Mishnah fragment in the handwriting of Maimonides.
I am very absorbed in my course. It’s a full-time MA in Jewish Studies, drawing together history, theology, ethics, politics, cultural anthropology, and language study, amongst other things. I’m writing my thesis on a topic relevant to conflict resolution in Palestine and Israel, but I am also getting the chance to explore other areas of interest. Two weeks ago I was in the conservation studio, holding in my hands a Judeo-Arabic manuscript penned by Maimonides himself, which was a pretty special experience. “You can tell he was a doctor,” the tutor commented. “His handwriting’s awful.”
At first I planned to concentrate just on Judeo-Arabic and its dialects, but I ended up registering for modern Hebrew. A long time ago I thought about attending an ulpan (intensive Hebrew school) in Jerusalem, but the checkpoint wouldn’t permit it. Most classes start at eight or eight-thirty in the morning, and there was no guarantee I would even have reached the metal detectors by that time. It would have meant getting up at an hour so obscene it ought to be banned from the clock and standing in an interminable line with thousands of exhausted Palestinian workers who make this trip daily. Sometimes they get through in time for work, sometimes they don’t. It depends on the mood of the soldiers operating the turnstiles. Often the workers are huddled up in the metal cage leading into the checkpoint building by three a.m., trying to snatch some extra sleep on pieces of cardboard as they wait for the soldiers to begin processing people. Vendors come and poke pitta breads and fruit through the bars by way of breakfast.
Keen as I am to learn Hebrew, I’m not that keen.
So I signed up for modern Hebrew as part of my MA. On the first day of class I felt a bit daunted. The textbook (for beginners) is all in Hebrew – except for the helpful glossary, which is in Russian. Which I don’t speak. Looking at it caused me to experience a sudden flashback from my piano lessons as a child: I was taught by an eccentric Russian lady who always wore full evening wear in the middle of the day and who used to give me my musical theory homework in Russian. If I wasn’t able to complete it (as happened often, seeing as I couldn’t read the instructions) she would pinch me by the shoulders like a tea-towel to be pegged out to dry and drape me over the piano stool with quite unnecessary vim.
I’ve been taking classes for five weeks now, and I’m surprised at the progress I’ve made. I can understand many of the scenarios in the textbook, which are quite typical of language courses. Sometimes they feature Dan and Dina, off to visit their grandmother on the kibbutz; and sometimes it’s Ron and Ruti placing an order for falafel. As reading is my weakest area, a student in the class above brought me a children’s book (Bambi in translation) for extra practice, so my vocabulary has expanded to include lots of words on a pastoral theme. Now our teacher is setting us short compositions to write, encouraging us not only to use the vocabulary we have acquired from the books but to experiment with other words and phrases we might know. I looked at her a bit doubtfully as I thought about the words I had before I came to class, and the sort of thing I now know how to say.
Where are you from?
My mother works at the hospital.
I speak English, Arabic, and French.
I would like falafel with lots of salad.
Excuse me, but would you mind moving your gun?
I want to buy some books.
Bambi is a little deer.
The little deer has fallen over.
This is a closed military zone. If you don’t leave now you will be detained.
The flowers are pretty.
The moles are sweet.
We are being followed by the border police.
That is the student accommodation block.
That is the office.
That is the military command and control post.
I hate the Ministry of the Interior.
Do you agree with torture?
I need to speak with your commander about this.
I don’t like hummus.
It is very difficult to unite these things in a composition, you know. It took all the creative power I possessed. In the end I had Dan and Dina going not to the kibbutz or to the falafel stand, but to a closed military zone (shetach tseva’i sagur) to build a new house (bet chadash) for some Palestinian refugees (plitim falastinim).
I showed the first paragraph to Shai. He objected to the political content, and pointed out that it might not be sensible to submit a piece like this without knowing the political views of the teacher. I saw his point, and made some amendments.
My composition now has the moles (ha’parperot) and the rabbits (ha’arnavim) standing in solidarity (solidariyot) against those amongst them who eat more than their fair share of the flowers.