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Israel Story

            As part of my search for alternative sources of entertainment this summer, I went looking for more podcasts. I loved the Duolingo French and Spanish podcasts so much that I ran through them too quickly, and I was hoping to find something like them, both educational and fun to listen to at the same time. I started by searching for more French and Spanish language learning podcasts, but while most of them offered plenty of opportunities for learning, they weren’t quite as entertaining as the Duolingo stories. I also tried a series of podcasts recommended for people who liked the ones I already listened to, without much success, and then I put in every other search term I could think of that might spark my interest. In among the avalanche of new podcasts to try, I found one in Hebrew called Israel Story but I quickly found myself out of my depth. My Hebrew is improving, but it’s not Israeli level yet. It took only a few seconds of squinting to realize that there was an English version of the podcast, with just enough Hebrew in it to make me feel like I was challenging myself, but not so much that my brain would explode. I found that I could listen in on conversations in Hebrew, while focusing on the almost simultaneous English translations, and meet all kinds of people I would never hear about on the news.

“Any dog stories?”

            I started by listening to the present day episodes, set during the early weeks of the Covid shutdown in Israel. The podcast made a point of interviewing members of the Ultra-orthodox community to try to understand why they didn’t seem to take Covid seriously at first, and to hear about how they had been struggling since then, both from backlash and because they often live in very crowded, multigenerational apartments, without the ability to use Zoom on the Sabbath to join communal prayer services. I found their stories compelling, and irritating, and complicated, and heart breaking. And I was hooked. So I went back to the beginning of the show, four or five seasons earlier, and I’ve been binging ever since. I didn’t know how much I’d been missing that ground level point of view until I started hearing stories that could fill in the empty spaces.

            The original model for Israel Story, unabashedly, was Ira Glass’s This American Life on NPR, and the host of Israel Story, Mishy Harmon, even had a clip of Ira Glass on the first English episode of the show, giving his, sort of, blessing. The Point of view of the podcast is liberal, both religiously and politically, but it has respect for people across the spectrum. They didn’t shy away from telling the story of an Israeli Jew, originally from the Ukraine, in love with a Palestinian from the territories, even following the couple to a tent in the desert, because there was nowhere else where they could live safely together. But the show also takes the time to meet Orthodox and Ultra-orthodox Jews and explore their lives in a way that respects their beliefs and their individual lives. And there’s no attempt to offer answers, or to simplify moral quandaries, even when the host himself is desperate for some hope. He thought that one story they were following would turn out to be a beautiful, generous, multicultural story, but he learned that he had to accept people for who they are, even when it means you won’t get the story you were hoping for. If you follow the real story, you’ll learn instead the truth of someone’s real life and feel richer for it.

“No, I won’t.”

Of course, the host and his fellow producers are Jewish and Israeli, so their choices about which stories to tell, and how to tell them, are inevitably biased towards their own experiences, beliefs, and hopes. Any attempts to suggest otherwise would be silly.

            My long term hope is that once I catch up on all of the English episodes, I’ll be able to go back and try the Hebrew version again. Maybe when I’m more familiar with the stories, I’ll have a better chance of understanding the Hebrew narration. But in the meantime, I feel like my view of Israel is growing in complexity. I’ve listened to serious and not so serious stories of Israeli lives: learning about silly songs sung at the Eurovision competition, and Ultra-orthodox Jews living covertly secular lives, and a random campaign for one man to get his picture on the wall of a tiny Humus restaurant in Jerusalem.

            Maybe, someday, when I can finally get to Israel, I will feel like I’ve been there before; like I’ve been in that restaurant, or heard that voice, or met that tour guide telling stories on the streets of Jerusalem. People say that the best way to travel is to meet the locals, so maybe, for now, I can get the best part of travelling to Israel without having to leave my apartment. That works for me, and it works for Cricket and Ellie too.

I want to wish everyone a Happy and Sweet New Year, Jewish or Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, human or canine or feline or bird. May we all be healthy and safe and have reasons to celebrate our good fortune in the year to come!

“Shana Tova!!!!!!!!”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Virtual Field Trips

            At the beginning of the Covid-19 shutdown, my Facebook page flooded with resources for students, including long lists of virtual field trips to zoos and aquariums and exotic locations. And then the adults, feeling left out. started posting pictures and videos of all of the places they wanted to go. And I couldn’t look away.

“What IS this show?”

            I never travel in real life, but, now that I can’t go anywhere, I spend a lot of my time wondering where I’d go if I could. I even saw a car commercial that encouraged people to take to the open road this summer, though my first thought was, I am not going into a gas station, in a town where no one knows me, wearing a bandana over my face. Even as a white woman, that just seemed like a stupid idea. And I haven’t seen that commercial again.

I think, for the most part, people who live in the United States aren’t going anywhere for a while. Instead, I’ve been taking virtual field trips. I’m on the second season of a murder mystery series set in France, where each episode highlights another picturesque French town I’ve never heard of. They pronounce “oui” as “way,” which is disconcerting, but the landscapes are breathtaking. There was a murder on an isolated island, steeped in fog, and a murder on the border with Spain, and a murder set between cliffs and caves, and a murder at the end of a long drive by the sea. I’ve also visited the beach in Sandhamn, for another mystery series, set in Sweden, and then there were murders in Masada, and Tel Aviv, and Tennessee. In order to solve fictional murders, I have vicariously climbed mountains and gone scuba diving and even tried line dancing and Flamenco.

“We could dance too.”

            There’s something extraordinary about the technology that allows us to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. There’s also something strangely comforting about a murder that can be solved, by someone else, in an hour and a half, with proof, and clear motives, and justice prevailing in the end.

            I’ve also been listening to a lot of Duolingo Spanish Podcasts lately (because I forgot I had subscribed two years ago and now there’s a pile of them on my phone). The varied accents and unfamiliar vocabulary of the stories are a challenge to my advanced beginner Spanish, but the host always steps in, just in time, with an explanation in English. Each podcast is set in a different part of the Spanish speaking world, like Cuba, or Mexico, or Columbia, or Madrid, or Los Angeles, and the narrators tell stories about becoming the first female skydiving teacher in South America, and learning to love your Afro-Latina hair, and building up a mescal factory in rural Mexico, and becoming a successful wheelchair tri-athlete, and on and on.

“Any stories about dogs and their nose-less birds?”

            I don’t think I would have found this much joy in my virtual field trips ten years ago; it would have overwhelmed me. I wouldn’t have known what to do with all of these lives that were nothing like mine, teaching lessons I didn’t feel ready to learn. But therapy has done a lot of work on my internal world. I feel like a construction worker, using my invisible tools to build invisible rooms in my head to store and organize all of my complicated feelings. I’ve learned a lot about pacing, and self-protection, so I’m not as easily flooded; and when a story or idea is more challenging than I can handle, I have plenty of internal shelves to store them on, for later.

            I’m still not at the point where I could manage actually traveling to any of these places in real life, but clearly I don’t have to. Another benefit of virtual field trips is that I don’t have to stockpile a month’s worth of medication from my local drugstore, or try to find someone willing to tolerate Cricket for an extended period of time. I don’t even have to worry about the weather, or a new wardrobe, because I can just wear my pajamas, and rest my head against my air-conditioner, and visit Bombay or Tokyo or Quebec or wherever I choose to go next. Coronavirus be damned.

“Can we go to the dog park?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Using Yousician

 

I came across a music learning app called Yousician during my adventures with Duolingo (the language learning app). Yousician has a free version, with lots of ads, just like Duolingo, so I decided to try it out and see if it would help me make more progress with learning to play my ukulele.

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The first few lessons on the app were too easy, because I’d done the heavy lifting of learning the beginner stuff on my own, but now I’m getting to tasks that are harder for me to do – like switching from string to string or chord to chord quickly enough to keep up with the song. When I was working with my lesson books, I could play each song at whatever speed I liked, but Yousician is strict about timing, so I started to miss notes, a lot of them. Then I discovered the option to practice at slower speeds, until I could build up to regular speed without making so many mistakes. It kind of feels like doing musical aerobics, and I need to do it, because on my own I wouldn’t push myself enough. I was never, ever, going to buy a metronome. I still have metronome nightmares from my childhood piano lessons. That tick tock, tick tock thing is sinister!

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It really is obnoxious.

One of the other difficulties for me on the Yousician app is that instead of using musical notation, they use a form of tablature, telling me which fret to play, on which string, but not naming the note or giving the note a time value, like half or quarter note. It’s taking me a while to get used to this new system, and I still make sure to practice with my lesson books regularly, so I won’t lose the progress I’ve already made.

The Yousician exercises remind me of the first video game I ever had, for my brother’s TRS 80, called Typing Tutor. I loved to play it over and over, building speed and high scores, though I’m not sure it ever improved my overall typing ability. I became an expert at manipulating the ASDF keys, but how many essays are written with only four letters? Especially those four?

I’m still uneasy with the ukulele, just like I was with the guitar, and the piano. I’d like to believe that the ukulele and I will be good friends eventually, but we’re still getting used to each other’s quirks and limitations. I keep expecting the instrument to tell me all of its secrets, and suddenly make music, without much help from me. It’s possible that I have unreasonable expectations.

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“You? Unreasonable expectations? Never.”

The dogs have accepted the Yousician app with the same long suffering patience as they accepted the ukulele practice overall, though it does wake them up sometimes from their naps and remind them that they really need to pee. They think I need another app to teach me how to take them for more walks each day, and to stop doing so many uninteresting things that prevent me from giving them all of the attention, and all of the chicken, they want. I don’t know, though. I think they do a good enough job teaching me how to do their bidding as it is.

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“Chicken treats?”

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I have mind control powers. Look into my eyes.

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. Izzy’s father then sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

Language Junky

I am a multiple language learning addict, not to be confused with a multiple language speaker, which I’m really not. At least not yet. I keep wanting to add more languages to my Duolingo account, like: Russian, Italian, Korean, Japanese, etc. But I’ve tried to keep a lid on it and stick to the four I’m already working on (French, Hebrew, Spanish, and German), so that I can, maybe, get somewhere.

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Ellie is skeptical

My anxiety about speaking out loud is a big part of my problem. I get too self-conscious, and worry about making mistakes. It’s also possible, maybe, that studying four languages at a time is a problem, but I can’t help it! I have no self-control!

When I heard that Pete Buttigieg, “Mayor Pete,” speaks seven languages, and then also did a short video in American Sign Language, I felt like a horrible underachiever. I have no interest in joining the military, or being a mayor, or running for President, but being a polyglot would fill me with joy! I could read Harry Potter in every language!!!!!

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“No more Harry Potter!”

I’ve been excusing my endless hours on Duolingo as possibly for the benefit of my future career, because, you now, social workers should understand a lot of different people. That’s why I started to learn Spanish in the first place, because I had to communicate with a client who only spoke Spanish and hand gestures were not getting me very far. And, you never know, maybe I’ll come across someone who speaks French or German or Hebrew and get a chance to use my limited skills in those languages professionally as well, some day.

But, to be honest, I’m not really doing it for my job. If I were really taking it seriously as something to add to my resume, I would force myself to take in-person classes, and practice conversation, and even go to an immersion program. But that would be scary and full of pressure. And Duolingo is fun, and relaxing.

My synagogue is planning a trip to Israel next year, with a side trip to Berlin at the beginning, and an after trip to Jordan. Of course I can’t afford to go, and I’ll probably have a job by then and won’t have time to go, but it has captured my imagination.

I’ve heard a lot about the beauty of Petra, in Jordan, but that’s not really my focus. I need to go to Israel. I’ve never been there and it feels important to breathe the air and see the streets for myself. But, I want to go to Berlin. I’ve been studying German for a little while now. The original idea was to learn enough German to be able to learn Yiddish, but along the way the harsh sounds of German have been prickling my brain and trying to tell me secrets I can’t quite hear yet; about the Holocaust, definitely, but also about the German Jews who were so thoroughly German that they couldn’t imagine what was coming, couldn’t imagine being demonized and tortured and killed by their fellow countrymen. I recognize the long, slow, period of disbelief that we spend most of our lives marinating in, not quite seeing what’s really going on around us, because we just don’t want to believe that awful things can happen.

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“I always believe awful things can happen.”

Israel is a harder trip for me, because it’s so loaded with mixed feelings: the heat; the daily potential for violence; the existential crisis; the conflict between the Ultra-Orthodox and the Secular Jews; the chockablock spiritual places stuffed into one small country; the language, and the guilt I feel at still not being fluent after so many years of trying; the fear that I will feel alien even there, where I am supposed to feel, finally, at home.

I want to go with my congregation and hear what they are thinking, and feel known and visible. I want to see my best friend from high school in her natural habitat. She and her daughter have started learning Italian (not one of my languages) so I may have to add just that one more language to my Duolingo account.

I know I’m not going on this trip, and yet I think of it every day while I do my language practice, and I imagine being in Berlin and hearing German all around me, and being in Israel and trying to force myself to speak Hebrew. Both places seem full of memories for me and yet I’ve never been to either. But I couldn’t leave Mom and the girls behind for ten days, spending money we don’t have, and looking for some way to stop in Mexico or Spain to practice my Spanish, with a stopover in Paris to work on my French. It’s not going to happen, and yet, in my mind, it happens every day.

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“That sounds exhausting.”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

Learning German

 

A few weeks ago I went on my regular online search for a way to learn Yiddish. I keep looking for a program that will start where I am (at the beginning), and maybe give me some idea of why Yiddish seems to be filled with words I still feel too young to use. But none of the free language learning sites offer Yiddish, and the sites that charge a fee for each lesson are often too advanced for a beginner like me. Then I came across someone who suggested learning some Hebrew and German first, before starting one of the difficult Yiddish classes. So I added German to my Duolingo and Lingvist accounts, and tried to reassure Cricket that she would not have to learn yet another language along with me. She was not convinced.

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“Je ne comprend pas.”

The first time I heard German words coming out of the speaker on my phone, though, I felt like I needed to lower the volume, to hide some hideous crime; I didn’t realize how emotionally loaded the German language would be for me. Like when they taught me the word for “work”: Arbeit. My mind automatically finished the sentence to Arbeit Macht Frei, “Work will make you free,” the motto on the gates to Auschwitz.

So many German words were familiar to me, even though I was sure I knew no German ahead of time. Some were familiar because they are pretty much the same in English, like perfekt for perfect, Haben for have, ist for is, etc. Some were familiar from the last names of so many Jews: Blume (flower), Berg (mountain), Stern (star), Baum (tree), Schreibe (write).

Essen and Fressen were also familiar words, because some time in my childhood my father tried to make a joke about people who eat like animals, and I didn’t get it, so he had to explain that Essen is eat, for people, and Fressen is eat, for animals. I don’t remember who he was trying to insult at the time. Schmutzig, for dirty, was familiar too, as in, you have some schmutz on your face. Then there was schmuck, which Duolingo said was the German word for “jewelry,” despite the fact that, for my whole life, I knew it as the Yiddish word for a part of the male anatomy.

One early discovery was that in the German language words can be capitalized in the middle of sentences. I used to get in a lot of trouble for throwing in unnecessary capital letters in High School English classes (this was back when assignments were handwritten, and not spell checked and grammar checked and emailed to the teacher). I realized that I may not have been making up my own rules out of thin air, as one teacher had suggested, and instead was just using the grammar rules of the wrong language.

I may have taken in more German than I’d realized in my childhood. My father did have a habit of speaking to our dog in his high school German, and I heard random Yiddish words whenever I was around older Jewish people (which was often), and I watched plenty of Holocaust and WWII movies over the years.

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“Ich bin ein Doberman Pinscher?”

It’s a funny thing. Politically, Germany has managed the aftermath of the Holocaust better than most other countries (certainly better than Poland, where they recently made it illegal to even suggest that Poland had any connection to the Holocaust). In Germany they educate their kids from an early age about what their grandparents and great grandparents did, and why it should never happen again. Yes, they still have neo-Nazis and white supremacists and fascists, but so does the United States. But despite all of that, I can just barely listen to a computerized voice speaking simple German words, and I’m still overwhelmed with words that remind me of things I wish I could forget.

I grew up with kids whose parents would never have bought a BMW or a Mercedes, because they were German-made cars, and Germans would benefit. I grew up with Holocaust survivors telling their stories, at school, and synagogue, and in books. This is my history. But maybe learning some German will help me come to more peace around this history, or at least help me to articulate what still resonates in my bones. One thing I know for sure is that German will give me a bridge to Yiddish, which is worth a lot to me.

 

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“Danke”

My Duolingo Addiction

 

I am addicted to Duolingo, the language learning app. I liked it well enough when I was using it on my desktop, but now that I have it on my smartphone, it’s my nightlight and my blanky all wrapped up in one. This could explain my recently developed wrist and hand pain, but I can’t give it up. I love the little trumpet bursts when I’m successful, and I love when a previously red or green circle turns gold, because I have (temporarily) mastered a skill. I do a little bit of Spanish, French, and Hebrew every day (who am I kidding, I do A LOT). I have to force myself not to add a fourth language to my training program (Italian? Russian? Yiddish? Do they even have Yiddish?).

B - and I'm getting sleepy

Cricket is, of course, fascinated.

It’s hard to know how much I’m really learning and how much I’m just punch drunk with the positive reinforcement. I was never much of a video game player as a kid. I tried Pac Man and Miss Pac Man and Frogger, but I never bothered to compete for high scores or move on to the more intense role playing games. But if I’d had a smartphone programmed with Duolingo and Typing Tutor (one of my old time favorites) and other learning games, I would have been a goner.

 

pac man

I always identified more with the ghosts than with Pac Man.

I’m pretty sure Cricket is learning by osmosis, just hearing all of these languages pouring out of my phone. But if she’s mastering any of it, she’s keeping it close to the fur. So far her primary language remains barking, and no matter how long she tutors me in this complicated communication system, I still can’t seem to master it. Clearly she needs to create an app for that.

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Cricket could be reciting her theory of how to achieve peace on earth.  I’d never know.

My long term goal with Duolingo is to improve my language skills to the point where I can actually use them, with people, but for now, there’s something so calming and low stress about it. Especially compared to all of the other learning tasks I have at the moment. Read two hundred pages and distill it all down to two paragraphs with citations, by tomorrow! Observe a group, without taking notes, and then produce a verbatim account of two hours of dialogue, and don’t forget anything important!

            The more stressed I feel, the more time I want to spend doing Spanish exercises. I am at risk of getting to the point where there aren’t enough hours in the day, and I’ll have to decide what’s more important, getting my school work done or fueling my addiction. I’m sure I’ll come to the right decision when the time comes. Well, mostly sure.

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“Do the right thing, Mommy.”

 

I Finally got a Smartphone

 

In the midst of all the drama of this summer, my flip phone stopped holding a charge. I would leave it on the charger overnight, put it in my pocketbook, and take it out later in the day to make a call, and, nothing.

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“Woof?” (not my picture)

So, after years of resistance, I finally gave in and bought an iPhone. The flip phone was embarrassing, but as long as it did what it was supposed to do, I could live with the shame. But once it wouldn’t even do the one simple thing I asked it to do. Pfft. That relationship had to end.

I was still not excited about dealing with the new phone and all of the unknowns though, like: invisible fees building up, the potentially addictive aspect of smartphones, the hacking issues, the dropping-the-darned-thing-on-the-floor issues, etc.

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“Please Mommy, don’t make me get a smartphone.” (not my picture)

I forced myself to take a class at the Apple store and realized how quickly I could fall down the rabbit hole, as my instructor clearly had, in choosing ten different ring tones, and buying apps, and staring at my phone at all hours of the day, spending all of my money on its care and feeding. That scared me off for a few days, but then I decided to go at my own pace.

I learned how to type with one tenth of one finger, and I even sent a text, or at least answered one. I haven’t really switched from my regular camera to the camera on the phone, though, both because I don’t know how to upload pictures from the phone to the desktop, and because I don’t know how to take good pictures with the darn thing yet. I thought I would be listening to podcasts and audio books all the time, but that hasn’t happened yet. I can check the news whenever I want to (but this is more of a bug than a feature).

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There is not enough peanut butter in the world to make the news bearable.

One thing that I love about my iPhone is that I can do my language courses whenever I want to. I don’t have to sit at my desktop computer, in the living room (where the air conditioner doesn’t reach), and practice my French and Spanish. I’ve become addicted to Duolingo. I can even use Google Translate to help me read Harry Potter in Hebrew (paragraph by painstaking paragraph). And I found some videos on YouTube of songs from the animated movie Moana in Hebrew, and they work very nicely as a way to block out Cricket’s barking when she’s trying to make me do whatever it is she wants me to do.

I still think there should be an iPhone for Cricket, so that she can call Grandma anytime she wants to, like, from the kitchen. She’d probably abuse the privilege, it’s true. But, what if there could be brain games for dogs on the iPhone? Find the Kibble? Or Catch the Leaf? Or Dig out the weeds?! Cricket would be addicted in no time. She might even forget to bark, once or twice.

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I have also recently discovered the value of having a phone to stare at when you are sitting and waiting somewhere and don’t want to look like a doofus with nothing to do, even if that’s exactly what I am.

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“Why are you looking at me like that?”

I should probably take more classes to learn how to take better pictures with the phone, and decide which apps are worth buying, but I haven’t had the energy, or the will, to tackle it yet. But I am up practicing my French at one in the morning, so that has to count for something. And, I even made a few phone calls.