Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Somebody Special + Non-Fiction Piece

In all the years I lived in Israel, I thought I was a special social-cultural "groupie" because I was an American, former Manhattanite, (ex "Greenwich Villager) AND I was teaching English as a foreign language, which was a much in demand profession. (It still is!)

Those early years of teaching English to elementary students in the development town of Beit-Shean brought me even closer to that special cultural place because I had never taught English to Moroccan Jews before. I had a lot of "goodwill" and support from the Ministry of Education as a new teacher-immigrant, but I often felt a certain cultural disconnect. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't feel "at home" in the cultural EFL classroom.

I was dealing with families, some of whom had a very different world and cultural concept/experience/expectation of what it meant to learn English. For some of them, it was exclusively limited to pop and cultural media of the time. For others, it was met with frequent antagonism to study English and I was met with all kinds of discipline problems and unruly students.

And, in many ways, I felt silenced at the expense of a cultural/social/linguistic disconnect.

This is the conflict that "traps" every immigrant. The journey for coming to live in another country is rich and special, but the emotional and social transitions are not always clear-cut.

What I Tried to Do


I didn't listen to many pop international culture songs (and especially in English) when I lived in Israel, but the one that brought me closer to the concept of "special" to my Anglo-Saxon world was Depeche Mode's "Somebody"

When I was in a state of "not here nor there" and "trying to figure it out," I listened to the melody of this song and after all those years, I felt "quieted" and "at peace" even with the silence voice that I had and that was okay.


The other outlet I had was writing. After a full day's work teaching 4th, 5th and 6th graders, I would record the events, the feelings I had (past and present) and how I tried to make a connection with teachers who weren't the most friendly/sympathetic to me - maybe due to a cultural disconnect, I don't know and students.

Those early voices shaped a piece of a recent piece entitled, "In the Principal's Office" (note: this is still a piece in transition)

"In the Principal's Office"

The bare white principal's office is now a place of confrontation. The fact that I am a newly arrived English elementary teacher at a development town in Israel hasn't sensitized loud-mouthed teacher to collaborate with me. When I finally told Tziona, our mentor, the real deal of our collaboration, I knew that I would have to work even harder to make my silent "teacher" voice heard. The voice I perhaps didn't know existed.

The aggressive principal speaks. (I can still hear Lina's voice) "Yael," Lina says. "Dorit's a new teacher. If you're both teaching the same classes, I don't understand why you are both working separately. So, ma koreh, what's going on?" Lina asks. I have to wonder what looks tighter: Lina's intent expression or her bun.

Yael, the other teacher who prefers to teach English "her way," doesn't say anything. Tziona sustains our eye contact long enough just to reassure what she has said to me before, Yehiyeh besder, "it will be okay." But we both know it will be a long way. She leans forward, crosses her legs a bit and says, "We need to find a way to work things out together. You both can't continue working in isolation. It makes no sense."

Yael looks at me. I nod.

Okay, it's time to make my silence heard.

There's more that Lina and loud-mouthed teacher need to know. Much more.

For example, what about the time when I introduced myself to her classes and all I got was a Mona-Lisa smile …from one student?

Or when I tried to "socialize" with loud-mouthed teacher and all I heard was the noise of crunching carrots.

There is no cultural-linguistic shield to protect me now. (it's a confrontation – how do you rely on your Israeli smarts)

I try to discern the "loud-mouthed" teacher's eyes from her thick rimmed glasses but the light refracts what appears to be a stare. I know she's thinking "go home you American. I take no prisoners. I'm better than you and you're not going to change the way I work."

Since the beginning of school, I've honored the Israeli teaching motto of "don't smile before Chanukah," and so perhaps I've received Lina's goodwill. But now I have to find the right Hebrew voice. To articulate Hebrew assertively. To undo my silence. But between Lina's tight fisted bun and zippered mouth and Tziona's fidgety look, I'm hoping I won't need to talk.

Loud mouth teacher is the first to speak. She's of course the one with "kfiyoot" – the seniority. She moves her hands in and out as if to open an oven. "Tziona," she says raising her voice. "It's close to impossible. We teach at different hours in different places."

Loud-mouthed teacher now points to me. "She teaches small groups. I teach the large classes."

"Yael, you don't have to work together on everything. There's no point if you have the same book and grades and you're both working in isolation." Tziona says. Lina nods affirmatively.

Loud-mouthed teacher looks at me. The words don't come.

"How about if Dorit pulled out some of the lower-performing students from your group and worked with them?" Tziona suggests.

"Ze lo ya'avod, it won't work," loud-mouthed teacher says.


"Because …they are at different levels."

What does that have to do with anything?

I say something that I hope will turn the discourse around. Even though I am still figuring out which word to say, I speak anyhow.

"I think the students I teach are at a lower performing level. They cause problems." I am both nervous and relieved that I've got now everyone's attention.
"Exactly. That's why I don't think it's good to take my students out." Loud mouthed teacher says. Her words rise like huge hot air balloons in this small office.

"Aval achav hadivarim nirgeo, but now I feel things have settled down." I say in a calm Hebrew voice.

"Ze lo yishaney kloom, it still won't make a difference," loud-mouthed teacher says. "It's too difficult of a situation." She still won't look at me so I look to Tziona for support.

"And if Dorit takes the hours she has with the non-readers and works individually with one or two students?" Tziona suggests.

"Still won't work."

""Yael, you've got to be flexible here." Tziona now speaks more emphatically. "This is a very difficult situation."

"Yael, I don't understand you. We're talking about the students here." The aggressive principal says something I didn't expect to hear. "Give it a chance."

"Okay, I'll give it a try, but I still don't think it will be successful." Yael says.

All I hear is the "ani" for "I."

Tziona looks at me, "How do you feel about that, Dorit?"

"That's fine. I have worksheets prepared for their level and everything."

Tziona nods in approval. "That's a good start."

"But it's a difficult group. A harder group." Yael says.

"Is there anything you want to say Dorit?" Lina asks.


We talk it out - in their language.

Not mine.

We don't really find a solution in their language.

Not mine.

When we leave Lina's office, I whisper to Tziona, "That wasn't easy. With Yael, I mean."

Tziona says, "I know. She's difficult."


"It's not going to be easy."


Monday, April 18, 2011

A Faith Filled Passover Edition - My/Our Four Years of Freedom

On the last full day in Israel before leaving for the States in 2007, I made sure my last day would be a peaceful one by visiting my parents. I was all jumpy not only from all the preparations, but from the emotional and mental exhaustion of it all.

Because I/we made the conscious decision to leave my family, friends and kibbutz home for greater professional opportunities in the States, I thought to myself, "There is just no way that move is going to be wrong. If it's the States, then, it's got to be good!" (Sounds like a commericial, right?)

At that very moment, I felt I had transformed my life in a precision of dualities.

I had "traded" the feeling of being dried up like a prune, to touching an oasis for the first time and what opportunities would lie on the other side of that oasis. I wanted to make my own life choices that reflected the person I had become. After all, I had moved to Israel fresh out of High School, and I was now married and had a two year old; My soul was craving for other opportunities beyond just an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher of Israeli schoolchildren, which I had done for already 12+ years.

In front of my father, I felt a mountain of crushed dreams fell over me.

He came to Israel for us, for me and my younger brother, to give us a better quality of life, to help us get away from my controlling and aging mother who was afraid of many things from me smoking, to walking around in a sweater in 80 degree heat. But I felt I had outgrown those phobias and I had acquired a stronger sense of self. It was time now to move on.

As much as I believed in the power of the American dream, for some reason, I came across to my father that I didn't "need" Israel, his support or my life there.

He took this as real snobbery and self-righteousness on my part.

I remember one of his last lines to me well, "You act as if you're not coming back."

Now, I don't know if where that reaction came from - all I knew was that I wanted to be in some "green" place on the other side of the Atlantic ocean so I could prove to myself, the "little ol' me from Greenwich Village, NYC" that I could put the wheels of the American Dream into motion and that it truly would be a better choice for me...for Haim, and little Ivry.

Well, I'll tell you that finding my heart to professional freedom was not the rosy garden as I thought it was on that last sunny day in Israel.

In fact, walking down picturesque streets in Pittsburgh's Jewishy Squirrel Hill on a hot sultry August afternoon in 2007, triggered off a strange kind of "freedom" - one that made me feel even more uneasy.

I felt very vulnerable walking down these beautiful streets alone. During those very early days, I would meet my husband after his job search and "attack" this poor man with my fears - "when are we/you going to get a job?" "When is your social security card going to come?"

Lots of "What if's."

I didn't think that nudging was such a problem; but, it was the way I had put a "time limit" on when things should happen (first with him, then with me) that scared me. In Israel, I did not think this waiting would be issue. All I needed to do was jump head first into the oasis, and try to float with the hope and knowledge that we would thrive and fast.

Similarly to the Passover story we know well, Moshe led the Jewish people out of Egypt, but even after their ordeals and struggles and pain from Pharoah's blows, they still questioned whether they would be "saved" and whether they should still put their faith in just one man, and in G-d. All they could do was have a "leap of faith." Obviously, they did not have a choice, but I did and I chose to not to develop faith in times of uncertainty. I just thought of the "path."

You see, I had this warped building freedom for opportunity mindset that things had to come easy if I worried. Of course, these were old words, thought patterns and beliefs, but I was in transition and with all the newness, I stuck to what I knew. So I followed my own smell to worry and fear.

In the meantime, my husband got a job within a week at one of the local food chains and within a year, was promoted to full-time with benefits.

During my sabbatical, I started a book journey that would lead me to market myself as a speaker to present at both universities and colleges and schools and eventually, an offer from a K-12 book publisher came in through. It was only through my writing, I found there were other opportunities and other identities that awaited me.

And now, just now, I'm realizing at age 40, that I need to ride a spiritual journey. That is one ingredient that I never really thought I needed. Until now.

And that was just the beginning of finding my tribe. My spiritual one, that is.

Monday, April 11, 2011

If Only....Oy. Oy.

Because I see Passover cleaning (and cleaning in general) as a major hassle, both emotionally and physically, this is the time of year is when I get into what I call, "high comparison mode" especially when it comes to comparing celebrating Passover in Israel and Passover in the States.

And of course the "Next year in Jerusalem!" doesn't make me feel better.

The thick film of dirt on my window reminds me that if I can't see clearly, my vision will be myopic. Thus, I especially, need to remind myself what we came here - for all the professional opportunities we have here in the States.

Truthfully, we can go back to Israel like that. And I know that many people will ask us back home when we visit this June if we are planning to.

If only we could go back knowing that Haim and myself wouldn't be jobless. Haim is over 51 and jobs in israel are scarce for people in this age bracket. I myself am another issue.

So this year will be the fifth year we won't be celebrating Passover with our family and friends.

For me, these are wistful reminders that...

1) The Diaspora can be a lonely place for an Israeli Jew on Passover
2) I don't have Passover holidays off since I work for non-Jewish institutions
3) Pesach in Israel sounds so much celebratory that Passover in Pittsburgh
4) Even with the friends and colleagues I know here, there is nothing like family and friends back home
5) As a teacher in Israel, I had a full week before Passover to clean for Passover. Here I can barely make an hour! Okay, okay, now I'm kvetching!
6) Post Passover is spent visiting friends, traveling and taking time to be with families. Every year, I work hard at strengthening my support system - it comes and goes and we spend Passover shopping.
7) In Israel, I'd take a big bucket of water and splash it around the floor. That's the norm for cleaning. Here's people would think I'm meshugana. The carpet in the States is a drag.
8) Pesach in Israel = eating my MIL's OKRA.
9) Kitniyot (beans, legumes) in Israel are considered to be kosher for Passover as opposed to the Ashkenazic kosher. Here, they are not Kosher.
10) Passover is a time for relaxing - taking store and looking ahead. Haim and I both have to work.

So instead of looking at the cup half empty, I'll look at what we do have.

When you've lived in another country for so long, you just can't help but to compare, wonder and reflect.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

"Sex, Love and Other Drugs" = Movie with an "Outsider" and Universal Theme

In the critically acclaimed movie, "Sex, Love and Other Drugs," Maggie (Anne Hathaway) has a terminal illness (Parkinson's). She relies on sex as her ticket in with spontaneous and flirty male relationships. Drugs are the answer for prolonging her life.

She knows that because she's sick, the chances of men committing to her is less than none. (thus the sex part)

Until Jaimie (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) comes along and tells her that she is the first person who has ever cared about him and he is willing to be THAT one who will "carry her." (Thus the love)

All three of these issues came together on a plot level when I thought "is there really hope for Maggie? I wasn't too worried about Jaimie, because it was clear he was on the mend. It was Maggie who was weak, vulnerable and in a very precarious position.

Will she ever find love despite her feelings that she is not good enough for someone? And will Jaimie listen to the voice inside that tells him that this women is truly for him and to go beyond the "lip-service and call of duty?"

What resonated with me so strongly with Maggie's character was her feeling as an outsider which seemed to be inked all over her throughout the movie.

1.She was deeply misunderstood.

2.She coped with her illness by putting on a bravado front - especially with men.

3.She didn't want people to feel sorry for her, so she coped with her fears, insecurities and isolation alone ...silently. (For me, this part reached its climax when she struggled opening one of her pill bottles, only to find that it was empty.)

She especially didn't want men to be privy to her pain. That's got to be a difficult thing for anyone... Afraid to let someone in for the sake of showing what is really there and maybe that person won't love him/her.

Well, if you can't tell by now, I fell in love with this movie and not just on a plot level, but, because I could see 'pieces' or 'slivers' of my own life as a returning immigrant. Maggie's journey reflected that.

Here's How

At the very beginning

I came to Pittsburgh in 2007 straight from Israel. I felt I was making a grave mistake. I spent the first hour of my arrival crying in front of Ivry's new teacher. I was scared to death. When the feeling of newness finally simmered down, I kept a bravado front to both Israelis and Americans (even to those who tried to understand me) by keeping a distance, not sharing too many details about motivations for leaving - Israelis like to get into these things and I gave just the facts.


After one year of working on my book, (sabbatical) I started to teach English to ESL community college students. During that first semester, I announced to the dean of the department, “I love teaching these ESL students. I feel as if I found my home in the cultural classroom.” In Israel, I was special because I was a native English speaking teacher teaching English to Israeli schoolchildren who mainly spoke Hebrew. But in Pittsburgh, none of this mattered. I had to now find a different kind of cultural classroom.

Again, I felt like a stranger to teaching even though I had been teaching for 13 years.

**I was on my way to NOT becoming a stranger.**


When I would first describe in English certain teaching and educational concepts and objects enmeshed in Israeli emotion and imagination, I became more aware of how the “right” word would resonate in both Hebrew and English even in simplest written and verbal expressions. The words “authentic” and “educational” seem to be simple enough for a native English speaker. Yet, unless an American had heard these words in an Israeli context, his or her cultural understanding of the sentence would be different. Even when I read email responses in English, I imagined how the words would sound and look in Hebrew.

Social Interactions

In daily conversations with people, I felt something uniquely missing. New friends would sympathize with my loneliness and isolation. Still, that didn't compensate for the connection with "Israel" that deeply missing from the emotional, social, and political landscape of Pittsburgh. And it wasn't enough to want to go back to Israel.

Again, I felt like a stranger to English even though English is my mother tongue. I can't imagine what an immigrant to America must feel trying to learn English...

Family Life

On the weekends, I would go to Steelers and Pirates games with my then, three year old son to feel connected with the "Americana" I had missed for the last 19 years. In-between lessons at the community college during the week, I would talk with other professors, and from our conversations, I could see that between their Pittsburgh upbringing and my New York City and Israeli roots, we had very little in common.

**Even though this is still true, I no longer feel vulnerable by it...**

So as you can see, Maggie and I are both on the mend even if we felt and still feel like an outsider from time to time...

Friday, April 8, 2011

Speak Hebrew? מדבר עברית

In 1997, I rented a car with my then boyfriend, Sharon, in New York City on a three week trip. Me - a former Manhattanite - renting a car??

Anyhow, while waiting for a red light to change, we both turned our heads and looked at the driver to our left. We both knew he was undoubtably Israeli judging from looks.

I was never one to speak Hebrew when I visited America. It was like... a secret. I didn't want Israelis who lived in New York City to know that I came from their tribe. I wanted to still be in a position to choose the identity of what I wanted when I wanted it. If I was in Israel, then I could speak anything because I didn't grow up there. But in America, well, I had to be a bit more careful - I had fidelity to my homeland and mother tongue. At the time, I didn't think it was necessary to mix the two languages, cultures, histories and mentalities I had been straddling for so long. That should indeed show a weakness.

So back to our excursion... Sharon shouted aloud so the Israeli driver could hear, "Ze lo yachol lihiot Yisraeli...- that person can't be an Israeli!"

And the passenger shouted with a smile, "Lama lo? Why not?"

I bend my head so low enough so the driver can't see me. As if he's talking to me. And I want to cringe.


Fast forward to March 2011. I walk into Starbucks and it's obvious the server is Israeli. So blatantly obvious, but of course, nobody else figures it out. It's just a server with an accent - just like others with multicultural ethnicities - after all, this is America!

And so... I put in my request in Hebrew. In HEBREW!

He looked at me with a kind of funny look, but with an understanding that I, yes, I...was part of the TRIBE.

So now I'm feeling more comfortable in my Israeli/-American shoes wherever I go.

It seems that there are no cut rules for what language to speak and when. When I first arrived in Pittsburgh, I used to think I was an American and then Israeli. But now I think there are no cut rules for that either.

I guess acquiring a multicultural voice helps the fluidity of transitioning from one hat to another.

And the good news is... I'm not a spy!