I’m back in the States now after my two years living, teaching, learning, and volunteering in Laos and Israel. So how the hell am I supposed to distill my thoughts here, summing up two years of experiences and feelings?
With lists of course!
After my year in Laos, I decided that instead of broadly giving impressions of of my experience, I would make a list of little things that I wanted to remember. The little things that give me joy during each day — usually kind of a ordinary part of my routine — are also the things that I don’t take the time to appreciate often enough, and forget about too often. I think that my list of little things in Laos — both the act of creating it and having it as a reference — has helped me to maintain a deeper connection to my experience there.
Here’s the Little Things List: Israel Edition.
My host teacher calling me “jooj” — the nickname she gave to me over time.
Imad the bus driver saying (more like singing) emphatically, “Good morning, Joanna!” first thing every day on my bus to downtown Nazareth
My students responding to my yes/no questions with an enthusiastic “of course!” I think they’re taught that there are three responses to yes/no questions: yes, no and “of course!” Do you like pizza? Of course!
Guitar circles with my friend Nour — a music teacher at the school — and some 5-year-olds
Josh playing and singing Grateful Dead songs on his guitar at all hours — my favorites are “Truckin’” and “Franklin’s Tower”
The view from the window of my classroom out to the school garden and the valley and towns north of Nazareth
The teachers pinching the cheeks of the students and giving them very loving whacks around the head
High fives and fist bumps with my kids at school
My toddler cousin’s huge and mischievous grins that light up his face and his eyes
Seeing my baby cousin learn to talk and walk throughout the year
Mornings in Abu Mundhir’s office eating fresh ka’ek bel semsem with his homemade zaatar and labne and olive oil from his trees. Heaven
Hanna’s bed predictably covered with cosmetics all day/every day
My cousin David’s couch — I’m convinced it’s a sleep machine because I couldn’t sit there for 2 minutes without passing out
Matt’s goofy and usually bad jokes, and his tendency to blurt out any/all associations he has with the subject being discussed
Our house mantra: “Your body, your choice,” which can be somehow applied in almost every situation
Shabbats with my cousins and my uncle, usually involving a lot of food, sleep, hanging out, David’s couch (see above), and “Guillotine,” an absurd card game in which you collect the heads of dead nobles
Joking and goofing off with my friend Sewar about everything and anything
Weekly walks through downtown Nazareth, always involving al-Babour spice shop, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Church of the Annunciation, the old city and souq, and usually a stop for hummus at Imad
Evening sing-alongs with Josh on his guitar featuring Disney hits “I’ll make a man out of you,” and “I won’t say I’m in love,” as well as all of the alternative rock hits I loved in high school but hadn’t thought of since
Haifa Thursday and/or Friday and/or Saturday night adventures, which with stops at Kabareet and Iza bar
Nightly runs with Matthew in Nazareth Illit by the shuk (“shuk runs,” like Arabic’s shukran) — when we started running at the beginning of the year, Matt could barely run around the block. After a month he surpassed my abilities and began running 6 miles every day, including 3 entirely uphill
Boker tov’s (“good mornings”) with the neighbors every morning, followed by saba3 al-khair’s (“good mornings”) with the teachers at school
Tutorials from Souhair on how to make Arabic coffee properly in a finjan (the key is stirring constantly and allowing the coffee to get and stay at the perfect low-boil level)
The million places around the top of Nazareth and Nazareth Illit where you can look down and see the whole city, Mt. Precipice and the Jezreel Valley — these places reminded me daily how lucky I was to be living in such a beautiful and unique place
Discovering natural edible things like loquats, persimmons, and the fuzzy green outer layer of the almond off the tree
Little trips with my uncle or my cousins in Afula to surrounding towns and areas in the North. And going with my uncle and my cousins (and separately a couple more times) to an Arabic restaurant close to Golani Junction, with the best salads, falafel, and mujadara (lentil dish) around
The hiking in Israel — everything from mountains and marshes to sand and hard desert
Souhair’s quips at the HRA — especially “there is no other solution” and “big mess!” These phrases were very versatile:“You’re hungry? Let’s stop for kanafe. There is no other solution!”
Affordable health-care. Who wants a blood test!?
Learning and using fun Hebrew and Arabic words: mukpatz (“stir-fry”), p’cock (“traffic jam”), halas (“that’s it/enough!”), and habibe/te (“my love”) were some regular favorites
Culture of weekend picnicking — most people I met with families picnicked on the weekends and spent time outside with family barbecuing and eating. Sometimes I would see my students and their families having lunch at the parks in Nazareth Illit
The HRA’s office in a beautiful old house with high ceilings and big windows
The garden at school, which Abu Mundhir kept full of flowers, herbs, and cacti labelled in Arabic
Nathan’s “inappropriate uncle” jokes that only he can get away with
The natural light in Israel. The sunrises and sunsets every day are unbeatable
Running by a car full of kids (my students) leaning out of the windows and screaming at me
Our madricha Inna’s really calm, put-together, and gives-no-shits demeanor. She never sweats the small stuff.
The morning commute from central Nazareth to school in the car with Abu Mundhir. We listened to the Nazareth-based “shams” radio station in the car every morning, a popular Arabic news and music station with some extremely catchy theme music. You can tune in for free here: http://streema.com/radios/Ashams_Radio
Regular arguments with my Israeli friend about whether or not “fun” is an adjective in English. No amount of proof will ever suffice.
Josh teaching English songs in the classroom
When I was at around the middle of my year in Laos, I needed to decide if I wanted to stay in Laos for another year, come home, or move somewhere else for the next year. Coming home was immediately out, and the idea of staying really appealed to me — friends who had done PiA before told me that the second years in their host counties allowed them to develop a sense of comfort (being better at the language helps, I’m sure) that they didn’t have their first years. I made great friends in Laos, but I knew that with more time (and many, many more language classes) I could get to know my Lao friends and engage in groups more comfortably and effectively. On the other hand, going to Israel had its own draws: I wanted to be able to see my cousins and uncle regularly, which I hadn’t been able to do really ever before then. I wanted to learn about Israel by having conversations with people with all sorts of backgrounds and perspectives. I wanted to work in an Arab community and be able to study Hebrew and Arabic. I wanted experience working at a local human rights NGO. On the whole, I decided that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity with Masa-BINA when I found that there was an Israel Teaching Fellows site placement in Nazareth.
At first, I was worried that after living in Laos with such a special PiA group of individuals coming from all over the US — each with a totally unique background and perspective — any group that Masa could put together made up of Jewish Americans from the States would feel a bit… homogeneous and dull. Actually, my assumption that everyone would be Jewish was immediately proven wrong, given that Masa only requires that a person have a Jewish grandparent to be eligible. My assumption that everyone would be from the States was also wrong — our group boasted one aussie. And, most importantly, our group in the North turned out to be anything but dull — we felt like family quickly and easily, goofing off constantly, and looked for opportunities to travel and explore together.
Something that surprised me about my experience in Israel was how close I felt to the teachers at my host school by the end of the year. My host teacher told me that during the first few days at school, many of the teachers actively avoided me because they were embarrassed by their English skills. I think my policy of introducing myself to everyone I met and smiling (whether I wanted to or not) during those first few weeks may have forced everyone to talk to me originally. But after those first couple weeks, it was really the teachers who stepped up and not only made me feel welcome, but opened up to me. Becoming friends with the other teachers wasn’t something that I had expected or anticipated — I was honestly thinking more about my relationships with students — but I am so grateful that they invested in me, despite the fact that I was only a temporary fixture at the school. This investment of their time, energy, and friendship speaks volumes to their generosity. It’s not real to me yet that I won’t be seeing them again at work, and it still feels like I’m on vacation away from them.
Teaching in Laos was not at all the same experience that teaching in Israel was. That this would be the case may seem obvious to you, but it was certainly not obvious to me. In Laos, I was teaching a full English curriculum to mostly adults, and some kids. I had books, I had clear requirements and guidelines, and I had the school’s general suggestion and philosophy that we try to instill a love of learning by playing games, doing lots of communication activities, and working on longer term group projects. Transitioning from the structure, expectations, and experiences that I had teaching at a private school in Laos — and the set of my own “best practices” that worked in Laos — to a public elementary school in Nazareth was not easy. First of all, the Masa Israel Teaching Fellows program doesn’t have expectations of what the teachers will be doing other than “teaching English to small groups” — the host schools and teachers are supposed to fill in the blanks. But since my year was the pilot year for Nazareth, my host teacher and I worked together to figure out my role. And unlike the case in Israel where I was the main teacher and responsible for getting through the curriculum, the students already had an English teacher at their school in Nazareth (my host teacher) and didn’t need or want me to teach formal lessons. Ultimately (through intensive trial-and-error), I realized that instead of trying to make what I already felt comfortable with work in Nazareth, I needed to start over.
Thanks to ideas and inspiration from the many educator friends and family in my life (TG I have them), I was able to switch gears immediately once I realized the problem. I also think a huge breakthrough happened when I decided to work mostly on projects with the students — learning and performing songs and plays, working on a podcast series with the students, and poster projects. Although the podcast we put together will never see the light of day, the students had a blast writing ridiculous dialogues, recording themselves on my phone and listening to (and making fun of) themselves after. I think now, in retrospect, I understand the potential value of teaching fellowships like Masa-BINA, because I wasn’t the main educator (this is an understatement) but rather could provide something supplemental. Thinking back to the many years I spent studying Spanish in middle and high school, I imagine that I’d be a lot more comfortable with the language if I had had a native speaker in school to talk with regularly, take risks with, have fun with, etc. I just wish that I had understood from the start that this was the value of me being there. But someone has to be the guinea pig in year one.
My personal beliefs about Israel, about how it manages a diverse citizenry, and how it handles the conflict with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have changed this year. I think the moral framework that I’m using to evaluate both the general status quo and individual situations as they arise is the same, but I’ve been able to fill in a lot of blanks and add context to situations through conversations with people with a variety of perspectives and reading articles and books (not just Wikipedia, I promise). The result: I feel more confused than ever.
I do know I’ve gained a serious distaste for exaggeration and simplification. Throughout this year, I’ve come across some human rights advocacy work involving this kind of rhetoric, and I know that I’ve unwittingly (and unknowingly — not tryna spread false info!) made comments along these lines myself. I’m not convinced that a successful social movement requires this kind of dishonesty, although I understand the value of clear catchphrases and strong sentiment, as well as the need for nonviolent radical work (like Occupy Wall Street) that can shift and anchor the discourse around a particular issue. Still, I feel like movements and organizations risk losing their credibility when they use dubious rhetoric. And for me personally, I have come to realize that there’s a difference between saying, “I understand the situation like this” and “THIS IS THE TRUTH.” I will stick with the former.
Looking back on the past couple years, what sticks out to me about the highlights and even the “little things” lists is the focus on relationships. People like my host teacher and the other teachers at the school in Nazareth, my madricha Inna, my new lifetime friends, and the other fellows provided the support, fun, laughter, and love that have defined the past couple of years of my life. Exploring every day while building community with the people around me created a set of experiences and a sense of familiarity that have, in turn, led to a newfound sense of weight, meaning, and connection in my life.
khop chai lai lai to everyone in Laos who made every day an adventure, and to PiA for shipping me off.
Toda raba raba to my family in Israel for being (playing, eating, talking, arguing, supporting, hanging out, etc) with me every step of the way, and to my madricha Inna for her constant support, friendship and cool. AND to Masa & BINA, for shipping me in and setting me up. AND to the Migdal Ha’emek fellows for being great friends and adventure buddies, and for having us over on the reg for Shabbat Sushi Nights.
Shukran kthir kthir to my host school principal, teachers, staff, and especially my host teacher for making me feel more at home than I ever could have imagined, and to Sewar and Louai for being friends with us despite… us. AND to my friends and boss at the HRA for taking me around Nazareth and sharing their work and perspectives with me. AND to the other fellows in Naz — we built a very strange family unit together, and it worked.
And khop chai lai lai / toda raba / shukran khtir to YOU for reading my blogs. I created this blog to give myself the impression that people somewhere were reading it (this is objectively true) and expecting new posts regularly (this is not so true). So thank you for reading and (in my mind) holding me accountable! But more importantly, thank you being interested enough in my experiences to read my stream of consciousness. Knowing there are people in my life who are interested in what I’m up to has meant a lot to me. So thank you!!!
Halas! That’s all, folks.
Next stop: law school.
Joanna Kamhi was a participant on the MITF Nazareth program last year – originally from Vermont, Joanna returned to the US and started law school at The University of Pennsylvania this fall. Joanna writes a blog and this is her most recent post reflecting back over her experiences.