One of the girls in Umm Batin, let’s call her Yusra, told me today that she doesn’t like learning Hebrew, because it’s Jewish, and she doesn’t like Jewish.
I was out there with four of my classmates, as part of a long-ish standing relationship between students at my school and the village of Umm Batin to teach their students English on Saturday mornings. The teaching is as informal as it gets: the girls study English grammar and vocabulary in school but have little opportunities to have to speak it, or hear it spoken by native speakers.
It was a sunny, springy day, the breeze was brisk and the sky was blue and strewn with clouds and I was happy to be out there, even though it had meant setting an alarm clock on the only morning that I could theoretically sleep in (and I had woken up in a panic, certain that I had overslept my exam, which was actually yesterday and I did not oversleep).
When we got there, we were told that the girls were planning a surprise for us, and it involved food, but it wasn’t ready yet. The students coordinating the program didn’t have a lesson planned due to the surprise, so we improvised and started a game of basketball. These girls take basketball pretty seriously, despite jackets and headscarfs, shoes with heels, and barefeet, and despite some strange variations on the rules. As one of my classmates put it, “there are more people on your team, but on the other hand, two girls on my team keep grabbing the ball and running with it like it were a football.” Despite my own lack of coordination, I did occasionally manage not to drop the ball, and even once, to my own surprise, got it into the basket.
Towards the end of the game, my ankle started to hurt a bit insistently, and I excused myself to where two of my classmates were speaking with a group of the girls. They were passing around a CD, that Yusra was excited about. I looked at the CD- it was labeled FODfest: Friends of Daniel Pearl. On the cover, was Daniel Pearl and another guy, presumably the friend Todd, jamming with their violins.
Yusra explained that they had had a field trip to Arad, where they had met with a man named Todd, who was doing a project in honor of his friend who had been killed. There, she and her classmates, together with a group of Jewish children, had written a song together called Shalom, Salaam, (or maybe the other way around), and she promised to bring in the final product when Todd sent it to them.
Another girl passed around a journal filled with Justin Bieber stickers, setting of a debate between the lovers and haters of Bieber. Yusra was outspoken against him, she told us she prefers Avril Lavigne and Adam Lampert.
We then asked the girls to show us around, and they decided to take us around the elementary school. In general Yusra’s English stood out among the other students, as well as her eagerness to speak it. So I started asking her questions. Why was it almost always girls who came to the English program? She explained the boys are allowed to be lazy at home, but when the girls are at home, they have to help their mothers all the time, so they would rather come here and be with their friends. I tried to sound out the Arabic, but got a bit lost towards the end and Yusra helped me with it.
She explained that she wasn’t technically from Umm Batin, but from Al-Sayyid, a tribe right nearby, and her father drove her to the school so she could learn English, and she couldn’t wait to get her drivers’ license next year and be able to drive herself.
I asked her if it was tough to be learning so many languages. And she said, she liked learning Arabic, because it was a language used all over the world, and she liked learning English for the same reason, but Hebrew didn’t seem so useful. All fair enough points, I’ve heard similar complaints from my non-Jewish classmates. And then she went on to say that that she hated Hebrew because it was Jewish and she hated Jewish.
I wish I could say that I had asked her to elaborate on what she meant, listened to her, and then, gently responded with telling her that I was Jewish, and that her words made me a bit sad. Which was true. But I fumbled for words, and didn’t say anything at all in the end, an awkward silence stretching out.
Later, as we played circle games, Yusra introduced one that seemed to be inspired by laughter yoga- everyone takes a turn doing a crazy laugh, and the rest of the circle has to imitate them. (It’s a good practice for those who spent too much time worrying about med school and/or Israeli/Palestine). Yusra told me that she had learned the game from a teacher at the school named Patrice, who was Jewish. At some belated point I mentioned to her that I was Jewish, but again an awkward silence stretched out, and I wasn’t even sure if she had understood what I said.
We finished the circle games, and went to the barbeque that the girls had prepared for us. Yusra was telling us about foods that she hated, including salt. I laughed and told her that I loved salt. David, a classmate, interjected that in English, you can say “don’t like” instead of “hate” for feelings that are not so strong. He explained that saying “hate” all the time can make you sound a little . . . crazy. She laughed – “maybe I am a little crazy.”
I like Yusra. I like her strong opinions, how much she’s thinking about things, how she isn’t afraid to speak and practice her English. I was speaking with a classmate about it on the way home, and we think she must hear this sort of thing at home. She cares about the big picture around her, and is trying to figure things out. I don’t quite remember all my views from when I was fifteen, but I think I wouldn’t want them held against me.
I thought about the story of Daniel Pearl, and how in the video before he was murdered he declared that he was Jewish and his father was Jewish. If I don’t make an effort not to, I sometimes “pass” as standard American, but I’m in Israel as Jew and I don’t want to pass as anything else.
I’ve occasionally envied some of my classmates who aren’t Jewish, because they come here without as much emotional baggage. Among the other students whose views are pretty left, politically, only a few of us are Jewish. It’s a hard place to stand, to feel torn between my people and what I believe is right. But it’s not a perspective I would trade.
But ultimately, to make the point that there are good Jews is not why I go to Umm Batin. I go because I like the girls, I like getting out of the city, I like the games we play, and because I do not like that the educational system here is not preparing these girls for a future, and I want to be a tiny part of the solution. I hope that that is the sort of thing that in the end, means something here.