Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Weekend in Three Languages

Thursday was a mixture of exhilaration and bummeritude. In my morning class with the adults, I stole friends’ facebook updates to explain American reactions to the earthquake (watch out what you guys write about the hurricane! All’s fair in love and teaching!), which my class loved (they liked yours best, Zev, and Tali R’s about pj’s).

Chilling outside the Stortinget (Parliament)
In the afternoon, I chewed my tongue to shreds in a poorly taught Masters English class on 19th C lit and science. There were only ten of us in the room, but nobody said a word except the prof, who bored with basic background on the Victorian era and the generally unfriendly relationship between the sciences and humanities. And she talked about science and lit in 19th C Britain without mentioning In Memoriam. Grrr. After four years of the fierce intellectualism in UMD lit classes, I was disappointed. At the beginning of the class, I ventured a tiny joke; the prof was talking about science’s pride in being a modernist endeavor and based on facts. I laughed—“how lucky we in the humanities are to be past that—postmodernists don’t have any idea what the hell is true.” But nobody laughed, so I decided to play the shy European and shut up.

That evening I got a call from Ronen, an Israeli from Oslo. He asked me to teach cheder in Bergen (calm down, Americans, it’s not the black-and-white ghetto photos of five kids with payos bent over a book that you’re picturing, it’s just Sunday school). One of the cheder teachers is moving to Stavanger, and another has a three month exchange in Copenhagen coming up, so there is only one left. I couldn’t say anything but “sure!” to their desperation, and got a nice reward; they flew me into Oslo for the weekend for a training seminar. Yaysh! The past two shabbatot have been lovely—lots of time to walk, and read, and sitting on the lawn with new friends, but I jumped at the chance to spend shabbat with a real Jewish community.

Odelia and I: there's a fountain behind us
Friday morning Odelia (half Norwegian, half Israeli) and I flew to Oslo—the other two Bergen teachers, Ettie and Thea, followed later. Thus began our plunge into linguistic confusion. Odelia speaks Hebrew and Norwegian, so we communicated in Hebrew. Thea speaks Norwegian and English, so we spoke English. Ettie speaks all three, and the Bnei Akiva shlichot whose apartment we stayed at speak the same languages as me, with opposite degrees of skill. Most of the people in the community are Israeli, so their default when with each other is Hebrew. Finally Joav, the rabbi, delivered an ultimatim: English as the lingua franca. Which everyone promptly ignored. I got to use the word “hobson jobson” over and over, but only in my mind—not even the other half-American raised in New York would have recognized it.

Oslo Akker Brygge
It was very lovely to drop into the warmth of the Jewish community. Also fun to see the shlichot, who had only arrived on Monday, work through the same culture shock as myself, except that they were taken care of by the community who properly understood exactly where they came from. It was fun to be in a shul again, and to speak Hebrew. Hilariously, I was more in place than anyone—unlike the other cheder teachers, I’m used to the synagogue routine, and unlike the shlichot, I’m used to Diaspora Judaism. Friday we were told there was to be a big Kiddush because the children who had been in summer camp would all be gathered for a reunion. Michael, the Norwegian who I met with in Israel a few months ago to find out about being Jewish in Norway, had run the camp. He gave us a tour of the synagogue/community center, and we helped him prep the room. He thanked us by saying, “thank goodness there are girls here to deal with the decorating.” The nice thing about gender progressiveness in Norway is that whenever I get tired of it I can just visit the Jewish community.
Oslo Synagogue

Friday night we trickled into the women’s balcony in the old, ornate shul. The shlichot headed straight to the front, leaving the five nonreligious Israelis/Norwegian Jews with us who hadn’t been in shul in a decade to sit uneasily in the back. I suppose I’m more used to helping nonreligious people feel comfortable in shul than two kids from Jerusalem and Kiryat Gat, so I sighed at the kiruv-y role I really didn’t want to play and issued page numbers and warnings to sit or stand. The shlichot will learn.

Shul seen from the women's balcony
Shabbat day, the shul was crowded as families came with their children. Adorably, the children sang parts of the davening like a little lisping choir. The boys crowded around the chazzan’s shtender, and the girls lined the railing of the of the balcony. I kept thinking about how earlier in the week I’d been teaching Benjamin Franklin and his distaste for the way religion turns out good Christians instead of good people (well, he wrote “good citizens,” but he meant good people, because today patriotism is as suspect as religion). Now I was right back in shul. It felt good to sink into the familiar, even into the parts of the familiar that disturb me. Spiritually, I’m very happy to be the only one praying within a 200 mile radius, but socially I’d rather be hit on by Israelis.

Thea and I out with the whole young Jewish
population of Oslo. We fit in one booth.
When the Rabbi stood to give his speech, I had a dizzying moment where I thought perhaps he wasn’t actually speaking but only gabbling at the community for fun. Then I caught the words “kommer til Jerusalem å spiser” –come to Jerusalem to eat—and knew that he was speaking a real language. The Rabbi, who everyone calls Joav, possesses as little of the rabbinic instinct for pompous despotism as I’ve ever seen—he reminds me of Rabbi Backman from Maryland.

Caviar in a toothpaste tube. So gross!
We ate lunch at his family’s apartment, along with Ronen and his children and a visiting Israeli family whose father had been born in Norway. English, Hebrew, and Norwegian surged through the room in waves, channeled by some people and only lapping around the feet of others depending on their education. After, we returned to the community center and Joav and Michael discussed Jewish education in Norway, which is mostly informal. Then we returned to the shlichot’s apartment for a community seudah shlishit in which people invariably opened by speaking in Hebrew, heard my accent, stared, and asked where the hell I was from and what the hell I was doing in Norway, then congratulated me on my good Hebrew.

I’m sure that after this weekend, I’ll spend a hilarious amount of time saying “slichah—sorry—beklager” before I get it straight, but that’s okay; better too many languages in my brain than the pure American monolinguism that most have. I’ll be back in Oslo in a month for Rosh Hashanah, and this time I'm taking the train: stay tuned for pictures of "the most beautiful train ride in the world."


  1. Thanks for the entertainment while I wait for my prof to show to class on my should be second day of school but, thanks to Irene, first day of school and my second class of the day. Maybe he is lost in the maze of the building or stuck somewhere without power and can't make a blackboard page and send an email about his lateness. Ok enough about me. Can you talk more about Norwegian culture and maybe idioms? -M

  2. Your description of cheder with payos made me laugh.

    I looked up hobson jobson and found:
    "In Anglo-Indian English, the term Hobson-Jobson referred to any festival or entertainment, but especially ceremonies of the Mourning of Muharram. In origin the term is a corruption by British soldiers of "Yā Ḥasan! Yā Ḥosain!" which is repeatedly cried by Shia Muslims as they beat their chests throughout the procession of the Muharram; this was then converted to Hosseen Gosseen, Hossy Gossy, Hossein Jossen, and ultimately Hobson-Jobson. Yule and Burnell were looking for a catchy title for their dictionary and decided upon this since it was a "typical and delightful example" of the type of the highly domesticated words in the dictionary and at the same time conveyed "a veiled intimation of dual authorship".

    The title has been further analyzed in a paper by Traci Nagle, who notes firstly that such rhyming reduplication in English is generally either juvenile (as in Humpty Dumpty or hokey-pokey) or pejorative (as in namby-pamby or mumbo-jumbo) and that, further, Hobson and Jobson were stock characters in Victorian times, used to indicate a pair of yokels, clowns, or idiots (compare Thomson and Thompson).[6] The title thus produced negative associations – being at best self-deprecatory on the part of the authors, suggesting themselves a pair of idiots – and reviewers reacted negatively to the title, generally praising the book but finding the title inappropriate. Indeed, anticipating this reaction, the title was kept secret – even from the publisher – until shortly before publication."

    Must be an inside joke?