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Thursday, July 19, 2012

My journey as a Jew. A comment, a mish mash, a start.

One of our readers, Julian, has asked ( comment, 19 July, 2012;  http://www.learnetarium.com/2011/09/learn-foreign-languages-by-having-fun_21.html) about the different attitudes of secular and orthodox Jews.

He specifically wonders, "Are these tensions similar (not identical) with the feelings of the Maccabees and the Hellenised Jews back in antiquity? "

This is a good and insightful question which I would like to address.

The parallels between the ancient Jewish society of those Jews influenced by Greek or Hellenic culture and those who wished to pursue a more traditional Jewish culture and life with what is going on today are often similar.

Jewish writings like the Babylonian Talmud, a massive compendium of discussions which took place between the years 200 - 500 CE, often mention the Hellenists and their contributions. However, what I find interesting is that those who were greatly influenced by Greek culture in this way never quite established an ongoing Jewish life, one which continued to develop over the following centuries.

There is something very unique and touching about the traditional Jewish ways. Much of it, from my personal experience, is not too helpful and I don't find it very nourishing but that is just a portion of it.

For the most part, I believe that we have a lot to learn from this tradition.

Part of the problem, for me, is that the messengers as they are today often are part of communities that appear opposed to secular education and have an almost antagonistic relationship to what is viewed as secular life and study. Orthodox Jews and especially the so-called ultra-orthodox ( Haredim, Hasidim, +) exemplify this.

In their worlds you cannot just pick and choose. You must accept the entire package, along with their politics and authority figures, or risk not being accepted in the community.

In Israel there is quite a bit of resentment between the secular and orthodox communities. There is also a lot of ignorance found on both sides as to who the others are.

Much of this ignorance is based on beliefs regarding the lack of sincerity and learning of the other. The orthodox believe that anyone who doesn't learn Torah ( ie: to sit and study the Talmud, which is really what is meant by learning Torah for them) is not a true Jew. They believe that God commanded them to sit and learn Torah. If you don't do this then you are not a real Jew in their eyes.

The secular population often views this preoccupation with Torah study as a total waste of time. For them, the studies of these ancient texts are irrelevant to a modern life. They also look at the ultra-orthodox and see people dressed like Polish noblemen from the 18th century, speaking Yiddish, a language of Eastern Europe, obsessed with rituals and religious duties, who usually refuse to serve in the IDF ( Israel Defense Force) and otherwise don't help to foster the country, and conclude that they are a blight on the nation and the Jewish people. Those who speak Yiddish are Ashkenazi Jews, descendants of European Jews. The other orthodox community is made up of Sefardi Jews, descendants of Mediterranean Jews ( Spain, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Italy, North Africa and the Middle East). They, too, have their ultra-orthodox segment.

The orthodox often look at the secular world and see them as frivolous, without any sustaining vision, grossly ignorant of Jewish traditional culture and hostile to the religion. The secular community is often seen as failures who do not represent the true face of the Jewish people.

I grew up in a home where Jewish culture was honored alongside secular, Western studies. In America there are several denominations of Judaism. From  left to right we might list them as: Humanistic Judaism ( these people are atheists and agnostics who want a Jewish life), Jewish Renewal ( those who are inspired by the teachings of Rabbi Zalman Schachter, a former teacher and friend of mine), Reconstructionist Judaism ( those who are inspired by the ideas of Mordecai Kaplan [1881–1983] . This movement views Judaism as a progressively evolving civilization.), Reform Judaism, the largest American group, Conservative ( another very large group which developed like Reform in the 19th century and split from the orthodox), as well as a vast spectrum comprising orthodox or traditional Judaism which ranges from Modern Orthodox all the way to the haredim and hasidim, the most ultra or the ultra orthodox, the ones with the long beards, black coats and hats, and the most rigid observance.

My family was Conservative. I was sent by my parents to a Conservative Jewish school which met twice a week outside of my public school studies. Honestly, I didn't find it terribly inspiring in part because I just wasn't interested in such things and also it seemed irrelevant to my personal needs. For me, God was a concept, not a reality. Religion was something others were devoted to but it wasn't real for me. I went because my parents insisted that I do so and that it would make my grandparents happy. They had come to America because it was hard for them to live in Europe as Jews,  I loved my grandparents and if my doing all this stuff would make them happy then I would do it, no questions asked.

Around the time of my bar mitzvah, when I turned 13, I told me father that I didn't believe in any of this, that I was an internationalist, a citizen of the world. He repeated that it would make my grandparents happy so I just did it.

I read a portion of the Torah in Hebrew. When I did so I didn't understand what I was reading. After I  finished I was happy to return to my other life;  riding my bicycle, reading books and studying stuff of personal interest like history, political and economic philosophy, biographies, and so on.

However, when I graduated high school and  moved to Wisconsin to attend the university in Madison, I quickly realized that I was different than the non-Jewish students. On Friday evenings many of them would party, get drunk and get laid. Many of them loved rock music, smoking cigarettes and taking drugs. All of this was foreign to me. For me, Friday was the beginning of the weekend, a time to be with family, relax, and wind down from the workday time. At the time I never understood that this was the Sabbath, one of the major Jewish contributions to the world.

No one in my family drank alcohol except for religious purposes when we would say a prayer and make a blessing over wine usually on the Sabbath or holidays. I had never tasted beer  I had no desire to drink. My father smoked a pipe and no one smoked cigarettes. We never ate any products from a pig or shell fish. Once my brother brought home some bacon and fried it in one of my mother's pans. My father took the pan, the bacon and my brother, opened the door of our home and threw all of them out onto the lawn. He told my brother to never, ever bring such things into our home again.

The conversations of my fellow university students often revolved around women, popular culture, sports, and other things which held little interest for me. They rarely spoke about intellectual matters or their studies with any passion.

Many of them were very nice but I just didn't feel any connection that made me want to hang out with them.

For me, life was big, with unending possibilities. To spend it chasing women, on drinking binges, watching football matches and getting stoned, seemed a colossal waste of time.




At that point I began to wander through the stacks of books at the university library. I noticed that most of the  students who seemed to have similar inclinations and  interests to mine were all Jews. Many, like me, hailed from the New York City area. I recall a grad student, Roy, whom I idolized because he was majoring in Russian culture and history. I had never met such a person. He seemed so fascinating, so cultured, so smart. I wanted to be like Roy. I would stand in front of the university library, along with other students and listen to him speak. Roy had done something big with his life and I wanted to, as well. I had no idea what I would do but I knew it wouldn't be what most of my fellow students were doing.

Life was so big, so filled with all sorts of interesting ideas, wonderful explorations, exciting people. There was so much to learn and I wanted to absorb it all, now.

As a freshman I was just starting this journey. It excited me that I could make my own life in a way that might actually be fun or at least more fun than high school and other required, boring classes and studies.

One day in the library stacks I discovered the section on Jewish life, religion and culture.

In the Library of Congress classification system, according to which the books were arranged, the identification code was BM. I thought that this was hilarious since in my home this was how we had always referred to shit ( bowel movement).  Somebody seemed to have a great sense of humor at the Library of Congress.

At first I just browsed aimlessly through some of these books.

Then I got to a special sub-section.

What I discovered changed the entire course of my life.



( to be continued)

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Learning Hebrew in an Israeli Ulpan.



Previous to meeting Michel Thomas in the mid-90's, my experience in learning languages was entirely based on using books and, in some cases, having others instruct me using more traditional approaches. However, I could never really communicate in any of these languages. In fact, the very idea of comfortably conversing in a language other than English was almost unimaginable. Today I find it hard to relate to how I thought then but that was just the way it was for me.

Though I had studied Hebrew for some time I could not hold a decent conversation until I had spent time in an ulpan or Israeli intensive Hebrew program for new immigrants. I began this program to prepare me for a university education which was entirely taught in Hebrew with the most paltry knowledge of the language. I emerged from it a few weeks later being able to read, write and speak on a university level which I found remarkable.

The ulpan ( in Modern Hebrew this word is used for a studio as in a broadcasting studio as well as for an intensive language program) probably lasted all of two months.  I had been accepted to a graduate program at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1973 and came during the summer to prepare for my studies by taking this mandatory program for foreign students.

After the program I was able to follow lectures in Hebrew and do research and write papers. I also had to write papers in Hebrew in order to leave the ulpan with permission to enter the university. My final paper at the ulpan  was on the life and philosophy of Che Guevara. The teachers didn't care what we wrote on as long it was in Hebrew. I thought that this subject matter was very funny since it was so different than the subject matter of my previous Hebrew studies which had revolved around Judaism. Using the modern version of Biblical Hebrew to discuss non-religious topics was very exciting for me. I love the versatility of the linguistic experience.

In October, 1973, Israel was attacked by its neighbors on Yom Kippur/ Ramadan. The university was closed. After the war the university reopened and we students resumed our studies.

I had learned a lot in a short period of time. During the period when the university was closed I continued my studies on an informal basis. However, the foundation of what I learned in the ulpan has served me well since. It was  the first time I was actually able to communicate comfortably in a foreign language which, for me,was a great achievement.

About ten years ago I decided to take my Hebrew to the next level. I enrolled in a summer ulpan at the University of Haifa. It was a two-month program. Since I had not used the language for many years I was concerned about how much I would get out of the program.

The first day all the students, both Israeli and foreigners, were assembled in a large lecture hall.

A woman arose and spoke to us in Hebrew for about five minutes.

She then said in English, Anyone who didn't understand what I just said please stand up and come to the front of the hall.

About half of the students came down and left the hall with her. They formed the first two levels of what I learned was a six part program. The levels ranged from aleph ( one) to vav ( six). The Hebrew letters all have numerical values. In fact, one of the ways of reading the Bible is as strings of numbers. Obviously, this provides a very different experience and way of learning than the more traditional conceptual approach.

The rest of the students left in the all were told that we would have a written exam consisting of answering questions on grammar as well as writing an essay on some subject which we would be assigned. We were given two hours for the written part.

In addition, we would be individually examined in spoken communication.

Half way through the written, someone tapped me on the shoulder and led me out of the room. I was taken to a room where a woman interviewed me in Hebrew. I liked her a lot and hoped she would be my teacher. She told me that she would not be my teacher since I would not be appropriate for her level of instruction.

I was downcast. I assumed that I would be in a very low level since she obviously was a high level teacher.

Later, I examined the assignments on the wall at the end of the day and learned that I was in kita vav ( level six), the highest level. As usual, I had assumed that I didn't compare well to the other students. This has been a life-long struggle for me, fighting against very poor self-esteem.

I had a wonderful summer and decided that my level of Hebrew was such that I would no longer need to take classes. Instead, I returned to Israel later on and just used the language in daily communication.

So this is what an ulpan is capable of producing in students.

It was a program originally developed to rapidly integrate new immigrants from many different lands who did not know Modern Hebrew so that they could fully participate in the life of their new nation. It has been honed and improved over 60 years and it works. I learned a lot from that experience and not only about Hebrew. I learned what was possible in language learning. It compared favorably with my own experiences in language classes.

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