Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ideally Speaking

Vivian Rakoff, in “Ideally Speaking” says: “Idealism in a way is a manifestation of a generalized human desire to have a sense-making model or paradigm of the world. There are those who just accept what is given to them implicitly without it being explicit and there are those who try to make it explicit and if they haven’t got a model, go looking for it. We seem to need a sense-making system that takes away the sense of frivolity in our existence because we have a real terror of meaninglessness.”

The major difference between myself, and the South African Jews interviewed in the book who decided to emigrate to Israel in the end, is that they came here for reasons of ideology. I came first and discovered the ideology afterwards.

In a way, I am somewhat envious of those who grew up in Jewish youth movements, with a clear sense of their own identity, engaging in intellectual discussions of burning issues. Jonathan Broomberg, in “Ideally Speaking”, says: “My sense is that each person who was in the movement in each generation has a different and quite unique relation to that ideology. At one end of the spectrum were people whose involvement was entirely a function of the group while at the other end you had people for whom it ran very deep personally.”

The reason for my lack of ideology, then, as a youth, might have been because there was no group for me to be a part of. I grew up in a rather sterile WASPish suburb of Toronto. My family didn’t have any marked ethnic distinction. And although I read extensively - devouring the theories of Freud, the teachings of different world religions, the background to revolution and the philosophy of the ancient Greeks... there was no one to intellectually share these ideas with. At a time when the hippies were beginning to assemble in the streets of downtown Toronto, preaching new world order from their makeshift community in Yorkville, my peers in Scarborough were only concerned with the trivial affairs of the day.

And by the time that I was old enough to join the hippie movement, it was already petering out. But two things stayed with me from all of their proclamations for social renewal and a better world: one was the idea of communal living and the other was the return to the land.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, the Jewish youth there were also talking about creating a better world, although their approach was quite different from that of the “flower generation.  In most Jewish youth movements, the concept of Israel and the kibbutz were almost inseparable. Israel was seen to hold the promise of “a light unto the nations”, and most saw this to be best realized through the socialistic and utopian nature of the kibbutz life style.

By the time I heard about the kibbutz in my sheltered existence, the “real terror of meaninglessness” had already led me to  consider leaving Canada in the search of something more. I heard about the kibbutz for the first time from a friend of my sister’s, who was planning to go to a six month ulpan on a kibbutz where you learn Hebrew half the day and work the other half. Something seemed to click when she told me about this and I felt that this was something I had to do. The irony was that she never did go to Israel in the end, but rather went to work with the native Indian community somewhere in Alberta, trying to right the wrongs of discrimination in her own backyard. Which is somewhat similar to the decision of many South African Jews not to emigrate to Israel but stay in South Africa and fight against Apartheid.

So, somehow I and many South Africans ended up in the same place. I had never planned, though, to stay here. I came to see socialism in action, and also learn Hebrew on the side. The ideology only really came afterwards. There was a time when I believed I would spend the rest of my life on the kibbutz. But that is when reality set in, both for me and for many of the South Africans who had decided to settle on a kibbutz. We gradually discovered the discrepancies between vision and reality; between the idealization of human nature and human primal instinct. If “Ideally Speaking” is any indication, most of the South African Jews who came to live on a kibbutz have since left. Many have left Israel, also - some going back to South Africa and others settling in other countries around the globe. We came very close to leaving Israel when we left the kibbutz, also. But in the end, we stayed, settling for isolation in the desert. The main difference here between me and South Africans, was that I only felt overly disillusioned with the kibbutz, feeling that it didn’t live up to its ideals. Many South Africans had become disillusioned with the country as a whole, feeling that they had been misled during their years in the youth movements about what really to expect. But my advantage, perhaps, was that I had first landed in Israel without any expectations. No one had tried to plant a pretty picture in my mind about Israel. Rather, at the kibbutz desk, when applying to come to a kibbutz ulpan, they appeared more interested in dissuading me from going.

You might wonder why I have concentrated on comparing my own experience to that of South African Jews. Why I would want to make such a comparison at all. Or why I didn’t choose youth closer to home, such as North American Jewish youth.

This was inspired by a book I recently read and have quoted here: “Ideally Speaking”. Although the  book is based on a series of interviews with a wide cross-section of South African Jews - now living in South Africa, Israel and abroad - I feel that much of what is expressed in the book is relevant to all of us, and warmly recommend the book to all of you.  I first heard of the book from one of its two editors: Steve Hellman (Lindsay Talmud is the other editor). I had never met a South African before coming to Israel and Steve was one of the first South Africans that I did meet. Not only that, but Steve played a significant part in my life in the early eighties when I was just starting out as a new teacher. In his role as coordinator of the English department at Kibbutz Brenner Regional High School, where I began my teaching career, Steve both welcomed me to the world of teaching and served as my mentor. And I owe it to him for not only getting through those first few months as a new teacher, but for also instilling in me the inspiration for thinking outside of the box in my teaching and in creating authentic teaching environments. Thirty years have passed since then and only now have I really discovered the world that Steve came from. And I thank him for what he gave me then, and what he has shared with me now.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Bearded Wonder

Why do men have beards? There are a multitude of explanations, I’m sure. Freud must have devoted a chapter to it, somewhere. I can only speak for myself, and even then, I am on shaky ground.

I think I decided to “sprout” a beard as soon as I was able to grow one. Most likely, even before that - when facial hair was no more than an unpromising stubble. Was this in an effort to appear older? Or perhaps, I saw it as a stamp of my own individuality. I really can’t remember that far back. I only know that, except for a few years later in life, I had a beard in some shape or form.

By the time I could grow a beard, and had reached an age where I could grow my hair long, the hippies had pretty well run out of steam - many of them leaving behind their nomadic, power of love life style, to open stylish boutiques where money became their new object of concern. We were into the seventies, the sixties were but a memory, but either no one had told me that the flower generation was over, or I didn’t care. With my long hair and beard, I set out for an Israeli commune, looking for a life where people lived together in harmony and social bliss.

It would be interesting to measure my induction into the socialistic life style of the kibbutz against the length of my beard. When I arrived on the kibbutz, one might say that my beard was “bushy”. Yet still under control. I had spent two months before that working in a small hotel on Rue Pigalle in Paris - what was known as the red light district. The characters that I met during those two months could have provided the inspiration for a compelling thriller. They took one look at this young Canadian boy, who they called “Le petit Jesus”, and took me under their ward. They would take me out for a walk through Paris late at night and I knew that there was nothing to be scared of, as they were much scarier than anything we could possibly meet on the way. At the end of the two months, when I was supposed to go to Israel to join an ulpan, they did everything in their power (other than kidnapping me) to try and convince me to stay. I often wonder what would have happened if I had stayed. But more about that in a future blog entry, entitled “Life Choices”.

So when did my beard start getting out of control. One might say, just before my marriage. By then I looked like a character out of the “Lion King” - or The Lion King himself. I was still in an upward spiral, becoming more and more of an integral part of the kibbutz, filling many roles such as head of the Manpower and Education committees. We had our first child and he spent his first years sleeping in the children’s house. But then things began to change - the kibbutz began to change. The signs were there - had been for quite a while, I imagine. Even now, although I left the kibbutz for the same ideological reasons that brought me there, I am surprised at how quickly it all fell apart. Right up to privatization.

And these are the years where my beard got increasingly shorter. Soon, the overall bushy look was gone, although there was still a firm growth of beard there. A vote in the general assembly decided that children would now live at home. And, as I became more and more involved in the sensitive areas of the kibbutz - especially when I became the head of the Members Committee, I saw how big the cracks had become, and found it difficult to justify staying there any longer. And my beard could now be described as “neat” - something it hadn’t been since my early Canadian years.

It must have been a year or two after we left the kibbutz, moving down to live in the Negev, that I shaved off my beard altogether. Maybe this was my way of stating that I was starting something completely new. I needed something to signify the separation, something which was an intricate part of myself. I remember when Adva came home and saw this strange man in the house. She was quite excited at the time, at least for the first few minutes until she realized it was me. That is another good thing about having a beard. By shaving it off, you can feel that you made a significant change in your life. Even if it is only for a moment. But growing a beard is nowhere the same. As G. K. Chesterton once said: “You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion.”

When it comes down to it, it is all skin deep - or should I say “hair deep”. Some people told me that being clean shaven made me look more distinguished, others - “younger’... but there were those - especially my sister and two childhood friends -  who appeared to have a problem recognizing me in my new naked form. Not that they didn’t know who I was - but they had  grown up knowing me only as a bearded wonder. And then this new person walked into their lives and he didn’t quite fit.

Probably the thing that convinced me to grow back a beard, albeit a small one, was that I could never get used to not being able to run my hand over my beard when in deep contemplation. There was no friction to help me think. Also, while staring at myself in the mirror, I was taken aback by the gaunt look.  So, much to the chagrin of some people, I started to sprout facial hairs again.

And here I am, late in life, wondering whether to just shave it all off again. Is it now the need to look younger? Or simply a need for change? In my facebook status, I asked people to vote for what they like more: a bearded or beardless David. If I thought they would help me decide, I was mistaken, as the votes are split more or less down the middle.

Maybe I should listen to the wisdom of Jean Cocteau: “There is always a period when a man with a beard shaves it off. The period does not last. He returns headlong to his beard.”

There are those who experiment with having a beard, and those of us who experiment without having one.