Sunday, September 9, 2012

My Russian Learning Exchange in Jerusalem

I’ve always had a knack for languages. Maybe it was my mom’s initiative in sending me to a French-English preschool that got my linguistic wheels going. Maybe it was my father’s knowledge of random curse words in multiple languages that kept me curious. I can’t pinpoint the exact source of being a linguaphile, but suffice to say that I love having the ability to meet and communicate with different people in their languages.

Tonight was the beginning of my second stint studying Russian.  The first time I studied the language, I was a junior in high school. SUNY Stony Brook had offered after-school foreign language courses for excelling students, and I had a thirst to expand my horizons while taking advantage of my junior license and new car. I loved studying in a university setting, and soaked up the Russian by listening to tapes and reading books.

Fifteen years later, here I am living in Jerusalem, still with a burning desire to communicate with Russian people and learn more about their culture. Given my self-proclaimed status of ‘eternal student’ and ‘language nerd’ (חנונית לשפות in Hebrew), I felt that I needed another linguistic challenge in my life now that I am fluent in Hebrew. I figured I’d give this Russian class a try to see how much I remembered from high school and perhaps make progress with my comprehension and conversational skills.

I find that I learn best in group settings, so the class at Berlitz got me very excited. After the trial class, I am pleased to report that my reading and comprehension skills in Russian are actually still quite good, which I think is due to a combination of frequent eavesdropping on random Russian conversations while traveling on public transportation throughout Israel, and reading every single sign in Russian that my eyes land upon.  I would say that my visit to Moscow also plays a part in my language retention, but my trip was eight years ago, so I don’t think it’s a contributing factor anymore.

The other students in my class intrigue me more than the language study itself. Talk about an "Only in Israel" moment – their backgrounds are testimonies to the authentic diversity in Jerusalem as a city. Just hearing a small snippet of their biographies made my own narrative seem mundane and lackluster. I’ve only met these young adults twice thus far, but I am looking forward to starting an enriching encounter with a different face of Jerusalem.

Take V., for example, a twenty-something Armenian Jerusalemite. He lives in the Old City, and works in his family jewelry business, which has stores in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City and one of the fancy hotels on Road #1 (the busy thoroughfare which serves as the border between “Western” and “Eastern” Jerusalem).  He speaks four languages fluently, and already knew how to say in perfect Russian, “Friend, for you, I give you a discount!” 

Then there’s A., a young twenty-something Arab guy with strawberry-blonde hair and bright blue eyes. He is finishing his degree in Mechanical Engineering. A. is from Abu-Gosh (I think that means he’s a Christian Arab), and went to school in Neve Shalom – the cooperative peace village near Latrun that I've been reading about for years. This came up in conversation because I assumed he had to translate the Russian exercises into Hebrew and then into Arabic, but he informed us that he’s been in an all-Hebrew learning environment since elementary school.  Hearing that he studied at Neve Shalom was a particularly exciting discovery for me since I’ve been following their work for many years, when I was researching bi-cultural peace education in areas of conflict. It also turns out that David Broza’s grandfather was one of the founding fathers of Neve Shalom –so many connecting pieces for me!  A. has the lowest level of Russian, but I think if he starts watching Russian TV, he’ll improve quickly.

K. comes from the FSU Republic of Georgia. He’s been here since he’s about 10, and works as a lecturer in Physics and Mathematics at ORT. He also studied German, plus he’s fluent in English, Georgian and Hebrew.  I don’t know how his Russian is so good, but he has little patience for A. and steals the spotlight. There’s always one know-it-all in every class!

Then there’s C, who is a sweet Charedi girl who was born to American parents in Jerusalem. It turns out that she volunteered with the same organization that brought me to Russia eight years ago, and spent three winters teaching Judaism to Russian students. She is kind, gentle and speaks Russian on a basic level. She reminds me of myself when I was young, more frum and more naïve.

The process of studying a foreign language in a foreign language is a fascinating process. There aren’t enough words to fully express how excited I am to refresh my Russian skills, but the added element of learning it in my third foreign language (Hebrew; Spanish is my second language) is going to be very challenging.  For me, the mental gymnastics is enjoyable. I love the cerebral challenge of translating back and forth, but I thought I would be the only one doing so in the classroom. I'm definitely not alone here.

Jerusalem’s colorful cultural tapestry is once again showing its face. Each one of us is learning Russian in a foreign language, yet most of the students (besides K. and I) were born in this very city! This “Only in Israel” moment is one that I have never encountered before. 

Today's cultural experience once again shows me how much similarity there can be between individuals who otherwise seem to have little in common. Each person has a narrative, and each person is fascinating in his/her own right. Even the aggressive, sketchy merchants in the Old City have families and children who wish to help develop their families' businesses! I find that when you encounter different people from various walks of life, you develop an appreciation for and curiosity about everyone.

Oh, I am a student of life, and every day in Jerusalem is my classroom!