Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The New Jew

Somewhere along the line I read that Israel was supposed to give birth to a phenomenon called "The New Jew:" That is, a Jew different from the anti-semitic Western Diaspora stereotype who cringed and spent his life indoors either studying Torah or counting money. In contrast, early Zionist posters showed muscular tanned guys who were fighters for independence by day and kibbutz farmers by night. Or perhaps it was fighters in winter and farmers in summer. In any case, you get the idea.

When I made aliyah almost 21 years ago from the USA, I had to invent my own Jewish history, because my family were American Assimilationists. Not that that isn't a form of Jewish history, but it doesn't usually lead to migration to Israel, unless one is trying to escape The Law, which I wasn't.

Armed with every kind of education except Jewish and Hebrew, I tackled the new project with all my old tools: analysis, thoroughness - one could say obsessiveness - earnestness, responsibility, independence, determination, sincerity, seriousness, etc. etc. I avoided the company of other olim so as not to be discouraged by their complaints.

Surprisingly (to me) what worked in The Old Country didn't work so well here, and I succumbed to the inevitable culture shock. I didn't find work or learn Hebrew as quickly as expected, and started to get discouraged. Then, at a moment of extreme desperation, I had a brainstorm that went something like this:

This place is really, really Different, so of course nothing will work as expected. The way to master it is to do everything the opposite way from what worked Before!

I began to apply this principle as follows:

1) I was getting very stressed by mail. From the start I got a few letters in Hebrew, and I couldn't read them. Because Independence was one of my values, I was loathe to ask for help in translating, so I came up with my own resolution of the problem: throw away any personal printed letter that doesn't have numbers in it, without bothering to try to figure out what it says. If it has a number in it, go to the Post Office and pay the bill. This policy has worked so well that it continues to this day. (In case you're thinking of taking advantage , be warned that I can now recognize the logos of the Electric Company, the Phone Company, and the Tax Authority, so don't try any funny business!)

2) Ulpan was getting me down. Having learned fluent French in my youth, I had assumed a talent for languages. The assumption failed to take into account the gradual deterioration of the language-learning parts of my brain, and left me stunned and frustrated. To cope with this, I modified the first part of my brainstorm as follows:

Both you and this place are really, really Different, so of course nothing will work as expected. My conclusion was the same, though: The way to master it is to do everything the opposite way from what worked Before!

In this case, my application was: stop trying to learn Hebrew for a year, take drawing lessons instead. In the interim, I did find work that required minimal Hebrew, and have continued the art lessons on and off. The results have been pure fun for me, and endless entertainment for taxi drivers who ask (sometimes in Hebrew, sometimes in English), "How long have you been in Israel?," to which I reply, in Hebrew, "Too long!"

In the process, I realized that my adaptability was in fact not new at all, just the old Jew surviving in modern dress. As Shavuout approaches, I'll spend it avoiding the Tel Aviv sun and studying my copy of James L. Kugel's How to Read the Bible (in English).

Plus ça change, plus ça reste la même chose.

9 comments:

Fred said...

I love the way you paid bills. I remember when I first lived in France...I was so darned frustrated, and I had studied the language. I caught on enough to get by, but now I feel it slowly slipping away. I try and read French newspapers and watch French TV shows to keep up with it.

JoeinVegas said...

And how is your Hebrew now? What about Yidish, is that any easier?

Savtadotty said...

Fred, Thank you. At least the numerals in Hebrew are the same!

Joe, My Hebrew comprehension and conversation is adequate for daily life, but I am about as literate as a first-grader. I'm not exactly proud of my illiteracy, but the important things are translated to English very quickly (news) or very well (the bible!) Yiddish is not easier for me, because I never heard it in my childhood home, and it is written using Hebrew letters.

Nobody said...

You should go easy about your age. The recent research in neuroplasticity indicates that many of the assumptions about old age and its impact on brain were wrong. For examples new neurons are being created throughout adult life and basically it all comes to one thing - practice.

Savtadotty said...

Nobody, They'll have to do a lot more research to convince me that language-learning functions of the brain can be maintained after age 50. On the other hand, I suppose my motivation to learn Hebrew also decreased once I observed that I could enjoy a productive and gratifying life in Israel without it.

Nobody said...

I knew people who at 60 went to lean Japanese. It's very individual of course, but it's worth trying, just in order, you know, to keep yourself sharp.

Anonymous said...

I laughed out loud at #1! And regarding #2 - ulpan was ok but taking yoga in Hebrew was a much better way to learn body vocab.

John

Savtadotty said...

John, I remember yoga in Hebrew! I also took a Tai Chi class, and my trainer/physiotherapist now doesn't speak any English, so I've learned a lot of Hebrew anatomy: muscles, nerves, bones, tendons, spine, coccyx, skull, chin, shoulders, etc. Language is not exactly an issue any more; not that I've mastered it, but I've kind of mastered the idea of communicating without much vocabulary. I think I could do it in any language.

Savtadotty said...

John, I remember yoga in Hebrew! I also took a Tai Chi class, and my trainer/physiotherapist now doesn't speak any English, so I've learned a lot of Hebrew anatomy: muscles, nerves, bones, tendons, spine, coccyx, skull, chin, shoulders, etc. Language is not exactly an issue any more; not that I've mastered it, but I've kind of mastered the idea of communicating without much vocabulary. I think I could do it in any language.