Sunday, July 5, 2009

My computer’s photo editing program has a feature called “enhance”. Click on it, and the image is improved. The darks become darker, the lights lighter, the edges more pronounced. Everything looks a little clearer.

I’m starting to think there’s a human tendency to use an “enhance” feature on our memories, too. We tell stories of how it was when we were young – and then, just to make the point, we enhance it a little -- we make the edges a little sharper, just to make sure the story is clear.

I remember tales my parents told me about prairie life in North Dakota where my father, z”l was born, and northern Minnesota which was my mother’s home. My father was born in 1910, my mother in 1916, so I have no doubt at all that things in those years were not only primitive but downright grim.

When I was very little, I accepted without question the tales of their walking “three miles” to school every day, through snow drifts so high they could hardly see over them. But when I got a little older, I knew very well where my father’s house was, where he grew up. It was a mile, exactly, outside of town. So where did the “three miles” come from?

Or I’d hear my mother’s tales about how they’d carry hot baked potatoes in their pockets when they left to walk to school in the icy pre-dawn, using the potatoes to keep their hands warm on the long walk. Fair enough. But once they got to school, what happened to all those potatoes? Surely in those times of scarcity and frugality, they wouldn’t have thrown them away? Two potatoes for every kid every morning would pretty quickly add up. Then, too, what did they use to keep their fingers warm on the way home?

The one question that really stumped me was, how could it possibly have been uphill in both directions?

There was a little “enhancement” going on – memories being clarified, edges made sharper, just to make sure the point was made: “Times were tough. We had horses not cars, because cars would have been useless in those kinds of winters. You’re lucky you only have to walk five blocks to school. Don’t even think of asking for a ride.”

I’m not beyond a bit of enhancement myself – in fact, in that blog on Rhubarb, I slathered it on a little thick about how visually unappealing Scandinavian foods are. It isn’t really quite that bad – but to make the point, I used what my father would have called ‘exaggeration for emphasis.’ With good intentions, of course.

This morning on the local community email list – ‘Anglobeersheba’, which is a Yahoo group where all (or many) of the English speakers in Beersheba come to ask questions or give advice – I ran across some awesome ‘enhancement’.

It started when a lady still living in the States wrote to the list, asking for advice about moving to Beersheba. Should they come? she was wondering. How do you think we’d adjust in Beersheba?

In answering her question, some of us laid it on a little thick about how difficult life is here.

One said, “Aliyah to anywhere in Israel is not easy, let alone to a place in the middle of the desert where nobody speaks English.”


For the record, Beersheba isn’t “in the middle of the desert.” At best, it’s at the northern edge of the Negev. But more importantly, Beersheba is an hour-plus train ride from Tel Aviv, or a little longer bus ride to Jerusalem.

Beyond that, Beersheba now has over 200,000 people – it’s a fully-stocked, modern, all-amenities-available metropolitan enclave. To suggest that we’re barely clinging to life “in the middle of the desert” is enhancement, pure and simple.

But it’s the line “where nobody speaks English” that threw me for a loop. First of all, remember that English is one of three legal languages in Israel, in addition to Hebrew and Arabic. Many government websites have an “English” option. It’s perfectly fine to speak English in Israel. Millions of Israelis do.

To suggest that in Beersheba “nobody speaks English” verges on the silly – if nothing else, all high school students study English and have to pass an English test. Do all of Beersheba’s high school students flunk that course? Nonsense.

The truth is, of course, that an awful lot -- most, maybe – of Beersheba’s residents speak some English, and a reasonable number are completely fluent, probably because they enjoy US movies and television.

What the person who posted that was probably trying to say is, ‘You might find it harder to move to Beersheba than to the population center of the country, because on a comparative basis, more English speakers decide to live in the center than in Beersheba.”

So this plea is directed to my fellow Anglo immigrants in Beersheba: I think we have to be careful about how we portray life here. ‘Enhancing’ the difficulties makes us feel good – we did it, after all. We overcame the hardships. It’s only human to want proper respect for that achievement. So we exaggerate a bit about how tough it really is.

That’s a dangerous thing to do. Just a couple of weeks ago, we read Parashat Shelach (Numbers, Chapter 13) in which Moses, as the Israelites approached the Promised Land, sent a dozen “spies” ahead to see how conditions were. Ten came back with terrifying stories – all about giants who lived here, tales of a land that killed its inhabitants. Unfortunately, the Israelite nation believed these horrifying reports – and as a result, was forced to wander for 40 years, enough time to allow that generation to die out before entering the Promised Land.

Those of us who live in Israel today are just like the ‘spies’. We’re telling everyone behind us, those who are thinking of coming, what it’s like. We have to be very careful. Obviously we shouldn’t be assuring anyone that moving to Israel is no different than moving to Monsey or Pico-Robertson, but we can’t allow ourselves to exaggerate how hard it is, either.

What we olim hadashim and vatakim (new and old immigrants) need to do is encourage people to come, in every way we can. Of course moving anywhere is tough -- moving ranks right up there with the death of a spouse in terms of the level of stress. But no one thinks of moving to Israel without knowing that it will be very different, in many ways, than living in whatever community they are, right now.

What we can’t afford to do is to validate all their fears – to increase their anxiety. To set false standards, making it seem that it’s much more difficult than it really is. That’s profoundly wrong.

As a community, we need to be more encouraging. After all, if we did it, then there’s no reason they can’t, too.

Of course not all stories are “enhancement”.

For a long time, I didn’t believe the one my mother told, about how, every year in the fall, her father would string a rope between the house and the barn. During winter snowstorms, they’d need the rope, she said, so they could make their way safely to and from the barn. Without it, and with visibility at absolute zero, they could easily become disoriented in the blowing snow, get lost and freeze to death.

I thought that was a tall tale too, until one September when I saw my grandfather stringing that rope himself. “It could storm any day now,” he said.

How about that?! Not an ‘enhancement’ at all!


  1. Thanks!! I get tired of Anglo-speakers "warning" new comers that they better learn Hebrew -- or else!! I have been happily living in Beer Sheva for more than 3 years now, with minimal Hebrew!!
    Great reflections back to childhood in the midwest, too.

  2. I agree, Barbara -- absolutely. Look. There are some adjustment issues in learning how to live here. But we don't need to make it seem even harder than it is.

    We'll set 'em straight!!

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