These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

French instead of English

Posted on December 7, 2011 by Aliza B.

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When you watch the news and learn that something terrible has happened, it is easy to gauge the disaster by how many people were killed.  You can classify it even more by which people were affected.  Were they children or elderly?  Poor or rich?  Humanitarians or average joes?  In the back of your mind lurks the recognition that each life has infinite significance and the loss of any is tragic.  That is one space to confront atrocity.

I have to confess that oftentimes I operate under a different mindset.  When I learn about a life-stealing circumstance, I very often separate myself from the reality of what I face.  On a superficial level I do the math–the counting and comparing and assessing–but deep down the information hasn’t even touched me.

This year I am volunteering with an organization that (among other things) assists families affected by terror.  I was matched up with an 18 year old girl who lost her sister 8 years ago to a suicide bomber on a bus.  Every week I visit her under the auspices of helping her to prepare for an English exam.  Really I am there to learn.

In the apartment, a picture of a beautiful woman in a wedding dress hangs prominently.  She isn’t silent like other pictures, though.  She weighs in on conversations.  Her presence is wrapped around each family member as they go about daily tasks.  She draws you in.  When I am working with Sarah*, my student, I can feel her calling to me, wrapping herself around me too so that I can be a conduit of her love for her sister.

Sarah is bright and amiable and promising.  She catches onto things quickly and attacks her ignorance with a vengeance.  She is also chronically tired and a little forgetful.  Because of this, I have started calling and texting her before our meetings to remind her that I cam coming.  Still she often forgets.

Last night was an example.  I started by texting her at two.  With no response, I called on my way to the bus and then to let her know traffic was bad.  When her mom opened the door to me later, surprise was at the periphery.  Sarah was apologizing over and over again; she couldn’t believe she had forgotten and the whole family was over barbecuing .  I said all of the usual not-to-worries and suggested we could practice conversational skills or even meet next week.

Cosmetics were strewn all about and Sarah was in the middle of giving her aunt a makeover.  Her mom made me a cup of tea the way I like it and plopped me down by a table filled with food and dirty plates and cell phones.  Did I want to eat?  No thank you, I’ve already eaten but thank you for the offer.  My student is still being an artist and I’ve tucked my elbows away under the table and my tea and am tring to latch onto key phrases and words so that I don’t accidentally miss a social cue.  That’s pretty easy considering I don’t really speak Hebrew.

The conversation shifts into a Hebrish punctuated by lots of laughter.  In trying to introduce me to everyone, Sarah’s mother has accidentally referred to her sister as a distant relative who never visits.  When she tries to clarify, I am under the impression that her sister is actually her daughter-in-law.  Now everyone is laughing.  It’s good.  Everyone is included in the laughter and everyone is confused.

As the laughter continues, Sarah gathers up her shadows and her mom starts bringing out cookies from the kitchen.  Sarah comes to the table and reminds her mom that I am allergic to cookies.  It’s ok.  I am truly grateful for the offer and the energy she has extended me.  I ask Sarah if she would like to learn.  I feel out of place without a function.  She asks me if I would like to have my nails done.

Sure.  I feel like a sorry tutor.  After all, I am not motivating my student or even teaching her really.  And now she’s brought out bottles and bottles of nail polish.  Do you want pink or red or flowers, or ooooo French!?  I want to let her pick, but some of the pinks are shocking.  How about a French?  Now I am aiding and a-benefiting from my student’s unfocuse.

It turns out that this is Sarah’s passion.  She went to cosmetology school.  And she’s really amazing.  And she loves it.  Between nails and bottles and Hebrew nouns she tells me that one day she’ll open a salon of her own.  Family members flit in and out, chatting with us at intervals.  It feels nice to get to know Sarah as a person, and to meet her dreams.  So often I feel trapped by language and my “function” into formality and productivity.  And I like getting to see her for who is is rather than what happened to her and what she needs.

My nails are done and I ask her if she wants to learn or save that for next week and thank her and remark about how beautiful my nails now are.  She insists her head isn’t in the right place to learn, but maybe she could just read to me and I will check her pronunciation?  She retrieves her books and a fancy nail dryer and we start reading about the “Lone Star Motel.”  In the article, a night at the hotel is advertised as $28, but really the cost is much higher.  Isn’t that the truth!  The article is full of grammatical mistakes I don’t want to tell her about.

We start to chat slowly in English.  Her English is really quite good.  I tell her so and she blushes.  We chat some more; make a plan for next week, and I get up.  The evening has gone by, most of the family members have left by now, it seems like it’s time to go.  Could you stay five more minutes?  My heart swells and I feel totally consumed with joy and love for this bright soul and gratitude.  Of course I can stay!  I sit back down.  Her sister smiles from the wall.

Later, as I am riding back home on the bus, I can’t stop smiling.  I am so honored by our friendship, so touched by the way her family has taken me in, and so inspired by the way they constantly transform loss into love.  When I started visiting Sarah, I knew that there is no fixing the loss of a dear relative.  I knew that I wasn’t there to be a band aid or a distraction.  When I visit Sarah, I enter a very different world from my own.  There pain is raw even eight years later.  Her sister is very much gone, but her absence is very present.  I realize that I am not there really to teach her English.  Really I am there for make-overs and nails and dirty dishes and cookies and love.  I am there to watch Sarah shine and cheer her on.  I am there in honor of the beautiful woman in the picture on the wall.  English is just a subtext.