Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Day 15

Summer vacation ended today, and all across Israel children swarmed the neighborhoods around 7:30 a.m. towards their local schools for their first day. It is a day that our kids anticipated with anxiety and even some dread for three months, especially Elana. She's been a real trooper so far, but it's got to be completely intimidating to go to a new school as a tweenager where none of the kids really speak English, and at an age where the girls tend to be cliquy and often mean, and the boys have cooties. The twins each had a lucky break. We were introduced through the school to a family who moved here from the States last year. The mom is Israeli, but the kids grew up in New York and had to make the same adjustment our kids are making this year. One of the daughters, Maya, is in Tamara's class, and they had a play date yesterday. We were thrilled to see that when we arrived at Tamara's class, Maya was saving her a seat. This made all the difference on Tamara's first day.

Benny is not at all self-conscious. I don't know where he gets his self confidence, even cockiness, and he was not nervous heading to the school. But when we got to his classroom, he observed that all of the kids already knew each other and that none of them spoke any English. He looked at me and said that he didn't know how he was going to play with anyone. I reassured him and found a seat for him in the back at a two-person desk. I stayed with him as the room filled up, and for the first time ever, I saw Benny look uncomfortable. Right before the opening bell, a woman came in with a boy and he sat next to Benny in one of the only remaining seats. The mom tried to introduce her son to Benny, and I interrupted saying that Benny did not speak Hebrew. She lit up and said that they were new here, and that they had just moved here from Argentina. The son spoke Hebrew because they are Israeli and spoke it at home, but he did not know how to read and write (Benny knows how to read and write but can't really speak it - a perfect match). However, the boy also speaks English. He probably studied at an American school in Argentina. So, he and Benny were off to the races, and by the time I left, they were engaged in a deep conversation in a language that is completely foreign to me, about something called pokemon. When we picked the kids up from school, Benny was describing his three best friends to us. Of course the Argentinian was one of them, but was not his best-best friend, of course. Looks like his adjustment didn't take long.

On our way out after we dropped them off, I poked my head into Elana's classroom. She was sitting at a desk by herself, while the other kids were in small clusters yapping away in Hebrew. Unfortunately, we did not encounter any English speaking kids in her class, and her teacher indicated to me that she did not know of any. The teacher made an effort to get Elana to know some other children. She had a couple of the girls stop by our place yesterday and pick up Elana for an event. They also walked her back, but unfortunately, they did not have a common language to communicate. She's very brave, and I think has a good attitude about school. I just think it's going to require some patience before she makes friends and feels comfortable there. After school, Elana said that some of the kids helped her out and were very nice to her, but she had no idea what her homework was supposed to be. She said she felt pretty lost. It will take time. We hired a tutor who used to teach at the school to help the kids 3 days a week for an hour each. I think the tutor will make all the difference.

I observed that most kids who are old enough to walk in Israel have their own cell phone. They are assigned a cellular phone number at birth and given a SIM card for their first birthday. Given that most kids over the age of 10 wander the streets in the barrio (wait, wrong country) alone, it makes sense. In fact, Elana and Tamara walk home alone from the tutor's house already. A couple of days ago, Elana attended a meeting for the incoming 6th grade class and was quick to point out to me that every single one of them had a cell phone, and they knew how to use it. It's not clear they knew how not to use it. I'm not one to get my kids something just because every other kid has it, but we decided to get Elana a cell phone despite the fact that she was the only one without one, and I thought it would be a nice surprise for her after her first day of school, which I expected to be a rough experience for her, but which actually turned out not so bad.

I can think of few experiences in life that I have had that confused me more than my three attempts to acquire this phone. At the cell phone store, I was given a plethora of choices, none of which appeared to be written down anywhere. The conversation was right out of the "Who's on first?" script. This is how many minutes? No, you have to pay for the minutes, but if I pay for the minutes how many do I get? You don't get any minutes. But I thought you said… Look, you pay 100 shekels per month and then you pay 60 cents per minute except for the included minutes. How many minutes are included? None. Why did you say I could get it except for the included minutes? Because that's not the kind of plan that you are signing up for. I don't even know what plan I'm signing up for yet. Well, then why are you giving me such a hard time? It's simple. You pay 149 shekels/month… I thought you said it was 100/month. That's with the other plan. What other plan? The one that you decided to get. But I haven't made any decisions yet. I don't even understand what my options are. And I had this conversation or some variation of it at three different phone places. The clinchers as that in the end, I said I just wanted any plan, I didn't care, just sell me a phone. And, they said they only take Israeli credit cards, which sadly, I do not have. They tried my visa and it didn't work. They won't take cash or checks (not that we have any checks). Just Israeli credit cards, so I walked away empty handed. At the next place, they wanted a 3,000 shekel deposit (which is to be fully refunded in 6 months) if I use a foreign credit card. I told them that I didn't care what it cost me or how many minutes I got or how many deposits I had to leave, I just want a damn cell phone for my daughter. Anyway, Elana now has a phone, and I'm quite a bit poorer. How much poorer, I have no idea.

When not trying to negotiate with Israelis, it's interesting to observe the demographics at the school. Here in Israel, very few children go to private schools. Kids are assigned to their local neighborhood school, and for the most part, that's what they attend. In some instances they appeal to other neighborhoods for various reasons, but that is the exception. So, you get a wide mix of people all studying together. While Ann and I are accustomed to the relatively homogeneous collection of Krieger Schechter parents back home, here, our children are sharing their classrooms with children of clerks, waiters, doctors, lawyers, the rich elite and the struggling lower class. Although the neighborhood is one of the more upscale and affluent ones in the country, there are still plenty of less well to do families as well, and Ann and I were keenly aware of the wide and variable mix of people among the other parents. Some had tattoos and wore ragged clothing, while others looked more dignified and wore cleaner shorts and T-shirts. There was not a single tie to be seen, and I don't remember even seeing a button down shirt. Israel is very casual. One of the great social equalizers in Israel is the army, in which everybody serves regardless of financial, academic or cultural background, and as a result, I think there is less of a sense of class here than in other places. The diversity is not only economic. There were a number of black students too, and they blended right in socially, as far as I could tell. This is a big change from when I was a kid in Israel and did not see anyone of African descent until we moved to the State when I was almost 9 years old.

A couple of evenings ago, I attended a meeting between the 6th grade teacher and the parents of the 6th graders. In Israel, the teacher usually sticks with a class for several years, so the 6th grade teacher taught this group of kids in 5th grade and knows them all well. She introduced me to the room because apparently, Elana is the only new student in the class this year. I said a few words about who I was and about Elana and hoped that one of the parents would tell me later that their child speaks English, but it was not to be. The most interesting thing to me about the meeting was the interaction among the parents and the teacher. Anytime the teacher said something that someone disagreed with (that is to say, anytime she opened her mouth), the parents would start to yell, and then they would yell at each other, and several times it got so crazy that I think I was the only one in the room not yelling. The teacher tried to gain control of the room, but was not always successful. I wondered if this is how she manages the classroom with the parents, how is she going to handle the kids?

Let me give another example that illustrates the way Israelis relate to people. I had an experience that I felt was so typical of the personalities here, that I could almost hear my Mom's voice in the back of my head saying "only in Israel!", an expression that my parents love, and it's also the title of a popular Hebrew song (Rak-beYisrael). So, here's what happened. I took Benny to get a haircut. Only once before has Ann entrusted me with such an important mission, and she gave me several stern warnings as I left the apartment. I got to the kids' haircut place, which is next door to our building, and I was told that they would be right with me. As time went on, more kids came in, and they sat right in the seat and got haircuts. After about 10 minutes, I went up to one of the people working there and stated that we were told they would be right with us, but that other people are walking in and getting served right away. I was told to have patience and they would be right with us. Meanwhile, he asks me where I'm from and I say I just got here from the States. And what are you doing here? I'm a visiting professor at Tel Aviv University. And so on for a while. Then he finished the haircut he was giving and called Benny over. He didn't ask me what I wanted, so I explained that I wanted it short but not too short, kind of like my hair.

He looked at me and said that he wouldn't do that to this poor kid. I think he meant it. Next, he pulls out the clippers and starts shaving away big swaths of hair. So, I asked him if he could please use scissors instead. He gives me a look of complete ridicule and exclaims in a loud, indignant voice: "Now the professor is telling me how to cut hair?" He snorts and proceeds with the clippers to practically shave Benny's head muttering under his breath about how I'm now the big expert on haircuts. Needless to say Ann was none too pleased when I got home and swore to never let me take the kids for haircuts again. The girls immediately vowed not to have their hair cut until we get back to Baltimore.

We've now been here 15 days, and we've come a long way towards getting settled in. I started work on Sunday at the university. The work week is Sunday-Thursday. Friday is usually a short day, and Saturday is the only full day off. I now have an office, a computer and several interesting colleagues to work with. Classes don't start at the university until October, due to the holidays, but many people are around, so there is plenty to do. I'm finding the time difference much harder to deal with than I expected. By late afternoon, around 4 pm, I've already put in almost a full day, and back home it's 9 a.m. and people are starting to work. Around 5 or 6 pm, I start to get a lot of work-related email, just when I'm getting ready to go home. In the evening, I find myself handling email, making conference calls through Skype, and basically having another work day. On Monday, for example, after a day at the office, I had a conference call at 10 pm, one at 10:45, and another spontaneous work-related call at 11:15 pm that lasted until almost midnight. I'm used to going to bed around 10 or 10:30 and waking up early. In fact, I'm still waking up between 5 and 6 a.m. here, and by the evening, I'm completely wiped out, and that's when the most action is going on back home. I'm not as good at juggling this as I thought I would be. I like getting an early start to the day. I joined a gym near our building, and I've been working out there every morning, except on the days that I go running. A friend of mine who lives here, Benny Pinkas, runs an annual 10k race every October, and he convinced me to train for it and run with him, so I've started jogging down to the beach and running along the boardwalk. It's beautiful. After I get home, shower and eat, I'm ready to go to work, and I get there around 9 a.m. It occurred to me that I would be better off shifting my entire schedule so that I go into work in the early afternoon, and then work very late, to coordinate with Eastern time, but I can't help waking up early, and I want to be around the university when the other people are there. Also, in the evening, the kids will have homework they'll need help with, piano practice, and I want to spend time with the family. So, even though I've been at work less than a week here, I'm already feeling exhaustion and pressure. When 4 pm comes around and email starts to flood in, my blood pressure goes up. I'll have to find a better way to deal with this.

One thing I love here is my commute. In Baltimore, I have about a 30 minute drive to work, which can also last over an hour during rush hour. And, it's a relatively unpleasant drive. Here, I have several choices, and I've tried each of them already this week. The first choice is walking, in which case, I have a lovely 20-25 minute walk, mostly through parks and quiet neighborhoods. I can also drive in about 4-5 minutes, depending on the lights. I was given a parking permit, and thee are plenty of spots in the university lot (that might change once classes start), or I can take the bus, which runs every few minutes and takes me about 12 minutes door to door, including a bit of walking on each end. I think this commute is up there as one of my favorite things about Israel.

Finally, I'd like to say a few words about how welcoming the community is here. We've been invited to dinners at peoples houses, to the beach, and just to hang out. I think our social calendar here so far is more active than it typically is back home; we've already received conflicting invitations for dinner this weekend. In the next week, we've got a party Saturday night at someone's house, plans for Shabbat dinner and for the second night of Rosh Hashana, and some prospects for the first night as well. Between my job, the kids' school, the kids' tutoring, piano lessons (more on that another time - we found an amazing piano teacher), Benny's soccer (he is going to start training with the Maccabi Tel Aviv youth soccer program tomorrow and twice a week for a total of 3 hours/week for 10 months!), homework, and piano practicing, there is little time in the day to catch our breaths.

A friend of mine described Israelis as the sabra (cactus) fruit. Hard and prickly on the outside and soft and mushy on the inside. I think it's a prefect description.