The Learning Curve, Part II
One of the first things I learned after making aliyah was how to get lost in Jerusalem. My Polish neighbour lady taught me to stand proud on the curb as the bus swooped toward us, and to waggle a forefinger as an unneeded one approached, giving the driver the option of not threatening our lives. When she rode off in the opposite direction, I would jump on what I thought was the right bus and find myself in a place I might have heard of. In those days, Israeli bus drivers were trained not to give information. Assent was signalled with the tiniest nod. Disagreement produced a barrage of criticism. Not what I was used to.
Fortunately, street signs and other locators were usually in two or three languages, but that didn’t help when flagging a bus. Oh, I’d think, I’m in Beit v’Gan. Imagine my surprise when I realised that I wasn’t. How to get from here to there was another story. Somehow I have the kind of face which makes people think I know what I'm doing. Did the #6 bus pass already? Is this the direction for downtown? Do you know the way to San Jose? I perfected my mini-shoulder-shrug and my can’t-be-bothered-to-answer look. Never before did I not respond to direct questions. My character was being reshaped.
I was interviewed for a position which, thanks to my many arcane and frequently unusable talents, I obtained. The philosophy professor needed someone who could speak, read and write French; edit manuscripts and organise an author's speaking tour of America. No problem. I again followed the Hollywood maxim: If they ask if you can tap dance, say Yes and go out and learn. I learned.
One thing I learned was this: Never assume that someone called Shirley is actually named Shirley. Her name was Shir-li, meaning ‘a song for me’, and she didn’t speak English at all. Fortunately, she moved on shortly after we met, taking my embarrassment with her.
I began to lead a totally English life, which although it produced scorn among the Israelis, was exactly what I wanted. The professor and his PA were both completely bilingual and my work barely touched theirs. But when they were not in the office, I was tasked with answering the telephone. I was paralysed when the first Hebrew-speaking caller said, If he’s not in the office, please tell him (I was OK to this point): Dadjkfa. Khat dsfajoef grjaet fsasyde; mfssd. Mehfq Khan Younis.
I felt infantilised, three steps worse than feeling like a child. When I said Khan Younis rang, the professor nodded. Slowly. Now I know that Khan Younis is a place. I was mortified but, on the other hand, he went right out and bought an answering machine. So being totally ineffectual in areas beyond ones declared competence can be productive. Hmmm.
The professor held seminars under the aegis of his Spinoza Institute. You, he said, will stand at the door and collect the entrance fees: Students and soldiers free, pensioners half-price, everyone else full fee. Another wonderful example of my exceeding my competency and I knew it long before the event began.
I stood at the door. As people arrived, I discovered they didn’t particularly wish to identify themselves, which was no problem with the soldiers. They whisked right by me, knowing they would get in free, and it’s still like that. As long as there’s space and those serving their country are in uniform, they’re in. So that segment of the population was easy.
I assumed that pensioners would be fairly easy, too, but the Hebrew word for them, pension’air’im, was not universally applied. Some identified themselves as gimla’im, retired, not on pension, able to afford the few shekels’ admission fee. I had never heard that word and no one had told me that there were two kinds of older people in this world. I felt, in the Australian way in this kind of situation, quite buggered.
You know the myth about rescuing fair lady? Happened to me. I heard a dulcet British-tinged male voice ask Do you need help? Oh God, did I need help! He handed me the cash box, asked for and got a 3-second explanation of the fee structure and took over.
Eventually my hero became a part of my life. He was divorcing, things were thorny and I was an island of tranquillity—after the seminar, of course. He lived near Tel Aviv and we had endless phone conversations. I learned a lot from him, but after my vacation in Canada the following summer, I returned to find him engaged to an Israeli woman whom he recommended as being as clean as I am. Losing him was no great loss.
The professor had hired me on a part-time basis. As the first year passed, he admitted that he could no longer afford me. His PA, one of the seminal characters in my early years, decided to find the funding for me, as she deemed me ‘an excellent and creative worker’. She had discovered that one of the State Ministries was offering two scholarships for recent immigrants. The criteria were murky but she aced it and got one for me. The other one went to a forestry expert from the Former Soviet Union. Naturally.
So I was to be a part-time employee of the professor for another year. Heaven help us all.
cross posted Geoffff's Joint