Monday, March 5, 2007

Barracks of Babel

I love to travel but still find it disorienting when the physical reality of a place doesn't synch up with my imaginings of it. While I didn't spend time concocting a fantasy about Ulpan Akiva, and I tried to keep my expectations low, it was a bit of a come down to arrive here yesterday.

The Ulpan is a random collection of 1950s-era low white stucco buildings, interspersed with weary palm trees and a tired metallic sculpture of a camel. Some buildings house the classrooms, others house us, a polyglot assortment of people - from teens through 60s - who want to learn to speak Hebrew. This Ulpan has a reputation for working its students hard; its goal was, and still is, to turn immigrants into productive Israeli workers in a mere five months. They apply the same rigorous methodology to any non-Israeli up for the challenge. There are dozens of young Latin Americans here, filling the air with Spanish, Portuguese, and cigarette smoke. Add in some French and Czech and Italian and Hungarian. A mostly Russian-speaking housekeeping staff adds to the Babel-ness of this place, a miniature UN on the Mediterranean (before you invent your own fantasy image, the nearby beach is far from pristine, in desperate need of a cleanup).

Even though I've learned a few other languages, including Hungarian and Spanish, in intense immersion programs where I refused to speak any English, I'm feeling a bit nervous about taking the plunge here, cramming as much Hebrew into my brain as I can in 3.5 weeks. Part of my anxiety is that I'm not 100% sure why I've come, except that for the last few years, as I've begun to travel the Jewish spiritual path, my lack of Hebrew has become an itch that increasingly needs to be scratched. I'm aware that the Hebrew that moves my soul is not necessarily the Hebrew that I'll be learning here, at least not immediately, and I hope I can keep that in mind as I slog my way through various verb conjugations and repetitions.

And my soul will have to be patient with the utilitarian infrastructure. The dormitory rooms, as advertised, are small, barely having enough space for a window. The bathroom door just clears the toilet seat. After spending Purim weekend near Tel Aviv at the modern, spacious and well-appointed house of my relative, a successful surgeon, in a private room with all of the creature comforts, including a computer and Internet connection, I was a bit disoriented to step into my home of the next month.

So was my relative, who generously drove me here and helped me carry my bags to my room.

"Call us if you need to be evacuated," he said, taking in my surroundings, astonished that I'd be living in such close quarters....with someone else.

"I'm sure it will be fine," I said, not quite believing it myself, and wondering if I should spring for a private room.

Feeling somewhat adrift, I wandered into the dining hall for the evening meal, and brightened upon seeing glass bowls brimming with fresh tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and colorful salads. Iris, the helpful but unsmiling dining room manager, suggested that I sit with Chava, a North American Ulpan veteran - she's been here several times for several months at a time. She gave me the lowdown on the place, a verbal survival guide, and after our meal showed me her private quarters, stocked with fruit and her own kitchen appliances, her way of handling the eating ennui that soon set in for her. She warned of weight gain and other dining dangers. Although her intent was to help and advise, I did not wish to encourage her complaints or tip my already tentative mood into the dumps, so I bid farewell.

My roommate arrived today, a young and kind looking academic from the Czech Republic who specializes in Czech Jewish history. I was relieved to sense that we seem to be sympatico, personality and otherwise. And some laps in the indoor pool, followed by a sit in the sauna (another mini UN, with eight languages spoken among us four sauna goers), helped restore my equilibrium.

Perhaps I will enjoy, if not love, my new reality after all.

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