Masa Israel Journey Blog

Published : December 13, 2010
By Christina Healy, University of Haifa
It was just another Thursday. After my Hebrew class ended at noon, I met up with another researcher from the Sign Language Research Lab and we headed to lunch. Usually we automatically angle toward the cafeteria, but today we were in the mood for a baked potato, so we headed downstairs to the coffee shop. After paying, I turned toward the dining area and stopped short, staring out the window. With my arm outstretched, “smoke…fire” was all I could utter. The Carmel forest was alight.
An hour after the fire began, the flames were already high enough to see from campus, and the smoke towered over the university.
Having grown up in southern California, I have seen more than my fair share of forest fires and the color and amount of smoke I was seeing was quite alarming. We joined others on the balcony to get a better view, discussed where it appeared to be burning, and snapped a few shots on our cell phones. I still wanted a better view.
On our way to the observation floor at the top of Eshkol Tower, we stopped to pick up our belongings from the lab in case an evacuation was called. Sure enough, after a few minutes in the tower, we and the thirty people who had come dozens of stories up were asked to leave the tower to the officials. An hour later the whole campus was gathering their belongings and heading to the buses. I received a text message from the International School instructing us where to meet for more information.
All we could do as the smoke spread was watch and pray.
The staff’s calm, informative direction impressed me and their attention to detail for the group as well as to individuals’ concerns helped the students remain calm as well. Asking for cooperation, but not imposing unreasonably strict control, the department helped each student determine his or her best course of action. Many students had plans for the holiday weekend to spend Hanukkah with family in a different city. Others had planned weekend trips abroad. Those students simply chose to leave a day early. Students that were staying in Haifa were taken down the hill to a local high school where they would be safe until further arrangements were solidified. I stayed with the group for the comfort and companionship until we had some news and then headed to my apartment off campus. Students were welcomed into homes with local families offering their hospitality. On my way home, I called my friend who had been visiting Lake Kinneret that day to keep her updated on the events in Haifa. We had arranged with the International School that she would stay with me for the weekend.
We spent the weekend searching the “breaking news” sections of newspaper websites, calling family back home to reassure them of our safety and keeping in touch with local friends as each new piece of information emerged. We heard about the bus that was caught between two walls of flames. We heard the fire was 200 meters from the dorms. We heard various suspects had been arrested, questioned, and released. At one point, unable to sit and do nothing any longer, we took a walk to see the smoke rising from the valley a few mountaintops southward. My friend searched the for the peak saying, “I would feel better if I could only see Eshkol Tower. I just want to see that it still stands,” somewhat reminiscent of our home’s national anthem.
Friday night we shared Kabbalat Shabbat with our congregation and asked how we could help people being affected by the fire. We were told that the helpline had already received five times as many calls from people offering help than those requesting it, but that as opportunities arose, they would call us. It was touching to see the response, both local and international, to this disaster. Since then, the university has set up a location to accept donations of clothes, toiletries, and other necessities, and the dozen tables have been completely overwhelmed by students’ generosity. The response from students of the international school to volunteer their time and energies for rebuilding has been numerous and immediate, and we are still coordinating how those intentions can be put into action.
Donations for fire relief pour in from university students.
Monday morning we attended classes at a school downtown and that evening returned to our mountaintop, resuming “life as normal” on Tuesday. The road to rebuilding and recovery, both physical and psychological, will not be a short nor easy one, but the journey has begun, and I am touched by the support I have seen springing up on all sides for those tragically affected by the flames.
Published : December 13, 2010
Being constantly surrounded by texts, and basing the vast majority of my education this term at Pardes on those texts, has made me think a lot about issues of how we understand texts. Specifically, I have reflected on just how much is lost from a traditional Jewish text (Chumash, Talmud, etc.) when it is read exclusively in a language other than Hebrew. This contrasts quite severely with how Western Analytic philosophy is taught at universities in the Western world these days (at least in my experience).
As is the case with the texts we study at Pardes, most of the texts studied in the course of obtaining a degree in philosophy were not written in English. However, no time is spent learning to read and understand the original languages, and barely any mention is even made of the fact that much is undoubtedly lost through studying the texts in this way.
More recently, I have been considering a more removed aspect of the same issue, namely how we communicate with each other, not across millennia but with those we interact with during our lives. Language is such a tricky thing, not only deserving its own post, but probably a library-full of books. The language we speak is so culture-specific in today’s world of hyper-accelerated change due to the global nature of the communities with which we interact and the accessibility we all have to foreign communities because of the Internet and other technologies. This is so true that a given person probably speaks so many different languages over the course of one lifetime that, were it not for the fact that the same person lived both, it would be difficult for the same person to understand all of what the previous culture produced (textually) when rooted in a ‘later’ language.
If that were not enough, in order to interact with people at any given moment in time, one has to share a tremendous amount of shared language with them. Now I don’t want to be accused of saying that people living in culture x cannot interact with people in culture y. Rather, I mean this in a more (arguably elitist) academic sense, which is the world that I am immersed in; both at university back home and here at Pardes. It has become increasingly clear to me that, even given all the requisite similarities that I have mentioned, it is almost inconceivable that any given sentence (about a non-pedestrian topic) will be understood by those listening (or, even more so, reading written words years or centuries later) in the same way that the speaker intended it.
Not that any grand moral lessons need to be learned from this, but if anything, it is important to remember this and pause before jumping to conclusions of any kind that are based on verbal interactions (non-verbal interactions are another bucket of worms). Also, taken in this context, the amount of ‘translating’ that really goes into making a text such as the Bible accessible to an audience of Western 21st century students is extraordinary.
Benjamin Barer is blogging for New Voices Magazine while studying at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.

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