It must be the most commonly asked question of young adults aged 18 to 30. What are you studying? And no matter how many times I’m asked the question, how many times I rephrase or rearrange or reword my answer, I always get the same reaction: “You moved to Israel to study…English?”
After that, I launch into a list of reasons and explanations defending my life choices and extolling both my country and my degree. Can knowledge of English Literature really be considered a profitable asset in Israel? A means of understanding the building blocks of philosophy, history, and society? Or maybe, I justified to myself, I could always write for JPost? No matter the answer though, my reasoning was very simple:
I wanted to live in Israel.
It’s the place I feel I belong as a Jew. Everything in my lifelong education has led to the moment when I could come to this land. And once I was ready to begin my adult life, it was just a plane ride away. How could I turn that down?
I wanted to study English Literature.
Quite literally, this is the study of the stories and the people that make up history, the people who took their original thought and used it to bridge society’s thoughts in order to create a culture.
So I made Aliyah. And I study English Literature at Bar-Ilan University.
Granted, it wasn’t the simplest of decisions. I knew I wanted this but did I really know what ‘this’ entailed? I had nightmares for weeks about walking into a classroom in which the teacher would be sorely under-qualified, maybe a student at the university who simply decided to take up a side job suckering clueless olim into studying mangled Shakespeare.
On my first day of class, I had no idea what to expect. And then I met my first professor. He was a graduate of Yale University. He taught us James Joyce. Sitting in class, I got this prickle of excitement – I was really going to learn something this year.
My next instructor had degrees from Oxford and Columbia and taught us that what we had thought of our entire lives as “Human” – that was thanks to the Greeks. They reinvented that definition and throughout history that image was sculpted and developed and accepted. In an hour and a half, I learned that what I saw in the mirror each morning wasn’t something I’d devised on my own, like I had thought, but something else, something invented, once upon a time, by artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. I left each class feeling paradoxically lightheaded with what seemed like mountains of information.
A couple weeks ago, my third semester ended. While it’s great to have this semi-free time in between semesters, there’s a gloomy feeling that settles in as I leave my last class.
When you’ve had the opportunity of funneling copious amounts of fascinating information into your brain, it’s a little scary to stop. Especially when the information isn’t useless facts which hold little relevance to daily life.
Forget what you might think about Lit. majors – we don’t spend all of our days bent over yellowing copies of Hamlet or stuffed in the corner of a library scribbling poetry – we do that too – but its more than that. We learn about people. No, not like those studying sociology or anthropology. We don’t learn it from an experiment or a statistic or a textbook. We learn about humanity from the very mouth of mankind.
Every book, fiction or true, was written by a person who wanted to convey something – to me. Something personal, something, in some sense, real. And, like it sounds, my studies include delving into those messages, revealing and reliving the philosophies and adventures of those characters. I study the human condition as it’s developed through generations. I know that Homer had the same curiosities about the meaning of marriage as Jane Austen. I know that, no matter how much society advances, it will always outlaw some sort of self-expression that will cause some individual pain. I know what it means to be a discouraged, unfulfilled housewife of the 1940’s. I know what it means to be a homosexual middle-class man in Edwardian England. I know what it means to lose, to love, to hate, to show mercy.
My professors share emotions, share memories, share some of themselves in every lecture. My classmates connect with the protagonist, draw out bits of their own memories and passions, and argue about the very basic truths of humanity. That’s my day. We try to uncover the motivation behind betrayal, dissect the raw material of Love, unknot the complex tangle of the tie between mother and child. We learn history from its inhabitants. We learn philosophy from its inventors. We learn religion from the Bible, St. Paul, Averroes.
The issues we mingle with and debate over are universal. They hail from all over the world, proclaiming and challenging the human being and demanding his/her response. Be it in the US, Canada, England, Uruguay – the issues can be heard across the globe, across class and time and space. So what does it matter if it is in my native language? The language of curiosity and discovery is understood by all men and women.
We learn Humanities. We learn about ourselves. Who wants to stop learning that? Even for a semester break?
Luckily for me, this break won’t be devoid of English Literature. This Thursday and Friday, Bar-Ilan University is holding an open house for prospective students. So in addition to getting the chance to write about what Literature means to me, I’ll get to tell future students all about it. About Emerson encouraging them to think their own original thoughts. About Whitman feeling what they’re feeling a hundred years before they’ve felt it. About what it means to live in a land you love and study a legacy you love.
I’ll get to tell them all of this so that when they’re asked, they’ll be able to explain why they’re studying English Literature in Israel.
This article is adapted from “If Shakespeare Were a Sabra” on Chadashim.biuinternational.com