Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Windows of Security

After four years living in capital cities outside the United States, living in suburbia is a culture shock. Many Americans I speak with express relief that I'm now back where it's "safe". But I don't feel safer at all. In fact, I feel decidedly less safe in suburban America than I did living in Jerusalem and Dhaka. I find the rows of big dark house spaces along dark, quiet streets rather spooky. (I'm sure the over-enthusiastic Halloween decorations don't help much either. Our evening neighborhood walks include passing by several partial skeletons crawling out of the ground and back-light bodies leaning against windows, watching us walk by.) The quiet, the distance, the darkness, the I-can't-hear-anyone silent aloneness is eerie. Who would hear me scream? And would any of those distant people, my so-called neighbors, care? I miss the lights, the pedestrian life-style, the people out and about, and passing my neighbors in the cramped stairwell. I miss the vibrant lifestyle that comes with proximity.

Houses. We're supposed to be safe inside our large, strong constructions. Strong walls fitted with heavy, solid doors that are closed with metal locks and protected with security systems. But what about the windows? The large glass patio doors? Maybe it is the tree outside my bedroom windows whose frail branches scrap against the windows, giving the impression of a wailing banshee begging to enter that got me spooked about the windows. But they glass seems vulnerable.

Simply put, my experiences and understanding just don't seem to line up with the accepted understanding around me. I feel that the American search for security and safety is buttressed by items: big lonely houses, fancy security systems, strong locks. I think you could extrapolate that to a national level in looking at our search for security in the world. And I feel like here, the goal is an elusive zero sum game: 100% safe.

And I think it's all a fiction. I'm not against locking doors or taking precautions, but I feel like buying into American Safe is buying into an illusion. And being here does not make me safer. With America's crime rates, especially of violent crimes, I feel decidedly less safe in America. And all the times smiling, well-meaning faces express their joy that I'm back home where it's "safe" I feel such a strong disconnect. I don't buy into the illusion of safe. There are dangers everywhere. There are methods of protection and prevention everywhere. And I wasn't living in a war zone and I didn't immigrate to Iraq. And when all is said and done, America isn't the safest place on earth. (Although, the living is quite good in many places.) So, I smile back at those well-meaning people and say thank you.

And I go on my way, feeling even more the disconnected stranger.

Friday, July 15, 2011

I'm an artist!

As a teacher, I tend to get really ambitious in the summer months. Not keeping track of the grades, behaviors, learning trends and emotions of 150 or so adolescents really frees up a lot of brain space.

So, in addition to my blog that focuses on education, I decided to make an art blog to, well, encourage me to do art. It's a personal goal that I've had for the past few years and keep on missing. Art keeps getting shoved aside for work, bills, cooking, cleaning... the list is really endless.

So today, I say "happy birthday" to my new art blog, Not Picasso. So far I have one post, the blog's raison d'être, accompanied by a photograph I took and a conté crayon drawing inspired by the photo.

Speaking of which, today is also my "aliyaversary". I've now been an Israeli citizen for two years.

Please encourage me to keep making art!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

New Blog!

This past year was a bit overwhelming- as you might have noticed by the absence of posts on this blog. But as the last school year is done I'm busy making goals for my next year- which includes more writing!

1) I want to continue documenting my musings and observations here
2) I've started a new blog that focus on my experience as an educator
3) I've dug up my journals from Mali and am going to see if they can inspire me to do what so many people have been telling me to do- write a book!

Of course, these come with other ambitious goals- such as making art on a regular basis (another potential blog), starting at a new school (2 classes- so part time), taking a Talmud/ Mishna class and starting my own mini business of tutoring and small groups.

It should be a pretty calm year. :)

Please check out my new blog and share it with other interested parties. (Yes, this is a plug). My goal is to write weekly about current and previous experiences as an educator. And as we all know, teachers are never short of opinions.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

turning in a world of risk

Where can I even begin after so much silence?

How about the moment I entered the teacher’s room after being observed by the BIG SHOT- the woman who oversees all English teachers in Jerusalem for the Ministry of Education. This woman is key in getting jobs, and actually, after over a year and a half of hoop jumping, finally becoming certified to teach in Israel. My department head ran over to me, ecstatic. The BIG SHOT had told her what she had told me right after the observation, that I was one of the best teachers she’s ever seen. (Please keep in mind she’s seen every English teacher in Jerusalem.) I look over, distracted, at another teacher on the phone, her eyes moist, her hand covering her mouth. Disjointed phrases in Hebrew flash around the busy room. On a bus. Right outside of the Bineney Ha’uma. Which bus was it? There’s been a terrorist attack. 18 wounded. Was it a bus our students take? The three computers in the room are occupied, people desperately searching for confirmation and more information. Phones are pressed to ears, so much that the network is overloaded; calls fail.

My department head is still bubbly about my recent success and asks me if I’ve filled out my wish list for next year yet. This is the first mention I’ve heard of being offered a job for next year. I never even signed a contract for this year and am still fighting to get paid what I should, to increase my pitifully sad 10 shekel an hour average rate. I’m still walking around the large room slightly dazed, wondering if I’m standing at the entrance of a third intifada. My memories jump back two weeks to the shocking ending to the wonderful Shabbat I spent with the family who has adopted me here. Rebooting computers with cheerful faces only to discover that just north of here a family was slaughtered in their sleep. I log into gmail and quickly find myself chatting with 6 friends all at once, everyone checking in, still alive. For first timers, it’s almost instinct; for those who have lived through so many attacks, it’s routine.

I hold the “wish list” form in my hand after my department head printed me out a copy. I don’t want this, but I’m not sure how or when to tell her that I’m not coming back. I’ve been told time and time again that this school, where I drag myself everyday, is a good school; that this place, that I regard as an unruly mess, is a great place to work; that these students, who argue and fight with me on a regular basis, robbing themselves of learning, are some of the best students. And all this for less than 2 dollars an hour. All this for less than minimum wage. I tuck the form into my bag and wonder if I should take the bus home.

Risk. For a world ever seeking stability and security, risk permeates the air. To stand surrounded by countries of oppressed people challenging dictators so often given a green light by oil thirsty Western countries. Risk, to leave a “secure” although pitiful government job with a pension to start out on my own. Risk, to live in what very much feels like the middle of a region in riots, in a country hit by rockets on a regular basis.

But is it risky simply because it’s unknown to me? what about my normal risks, that seem bland in comparision. The financial markets we’ve be taught to believe in seem so fragile. People risk their lives daily in American too- due to street violence, car accidents- and as much as American would like to believe itself immune, terrorist attacks happen there as well. But only terrorist attacks make international news. Are we blinded to the risks we’ve become accustomed to?

Monday, August 9, 2010

I'm in high school- again.

Today I took a mini version of the Hebrew Literature Bagrut (High School Exit Exam). Let's totally skip over the fact that I've only been studying Hebrew for a year and I have to take these high school level exams IN HEBREW to re-earn my teaching certificate here in Israel. Needless to say, I find rapid fire intensive courses in history, citizenship, Hebrew literature and Hebrew grammar conducted in a level of Hebrew that is easily twice my own ability extremely frustrating. Thus I've reconnected with my 10th grade self that cursed (yes, out loud and colorfully) every time I had to enter a Spanish classroom and bemoaned being forced to learn another language. My dear study partner is very patient with my sporadic streams of cursing that punctuate our cramming sessions. And yes, since we're doing material for four high school subjects in 6 weeks, it's all cramming.

Even so, as we were cramming away last night- but still going slow enough for me to actually understand what we were doing- I realized I really liked one of the poems/ songs we studied. True to Jewish tradition, song and poem are pretty much one and the same here. Here's the song version, grace à youtube:

So, what follows is the original Hebrew text, the best translation I can muster (without online translators because they're EVIL!) and an explanation why I really like this piece. Yep, I'm in high school literature mode. But, it's a good thing considering that I will be teaching English Literature for the Bagrut exam starting this month (yikes!) And I took a couple liberties to help the translation flow, be more clear in English but retain its original meaning (to the best of my understanding.)

כי האדם עץ השדה / נתן זך .......Because Man is a Tree of the Field/ Nathan Zach

כי האדם עץ השדה.....................Because man is a tree of the field
כמו האדם גם העץ צומח............ Like man, a tree, too, is planted
כמו העץ האדם נגדע. ................ Like a tree, man is cut down
ואני לא יודע ............................. And I do not know
איפה הייתי ואיפה אהיה............. Where I've been and where I will be
כמו עץ השדה.............................Like a tree in the field

כי האדם עץ השדה..................... Because man is a tree of the field
כמו העץ הוא שואף למעלה ......... Like a tree, man breaths in, reaching upwards
כמו האדם הוא נשרף באש.......... Like man, a tree burns in fire
ואני לא יודע . ............................And I do not know
איפה הייתי ואיפה אהיה...............Where I've been and where I will be
כמו עץ השדה.............................Like a tree in the field

אהבתי וגם שנאתי ......................I have loved and I have hated
טעמתי מזה ומזה........................I have tasted this and that
קברו אותי בחלקה של עפר...........They buried me in a piece of dirt
ומר לי, מר לי בפה...................... And I have bitterness, bitterness I have in my mouth
כמו עץ השדה............................ Like a tree in the field

כי האדם עץ השדה......................Because man is a tree of the field
כמו העץ הוא צמא למים..............Like a tree, he thirsts for water
כמו האדם גם הוא נשאר צמא.......Like man, a tree also remains thirsty
ואני לא יודע ............................. And I do not know
איפה הייתי ואיפה אהיה............. Where I've been and where I will be
כמו עץ השדה.............................Like a tree in the field

The title, Because Man is a Tree of the Field, is a verse in the Deuteronomy 20:19. The context is rules for engaging in war. The Torah prohibits the destruction of fruit trees, explaining "because man is a tree in the field". Most of the English translations I've found of Deuteronomy 20:19 choose an interpretation of the Hebrew and solidify it in the English version. But, lucky me, I can now go back to the Hebrew and all the juiciness that allows me. So, כי האדם עץ השדה can be interpreted as either a statement or a question (there isn't any punctuation in the Torah scroll). As a question, it implies that the trees are not men, but rather just trees, and therefore have done nothing to harm the approaching army and deserve to be unharmed. They are innocent in the ways of war, to say the least. As a statement, it implies that trees are indeed like men and thus deserve to be treated with respect and dignity of men and therefore not to be cut down when they are innocent. In good Jewish tradition, I choose to accept both interpretations side by side. (Why choose one, when you can have both!?)

In the song, there are three couplets that compare man and tree. The first deals with being planted and cut down, the second with breathing and burning in fire and the third thirsting for water. I interpret this song as dealing with the Holocaust- where men are moved, planted, cut down, starved and burned with less thought than that given to replanting, tending, harvesting, using, and burning a tree. In the Holocaust, the world is afouk- turned upside down and logic no longer reins, but rather craziness. In lieu of the biblical verse that raises respect for trees to that of human status, here humans burn like wood in crematoriums.

The first, second and final verse emphasis that both man and tree are subject to external forces and lack control in their own lives. "I do not know where I've been and where I will be, like a tree of the field." Jews suffering through the Holocaust most definitely experience a lack of control over their own lives as the advancing army of Nazis approached, relocated them, starved them, cut them down and burn them.

The third verse, which follows a separate lyrical pattern, deals with a man's life before the Holocaust and his subsequent death during the Holocaust. In life, he has various experiences and emotions, while in death, he is "planted" into the earth. Planting a man is death, while planting a tree is life.

I really liked this piece with it's beautifully dark and sorrowful feelings. I feel like the analogy between man and tree is one in which I can get lost and turn around in, looking at it upside down and rediscovering it every time I read it. The Hebrew is simple yet poignant, which is characteristic of the language. I also feel that song is strongly rooted in Jewish culture- from it's title to the high level of respect given to trees. (In Judaism, there are four year cycles that run congruently (think academic year, calendar year, financial year). This leads to four new year's celebrations- including one for trees. Yep, that's an entire year dedicated to trees, planting them, celebrating them, loving them. (Some of us like to think of it as the oldest Earth Day ever.) Also, planting trees in Israel is a mtizvah.) I find this poem to be haunting in it's history and the deep meaning of it's deceptively simple words.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Reflections on riding the bus in Jerusalem

The bus: my constant companion. I wait for her. I get annoyed with her. I marvel at her. I wish I could give her directions that would directly take me to my destination in lieu of her circuitous routes that reach out to everyone. I’m grateful for her despite my frustrations. One of my proudest Courtney trumps Israeli style bureaucracy and spiteful office workers was getting my discounted 6 month student bus pass.

I’m back on the bus today after an attempt to have an affair with the train. The bus was against me. She avoided me. When my fellow waiter (soon to be rider) informed me the bus snuck by silently just before I arrived for our rendez vous I decided to splurge for a cab to catch the train. I flirt with the train- it’s smooth ride and fewer disruptions. She has large windows opening to our beautiful countryside, spacious tables, and larger, more comfortable, seats. She doesn’t confine me like the bus does. The bus wants me to stay in my small space defined by chairs covered in blue carpet-like upholstery with electric colored squiggles. But the train is a fickle, infrequent affair. The taxi arrived in time for me to see her sleek body pull out of the station, red warning lights flashing at the crossing.

Frustrated, dejected, I returned to the bus. I had to look for her. And she made me wait, maybe a little longer than usual to make a point. But she accepted me back, ignoring my attempted transgression. So, I board bus 4 Aleph from the south of Jerusalem, to the center. 8 takes me to the Central Bus station and now 480 and bearing me to Tel Aviv, where again, I flirt with the idea of the train to take me to Tel Aviv University so that I can at least catch the end of my class and meet in instructor.

The bus in Jerusalem is a microcosm of society. Strangers talk to each other in these double long busses that haul Jerusalemites and tourists alike. A rich brew of Russian, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Portuguese and English bounce around inside, maybe flavored with Yiddish or Ahmaric on the right bus lines. We ask for help, strike up conversations, make comments on everything, invite strangers home, and run into friends. Strangers can become friends on a bus, trapped for the long halting stops through the congested streets. There isn’t just the assumption that we will help each other, but the expectation. Fellow bus riders are constantly helping mothers with strollers alight and disembark through the rear doors, passing their fares up to the driver. The wheelchair ramp isn’t automated but requires a passenger to lean down to open and close it. Today, I was one of 6 people who, without asking even if there was a need, rose to the expectation to help a woman in a wheelchair navigate off the stiff curb, and up the steep ramp into the bus and then pass her fare card to the driver and back. No words are needed; we all know how we’re supposed to help. I live in that alternate reality where youngsters pop up and insist that elderly people and pregnant woman take their seats. These are the moments I love the bus.

The bus in Jerusalem: I love her, I loath her, I wait for her. But I say my blessings that I do not fear her. The fear of busses still clings to our group consciousness. Today, a reminder of that fear was a black roller bag, ownerless, sitting near the front of the bus. “Is this someone’s black bag?” an older man calls out. No answer. Again, “Is this someone’s black bag?” he shouts louder into the back of the bus. “It’s no one’s bag,” the back of the bus answers him. I can see his nervousness. I feel the tension. He looks around. He studies the bag. The bag stares back at him, silently, menacingly. The bag challenges the man at the front of the bus. The man finally accepts the challenge and opens the bag. “Don’t open it,” a voice floats up from behind me. I’m relieved when he’s finished his search and closes the bag. No explosives. We won’t be tonight’s news, unidentifiable limbs mixed with the metal that once was a bus. That terrible, horrible wall that brings international condemnation as a cheap land grab is working. We are free from the reality of the second infatada that blasted its angry shouts with daily suicide bombs and converted the busses from the most popular transportation to a gamble with your life. Soon an elderly woman is running up next to the bus, banging on the windows with her fists. She runs inside, explains she took a taxi to catch up with the bus and reclaims her bag. We, the bus riders, smile inside with relief. Today a lonely bag is just that: forgotten, but not a threat. And again I hate the need for the large concrete wall I can see traipsing across the east of Jerusalem and I’m so thankful that simple concrete can save so many lives.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Checking in

It’s been too long- in terms of communicating with you and also with myself. The decadently long expanses of solitary reflective time that characterized my time in Bangladesh are distant memories. From a single “single friend” I’ve landed spat into a beautiful, inviting community of single friends with lots of time and energy. From being a teacher and managing my own time I’ve become an overloaded student- Hebrew classes, Torah classes, grammar classes, teacher recertification classes, Jewish thought classes- and neglected homework. I’ve fallen into a long forgotten habit of over committing myself, above and beyond the coursework. I’ve discovered volunteering and dove in- reading to the elderly, helping lone soldiers, doing morale boosting for members of the Israeli Defense Forces and helping to coordinate large Shabbat meals to bring various members of our diverse community together. The hours of silence- without work, to do lists, roommate, phone calls, rushing errands- are gone. So too, it seems, are the blog entries and all the wonderful reflection and repackaging they required.

But I finally, regardless of my own critical judgment about creating a quality, readable, reflective piece starting with a clear direction, I’m letting go of my own expectations and just writting. Letting go of my need to express my anger and defensiveness about the flotilla escapades and journalistic creative fiction and spin that followed. Letting go of my need to provide a documentation of daily events. Writing to reconnect- with you- and with myself.

Shifting through the layers of commitments and conversations, studies and bureaucracy, errands and endless bus rides- searching back to the source, the central experience of my time here- and I find- settled contentment. It’s been the biggest life shift of all. A lifetime of running after new adventures, pushing my boundaries, exploring my ever shifting paradigm, immerging myself in languages and cultures as I bounced and bopped around the globe- the great trips and fanciful adventures have lost their hold on my heart. What started to root in my heart as a traveled around Asia and saw such amazing sites remains- yes the world is an amazing and diverse place, yes I feel very privileged to have seen and experienced so much of it in such a personal way, and I’d rather be in Israel.

And true to my inner voice, everyday as I walk around Jerusalem, watching grapes, olives, figs and pomegranates form in my neighbors’ yards, I give thanks for being able to be here. I marvel daily at the very communal, non city feel cultivated in such a walkable, beautiful city where strangers help each other without question and I always run into people I know. I cringe at the intolerance of the inhabitants of neighborhoods like Mea Sharim who I perceive as perverting Judaism in the conquest to save and preserve it. I flair up at the disproportionately large amount of spinning incorrect journalism about my home. I revel in the glorious walls of the old city and the multitude of invitations I receive into the homes of my fellow Israelis. What are my challenges in adapting? Too many welcoming people creating an outpouring of invitations? Friends always finding new adventures from climbing Masada, eating at Black Out, hiking near Tzfat, listening to the Israeli Philharmonic or simply enjoying the sights and events of Jerusalem? People always trying to figure out how they can help me? Should all people be so lucky to face similar challenges.

And since it’s been a while, I’ll also let you know. Next school year I’ll be gainfully employed teaching English to Hebrew speakers in grades 7 through 9 and also English literature to native English speakers in grade 10.

And since my silence has been echoed back for so long, I hope that my voice can also be echoed back with a small insight into your lives as well.