Today I started ulpan, Hebrew classes. And, like every day since I made aliyah in the fall, I learned something that had been obvious from the streets of Jerusalem, but that I had not experienced in such a profound way. We, Israel, are the new melting pot. Yes, a Jewish homeland with a population as diverse as the planet on which we live.
Generations of Americans have grown up believing that the United States is a true “melting pot”, a place where immigrants are welcomed and believed to be wonderful additions to the culture. The two hundred plus years of the history of the United States has wavered on this open arms immigration belief. Some decades, welcome! Some decades, who needs you? My grandparents were part of the wave that went to the United States from Russia at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century when Jewish lives were endangered by pogroms. And, yes, I am thankful that they did this and thankful to the United States.
Soon after that huge wave of eastern and southern European migration to the Americas, there were grumblings from those who were only at the most (unless they were natives) three or four generations away from their own immigrant story. Now, it seems as if immigrants are not welcome in the United States; yes, the focus is on illegal entry, but it has also become harder for legal immigrants to become part of the melting pot that was once considered an asset, but now a detriment in American culture. The lack of English, cultural knowledge, etc. leads to a lot of resentment from those who forgot where their grandparents or great grand parents came from.
Today, as our teacher went around the class (which takes place all in Hebrew unless one of us is incredibly confused) for us to introduce ourselves, it quickly became apparent that the class broke the stereotype I had held that there would be mainly Anglos, Russians, and French. Here is the list of countries from which my classmates emigrated: Portugal, Italy, France, Nepal, Russia, Belarus, Ecuador, South Africa, Japan, Costa Rica, Ukraine, Colombia, Finland, United Kingdom, South Africa, United States, and India (a new Bnai Menashe olah). And I might have missed one.
As each person said where they were from, there were oohs and ahs from the rest of the class. By the time we had finished, everyone was smiling at each other realizing that we had just become a microcosm of Jerusalem life, if not life in all of Israel. Some in the class are not olim, but are on work or student visas, but most appear to be new olim. At the break, little groups formed with everyone chatting and asking questions in fractured English and Hebrew. It made me think that the daily half hour break is not just about visiting the bathroom or getting caffeine, but about class bonding in this intense learning environment.
When I realized that my past efforts at learning Hebrew were not getting me too far, I dreaded the thought of ulpan. Five days a week for five months? But after today, I am looking forward to learning with this diverse group of men and women who have come here to be part of this glorious country. Some are secular, some are religious, some might not be Jewish and be working or studying here, but we will learn, help each other, and share stories of our birth countries.
The ulpan experience is more than learning Hebrew; it is part of learning Israel and seeing who we are as a country. And, I can see for those olim who came on their own, it is an opportunity to meet new people.
Immigration and the return home from the diaspora makes Israel stronger. We might originate from many places around the globe and different cultures, but we have two things in common: this is our ancient homeland and we have a modern language that sprouted from the language spoken in our land thousands of years ago. And if our cultures from the land in which we lived in the diaspora melt together a little in our Jewish homeland, that too will make us stronger.