Archives for the month of: February, 2016

He was always alone. This man with the long black beard, which looked glued on to his face, his white nose protruding from it. His dark eyes which hid under his black Chassidic hat. He wore a black suit and every time, until yesterday, he was by himself.

The first time I saw him he was sitting by himself at a small round table outside a coffee shop on Emek Refaim eating Shakshuka. Already then although, I hadn’t seen him walking slowly on Shabbat, unaccompanied down my street, he looked a little lost, like lonely people do, when they know they really shouldn’t be alone, don’t want to be alone and yet that’s the way they are.

“It is not good for Man to be alone,” God pronounced at the very beginning.
Even Noah’s animals were brought into the ark in pairs. However in Jerusalem the lonely walk around, as if stepping out of the Beatle’s song. ‘All the lonely people where do they all belong?’ the answer, in Jerusalem.

Every time I see this man walking the streets of the German Colony, in his steady slow stride, his head a bit bent down towards the sidewalk, no one at his arm, I feel a bit lonely too. All the lonely people who come to Jerusalem; the singles, the ones with Messiah complexes, the at ‘loose ends’ people with no strings pulling them anywhere besides this old city on a mountain. ‘God’s holy city,’ they would say. Every person therefore belongs here as the children of God.

I’ve even met lonely Arabs who search, like Hussein, a very friendly philosophical man whom I met at a Parsha class, who thinks to himself, ‘Is not the God of the Koran the same God of Abraham, the God of all other peoples? Why must their be antagonism?’ he asks himself as he explores the Jerusalem Jewish learning circuit to learn more about Judaism, the ‘other’ in his midst.

If they could just meet, Hussein and this man with the long black beard, and eat Shakshuka together.

Yesterday the man with the long, dark beard wore a long black winter coat, and he walked with someone else, an older man, in a smart grey suit, with a white, greying beard of wisdom. His companion of redemption from his seeming loneliness. As they walked I heard the the dark bearded man speak for the first time, in perfect English, outlining his learning hours for the day. As they passed me by I heard of at least two learning hours. Why was he explaining his time? For a prospective shidduch? A job?

Or perhaps not. The desolate, forlorn, sore of heart come to Jerusalem looking for healing. Young and old. Jerusalem could be described as the loneliest city in the world. In this loneliness you are forced to look at the empty spaces under your ribs, in your hearts, as you see the empty spaces in others. The redeeming quality of empty space is that in that echoing silence, the sound of God can finally be heard. That quiet voice invited in by sheer, desperate loneliness, where you realise in that moment that no matter what, you’re not alone.

Today I saw the dark bearded man again, walking by on the familiar streets of the German Colony, his shoulders slightly stooped, walking carefully step by step in his black sneakers. He still had his long, black, winter jacket on. Alone again. Perhaps the shidduch didn’t work out, perhaps he actually has a wife and five children. But to me he will always be the loneliest man in Jerusalem.

I’ll be honest, I’m struggling with Hebrew. More than struggling I think I may even be a bit dyslexic in this right to left language. And I’m luckier than most in that my parents are Israeli, although they spoke to us in English. I also have had twelve years in the Jewish school system where they supposedly taught Modern Hebrew, and yet I struggle to understand the radio, read a Hebrew newspaper or speak basic Hebrew on the streets.

The language barrier is, I think, the hardest part of integrating into Israel. ‘You don’t have to know Hebrew in Jerusalem’, I’m told. And that’s part of the problem. Everyone knows English and are more than happy to speak to me in English, rather than have to endure my broken Hebrew which more often than not insults their gender and takes them back and forth in time like a epileptic time machine.

The French and Russians have it easier. They have to learn Hebrew, otherwise they won’t get anywhere. So they learn far quicker on a steeper learning curve. We’ve explained this to our children, who can’t understand why the French Olim are learning Hebrew so much faster than them. It also helps that French has female and male constructs, which English doesn’t have.

It’s a humbling experience learning a new language. Every word learnt and moreover remembered is like a diamond. I collect little diamonds, with such tricks as trying to learn five new words a day, looking like a lost soul as I walk down the streets of Jerusalem with my scrap of paper and new words, repeating them over and over again until they sink in.

I have a renewed respect for immigrants. Broken English is now brave, not stupid. I think back to all the Russians who came into my class in Sydney, not knowing English and how they endured social isolation and confusion, until they mastered it. I think to my children now and how they’re having a similar experience. I hope they learn kindness and compassion as they learn first hand what it is to be an immigrant.

Of course there’s Ulpan. My husband and I chose the Ulpan at Hebrew University. For us it’s been a great decision, as it’s an academic environment that’s refined the art of teaching Hebrew with excellent teachers. (I think all Hebrew lessons should be modelled on their methods. Take note Jewish Day Schools!) As we learn the basics of Hebrew grammar, I wonder at the fact I know English let alone Hebrew. Grammar is tediously logical. A Hebrew word is like a Chinese acrobat that can twist and turn into a thousand different words and meanings.

As I write my essays, read articles and practice speaking, finally learning to take care of the gender and tense, I see bit by bit that the language is coming. Slowly, painfully slowly and with many mistakes and funny incidents, such as ordering a ‘parcel’ instead of an omelette for breakfast. And being told that I can’t have a ‘Chatich’ of pizza, which I though was the correct word for ‘slice’; And the guys behind the counter said that they’re ‘the chatichim’, slang for cuties.
Red faced encounters is my style of learning. Deep crimson blushes ensure that I don’t repeat the same mistake twice. I find the more I try, the more I learn. Israelis are more than forgiving as I blunder along. One of the best pieces of advice was given to me by my Brazilian friend in class. He chastised me for translating everything in my head into the Queen’s English. ‘You’ll only learn if you think in Hebrew,’ he said. And so I’m thinking a lot, in my broken, pigeon Hebrew.