does not necessarily recognize the “right of return” for diaspora Jews if they were converts performed by Reform rabbis.
Unaffiliated Jews, who, especially in Israel, observe certain rituals, believe in the basic notion of the Hebrew G-d, but whose secular life is paramount. These folks appreciate the joys of Shabbat shared with family and friends, light the candles, say the prayers, and would probably be uncomfortable eating oysters. They see themselves clearly as Jews, and not just Israelis, but resent some of the restrictions placed on their lives in Israel by some laws pushed forward by the Haredi and Orthodox.
Secular Jews, or more to the point in Israel, Secular Israelis, who’s identity as Israelis is more nationalistic than religious but nonetheless consider themselves Jews.
Anti-Zionist Secular Israelis, who neither see themselves as Jews, nor agree with the notion of a Jewish State. They would probably be fine with a “one-state solution” to the Israel-Palestine political question, if safety were assured.
As I have shared meals with these relatives and talked about our lives and beliefs, the richness and pain and joy and wonder in the diversity of the Jewish people is brought home to me in intimate ways.
Other Explorations of Religion and Identity
I’ve run into the most extraordinary folks. A few examples and we’ll call this blog entry much too long but over:
A couple of nights ago, my landlady Gila had a lovely dinner party with neighbors, her daughter, her friends and me. What a feast! These folks were all Zionists, a mix of some of the above religious categories, and generally left of center politically as Israelis measure these things. We got to talking about all the difficulties presently facing Jews and the country. But then one of them said, “You know, Jews are a happy people. If you look at the happiness ratings of countries in the world, we’re number 8.” So I looked it up. OK… number 11. Not so bad. Today, as I was studying Hebrew with a local Mizrahi Jew (from Morocco and Iraq), she talked without my prompting about how happy she and most Israelis are. What prompted her expression was the upcoming holiday of Purim, which is the official “you’re allowed to go completely nuts and have all the fun you can” holiday around here. At least part of that joy, they claim, and I have to agree, is their Jewish lifestyle.
I’ve been going to the Kol Haneshama Synagogue when in town for Friday night services. This is one of the first Reform shuls in Israel. It’s service is simple and very very beautiful which consists almost entirely of singling and praying musically. It is all – or almost all – in Hebrew, so I can not yet understand hardly any of the content, but musically it is very familiar to what we do at our Olympia temple. However with this group, of between 75 and 100 folks, the singing participation is by just about everyone, they know what they are singing and it is very powerful.
I walked home from Kol Haneshama a few weeks ago with a gentleman who turns out to be the Father of Reform Zionism, Dr. Michael Livni. He also founded a Reform Kibbutz in the Negev Desert. We got a ride together a couple of days ago home from my Skilled Volunteers for Israel Jerusalem program head Terry, who was mentioned earlier in the blog. I’ve reached out for a conversation with Dr. Livni and hope he can find the time to engage.
Went for a falafel with a Jerusalem Palestinian student from my ulpan last week. Really sweet, nice young man. He took me to the East Jerusalem side of city, and we sat down outside on some plastic chairs to eat. There were no empty tables so he asked whether we could join a group of older Palestinians hanging out. They said fine. One of them, Ibrahim, then started to tell me about his life and his work for peace. He claimed to have been to the White House and all around the world advocating for peace. Here is his website. The site is exactly like sitting next to him. He invited me to his Peace House. I might just go.
There is an English language Jewish education center in my neighborhood called Pardes. I will be going to a workshop there this coming Thursday. Jerusalem is replete with educational opportunities about religion, history, the arts and culture. I will continue to explore these and share highlights with you along the way.
I may have the attribution all wrong, but I believe it was the former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme who said – and I paraphrase: “I first got into politics because I wanted to solve problems and make people happy. I’ve learned over the years that the measure of my success as a politician is the size of the problem that people are completely unhappy about. If they are complaining about road conditions and not about the war then I’m doing pretty well. But they’ll despise me all the same.”
Even before arriving in Israel, I heard complaints and warnings from the locals. “Don’t take the new high-speed rail from the airport to Jerusalem. It’s unreliable. The whole thing is a big balagan (mess). Trust me, you don’t want to do that.”
“But it’s only $4 and I love trains,” I practically begged.
“Just don’t do it. I know what I’m talking about. Take either a cab that I can get for you, or a sherut.”
(First aside: A sherut is the word for a collective taxi in Israel. The drivers wait at a central stop – like outside an airport – until they fill up with a certain number of passengers. They then take those passengers where they want to go. An aside upon an aside is that the word “sherut” means service. The plural of sherut is sherutim. Add a “the” – or “Ha” – to the front of that word and it becomes “ha’sherutim” which is also the word for public bathrooms. “Eyfo (Where is) ha’sherutim” is the most important phrase to learn for an old man foreigner in Israel!)
So I end up taking the sherut and on the drive to Jerusalem along modern super-highway #1, I look to my north and there are the super-modern bridges and abutments for the high-speed rail line. I’m still desperately yearning to take that train. Both the highway and the rail right-of-way consistent of miles upon miles of bridges spanning huge chasms on the greater than 2000 foot climb into the Jerusalem hills. Nothing less than spectacular – even beautiful – engineering. And for those who don’t get what beauty I’m talking about, check out the Deception Pass bridge.
I have heard several friends and relatives in Israel state something to the effect “The public services in this country are appalling. Sure we are making some progress in some areas, but we are clearly falling further and further behind.”
And yet, from my American eye, I see first-world public infrastructure broadly distributed. For examples:
My bus number 78, which starts a couple hundred feet from my front door with arrival intervals of 10 minutes – I’ve yet to wait more than 8 minutes for a bus – delivers me close to my ulpan, close to my volunteer office, directly to downtown and Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, directly to the “shuk” (Mahane Yehuda market), directly to the Central Bus Station, a short walk to choir, and 300 feet from my ping pong club. And if I wanted to walk 500 feet more from my house, I’d have a choice of a half-dozen more bus routes that take me anywhere I would want to go in the city.
At major bus stops there is an electronic readerboard listing the projected arrival times of all buses in the next 15 minutes of so. Amazingly accurate… and comforting as one waits.
The buses themselves are comfortable and modern. You enter and exit the articulated (bend in the middle) bus at any one of 5 doors. You use a smart card – I bought one with unlimited travel for one month at about $60 – and just press the card against a card reader and it automatically recognizes whether you are paid up or not. If your card is not unlimited in use but rather you have paid for a certain amount of money in rides, the reader automatically deducts the correct cost and gives you a receipt. The whole system works on a semi-honor system. People can go on and off the bus at their whim, but there is some possibility that an inspector may be present and ding you I suppose. I’ve never noticed one, but then, like the air marshal in the movie “Bridesmaids” they could be secretly hiding their identity.
The intercity bus system is called “Egged.” (Pronounce it correctly as Egg Ed and consider yourself “Egg-ucated.”) It goes everywhere in the country and at very reasonable cost. I just took the bus from Jerusalem to the northern part of the country – a greater than 2 hour drive – for about $4.
Generally, the roads are well-paved, both in the intercity highway system and the in-town streets. There are problems and inequities that I have seen, but they seem on par with the States. Especially in the older areas, the rights-of-way are narrow and winding. Drivers use their horns frequently – often of necessity but sometimes – and I am speculating here – based on marital difficulties, work frustrations, or because they are kinda impatient jerks. Probably it’s Obama’s fault… but I date myself.
Pedestrian amenities are inconsistent, but they are clearly aware of their value and improvements are being made. There is a wonderful rail trail that I love and take regularly to school and around the neighborhood.
There has been a great deal of rain since I have arrived. It is gratefully welcomed, and this winter has ended what apparently has been 5 years of drought. But even while this highly arid country has likely been made more so by climate change, potable water availability has been increasing. Why? Because the Israelis have created the most advanced, most extensive water desalination system in the world.
For the most part, sanitary sewerage… check.
Stormwater systems on roadways… check.
Recycling systems in cities for paper and plastic bottles… check. Though oddly, not metal.
Nationwide telephone system… check. And the country is basically run on WhatsApp. Get it on your phone for free and call me or any Israeli free whenever you want – just remember the 10 hour time difference.
Wifi – virtually everywhere.
Need to pay for your parking on the street? There is a fully automated online, GPS-based system activated by your cell-phone.
Health Care – there is a national – and highly imperfect – system for that. But everyone is covered.
Public Education – universal before college… but funding and curriculum a constant source of concern and tension.
And yet, for all the jaw-dropping advances, problems are real to people’s lives. Traffic IS a mess in the big cities. Poorer neighborhoods do have weaker infrastructure. There are considerable differences and blatant inequities – based on what I have read (much more on this in a future blog post regarding my volunteer work with Bimkom) – with infrastructure in Arab villages and East Jerusalem. Housing prices are through the roof.
And yet again… Jerusalem is less than 150 miles from Damascus. Less than half that distance from a million Syrian refugees in Jordan. Another million plus Syrian refugees are across the border in Lebanon, joining decades of refugee camp existance there by Palestinians. Gaza is a public health and safety disaster. The West Bank is a simmering powderkeg. As is, frankly, Egypt.
My fondest wish for Israelis and their neighbors is what Olof Palme sought – may their greatest kvetch be the traffic.
As a nation formed predominantly of immigrants in the last 70 years (Palestine’s Jewish population under the British Mandate in 1948 was approximately 600,000 and now Israel’s is greater than 10 times that number), and immigrants who primarily did not speak the language (which was reinvented almost from scratch about 140 years ago), it was incumbent to the nation-building process that people learn Hebrew and learn it quickly. So the nation created a program of language learning focused on the ulpan, or Hebrew language school. It subsidized this program so that anyone who wanted to immigrate to Israel (“make aliyah”) could not only attend ulpanim (plural of ulpan) free, but also combine that with free to inexpensive housing and other programs to facilitate integration into society.
I had previously had an experience in the early 2000’s in Mexico of trying to learn Spanish. Their private language school system – developed also post-WWII – was an intensive language immersion experience which included not only 3 – 5 hours of school each day, but residential placement in a Mexican household so that you would continue your Spanish learning at “home.” That worked pretty well for me – though those of you who know my Spanish skills might not agree. So I naturally assumed that some version of that would be available to me in Israel. No such luck.
Turns out that the ulpanim in Israel cater almost exclusively to people wanting to immigrate (olim), young people (under age 35), or preferably, both. Foreign alter kockers (old farts) are apparently no prizes to the State. And the ulpanim do not have a residential placement option with the exception of college dormitory-like places which, again, are exclusively for folks under 35. People like me – and you’ll see later there ain’t many of us – are on our own facing the Jerusalem housing market. A market which can almost make Seattle’s look reasonable. As it turned out, after much effort and some great help, I ended up with much of what I wanted – a shared apartment with an Israeli. But the topic of housing is for another entry.
The ulpan I am attending, Ulpan Milah, is operated in an extraordinarily central location, down the block from the King David Hotel, the modern Mamila Shopping Mall designed by architect Moishe Safdie, and a short walk to the Old City. It is housed in the Hebrew Union College campus, which is connected with the institutional movement of Reform Judaism. A movement which is WAY bigger and more established in the United States than in Israel, where it struggles for its legitimacy as a Jewish entity.
Learning Hebrew was one of my principal motivations for this Israel experience. As with Spanish, I had been exposed to Hebrew off and on since grade school. I remember Senor Ibarra coming to 4th grade and teaching the words for mother and father and house and dog and cat in Spanish and then doing it again in 5th grade and in 6th. I remember learning the same words in my Sunday school Hebrew class from Rabbi Podet and others. I learned to count to ten in both languages and could sing the alphabet songs by memory. Because I went on to have a Bar Mitzvah, I learned to read printed Hebrew letters pretty well. Over the years, with both languages, I took stabs at improving my ability, but nothing really stuck and no real progress was made in either until the 10 weeks in Mexico in 2001. My objective for these three months is to get to approximately the level in modern Hebrew (as distinct from biblical Hebrew) that I got to in Spanish in 2001.
But why learn Hebrew now? There are several motivations. First, but not most importantly, is that learning another language is vital for brain alertness, especially as one gets older. My experience with last year’s heart surgery was a surprisingly traumatic impact on that alertness. It didn’t result in a personality change or major loss of long-term memory, baruch Ha’Shem, but I did experience a slowing down of speech and a markedly declined capacity for short-term memory and spacial orientation. I didn’t and don’t like those limitations and want to actively fight them.
But of course, that could be done more easily and cheaply by another language course in Mexico or Costa Rica. So the other and principal motivation for Hebrew learning is that it enables a richer exploration of my Jewish identity. We can see, even in the above use of baruch Ha’Shem, which is both a religiously inspired term and a common, and yes even secular, expression of everyday life in this country, that speaking Hebrew is a part of what it means to be Jewish in the 21st Century.
All that positive motivation being a given, I began this trip with trepidation, even fear, that I will fail to learn Hebrew. That I won’t be able to keep up. That my brain is not “young” enough to take this task on. So prior to even the Monday morning, February 11 start of ulpan, I went to the school on Sunday to purchase the text book and to begin to case the joint. The guard at the entrance didn’t speak a word of English. I finally blurted out “Ulpan Milah” and he pointed down the hall to a lady sitting behind a desk with young students congregating around her. When it was my turn to talk to her, I asked if she spoke English. Gratefully the answer was yes, but she seemed harried. I got the text book and sort of felt out of place taking her time up with such questions as “where do I go to class tomorrow?” A lack of knowledge that was to prove of some minor consequence the next day when classes begun.
Walking into the front door of Hebrew Union College, I saw many students scampering here and there. I asked someone where Kitah Alef (beginning) class is for Ulpan Milah and they directed me with hand gestures and language that I didn’t understand. Upon entering a classroom – where I asked “kitah alef?” and was assured it was a yes, there were about 6 other students sitting at the little school desks that we work off of. All of them were young Palestinians*. I know this by their garb and the little clue that they were speaking Arabic. Soon more students drifted in. 8, 10, 14, 18… all but me were young Palestinians. Hmm…. that’s surprising and probably more challenging to my learning. The teacher came in and started calling the roll. When we came to the end, I told her I hadn’t been called. She said, that I am probably in the room directly across the hall. And it was so.
That class – my class – is wonderfully diverse. While I am the oldest member – by more than 10 years – there is an even mix of male and female students who hale from Cuba, Bulgaria, Korea, China, the Sudan, the Ukraine, Russia, Germany, Latvia (where my mother’s family came from near Riga), the United States, and more than a third Palestinians from Jerusalem. The picture below is from our whiteboard in class after our teacher asked students to write her name in their native tongue.
The text book is called “Hebrew from Scratch” in English. In Hebrew that is “עברית מן ההתחלה.” After two weeks of 3 hours a day, 4 days a week, I can describe our pattern of learning.
There is one teacher in the classroom at any one time. We actually have had three different teachers (Liat, Nofit and Shlomit) during our two weeks together. Shlomit is a dead ringer for the actress Emma Stone. I tell her that and she thanks me as if it is a special compliment. But I ask her, “surely others have mentioned this?”, to which she smiled coyly, shrugged her shoulders, nodded head up and down and said, “yes… a few.”
The three teachers trade off times, but the curriculum is identical. We tackle about one chapter in the book per day. There is a strategic balance of reading, speaking, listening and writing. The writing is all in cursive – which is to me new and quite difficult. Hebrew cursive is very different from the “block” lettering found in books, newspapers, the internet and this computer. Like all cursive, it is subject to great variety of styles. So this has been one of several major challenges for me, especially given my poor penmanship. I don’t write cursive in English, so making my Hebrew intelligible is harder still.
All the students in the class know some English, yet the class is pedagogically assumed to be 100% in Hebrew. When extremely frustrated, some students in the class ask questions of the teacher in English, and the teacher may “give in” and at least say a word or two in English to help out. That all will likely improve with time, but being lost or not really understanding what is being asked can be exasperating. At one point my exasperation was showing enough, that the teacher came up to me during a break, sat down next to me with a warm smile, and said slowly and calmly “Daniel, lo panicka,” which means “Daniel, don’t panic!” She went on to say in English to me “Daniel, you have only been here a few days. You’re doing well and you will learn this. I am here to help, so if you don’t understand something, it is ok to ask. It is my job and I love my job.”
We learn to write each letter of the alphabet. We pronounce each letter. The teacher and students give examples of words that start with that letter. We go on to read, write and speak in dialog. The teacher often pairs us up and we solve problems with the other person. The teacher insists that we all move around the room so that we can get to know each other with different pairings. One woman – she is a character and a half – complained that she likes always being in the same place. The teacher would have none of that and she too needed to circulate.
There is time for call and response from the class as a whole. Like when the teacher presents a picture and the class must say in unison what the word for that picture is in Hebrew. Other times, the teacher calls on each person to respond individually.
I can’t say the three hours – actually 2.5 hours with a 30 minute break in between – goes quickly. At the end of each lesson I am plum worn out. It all feels SO HARD. Sometimes I feel like I am genuinely behind the rest of the students. I find it difficult to do anything at the same speed as all the others. Other times – especially when I have spent a bit extra time on homework – I feel like real progress is being made. Overall, I still feel uncertain about my chance for success. I asked our teacher Nofit what percentage of students make it? She said 99%. I didn’t believe her but I appreciated her optimism.
A few words about my fellow students and then we’ll call it an entry.
A friendly and ebullient young Palestinian woman classmate is named Noor. I asked her if she was named after Queen Noor of Jordan – King Hussein’s 4th and last wife and now the dowager queen of the Hashemite Kingdom. My classmate Noor drew a complete blank. No, she didn’t know about Queen Noor.
Noor, like a number of the Palestinian women in class, seem very gracious and solicitous of me. I think my advanced age now gives me a kind of safe, grandfatherly mien about me. This is both a bit of a relief and a disappointment for my ego! This aging thing is a two edged sword. A 40-something man came up to me and said that I reminded him a lot of his father. Thanks, bro.
A young non-Jewish American woman classmate is volunteering at a hotel in the Israeli Arab city of Abu Gosh. We got into a discussion of hummus, to which she says proudly said that a recent contest put on by the Guinness Book of World Records claimed that the best hummus in the world is from Abu Gosh. A number of our fellow students gave enthusiastic support. “But I was just in Ra’anana with my cousin,” I said, “and he claimed that the best hummus in Israel was at his local hummus shop. I tasted that hummus last weekend and had to say it was pretty wonderful hummus.” But they all laughed and scoffed at that. “Impossible”, they said. “Ra’anana is a new town – it can’t possibly make good hummus.” I now wanted that Abu Gosh hummus to judge for myself and I wanted it badly. Who could have foreseen that just the next evening, a friend of my cousin – whom Jean, sister Laurie and I stayed with 5 years ago – picked me up for a dinner date. I asked her, “where are we going for a meal?” “Abu Gosh” was her reply.
Ai yai yai…. Was that good hummus! (see below)
4. During our 30 minute break in a class, I get to talking with a student from the Sudan and a student from Germany. The German student it turns out is actually from Riga, Latvia by way of Russia. I tell him that my mother was born in Russia though her family lived near Riga for awhile and she always thought of herself as a Lithuanian/Latvian Litvok (an ethnic type of Jew). He was thrilled to hear it. He himself was a Khasen (canter) and had come to Israel to improve his Hebrew. He said he knew what to sing but not what it meant. As the three of us talked about Israel, one of them said that it is such a narrow country in its middle. I asked “how do you say ‘narrow’ in Hebrew.” The reply was “tsar,” to which I said. “yes, Israel is very tsar… “tsar meod.” We looked at each other with a jolted recognition and said “Gesher Tsar Meod” which means “a very narrow bridge.” We started laughing and instantly burst into the hit Israeli song that was popular just after the 1973 Yom Kippur War:
And of course, my fears of not learning Hebrew all snapped into place.
Fear. It’s a hot topic now. The title of Bob Woodward’s recent book on the Trump Administration. The core political question as Israel goes to the polls in April with each side focused not on hope but which faction can generate more fear of the other. And a very personal question generating my motivation for this Israel experience – failing to learn Hebrew as part of experiencing a meaningful old age. Here’s a wonderful drash (opinion) about the notion of fear. A deeper meaning behind Kol Haolam Kulo.
*I use the word Palestinian warily. My presumption, which is based on some initial conversations but may be tested in the future, is that all of the students who seem like Arabs in appearance are from East Jerusalem. What people are called is a matter of great controversy around here. There are some people in Israel who do not believe that Palestinians are a definable people. There are others – the United Nations and most of the world – who have concluded that they are a people seeking self-governance. And there are extraordinarily complex questions of identity for those non-Jews who are living in East Jerusalem. In class, when the teacher asks “where are you from,” all these folks answer “Jerusalem.” Everyone else in class says what nation they are from.
With almost three months in one spot, you have both an opportunity and a need to establish certain routines. Where will I lie my head at night? Where do I get food? What will be my commute routes and modes of travel to language school (ulpan) Monday through Thursday mornings, and my afternoons of volunteering (Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights – you can look it up online to see the organization’s purpose and activities). And what of cultural activities? And social visits with friends and family.
Dear readers, I am writing to you on a Thursday evening – which is like Friday evening in the States for one of those working stiffs I think I can still recall being. Well, it isn’t exactly like Friday night, because in Jerusalem, the whole place shuts down on Friday after 2 pm and doesn’t awake till Saturday evening. There are exceptions – there are always plenty of exceptions – but shabbat is taken pretty seriously around here, so such things as public transit simply aren’t available. If you need something from the world, you best get it by Thursday evening…Friday morning at the latest.
I am now comfortably sitting in my North Talpiyot room, part of a three-bedroom unit I share with the owner of the condo, Gila. I was so fortunate to connect with her, and this rental arrangement is excellent for me – I hope for her as well. It is now one week in Israel and by George if I haven’t figured most of that routinizing stuff out!
Please let me tell you about my neighborhood. Across the street a major condominium complex is expanding. There are five cranes operating and perhaps as many multi-story buildings going up. Around the corner to the south is the entrance to the Haas Promenade, with beautiful views of the Old City of Jerusalem and surrounding west and east Jerusalem urban centers.
Terry, the Jerusalem contact point for Skilled Volunteers for Israel, the organization which performed matchmaker (Shadkhinit – שַׁדְכָנִית) duties for me and Bimkom, gave me a driving tour of my neighborhood on my first afternoon in town. She showed me the likely grocery shopping places, the urgent care medical facility which is 3 blocks away, an up close look at the (in)famous “separation wall” which divides East Jerusalem from the West Bank not far from my apartment, and the proximity to the Haas Promenade. We then had dinner together at a traditional Middle East dining place at the First Station (a Food, Arts and Cultural site that reminds be a bit of a small scale Granville Island in Vancouver). After dinner I walk back “home” along the beautiful “train track park.” They kept the rails, and filled the interior with preserved wooden planks.
Also, minutes by foot from the apartment is a walk to Emek Refaim Street, the heart of the German Colony, an upscale neighborhood. The Reform Synagogue, Kol Haneshema, which I went to for services 25 years ago, is also in the neighborhood, so I walked to Friday evening erev shabbat services there. While all in Hebrew, and filled with a number of different tunes, nevertheless, I felt right at home with the liturgy and the songs I did know so well. Just a touch on the universality and continuity of the Jewish people… and a pleasant walk back along the train track park to my flat.
The next day – shabbat – I had, as they say, “time to kill.” So I walked to my ulpan site to make sure I knew exactly where it was located, and then walked to the Old City because… well, because I could. Yes, my location is so central that it feels like the Old City is my “hood.” I took a tour of the Old City, checked out another falafel joint, and explored alternative ways of commuting to school.
Forthcoming Blog Entries: The Ulpan Experience, Volunteering, and Connections with Friends and Family
When do you know that your vacation trip has started? When you notionally wanna get away and begin to work on the purposes and logistics? When tickets are purchased? When packing begins? When you leave your home, driving out of your driveway or walking to the transit hub, heading down the same road that you have traveled hundreds of times, but this time the destination is unusual, or even unprecedented? Did the trip start when you have physically arrived at a space different from your regular patterns?
And how is that perception of change differ if at all when you are traveling not on a vacation but on the next step in an evolving and non-routine retirement?
Here are a few incidences that occurred during this transition to Jerusalem that marked the emergence of a start of a trip.
At SeaTac’s American Airlines self check-in station:
“So, you are going to Tel Aviv,” the young lady in uniform both stated and kind of inquired, leaning in to me and the machine, smiling brightly, ready to offer me help that at the moment I did not need.
“Yes,” I smiled back at her.
“Well, it must be interesting, but it’s not really my kind of place.” She paused. “That’s Israel, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is,” I responded.
“Well, I must have been listening sometime in school to remember that!”
“Education is a great thing,” I smiled back!
Then she helped me wrap the baggage claim tag on my large suitcase.
At the End of the Transportation Security Administration Security Line
After 20 minutes of strolling and waiting in the security line, I reach a good-hearted TSA agent. She smirks playfully at me after taking my boarding pass and passport. “Does it smell to you?,” she whispers.
“Say what?” I reply.
“Does it smell like food? Something smells good” she smiles, eyes twinkling.
“When was the last time you ate? I ask.
“Last night.. ’bout 5 o’clock.”
“You gotta go get something to eat, young lady.”
“That be for sure” she laughs, and gives me a big smile as she hands back the docs.
Now For Something Naughty
It’s 6:30am SeaTac time and I’m hungry myself. At the airport you have plenty of food choices. But I’m about to go to the land of serious, ubiquitous koshrut. Eretz Yisrael: the Kosher Everest. And I’m feeling naughty. One last sin before my great Jewish transformation.
I order a Black Forest ham, cheese and egg sandwich at Subway. Not even that tasty, as it turned out, but every mouthful savored.
I do order the egg whites and select “wheat bread.” Secular pieties as partial redemption? Nah, just useful rationalization.
America to Israel at Kennedy
Israel didn’t start at Ben Gurion Airport. It started at the El Al boarding line at Kennedy.
The trip from Seattle to New York was uneventful. But upon leaving the plane and arriving at JFK, the airport’s renowned dysfunction hits you right away. Not one airline official to give directions. No signs pointing to other terminals or identifying which terminal I need to go to re-board on El Al.
Heck… I’ve got a little time. I go for a slice of NYC pizza. Surprise. It’s awful. Really poor and really expensive. I move on.
After asking several people the way, and walking what seemed like about half a mile – I am not exaggerating – going up and down several escalators, and hopping on a train to Terminal 4, I get off to find a vast hall of dozens of international airline counters. I wonder how much time is spent at Kennedy determining which airline line should border others? Unsurprisingly, El Al’s is located far down the hall from EgyptAir and QatarAirways.
When I arrive to the El Al boarding line, I’m back in Israel. More than half of the line-mates are Haredi. I’m surrounded by people of all ages speaking Hebrew and Yiddish (many, but not all, Haredi use Yiddish as their day-to-day tongue, reserving Hebrew more for religious observance). There is already a palpable intensity in the air. No shouts, exactly, but lots of verbal banter and ordering around of some passengers by other passengers. “Where are you going, boychik? Nu?”
El Al staff, all in uniforms, were secular and slightly brusque in affect. I give the first lady attendant my passport. She studies it carefully and starts asking me questions. “I see you’ve been to Jordan.”
“Yes,” I respond. “My sister and I went to Petra 5 years ago.”
“How long were you there?”
“Parts of two days and two nights.”
She looked a tad worried. Asked me to wait, and motioned for another staff to come by. They talked briefly, she handed me back my papers and she told me to move on to the baggage station lady. I then handed my passport and boarding pass to the new lady who gave it to another staff person. After about a minute where I saw him talking to other staff, he came back, handed my papers to the baggage station lady, who in turn handed it to me, and … I was free to go to the plane.
What does security mean to me as I begin this sojourn in Israel? Am I ok with a second look by officials simply because I visited another country long ago?
Israel is a “security state.” It has never been recognized by some of its neighbors (Syria and Lebanon) and there is a “cold peace” with Egypt. Questions of safety in Israeli society and the acts of the State to secure that safety are principle concerns of everyday life and the political life of the country. I am visiting Israel at a time with a national election called for April 9. I expect this already intense and conflicted place to be even more visually predominantly so in the coming months. I’m sure there will be things to blog about.
No, Everyone Does Not Speak English
Arrival at Ben Gurion after another long flight. I’m both beyond tired and exhilarated. There are critical things to do. Make sure my smartphone accepts a new sim card and allows me the access I need to communicate and access the internet. Secure luggage and identify the location of a Nesher Sherut collective taxi which will supposedly take me to the front door of the apartment in the North Talpiyot neighborhood of Jerusalem where I am renting a room. Get cash (shekels) for the sherut and other short-term needs. For all those things… success. Boxes checked. The sky is partly cloudy. The freeway to Jerusalem is a breeze. I’ve arrived.
On to the sherut, I strike up a conversation with two middle age women. I ask them if they speak English. Nope. Hebrew or Yiddish? Nope. How about German? No. Russian? Why yes! (Ah… they looked Russian to me… should have known, right?) Well, turns out they are Ukrainians – not Russians – who are living in Italy. Go figure. Between my Spanish and their Italian, we hit it off famously!
In the fall of 1973, my father, mother and I lived in the London ward of Belsize Park in the borough of Camden. Dad was on sabbatical from his university post, mom was on break too from her professional social work job, and I was a 17 year old high school senior. For the first semester of that senior year I had developed learning contracts with my social studies and English teachers so that I could secure a few credits and still graduate with my peers later that school year.
My English teacher, Mr. Felstad, whom I grew to deeply admire, assigned me Beowulf and Chaucer and various English notables, and also required me to keep a daily journal. I still look back on that journal from time to time, decade to decade, cherish it, and thank Mr. Felstad for his wisdom.
It is with this emotional connection to journaling as background and motivation that I attempt to conquer my first 21st Century-style journal – a blog. I fully recognize that the nature of this beasty is not private, and will more likely result in the prosaic than profound. But since this has an audience of more than one, I will attempt topics that may at least be marginally interesting to friends, family and/or colleagues.
Let’s end this first post – written on the day before I take off for Israel – by attempting to answer the question that my wife Jean, my sons, sister, friends and just about everyone who hears my plan has asked me: Why are you doing this? Why visit Israel for three months, a couple weeks after you have retired from 25 years at the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission?
The answer will no doubt change in the midst of the visit. Perhaps with seeping regrets or unexpected revelations. But as of now here’s what I got.
First of all, I want a clean break from my work-centered life. Many folks who retire from full-time professional work, find an emptiness that needs filling. Find a need to redefine self, now that a large part of their identity is stripped from them. Without a major and consuming break from past habits, I might find the road to the next stage of my life more subject to inertia than positive choices.
Secondly, I want to explore my Jewish self. Even in light of the complex and controversial politics, and the intense day-to-day living, in Israel, during my previous two visits I had a visceral sense of being somehow at home there; with people whose manner felt deeply familiar and akin to my own. So I want to connect with my relatives, some of whom are quite elderly, while I still can. I want to attempt to learn Hebrew, while my brain still can. And I want to explore Jewish practice and culture.
Finally, after a full year post heart valve surgery, I am still so conscious that life is precious and short, and one’s health can not be assumed into the future. The opportunity for an extended time in Israel, or any other such adventure, is in the words of Hillel, a question of “If not now, when?”
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton