Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Hark, Hear the Bells

I don’t know how to talk about the beauty of Bergen at night. Every evening, as dusk sets, fairies tiptoe up the mountains leaving their glitter along the creases in the slopes. The hills are strung with lights and the fjords and lakes in the valleys shimmer with their reflection. Walking through a wild Norwegian night, the wind billowing out my hood and the rain gusting strong against my face, those lights signal cheer and home steadfastness and rosy golden safety. Bergen, where it gets dark by 3 pm, is always a city of jeweled lights on the water.

So, Saturday night, when friends told me about the Bergen Lysfest, or annual Christmas light festival, I was happy to walk up to town and experience some more of the magic. We made it to the Byparken just as they lit the Christmas tree floating out on the lake in the middle of the city. It was simple, a large pine decked with strings of lights and a star at the top, swaying in the wind out on the water. The trees around the fountain had also been festooned with white lights. A huge stage was erected in the plass, and a youth choir soared carols out over the heads of the crowd. Every child had snap-lights and every few adults clustered around a torch that blazed into the rain. In the high-rise buildings around the lake, we could see people on the top floors looking down the same way Americans do for Thanksgiving day parades and the Fourth of July. It felt… like Christmas. Not perfect Christmas, exactly, not Christmas with my family where we go to the zoo and watch the lights along the lake change in time to “Carol of the Bells,” but it was close. Then, the fireworks started. Great, glorious, elegant fireworks that had a shimmering fairy dust sprinkling along the lower edge and exploding pinwheels of color up above. And there were happy face fireworks, which neither Nina nor I had ever seen before. Not to mention it was fireworks in the rain, a feat that I’d believed only the Weasley brothers could pull off. And yet, somehow, it didn’t feel very different from normal Bergen. This city blossoms into a radiant Christmas splendor in the dark every night. Winter night lasts from October to February, and the brilliant glimmer of Bergen’s lights keeps it illuminated, keeps the dark a mere accessory to sheen and shine.

Great news: I just bought my tickets, and I will be in Oslo for the Weekend of Peace. Doesn’t it just thrill you to read those words? I’ve been grading my high schoolers’ latest essays on “their responsibility, as Norwegians, to global democracy,” and I’m all tingly with hope for the future.
Ohio in a nutshell

I gave my guest lectures at Katten today. The Ohio presentation, to Norwegian immigrant high school students, went very well—I had them singing “hang on Sloopy” and shouting “O-H!” “I-O!” at me. The teacher was boggled. She’d never seen them speak that much before, let alone sing and chant Ohioan propaganda. I love my job.

I also gave a lecture on “A (brief) History of Judaism: the Past 4,000 years squeezed into 40 minutes,” to the oldest high school religion class. At one hundred years a minute, I think I got all the major events in. You know, the discovery of monotheism, the beit hamikdash, the Haskalah, and of course the fact that I’m descended from the Alexander rebbe and that Gloria Steinem is Jewish. I left out the names of all the Hasidic dynasties that I memorized in 7th grade. They'll have to learn those somewhere else.

I was particularly nervous about the last slide: the creation of the State of Israel. I wanted to do a number of things: To leave them with a history of modern Israel that would give them an image of something besides the war-torn Middle East, to help them understand that Jewish is not the same as Israeli (a concept a lot of Norwegians have problems understanding), and to be unapologetic about Israel’s right to exist without presenting an entire argument about politics in the middle of my Jewish history presentation. So, this is what I did: I put a gorgeous picture of the Israeli flag billowing in the wind up on the screen, along with the date 1948. I told them that in 1948, the UN voted on the partition plan which created a state of Israel. Then I said that obviously modern Israeli history is not the exact same thing as modern Jewish history, so I’m going to focus on the part that most affects world Judaism. Which was: the Right of Return. I explained that every Jew has a right to citizenship in Israel. Then I gave them a list. I told them about Operation Flying Carpet which rescued 45,000 Yemenite Jews in 1950. I told them about Jews who fled or were expelled from Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Morocco, Kurdistan, and Tunisia in the years between 1949 and now. I told them about Operation Moses and the airlift of the Ethiopian Jews. And the Soviet Jewish immigration. And the recent immigration of French Jews who are fleeing recent anti-Semitic attacks. In short, without discussing a single Middle Eastern war or concentrating on one ethnicity, I made a compelling argument for the existence of the state of Israel that was in no way politically charged. I felt pretty proud of myself. And you know what? The kids were fascinated. They leaned forward in their seats. They laughed at all the right times. They asked questions afterwards about my personal observance of Judaism. And I knew I’d pulled off quite a good deal. Guess what? I love my job.

I had a meeting afterwards with the professor in charge of the Britlit survey course at UiB next semester. He’s a slouchy, personable Englishman who I like because every so often he pauses and lets me throw in a clever off-the-cuff comment. I’m not sure how the topic was raised, but we went through the basic difficulties of the Norwegian education system. Stuart spoke pretty hopelessly about how profs aren’t allowed to demand student attendance in class—it impinges on students’ rights— and about how there’s not enough resources to create a desperately-needed freshman writing class, and about how little power he as a professor has to teach effectively.

How about a mutual partnership?
Nah, just kidding, I know that's naive.
Now, all this nonsense about students’ rights is really adorable, but the truth is that Norwegian university students, while all have the right to government-funded college education, lack the basic right that American students pay thousands of dollars for: the right to have a professor kick their butts into high gear and challenge the hell out of them. Professors go on and on in the States about how American students treat college as a consumer product and expect to get exactly what they want because they’ve paid for it, but that is nothing to the Norwegian system, where Norwegian students expect, as their legal right, that professors not inconvenience them by demanding too much from them. After teaching a literature survey course which was really more of a methodology course, I’m aching from having passed so many of those students on their papers when I know they’re going to fail the exam. If I could have demanded that they come to class, that they write and rewrite and rewrite their papers and attend special seminars on citation, I could perhaps have brought them up to scratch. But the Norwegian system won’t let. 

I love my job, but sometimes, it gets complicated. 


  1. I love this post for so many reasons! First of all, love the Harry Potter reference. You definitely get my stamp of approval on that one. Also, your description of Bergen is just beautiful! Makes me want to jump on a plane and come visit you right now.
    I'm also really impressed by your teaching. I think it's amazing that you've put these lectures together. I would probably be sitting at the edge of my seat too. And not just because I already know you. Sounds so fascinating. You'll have to give me the same lecture when you make it back to the states, whenever that might be...
    Also, can't wait to read about your trip to Oslo!

  2. Yeah Hannah, creds to you for describing my city in such a nice way :) It's really lovely to read! And your posts about teaching are almost enough to make me drop out of uni to throw myself on the teaching-wagon. You make it sound like so much fun.

    The blog is great, what an excellent idea this was. It kinda functions as a commercial for being a Fulbright in Bergen ;)

  3. Elena, jump on a plane and come visit me right now!!!
    I'm coming back in summer, corner crew reunion?

    Karoline, I know it sounds sappy, but I love this city so much... Please don't drop out, your ridiculous lit-happy graduate gang is one of the best things about UiB. Is leseglad the word for bookworm in Norwegian?

  4. And, Karoline, do you own a llama?

  5. Hah, I said "almost enough", I would never ever drop out, I love studying too much! And, yes, it indeed means bookworm:)
    The alpacas (not llama) belong to my mother, she just bought a farm. They're adorable animals!
    Finally, you're totally allowed to be sappy when you write that kind of sweet stuff!