Language and Thinking

Yuko-San, my tutor for Japanese in college and a dear friend, recently started a new blog where she writes in English and Japanese and also talks about her two selves. It inspired me to ponder over my own language affair, as I swing between Hebrew and English daily. 

I was never very good at learning languages. When I do work on it, it requires a lot of concentration and practice. But I love the windows languages can open for you if you try hard. To other cultures and places, but mainly to people. 

Unlike Yuko-San, my native language is the more direct (and louder) one of the two. English is richer, it has more words, and you can very precisely say anything you mean to say. But I find it a bit sneaky too, as in a why do you say this if you actually mean that moment.  In Hebrew, people typically say whatever they think whenever they feel like it. Which can make your day rough. People here are rude. But Hebrew often brings pleasant sincerity into my life as well. 

It took me years to feel ‘capable’ of English. In the US, I spent forever speaking softly, slowly or being quiet. I hated it at first. But it gave me the opportunity to slow down and listen, observe, think, step back. Speaking only one language up until my adult life, my tongue used to run ahead of my soul, I let my emotions spilled out too quickly, I led myself to silly decisions. I rushed. I am still rushing, but less. In a way, English helped me grow.

I think I reached this stage in life where I am the same person in both languages. When people laugh at something grammatically weird I say they do it fondly, which helps me be myself.  It makes my friends my friends, and life feels more natural.

And if I am not satisfied with words alone, or when I simply cannot find them, I prefer drawing or smiling. 

A map I made for our Borders Seminar

The little stage and a bit of Christmas

As part of my volunteering program here in Jerusalem, I work with a Palestinian-Israeli Youth Performance group at the YMCA. Our goal is to create a play together and perform it in May at different schools in East and West Jerusalem.

We meet once a week, sometimes more, working with teens ages 14-15 on movements, songs, gestures, and, really, anything that can make them feel more comfortable with each other in a very diverse group, and with themselves as performers.

There are traditional Muslims who stay covered, as well as punk Palestinian teenagers with all the piercings. Among the Jewish kids, we have religious people who keep it modest, some who really don’t care about this, and two immigrants: one from Ethiopia and the other from Russia. They speak hesitate Hebrew or don’t speak at all. 

We use three languages when we meet, English being the least used one. Arabic and Hebrew are being translated into one another all the time. We have a very professional translator who translates everything that is being said in the room, a Palestinian lady with a better Hebrew than mine.
It is a shame that even though Arabic sounds familiar to my ears for its rhythm and a fair amount of words, I speak English with kids who don’t speak Hebrew. 
I didn’t major in theater, but I’ve always been charmed by it. It brings out sides of me that I praise, but usually don’t let out. It erases boundaries, brings people together and makes you feel important, as an actor and a viewer.
I took an acting class during my first year in the States, it helped me open my mouth again after a long period of silence. Later on, I took an extraordinary theater class at Bard as well. It was probably the most expressive class I’ve taken there, and we rarely ever used language.

I have to admit that sometimes, with all the ugly things going on in Jerusalem, I can’t help but to see our little Stage as nothing more than an illusion. The unrealness of it grips my heart.
But once I see the teens truly having fun together, smiling wide,  and telling about it in an excited voice to their parents when they show up to get them, I am convinced that it is very real. Staged or not.

(First two photos here were taken by the talented Adina Karpuj)

The activity below was about choosing a body part that is especially dear to you, drawing it, then making up a scene about it.
I think we all got a bit confused by the instructions. But The drawings were so nice. One girl drew a box and said that her important parts are inside, but nobody is allowed to see. Even not those who chose eyes.

So there was this colorful Christmas Fair going on in the building during our meeting.

From what I’ve noticed most people were either Palestinians or tourists.
Jerusalem is suffering from a no-tourists disease. So it was nice seeing them.

Someone was very excited about Christmas as you can see, I couldn’t help but get into the holiday spirit myself 🙂 

Yesterday two of my roommates and I went to eat Chinese food on Christmas eve, an American Jewish tradition I’ve never celebrated.
We found the only Chinese restaurant place in Jerusalem (?), or something like that. The place was booked with tourists (including Chinese tourists), decorated for Christmas with Chinese items, and some signs to remind us that we were still in Israel:

A School for Dreams

On Tuesday at Yad Beyad(Hand in Hand), the bilingual school I volunteer at, I joined an English teacher to a class of fifth-graders who truly didn’t want to sit down and open their books.
I couldn’t blame them.

Two kids were opening and closing the classroom door, three others were running in circles around the tables throwing paper balls at their friends, and few brave ones jumped in and out the windows(first floor).

Chaos: The biggest similarity of this school to my own elementary school.

I guess most schools in this country share the honor of mischievous children: true to themselves children. Happy and wild children.


As much as I enjoy being around Jewish and Palestinian kids who are busy being kids, their cheeks burn with fun and life, I was hoping the teacher had some experience with calming the situation.
Each time I enter the school I feel like I walked into a sacred temple: The Hebrew and Arabic educational slogans decorating the walls welcome me with fresh, foreign hope, new kind of optimism, making me want to borrow those pieces and plaster them over my own past memories of school. Where I learned nothing about the “other side”; Nothing of their history and customs, nothing of their pain, fears, and dreams.
I wish I could whisper in the ear of my 11 years old self: “It’s ok. Don’t fear them. And do your Arabic homework. It is important.”
Back in the present classroom. In order for the waves of craziness to calm down, the teacher gathered the little humans who misbehaved the most(!) and told them to go after me to practice English in a different classroom. Oh great, all boys. I smiled at them. One of them smiled back, the widest grin spread on his face upon seeing me, way too happy about joining the group. Very suspicious.
Looking for an empty class was not an easy task as I thought it would be. Shouting all around me, mostly in Arabic, the boys each had their favorite spot to go to (recommendations for me). Considering I understand very little Arabic, and I was there for English, I tried to make them all speak English. I failed miserably. By the time we found an empty classroom, I was flooded with personal questions directed at me in my mother tongue. English was completely forgotten. One kid seemed very upset about being kicked out of class (“I didn’t do anything”) so he simply went back, leaving his book with me.
Almost all the Palestinian kids at the school speak Hebrew fluently. The Jewish kids speak Arabic too, a bit less fluently, some better than others. English? Everyone speaks it much less, if at all. Needless to say, I am deeply impressed by their abilities. Teaching English to these kids shall be a very small contribution to how much they already inspire me.
In the art room (which is also a bomb shelter…), where I help smaller kids with their art projects, I met two small humans who are “both”, Palestinian and Jewish. They tell me about it with pride. Coloring their flowers and cars on paper. I am very curious but trying to keep myself busy with the plastic glue at my hands. While I’m helping one of them, 7 years old, gluing his artwork together he elaborates to me: “my dad knows Arabic and my mom knows Hebrew”.  They are also from very different places. He beams about it so much, as if he didn’t set a foot in his complicated fate just yet.
The little guy indeed swims between Hebrew and Arabic as if they were one language. It is as natural for him as blinking and he doesn’t seem to think of it at all; at least not as much as I was while observing him in action: while the rest of the kids were at quarrel over the color pencils, he helped out big time. There was only one pack.  The Palestinian kids sought for the colors in Arabic while the Jewish kids asked for the same ones in Hebrew. The little guy handed each what they needed. In the end, everyone’s drawings were very colorful.
I battle myself to stop being fascinated by them, by how lovely they are together. By how different their education is from mine. I tell my mind to just see them as kids at school. But I can’t. Not yet.

I know how it feels to be categorized as a “side of a conflict” instead of a person. Participating in peace programs as a kid used to upset me a little because of it though I didn’t know why at the time. Being the “Israeli” at my campus disturbed me as well. We are so much more than nations. Each one of us.

These kids are all people outside of the school as well. With communities, traditions and loved ones.

So even if the school seems like a surreal dream to me, it is composed of very real people who are part of this world.
I do not blame myself for having these dreamy impressions of them. I am a product of this place and its reality. It is only natural for me to admire the school for being the special place that it is. But I do wonder how will the kids become part of the reality here as adults, or what kind of reality will they be able to create.