Today, it seems, was Brainwashing Day at ulpan. Another student (in a different level) had commented on the not-so-subtle political slant of the classes, but so far I haven’t really felt it. Sure, there’s the bit about Famous Israelis at the beginning of every unit, but mostly we’re just reading inane stories about a kid who steals a watermelon or the academic issues around being an older student. But today, our teacher started out with, “What is an Israeli?” People said stuff like, “Religious” and “Halakahic” (Jewish law) and “Jewish” and the like, and he was pretty happy with those answers. It didn’t occur to me until later that what I had wanted to say was that “Israeli” is also “Arab” and “Bedouin” and “Druize” and “Christian.”

Then we read this story about how formative Zionist songs were to building the state of Israel and creating a collective Israeli identity. And it’s not even like I mind that subject matter in theory, even in that setting, but the way it was framed felt really problematic to me. There’s one Arab kid in the class–there are a number of Arabs and/or Muslims in the ulpan program (I imagine good Hebrew equals better job, tho I haven’t interviewed people about their reasons for being there) and lots of random non-Jewish internationals around. It wasn’t great that the teacher assumed that everyone was Jewish (and Jewishly literate) when he said (as he did), “Everybody knows the song, “Eli, Eli”, right?” But it’s much more complex to be talking about state-building with the assumption that everyone in the room is equally enthused about the prospect in a setting that’s, shall we say, highly-charged pluralism. I think the word “we” (okay, “anachnu”) was used a lot. And I shot a sympathetic smile over to Amir, but that certainly wasn’t going to be enough to keep him feeling comfortable in that room. He looked like he had absolutely, totally checked out. If I were Amir, I imagine it would be hard enough to be in ulpan with a bunch of spoiled American Jewish college students (I am the old lady of my class, sigh) but to have the conversation focus on lyrics that establish a Jewish connection to the land–well, I doubt I’d feel very safe at that moment if I were him.
I thought about trying to say something that would reframe the conversation a little, and I–even from a place of privelige in that room–couldn’t think of anything that would have seemed appropriate. After the break, he didn’t come back for the rest of the afternoon.

After that, we had a little song-fest, a workshop on the songwriter Naomi Shemer, who is a pretty big hero in this country, and who died sometime this year. For a while–especially after the bit earlier that day–I was feeling pretty evil and cynical about the whole thing. They showed us videos of these shmaltzy, heavily-produced versions of her songs done by what could only be the Israeli Celine Dion (but with more cleavage). In between songs there was a little explanation of her life, and there were a lot of the stock points–her on the kibbutz, her in the army, etc. The long-winded description of “Yerushalyim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold),” her most famous song, included a whole bit about the ’67 war that, again, I couldn’t help hearing from the POV of an Arab Israeli, and how hard that might be. Because, whatever the “right” version of history is (heck if I know–I’m beginning to believe there isn’t one), certainly not everybody in that room agreed on what that history really was. But there was only one person on the podium–so not a lot of room for what we call in Leftist America “diverse voices to be heard.”

But then they got me–oh, they had a clip of Ofra Haza, the incredible, mighty-voiced Ofra Haza (z”l) singing “Yerushalyim Shel Zahav” and I was left breathless and teary. Man. And again, I found myself feeling that strange sensation of many lenses at once. I am very glad that as a Jew I have access to the Old City, to the Wall, to everything. So glad I want to cry. Somewhere in my very wiring is a yearning for the Old City of Jerusalem, and Ofra Haza singing “Ha-lo le-khol shirayikh/Ani kinnor” (For all your songs, I am a violin) expressed that as profoundly as can be. It really means something.

I’m glad to have had the experience of hearing that–it was definitely personally very meaningful. And I’m even OK talking about “the role of songs in Zionist nation-building” in an all-Jewish context (thankfully, I think we wouldn’t all agree), but I do think that it’s irresponsible of the program to pick such charged topics, especially without a more explicit acknowledgement of the diverse nature of the population of the program. And it’s not like we couldn’t read an essay in Hebrew about Druize culture if somebody in power decided that it was a worthwhile topic. But, sadly, I don’t think they would.

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