Sunday, November 30, 2008

A visit to the gan (preschool)

I went to visit the preschool at Har El today (Har El is a Reform Shul around the corner from our apartment) as I plan on volunteering there twice a week. Oh it was so great. I came at the beginning of circle time and stayed until its end. We did Havdalah with Cantor Evan (whose wife, incidentally, went to Lake Braddock Secondary School, like me, and was a member of Adat Reyim, the synagogue where I went to high school, and went to UVA), and all of the kids sang along. After the Cantor left, the teacher told a story about a man who prayed for rain - it's amazing how differently rain is valued here, it is a huge topic of conversation and Israelis are so joyful to see the rain when it comes and always say that it is not enough. There is a droubt in Israel, btw, which explains why Israelis look forward to rain while Americans see it is a pain in the neck. The student of the week stood up while the teacher read what her parents had written about her weekend, which had included eating popcorn, so the student passed some popcorn out to the class (there are about 20 or so 3 year olds in the class). Then, they all washed their hands, went to the bathroom, and pushed together in a throng to get out the door and go outside - a bit like grown up Israelis getting on to the bus. Lines are not really part of Israeli culture at all. It was pretty fun to experience preschool all in Hebrew, though it will be sort of embarrassing not to understand what's going on in the classroom as well as the preschool students do. The teacher is excited to have me though, and tells me that she believes that language is not essential to communicating with or playing with small children. I totally agree. I'm sure you'll be hearing much more about preschool in upcoming posts.

No Cause to Be Alarmed.

A class on multiculturalism, and I feel open to others in new ways - porous and hungry for give and take, conscious of my limits and struggling to breach them.

Moments before the bus arrives: a phone call - just to say that there is a warning for all of Israel, so let's not go out for dinner tonight. Should I still take the bus? I don't think there's anything to worry about. OK, I'll see you later, have a good class. I hang up without saying I love you, but then wonder, laughing at myself for the thought, if this was the last goodbye.

And should I take a taxi? Should I pay? I finger my 3-month bus pass and decide to board the Number 19, regretting even as I board, and shrugging off the regret. Nothing will happen, everything seems normal.

And on the bus I pour poetry into my ears through ipod headphones, but it pools into my auditory canal without travelling further into my body. My mind rejects the sounds, and focuses my eyes.

And on the bus I stare out of the window, watching at each bus stop to see who climbs on board and asking, does he want to die? Does she want me to die? My multiculturalism articles sit on my lap and I ask myself, does he look like an Arab? Does she? And then I feel sick at myself.

And on the bus I sit in the back repeating to myself Hebrew vocab words: Explosion, Violence, Pain, and consider that if someone were to explode himself, he would probably do it at the front of the bus, and I could survive, and then hating myself for wanting to survive even if others do not.

And on the bus I make myself small, lifting my knees close to my chest, rounding my back, hugging my backpack. The young man next to me has darker skin than mine, and a big gym bag, and who knows what is inside. He takes out his cell phone and I imagine it is connected to a metal, wired contraption inside the innocent blue bag. He presses a button and I shudder. He pulls out a book in Hebrew and starts to read. I feel better.

A window bangs closed. I jump.

And at my stop, I descend quickly onto the street, and walk home as fast as I can. Are the coffee shops more empty than usual? I imagine they are, and I know they are not. And what do I do now that I am home, and safe? Am I safe at home?

Tonight is just like any other night. The bus ride was the same, the same people getting on and off, students, mostly, and the streets were the same with the discount pajama store with the nightie that I've been eyeing still in the window as I walked past. There was nothing different about tonight. No cause to be alarmed.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Friday Moment

It's mid-morning on a Friday and Daniel and I find ourselves in the coffee shop accross the street from our apartment, doing homework and munching on an enormous salad.
Our concentrated silence is interrupted by the shouts of a small child, and we both look up, concerned, and then smile at each other to see that the child is not hurt or scared, but is looking at his reflection through the glass door to the cafe, shouting, jumping, spinning around, his curly hair bouncing on his roughly four-year-old head.
Our smiles melt away as we watch him lift up his bright yellow shirt and reach into his pants, pulling out a paper towel tube. He grips the tube between both hands and points it at his reflection in the glass door. "Bam, bam, bam!" he shouts, "Bam, bam, bam!"
Clumsily, he lifts up his shirt again, revealing a smooth, round belly, and he fumbles with the tube, pushing it next to his leg, inside his tiny quorderoy trousers.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Second Draft of a Poem

Morning Confession

metal pierces blushing flesh
fingers probe, plunge into the land’s
heart-shaped child, pry into
intimate corners, prod
white fibers and pull forth
beads of flesh

they shatter
between coffee-stained teeth

on the plate a carcass splayed open
bloodless, vacant, defunct

National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation and Pardoning

Since 1947, at least, US Presidents have been presented with a live domestic turkey in honor of Thanksgiving. Since 1989, this ceremony has taken a new turn - President George H.W. Bush started the ceremony for pardoning the turkey, after which it was sent to live out its life in Frying Pan Park in Fairfax, VA or more recently in Disney Land or Disney World.

I just want to point out a few things:

Why does this turkey get a pardon when the turkey at the Thanskgiving table does not? Is it because once it is live and on television, people are less comfortable with the idea of it being eaten? We want to separate our food from it's living form so badly that we can't acknowledge that a turkey, a living bird, is the source of the turkey on our tables?

Also, what's this about a pardon? What was the sin of the turkey in the first place? Or is the turkey some kind of scapegoat to represent American sins? (And if so, this tarnegol caporet of the American people is SO interesting... turns Thanskgiving into a sort of Yom Kippur for Americans which is strangely appropriate as the myth of the holiday as a coming together for colonists and natives covers up the reality of Western interactions with indigenous peoples and in fact perhaps Thanksgiving should be a time to confess misdeeds and try to correct them). At a time when, in the tail end of his presidency, George Bush's greatest remaining power is his opportunity to grant presidential pardons, what is the symbolism of his willingness to save the lives of two innocent turkeys, while consuming another at his dinner table?

In any case, you can read about Turkey Pardoning here:,0,3253895.story

Also, Sarah Palin's turkey pardoning has been getting quite a bit of press, it seems. She gave a post-turkey pardoning interview while in the background you can see turkeys being slaughtered.

In any event, it seems Obama also was busy with Thanksgiving festivities of a different sort. Although next year he'll have to pardon a turkey, this year he helped out in a Food Bank in the South Side of Chicago:

Anyway, sorry if this post made anyone uncomfortable - it is easier to criticize the impulse to pardon a turkey as a vegetarian who won't be eating one for Thanksgiving... But I think that if people are going to eat meat, they should be comfortable with where it comes from. The fact that Sarah Palin's interview is being laughed at as unsensitive and stupid shows the discomfort that many people have at seeing the very process by which food reaches their tables - if she had been in front of an orchard where people were pulling apples off trees, no one would have found the interview to be a faux pas. Anyway, something to think about...

First Draft of a Poem

So I don't write poetry very often, and this is very much a first draft of something I've been thinking about for a while, but I'd appreciate your feedback as I think this has some potential if it were developed a bit.

Morning Confession

I eat pomegranates for breakfast.
And sometimes I yearn for the substance of
A slice of bread – its firmness and fullness
Familiarity, convenience, tidiness
Next to a cup of instant coffee
But instead

I slice into the pomegranate with my knife
And pry apart the insides with my hand
Prodding at the white fibers and
Pulling forth the beads of fruit
Pushing them between my lips
And crunching, devouring

I say that this connects me to the land
To the seasons – I eat what is
Growing here, now.
But I don’t know the land
And I don’t know the seasons
Although, at least, I do eat pomegranates
For breakfast.
From inside my apartment
I imagine myself a part of this vital world
And I cut into the land’s heart-shaped child
Grinding the seeds between my
Coffee-stained teeth

The environment is a cause for which
I enter my credit card number online
Donating chai for the source of all life
And closing my computer to shut it away
The environment is large and far away
It is a stranger whom I pity
An abstraction grounded only in the sky

But the round globe of the pomegranate
Feels firm in the palm of my hands
Flushed pink as I enter it with
My sticky fingers, plucking the
Pinkish blood and white, firm body
From a corpse splayed wide across my plate
A silenced heart upon a hospital bed

I drop the last teardrop-shaped seed
Into my cavernous mouth
The rind is empty, shredded
Its secrets revealed, it holds no more
And I throw the carcass in the trashcan
Close the lid, and
Walk away.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Notes on New Friends

I was sitting down to eat lunch by myself today when my new friend Gavin asked if he could join me. We had a long and lovely conversation before he left to go to the library and I continued where I was, reading a book about Yiddish literature.
Later in the day, I was reading the self-same book elsewhere when a girl from my Yiddish class asked if she could join me. Her name is Anka and as it turns out she is also a non-native Hebrew speaker who is here on a one-year program. She is a junior studying Judaica at her home university in Russia, and is here for the year, studying Yiddish language and literature. Her Hebrew seems to be about on my level. I hope we'll develop a friendship.
In Yiddish class we theoretically take turns reading, but the teacher usually calls on the same few people who seem the most capable of reading, and I've never been asked to do it before. Today, the teacher called on me - he'd forgotten my name, but he was very nice about asking me to read. I was terribly embarassed - I can't read as well as everyone else because the characters are still foreign to me even after all these years of studying them. But everyone was very patient, and the teacher made a comment about how I knew to pronounce certain difficult words correctly, and no one said anything negative at all. It's nice that the class is supportive, but frankly I hope he doesn't ask me to read again, because I did feel more than a little shy about it.
People were nice today. One of the kids in my Historiography class kept making faces at me when the teacher said something boring and asked if I was OK when I coughed during class - this is exciting because it's the first time that anyone in that class has really acknowledged that I exist - they mostly have their own friends and no one in the class has ever spoken to me before. What else was nice was that my Hebrew teacher, Batya, was returning our essays today and asked if she could keep mine for an extra day because she wants to show it to my other Hebrew teacher, as she thought it was really good. We had to write biographies, and mine was on Grace Paley - as a side note if you've never read Grace Paley don't waste any more time with this blog, go out and get yourself a copy of her short stories or her poems and be quick about it! What else was nice was that I rode the bus home with a friend from my Yiddish Lit class - so that means that today I had at least one positive interaction in every class! That makes today officially a good day. Now I need to start thinking about paper topics, do a little homework, etc. The other exciting news is that it seems that I may be volunteering at the preschool around the corner from our apartment a few hours a week - I'm going to the preschool next week to discuss it. That would be excellent, as I have a little too much free time, and I miss working with kids.

Sorry this was a bit of a boring post. More interesting things will follow in the next few days, even if I have to make them up. :)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Christmas Shopping and other Jerusalem Tales

It was a brisk Shabbes mid-morning when I traipsed down to the Jaffa gate to meet Corinna, Debbie, Gavin, and Paola, my friends from Hebrew University, to do some Christmas shopping in the Arab quarter of the Old City. We first found a restaurant on a side street that was blaring American oldies music, and sat down to a not-very-good meal, joked with the waitor, and swapped stories. We then proceeded through the narrow stone streets to look at icons, Christmas cards, plants, and candles. We wandered into a store selling festive table runners and were greeted by a giant saxaphone playing plastic Santa Claus, with which we of course posed for photos. The very nice lady at the store suggested that we go to the bazaar being held in a nearby clinic, the proceeds of which are going to a charity to give healthcare and food to poor Arab families. The women at the bazaar were very pleased to see us (especially Paola, who speaks Arabic), and we were excited to be there as they were selling familiar Christmas ornaments; wreaths, ribbons, snowmen printed on paper napkins, etc. They were also selling non-Christmas items, so I picked up some zaatar and a plastic plant. We each sampled some excellent quince jam, and made quite a few purchases. We continued on our way through stall after stall of brightly colored clothing, religious souvenirs of all sorts, fruit, vegetable, and bread vendors, etc. Eventually, Debbie and Paola parted from us, and we went on to visit Matteo, our friend from ulpan who is, as you may recall from previous posts, a Francescan friar. (Have I written about him before?)
At the front gate to the Church of the Flagellation, we asked the gatekeeper to call in and tell Matteo that his friends were here to visit. We were shown in to a room marked "private," where we sat on old couches in a somewhat stark, stone parlor, to wait for Matteo to meet us. He was very pleased to see us, and we visited for a very long time. He took us inside to what I suppose is the friars' living room - a large room full of sofas and chairs, with today's newspapers sprawled accross the coffee tables, and religious parephenalia behind glass cases on the walls. While Matteo went to fetch us some soda, Gavin peeked through a glass case to gawk at an illuminated manuscript, and I stood in front of a case containing a Torah and a scroll in Phoenician characters. When Matteo returned we sat and chatted for a while, mostly about our lives, our families, etc. After quite a while in that room, we went up to the roof to enjoy the terrific view of the old city and really all of Jerusalem. We could see Hebrew University, the Brigham Young campus, countless churches, mosques, and synagogues, and in the foreground we could see the Dome of the Rock quite closeby. On the roof we discussed religion, and when Matteo saw one of his instructors below, he called down and introduced us by saying that we were having a meeting of the religions: Jewish, Baptist, and Catholic. It was a bit chilly on the roof, so we went downstairs where Matteo showed us the classroom where he studies (he is writing his dissertation on the meaning of the word "fulfilled" in the Gospel According to Matthew when Jesus says that he has not come to negate the commandments of the Torah, but to fulfill them. Before we left, Matteo showed us the chapels at the Church (the parts that are open to the public), saying that he didn't want us to have come to the Church of the Flagellation without seeing what there is to see there. He explained to us that the place where the church is built is now known not to have been the historical site of the flagellation, as the stones have Roman games carved in to them that date to after 135 CE. The chapels were nevertheless quite interesting, and the stained glass windows fabulous. Matteo says that the preists celebrate mass twice a day, morning and evening, and he pointed to the window of a smaller chapel where the priests can go to celebrate mass if for some reason they missed the early morning mass (6:30 AM). We left with warm regards and promises of another visit soon.
It was a lovely Shabbat - how was yours?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

For Your Reading Pleasure

A poem we read in Yiddish class - the translation is mine, so bear with me...

By the White Tables, by Mani Leib

By the white tables I sat for a long while,
And looked into eyes, and talked, talked,
And in those eyes I forgot myself,
Until the old waiter said into my ear,
With a good smile and with a soft voice,
Apologetically told me: It's late...

OK, bye!... Tomorrow I will return.
Streets. Night. A fog blew, blew.
Streets. And from out of the fog emerged
Eyes. Those eyes, light and teary,
And like moving, shining stars,
They accompanied me, insignificant me, homeward.

Manny Leib, born Manny Leib Branhinsky in 1883 in Nizhn, a small town not far from Kiev, arrived in America at the age of 22. He worked in shoe factories in New York, where he eventually contracted tuberculosis from their poor working conditions. Leib began his poetry career by translating Ukranian and Russian poetry into Yiddish for the Yiddish daily newspaper, the Forverts. He wrote poetry for adults and also for children, and is known for having brought a formal complexity to Yiddish poetry, consisting of tight rhymes and soft, polished sounds. He was a leader and founding member of the American Yiddish poetry group Di Yunge (the Young Ones). (The information above I mostly found at the NYBC website).

By the way, thanks for the teddy bears and well wishes. I am on the mend.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sick as a Dog

I am writing this post to deliberately solicit pity - I am, as they say, "sick as a dog" - sinus infection, sore throat headaches, the works. The more photographs of teddy bears you send me today, the better.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Blue Cat Cabaret

Last night, Daniel and I made our way over to Yung Yiddish for a night of entertainment - and were surprised and delighted by the performance we saw there. "Di Bloye Katz" (pictured ablove) a performance of reenactment of 1920's cabaret was tremendously entertaining. The couple performing Ruth Levin (vocals) and Avishai Fisz (piano), perform under the personas of Ewa Przyżiszka - a melodramatic primadona in a flapper outfit complete with a black peacock feather on her hat and a long, black cigarette holder dangling from her black lace gloved hand, and Arturo Fogacz-Bergamescu, a clumsy pianist who supplies masterful music, but interrupts it with his adoring outbursts of emotion in reaction to Przyziszka's songs. In between her songs, Pryzysiska narrates the concert in a heavily Polish accented English, complete with the deep sighs, pregnant pauses, and dramatic tonality of an exotic European sophisticate playing to an audience of admirers. She spoke in short, terse sentences that were drawn out to full melodramatic effect: "Why do I have misfortune? Why do I have not luck?..." or "No one recognizes my lonliness" or "sex appeal, it is a nice feeling, but now I will sing a song about a feeling which is more nice: love." Her physical movements are reminiscent of old silent films - big arm gestures, eyes open wide and fluttering or blinking, putting her hand dramatically to her ear when she hears something, throwing her head back and pressing the back of her hand to her forehead as though she will faint, and more - all emphasizing her long slender arms, and her big eyes made more dramatic with dark mascara. All of the pieces were sung in Yiddish, and they were love songs, songs of sorrow, and songs of lonliness. The show opened and closed with a song titled "Sex Appeal," which Pryzyziskzka sang with coy smirks, rolled eyes, and fingers spread wide in jazzy hands. In between pieces the pianist would clap, cry, and laugh at inappropriate times, hit notes on the piano 'accidentally' during the narration, and drop things behind the piano that he then walked around and picked up. He, with his untied bow tie, pince-nez glasses, and deadpan face, was certainly one of the highlites of the show. The entire performance was a unpredictable, unforgettable and thoughrally enjoyable blend of physical comedy, historical reenactment, dramatic flair, and plain old good music. "Di Bloye Katz" played to a packed audience of all ages, and the performance was a definite hit.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Enabling Jews in the Former Soviet Union to Celebrate Passover

This Passover, Daniel and I will be participating in an exciting project that will strengthen Jewish identity in the Former Soviet Union. This April, we will be traveling, along with twenty-five rabbinical, cantorial, and education students from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), to the Former Soviet Union (FSU).

In partnership with the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which unites and supports Reform congregations worldwide, we are happy to announce our Seventh Annual FSU Pesach Project. The mission of our trip is to provide meaningful Passover celebrations for thousands of underserved Jews in the region.

While there has been an abundance of Jewish philanthropy and development in the FSU since the 1990s, there are still only six progressive rabbis to serve over one hundred Jewish communities during Passover. Our student delegations will be traveling to more than twenty communities throughout Russia, Ukraine and Belarus in order to lead Passover seders, conduct educational programming, create relationships with Jews of all ages, and strengthen the Jewish identity of these diverse communities.

The cost of participation for each delegate is $2,000, which includes: travel expenses, educational materials, Passover supplies for all the participants, as well as, donations to each community, which will enable them to continue observing Passover in the years to come. Supporting this project is an important way to recognize the profound importance of celebrating the Jewish story of liberation in a
place where freedom from oppression is a very real, and recent, experience. Any amount you can contribute will make a huge difference in offsetting the costs of participation.

Tax-deductible donations* can be made online or via USPS:

• Online: Be sure to mark my name in the "Comments"
• By mail: HUC-JIR / Attn: Diane Bongard / 3101 Clifton Avenue / Cincinnati, OH 45220. Mark "FSU Pesach Project" along with one of our names in the memo line.

If you have any questions regarding this exciting project, please comment or e-mail us at and

Monday, November 10, 2008

This is Just to Say

This is Just to Say

I have finished
the GRE
that was on
Literature in English

and which
you were probably
for breakfast.

Forgive me
It was delicious
So sweet
and so OVER!!!

Just writing to say that the pesky test is out of the way - so you can be thankful that you won't have to read any more bad poetry. I think it went well, but I won't find out for five weeks or so.
I made a new friend today. She's in my class on Mendele and Sholom Aleichem (the one that is taught in Hebrew). She's getting an MA in translation and wants to translate novels from English to Hebrew. She lives not far from me with her husband, who is a librarian in the National Library in Givat Ram. We sat next to each other in class, took the bus home together, and walked from the bus toward our apartments. I'm excited to be friends with a "real Israeli" and hope that she'll sit next to me next week, too!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Hidden Dangers in Multiculturalism: Identity, Culture and Education in the Liberal State

This post is by no means as interesting as its title makes it sound. It is a post about a course that I have decided to take in place of the previously mentioned sociology course which was held at an inconvenient time. The Multiculturalism course is part of the curriculum for the MA in Jewish Education, and the students are all future and current educators of various ages. The professor immigrated from Argentina many years ago - he has a wide smile, very severe sarcasm, and he carries a pocket watch that must be somewhat imprecise, as he constantly has to ask the students to tell him the time, even after he's already looked at his timepiece.
Although I hadn't done the reading for the class as I was showing up at its second session, I found the conversation deeply interesting and am looking forward to spending my Sunday afternoons talking about what I think is one of the most real and important issues of our and all time: identity, and how we can acknowledge our own and others' identities respectfully and truthfully. Our teacher defines multiculturalism as "the call to overcome the way we think about each other that is so natural to us that we don't even think about it."

We talked about the historical transformation in the Western World from defining oneself solely according to a fixed social position to a recognition of citizen dignity as social heirarchies collapsed during the time of the French Revolution and thereafter. Suddenly (or perhaps more accurately, over the course of a long time) sense of self depended on one's personal definition and less on birth - people were able to chose more about themselves, and Dignity was grante to all, rather than the notion of "honor" being granted to some. St. Augustine declared that G-d is in everything you see, and therefore G-d is in everyone - this upgrades humans - all humans - to partially divine.
We discussed how the nation-state requires a different kind of organization and sets of loyalty and identity. Rather than kings identifying with kings, members of a particular nation-state identify as citizens of that nation-state and have obligations to that nation-state. In Feudalism, the idea was that the nobility had a respobsibility to the lives of the peasants, and poverty was a personal problem of the nobility that they could chose to act on, or not. In a more modern society, there is the notion of human rights, which changes things, if not entirely, then at least substantially, because citizenship is not about depending on someone else's honor or goodness, but about being granted certain rights by law (and having legal recourse if you aren't receiving them). Of course, this was, and is, not always the case, even in a nation-state (think women, slaves, etc.)
We talked about how the principle of universal identity (that is to say that everyone has an identity that is valuable) can be interpreted in two very divergent ways: everyone is equal because everyone has a valuable identity, and therefore everyone should be treated the same OR because everyone has a valuable and different identity, everyone is different and should be treated differently. Both interpretations can be used for good (as in universal education or recognizing the special needs of different individuals) or for bad (as in not recognizing special needs or talents, or treating people unfairly and attributing it to their difference). It can be argued that if schools in particular treat everyone the same, there isn't space to create a unique identity. But at the same time, if schools treat students differently, they may not all have access to the same opportunities.
We spent a long time on the difference between the public and the private sphere - the idea that one should or is permitted to act differently at home than elsewhere (like Jews of the Emancipation who were 'Jews in the home, but not in the street') We imagine that there is a clear separation between the public and the private, and that no one cares what you do in your private life, but in the public sphere you need to behave with the rules of the public. However, the lines are not nearly so clear (for instance, what I do on my computer, in the home, is actually rather public). And there is a big question about when it is appropriate for the government to interfere in the private. For instance: take the case of domestic or child abuse. In some cultures, it is frowned upon for the government to step in to what is seen as such a private issue, while in others it is seen as immoral for the government NOT to step in. And one student in the class noted that the public sphere intrudes into the private sphere much more often with regards to lower class or minority people - the government might more quickly intervene in the home of an immigrant family than an Anglo family because they are quicker to assume that abuse is happening (whether or not it actually is). In other words, the government might participate in racial or socio-economic profiling and assume that they need to step in more often in lower-income areas or areas with cultures that are different than the mainstream, and as a result those sectors of the population have much less separation between private and public than groups of people that are considered less threatening or suspicious.
We talked about the notion of "social cohesion" - if difference is allowed or encouraged in the public sphere, what is the glue that holds a society together? It is this question that leads some to argue that there needs to be a "core curriculum" in schools so that children are all taught the same "cannon" and form the same values and cultural referents, which makes them all a part of the community. On the other hand - what gets to be the cannon, and which community are the students being socialized to join? And is that fair?
Our teacher encouraged us to recognize that whatever seems natural to us is cultural, including the values of democracy, separation of state, etc. and to know that "liberalism is also a fighting creed" - when liberals wish to create a space that is accepting of everyone, they are forcing (or socializing, or encouraging) their values of respect for all cultures onto people who perhaps don't have those values. And who gets to say that their values are the right ones? On the other hand, if you reject all that seems to be natural to you, then you have no basis on which to base your opinions, or even your life. So you have to stick to what you believe in, but be aware that others might not share your values.
Some more interesting quotes from today's class include:

"Minority has nothing to do with numbers - it has to do with marginalization."
"The problem with immigration is that bodies move faster than minds"
"Our language gives us tools for racism that we have stopped noticing because of our need to communicate."

Anyway, it seems like it is going to be a great class, and I'm sure you'll be hearing more about it in the future.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A change we can believe in.

.שינוי שאפשר להאמין בו

God bless America. Barack Hussein Obama is going to be the next President of the United States!

His presidency will be in partnership with Joe Biden and Rahm Emanuel. For those who don't know, Rahm Emanuel speaks fluent Hebrew, is the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, and is the model for The West Wing's Josh Lyman. (For more on Barack Obama's campaign and The West Wing, check this out.) But, we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves here...

Judging by my lack of posts recently, you'd think I'd have disappeared off the planet. Not so! I've been engaged weekly in 26+ hours of class, volunteering at an Ethiopian immigrant absorption center and the Jerusalem AIDS Project, and participating in an inter-denominational Jewish discussion group as well as having the opportunity to spend a weekend at a leadership seminar with young adults from over a dozen countries. But lurking in the background of all of these events, creeping into conversations and classes, has been the 2008 Presidential election.

The air has been charged with anticipation, even here in Jerusalem. Editorials and news articles have been in the English language news websites for weeks, non-Americans constantly ask Americans about their thoughts on the election, and of course all the ex-pats have been abuzz with excitement. Our friend Joel has been compulsively checking, students have been discussing California's Proposition 8, and (most) hopes have been high. Our breath was bated as November 4, 2008 came and slowly leaked by here in Jerusalem.

The time-difference between the west coast of the United States and Israel is seven hours. So, when polls opened in Virginia at 6:00 AM, I was eating lunch after my double-Hebrew lesson. I didn't have time to check any poll data throughout the afternoon and evening because of my classes and Rav Siach (you'll hear more about this another time), and when I got home at 10:30 PM, Jessica was already asleep. Of course, we had no intention of missing this historic moment - a few hours of sleep was all part of the plan.

The alarm went off at 3:30 AM (8:30 PM EST). While Jessica and I rubbed the sleep from our eyes, we check the current results online. A few states had been called, but nothing particularly exciting had happened. We hadn't missed any drama.

Jessica and I got dressed and walked into the dark, chilly Jerusalem morning. Scheduled for an all-night extravaganza was an election results viewing at Mike's Place, a bar in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. When Jessica and I arrived shortly after 4:00, we found a couple of our friends already there. Some had been up all night, others (like us) had slept for a few hours already; most would be up through sunrise.

(Adena, me, Jessica, Gavin, Leah, Sydney, Random Guy, Chad)

The atmosphere at the bar was charged with anticipation. The event was sponsored by Democrats Abroad, so the clientele was mostly American Democrat. (Jessica and I had no trouble fitting in.) People were talking noisily, but the din was never so clamorous that one couldn't hear the Anderson Cooper if one wanted to pay attention. Every twenty minutes or so, dramatic music would herald what we were all waiting for: CNN PROJECTION!

Our friend Leah was disappointed when Kansas went red, but Sydney was rejoicing louder than anyone else when New Mexico amazingly became blue. We had our fingers crossed for Al Franken, but we had nothing to fear from the Virginia Senate race. Our hometown hero, Mark Warner, handily (and rightfully) demolished his unpopular and heinously ineffective gubernatorial predecessor in a satisfying blowout of an election. CNN's "hologram" technology kept us entertained, but as the "night" wore on and some of our friends retired to watch the rest of the results at home, Jessica and I considered ducking out to catch the inevitable acceptance speech from our apartment. We decided to remain until 6:00, when the west coast polls would be closed. Good thing we did!

Jessica and I were very nervous about Virginia. My home state (and Jessica's for the past eight years) has supported Republicans in every Presidential election since Lyndon Johnson's 1964 bid for the White House. However, Mark Warner's terrific success as governor, the gubernatorial succession of Tim Kaine, and the election of Senator Jim Webb all indicated that Virginia has been becoming more Democratic over the years. Senator-elect Warner's soaring popularity (he won by more than 1,000,000 votes, 64% / 34%) was another good sign that Obama could do well in our state. So, we had a lot of hope going into this.

On top of all that, my parents have been volunteering tirelessly for the past several weeks for the Obama campaign, and for this I'm very proud. (Later, when I heard President-elect Obama's acceptance speech, I beamed when he acknowledged the work of my parents and people like them: "[Our campaign] drew strength from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on doors of perfect strangers, and from the millions of Americans who volunteered and organized and proved that more than two centuries later a government of the people, by the people, and for the people has not perished from the Earth.")

So, when the minutes dragged on with no results from Virginia, even though it was fairly evident that Obama would win the election, Jessica and I were still hoping for a more personal victory.

And then it happened.


We're ready to call Virginia for Democratic Senator Barack Obama!

We shouted, we clapped, we banged on the table. I hugged Jessica as we cheered - I was absolutely elated. I've always loved being from Virginia, but there have been a lot of things that bother me about the state. This was a true sign that my neighbors are uniting behind a message of change and hope and are emerging out of the conservatism that has plagued them for so long. Ecstatic, I called my mom (my first international phone call from my cell phone) and shared the victory with her.

And as I was connected with my family at home, and mere minutes after calling Virginia for Barack Obama, the polls closed on the west coast, and Barack Obama was declared President-elect of the United States!

We shouted, we cried, we embraced. The noise was enormous, and I certainly couldn't hear anything from Virginia through the phone. Even thinking back to that moment of near transcendental exuberance fills my heart with glee and my spirit with hope. It was truly a moment of solidarity, of joy, and of righteous and thrilling victory.

We celebrated with our remaining friends and the other people in the bar as a shout of joy echoed across the globe. The sun was just rising in Jerusalem, and although it was dark in the United States, there was a new dawn in America as well.

Obama supporters near our table. (This image appeared on

After several minutes of celebration, Jessica and I headed home to watch the speeches. We heard John McCain on Israeli TV with Hebrew translations offered during his pauses, and we watched Barack Obama's acceptance speech on my computer. It was a thrilling morning, and naturally, we did what we always used to do at UVA when staying up really late: We ate pancakes (chocolate chip pancakes since it was a special occasion).

Going to school that morning was terrific. Although we did eventually have to settle down and focus on learning, every minute of every break was spent talking about the election and checking tight races: Proposition 8; senate races in Alaska, Georgia, Minnesota, and Oregon; the possible upset in Charlottesville's 5th district of Old Guard Republican Virgil Goode, etc. I'm still on a high from the win, and I'm definitely looking forward to the next four years.

Of course, the real triumph of this election is not that Barack Obama was elected President. Rather, it's that the American people has expressed its faith in change for the future. President Obama will be a righteous visionary whose strong leadership will guide the world in a positive direction. I'll close, then, with President-elect Obama's message of hope, taken from the acceptance speech he gave Tuesday night.

This is your victory.

And I know you didn't do this just to win an election. And I know you didn't do it for me.

You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime....

This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were.

It can't happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice.

So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other....

This is our time, to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Second Day of Classes

The day started off on the wrong foot, when I woke up too late and had to rush out of the apartment in order to get to class on time. Daniel, ever supportive, packed my lunch as I frantically put notebooks and pencils into my backpack.
I caught the 7am bus to Hebrew University, and arrived in my Historiography of the Holocaust classroom at 7:45. There were already a few students seated in the classroom - they were all second year Masters students and there was something very intimidating about their comfort with the classroom, the program, and even the professor (whose class they had also taken the previous semester). A few more students entered, and eventually there were about ten of us, in addition to the professor. He began by asking us each to introduce ourselves, and then he explained the basic information about the class: we will read about fifty pages a week and write a final paper, class will mostly consist of discussion of the reading, etc. He then lectured a bit on the beginnings of Holocaust Historiography, which he says occurs at the moment when historians, commentators, etc. start noticing that Hitler's antiSemitism is different from previous forms. The lecture walked us through what this difference was by describing the first two written documents of Hitlers that historians have found that discuss "the Jewish Question." Unlike Jew-hatred of the Middle Ages, which was based on the idea that Jews had killed Jesus, had poisoned wells to cause the plague, were smelly, crude, etc. and antiSemitism of the 19th century in which Jews were hated on the basis of what were believed to be inherrent racial characteristics (and the solution to the "problem" of the Jews was believed to be antiSemitic legislation), Hitler's vision was apocalyptic and required a much more drastic "solution." Hitler believed that not only did Jews want to take over the world, but because they were pests and incapable of creative thought, even if they did take over the world and were the only people left alive in the whole world, they would eventually die out themselves because they would be incapable of supporting themselves. Humanity would cease to exist, and the Jews would be at fault. Therefore, pogroms ("emotional antiSemitism) was not the "solution," as it was merely a mechanism for catharsis and did not solve the "problem" that Jews' very existence posed. Hitler believed that a "rational" solution must be found, that the Jews must be gotten rid of. We don't know if, in his earlier writings, this meant killing Jews or simply sending them to another place or isolating them or who knows what. It was a very dark and depressing class, as I expected a class on the Holocaust to be, which I think is why I've been avoiding them thus far. The Holocaust is not a fun topic to learn about. But I think it is an important one, and one in which I am seriously lacking background, so I think this will be a good class for me. The teacher seemed nice and understanding and interested in helping his students to learn and to succeed - he offered to meet with us outside of class, said we could always send him e-mails, and will be e-mailing supplemental reading to those of us who think we could use a little extra background in the history of the Holocaust before we proceed further.

I went straight from Historiography to Hebrew class, where I met my other Hebrew teacher, Batia. I like her A LOT. The teacher from yesterday spoke a little too slowly, and Batia speaks a little too fast, though by the end of class I felt used to it and acclimated to her speech. We covered a lot of material - some verbs, vocabulary, and a reading from an Amos Oz book. Batia, as it turns out, taught at UVA for a semester, right before my Hebrew teacher replaced her. She was pleased to hear that I was from UVA and told me that I'm the first UVA student she's taught at Hebrew University. She asked after several of my professors, and says she looks forward to reminiscing more about Charlottesville with me in the future. Batia is also the author of our Hebrew textbook, which is pretty awesome.

I had a long lunch break, during which I ate lunch, went for a walk in the Botannical Gardens, and bought some Hebrew textbooks, and did some Hebrew homework. I then went to Advanced Yiddish, a course in the Humanities department of "regular" Hebrew University (as in not the international school, so the students were all Israeli).

I was so nervous about the Yiddish class - I really want, and in fact need, to take Yiddish, and there are only two levels here: beginner and advanced. My grammar, writing, and speaking are all very poor, though my reading and listening are OK, and I wasn't sure if I would fit in an "advanced" class. However, the class seemed to be at just the right level for me. The teacher spoke mostly in Yiddish, translating some things into Hebrew if he felt that the class didn't understand (a bit of a problem for me, but usually I understood either the Yiddish or the Hebrew if not both). He spoke slowly and clearly. He wrote the book that we are using, and explained to us the format of the text - each lesson we will read a piece of literature that is about two pages long, do some grammar exercises, and read some poems. The grammar exercises were hard for me, but I think will prove very useful, as grammar is probably what I need most. I am quite excited about this class - it will be hard but I think I will learn a lot.

My next class was also in Hebrew University itself, and was a class on Sholom Aleichem and Mendele Mocher Seforim, two Yiddish writers. I wasn't sure what to expect, but quickly came to find that the class is taught in Hebrew, and that the texts are all in Hebrew, translated from the original Yiddish. I understood the whole lecture, but I think the readings will be almost impossible for me to complete - so I'm thinking about purchasing a Hebrew and an English set of the books, so I can be on the right page while in class, but read the text in English at home. I don't know if I will stay in the class - I understood and enjoyed the lecture, but I imagine that it will only get harder as we start discussing the reading. If I do manage to stay in the class and keep up with it, it will do a world of good for my Hebrew, but I'm not sure if it is too much of a challenge or not. I'd like to audit the course and just do what I can. I think I'll try to do the reading for next week and then talk to the professor after class and see what he says about reading English transltions, auditing, etc. If he is amenable, I'll try to stick it out.

I arrived home at about 7pm, gabbed with Daniel for a little while (he went to Qumran and Masada today with his school), and cooked dinner (breaded eggplant, pasta, green beans, tomato sauce). Now, it's 9:00 pm, and I am tired, a little overwhelmed, and certainly not in the mood to do homework, though I think I'll do some anyway. Monday will by far be my hardest day - tomorrow I have one class, and it starts at 4:30 pm.

I think it's going to be a great semester: challenging, interesting, new. Hebrew U has so much energy now that all the students are there and not just the summer ulpan classes. I really feel like I am sort of a part of it all, and I am excited to see how the semester progresses.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

First Day of School

So the government pulled through and the strike did not have to happen, hence, I began my "autumn semester" today. Although I only had one class today - Hebrew - it was sooo good to have a reason to leave the apartment again, to speak in Hebrew, and to see all of my friends from summer ulpan. I have a lot of classes tomorrow and will write more once I've been to them, but suffice it to say that I am excited about the new semester.
To celebrate, Daniel took me out to a nice restaurant - it's in a back alley and hard to find, but is a real treasure. The restaurant doubles as a bookstore, and the walls are lined in books in Hebrew and English. Apparently, they often host poetry readings, and we hope to go back there for cultural events, and also for the excellent food! We had a giant salad (we brought some of it home for lunch tomorrow) and shakshouka (eggs in tomato sauce) with spinach. Shakshouka, by the way, is pretty excellent, and if you are ever in Israel, it is worth trying.
That's all for now - you'll hear more about my new semester tomorrow, after my marathon day of classes.