Saturday, March 21, 2009

Getting Excited for Passover, and an Update on my Classes

Getting Excited for the FSU Trip!

Passover seems to be galloping toward us, and soon we will be in the Former Soviet Union, sharing in seders with members of liberal Jewish communities in the Moscow region. It's hard to believe the holiday is arriving so soon - I always forget how close Purim and Pesach are to each other! In the preschool we're already teaching a bit of the story of Moses every day. I suppose it isn't surprising that the 3 year olds identify most with the story of Moses as a baby and are most excited to hear it retold, but I am looking forward to hearing their reactions to the burning bush, the crossing of the sea, etc. It is kind of strange to hear the language slippages that allow remembering that "we" were slaves in Egypt to happen more naturally - the teachers talk about the Israelites or the Children of Israel, but the students very quickly start referring to the characters as Israelis.
On Thursday night, Daniel and I met with Rabbi Leonid Bimbat, who is currently serving the Moscow region, and who was visiting Jerusalem for the World Union of Progressive Judaism conference. What we had expected to be a brief conversation during the reception following a WUPJ event turned into a stroll to the center of Jerusalem, where we sat in a bar called "Putin" which was filled with Russian speaking patrons. Leonid seemed disapoointed when we didn't order drinks, but it was late at night and we were hoping for a quick meeting before going home to bed, and not a night out on the town. We asked him a few questions about the communities in Moscow, where we'll be going for Passover, and about what we would be expected to do during our stay. It seems that we will be traveling between three communities: one is a comunity of Anglo- expats, one is a communtiy of mostly older participants, and one a community of families with children. At each place, we will be expected to lead all or part of seders, and perhaps also conduct other community programs, though the extent of this is unclear - we should have a better sense of it once we receive a more detailed schedule. There will also be plenty of time built in for sight seeing. The rabbi warned us that even when we are not with the communities we should consider ourselves on display and be careful not to eat something that isn't kosher for Passover or do anything else out of line with out positions as spiritual leaders. We're wondering, though, how kosher for Passover these communities will be, as we've heard rumors that some students in the past have seen grain-based alcoholic drinks or even bread products at the seder table. We are also worried about the possibility of social barriers and discomforts arising from our vegetarianism and the fact that we don't drink very much...
I've been trying to prepare for the visit by using it as an opportunity to engage with outside-of-class learning, but I am becoming increasingly aware that experiential learning and book-learning are entirely different beasts. I've been reading articles, some of them terrifically interesting, about the way that Russian Jews today see and define themselves, but I wonder if any of this will make my trip easier, or allow me to be more useful to these communities when I am there. We've had workshops on seder leading, on East European Jewish history, and even a brief tutorial on how to read Cyrillic characters, but I think I'll still be a bit bewildered when I get there. Nevertheless, I am very much enjoying the additional reading that I've assigned myself. If you want to join in the fun and read along with me, so far the best piece I've read has been a chapter out of New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora by David Shneer and Caryn Aviv. I've also been trying to give myself a crash course on Russian culture (about which I know very little) and have begun the rather intimidating task of reading Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes. It is a smooth read, but rather a large volume, and I doubt that I'll finish it before we land in Moscow.

Some Thoughts About my Classes

So, this semester I am taking: Yiddish, Sholom Aleichem (the author, not the greeting), Anthropology and Sociology of Israel, Masculinity and Nationhood in Hebrew Literature, and Hebrew.

Yiddish: This is a continuation of the same Yiddish class I took last semester. I love the class - the readings we do are very interesting and the grammatical concepts are reinforced by the texts. However, I am frustrated that we never speak or write in Yiddish, we only read texts and translate them into Hebrew orally. I am concerned for next year, when I will probably be in a Yiddish PhD program...without being able, really, to speak Yiddish at all. Even though I can read most Yiddish texts pretty capably, given time and the aid of a dictionary, I think I'm going to have to ask my instructors to begin with me at square one when it comes to speaking or writing, and this is quite frustrating. Nevertheless, for what it is, I have a lot of fun in Yiddish class, am being exposed to a wide variety of texts, and am also learning a bit of Hebrew along the way.

Sholom Aleichem: This is also a continuation of a class I took last semester, which was on Mendele Mocher Seforim. The professor and students are all the same, but the material is different as we have moved on to a new author. I think I prefer Sholom Aleichem - he gets a bit closer to his characters than Mendele. So far, we are reading and discussing Tevye the Dairyman, which is the book upon which Fiddler on the Roof was loosely based. I've read Tevye before several times, but each time I find it very moving. I look forward to the other readings we'll do in the class, as I've never read anything else by Sholem Aleichem, which is a pretty embarrasing hole in my knowledge.

Anthropology and Sociology of Israel: This class looks really cool. Each week, a different sociology PhD student from Hebrew University will come to the class and present on the work that they are doing for their dissertation. Then, they will leave and we will discuss their work as a class. The topics cover a wide range, from the mixed-ethnicity identity of people of both Askenazic and Sephardic origin to the postmodern lifestyle of Israeli flight attendants. So far we've only had one class, during which the professor told us about his work on the sociology of Israeli sociology, to give us a background for the presentations we are going to see in the upcoming weeks. He told us that as Israel was engaged in building the state, sociology was mainly concerned with practical answers to local questions - they applied theories from outside Israel to problems within Israel and used sociology as a tool to aid the government. They did not come up with new theories because they were concerned that theories coming from Israel would be too locally specific and would be uninteresting to the rest of the world. Instead, they understood Israel as a labratory for theories coming from the rest of the world, and they applied these theories to Israeli examples to test their boundaries and usefulness. In particular, they focused on kibbutzim and later on Arab-Israeli conflict. Today, Israeli socioliogy does not have a high status because they have no theories of their own and the world is losing interest in looking at Israel as a testing ground for outside theories. Israeli sociology has, as a result, become less comparative, less concerned with being relevant for the rest of the Western world, and uninterested in the more written about topics such as the Arab-Israeli conflict or the influx of Russian immigrants. The topics being presented in our class are sort of far from the mainstream, and are not 'useful' to the government for applications to practical problem solving questions. Nevertheless, I think they will be an interesting way to look at and better understand Israeli society, and I am excited for the class, which at the very least seems like a lot of fun!

Masculinity and Nationality in Hebrew Literature: This class has also only met once thus far, but seems like it will be very good. We are reading from a variety of texts, beginning with Enlightenment texts written before the formation of the state and moving on through Israeli history, looking at expectations for masculinity in Israeli culture and how that has been connected to the building of the state, and how these expectations have changed over time. So far we've onky read one text, which is Feierberg's "Whither?", a novella structured similarly to The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in whcih a young boy begins to question his father's religious philosophy and as he grows up he comes to reject the Jewish religion entirely and tries to discover what new direction Jewishness should take, if not in prayer toward G-d. His solution to the question "whither?" seems to be Zionism, but the conclusion is much more weak than other parts of the text about the loss of innocence and faith, so that the solution he derives seems almost untenable. We haven't yet discussed the text in class, but I am very much looking forward to how the teacher will relate masculinity to secular/enlightened thought or rejection of prayer as a solution to Jewish suffering. Does this naturally lead into a Zionist interpretation of masculinity, or will we have to read more works before we really get there?

Hebrew: I take Hebrew five days a week, and it is taught by two different teachers, who alternate teaching days - this is the same arrangement as last semester. Because I spend so much time in Hebrew, the teachers can really make or break the semester. My teachers last semester were not very good, and this was a major disappointment. The teachers this semester are terrific. They speak and read fast, they ask us to answer many questions, they bring in interesting and varied materials, they assign lots of homework and quizzes and really push us to learn - I think I've learned more in the past week and a half than I did for most of last semester in Hebrew!

You should look forward to hearing from us again with more interesting news soon, as we leave next week for a trip with Daniel's class to the Negev. Hope all is well with everyone at home!


Talkative in Toronto said...

The FSU trip sounds really exciting. What a great opportunity. Will you be able to use any of your Yiddish? I just bought marble cake mix for Pesach. It's my cooking speciality. We were invited to Jackie's house.

- Dad

Dan Mont said...

Sounds like the FSU trip will be an experience of a lifetime.

And I can relate to the alchohol problem. I've been places where it was really impolite to not drink a lot -- but you can get away with it if you say it's for health reasons -- or just take part in the toasts enthusiastically. In vietnam they always toast you with "Tram va Tram" -- 100 percent and 100 percent. So you are each supposed to completely down your glass or it is bad luck. But if you say "Tram va muoi" (100 percent and 10 percent) before you drink everyone laughs and you can get away with just taking a few sips, so you end up drinking one or two shots and not 10 or 20. As long as you raise your glass high and shout out your best wishes -- and not look like your being put upon when people keep asking you to drink.

Looking forward to your post-passover posts.

Uncle Dan

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