I moved back to Israel this summer, mid-pandemic, after a stint as a professor in Germany (Hebrew Bible, especially Dead Sea Scrolls), followed by a year as a student in my native New York City (Digital Humanities), to land in yet another educational setting: I am studying for teaching certification in English (online for now), and am student-teaching in a Rishon leZion middle school (online for now). Although I’m staying in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem at the moment, I’m definitely venturing outside my familiar South Jerusalem bubble, into a different bubble of people who are pursuing career switches, mostly because of effects of COVID-19. All of us are committed to making a difference in society, though we vacillate about the scale and scope of our aspirations — can we have an impact on the education system or should individual kids be at the forefront of our minds, and aren’t those inter-related, anyway…?
Although Rishon leZion is the fourth largest city in Israel, it doesn’t seem to be very familiar territory to “Anglos.” There are few native English speakers among my fellow students in English grammar and literature. I am pleasantly surprised to learn that Langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and William Blake are in the high school curriculum for the bagrut (matriculation) exams. I’m looking forward to filling some embarrassing gaps in my own reading. The grammar class is cognitively and culturally jarring, reminiscent of learning to drive on the left side of the street when I lived in Australia, as my classmates are thinking in Hebrew to English, and I’m trying to think in English about how Hebrew speakers might think in English.
This week, our homework assignment is to write a paragraph or so in English using lots of verbs in present tense, incorporating both the present perfect and the present progressive. I’ve spoken English for over half a century, in utter ignorance that I was deploying these forms. But I’ve got this. Present tense seems suitable for something vivid, so I write about this past Shabbat, in the context of US presidential elections.
The next day, I get a text, then a call from my teacher. (Actually, WhatsApp. So, so many WhatsApp groups in this program, in this country!) She says my text is great and I should get it published, send it to a newspaper…. I laugh. A reason I’ve shifted to secondary education is that I want to work in a lower register than I have in the past; I’m taking some time out, and distance away, from speaking out. (Yeah, I’m playing with prepositions there; maybe I’m starting to get the hang of this). Eventually, I agree to try to publish my homework assignment, framed within the context of my experience as an American returning to Israel and studying to teach English in the Israeli school system. So, here it is:
US 2020 Election Week in Present Tense
Today is November 7, 2020, technically Shabbat, Saturday, but for me, as for many Americans, it is still an extension of Tuesday, as we await the results of the Election Day voting in the USA. Although I am still anxious, I wake up more rested than I have for days. Since I do not use electronic devices on Shabbat, I have had a full night’s sleep. Today, I will not be obsessively refreshing my browser, hoping for good news, fearing a reduction in Biden’s lead, and generally finding no significant change. I know that officials continue to count the votes, and although some precincts will be working more slowly over the weekend, I expect that there may be enough progress for the winner to be declared.
At synagogue, I manage to focus on the service — held outdoors, in “capsules,” because the community is adhering to Corona precautions — until a friend arrives and asks me whether I’ve heard any news. I walk on to a main street and ask some passersby with mobile phones whether they are following the US elections and can offer me any updates. The people I’ve asked do not understand my question immediately, but they smile when they get it, and they reassure me that Biden’s lead is growing but say that the numbers are not yet decisive.
In the evening, as Shabbat comes to an end, I hear a growing clamor outside my windows. Sleepy Jerusalem is emerging from its day of rest, and I am reminded that there are political tensions locally as well as internationally. As the angry voices rise to frightening levels, and I consider whether to join the crowds, I turn on my computer…. which is soon exploding with celebrations, which I view across multiple tabs, toggling to take in as much as I can, as Pennsylvania has been declared in favor of Biden/Harris.
I understand why my teacher encouraged me to seek out a broader platform for sharing this, beyond the “Padlet” accessible on our course’s Moodle site. That validation that I received from the pedestrians on Emek Refaim is sustaining, in a time when so many of us are stressed and stretched in so many ways. I don’t want to persuade, influence, or impact at this time. But I do want to inform and illuminate, and I do not want to feel obligated to suppress my voice, or to feel that my views cannot be understood or should not be acknowledged. Earlier in the week, I had posted a comment on a Facebook post of the group Democrats in Israel. I was worried that it might be perceived as provocative, which was not my intent. My heart was warmed by the single “like” and an appreciative comment garnered by these words, preceded by an acknowledgment that my view might be a minority one in the group:
My own view is that Trump’s Mid-East policy was a danger to Israel’s security and to Israel’s soul, and I hope we will see a new trajectory rather than simple continuity of the past four years. I think that in the 21st century, I’d like to see Israel’s alliance with the US being based on shared values, aims, concerns — human rights, fair economic opportunity, responsible climate policy, integrity, and more, rather than being framed as a “unique” relationship, which I read as code for dangerous exceptionalist views in both countries, often associated with supersessionist evangelical Christianity.