Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Lecture in Ulpan

It's been a while since you've heard from me, for which I apologize. Largely, I've been busy with ulpan, especially since I had to get a lot of work done in advance of the weekend to accomodate our travel plans. I am very much looking forward to exploring Tel Aviv with Daniel, and we have sworn to take pictures to share with you - we can't believe we haven't taken any yet!

Today in ulpan we had an amazing opportunity to hear Israeli author Eli Amir speak (In Hebrew!!). Eli Amir has published four novels, three of which have been translated to English, and the fourth of which should appear in English translation in the upcoming year. The titles, in case you want to add them to your own reading lists (as I certainly do!) are: Scapegoat, Farewell Baghdad, Saul's Love, and Jasmine.

We read several sections, some in Hebrew-made-easy formats for children and new immigrants, and some from the book itself which were, needless to say, somewhat challenging, from Scapegoat (in Hebrew Tarnegol Kaparot, which refers to the tradition of slaughtering a chicken and swinging it over one's head to symbolically transfer one's sins to the chicken). Tarnegol Kaparot is the story of a boy from an Iraqi family who is sent to a kibbutz, and tells of his adjustment and absorbtion into Israeli society. The sections that we read involved the conflicts between his traditionally observant upbringing and the adamently secular nature of the kibbutz. In one section his parents come to visit and the main character, Nuri, brings them a chicken, a delicacy on the kibbutz, so that they can perform the tradition of tarnegol kaparot. The mother inspects the chicken and realizes that it was not slaughtered in a kosher way. The father throws the chicken away - not only does he not want to eat it or use it for his traditional practice, he does not want to give it to the members of the kibbutz as he does not want to aid in other Jews' non-kosher eating practices. In another scene that we read, all of the boys from Iraq are given new, Israeli names. Nuri, who is assigned the name Nimrod, refuses to rebell against his roots (Mered, the root of Nimrod, means rebellion) and insists upon keeping his own name. The boys have to adjust to the communal situations of living together, sleeping in the same room, showering together, etc., and also have to adjust to the secular nature of the kibbutz, where women wear clothing that is not traditionally modest, where men and women sleep in the same dorms, and where there is no synagogue to be found.

Eli Amir was born in Baghdad in 1937. He told us that when he was a child, he did not want to be a writer - in fact, he aspired to be a king. At the time, the king of Baghdad was in fact a child, and Amir described that every now and again the king would have a procession, where crowds would clap and cheer as he rode by with his beautiful crown and waved his hand slowly from side to side. One day, Amir decided that he was very good looking and would make a good king. To try it out he put on his father's hat, sat in a regal pose and waved his hand back and forth slowly. When his father came home he said, "Dad, I've decided what I want to be when I grow up!" and told his father of his decision to become the king of Iraq (which was at the time under the British mandate). His father agreed that this would be a very good idea, but not a likely one because in order to be king one had to be a Muslim. Amir replied that he would become a Muslim. His father said that this would not be good enough, as one had to be a member of the Hashemite Dynasty of Iraq (1921-1959). As this was not a possibility for Amir, he abdicated his potential throne.

Eli Amir told us a bit about the Iraqi Jewish community. I'll relate what I can to you, but you should know that this is not an area of history that I am very familliar with, so please don't take my word for it, and please correct me if I make any mistakes here. The Jewish community of Iraq was one of the oldest documented Jewish communities outside of Israel, dating back to the time of the Babylonian captivity. In the 1940's, the Jewish community of Iraq was one of the most prosporous Jewish communities of the Middle East, and was heavily intertwined with the non-Jewish population both through economic ties and through cultural and social interactions. Baghdad was the home of highly regarded yeshivot and was a center of Jewish learning, and Jews were also members of a secular intellectual class in growing numbers. Jewish writers composed in Arabic for the general public, and were involved in music, theater, and the arts.

After the establishment of the state of Israel, life became harder for the Jews of Iraq. As restrictions against Jewish and Zionist activity in Iraq increased, Israel organized Operations Ezra and Nehemiah, which were responsible for clandestinely bringing over about 120,000 people from Iraq.

Amir related that once they were in Israel, Iraqi Jews had a hard time fitting in. The once prosperous community arrived in Israel with only the clothes on their backs. They were settled into small temporary homes made of aluminum and asbestos and given jobs involving manual labor. Amir was separated from his family to live on a kibbutz with other Iraqi young people, where he would be educated to become a paradigmatic Israeli according to the ideology of the day. His novels are semi-autobiographical and reflect this history.

Amir told us that when he decided to write the story, he didn't really know what it meant to write a whole novel, and it took him fifteen years and seventeen drafts (hand written with a fountain pen) to complete his first work. He told us that one of the central themes of Tarnegol Kaparot as he sees it is that while in various points in time various groups of Jews have been seen or have seen themselves as the group that made the most sacrifices in order to be a part of Israel, but in the end everyone gave something up and made sacrifices to live in the land - Jews from the Middle East, Russians, even Americans, and so in a sense everyone is a Tarnegol Kaparot. He told us that he does not write in Arabic as he came to Israel when he was 13 and is more at home with the Hebrew language. However he maintains close connections to Arab culture, listens to Arab musicians, and reads in Arabic.

Amir was a very pleasant-seeming man and a fabulous speaker. He spoke in stories and anecdotes, slowly, evenly, and patiently, so that if we didn't understand all of the words we would still be able to follow what he was saying. It was a very interesting lecture and I'm so excited to have been able to understand it!

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