Friday, August 29, 2008

this morning

Today, this man stopped me and asked: "Did you just see a tohr to by?" which, in my mind, obviously turned into "Did you just see a Torah go by?" I mean, it happens. But of course, he was looking for his campus TOUR...

I am teaching an intro-level class and am having some trouble reaching my students. I decided to throw my lectures out of the window and to concentrate on one single aspect per lecture, cutting down drastically what I am talking about. My students are bright, but seeing that most of them are religiously conservative, I think I need a new approach. It will take me some time, but today I started with Rabbinic culture and the story of R. Akiva's crowns. It's a favorite of many teachers because it can be taken as an example for Rabbinic attitudes toward authority and the connection to Moshe, and especially the rabbis' acute awareness of the difference between Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism.

But we also read the narrative of the oven of Aknai, and this one really rattled them. The story of Moshe and R. Akiva was strange, in spite of the lovely detail of a Torah scroll I'd pasted next to their text. ("Meat in a butcher shop???! How did they know it was R. Akiva?") But here, it was God Himself speaking, how could the rabbis not drop everything and obey? I had a ball watching them grapple with this different way of approaching text, authority, and the divine. 0:1 for me. This time at least.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

taking the bus

I must be the only faculty member using public transport here. Not that the system is so terrible: the buses are nice, small, air-conditioned, run about once an hour, and mostly show up within 10 minutes of their scheduled time of arrival, give or take. It is a snap to get downtown, and the system would be really great if the buses were coordinated which they aren't, because, as someone put it to me, it "aint no lawyers and stuff taking those buses." As it is, I usually end up walking the last ten blocks or so which is fine before 8 a.m. and a bit tougher at 2 p.m. My new acquaintances here are everything from horrified to fascinated that I get by at all and have been taking me home so often I stopped counting. I usually take the bus in between 7 and 8 in the morning, catching a ride back between 6 and 8 (it stops running around 9). I know the three bus drivers on that route, and, by now, a good part of the passengers, too, although as a bloody foreigner, I am still regarded with some suspicion. They seem to be mostly pensioners, home assistants, hotel workers, foreign students, young families... all struggling to get by and, like me, grateful for the existence of this rather pitiful $1 bus-a-ride system. In contrast to New York or Icy City, people here are talkative in public spaces. Many greet each other by name, they chat about vacation days, work, kids, crime--but no religion, politics, or finances, EVER.... this morning, for example, I was waiting for talk to turn to the Convention, but: not a peep. But maybe that'll be different tomorrow morning, after Obama's speech.

Ok, this was written in the morning, after I caught a connecting bus and reached my office in under 30 minutes, a new record. In the evening, however, I missed the bus by a minute, or perhaps it didn't come--there is a major game going on tonight and the city "center" was completely dead--and then the cab didn't show either. Finally, a colleague rescued me, but while I was waiting for my ride, I suddenly felt little pricks all over my legs. Couldn't see a thing, but once I removed my sunglasses, I noticed little black dots climbing up my legs, feasting perhaps on an impressive layer of sweat. Agh! Were those fireants? Whatever they were, they were biting me, reminding me of the nettles that would hit our legs as kids when we were playing in the woods.

Monday, August 25, 2008

the weather

Everybody told me it would be hot. My colleagues prophesied I would just melt away and yearn for the winters I lived through in that Icy City. And, true to form, it was 100F at 9 p.m. when I landed again two weeks ago. But since then, it's been fine except for the humidity, about 93% today and rarely below 85%. And today, on my way to school, I finally remembered where I'd encountered this thick air before and I was again in the orangerie in my little town. Always a magical place... who would have thought I'd ever live in such a climate?!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

panic attack

So I just finished the first batch of my student's reaction papers. Wow! This is an honor's class, and the discussion was just fine last week. So, now I just read that Judaism and Islam were founded through human intermediaries (as opposed to Christianity, I assume). Judaism, I learned, relies on teaching & laws from men who were intermediaries between God & men (!). Islam, on the other hand, was founded because Mohammad said he was an intermediary between God & men. (!) Now what do I do? I'm not teaching an intro to world religions...

my Oma

Advising me on cars--Honda Fit (Jazz) vs. Toyota Yaris--my Dad just informed me that his mother, my grandmother, fell a few weeks ago. She only broke a couple of ribs, but she was pretty confused when he visited her in the hospital, so that his wife very quickly found her a room in an assisted living facility nearby. She is well over 90, and her apartment will be dissolved within the next few weeks.

My Oma and I do not get along. She never was a warm person, and even my mother's admonitions that she "just can't help it. She had a tough life" never made me like her. Yeah, she had a tough life, but so did millions of others who lived through the war. It's true, it probably wasn't much fun to raise a kid (my Dad) as a divorcee in the prude post-war period. Still... in some ways, she lived a very emancipated life. She bought an apartment, and she spent her last decades cruising the world--literally. When I was a kid, she constantly seemed to be on the go to some outlandish place, traveling in these scary buses and sleeping in coffin-like beds onboard. We never had much of a connection and now, it seems, we never will.

Oh, and the woman in the picture is not my Oma, but she might as well be.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

new beginnings

I don't even know where to start. EVERYTHING seems to be different here in the Deep South, even if mass media and chain stores soften the worst culture shock. A few highlights perhaps, to start out with.

My first days at school
We started last Thursday, a week before Labor Day, why, I do not know. I am still not "in the system." Our fabulous administrator managed to get me temp IDs for pretty much everything from library to Blackboard. At the same time, I am freaked out every time I am trying to enter my SSN to see if I am in the "system", so Orwellian, and incredulous at the same time that they are really still asking for my SSN...

My office is fabulously beautiful, I can see a couple of old trees and a bit of sky, it's large, too, with an extra work area for research, a sitting area for visiting students, and the biggest desk I've ever had. Built-in book cases cover most walls floor-to-ceiling, and my books do not even fill a quarter of the shelf space. Yay!

I am teaching a survey and an upper-level seminar and in both classes, my students behaved as expected: sullen in the survey and interested in the latter. While my deepest fears--that I won't understand my students--have not (yet!) come true, I am constantly reminded of the very different student body. They really are more religious, more isolated from the world, and far more ready to shed any vestiges of PC behavior they might have had. A colleague asked her students to jot down some ideas about Jewish humor. The responses: money-hungry, cheap, ugly... My students talked a lot about the "morals" that religion brought about. Hmm.

Jews at school
My school managed to schedule the meet & greet for the new faculty families on Yom Kippur and when I gently complained, I was informed that the event had been moved--to erev Yom Kippur. I guess they will have a steep learning curve! The Jewish holidays are not listed among the "please do not schedule exams today" days which did not stop me to cancel class three times.

But my biggest reminder that things are different here took place at a faculty dinner in a colleague's house last week. Held in honor of the incoming grad students in a truly lovely southern house, we were sitting around, chatting idly when, suddenly, all got up, my neighbors took hold of my hands and proceeded to sing grace before meals. This was not considered a Christian affair, as I was informed, presumably because Jesus was not mentioned. Next time, I will offer to say the grace AFTER meals, hehe...

Anyway, in addition to living here, I am hereby resolving to
* work out in the gym downstairs to lose all that dissertation weight, or at least some of it.
* work regularly on my book. Oy.
* drive regularly. Not that that is a stretch here, the locals basically live in their cars and after taking the bus these last weeks, I know why.
* stay in touch with my friends.