Saturday, April 02, 2005

Ayzeh Mehdeenah* (2)


Originally uploaded by savtadotty.
The taxi from the airport deposited me and my luggage at the entrance to Beit Millman in Ramat Aviv. The wordless greeting on the doorway made me burst into tears of relief.

I wiped my eyes to see a receptionist sitting behind a counter, with an array of pigeonholes behind him. The pigeonholes were mailboxes. The guy was taking notes from a book…obviously studying. His skin was black. I was surprised. I later learned all about the several rescues of the Ethiopian Jews, black-skinned people who had been living a pre-rabbinic version of Judaism in Africa for a very long time, and most of them had been living a pre-modern agrarian life until the day they left Gondor. The airplane that brought them to Israel was the first one most of them had ever seen, and the children thought they were inside a giant bird or on a magic carpet.

The receptionist at Beit Millman told me (in English) that he couldn't leave his post because he had to answer the phone whenever it rang. He didn't have a switchboard; just two phone lines. He gave me my key, pointed me to the elevator, and there I was. In the lobby, next to elevator, there were two phone booths, with clunky-looking old dial phones the size of small microwave ovens. The elevator cabin had no door, and the floor buttons on the elevator wall had letters, not numbers. I have a mild fear of heights, and riding in a rickety doorless elevator to mystery floor in my dazed, exhausted, keyed-up state nearly did me in.

My room was at the end of the hall, next to the exit stairs. After that first ride with the luggage, I seldom used the elevator again, not only because of agoraphobia, but because I had decided to adopt a personal survival strategy: minimum contact with the other residents. Walking up and down the back stairs would minimize my encounters with neighbors. I wanted to do this because I had read a book, Lies My Shaliach Told Me, in which the author describes how most new immigrants spend a lot of time complaining to each other. I felt strongly that I would need all my energy to deal with my own problems, and wouldn't be able to process anyone else's, at least not until I knew who was who; my strategy did turn out to serve me well.

My minimally-furnished studio room was intended to be shared, but I was blessed to have no roommate. I lived in fear of having a roommate assigned, but magically one never was. I attribute this to three things: my age, although I was not the only older woman to arrive on her own, my extremely respectful and cooperative attitude toward Frieda, the House Mother (She Who Assigned Roommates), and psoriasis. Frieda may have assumed that roommates would object to my perpetually flaking skin, or they would think it was contagious, or perhaps she herself was repelled. I'll never know for sure, but it was the first time psoriasis may have been an advantage!

The studio had two single beds, two chairs, a small table, one window, a built-in wardrobe, a kitchenette containing a two-burner cooktop and mini-fridge, and a bathroom: toilet, sink, and a combination half-tub/shower. No telephone. Cellphones didn't exist. I would have to learn to use those clunky phones in the lobby booths to make calls.

The first floor above the lobby, called "The First Floor" in that quaint European way, was where the administrative offices and classrooms were. There were offices for representatives of various government Ministries: Absorption, Labor, Education, and The Jewish Agency (Sochnut).

Next morning, Day Two, I showed up for Hebrew School. I didn't need a placement test to be assigned to the beginner's class. The teacher was pregnant. A few of my classmates were in their pajamas. Most of them were Russian or Argentineans. The few other American immigrants had been assigned to advanced classes, or one or two arrived later in the "term." The term had actually begun a week before I arrived, so even my beginner's class was ahead of me: they'd already done the alphabet, a problem that plagues me until today.

The Russians were all refuseniks, some of them (Masha Slepak) were famous heroes of the refusenik movement. Many of the Russians brought their dogs to Israel, not to class, even though house rules did not allow pets. The Argentineans were young, indicators of a failing economy in Argentina rather than any notable Zionism. The teacher made an effort to speak in Hebrew only, which was aided by her ignorance of Russian. From time to time she would toss out a few English words, tidbits for me, but mostly she translated with diagrams and body language only. She was teaching the names of family roles: father, mother, daughter, son, etc. We got a workbook that looked like it had been used for first-graders for generations. I felt totally, but not properly, infantilized: how can it be that there is no Hebrew alphabet song? In 16 years' on-and-off searching, I've not found one. A plea: if anyone of you knows [of] a Hebrew alphabet song, please e-mail me.

Ulpan classes went from 8AM until 1PM, with two intermissions. By the end of class I was too tired to eat lunch and fell asleep for three hours.


Udge said...

This is marvellous. I am amazed by, and greatly admire, your courage in taking this enormous leap into the unknown.

Savtadotty said...

Thank you, Udge. During those first months I often repeated the following mantra: "You have food, clothing, a roof over your head, indoor plumbing, and the likelihood of same tomorrow. Trust yourself to learn in time what else you really need." It sustained me. And then, best/worst of all, "This is your free choice!"

Third Street said...

Because I have been to Israel and your writing is very vivid - I can sort of imagine this.

It's a great story of courage in the face of a huge life change. Wow, Savta. Can't wait to read more.

Anonymous said...

I learned the aleph-bet song when I was a very young child.

I remember my father and I stopped off at the shul, and he retrieved a cassette tape while I waited in the Brown Ford Pinto.

Then at home, in my room, I listened to the song over and over again using the fancy tape recorder we had gotten for my father for his birthday, which I had placed on the quilt my mother had made for me, on my bed, and learned the song.

When we learned the Spanish alphabet in seventh grade, I earnestly asked about the song, innocently under the impression that every language had an alphabet song.

How can I share the song with you?

Savtadotty said...

Dear Anonymous -

If you send your e-mail address to savtadotty [at], I will reply with a US voicemail number you can sing the song to. Thanks.