Excerpted from the book Whistling for Salvation, by KJ Hannah Greenberg
A magnanimous friend, who teaches me Hebrew, and who is a trained and seasoned social worker, focuses her lessons not only on grammar and on vocabulary, but also on my overcoming the cognitive dissonance I’ve gained since making aliyah. It is not enough to that wonderful pal that I make progress in my use of tenses; I also have to acknowledge that I am making that progress.
Regardless, my friend is first and foremost an Israeli. That distinction means that I find myself flummoxed in her presence not only with reference to language, but also with reference to culture. For example, during a recent meeting, after our customary exchange of kisses, we settled down to work.
I pushed through new verbs as well as ploughed through a review of the future tense. I read pages and pages of essays. My friend hugged me as I left, and reminded me to focus on the fact that I was moving ahead in my learning. Then, without warning, she admonished me; “You hurt me, Channie!”
“Huh?” My friend doesn’t take personally my inability to hear the phonetic difference between “aleph” and “ayin,” nor is she insulted by my forgetfulness about the present tense form of weak verbs.
“You never eat here,” she clarified.
I looked at my dear one, whom, at her own behest, manages weekly, even on her birthday, to fit me into her already overstuffed schedule. She is more than generous with her time, space, and spirit.
Despite this reality, I cannot envision myself eating, Israeli-style, during our tutorial. We work together just scant hours after my dinnertime.
“I love you,” I countered.
“But you never eat here,” she insisted.
“I drink here every week; tea in cold weather, water in hot weather.” It seemed that I had misunderstood; consuming beverages was not regarded as “eating;” only chowing on more substantive items earns that distinction.
“It is not enough,” she shook her head at me.
“We ate together for Purim and for Shabbot,” I defended.
“But you never eat when we learn,” she expounded.
Remaining a bit confused about the bonding threshold among Israelis, I walked out into the night. On the way home, I ran into a neighbor with a recently deceased mother-in-law.
Attempting to be more “Israeli,” I tried to apply my newfound datum to his situation; “My family heard from a mutual friend that your wife is sitting shiva. Why didn’t you tell us?” I figured, based on my encounter with my tutor, that my family owed this neighbor at least a multicourse meal.
“We know people like you,” he rebutted. “You’d have rushed to help. We don’t need help.”
“You’re our friends.”
“We can manage.”
“Your children’s tummies get hungry.”
“Ha! We were right not to tell you!”
“Did our son know?” (Older Dude learns with that man.)
“Yes. I made him promise not to tell. I was right! I anticipated your stream of meals and your insistence on babysitting our younger children. Go home.”
Note to self: always eat the food that Israelis offer you. Also, when you’re in a position to help, don’t inquire politely; just barge in.
Israelis, as exemplified by my husband and me, who pay “special American prices,” and who feign machismo by eating peppers with a higher capsaicin content than sanity would advise, likewise tend to yield the right of way, to strangers, even in their own homes.
Much to my pleasant surprise, a friend from the New World recently called to say that she and her family would be visiting the Old World, and that they would like to see my family. I stared at the phone (I had heard my friend’s voice via my family’s message machine) and laughed.
I did not chuckle because I thought my pal’s words were silly. They were not. She is a dear woman and I am counting the months (all seven of them) until we reunite. Instead, I giggled because my friend had phoned me more than a half of a year before the event—I found the span of her preview astounding. My merriment was, however, a vocalization of my realization that, at last, my sensibilities had morphed Israeli!
When my family made aliyah, I was shocked anew each time we were invited to local weddings a month ahead of the celebrations and to local Bnai Mitzvah a week or two before those dates. It seems that I’ve since adjusted.
“Freshly off of the boat” me had essentially planned the celebrations of Older Dude’s becoming Bar Mitzvah concurrent with stepping on the Ben Gurion Airport tarmac (approximately eight months ahead of that simcha).
On the other hand, BH, the increasingly Old World me now only made arrangements to celebrate Missy Younger becoming Bat Mitzvah three months hence, and am only doing so “early” because of the needs articulated by Missy Younger’s New World grandparents.
As for my friend’s future visit, I can’t wait. I need her hugs. All the same, I hope that by the time she lands, my temporal attitude will have adjusted even more.
To my knowledge, there are three types of New World holidays: non- Jewish, national, and Jewish. Examples of the first type include Halloween and Valentine’s Day. Such celebrations, though not ordinarily referred to as “religious,” in New World discourse, are rooted in non-Jewish theology. In the New World, such events, akin to “overtly” non-Jewish events, are documented on calendars, in public schools, and, to varying degrees, in the workplace.
Holidays in the second category include: Fourth of July, Victoria Day, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day. Fourth of July and Victoria Day typify celebrations particular to certain nations, whereas Mothers’ Day and Father’s Day epitomize celebrations particular to certain profit-driven facets of contemporary culture. Like the holidays in the first category, the holidays in the second category are acknowledged by all sorts of New World public institutions.
The third category of holidays, “Jewish” holidays, include “regular” Jewish holidays like Shabbot, “minor” Jewish holidays like Chanukah, and Purim, and “major” Jewish holidays like Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashanah. In the New World, these observances as usually only accepted by civic or other types of organizations, within communities with sufficient demographic clout to insist on such acknowledgment. Nonetheless, of all of the types of New World holidays, the Jewish ones were mine.
Anyway, I found myself thinking about Mother’s Day alongside of thinking about Lag BaOmer. Spring, in the New World, meant my preparing not only flowers for the bimah, but also ordering flowers for the Immot. In Israel, contrariwise, whereas the media raise consciousness about Muslim celebrations and about Christian holy days, most of the focus in this Jewish nation is on Jewish festivities or on national, Israeli events.
Here, the period between Pesach and Shavuot is about Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day; Yom Hazikaron, Fallen Soldiers Memorial Day; Yom Ha’atzmuat, Israel Independence Day; Lag BaOmer, the thirty-third day of the counting of the Omer, and Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day (plus, of course, Shabbot).
Consequently, I was taken aback when someone asked me, via email, what I was doing to celebrate Mother’s Day. Grateful for that electronic reminder, I determined to call all of the mothers in my life; my mother, my mother-in-law, and my sister. With the best of cheer, I began dialing the earliest riser of that group, my mother-in-law.
To her credit, she chatted amicably and at great length with me. It was only at the end of our conversation that she reminded me that I had overshot the holiday by a full week.
I have taken various combinations of my children to greet olim. I recall Missy Younger’s third such event.
As we boarded the hasahah, she declared that I owed her an ice cream.
“Why?” I asked.
Because Mommy, in Israel, “Pa’am shlishi” equals “glida!”
Silly me! “Everyone,” here, knowns that three times isn’t a “charm;” it’s “dessert.”
Recently, I had the opportunity to share some sufganiyot with a friend. She called to show her appreciation, saying, “I thank you from the bottom of my stomach.”
When my family invites guests for Shabbot, we were often asked what they can contribute to meals. I almost always answer “kugel.” Even when I request “something else,” such as “broccoli mush,” or “carrot/potato/ onion soufflé,” I am actually asking for kugel.
I bake nothing. On the other hand, since my cooking is as wild as are my words, sometimes, my efforts yield good tastes, and, other times, my family discretely avoids what’s in out pots. At all times, however, I do not make kugel — friends make kugel.
So, when they visit, my friends bring kugel. One “clever” friend even brought, in addition to a yummy kugel, a cookbook full of kugel recipes.
Computer Cowboy, Missy Younger, and Older Dude expressed confidence that they would soon enjoy my kugel. To their dismay, I never attempted the cookbook’s recipes.
Missy Older, though, made a few of the dishes described therein. Later, she decided that her energy was better spent wandering through bus station shops, instant messaging her friends, and critiquing family members’ writing. To wit, my friends still bring kugel.
I was beginning to get frustrated as I was interrupted yet again while grading papers. I spoke to my “offending” offspring, unpleasantly, saying, “I’m going to take a bite out of you.”
My child answered me cheerfully, saying, “I’m going to take that bite back!”
When my family made aliyah, I attended ulpan in Jerusalem’s Ma’alot Dafna neighborhood. On the way to my bus, I often stopped at a green grocer.
One day, among the pomegranates and peppers, the proprietor asked me if I was Chareidi or Dati (my self-presentation is interpreted as “fashion fusion,” except by my children, who understand me as “fashion-challenged.” I, however, regard myself as striving for the rudiments of modesty while checking that homework is packed and breakfast gets eaten.)
I answered, in my elementary, fresh-from-ulpan Hebrew, “neither.”
An Israeli, the shop’s owner was delighted. He considered my response to be an invitation to wrangle.
I sighed and repeated, for the second time, “neither,” and then added, “I’m Jewish.”
The man smiled at my answer. He was gearing up for Round Three. “Before you lived here, were you Chareidi or Dati?”
I smiled, again, “before I lived here, I was ‘Jewish.’”
My family constitutes an “excitement,” i.e. a “curiosity,” to the preadolescent girls with whom Missy Younger associates. We rank thusly because our family: owns products with “strange” hechsherim, allows our children to base lunches on microwaved, frozen schnitzel (Mom’s writing time has to come from somewhere), and owns a mirpesset large enough for a full-sized sukkah.
Speaking of hechsherim, in the New World, “Kuf K” is one of the four most commonly accepted kashrut marks. Here, in contrast, “Kuf K” is an “exotic” signifier, a mark of otherworldliness.
As such, this hechsher yields social clout to small children who own products bearing this kashrut mark. Missy Younger gleans much attention when she brings sweets, which bear that signifier to school, especially since her grade is studying “kashrut around the world.”
> The other three books in this series about life in Israel, On Golden Limestone, Rhetorical Candy, and Dreams are for Coloring Books, can be purchased here; https://myseashellbooks.com/.