Thursday, July 10, 2008

Shopping and teenagers in the Holy Land.

.שופינג ונערים בארץ הקודשה

This morning, I took care of many errands, some of which were accidental, "while I'm here" circumstances. In the end, I ordered a new gas tank for the apartment, tried (and failed) to get El Al to compensate me for my broken backpack, returned my registration form to HUC and paid my fees, bought running shoes, bought a digital alarm clock, made copies of the apartment keys, and ordered a wireless router ... all by 1:05 pm! And almost all of it in Hebrew!

Right, so I had my first major "Hebrew required" experiences today, and it was actually a blast. It started at Amisragas, which I was planning to call when I returned from my errands but found literally across the street - so when I walked in and asked the representative if he spoke English and he replied "A little," I knew it was time to get my game on! Though I had to say some words like "empty gas tank" in English, most of the business was conducted in Hebrew. I also went shoe shopping in Hebrew, haggled about the price of my alarm clock in Hebrew, and got directions (many times) in Hebrew trying to locate elusive key-copying stores. By the time I got home, I felt very well-practiced and somewhat proud of myself. It was starting to sink in: I'm living in a country where most people aren't fluent in English, and yet I can still get around.

I suppose I owe a debt of gratitude to the people who have encouraged my Hebrew development the most. In chronological order: Rabbi Kathy Cohen, Bill Dillon, Donald Polaski, Hedda Harari, Daniel Weiss, and the organization Hoos Studying Torah. I just loves me some Hebrew, and I'm so excited to be starting ulpan in a week and a half!

Aside from speaking a lot of Hebrew and talking a lot to people back in the States, I also spent a bit of time herding. You herd me. (Get it?) I was a human arrow for the NFTY (the Reform youth movement) celebration of Israel at 60, NFTY in Israel at 50, and ARZA at 30. There were hundreds of high schoolers packed into the campus of HUC and I believe 21 volunteers to help make sure they all got where they were supposed to be. Not an easy task! But, I did get a free dinner, so that's good!

While organizing the students into their proper places, I felt a transition within myself, one I'm very glad that happened to me. Even though I've only been here for three days, I thought of the grounds as my school. I was a local guide welcoming hundreds of students to my home, not the clueless wanderer who's hoping he doesn't lock himself out of his apartment. Combined with the independence experienced while speaking Hebrew on Jaffa Street, this feeling of appropriateness really helped me realize that I am supposed to be here, and this year is going to be mine to make with it what I will.

Once all the students had settled down, we HUC students got to stand back and watch the program. Dan Nichols sang a few songs, and there was an overlong skit (about 20-30 minutes) about the history of NFTY in Israel, and aside from that, most of the evening was filled by boring, self-congratulatory speeches. Whoever planned the event obviously didn't consult a 16-year-old.

Nevertheless, when the speeches weren't going over their heads, the students were having a great time bonding, which is what NFTY events are best at encouraging. What NFTY events have trouble with, at least in my experience, is bridging the gap between building meaningful relationships and making those relationships relevant to the world at large. The poor programming was one example of a difficulty in connecting to students and bringing them to the next level. Now, granted, that's an extremely difficult thing to do, and I don't fault NFTY for not having solved that nearly impossible puzzle ... but it still leaves a feeling of incompletion that I will probably have a chance to address sometime in the coming years!

And then, of course, there was the nationalism. From the student president of NFTY to the director of NFTY Israel programs, many speakers focused on the essential relationship between every Reform Jew and the modern state of Israel. Obviously, such a universal outlook is only a fantasy, and I wonder how many of the students understand that. I'm willing to be that many if not most of them believe it when they're told that the Reform movement has always supported Israel (it hasn't) and that Israel is important to every Reform Jew (it's not).

Now, while perhaps just a gaffe, part of one of the students' speeches betrayed part of that naivety. He mentioned, "...ever since people first settled in the land of Israel in the early twentieth century..." I'm sure he meant "...ever since modern settlement began in the land of Israel in the early twentieth century..." and therefore wasn't discounting thousands of years of habitation. But regardless, he failed to mention the Jewish settlers of the 19th century and, of course, the native and immigrant Arabs who have had modern settlements in the land for hundreds of years. This glib way of speaking sometimes just rolls off the tongue, but such Judeo-centrism is one of the factors that leads to the marginalization of Palestinians and even Arab Israeli citizens and continues to be an obstacle to the deep and true understanding necessary for lasting peace.

So, I'm slightly disappointed that even a speaker chosen to address the entire congregation of NFTY in Israel participants represented a skewed view of Israeli history. On the other hand, these students are still in high school and obviously have a great deal to learn. And hopefully I, my fellow students, and progressive teachers everywhere can help shine light into places where illumination is still needed.

And that, my friends, is the thought of the day.


Jeff H. said...

Wonderful post. Your powers of observation--and your honesty in dealing with our feelings (and failings) concerning Israel, Judaism, and the Palestinians--are really remarkable. Keep up the good work!
Jeff + Marcia

Jessica said...

D - wish I could talk to you about it in person, but as you know I share similar frustrations with regard to the way the American Jewish community often represents and takes on the issue of supporting Israel. How can someone be 'for' a country in an unquestioning and, often, uninformed way? Can you be 'for' a country and against its policies? If you are 'for' a country do you have to be 'for' whomever is in power in that country at the time and agree with all of his/her policies? And why are Jews expected to have such ties to Israel? I mean, I understand the reasons but I don't think they are so inherrent as all that. Anyway, I'm really just repeating what you said, only less eloquently, and while I'm supposed to be working. So I'll get to work and we can talk about this (or something else if you like) tomorrow. In the meantime, thought you might like this website: Also, an interesting and provocative article: BTW, are you still reading Operation Shylock?