A Whole and Divided Heart 5

 

The reality for me, an immigrant at 71, is that whatever sophistication of language I have in English will manifest itself only erratically in Hebrew.  As much as I might want to speak to my friends here in Israel in their native tongue, to relate to them with all the complexity of thought and emotion their lives and mine hold, as an immigrant, I’ll only ever get partway there.

This is something I never thought of when I was younger and going off to live in West Africa, in Afghanistan, in Italy – not as an immigrant, but as a resident of some length. In the egotism of my youth, I rattled along in those languages, feeling perfectly fluent, oblivious to the look of puzzlement / bemusement on native faces.

That was youth. Older now, more aware, and an immigrant, I think of all the older immigrants to the United States, to Israel, or elsewhere, who have crossed one ocean and, having landed in their new country, face yet another: the ocean of language, lying vast and daunting in front of them, replete with slippery creatures behaving in confusing ways.

I’m working hard to put what’s in my mind on my lips, and I know I’ll keep trying even given the odds. I also know I can’t complain; I have the good fortune to have as a mother tongue the lingua franca of the era.

Given I could get along in English – and I am verging on 72 — , what’s the purpose of even trying to learn?  Our mother tongue is fundamental to our sense of the world, to whatever it is that forms our character, our vision, so why jump into a current where I’m fated forever to swim upstream?

My reason: Learning a language allows me in a modest, but exciting way, to let go of certainty. I used to find this adventure and stimulation by mountain climbing in the Tetons, by running marathons, by riding on top a load of peanuts through the savannah and jungles of Nigeria, by taking a Pakistani army truck to Hunza along the steep cliffs and alluvial fans of the Himalayas….

I can’t do that any more. I was young; now I’m old, and whether by the force aging exerts or by choice, my vision of what constitutes adventure, has broadened, has moved into a new adventure in learning. And I have found that language learning packs the same punch you experience when you first learn to read, when the symbols come alive on the page. Do you remember how exciting it was to be called on and be able to read: “See spot run.”?

Learning a new language has always compelled me outside myself. Peoples’ lives are embedded in their their grammar, their nouns, adjectives and prepositions. As it did when I was young immersed in other languages, studying Hebrew now (with more intent, more concentration) urges me to note my surroundings with new eyes. Out of the rut of my own comfortable language and reading of the world, I travel to a stance where I always should be, but mostly am not:  that of struggling to understand the people and the world around me, never vacant even during the simplest experiences.

Adjectives wink at me, verbs box me in the ears, laughing, “I’m different! You never met anyone like me before! Hang out with me and we’ll go places.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Whole and Divided Heart 4

At the airport in Newark, while we waited to board the plane for Israel, I understood that it would be impossible to describe an “average” American oleh (immigrant to Israel). Steve and I were early, so we had the advantage of seeing the other 71 olim hadashim (“new immigrants” to Israel) as they arrived.

There was a woman and her husband from West Texas with one big dog and one little dog; a single man in his late 70s; a few single Orthodox women, one in simple headdress, plain gray skirt, olive sweater and gray shoes, another in brilliant black and white patterned dress and striking black headdress ; a family of tall father, short mother, and three medium-sized teenage girls; a modest young couple in their twenties; another young couple with a baby just a few months old, a young Hasidic family . . . The list goes on, with no clear pattern.

To emigrate from the United States today is not to be as an immigrant coming to the States in the late 1800s, the early 1900s, or during/just after the Holocaust. We were not ragged, not hungry, not penniless. As far as I can know, most of us in the airport that day were going to a new life, not escaping from an old one of poverty, famine, or deadly anti-Semitism (though perhaps anti-Semitism of a less immediately lethal sort?).

In a logical and efficiently organized process, Nefesh b’Nefesh had guided our initial Stateside immigration steps, and that efficiency continued at Newark airport. Every question was answered, every help given. It was a foretaste of what our welcome to Israel would be.

We olim were traveling that day with a group of young people from Birth Right, the ten-day trip to Israel for Jewish young people from 18 to 26 who have never been or who have spent only short vacations in Israel. I noted in the Birthright group the great excitement youth-on-a-new-  adventure generates, and I contrasted their liveliness with my own oddly-reserved spirit.

I was emigrating; why was I feeling reserved?

I think there are three reasons:

First, I have traveled so much for so many years, I have come to feel the excitement of travel as an internal hum rather than a burst of song. When I left home for Africa at age 19 I had never been on an airplane. I remember the emotional pandemonium of watching the earth slide away below me and running images of Africa through my mind.

In the ensuing years I repeated the experience through Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, Russia, Canada, the U.S…. and I seem in retrospect to have been constantly ascending and descending to and from planes, trains, busses — or hiking, or riding horseback. I became an itinerant, practiced at moving (and resigned to current airline travel in cramped seats and with diminished service. — Hiking and horseback-riding has stayed fun.)

Second is that making Aliyah has come, like I mentioned above, in steps, not just in the final process, but as I moved through life.

I was 19 years old, living in West Africa and had several Israeli friends when I first thought of moving to Israel. The next time I came close to immigrating was when I was 24, living in Afghanistan. The next time, it was the Yom Kippur War; Steve and I had our passports and were ready to go, when the Israeli government began asking people not to come. From then Steve and I often spoke about immigrating, but we entered the flow of American life: graduate school, professional work, three sons. Still, we made trips to Israel, and for the past 11 years I have been going every year to volunteer with the IDF.

The third reason I was more reserved during immigration is one I’ve talked about in an earlier blog. When you leave a place, you leave people as well. Just as when you arrive, you arrive to people as well as to place. Such loss and joy will always be tangled. I am a fortunate immigrant in that, G-d willing, as long as I am healthy, I can travel back and forth. I can float in the river that runs two ways. But I also must live as one who, if she gains months here, loses months there. A whole and divided heart:  children/grandchildren/friends on both sides of the world. Loss and joy will always be tangled and one becomes more reserved with that braided blood.

Is there an inevitability to what happens in our lives?  I can’t answer it with any true understanding or rationale. But in retrospect I can see the steps, can see the way I was headed, although I couldn’t see it at the time. There were reasons I didn’t come to Israel those first times I thought of coming. Good reasons? I can’t tell; at midnight, I sometimes wonder what would have been. It’s human to do that, and I may sometimes yearn for the people who have been lost in death or in the obscurity of time, but when morning comes, I think of my family and friends, and experience a sweet ache at all the gifts I’ve been allotted.

So I like to think that now is the right time, that now, if my earlier reasons were wanting to come were selfish, now they are less so. Now, coated with a thin patina of cynicism, I can live in the reality of Israel, not in the dream of it. I like to think too that now I have the ability and understanding to carry two passports at once. I hope so.

The last step of immigration happened in an instant. We received our identity cards as soon as we landed. We were citizens. Hundreds of people outside the baggage hall were waiting as we stepped from the confines of the airport to the reception area.

“Baruchim Ha Bayim!!” (“Welcome home!”), People shouted and sang to us.

I felt as if I were swimming in a river of history.  Even as I write this, over two weeks since it happened, I am emotional. Where but in Israel?

 

 

 

A Whole and Divided Heart 3

I had planned to post blogs according to the chronology of our move here, but I need to interrupt myself. “We interrupt this broadcast to bring you….” an alert:

Today is the birthday of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922)!

Who was Eliezer Ben Yehuda?

A Jewish lexicographer, a newspaper editor, and the driving force behind the revival of Hebrew in the modern era. He would have been 158 years old this month. When he came to what is now Israel in 1891, his motto was “Hebrew in the home, Hebrew in School, and words words words!”

I won’t make a foray into the whole history behind the development of modern-day Hebrew, but for just one aspect of that history, think of what it meant (and still means) to create new words for a new language, not just for new technological terms of the era, but even for everyday words like “clothes-iron” (mag-hetz), “ice cream” (g’lida), “furniture” (rihut) and “k’ruvit” (cauliflower). Of course other languages had to go through a similar – if not quite as daunting – process; they would have had the everyday words, and they would have already had hundreds of thousands of speakers.

As Wikipedia says:

“The process of Hebrew’s return to regular usage is unique; there are no other examples of a natural language” without any native speakers subsequently acquiring several million such native speakers, and no other examples of a sacred language becoming a national language with millions of “first language” speakers.”

At the edge of the World

Mid-August was the height of the Perseid meteor showers. The showers happen when the planet Earth is crossing the orbital path of Comet Swift-Tuttle. Or, if you are mythologically inclined, these meteors commemorate the visit of Zeus in a shower of gold to Danae, the mother of Perseus.

Each year my husband and I check the computer for the best date to watch the Perseid meteors plummet across the skies. It’s a 30-year tradition in our family, and we approach the day with anticipation, almost as if we had tickets to Tasmania.

The evening before the showers, we pack the car: lawn chairs, blankets, heavy coats, and money (for the donuts after). When the alarm, sounds somewhere between 3 and 4 a.m., we wrestle into winter clothes and drive along the empty streets to a wide-open spot up Green Canyon.

We started this tradition when our kids were little. In those early days, they must have wondered why first we told them to go to bed early and then, just a few hours later, dragged them from their deepest sleep and hauled them into the mountains, only to put them back into sleeping bags.

Still, it didn’t take long for the adventure of it to catch on with our sons:  the eccentricity of getting up in the middle of the night, the naughtiness of being outside in pajamas, and the sugary pleasure of eating donuts before dawn were a distinct draw.

Sometimes when the alarm rings, I wonder why, now that our kids are grown, my husband and I still get excited about the meteor showers. The loss of sleep catches up with us later in the day; donuts give us a sugar high and then the concomitant low. And what are meteor showers, anyway? Space debris, bits and pieces of a parent comet’s rubble slamming into Earth’s upper atmosphere at 130,000 mph – then disappearing so fast you get whiplash trying to catch the sight of those fleeting, radiant lights before they are extinguished.

What is it that continues to attract us?

I know the answer: it’s our children. They are far afield, across countries and the universe, but on the nights of the Perseid showers we are all joined anew. Wherever we are, each of us sets an alarm, dresses, and heads into the dark.

One son walks into a desert in the Middle East, one son carries his daughter to the car and drives up Temple Fork, and one son, lost to this earth, watches from his ring-side seat in the other world.

If the other months of the year our children are away from home, out, as they should be, “fulfilling life’s longing for itself,” the night of the Perseid meteors, we make a place together at the edge of the world and gaze upward, all of us together, taking our infinitesimal part in this August mystery.

 

 

 

 

Swimming to the Corners of the Earth

     Question: What do Logan, Utah; Santiago, Chile; and international sports competition have in common?

     Answer: Sixteen-year-old Logan swimmer, Tori Geller.

In May of this year, Geller was chosen, along with nine other U. S. swimmers, to represent the U.S.A. in the youth category at the 2015 Pan American Maccabi Games in Santiago. These games take place in-between each Maccabiah, the “Jewish Olympics” held in Israel.

This December, Geller, one of six hundred U.S. athletes, will join over three thousand international competitors for eleven days in the Chilean capital. Pitted against other top-quality athletes in twenty-two sports ranging from basketball and karate to tennis and chess, all the competitors will have time not only for sightseeing, but particularly for community service, an integral part of the Maccabi Games and of the Maccabiah in Israel as well.

Geller has spent half her life in one or another of Logan’s swimming pools.

“I started swimming when I was eight. I think a friend suggested I try it. I did, and really liked it,” she says, “especially the breaststroke; it was my best, and now I do the IM [Individual Medley] too.”

“Best” is an understatement. In her first competition at eight, she was only two seconds off the state breaststroke record for her age group. Training under Barracuda coaches Jerry Hodgkinson and Dani Harding, Grizzly coach Matthew Butler, and Israeli coach Hanan Sterling, Geller has progressed from that eight-year- old who liked swimming, to Utah State Champion in the breaststroke, to swimming at the Israeli National meet, to being selected Rookie of the Year and voted Most Valuable Player.

Willie Mays once said “It isn’t hard to be good from time to time in sports. What’s tough is being good everyday.” And Geller is. It’s not only innate talent that drives her. A typical summer day for her means getting up at five a.m. to run repeats of the Old Main steps, followed by a dryland workout for strength, and only then moving on to team practice at the Sports Academy or the Aquatic Center for another hard session of dryland, core exercises, and swimming. In the afternoon it’s back to the pool for another one and a-half hours.

Just this year, high school coach Butler convinced Geller to try water polo.

“I wanted to try it, to do something different,” Geller says. “It was a way to refresh myself, so I wouldn’t get stale.”

When asked about her favorite moments in swimming, it was surprising to find out that it was neither the victories she’d won nor the records she’d set that she most remembered. Instead, her favorite times were those of individual challenge and team interaction.

“Every once in a while in practice, I do what feels like a perfect set. It feels so good. It’s not important to anyone else, but that’s one of my favorite moments. And the social things. You get to go to meets with your friends and sometimes stay overnight, and just have fun. So I get the individual times when it’s just me against myself, and the social team times too.”

Geller finds a way to keep swimming no matter what. At age twelve, she traveled with her family to spend a year in Israel. At the Leo Baeck School in Haifa she asked about swimming. The coach tested her, and when he found she was too advanced for his team, suggested she meet Hanan Sterling, coach of the Maccabi Haifa team, which included an Olympian in his twenties and other members, all three to six years older than Geller.

“When he tested me, he made me swim real slow. He was more interested in technique than speed. I got on the team, and it was tough. I could keep up with the older girls though and it was cool to have an Olympian in the next lane.”

Tori Geller is too modest even to think it about herself, but it’s easy to imagine a future international meet in which some young swimmer says, ‘It was tough, but it was really cool to have Tori Geller in the lane next to me.”

 

The community is raising funds to help send Geller to the Games. Anyone interested in contributing can find her Website at: http://support.maccabiusa.com/site/TR/Games/MaccabiTeamRaiser?px=1009901&pg=personal&fr_id=1040

 

 

 

 

Pino Zennaro, Venetian Artist

Venetian painter Pino Zennaro’s spirit works in conjunction with his hand. Through exquisite detail, his paintings invite us to explore aspects of our lives of which we may have have had inklings, but never investigated. The brilliantly colored abstract, “The First Day”, is an example. The painting encourages us to take part in the wonder of a beginning, a place of bright complexity, a myriad of colored forms where we lose ourselves in awe, just as one would on a true first day. As Franco Vian has said, elements of Kandinsky, Capogrossi, and Vorticism Inglese may be glimpsed in Zennaro’s work, but they are not the sum of, nor do they define his unique and generous gift. More than a statement, Zennaro’s paintings solicit our company; they encourage our presence. The stark and pure “Mandala Yamantaka” summons us to the spiritual. The “Ideogrammi” bring us messages from another world, as if we stood before an ancient wall of symbols and, suddenly, could read them. Then we turn to “Metropoli” and are whisked back to the contemporary world, swept with Zennaro by the rush of the city along the streets of New York or London. The canvas itself appears to stream by. Zennaro’s craftsmanship, his style, his distinctive use of color, and his eclectic vision carry us to places we’ve never been. One can’t help but thank him — and wait impatiently for the next painting.  See www.pinozennarocicogna.com

BROADWAY cm.103x117

BOLLE cm.150x200

Israeli Artist Yael Meiry

Yael'sChildren

     In the works of Israeli artist Yael Meiry, the heart of the Kinneret and early kibbutzim come alive in fluent brushstrokes that allow the viewer insight into the spirit of the country. 
     Meiry’s use of bright color and the dream-like quality of her paintings portray, through images of her youth, the agricultural beginnings and indomitable spirit of the Israelis. 
     We see in Meiry’s works fluid representations of landscape that often echo the Japanese style: humans in their sadnesses and joys are small, the natural world and its beauty large. 

Yael'sKibbutz

     Meiry’s is a Middle East where love of land and the people on it are in community, working together in a profound, constructive relationship with the land and its gifts.
     In difficult times, Meiry’s dismay manifests itself in muted colors and in the stance of the figures, shoulders bent, regarding a landscape of muted colors, as if the land too were weeping. 

twofiguresoverlookingKinneret
     

Transitions

Each time I come back from traveling, I need a few weeks to make the transition.  I don’t mean I need to overcome jet lag.  A few days will take care of that. I can curve around the clock, chipping away an hour’s difference each night, until I’m sleeping and waking at more or less the same time as my family.

More than sleep, I need time for my soul to catch up. A story says it best: Some travelers in a land rover were crossing the Sahara.  They came to an oasis where they found a man sitting under a tree.  He was alone. When they learned he was going in their direction and seeing that he had no camel or vehicle, they invited him to ride with them.  He declined.  “But you’re on foot,” they exclaimed, “and it’s miles away.”  “I’m waiting,” he responded.  “What for?” they asked.  “I’ve left my home; I’m waiting for my soul to catch up,” he answered.

On short trips I don’t need to wait for my soul to catch up.  It goes with me on my occasional weekends away, but on longer trips, thousands of miles over the sea, the plane, like an arrow, flies swiftly, directly to its destination, and I am left bereft even though I am going to places that are like home to me: Italy and Israel.  On these trips I must seclude myself for a few days before I can go out into public where I will immerse myself in another language, another work, other friends and family, other geography, where I will go to different doctors, use different transportation, breathe different air.

When I return to the U.S., it’s the same.  I must hide away for a while; my soul can’t get back in the time of a plane ride.

Part of what I do in those solitary weeks waiting for my soul to catch up is to remember/fantasize about where I’ve been.  I’m in that no man’s land of comparing places and people.  I’m full of stories about family and friends, situations in the other place, realities that don’t exist where I am. I’m a merchant, carrying foreign goods, standing in one place with my hands full of another.

Over the course of the days, as my soul reaches its new place, I deplete those stories, those fantasies, and can feel my soul fitting back into my body like a hand slowly sliding into its glove. I begin to recognize my surroundings, to be where I am.  I let one language go for another.

We are encouraged to live in the moment, to be aware of what’s around us, even, for those who meditate, to feel the different temperatures of the air as we inhale and exhale.  It is good for us to know where we stand, otherwise we can get lost permanently in fantasies of elsewhere, that imagined better place where we are sure we would be happier, or more comfortable, or richer.

But the more I travel, the more our souls seem to me like elephants, giant and thick, lumbering across the savannah, moving with steady pace toward their feeding grounds, or like whales that ride a winding current across the broad expanse of sea searching for their next sustenance.

Israel 3

I have seven things to tell about Israel this time, and I can personally recommend them all.  (I’ve been very busy when I’ve been off the base. )  I’ll begin with En Gedi, a nature reserve at the eastern edge of the Judean Desert, on the shore of the Dead Sea.  The reserve covers about 3500 acres and there are two valleys running through it fed by sweet water springs.  Imagine it like one of the adventure films you saw when you were little:  you’re trekking across the dry desert, parched and, turning up into the hills, suddenly you hear water and you look up to see jujube trees and acacias, balsam, and cordia. Down below you, at the edge of the stream are ibex and if you walk slowly the rock hyrax will sit still and watch you ascend toward the falls.  Tristam’s grackles fly overhead. You think maybe you are in paradise. You’re not, but you are in En Gedi.  If you could be there at night, you might see the rare leopard, or an Afghan fox, or a wolf.  More likely you’ll be there in the day, hiking upward toward one of the falls where you can jump in and cool down.  Go ahead.  People have been doing it for 5000 years.

From En Gedi, we drove north and stopped at Qumran National Park, another, like En Gedi, of the 65 national parks in Israel.  Like En Gedi, Qumran has long had a Jewish population.  It was settled around the 8th century BCE, but that’s not what made it famous.  Around the 2nd century BCE, the Essenes, a break-away sect, made a community there and except for a 25 year hiatus after an earthquake, stayed until 68 CE when the Romans drove them out.  While they lived at Qumran, the Essenes made scrolls in their scriptorium, including books of the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, and some of the sect’s own works. When the sect was threatened, as it was ultimately by the Romans, the members tucked their scrolls, what we know as the Dead Sea Scrolls, in clay jars and hid them in the caves that dot the surrounding hills.  The jars sat there for 2000 years, well preserved because of the dry desert air, waiting to be discovered by Bedouins shepherds in 1947.

Last night I had dinner with a family of Iraqi Jews. The grandparents came to Israel in the 1950s, soon after Independence.  There were about 20 people at the dinner, but they told me this was a small group because usually the whole family came.  Being with them reminded me of my year and a half  in Afghanistan.  We talked and ate and laughed and ate more and then talked more and then ate more.  In this tiny but cosmopolitan country, it is exciting to think that from the northern border to the southern border there are Iraqi, Afghan, American, Canadian, German, South American, Nepalese, African, Italian, French, Czech, Austrian, Dutch ….orthodox, conservative, reform, and secular Jews all sitting down to Shabbat dinner every Friday night.

Before that fine dinner last night, I spent the day at Zikron Yakov with a group of students from the IDC in Herzlyia, a private international university with top scholars on faculty.  The first thing we did when we arrived in Zikron was plant trees.  Why?  Because next week is Tu b’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees, and hundreds of people plants trees for the holiday, making the desert bloom even more than it already is.  Once we’d rinsed our hands and put the shovels away, we went down to the winery, one of 200 in Israel.  This particular one was developed in the late 19th century by the Rothchilds.  The town is situated on high hills back from the sea, and originally, the settlers had hoped to raise vegetables and fruits there, but the soil was not right.  It was right though, Rothchild knew, for grapes, and thus the winery and it’s now gold-medal studded welcome room.

I have a little necklace I wear. It’s ceramic, a turquoise circle with a red center.  I wear it on a green cord, and it’s one of my favorite things.  I bought it from a young woman in Jerusalem several years ago.  She was making money for her schooling and had learned jewelry through one of the program of  Yad Sarah, the largest charity organization in Israel.  Yad Sarah has 16 sorts of support services, but they are most known for lending medical equipment, and on no small scale.  They save the Israeli economy about $400 million every year in medical costs, and at the same time help Arabs, Christians and Jews in need of medical equipment but without the means to pay for it.  My necklace reminds of what big things can come from a simple idea.

Back to volunteer work tomorrow.  I’m ready to sleep now and I’m going to put on my favorite song of the Yemenite Moroccan singer, Eyal Golan.  His rich golden voice will carry me into yet another aspect of Israeli culture.

 

Israel-2

Lately I’ve been thinking about another volunteer, a man I met formerly during a Sar-el program and with whom I just worked again on another session of Sar-el.  His name is Zvi Gellis.  Professor Gellis is director of the Penn Center for Mental Health and Aging, director of the Ann Nolan Reese Penn Aging Concentration, a Hartford National Faculty Scholar/Research Mentor, and an expert in mental health services research concerned with older patients.  I talked with him after work hours one day, standing in the sun outside our quarters.  He is an intense, trim young man of good spirit and ready laugh.  For a few minutes, we reminisced about other places in Israel where we had volunteered, and then I asked him about his work.

Gellis  is on sabbatical this year.  As well as volunteering, he has met with staff of one of the Israeli hospitals with hopes of creating a pilot program, here in Israel, for the use of telehealth.  Telehealth is a distance monitoring program for chronically ill older patients  (65 and older) who struggle with heart disease, diabetes, COPD etc.

In the telehealth project, with which Gellis works in the States, there exists a central monitoring station run by nurses and social workers.  I asked him why social workers, and he explained that chronic diseases and depression are often twins, so the program treats the complete phenomenon of the illness. The central station is connected electronically with the patients’ homes and thus, the patients, who have their own monitors, can be anywhere, near or far from the main station. Once a day, the patients simply get online and are monitored by the nurses/social workers. If there are problems, the nurse can teleconference with the patient, to determine what needs to be done.

The system is cost effective — something we all need in our health care system — and as I listened to Gellis talk, I thought that it also has the added benefit of allowing patients to work along with the medical staff rather than being passive receptors of care.

Israel exports more life-saving medical technology per capita than any other country.  Surely part of the reason is Israel’s lively relationships and technical and experimental exchange with professionals of other nations, like Gellis and the other men and women who work for the benefit of us all.

 

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