Learning Hebrew II
Summer stopped my first ulpan right in its tracks. Teachers and students scattered, leaving only the administrators to tidy up the remnants of disorder. Remember being called to the office? I was called to the office, feeling unbelievable adolescent angst and telling myself There’s nothing they can do to me, I’m an adult and I know a good lawyer.
Never anticipate a bad moment: Elinor, the principal said, You are invited to further study at what we call a professional ulpan where you will learn to write a CV and how to get through a job interview successfully. Ha. I used to write professional CVs and I will never survive an interview in Hebrew, but thank you and I’d be delighted.
This ulpan was located right at the entrance to Jerusalem in the same building as something important and handy—I think it was an emergency clinic—but it never got in our way.
The all-women class was much more homogeneous than the first one: half Iranian, half Russian and me. Most of the Iranians had lived through somewhat the same treatment as the Russians; the competition between the two factions was rife. If only I had understood Russian or Farsi, I could have written two books.
Few of the Russians spoke English or owned up to doing so. The Iranians had no time for me, except for one lovely young woman who was determined to stop scrubbing floors for a living and return to her profession, accountancy. Oh, I said, too bad the Iranians treated you so shabbily. Not just them, she said with some scorn, showing me her hands. Further chats disclosed her ten years of ‘Iranian gulag’ treatment; she was denied her license to practise. Her pharmacist husband lost his job as well and they worked at whatever they could find to support themselves and their small child. Ultimately they both became house cleaners—and very good ones too, she assured me.
The class began with everyday elements that I didn’t need to be taught, like how to write a cheque. Amongst many new immigrants from eastern Europe and the Soviet sector, the universal perception of cheque-books seemed to be that as long as there were pages, there was money in the bank. I suppose living in a dictatorship robs one of some of the fun we take for granted, like bank overdrafts and significant debt.
I was amazed at the lesson on the Israeli political system which that year had fielded an enormous number of parties—even more than I’d left in Canada, which makes the USA look like they’re not even trying. The instructions on how to vote in an arrangement where only the party and not the candidate is chosen fascinated all of us, as my fellow students had never voted other than the solitary Party line. And then—and then—the parties are not named on the ballots, but denoted by one or two Hebrew letters. Could they make it more difficult? Rhetorical question.
A voice kept interrupting the teacher with how it was in Russia. One interruption, then another, then a third and I began to perceive that this voice was kindly offering a comparative study of the two political systems. My impatience mounted until I called out We are not here to study the Russian political system—although it is without doubt fascinating—so please let the teacher teach. I received a look of pure hate from the owner of the voice which I was dismayed to note belonged to Olga. The teacher, who should have interrupted the interruptions much earlier, finally said Elinor is right, let us proceed. Oh boy, that’ll go over well. Thanks a heap.
Olga, dear Olga, was built like a chest of drawers, easily distinguished from her fellow immigrants. At an earlier stage I’d overheard her describing, in her basic Hebrew, a recent experience she’d had in a hospital, concerning a relative.
The bell rang and like a gang of teenagers, we ran out of doors to congregate in the courtyard. I hadn’t noticed that my Iranian friend had not accompanied me; I was busy trying to cadge a light for my cigarette. I went from one knot to another but the knots untied as I approached. I didn’t understand until I looked at the entrance to the building. Olga steamed out, shoulders raised, hands clenched. The crowd melted into the bushes, the windows, the air. I was alone.
I am not only a pacifist, I’m a coward. I have never been struck or otherwise damaged by another human being and I was not prepared to start then. I gave thought to the emergency clinic being so handy.
Olga chugged toward me. WHY? She demanded, Why you no let me talk? I started to whimper: Olga, we’re not here to…Olga, you take up our learning time…Olga…Olga—how is your mother? The sun came out. Olga bestowed a gold-toothed smile upon me and said She much better. You so nice for to ask.
See? Miracles happen.
cross posted Israel Thrives