Learning, Shoulders-First

It’s easy to be smart in my own language, but not so easy to be even mildly clever in another. I don’t mind humbling lessons when they come with a wealth of learning, so last night, when I learned this lesson, it was worth the temporary embarrassment.

I arrived back at my hotel after 11 pm and the man at the door, let me in. I stood at the reception desk for several minutes, waiting for someone to return. Finally, I asked the man at the door to help me with my key.

He came over, slowly, asked me my room number, and stared at the key cubbies. He repeated my number to me. He shrugged his shoulders and pointed at the cubby where my key should be. It wasn’t. 

I began to worry about what I was doing wrong. Maybe I said the wrong room number, maybe I remembered the wrong room number, maybe I didn’t give my key to the desk person when I left. Suddenly, I thought . . . and in this case ‘suddenly’ is correct because it appeared like firefly amid all those dark weedy worries . . . maybe my roommate arrived, and she is in the room with our key. I am so clever.

I asked the man if my roommate had checked in. He shrugged his shoulders and pointed at the empty cubby, which seemed to mean one of two things: he didn’t understand me or he didn’t know if my roommate had checked in but, still, there was no key. He actually spoke at this point, first time: “Ani lo yodea.” A phrase I know well: I don’t know.

I asked him if he could check to see if my roommate had checked in. “Ani lo yodea.”

I simply didn’t know how to negotiate this puzzle with him.

I said I would go to my room and see if my roommate was there.

She wasn’t. Turns out, I learned this morning, I don’t have a roommate, which is a blessing for all of my sisters attending this conference because I snore like Godzilla with a sinus infection . . . but I digress.

But then another firefly of cleverness glowed in the dark: Maybe the clerk put the key in the wrong cubby.

I went back downstairs and shared my stroke of genius with the man at the door. 

He shrugged.

“Could you please look?”

He looked at all the cubbies, many of which had keys, put his hand in the cubby for my key, and he shrugged. I pointed at the others. He pointed at mine.

I shrugged. It seemed like the best response.

It worked. He engaged in a complicated dance of keys and signs at the door and checking charts, then walked me to my elevator, smiling kindly, finally.

At the elevator is where I noticed that he carried a pistol at his hip. On the one hand, this was a little scary. It didn’t occurred to me that he was a guard until later; I thought he was a concierge or a bell-hop. On the other hand, this was a little comforting because I had read, recently, that, in Israel, gun control is strict, and most people don’t qualify to carry a gun outside the military. So, I figured he must be sane, reliable, and wasn’t going to execute me for making him open my door.

At my room, he opened the door. I looked around. No key . . . and let me say here . . . of course, because I knew I had turned it in at the desk when I left. 

He said ‘no here?’ 

I shrugged, simple, like I felt.

This morning, the man at the door was still at the door, but the nice man at the reception desk speaks English very well. I explained what happened. He looked at the cubbies next to mine, and he found my key in the one above. I felt relieved and grateful, but I didn’t feel smart. It’s not enough to figure these things out if you can’t communicate them. I wish I could be smart in Hebrew.

I imagine I’ll be shrugging a lot on this trip — learning shoulders-first.


Thoughts on Well-Meaning, Narrow-Minded People

Standing in line at Passport Control in Ben Gurion Airport, you’ve got nothing better to do than listen. It’s almost not worth talking.

When two nice ladies from England asked me why I was coming to Israel, I explained that I was here to learn about teaching Israel in progressive Jewish communities. One of them said “Are you Reform?” And I said, “Yes.” And she winced and shook her head.

Now, I could have just turned my attention back to the kiosks where all our hope lay.Or, I could have said, what’s the matter with being part of the Reform movement.

But I smiled back and waited to see what would happen next. 

I didn’t get the names of my new friends, so let’s call one Pippa and the other Peppa — we’ll see if I can keep them straight.

It will be tough. They looked alike, same hair color, same oddly wide mouth that I think is an indicator of advanced medical science, though I’m not sure. They had the same accents, the same tans, and the same eye makeup.

Peppa turned to her friend Pippa and said “She’s Reform. You know they teach their children to hate Israel.”

“Oh,” said Pippa, “BDS and all that?”

“No,” I said, quickly.

“Yes,” said Peppa, shaking her head. “They are lying to their young people. They don’t know anything.”

Pippa said nothing much more, but an older woman from New York, an educator, she said, in a Conservative community, though she was Orthodox, we’ll call her Ruth . . . where was I . . . Ruth said “I’m keeping my mouth shut.”

And thus ensued a good deal of no one but me keeping anyone’s mouth shut for quite some time while the Passport Control clerks abandoned kiosks for shift change, returned minus a clerk each time, whittling down the staff to three clerks while the lines held steady at nine long and tangled queues. It wasn’t their words that bothered me so much, it was their ears. I’m happy to listen, even to dogma. However, I’d like to be heard, too.

They smiled and shook their heads and assured me that this was just their opinion but Reform Judaism isn’t real Judaism, is cheating our young people, doesn’t love Israel, and so on. “It’s disgusting,” said Peppa.

I wasn’t completely quiet. I probably said, a few times, that they should look at what the Reform movement says about BDS; that I was here, specifically, to learn how to teach young people to forge meaningful, productive connections to Israel; that we teach our children to engage with tradition and law in meaningful ways.
Peppa said to me, “Look. Look at how we’re dressed. We’re not religious, but the Law is from God and you can’t change that. The Law is the law.”

These two women who openly disobey ‘God’s Law’ criticized a whole movement of people who aimed to align the law with history and hope and optimism. They have given up on ‘God’s Law,’ and, by their account, were leaving it to more pious people to pray for them.

I wanted to say that the rabbis taught us that God taught us that the Law was not in Heaven; that the Torah teaches us that the Law is not far away, but in your hearts; that Isaiah teaches us that God wants more from us than blind adherence to the Law. But it seemed way too complicated for them. I also wanted to say that the Law was clearly redacted by men intent on firmly seating power in their own hands. But that seemed to be outside the realm of impolite conversation.

In the end, I digressed. I asked Ruth’s pious husband how he knew when to say morning prayers on the plane. Interesting answer. Something to do with breaking the day up into 12 parts that expand and contract with the seasons. It reminds me of a Chelm story . . . But, thankfully, I digress.