Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Ballad Of The Long Hair And The Short Hair by Yehudah Amichai Translated by Orna Raz

Today we no longer write poems about wars, heroism or the women who wait at home. But as we are in a midst of a depressing war here in Israel, I find this poem, by the Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai, about another war-- the Israeli Independence war (1948), powerful and sad. I hope that it works  in English

The ballad of the long hair and the short hair by Yehudah Amichai
Translated by Orna Raz

His hair was shaven  when he got into the camp
Her hair remained long with no answer
“I can’t hear you in this growing noise”
You long hair, my girl, my short hair

Throughout the summer flowers practiced blooming,
Inside the patient earth as they built their strength .  
 “I returned to you, but was not the same.”
Your long hair, my love, my short hair
The wind broke the tree, the tree broke the wind  
They had many options and very little time to rest
 “It’s raining, come home quick”
Your long hair, my girl, your short hair

The world became for them, an indirect speech.
Doesn’t touch them, slowly they began to sing
 “I set my watch when are you coming back?”
Your long hair, my girl, your short hair
Then they fell silent, like distant steps
The sky opened, the book of laws closed
“What  are you saying, and what are you?”
Your long hair, my girl, your short hair


Friday, July 25, 2014

Please Leave Me A Note: About The Language Of Personal Notes

My husband  Tzvi and I were the kind of people who left notes to each other, they were short, often functional, but full with attention and love. By the time our first daughter was born, we have been writing notes for almost 8 years.

 At that time we lived in the US but, of course, we always corresponded in Hebrew. I never thought about the complex meaning of English versus Hebrew until it was time to read to my daughter. I knew that she would learn  English in pre-school, so we decided  to read to her mostly in Hebrew.

But then I started to think about the language of her future notes. As personal notes are such an intimate form of communication, I felt that it was crucial for my daughters (first the one and soon after the two) to be able to write them in Hebrew. 

Thus I decided to teach my daughters to read and write in Hebrew. I explained to them my rationale, and they agreed to make an effort. We created our own Hebrew school and every Sunday we wrote letters to my parents, and invented  stories that the girls wrote in their note books.

Although Tzvi and I spoke Hebrew at home, there was a period when my daughters spoke English to one another. I used to hear them play school with their stuffed animals giving them instructions in English. I didn’t say anything, but was worried about the future of those personal notes. 

Then we spent a Sabbatical year in Israel and once we had moved  back to the US, I noticed that the girls naturally shifted  back Hebrew.

Around us there were many Israeli friends who spoke English with their children. The strong Hebrew accent in English is very noticeable for me, and  I  always felt sorry for them. Somehow it seemed that this choice of  language reflected something about the relationship between parents and children and weakened the position of  the parent in the new country.

I had some frame of reference, from the beginning of the 20th century Israel has always been  an immigrant society. Often when new immigrants arrived to Israel they knew very little Hebrew. Their  children normally became fluent in the language much faster than their parents and grandparents. A friend of mine told me that when she was 11 in the late 1960s she used to accompany her grandmother everywhere, especially to places like the local  hospital and different government offices. She was the interpreter for her grandmother who knew no Hebrew. This is a typical story, those children who became the mouth piece for the whole family  were put in an awkward position. On the one hand, they gained a special status in the family because of their responsible role.On the other hand, this reversal of roles, in which the child is the ambassador to  the outside world, was also a source  of confusion for everybody within that family
Our Israeli friends in the US were young professionals whose English was good enough and they didn’t need an interpreter.  But still they lived in a foreign country where their children had a better mastery of the English language.  I felt that speaking to my daughters in my native tongue was  a better way to preserve the traditional roles in our family.

And as for the personal notes, my daughters, who spent most of their life in the US,  prefer to read and write in English. But whenever I come home to find a note from one of my daughters,  it is always written in Hebrew.

This  makes me especially happy.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Sound of Language: Conversations with Orna B. Raz, Part I

This is a written conversation between two friends: The writer and musician Barbara Froman and I: 
In early December of last year, fellow Red Room author, Orna B. Raz, wrote a blog post entitled, “‘Promises to Keep’ and Reading.”  

The title, which refers to a line in one of my favorite poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost, immediately caught my attention. Even though I was in the midst of holiday preparations, I took the time to read it because of the title, and the fact that Orna writes beautifully about every subject she chooses. Very quickly, I was glad I had. I had been trying to think of new ideas for Music and Prose, and now here was one, wrapped like a gift, in Orna’s lovely post:

“... listening to audio books has become my favorite pastime while driving. I feel they add life to the written text, and ignite the imagination.”

What better way to express the belief central to every Music and Prose post? That language is an art of meaning and sound?

I was so inspired and excited, I contacted Orna to ask if she would be willing to engage in a series of conversations with me for Music and Prose about the sound of language, and to my delight, she said, “Yes.”

And so, it my great pleasure to share our discussions with you….

BF:  There are so many places we could begin, but it occurs to me that it might be best to start with those experiences that led us to develop an aural relationship with literature. My first experiences with literature came from being read to as a child. Because I already had a love of sound, and my parents were expressive readers, I instantly related to the tones and rhythms of the text. Was this how it happened for you? 

OR:  I believe it all started with the radio, I don’t remember my mother reading a lot to me when I was little. But I always loved the radio and especially radio plays. I read that over one million people watched on television the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth the 2nd in June 1953. It was a year-and-a-half before I was born. Until the beginning of 1970’s we didn’t have a television set at home and Israeli television only started broadcasting around 1966.

As children we listened to children's programs. I don’t remember much of their content, but as a result of some of them my brother and I, together with a cousin, started our own secret society. In our games, as in life, we followed my brother’s instructions (he was always my inspiration, and besides he was much older than us). Most of the children’s program were in the early afternoon, after school programs.  However,  we were also allowed to listen to the best radio drama, at night. It was the program that everyone listened to, about the detective Paul Temple.  I just Googled it and found that it was a well know British radio drama which was translated into Hebrew from English.

BF: Ah, radio…. You know, there’s a popular Saturday afternoon radio show around these parts called Those were the Days, which features recordings of old broadcasts from the 1930’s and ’40’s.” Of particular interest to me in that show are the wonderful plays, such as “Sorry, Wrong Number,” which were introduced to so many on radio. In some ways, I think radio allows the listener multiple benefits: it provides the enactment dramatic works need in order to give them life, and it gives the listener/audience a chance to exercise their imaginations, fill in with images. In a concrete way, it is the best of both worlds—theatrical and literary—and a superb introduction to writing. As a bonus, it also allows the listener, who is not distracted by action on a stage, to really hear the dialogue and words, savor the language itself.

OR: You are right, radio makes the imagination work harder. For me it is the perfect medium. I have vivid memories of my father listening to the radio (especially classical music and news), and my brother, who is a journalist. He started his career in the Israeli public radio and has been working for many years in public television.

BF:  Wonderful, and what an impressive and distinguished career he’s had.  It’s interesting that he moved into that medium, and you moved from radio into print. Yet you point out in your post,  how ideal the medium is for drama, particularly the works of Shakespeare.

OR:  Yes, listening to the records of Shakespeare’s plays helped me understand them better, and they suddenly came to life, especially when I read along with the record. Then Shakespeare was no longer  an old difficult text, but a funny or a sad drama.

Later I read with my girls, usually in Hebrew. At the time we lived in the US, and they learnt to read English very early and read very fast, thus they had no patience to read together. But they wanted me to read aloud in Hebrew.

Years later I discovered that audio books were perfect for long distance driving, I loved listening to them. This method also helped me tackle some difficult texts that otherwise, I don’t think, I would have had the patience to read, like Bleak House.

In the last couple of years, I have been listening to another radio program This American Life, on PBS, and it is a source of inspiration for me. I listen to it regularly as I skate in the park and often write down key words and sentences which I later use. In fact, the last program of This American Life, which just aired, was about radio drama.
Once a week I read aloud with a young friend (she is 10). She is very smart but doesn't like to read. It is a great fun when we do it together. (I wrote about it in two posts: "Can Great Literature Save Lives?" and "Ramona the Reader or What Can We Learn From An 8 Year Old Girl?")

BF: I find it interesting that your daughters prefer for you to read to them in Hebrew. Is there a reason for this beyond their greater familiarity with the language?  I ask because every language has its own unique characteristics.  I remember having to sing an aria in English, when the original text was in Italian, and hating it. Everything about the pairing felt wrong to me, as though even the words’ meanings were fighting with the music.

OR: An important reason why, when we lived in the US, I  read to my daughters in Hebrew was that I couldn't find  translated literature in the library or in  used books stores. Almost all the children’s books around were written originally in English. I looked for the books which I read (and loved) as a child, and wanted to share them with my girls. Somehow it was very important for me that they would read them. Since most of the books in Hebrew are translated from different languages it has always been easy to find great children books in Hebrew.

The conversation continues with Part II: Hearing the Printed Word

Here are the links to Barbara Froman's works:

Sunday, July 20, 2014

God, Peace and Life: The Mourners Kaddish And Icarus

On this day seven years ago my husband Tzvi died. In previous years, on the anniversary of his death,  I used to go up to his grave  with one of his devoted students. As is the custom in Jewish religion, he read  the Mourners  Kaddish  for my husband . It was a lovely gesture.
The Kaddish is a prayer in Aramaic, it  praises God and expresses a yearning for the establishment of His kingdom on earth. The prayer is recited by a man, usually a family member, at funerals and memorial services.
I am used to the music of the Kaddish, and could almost chant it by heart. Still  since I know only few words in this ancient  language,  I have never really contemplated the meaning of  the words, until yesterday when I looked for the English translation of the prayer for the purpose of writing this post..
 The Mourners Kaddish
May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified (Amen.) in the world that He created as He willed.
 May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days,
and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel,
swiftly and soon. Now respond: Amen.
(Cong Amen. May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.)
May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled,
mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, Blessed is He
(Cong. Blessed is He) beyond any blessing and song,
praise and consolation that are uttered in the world. Now respond: Amen.
May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life
upon us and upon all Israel. Now respond: Amen.
He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace,
upon us and upon all Israel. Now respond: Amen.
 The Kaddish is mostly about the greatness of God. It mentions the fact that He created the world the way He willed. But what I find most interesting is that this significant prayer ends with a wish that peace will descend from heaven and enable life on earth. If we consider that this is a mourner prayer, it is curious that death is not mentioned only God, peace and life.
 A mourner’s prayer with no dead person could be compared to a painting about the Fall of Icarus with no Icarus or his wings, as can be seen in the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel. In that painting a ploughman is working the land, concentrating on his work, and only some smoke in the background faintly suggests that a tragedy takes place elsewhere. This painting was also the inspiration to W. H. Auden’s  poem Musee des Beaux Arts.
 Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden
 About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Like the absent death in the Mourners Kaddish, Auden points out that in Bruegel's painting everything turns away from Icarus' fall:  In both cases we would rather turn our attention away from death and other tragedies as life goes on.  
 The Mourner Kaddish ends with the familiar words: "He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace,upon us and upon all Israel. Now respond: Amen." The bond between peace and life is especially meaningful  in time of war. This year I choose to say the Mourners Kaddish myself , and when I get to the last two lines I shall say the the words with special intention hoping that finally God and man would  listen and bring Peace to our area, Amen.

Balancing between Instruction and Delight -- Erich Kastner


My brother and I grew up on the wonderful children books by Erich Kastner.  Emil Erich Kästner , 1899 -1974, was a German author, poet, screenwriter and satirist, who is best known for his humorous, socially astute poetry and children's literature.

Growing up we didn’t have many books at home, at that time we got our books from the public library, but we did own 6 books by Erich kastner (translated into Hebrew with the original illustrations).   Emil und die Detektive, 1929; in English Emil and the Detectives; Pünktchen und Anton, 1931; in English, Anna Louise and Anton; Der 35. Mai, 1931; in English, The 35th of May, or Conrad's Ride to the South Seas; Emil und die Drei Zwillinge (Emil and the Three Twins) 1933; Das fliegende Klassenzimmer, 1933; in English, The Flying Classroom; Das doppelte Lottchen, 1949; in English, Lottie and Lisa.

 Kastner wasn’t only  a great story teller but an educator and a humanist. He believed that the role of literature was to delight and instruct, he wrote to children and their parents. Yet his instruction is never preachy; ion Pünktchen und Anton, for example, after each chapter he turns directly to the reader (or  the parents,) wearing his writer’s hat and discusses the dilemmas and the values of the plot and the characters. Although as a young reader I always skipped the observations,  as Kastner had predicted I would do, as I grew older I learned to appreciate the instructive part and started reading it very carefully.  

Kastner has always been very popular in Israel, but as a mother in the US when I was looking for the books in English they were almost impossible to find. It took me years to find, in used books  stores (even not in the library) four or five of Kastner’s children book in English. When finally traced I was delighted to see that my girls loved  Erich Kastner  as much as I did.

In a way Kastner  for me had the similar role as the Beatles did.  I never stopped listening to them but special albums starred at different times. It was the same with Erich Kastner’s books, I kept reading them first as a child, later as a teen ager and also as a mother, but chose a different book depending on the time and the mood.

Still, talking to my brother we both agreed that our all-time favorite is The Flying Classroom, we still quote full sentences (in Hebrew) from this book

Although written in the 1930, children and their parents In Germany and  Israel continue to enjoy Erich Kastner , his appeal is everlasting.  I hope that those books will be reissued in the US so that American children and their parents will finally be able to enter the delightful world of Erich Kastner.

God’s Language – Translated Literature And Subtitled Films


Growing up in Israel, I was used, from an early age,  to read translated literature and to watch movies with subtitles.  As children we read stories translated from many different languages: English, Russian, Polish, German, French, Swedish and Italian. Some of the books were even translated through a third language into Hebrew. For example, in the early part of the 20th century one of the famous Israeli poet translated Shakespeare from Russian into Hebrew.

I remember watching my childhood idol, the actress Hayley Mills starring in Disney Movies  which were based on some of my favorite books. For example  The Parent Trap was based upon the German book Lottie and Lisa Das Doppelte Lottchen by Erich Kästner), Pollyanna, based on the book by the same name by Eleanor H. Porter and in In Search of the Castaways, an adaptation of the French novel by  Jules Verne Captain Grant's Children.

Whenever I go into the children section of a typical American public library I am surprised by the meager collection of translated books. It is rare to find books by “foreign authors” like Erich Kastner,  Jules Verne, Selma Lagerlöf,  Kristina Nestlinger to name a few.

I am sure that there are many explanations for this absence. However, it is sad that young American readers grow up reading only about children like them and about reality which is familiar and comfortable to them.  Learning about the world from books develops the imagination and teaches the young reader about the world. The huge success of Harry Potter shows that children are ready and willing to broaden their horizons.

Often when I meet Americans, of all ages,  who tell me that they don’t go to foreign films because they are heavy and  besides they don’t like to read subtitles, I feel sorry for them as I am quite certain that as children they believed that books were only written in God’s language --English

P.S. In response to my post a friend sent me this link with the following comment

And apart from Stieg Larsson I cannot think of anything that is recent.

Thinking about Stieg Larsson and what you had written I realized that the original Girl With The Dragon Tattoo movie was in Swedish and released with English sub-titles in 2009. The English language remake, just two years later, used about 95% of the scenes and locations of the original. I had wondered why they bothered but you are right, people will not read sub-titles

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Protective Impulse And The (Not So) Simple Compliment

 JAN.16.2013 -
The other day when complimenting a friend on her new jacket, I asked myself why did I do it? did I really like the jacket? The honest answer was that I didn’t care for it, it was just different. So why saying that I did. It is true that I love my friend and wanted her to feel good about herself, but the more embarrassing secret was that I felt bad for her because she was wearing, what I perceived to be,  a conspicuous jacket.  

Along the same line I can offer a similar example, often when I notice that a friend has gained some weight, I often automatically make a comment on how good she looks. Here it is not that I feel bad for her, but rather I  feel guilty for noticing such a thing, and compensate for it with a compliment.

I might have thought that this could only happen to me, had I not read  The Amateur Marriage. This slightly patronizing attitude combined with kindness was captured brilliantly by Anne Tyler.  In seeing a sick friend wearing a ridiculous hat, the protagonist says something kind about it.  Tyler emphasizes the importance of this human gesture, by referring to it as a: “protective impulse”

.Ever since I read the novel I have started paying attention to these gestures in my life. I notice that in women the protective impulse is stronger than in men.  It seems to me that it usually happens, when we see something out of the ordinary which attracts our attention like the jacket, the extra pounds, or the hat. Since we suspect that our dismay was detected, we feel the need to make a comment.. Moreover, since we are not sure how we feel about it but absolutely don’t want to say something insensitive or negative, we respond with kindness.

Now,  often when  I get a compliment from a friend I wonder whether it was genuine or was uttered out of protective impulse.

But even if it was the latter, so what?  I feel  that it is better to walk tall, counting on the kindness and the  “the sympathy of other women“ (Barbara Pym's  Jane and Prudence), than to worry about learning  the real truth, about the way I look,.from  other well meaning  friends.    

The Best job in the world

JAN.20.2013 -
Ronald Bryden had the best job; I met him as a student at the Drama Centre in the University of Toronto.  He has just arrived from England where he was “a play adviser “ (he didn’t call it a dramaturge)  for the Royal Shakespeare theatre. He explained that his job was to help the director and the cast to understand the play and the characters in the context of its time and culture. I have never heard of such a job, but knew that it was indeed the best job on earth. . In   Bryden's   course we put up a production of The Marquis of Keith by Frank Wedekind. This was the same play that he did with the Royal Shakespeare. We certainly enjoyed his expertise as we knew nothing about Wedekind and Munich at the beginning of the tentieth century.  As students we were happy to spend  endless hours  on the play, getting to know Wedekind  and his era through the exciting tutelage of Bryden. However,  “real”  actors don’t have that time  and a good literary advisor provides them  a useful short-cut.

I don’t know how many theatres still employ serious play advisers; from my experience,  not many.  When the budget is tight literary research seems like a luxury. But the absence of that nowledge leads to a limited understanding of the play and results in a mediocre and superficial productions. It is not a problem with the classics, the Greeks and Shakespeare, as there is a body of knowledge and a long tradition of producing them. But the ignorance is obvious when producing  a contemporary translated play, a recnt play from  previous generations  or from a different but familiar culture. When the distance between the two cultures seems small the play could be read  as transparent, this  reading is insufficient,  partial and results in a superficial and empty production.  A good example of ignorance of the context of a play was the production of The History Boys  by Alan Bennett which I saw in Israel. It wasn’t only because of the Hebrew, I have watched many great translated productions. Rather, I believe that the director felt that the play was clear and was not aware of the complex issues hidden in the text. Thus the richness of the text that  had to do with the class system, private all boys education system and the subtle homosexual cultural subtext, fell flat.

In today’s world perhaps we don’t need  play advisrs anymore, the knowledge is  available and accessible if the director would only like to have it. But he or she should be careful, even if the play seems clear, as  there is a lot to learn and to understand before letting the actors say their lines.

P.S  From Ronald Bryden's obituary

Bryden was a civilised man and exemplary critic: I remember Stanley Reynolds saying that, with his hawkish profile and plump stateliness, he even looked like a theatre critic. But, following the Tynan route, Bryden forsook criticism in 1972 to become play adviser to the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Bring Back The Introverts

In Quiet The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain convincingly argues that introverts are the thinkers and the innovators of society. Yet, since the world has become too extrovert, they are undervalued in spite of their contribution to their community.

Cain's  book which was published in 2012 illustrates the change in the attitude to introverts in the last decades. In the mid-1980s when my husband was a young professor he visited with his students a factory. In order to learn about creating effective teams at work the students took the Myers–Briggs test. That test classifies personalities according to 4 scales one of them is introversion vs. extroversion

 That evening my husband, an introvert, came home very excited, he too took the test and it made him realized what it meant to be an introvert. At that time it was taken for granted that any team at work will include both extroverts and introverts. The test itself acknowledged their existence and their contribution to their team was unquestioned and appreciated.

Today the situation has changed; with the tight job market  introverts seem to suffer the most.  When applying to a new job they are at a disadvantage as they do not interview well. As a result there are workshops, special coaching and simulations to help introverts turn into extroverts.  Introversion has become a liability: to the typical interview question “what are your weak points” a candidate might answer “I am an introvert” and the  interviewer would agree that this is indeed a big problem, as though the candidate has just admitted to being a shop lifter.

If a closet introvert has “passed” and got the job he/she is not always welcome as a contributing members of the team because she would rather eat at her desk than going out for lunch with colleagues, or go home at the end of the day and not join everybody at “happy hour”.

I believe that Susan Cain's insightful book (with the book and her Ted talk).

would be able to convince real and closet introverts to feel proud of who they are. I also hope that educators would stop insisting on group work as the preferred activity since many children could get much better results thinking quietly and working on their own

And most of all I wait for the day when our society learns from those who know how to think.  To reflect, then act and then reflect again is natural to introverts but it will be a boon to those who just act.

Talking About Ourselves: My Women's Group

My partner often asks me “what is it, exactly, that you do in your women’s group”? The simple answer is that we talk, we laugh and eat. For almost 5 years my women's  group meets on a Sunday night once a month. Each time we select a different topic for discussion, tonight we will talk about money.

The group was created when a young friend asked me to join an empowerment group for women that she wanted to start. My first instinct was to say no, but since earlier that year I had made a resolution to try and say yes to more suggestions, and I wanted to support my friend, I tried instead to convince her that I was too old for such a group.  "At the age of 53", I argued, "empowerment was too late for me". But my 30 something friend answered that a woman was never too old to be empowered; I had no choice but to relent.

One of the reasons that I was reluctant at first was the word "empowerment" itself which seemed to me like an empty slogan. But in our group, we try to give this term some meaning while translating  it into small actions.

We are an open group, new members are welcome, mostly they are friends of the members who heard about it and wanted to join. But sometimes we bring new members who, we feel, could benefit from being with us. In the past 5 years some women stayed for a while and then left as circumstances changed, but we remain a core group of 12 friends of different ages.

We meet at the homes of our members, and before we start our discussion we eat. Each woman brings a favorite dish and we sit together and enjoy the food. Complimenting the women on their dishes is an essential part of the activity as our raison d'être is to make our members feel good about themselves, satisfied in what they have accomplished and willing to take a chance to try new things in cooking and in life.

We have certain well- kept rules about the atmosphere and the behavior in our discussions. It involves the important Hebrew /Yiddish concept-- Firgun*. It means an act or atmosphere of support, good-will and encouragement and the behavior of treating others favorably, with, respect, and the "ungrudging pleasure one takes in another’s good fortune." Those qualities which are embodied in this concept, firgun, are quintessential to empowerment.

Perhaps meeting once a month is not enough to make a real difference in a woman’s life, but on the other hand, maybe it is the exact reason why we were able to keep the group thriving for five years.

The other day when I asked a member what she liked about our group, she said that this was the place where she felt most appreciated and supported. It didn’t matter much to her what we discusseded (as we always talked about ourselves even if the topic was relationships, jobs, children, money, or losses) but our friendship made her feel stronger and more hopeful about her future.

 *The word "firgun"

The Fear of Sounding Trivial

 FEB.07.2013 - 1:15 AM

last weekend we spent in Venice and had a wonderful time: the whole city was celebrating  the Carnival of Venice. We walked the streets surrounded by  grown- ups dressed in elaborated period costumes and covered in masks.

 When we got back my daughter asked me why I didn’t write about the visit. Usually when we go away we send mails to the rest of the family detailing our experiences. But this time I didn’t write, and her question made me wonder why. 

There could be several reasons,  the main one is that it was a short vacation, only 5 days and I preferred spending the time walking in the city rather than writing about it.  Another reason could be that after I had finished checking my mail and answering my students’ questions I had no mental leisure for writing a proper letter. But I was not happy with these explanations.

 My suspicion is that I was too self-conscious of sounding banal even in a simple letter to my own daughters. What can I say about Venice and how could I? The paralyzing fear of sounding trivial is always there when writing;  often after  researching a topic, when I finally sit down to write it I  wonder if after all I still  have anything new or interesting  to say.  But here it was Venice's fault, it caused me to avoid writing altogether.

As I am writing this post I remember Bill Bryson who always finds exciting insights about the places that he visits. A wonderful example is Notes From A Small Island (1995) which he  wrote after  touring  Britain as a student in the 1970s. He never sounds  banal and even the British people love  his writing and enjoy his sense of humor.

We visited Venice when my two daughters were thirteen and eleven. At that time we were not worried about how we wrote about the visit as  we asked the girls to be in charge of the trip journal and to write about their experiences.  What they chose to describe had nothing to do with the beauty of the city. They wrote about  the camping site where we stayed, the ice cream that we ate, the smell on the canal and how we got lost in Venice, and how Coke was more expensive than the wine that their parents bought. I guess that after all I cannot avoid the cliche about seeing Venice through the eye of a child.

Less Lofty Objects- The Simple Bidet


I couldn’t find the right words to write about beautiful Venice but I can still find something to say  about less lofty objects like the bidet in our hotel  washroom.

Growing up in Israel and spending my twenties and thirties in the US I hardly ever came across one of those creations. Yet in our (barely) 3 stars hotel in Mestre, at the outskirts of Venice, there was no bathtub but a nice looking bidet stood proudly right next to the toilet My partner commented that perhaps this was another sign that the hotel was old, a fact that I couldn’t refute as our room looked like it was last renovated some 30 years ago. But I checked at Wikipedia and found that Bidets are (still) common bathroom fixtures in many southern European countries, especially Italy, where they are found in 95% of households.

While in Israel and in the US people are obsessed with cleanliness bidets are absent in both countries. In Israel part of the reason is cultural; bidets were not common in the remote villages in Eastern Europe where many founding fathers originate. Another reason is the enduring shortage of water.  Saving water is a national sport and people in Israel shower and don’t take bathes.  Many even removed bath tubs from their washrooms, and replaced them with fancy showers.  In newer apartments where Jacuzzi/ bath tubs were installed as a sign of prosperity,   those creations stand without use.

But in in most parts of the US water is not such a crucial problem and people do take bathes, so why don’t we see bidets? Is this absence connected to the culture of modesty in American culture with its origins in strong Christian belief? Could the very presence of a bidet offend some people?

 I can only guess some of the reasons but when I saw the bidet in the washroom  I remembered  the ubiquitous commercial for “feminine douche”,  on American television which I watched for so many years and thought that in this post I would make a plea to export the bidet from  Italy to America.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Reading and Reading Skills

- FEB.18.2013 
I have been teaching EFl to college age students in Israel since 1995. In my country children study English for about 8 years and have a matriculation examination at the end of 12th grade. Yet many  students still have problems reading and comprehending even a simple text. Often when I ask my students for the topic of a text they have difficulties pointing it out, and they find it much more challenging to formulate the central idea of the text or to restate what the writer says about that topic.

Although some students have serious problems with the language, I feel that this is not the reason for their difficulties. I believe that my students are having problems reading a text in English because they  do not read at all (in any language) and thus have no clue on how to approach a written text.  The fact that books are not part of my students’ life has many unfortunate consequences for their future life but it also makes my job as their teacher more challenging.  Since they do not read they know very little about the world; consequently when I assign an article I cannot presume that they would get references text that require a certain level of general knowledge. Also since reading is not part of their world when encountering an unfamiliar term or a name in the assigned reading they would not look it up as it requires more reading. Thus when assigning an article for homework I first have to find those terms and insist that they’d look them up and write down the definition.

We all know that reading sharpens the mind, it teaches the reader to distinguish between fact and opinion, to generalize,  to pay attention to what is not stated in the text,  to make assumptions about it--to  infer, and to recognize different tones and purposes . My students are lacking those abilities and when they do read their level of comprehension remains basic and they do not grasp complex concepts.

My students are already grown-ups;  I can no longer sit them down for a daily silent reading like the one the third graders in Ramona Kirby’s class do. What I could do is to motivate them by introducing interesting articles and to hope that the reading skills that we do teach them will compensate somehow for those abilities that they lack.

The Remote Father


 I got the idea for today’s post from a very unusual program of This American  Life. The topic of  the 1996 broadcast was Accidental Documentaries. It told the stories of old audio tapes from the late 1960s which were discovered accidentally in a  thrift store in Chicago. These tapes were audio letters between a family in Michigan and their son, who was in medical school in California, at the time. The tapes document the life of the family as its members:  the father, mother, and the younger sister, chose to share it with their son. 

The program's  producers got hold of the son who is a physician in California. This is Glass’ report: “We sent him uncut tapes of everything that was on the tape. And he heard them. And he said that it was fine with him for us to play the tapes on the radio. He said that the tapes captured the dynamics of his family perfectly. The drama of a lot of American families is the emotional distance of the father, the father staying away from the family orbit, the father not being around, the father holding himself apart. And Arthur Davis, Junior says that his father was like a lot of American dads in that way and was, in fact, pretty removed.”

I believe that the remote father is not only an American phenomenon. Growing up in Israel in the late 1950s I hardly have any childhood memories of my father. He was always away at work. My mother and my older brother were in charge of my upbringing. I got to know my father only as an adult.

 Arthur Davis Junior from the tapes tells a similar story: “He was reared in a divorced home. And there was a lot of bitterness. And so it was pretty tough for him to even consider getting married. And then when I was born, my mom said that he just broke into tears, thinking that he might have to deal with some of those issues as a parent. He never did really want to be a parent. And she really helped him through that a lot. It was very fascinating, Ira. After my mom died, my dad changed tremendously. And he came to live with me, and spent quite a bit of time with my sister and me, and was very connected with us and our children. So that all changed after Mom died.”

And in 1950s Britain,  in issues of Girl magazine we could see in pictures and in stories that the father is always away, either physically at work, or emotionally, uninvolved --withdrawn. Even when the father is at home he sits at the table.  the newspaper which he always reads separates him from the rest of his family .

I always feel that in the 1950s and the 1960s men had a much easier life at home than they do today: Fathers were spoilt by their family, which demanded nothing of them but gave them a lot of respect.

Some changes are good; my husband was an involved father and we raised our daughters together. And when I think of the close connection that they enjoyed, it seems to me that after all the 1950s fathers did not get the best deal.

This American Life  Accidental Documetaries transcript:

Radio Show

He Ain't Heavy... He's My Brother

The other night we talked in my women's group about sibling relationships. It was an evening full with emotions, I knew that it was a sensitive and emotional topic but I didn’t know that so many people had complex and loaded relationships with their brothers and sisters.

I shouldn’t be surprised , the earliest example of course is Abel and Cain, but when we move on to Jacob and Esau it doesn’t get any better. Even among women the situation is tensed as Rachel and Leah were married to Jacob and the jealousy among the sisters is reenacted in their children’s  attitude to the favored son Joseph.

According to an article The New Science of Siblings by Jeffrey Kluger  in Time Magazine 2006 “For a long time, researchers have tried to nail down just what shapes us--or what, at least, shapes us most. And over the years, they've had a lot of eureka moments. First it was our parents, particularly our mothers. Then it was our genes. Next it was our peers, who show up last but hold great sway. And all those ideas were good ones--but only as far as they went.

The fact is once investigators had strip-mined all the data from those theories, they still came away with as many questions as answers. Somewhere, there was a sort of temperamental dark matter exerting an invisible gravitational pull of its own. More and more, scientists are concluding that this unexplained force is our siblings.

Within the scientific community, siblings have not been wholly ignoredaling , but research has been limited mostly to discussions of birth order. Older sibs were said to be strivers; younger ones rebels; middle kids the lost souls. The stereotypes were broad, if not entirely untrue, and there the discussion mostly ended.”

Research has only recently started to look at the significance of our siblings in our life and the how they shape our identity..

My mother had three brothers and did everything within her power to maintain good relationship with them. Growing up she always talked about the importance of being close to my brother, the sentence ” we  won’t be around  forever, you two have to get along “ was one of her mantras (together with  always finish your work before you play so that you could enjoy it better).  Still by taking sides with my brother, my mother did not help matters much. 

When I became a mother the relationship between my girls became a major concern to me. My brother and I are 7 years apart and my daughters are only 20 months apart,  and they were raised almost like twins. As children they were very close but when they became adolescents they drew apart as each developed her own life.  When my daughters fought I tried not to take sides, but still they felt  that I did, maybe my mother also didn’t , but I always felt that she sided with my brother.

When I think of the close relationships between Dorothea and Celia in Middlemarch or between  Elinor and  Marianne in Sense and Sensibility it makes me sad that life doesn’t imitate art. But the other night with my group one member said that even if they break our heart, we are willing to give our siblings a second chance, something that we wouldn’t necessarily do even with our closest friends. This notion made me hopeful that within the family if we try hard enough we could reopen closed  doors.

From Time magazine,9171,1209949,00.html

Ramona The Reader Or What Can We Learn From An 8 Year Old Girl?

A generation ago my daughters read all the 8  Ramona books by Beverly Cleary in  English and loved them.  Now I read Ramona Quimby,  Age 8 (in Hebrew) with a young friend and she loves it just the same.

The Ramona series has been around since the 1950s but it is easy to love Ramona Quimby. She is a sweet “ordinary American girl” who is dealing with the same issues that still preoccupy her readers-- family, school, food, and friends.

Yet, there is one difference between Ramona and my young friend, unlike Ramona the avid reader, my young friend still finds reading challenging. And that difference made this book even better choice for  us to read together..

We take turns reading aloud, my friend reads one page and I read the next. We usually read together a whole chapter ( which means that she reads in a session about 6 to 7 pages), and then as a reward, I read to her the following chapter. Reading together provides a wonderful opportunity for us to discuss the characters and the plot and through this opening we discuss my friend’s life. We also talk about concepts and unfamiliar words that appear in the text. The other day we talked about  the concept of being "at ease", how is it that with some people we could never be at ease while with true friends we just are.

My friend is always looking for the shorter pages to read out loud and we exchange a long page, which I read, with a shorter one which she reads. This is a little game that we play which gives her  a short respite from the effort of reading.

Ramona loves to read and in her third grade class they conduct a sustained silent reading (SSR), an activity which, for her is the best part of the day (from Wikipedia it is  a form of school-based recreational reading, or free voluntary reading, where students read silently in a designated time period every day in school. An underlying assumption of SSR is that students learn to read by reading constantly. Successful models of SSR typically allow students to select their own books and require neither testing for comprehension nor book reports). In my daughters school it was called DEAR time: "Drop Everything and Read “.

I am not sure that in my friend’s class they have a similar DEAR activity, but I know that although she loves the books that we read together and looks forward to our sessions, my friend still dreads reading.  By herself she never picks up the book until I come to read with her again the following week.

 I am determined to keep on bringing wonderful books to read together until my friend feels comfortable that she has overcome the technical difficulties of reading. But I put my trust in the magical power of books and wait patiently for the day when she says “Orna I have a surprise for you, I have finished the book by myself”.

 P.S Last week we finished the book; the last chapter ends with a  sweet and surprisng story. After a long rainy Sunday, which the family spends cooped indoor, the father takes the family for dinner in a restaurant. This is an unusual and happy event as the family doesn't have much money to eat out. In the restaurant Ramona sees an older man who  sits and eats alone and she looks at him uneasily. However, at the end of the meal, when the family is ready to leave and the father asks for the cheque, the waitress tells him that their bill has already been paid. The old man told the waitress that he wanted to buy dinner for that very nice family. 

That was a very satisfying ending. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Transcending Private Loss

 When we lose a loved one we constantly need to feel his presence in our life, and at the same time we worry that with time we won’t remember everything about him. I know a widow whose urge to keep her husband near her was so strong that she chose to eternalize him in a life-size oil portrait. This is an example of a private way of remembrance; it emphasizes what was important to that bereaved woman at the time. Some people use the cemetery as a venue where they express their grief, and realize their wish to be close to their loved one. Thus they go there often, talk to the deceased and tend the grounds-- cleaning and planting flowers.

While this way of remembering helps the bereaved to stay close to her loved one (and  keeps the grave beautiful), it does not transcend personal sorrow. But if, for example, she was to use that urge to tend the grounds and grow, in another plot of land, herbs and vegetables for everyone to enjoy, then the remembrance becomes public. It could benefit the community and at the same time commemorate the private person--the one that she has lost.

Some families choose a more public way of remembrance: they donate money to an institute, or to a cause which reflects the beliefs of the deceased, other give away a sum of money to start a scholarship fund. These are worthy deeds and by doing them the family members feel that, in some way, they continue the life-work of their loved ones.

To my mind the disadvantage here is that the connection between the giver and the receiver is limited, we often don’t really know what the money is used for, and in the case of the scholarship this act benefits only a few.

My late husband Tzvi was a professor in Tel Aviv University and the founder of a large professional organization in Israel. In his last months, when we talked about his legacy he said that he didn't wish  us to do anything. Like many people in his situation, he argued that it was enough that we, his family, remembered him, and that he stayed alive in our hearts. So we respected his wish.

But when I got an invitation from that organization to an annual conference in his honor, I felt that we were given our plot of land.  It has been five years since Tzvi's passing and I and my daughters still miss him very much. We grieve our loss privately, but in this case, his students and colleagues chose to commemorate him through an active way of learning, one which benefits his community. By doing so the gain has been extended to many.

Between Chores And Personal Freedom

My brother and I were very familiar with the concept of a burden, in our home it meant doing our chores. My mother taught us to always do those first and then we would be free. We didn’t help much around the house so our tasks were mainly doing homework and practicing the cello- for my brother and doing homework for me. But sometimes even completing those proved too much. I  Still  remember that during the summer holiday, when my mother returned  home from work, at noon, and found us  still asleep, she would move the shutters and say gently ”I don’t like meeting the morning when I come home at noon”  we both felt ashamed.

In my turn I followed my mother’s example and taught my daughters about burdens and tasks. I have to admit that my girls were much more diligent than I was at their age. As they both played a musical instrument we woke up every day  at 6am and started the day with practice (we were not very popular among our neighbors, and had to move from our apartment to a detached house). This way when they came back from school in the afternoon they were already free and able to play.

My mother often said that one of the less attractive aspects of getting old was the nagging presence of a burden. At the time I  didn’t understand what she meant,  for me that  word  had  a  concrete connotation. But now I suspect that with old age my mother started to experience a different kind of burden, one which consists of fears and worries and as a result she started to “to obsess.” According to the dictionary, the verb "to obsess" means “to have the mind excessively preoccupied with a single emotion or topic." I believe that she was disliked the fact that she could not push away those fears and worries.

As I advance in age, I am getting to be more like mother, physically I look  like her and mentally I often hear my mother ‘s phrases come out of my mouth. Generally I don’t mind this development; it makes me feel closer to her. But sometimes I too experience  that nagging presence of the burden, and now I begin to realize what it entails.

 I believe that my mother was always preoccupied with the issue of  personal freedom and was looking for ways to achieve and maintain it. Taking care of one's chores first was an easy way of doing it and she passed it on to us from an early age. But with this new type of burden freedom became harder to capture and then to keep. My mother never said it explicitly but I feel that what she disliked about old age was the gradual  loss of freedom.

 My mother had a wonderful sense of humor; her forte was to tell apropos stories and anecdotes. So apropos Passover and the Israelites’ long journey to achieve freedom,  I  wish to make my  journey lighter and hope  that it will not take me  40 years to be truly free.

The Unbearable Lightness of Freedom

The cinematic moment which symbolizes for me  loss of freedom is when Tomas, the protagonist in the film The Unbearable lightness of Being, 1988  ( based on the novel by Milan Kundera 1984 ),  returns to Czechoslovakia from the west, after the Soviet invasion, and his passport is confiscated at the border, leaving him stranded.

This is not a dramatic scene, quite the contrary, it presents a routine transaction, but the power here is in the implications of the trivial act:  not having a passport means that you are stranded and no longer free to come and go as you wish.  Perhaps I was so moved by this scene because it reminded me of different occasions when I too felt a loss of freedom. One example is when, at the end of the first day of basic training, I realized that no, I could not go home: I had to stay in the army for 20 more  months.

To this day whenever I recollect this scene from  The Unbearable I feel a pang of anxiety not unlike the one experienced when I first watched the film. But I find it hard to envision the picture of me, the unhappy  18 year old girl who could not go home. Although The Unbearable is a poignant film, it is hard to explain why  this  short scene remains more vivid in my mind than my own experience.

Wayne C. Booth in the Rhetoric of Fiction stresses the importance of Showing over Telling in fiction, and we all are familiar with the old saying  that one picture is worth a thousand words.

However, I believe that the strength of this scene is not only in the visuals: confiscating a  passport is a symbol of the arbitrariness of the totaliterian regime and the helplessness of the individual, who is stripped of a most basic freedom, in this case the freedom of mobility. 

 Sometimes we remember meaningful events that we have not personally experienced. Here I have appropriated the memory of life in post-invasion Czechoslovakia.  My family history provides me with an even stronger memory, my father left Nazi Germany in 1934 when he was 21 year old and never got to see his parents and his younger brother. They  were not free to leave Germany or to get a certificate to come to Israel, and they perished in the camps.

Whenever I think of  that  scene at the border, it gives me a chance to reenact, in a small way, that exact moment when freedom is taken away. Lucky for me I can push away the memory and go on with my life, I should not forget those who are not so fortunate.

Judging A Town By Its Library

 I have always loved libraries, as a child I walked to the local library, a 30 minute walk, twice a week to check out books. In those days in Israel we didn’t own books but got them from the library. In my private collection I only had my most precious books, about 30, those that my brother bought for me; among them were all the children books by Erich Kastner. 

Although thanks to that library in Haifa I could read all the books that I ever wanted , it wasn’t a  real library, there was no place to sit or to hang out. Rather it looked more like a storage place for books. Only when I was 24 year old and my husband and I were graduate students  at the University of Toronto did I get to see, for the first time, a real public library.

The main public library in Toronto is a beautiful building that has every possible book. There I spent many hours listening to recordings of Shakespeare’s  plays so that I could understand the plays that I had to read for my seminar. To this day before I go to see a Shakespeare play I study it in the same way.

Later when we arrived to Iowa City IA(where my husband Tzvi got his first job as an assistant professor at the university), the public library was the first sign that we  arrived to a small yet civilized place. The public library in Iowa City is prominently situated in the center of town. When we lived there the library was a happy place full with children and their parents, teenagers on their own, retirees with time on their hands to read the papers and people who just came to check out books.

 When we moved away from Iowa City to, what seemed like, a similar small town in Texas, I should have read the signs that this place was quite different from Iowa City when I visited the substandard library. Indeed, to compensate for the void in the library and supplement my daughters’ general education, I had to spend  days in used books stores looking for good books for them to read.

Several years ago, Tzvi had to undergo a medical treatment in the Mayo Clinic. Together We walked through, what seemed like, endless corridors to get to the public library in Rochester MI. When we finally found it, the well-lit library was literally one ray of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy period. 

Whenever I visit a new town, I check out , forgive the pun, its public library; by doing so you could learn a lot about the place and its priorities. Moreover, I believe that judging a town by its library is actually an efficient way to evaluate  its merit. If the library is friendly, generous, well- stocked, well- maintained and well-lit you could be pretty sure that you have made a good decision and have landed in  a good  town.