Tuesday, September 8, 2009

It’s not only “regular” school that starting in Israel, but “Ulpan” – Hebrew school –classes for new immigrants have also kicked into gear.

At this time of the year, it’s common to hear some of the recently-arrived newcomers in Israel – olim – talk about their struggles with ulpan. For those of us who’ve been here awhile, it’s a trip down memory lane.

Ulpan, for new immigrants, is a rite of passage. Ulpan isn’t exactly required of new immigrants, but it’s strongly urged. The objective is not just to make sure that everyone speaks the local language, but – as someone else recently said – to make sure that newcomers learn to communicate with the rest of the country. Sometimes that takes more than mere language. So this week, all over the country, in cities, towns, villages and kibbutzim, ulpanim are welcoming newcomers.

Every Israeli remembers his first ulpan teacher. How could you forget? That’s the woman – invariably – who gave you the keys to the kingdom, the first lessons in how to survive over here. Love her or hate her, no one ever forgets her.

Everybody has ulpan stories -- I probably could write a book about what happened during my five or six months in ulpan. (Ulpan lasts, technically, six months, but because of the High Holidays in the fall, or Pesach in the spring, the actual period of instruction is closer to five months.)

In Beersheba, there really are only two ulpanim, one for “academics” – anyone with a college degree in anything – and the other for those without college degrees. Within each, there are innumerable classes, all held in a huge concrete-block building that looks very much like the kind of slightly-run-down school building you’d see anywhere.

When I arrived in July 2002, I was lucky enough to get into a “pre-ulpan” that started in early August. It was designed to give a few of us who were already here a little head start for when the real ulpan started in September.

So one extraordinarily hot August day, I found myself sitting in a classroom that looked very much like the one pictured above.

Because it was 2002, the height of the Intifada, when buses and cafes were regularly being blown up by our cousins, there were hardly any other Anglo, English-speaking, immigrants. People still came from the FSU, and people from South America poured in because of their economic crash -- just about exactly the same economic crisis the US is experiencing right now. There were many French and several couples from Cuba, who turned out to be my favorite ethnic group. The Cuban men wore white Stetsons, like cowboys – I loved it.

The only other English speakers I ever encountered in ulpan were people from India – and of course not all of them spoke English, either.

It started at 8:00 am, Israeli time, which means it started about 8:30. Our first teacher was “Shosh”, a pretty, motherly-looking woman in her 40's who sometimes spoke so softly it was hard to hear her.

We students, “academics” all, came from all over the world, so there were women dressed in saris, there were high-heeled, elegantly dressed ladies from Europe (European women always seem dressed up), the Cubans with their Stetsons, some people in extremely short shorts or slacks, Russians resplendent with their gold teeth. The age range was universal – some 20-somethings, all the way up to 60’s, with most probably in their mid-30’s or 40’s.

All of us were both nervous and excited. Some of us brought our own paper and pens, others hadn’t, but it didn’t seem to matter. Nothing like that was provided for those who didn’t have, nor were there any books or handouts. The total equipment consisted of a blackboard and chalk.

“Ani Shosh”, the teacher said, pointing to herself. “I am Shosh”. When we’d absorbed that bit of wisdom, Shosh turned to the blackboard and wrote the first letter of the Hebrew aleph-bet – “aleph” – on the blackboard.

“Aleph”, she said. “Aleph”, we repeated.

She went on, writing and pronouncing: “Bet” “Gimmel”. We dutifully repeated each letter.

Silly me, I was feeling extraordinarily confident. I could already read Hebrew – which is to say, I knew the letters and I could sound out the words. I didn’t have a clue as to what any of the words meant, of course, but at least I wasn’t struggling to distinguish between an “aleph” and a “hey”.

At about 10:00, we’d already gone through the aleph-bet and Shosh had taken to holding up various objects -- a pen, eyeglasses, a tote bag – and pronouncing the Hebrew word for each. It was way beyond exhilarating – I could hardly believe it. We were actually speaking Hebrew!

In my entire six months in ulpan, that was probably my best moment.

Suddenly there was a pounding on the classroom door. Shosh looked a little surprised – who would knock, and not just walk in? She walked over and opened the door.

There stood a whole crowd of people – maybe about 20 – behind some other person who appeared to be another teacher. She and Shosh held a quick discussion – I have no idea what was said – but in just a minute, Shosh stepped back and the 20 new people began to squeeze into the room.

Now understand, the room was already full. There were probably 30 people sitting in chairs already, just about exactly what the room seemed designed to hold. There might have been two or three extra chairs, but no more. It didn’t take long for this deficiency to be noted, and several of the men jumped up, went into a nearby classroom and began cannibalizing it for chairs. The chairs were the old wooden armchair things, with the right arm extended and flattened into a little writing table. Which is to say, the chairs were both big and heavy. Pretty soon there a convoy was in place, chairs being handed one to another until someone decided we had enough.

To this day, I can’t imagine how they got all those chairs into the room, but they did. It was now so packed with chairs and people no one could possibly get out unless someone else did first.

The whole process of absorbing people and chairs probably took 15 minutes, but the loss of time didn’t seem to bother anyone.

Personally, I was a little grateful for the newcomers. Surely now, I thought, she’ll start over again, and I can catch some of those words I’d already forgotten.

But she didn’t. Shosh picked up from exactly where she’d left off – which just totally blew me away. What about the people who just came in? They hadn’t heard or learned the aleph-bet! They hadn’t learned the words for pen, eyeglasses or tote bag! How could they be expected to start in the middle?

I don’t know – but they did. Or at least, no concession was made to the fact that they had just arrived. I suppose the thought was, they’ll pick up something. What else can we do?

Class ended, we all squeezed out, feeling supremely successful. We’d learned Hebrew!

The next morning I was prepared for a totally-packed classroom again, so I came a little early. Miraculously, all the extra chairs had disappeared and the room was back to normal.

People began filing in – but what puzzled me, and troubled me to some extent, was that it wasn’t exactly the same people I’d started with the day before. The one young lady I’d been talking to – from Argentina, in rusty Spanish – wasn’t there. Neither was the memorable elderly Russian man who’d sat ahead of me. They’d disappeared. I didn’t recognize anyone in this new class.

Except, Shosh, of course. She came in at her customary 8:30, and without preamble, began teaching. We were learning more words – nouns. No verbs. Then she had us playing a memory game, giving us lists of objects and we’d have to remember them in order or be called out. Everything was going swimmingly until….

You’re not going to believe this, but at right about 10:00 there was a knock on the door. Shosh opened it, and there they were – yet another group of about 20 newcomers. We went through the same “chair convoy” process, everyone got settled in, and Shosh picked up from where she’d left off. No backtracking. Not for anyone. Full steam ahead, understand it or not, learn what you can.

The pre-ulpan classes continued for about four weeks. It wasn’t every day that a group of newcomers arrived, but it happened several times a week. It was always different people, and the following day, the class seemed newly composed. So what happened to those who didn’t return?

Many things, probably. The younger ones were probably moved to kibbutzim, to study in that atmosphere instead. Some of the older ones were moved to a “senior’s” ulpan, which I wasn’t old enough for, at the time. Some probably moved to different cities, and of course some just quit. I don’t think there was any single reason.

As you can tell, I’ve spent some time thinking about the whole process.

The fact is, of course, that over our six decades of our existence here Israel has constantly been absorbing newcomers. From the very day of our founding – when the first of the 800,000 Jews who were running for their lives, fleeing from Arab lands began flooding in – we moved over, welcomed them, found them a place to live – even though at first, many lived in tents, in transit camps.

What I see now is that ulpan is the perfect metaphor for Israel itself.

The country is up and moving, full speed ahead. Newcomers arrive all the time, and when they do, everyone else moves over a little, makes space, squeezes in, finds a place for the newcomers to perch.

Newbies are welcomed, but not coddled. Everyone is expected to jump in, learn what they can as well as they can, and work hard to get themselves into the mainstream, so they can move along just as well as those who were here earlier, who have more background and experience.

As I’ve said so many times, you learn so much in ulpan. Sometimes you even learn a little bit of Hebrew.

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