On Shabbat I talked to a guy visiting Israel from the States. I meet many such, being an American expat, but not so many that started out in life, like me, non-Jewish. He was tall and super white, just like me, with wide cheekbones and blondish hair. We spoke of the usual comings-up, and moved to what brought us to this particular path in life. We were at my business partner’s son’s bar mitzvah. It was an unusually rainy day in Israel, so I missed getting out of bed when I should have to make it on time to get to our synagogue. I got there just as the new mench was leaving the bema, essentially missing the entire thing. What I sensed when speaking with my other business partner, the mother of the bar mitzvah boy (now a man), was that … yes, confirmation … that I had missed the entire thing.
Before I moved to Israel I had just become “religious,” and was even on the board of my local shul before I could even be counted in a minyan, because I hadn’t yet received the stamp of approval from the ‘religious establishment.’ I dropped it all completely upon arriving on the shores of the Promised Land, however, and it took a couple more years to slowly begin to realize that I needed to define myself better. I was living on the margin of society, not connecting to anyone, and decided that it was time to dig deeper into the source of the world’s existence. I did get some answers after converting to orthodoxy with the Israeli Rabbinate, but what I seem to keep finding is that humor spans culture and time, washing away the questions before they even need to be asked. There’s some hilarious stories about my emersion into Rabbinic Judaism, but I’ll leave those for another time and speak to something more recent, like last week, when I had no idea what to say to a group of religious/secular, Muslim/Arab and Israeli/Jewish students that came to learn ceramics from me at the Zichron Art Center.
They were part of a program bringing underprivileged high school students from the north of Israel for a celebration and yom kef (fun day). I had no idea what was about to happen as I tended and enabled a workshop to paint designs onto tiles to be kiln-fired. The students, 5 Muslim girls, 1 Jewish girl, and 1 Jewish boy met me at the top of the stairs in our loft. The Art Center is built into Zikhron Yaakov’s oldest movie house and the mezzanine level is now our multi-media/ceramics loft. I smiled and greeted the attendees as they left the melee downstairs where my partner was masterfully handling the other 50+ students and teachers milling about in the 2-D studio and lounge. I smiled, said shalom, and briefly explained how my Hebrew skills were not very good. I had heard earlier that many of the Arab students didn’t speak Hebrew quite as well as they spoke English, so was really shooting in the dark that I might get lucky. I couldn’t tell the age of the students, but one of the Muslim girls stepped forward to answer for the others, saying she was … um … something, essentially in charge, like a teacher/chaperone, or at least that’s what I interpreted her position as. I smiled again, from wide cheekbone to wide cheekbone, and then said in my most perfect California accent: That’s great, because my Hebrew SUCKS. I tried to grab it back, but I could already see the letters of the word escaping from my mouth and cascading down from the old movie house’s mezzanine level, down to the gallery, lounge, and main studio below…
In my last post I wrote about how the apparent lack of planning in Israel can be super frustrating at times. What happened next in the ceramics class may actually be one of the benefits of this lack of planning, or at least adherence to short-term thinking. There was silence among the students, both Jewish and Muslim, after my alien outburst. The eyes in the room got large, including mine. A couple of jaws dropped then closed again, as if thinking better about saying something. The young teacher/chaperone stepped forward to try and bridge the obvious cultural and linguistic gap. My face was flushed, I knew, from thinking with lightning speed about my alien status to many (if not most) of Israel’s varied inhabitants. She said in Hebrew that she knew English somewhat, but that the students didn’t and that she could translate. I switched, permanently, to my broken Hebrew from right then. My obvious differences, culturally and otherwise, had little lasting effect on the class (thank God for short term thinking!); and we quickly moved on to the art-making at hand … which was definitely the ‘real’ communication going on in the class, anyways!
Drew (Doron) Noll
Drew is a professional fine art painter and amateur writer living in Zikhron Yaakov, Israel. He teaches many art subjects and his artwork has been shown on two continents. Drew's contributed to a number of blogs and websites as a ghost writer and, along with his postings here, Drew writes about adventures being a new immigrant to the Middle East, other global travels, and about his art and life in The Brave New Land.
Please feel free to contact Drew here: doronoll.com.