Thursday, March 29, 2012

Language Cannot Do Everything

Adrienne Rich, feminist and poet, died today. 

From an Atlas of the Difficult World
I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window
in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet
long after rush-hour. I know you are reading this poem
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean
on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven
across the plains' enormous spaces around you.
I know you are reading this poem
in a room where too much has happened for you to bear
where the bedclothes lie in stagnant coils on the bed
and the open valise speaks of flight
but you cannot leave yet. I know you are reading this poem
as the underground train loses momentum and before running
up the stairs
toward a new kind of love
your life has never allowed.
I know you are reading this poem by the light
of the television screen where soundless images jerk and slide
while you wait for the newscast from the intifada.
I know you are reading this poem in a waiting-room
of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers.
I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light
in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out,
count themselves out, at too early an age. I know
you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick
lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet you read on
because even the alphabet is precious.
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove
warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your
because life is short and you too are thirsty.
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading
and I want to know which words they are.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else
left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

I am the Only Jew

This week, Fantoft decided to add security on all its student apartment buildings with a magnetic tag that opens up the outer doors. Fine. Except for shabbat. When I’ll be stuck inside for 25 hours, chewing on the walls and banging my head against the ceiling. Or else locked outside, waiting with bovine patience for someone to come along and open the door for me.

An hour after I received the email, I was standing in front of the SiB desk, facing a girl whose jaw actually dropped open as I began to explain to her that I am a religious Jew who doesn’t use electricity for a 24-hour period every week. She smiled and nodded in sympathetic bewilderment, gave me an email to write to, and beckoned me over to the woman in charge.

“Well it’s fine. This doesn’t use electricity. It’s magnetic,” she said dismissively. “Write to the man who is in charge. NEXT!” Before I could point out to her that it probably does use electricity to open that door, and that it most certainly triggers a light, I was brushed out of the way. I decided to email the guy and see what he said.

Wednesday, without having received a response, and Friday looming ever closer, I returned to SiB to get the man in charge’s phone number. The same woman was there. Just as helpful as before.

“I don’t think there’ll be anything we can do for you.” And she was happy about it, for some reason. “You’ll have to call a friend to let you in on weekends,” she advised. No dice, lady—I can’t use a phone, either.

“Organize a time to meet them and have them let you in.” Every week, for the next three months? Seriously? Because I will want to go outside at the same time every week, and I have a friend that slavishly without a life that they can do that?

“Where is this—where is your... meeting?” Could you drip more disdain into that last word? No, lady, this is not a religious meeting, this is my apartment that I won’t be able to get in and out of for an entire day every week.

“Well, look, what do you do in your apartment during that time? Do you sit in the dark? Or do you use lights?” She was so triumphant in her mistaken proof of my inconsistency, it took me slightly aback. Then I leaned calmly towards her over the counter, and spoke in measured tones.

“You smug toad. You bask in your ignorance. You’re actually rejoicing in your mono-cultural blindness. You don’t want to know, you want to catch me out in a flaw. What possible reason has your warped mind come up with for imagining that I wouldn’t prefer to use the simple magnetic door-opener? You think you can catechize me on Judaism? Well, you complacent scumbag, I’ve spent a year and a half in the hellish cognitive dissonance of midrasha, and I’ve attended my requisite twelve years of forced fanaticism by Ner Yisrael FOF’s at the local day school, and I’ve read Potok and wept, and I don’t need you to make me cringe in question. You dare try to prove me inconsistent in religion when the dat’lash wedge on my pie chart of friends gets fatter every year? You think it’s a choice I’m making to keep shabbat? Sure it is—one on the same level as the one you make when you decide not to rob a grocery store. You think the choices I make every day about what I wear, eat, say, should all pass through your court so you can declare me religious or not? When I already judge myself incessantly? It’s fun for you to bait me? Walk off a cliff, bitch.”

Of course, I didn’t. I opened my mouth, and closed it. Because I remembered, in time, that I am the only Jew this lady ever knows she’s met. And more important than my ire, more important than my being locked indoors for 25 hours every week, even equally important with keeping shabbat, is the kiddush Hashem that I signed on for this year when I decided to be the only observant Jew in this city. So I can’t say anything that I’d like to, even though with my temper I'm the last person on earth that should have to represent anyone (forgodsake, I can't even stay silent enough to keep from posting this on my blog!). I can only try to keep my hands from trembling as I smile and respond that no, I don’t turn on lights on shabbat, I leave on one small one to read by the whole weekend long. And then, still trembling, I walked out.

I know that mine is utterly ridiculous rage. What, so this is the first time my coddled existence has come up against a lack of sympathy with my religious needs? Yes, good morning, little Miss Innocent, outside of America’s embrace of diversity and Israel’s Jewish refuge, people don’t give a flying fuck about facilitating religious observance. Do you want coffee with that newsflash? And yet I’m angry at that woman, angry at her twenty-first century Western joy that in an increasingly automated world it’s hard for Neanderthals like me to maintain our religious practice. But I left with my cool intact, rubbing my mind furiously against the internal insistence that I cannot allow a passionate intensity to take over.

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Norway: Kid-Tested and Mother-Approved

The adorable apartment they rented

My parents visited me in Bergen last week. Since my dad’s the main reason I write this blog (it’s the first time since I left home six years ago that he actually has a clue of what’s going on in my life) I’m not going to fill you in on the trip in too much detail. Just that I had the most beautiful time showing my parents my life in Norway, tramping along the picturesque streets of Bergen, appreciating the cuteness of Norwegian babies and the gorgeousness of Norwegian men with my mom, and kicking back in our lovely old apartment with a 360 degree view of the fjord and Bergen sentrum.

The first night, I took them to Godt Brød. As I joked around with the cashier, showing off my Norwegian for my mom, his fellow worker behind the counter came over. The first guy beckoned to me. “Look, she’s an American, speaking Norwegian.”

“Yeah, and her name is Hannah.” It was Anita’s son, Evan. Nothing emphasizes Bergen’s tiny size like running into people you know every few hours. Then we bumped into one of my students at Rimi, and the impression was complete.

We went to Café Opera with Anita, and I had that shocking feeling you get when two worlds collide. You see, Anita only met me this year, and sees mature competence, confidence, and creativity (I hope!), where my parents see an adorable yet precocious six-year-old. I didn’t realize how much I regress around my parents until thrust into the presence of a third party, where my character played a funny tug-of-war between its mature self and the kid my parents see me as.

Laundry list: We saw Gamlehaugen, the Fantoft Stavkirk, Kunst gallery, Hanseatisk Museum, Bryggen, the Bergen Domkirk, Fløyen...  while hiking up Fløyen, exclaiming at the beauty of its lushly green trails, we passed a passel of men in their seventies, sturdily hiking up. They enjoyed our presence, offering the tidbit that Prince Charles and Camilla had been up on Fløyen only yesterday—apparently all English speakers should care about British royalty.

I bought kaviar in a tube for my Abba, and brunøst for my Ima. Easy enough to know what they’d each like. They, in turn, brought me Trader Joe's in a suitcase. Sometimes food is love. 

Friday we took the train into Oslo, passing the breathtaking views of fjord and fjell that astound every passenger. One of the best parts of the weekend was introducing my parents to the Oslo Jewish community—to the shlichot who have so comfortably hosted me again and again, and the Norwegian-Israelis who have so warmly welcomed me into the fold. Shabbat dinner at the shlichot we ate with a Tunisian man who had lived in Israel then fallen in love with a Norwegian, and his two sons. The conversation surged through three languages as per usual (only very briefly did my mother and the man speak French, so it really doesn’t count). At one point, discussing the chazzan, my mother asked what he does the rest of the week. Inbar’s answer: “byom shani, hu oseh havdalah bagan.” Hehehe.

Sunday morning my Abba left for the airport. My Ima and I went down to Oslo harbor for tickets on the ferry. It was only when buying them that we realized daylight savings had happened and we’d missed an hour! Luckily, my Abba left in plenty of time, and Oslo airport is small.

The outside of 5 Draggefjelltrappen
We took the ferry to the new opera house, moved through the Munch museum (vastly prefer “Anxiety” and “Despair” to “The Scream,” now that I’ve seen all three, and a silent landscape of snow-heaped firs to those—who knew Munch could paint calm solitude as well as feverish modern angst?), speedwalked the Botanical gardens, and sat for a pleasant while on the Bygdøy shore watching the kayakers after circling around the open-air model Viking village. On the ferry ride back, a father placed his toddler son on the railing near us. The boy was so deliciously cute, waving and calling “mama” to his mother on the lower deck. When he began to stomp on the captain’s roof, the father gently told him, “ikke bang bang.” What a sweet kid, and how perfectly did it exemplify the Norwegian family dynamic.
My parents gone, I’ve been feverishly rushing to catch up with everything. Though this morning I did take off for a gorgeous hike up Landås and across to Ulriken. The mud drying in the sun smelled like Monongahela National Park in West Virginia. Vaguely sweet and clean, with the hum of bees accompanying it even when no bees flew. I kept sniffing and thinking of berries. Back home I launched into my frenzy of work: I have to clean for pesach, pack for London, plan my trip to Copenhagen in May, catch up and get ahead on grading and class preparation for the next few weeks, and see the friends I haven’t seen for the past week and won’t see for the next two. Life is deliciously full of good things.

Ready for rain

Alas, the view atop Fløyen
At the top of Karl Johan. Check out that hat.
Showing my appreciation for Wigeland
I may have taught my parents a proper love for Freia
At Akershus Fort, overlooking Oslo's fjord

Bergen the Beautiful

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Dude, What Vagina'ed?

A European sandwich, anyone?
Revelation from my UiB graduate English buddies: In Norwegian, the past tense for “happened” and the kid’s word for “vagina” sound so similar that my American ears can’t pick them apart. As we sat on the couches outside the reading room, they repeated the words over and over, stressing their distinction. I wonder what everyone doing their research thought when they heard us shouting “skjedde” and “skjede” each time the door opened. Hopefully, they realized it was a linguistics lesson, or maybe thought we were a traveling Scandinavian Vagina Monologues rehearsal. Luckily, skjedde's verb status means it doesn’t often get mistaken for “skjede” in a sentence. Unlike that other pesky noun, “kjede.” It means “necklace.” But obviously, if you’re in a jewelry store, you want to buy a necklace, not a vagina. It may get a bit more awkward if you want to compliment someone’s bling...

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mountains in the Mists

Dense mists on Ulriken
The past weekend has been one of long walks. Friday up Ulriken, where I stumbled around up top for awhile in the fog, finally conceding defeat to the mist and going back down the mountain the way I came up. Sunday was a beauty of a day, with thick plashes of hail covering the ground under a sunny haze, and hail showers pummeling us intermittently with blue sun-skinned sky winning out in glorious shadow-play. I went up Løvstakken, and spent a while sunning myself at the top. Tanning in short sleeves on a mountain top with patches of snow around you really brings out one’s sense of the absurd.

Another cheider today. Had the kids pick different positions and argue about what to do when the Crusaders come. I think the highlight of the debate was when one suggested picking up and moving to South Africa. Why South Africa, you ask? So did I. No good reason. They knew a surprising lot about the Black Death, and were interested in all the gory details I could give them about the Spanish Inquisition. Still, most interesting moment came when one kid looked up and asked, “but, why do Jews and Muslims hate each other?” We’d been talking about how they lived together in peace for awhile, while Europe was bloodily pushing Jews around. I gave him as much nuance as I could in my rejection of his premise, and was a little warmed by his saying, “well, yes, I know we don’t all hate each other, one of my best friends is Muslim,” even as the worn catchphrase made me smile sadly a bit. I’m thinking I’m going to cut out the Yeshiva session, and skip ahead to Israel as soon as possible. There’s too much to talk about there.
Across from Fantoft today

I walked back through temperamental hailstorms, most definitely muttering to myself like a madman about race and religion. I'm going to have to come to some sort of resolution eventually, some brilliant epiphany that can be applauded in the blog comments at the bottom here. 

Back at my apartment I made myself some hot apple cider, settled down in a deliciously well-worn man’s sweater I’d snagged from Fretex, and promptly stumbled across three of my favorite people on skype in succession. Nothing picks you up like an across-the-world chat with close friends. Especially when I’ve been out of touch for awhile, and beginning to feel itchy to return to my nearest and dearest.  As thunder clashed and hail pounded outside my window, cider, sweater, and skype smoothed my mood.

A friend of mine has started blogging and it’s such a delightful mix of literature and life I just have to share:  InJudith'sRoom

Tomorrow, my parents come to Bergen! I’m getting a whole week of hugs...

The house I want

Tried to capture the droplets on the branches

The stone wall halfway up Løvstakken

One of my favorite pine groves in Bergen

Mist rising off the fjord
Ulriken across the valley

The panoramic view from the ridge trail

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Septuagenarian Skype

Skype is a way of life here. Living in a community with Russians, Nepalese, French, Mexicans, Italians, and the occasional American means that we all understand its importance as a link back to the old country, and most everyone spends some part of their Sunday rolling through their contact lists, reassuring friends and family that we are indeed alive and happy. Some of those conversations are more humorous than others.

There’s nothing funnier than pre-Computer Age people confronting technology. Last night, I skype conference-called my grandmother (Bubby), her husband Kim, and my coolest, funniest great-uncle, Uncle Gershon. All of whom I love, but when you put them together, you get laughs. This is how it went down:

Gerson: How is that place far across the ocean? (Read: I have no idea where you are)
Me: Norway’s beautiful, Uncle Gerson. (Yeah, I’m nice. I help out the forgetful)
Gershon: I see a cat! Why do I see a cat? If I wanted for to see a cat, I could just look outside!  (He’s been hamming it up since before I was old enough to understand this kind of humor. As a five-year-old, I thought he was a very worried man)
Me: My camera doesn’t work on conference calls, so instead I have a picture of a cat.
Bubby: You want to see Hannah, don’t you? Hannah, put on your camera.
Gerson: I want to see her! Why is there a cat?
Me: My camera doesn’t work on conference calls. (Ask again! Ask again!)
Bubby: I know, I told her to get a different picture. (What’s wrong with the cat?)
Gerson: And what’s that on its head? Is that an orange on its head?
Me: There’s a grapefruit peel on its head. (Well, that was a conversation-stopper)
Gerson: So, how do I make sure I can call you whenever I want, Hannah?
Me: I sent you a message, Uncle Gerson. You have to click accept.
Gerson: Where? I was born in 1936! We didn't have computers then.
Kim: (roars humorously) And we were better off! (Aged agreement on the other end)
Some time later…
Bubby: Bye, Gerson!
Me: Lots of love, Uncle Gershon!
Gerson: Okay! Goodbye now! Enjoy Norway! ...  ... ...
Bubby: Gerson, do you know how to hang up?
Gerson: Wait, is it still on? Where do I turn it off?
Kim: (roars) It's the red telephone! Press the red telephone!
Gerson: Hello? hello?
He hung up. As I continued speaking to my grandmother, he called her back, to let her know he had figured out how to hang up. Then he called me to say that he figured out how to call me.
Gerson: I can see you! You’re beautiful! Why can’t you see me? Well, let’s see, I’m bald, I’ve got a shiny bald head…
Love you, Uncle Gershon.

By the way, my grandmother is sufficiently technologically advanced to read my blog assiduously. Luckily, she has a good enough sense of humor that she’ll find it hilarious (please, Bubby?). But hey, Bubby, at least I didn’t spill the beans on the Bubby-club that plots to make shidduchs for grandchildren.

A student came in for help on her paper. She was only halfway through the first of two books that she was going to write on, and wanted advice on constructing her thesis statement. My advice: READ THE BOOKS! Sometimes facepalms aren’t enough. Sometimes I need a good solid head-bashing against the wall to regain my patience.

A discussion on Tripmaster Monkey with two of my college students, one Pakistani-Norwegian, the other Chinese-Norwegian, led to an inevitable discussion of racism in Norway. They face prejudices of varying toughness: people won’t sit near them on the bus, ask if they were adopted, refuse to speak to them in public, speak English to them instead of Norwegian... Wonder what their Norwegian-for-several-generations peers would have thought to hear them tell their stories.

Another Work In Progress seminar with the grad students. One of the writers wrote about his “protagonist implemented into civilization’s institutions.” Sometimes I want to follow Norwegians around all day with a tape recorder just to hear how they’ll poeticize or mangle English.

People in Bergen begin to look like mushrooms in the rain: headless bodies with umbrellas attached at the neck. Or maybe a week’s solid rain just has me hallucinating slightly. Your call.   

Classic mushroom-head

How can s/he even see where s/he is going?
Kids don't need umbrellas! They're splash-happy in their rain suits

Reeeeally big mushroom-head

The nice thing about umbrellas for Bergensk is that they don't like to acknowledge passersby-- this solves the problem of sociability

It can even work to keep you from having to
 talk to the person you're walking with
Bergen in a nutshell

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

To Make Truth Laugh

“Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.” –Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

I like this. To make truth laugh. It’s a good mission in life. But is this just a pleasantly phrased excuse to hug the middlest of the road we can, never actually thinking but attempting to stay as far away from both extremes as possible? Or is it some kind of Truth? Does the fact that I need to know doom me and all the rest of mankind to insane passion forever? Despite the fact that I like the quote, which perhaps dooms me to eternal ignorant peace? The two sides of it tug at me so that the very quote itself becomes an exercise of its own meaning. Meta-trapped.

I want to lounge in the garden and grow fat on pears and honeydew—you can keep your apple of knowledge. Or perhaps it’s just the passion that’s wrong? We are free to pursue truth lazily, indolently, with pococurante nonchalance, as long as it leads to neither crusade nor jihad. As long as it harms no one. Because in this quote, the precondition is love for mankind. That is the assumed essential Truth that allows us to laugh, and learn so languidly as we will. It’s only those who still need to prove this Truth who must run to insane passions in their frenzied efforts to explain why, and how, and who is included in “mankind,” before they accidentally destroy mankind because they lack the instinctive morality that teaches us both what’s funny and what’s right.

Of course this quote is already true, whether with insane passion or no. I fight to chuckle, to frame knowledge in giggles and values in guffaws, every day of my life. We trust the The Daily Show more than mainstream media. Wilde’s quips and Twain’s bon mots and Austen’s slyly subversive, humorous sketches edge into the deeps of life so much more realistically than anything else. Humor means honesty. Perhaps it’s the reason this quote resounds—it praises something I already think, but haven’t articulated before. Just like all the best literary truths.

Next up in literary cogitations: Harry Potter og Fangen fra Azkaban. Get excited. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Touchy Subject

This past semester of teaching “American Itineraries: American Novels that Mooove!” (italics mine) has been a sensitive one. Just about every class has ended with an expression on my students’ faces that most definitely read: wow, are those evil paleface Americans ever so racist. Lucky us, that we live in Norway, land of… paler faces. Er, what you mean we, kemosabe?

It all came to a crux for me this week after Lene, UiB professor of Amlit, recommended Lilyhammer, a TV show about a Mafioso (Silvio Dante from The Sopranos) who hides out in Lillehammer for his witness protection program. In the second episode, there’s a moment when Silvio’s crush, his Norwegian culture teacher, tries to introduce herself to a man in the class and extends a hand to shake. Of course the guy is a Muslim immigrant who mutters something about not touching women and whose sister translates apologetically. Later, our hero beats him up a bit until the Muslim guy apologizes and insists that the teacher shake his hand. I’d love it if I could say this was an effort to think critically about some of the issues in Norway today, or even to make fun of American Mafioso violence. But it was so clear that Silvio is the good guy, watching out for his gal, that the feelings of a person who is forced to humiliatingly transgress what he believes in got completely lost. Granted, the Muslim did not refuse gracefully. There are polite, kind ways of explaining that your religion restricts you that show it is not a reflection of the other person. But he ought not to be forced to violate his values. Not shaking someone’s hand does not impinge on their rights in any way. Forcing someone to make contact does. Norwegian distrust of difference is upsetting even as it is expected. Protesting that people must learn to integrate into society without bothering to negotiate their values as well just smacks of selfishness.

Along the same lines, after a long class today discoursing on American racism and the limited understanding of American nationality as discussed in the novel Tripmaster Monkey (read the line “Call me Ishmael.” You pictured someone white, didn’t you?), Lene tried to explain the word “liminality.” This was her example: “in Norwegian culture, people are confirmed, then baptized. That stage in between is liminal.” I grinned with glee at the textbook example of what students had accused Americans of all class long (yes, Kerouac was a trifle racist, and So. Are. You). So, Norwegians are Christian, eh? Christianity is an integral part of Norwegian culture? Part of what it means to be Nor-wee-geee-ahn? Well, I bet the thousands of Muslim, Sami, and secular Norwegians would beg to differ. Gotcha!

Not that this is a race over who is more racist—it just struck me as entertaining matter for a blog post. 

On a side note: in a recent skype conversation, my sisters revealed that they’ve taken up environmentalism and are now conserving on toothpaste. Don’t ask why. Just, for one tiny second I’m glad we’re all living on different continents this year. 

Bergen in spring

Saturday, March 10, 2012

We Are American and So Can You

In the words of the immortal Tennyson:
So many worlds,
So much to do
So little done
Such things to be!

Which means I’m going to give you the week in digest.

Cheider teachers in costume: Cowboy, Cleopatra, PJs
Revisited the English graduate students’ Work-in-Progress seminar for funsies. The first guy had written a thesis that was the critical equivalent of Tender Buttons. Ball-bashing professor Randi socked it to him hard: “… raises the question of, is this a valid and interesting thing to do? If your angle is ---, well, isn’t that fairly obvious already?” The poor man attempted a defense: “I’m mapping out his reading, isn’t that the aim of literary texts?” but she would have none of it: “but what do you do with that reading? Why did you struggle with the text?” The question every literary scholar grapples with, and fears. What exactly is your intellectual worth? Yes, the tools you’re using are solid, you’ve got some impressive brains, but why the hell did you waste them on this? Anyhow, then the second guy presented, and his thesis was so solidly constructed, reader-friendly, intelligence-evident, it redeemed the room of literary academics sitting around that table from tipping over the edge into utter bootlessness.


Brann comes to Shushan: Wouldn't be Purim without soccer
Had an impromptu and lengthy discussion with my high schoolers in honor of International Women’s Day. Interestingly, a show of hands indicated that they do not all identify as feminists. Baaad Scandinavians. I ran the discussion by repeatedly letting them heat up around a question until enough of the room was sitting tush-half-off-the-chair in that must-speak posture, then slamming the room with a new idea. They’re going to write about it, so I wasn’t concerned with cutting thoughts off so much as getting juices flowing. Perhaps most interesting were the different nationalities’ approach: Kid Russia gave a rant about “people coming in from the South and raping Russian women,” which was awkward to work with, and Kid Vietnam said that in his country, there are no feminists, everyone’s too traditional and have specific roles, and Kid Somalia came up to me quietly after the lesson with a little smile on her face and asked if she could write a journal entry on this. The two AUFniks (both strongly active members of the political party that was targeted on July 22) spent most of the class twisting around in their seats, hands furiously pawing the air in their desire to educate their classmates. My favorite moment was when one young lady said she agreed with Kid Vietnam in that there are certain things only men can do and only women, and I interrupted encouragingly with, “Yes? Like what?” and she fell silent for that deep thoughtful second that means you’ve rewritten someone’s life framework. I  wantz to bez Socrates.


Starting the play
Fantoft fun: Pub quiz night with Ruth (Arizona) and Rachel (New Jersey). Our team name: “We are America and So Can You!” A guy I’d met earlier in the week came over and asked if he could join our team, so we became “We are America and So Can You Even Though the Italian Guy Has No Idea What That Means.” Italy teaming up with America was pretty powerful, until the “cars” category, when Ford fought Fiat to the detriment of both. But boy did we cream when it came to spaghetti Westerns! 


Purim: Yep, I dressed as a cowgirl all day. Gave my high schoolers chocolate as well as the surprise knowledge that I’m Jewish (had to make sure they didn’t think this was some American holiday), for which they cheered (probably more for the chocolate than the religious unveiling). The Jewish community had its party-cum-carnival, at which our play went off outstandingly and I rendered my lines in Norwegian suitably. Or at least to enough comedic effect that it fit with the genre. Afterwards, those of us left to clean up were caught by Na'ama's (one of the leaders of the community, picture loud, opinionated, super-organizer, knows-everything, all-out-there typical Israeli woman) zumba bug and started gallivanting around the room, dancing with each other and the mobs and brooms we held.

Cutest thing ever: little Queen Esther finds a popgun
The schlichot stayed by me for the night. We have this ridiculous comfort with each other that always shocks me because it highlights my strangeness here. I’m pretty used to being the only dati Jew in town. Before I left for Norway, people asked me if I’d be lonely without a Jewish community, but it was part of what I wanted, to figure out what it’s like to live in the world outside. I once asked a friend who is a baal teshuvah (a guy who became religious towards the end of college) what non-religious people do, since their energy and time isn’t so completely consumed by religion. He paused a moment, and said, “well, I smoked a lot of weed before.” But I couldn’t help but believe there must be something more. And this year has let me figure it out, let me become really close friends with people who have proven to me the depth of meaningful passionate living that exists outside my bubble, let me gain a comfort in the world in which people sit in coffee shops and argue about politics and literature, bake cookies, dance, study, travel, talk, flirt, hike, and play practical jokes on each other. Yeah, just like I do. Because personhood extends across the board.

The thing is, that even as I do all this, there’s still always a little Jewish tune playing in my head (No, it’s not “yubba-diddy-diddy-dye” from Fiddler. Think Chava Alberstein meets Idan Raichel meets Synergia). Judaism touches my life and history in so many ways, that keeping it bubbled up within me is conscious and intentional. So having Racheli and Inbar over, flipflopping through Hebrew into English and back and examining the sefarim on my shelves and not asking if that’s the Israeli flag hanging from my wall or why my knife has blue tape on it or venturing into cultural interrogation when I play music and getting excited about the Pinuk-brand shampoo in my shower, well, those things make them the two people in the country with whom I’m not one whit a freak. So despite the comfort I’ve gained this year, being with them relaxes me hugely. Even committing the classic blunder of asking whether they wanted “לקחת מקלחת?” was more a sign of connection than distance (to their infinite credit, they did not reply, “take it to where?”). My brain was a bit frazzled after a night spent jumping through three languages.


Anita, my Katten contact-teacher, heard about my computer problems, and came running over to Fantoft with an extra mac charger! She is so amazing. And has been wanting to do something like that to help, all year. I keep thinking how lucky I am to be the first in Bergen... four years from now it will be “ugh, now I have to take care of the ETA again.” Or maybe not. Anita’s kind of awesome that way.


I’m going to London in three weeks. Beginning to plan my pilgrimage. To re-read Woolf and Trollope and Dickens and Doyle. Honestly, a student of Victorian literature visiting London feels a bit like a Muslim on their way to Mecca. I might drop by Bath too, or Dover, or York… Got to cram it all into one week. Any advice?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

I play a mean game of Rumpeldunk

Walking up Fløyen on Friday
I’m finally doing it. The rite of passage that means one has mastered a language. That’s right. I’m reading Harry Potter in Norwegian. And laughing, and laughing, and laughing, at the translation of Rowling’s names into Norsk. Hogwarts has become Galtvort, Dudley is the very Viking Dudleif, and best of all, quidditch is now rumpeldunk. Confusingly, wizards are “trollmen” in Norwegian, which seems more Norwegian than it should be. Honestly, I was surprised by the translation of Rowling’s inventions. Some of her best work is in the silliness and deliciously fitting sound of the names she gives to her imaginary world. Losing that makes the book more Norwegian, sure, but at the expense of some of its brilliance. In this case the attempt to translate the ideas instead of the literal has failed sadly.

Watched a movie based on a Jo Nesbø book tonight. Spent most of it curled up inside my sweatshirt hood waiting for Stephan and Przemek to tell me that the blood was gone. I think they got a kick out of my writhing in the seat. They kept offering me peanuts at gory moments. There was a moment in the movie that seemed so very Norwegian to me; the hero was walking down the sidewalk, blood dripping from his head, and three Norwegian businessmen passed him and then turned to look back a moment, but didn’t stop or try to help or even ask a question. I know that in a movie having random passersby offer help would interrupt the flow of the thriller, but it so exactly mirrored the delicate obliviousness of strangers that Norwegians practice, I had to laugh. 

The rooftops of Bergen
This year has given me a lot to think about by letting me drift outside the academy, even just a bit, and actually process the ideas that were pumped into me in college. I’ve never been so totally outside my own zone as now: living in America and Israel, I identified enough with the people around me that my ability to understand them was clouded by my being them. But here in Norway, I can see Norwegian prejudices and bias clearly, and my outsider stance has let me take a good look at my own prejudices more clearly than ever before. Until now, I always knew what I was supposed to think, and tried to think it. But this year has bared the arrogance of that to me, and shown me that much as I’d like to have some kind of superior understanding, I’m as much enmeshed in my own position in society as anyone, and so I ought not to force some kind of perfectly politically correct thinking onto my own mind, but to actually figure out what I really think, and then work to understand why. Thank you, Norway, for combining xenophobia with naivete and showing me your flaws. Only once I saw someone else’s could I begin to search for my own.

Monday night was salsa night once again. I wish I could explain the high that this good little Jewish girl gets from swinging from muscular arm to muscular arm, shimmying up against male torsos and letting them grasp the tickle zones that flank my stomach (I still haven’t outgrown a shrill reaction to the side-poke). But of course I can explain. It’s so totally the lure of the illicit. It’s my fresh-out-of-midrasha woman embracing sexiness, and my inner feminist ceding control. Neither are allowed. My identity of strong Jewish feminist drops to the floor with my coat when I slide out onto the salsa floor, and I’m allowed to be the absolute negation of myself for an hour. In an environment that’s simultaneously chummy and steamy, sultry and safe. Delicious.

Teitvannet in spring
Spring has reached Bergen. This was the warmest winter in recorded Norwegian history. I feel a bit as though I’ve missed out on something. But since the last two were record freezes, perhaps I’m lucky enough to get off with this. And it’s so heartening to see the added hours of daylight, the genuine warmth of the sun. I’m back out on my jog around Teitvannet now. A friend is training for a half-marathon, and I’ve promised to train with her, so the weather’s cooperation seems an intentional gift. Actually, at the moment, nearly everything seems like an intentional gift, like some pleasant Fates are raining boons upon my head for the joy of it. I promise to pay it forward.

I can’t sign off without a comment about tomorrow. I know most everyone expects a ‘Purim sameach,” and sure, I’ll get to that, but first: tomorrow is international agunah day. An agunah is a Jewish woman trapped in a marriage because her husband will not give her a get, a Jewish write of divorce. Tomorrow is the day to write to your rabbis and community leaders and demand a systemic solution to this malignant religious oppression. Friends of mine getting married, get prenups that insist on resolution of religious commitments before a secular divorce will be legalized. Find out more at Organization for the Resolution of Agunot's page. And when you’re fasting for Ta’anit Esther, think of the other women who are frightened of their husbands and forced to live double lives. Take a stand.

Purim sameach.

The evolution of the Norwegian child:

Yes, these kids go to school in Middle Earth

It all ends with chilling on a troll.