Monday, March 7, 2016

First Talk About the Trip After Our Return

Susan and I arrived back in Columbus about 1:30 a.m. Monday night (Tuesday morning), February 29 (March 1).  I was thrilled to have the opportunity to share some thoughts about our experiences at Shabbat Services on March 5. . . (I've added a few photos I couldn't show on Shabbat. . . . )

March 5, 2016
Following return from Sabbatical

O-H. . . . .

(I’ll come back to the significance of that later.)

Being Cantor at Tifereth Israel has afforded me many opportunities over the course of 33 years.  I’ve been able to do so many things within the congregation, in the Jewish community, in the general community, nationally in Jewish causes and justice causes and in work with my cantorial colleagues.

Of course this long association has also yielded some other amazing privileges.  In 1996, we spent 4 months as a family living in Jerusalem.  Our children attended 1st grade and 4rd grade in TALI schools – the Israeli equivalent of Solomon Schechter.  Although it was a time of great personal growth and exploration, it coincided with the First Intifada.

In 2002, we had the opportunity for a second sabbatical.  Again, we went to Israel.  Ben was able to participate with the TRY Ramah Semester in Israel program.  Addie was a 6th grader.  This time, I was even able to do some studies in Sephardic hazzanut – something of great interest to me, and which might have created some fear in the congregation.  Sadly, that visit coincided with the Second Intifada.

So as a 3rd sabbatical opportunity approached, we joked that Prime Minister Netanyahu requested that we go somewhere else—ANYWHERE else—for Israel’s sake.  The truth is, we thought it was a great opportunity to explore a less Jewish corner (or 2 or 3) of the world and see what that was like.  As it turned out, this sabbatical turned out to be a very difficult time for Israel once again.  But at least it didn’t feel like it was happening because we were in Israel!

In any case, we decided to visit 3 places in Asia – Vietnam, India and Japan.  In the first two countries, we served as volunteers in programs selected by an American organization – GreenHeart Travel.  Japan was just a 2-week vacation to conclude the adventure.

I hope that I’ll have a number of opportunities to unpack our many daily adventures, and to show pictures (hopefully not too many) when it’s not Shabbat.   Trying to debrief the whole experience this morning would be impossible – and unfair to you, me, and the experiences and people involved.  So I’m going to speak today about a few parts of our Vietnam experience.

There are wonderful and important parts of that experience I won’t get to today.  Some other time, I hope you’ll get to hear about Sa Pa – trekking in the northwest corner of the country – the gorgeous World’s Heritage Site of Ha Long Bay – the haunting history of Saigon’s Cu Chi Tunnels – and our trip up the Mekong River – Hanoi’s “Jewish world” from the Israeli Embassy to Chabad, performing Beethoven’s Ninth with the Vietnam Symphony– as well as talking about the many ways that technology has transformed international travel, revolutionizing our ability to function in faraway places where we don’t know the language – but ARE connected.  And the FOOD!  The Food! The Food!

My final “Before I speak” is to say thank you to everyone who made this trip possible – from the lay leaders of the congregation who agreed to it, to those who stepped up to fill in some of the things I usually do, and to my staff and clergy colleagues who had more to do and cover – I hope you’ll feel my gratitude and feel it was worth your sacrifices.  And I hope that my experiences will deepen the work that I do for Tifereth Israel and that you will all feel this was a good investment, too.

We had briefly visited Vietnam a few years ago on a wonderful family cruise that started in Singapore, and passed through Thailand and Vietnam, ending in Hong Kong.  We found it an intriguing place, and have heard so many laudatory things about the country from many who have visited in recent years, so we jumped at the opportunity, and really made it the primary focus of our volunteer work, devoting two months to the program made available to us.

We resided in a home in a lesser known part of the city of Hanoi.  The home belonged to the founders and directors of the local program in which we participated – known as CSDS – Center for Sustainable Development Studies.  Que (the mom) and Phuong (the dad) are the face and embodiment of why Vietnam is on the move and on the rise today.  And their amazing children Kid and Nhim (aged 13 and 8) are the embodiment of why it will be on the rise tomorrow.  This family is worth a whole talk in and of itself – as well as Susan’s special relationship with the little girl, but we’ll save that for another time, too.

Our volunteer work was as English teachers in the nearby Nguyen Tat Thanh High School.  NTT is a public school – but it’s one for high achieving students, and it is administered by a National Teacher’s College, within which the school is located.

We walked 20 minutes each morning – from our alley off of Doan Ke Thien, across the riotous main street Pham Van Dong.  (Actually, we walked UNDER Pham Van Dong through an underpass which may have been the cleanest place in Hanoi.)  Each day, faces turned up to see us making our way up and down streets, in and out of motorbikes, motorbikes, people, cars, trucks, buses and motorbikes and a lot more people.  If you visit Hanoi, it is very unlikely that you will walk through “our neighborhood.”  It’s not a place where tourists go – and it’s a place where two westerners really stood out.  So even to people we never met, we were familiar faces – because they saw very very few faces like ours.  To some of those people, we were specifically familiar – the lady and man at the laundromat, who did our laundry weekly or biweekly for just a very few dollars – the young men at the copy center, who printed the materials we were preparing for our teaching – for very few dollars – well, usually less than a dollar; the jackfruit lady, who loved the funny lady (Susan) who was her regular customer – and other local business people with whom we had regular dealings – or didn’t.  Like the policeman who would valiantly try to make something coherent of one of the corners we passed each morning and would smile at and speak to Susan. 

We didn’t speak each other’s language, but we had a feeling of trust and enthusiasm that was catching.

The locals seemed fascinated with this couple who looked different and dressed different – in part because what they considered cold (so they wore parkas and other warm clothes), we considered comfortable, usually topping out with a sweater – but most often not.

Of course, as Americans, walking the streets of Vietnam and exploring its history is a complicated matter.  When Americans think of Vietnam, we are likely first of all to think about conflict, death, destruction, MIAs, terrible things that our military did to their country in what was ultimately an unsuccessful war.  But when most Vietnamese today think about the USA, they are much more likely to think about business and entertainment.  The young people – and Vietnam is primarily a very young country – know about the American War only as a matter of history.  Presumably it’s a matter of some pride that they won that war, although many western travelers today are likely to say that we won the war after all – because the Communist dictatorship that prevailed in the 1970s has been replaced – mostly – by a forward-working capitalist model – though still an authoritarian government.  So that when you walk the streets and see Coca-Cola and Starbucks and Pizza Hut and KFC after KFC, it’s hard to feel defeated.

There are places that one visits, though, that remind us very keenly of the prices paid on both sides to arrive where we are today.  When I say “Hoa Lo Prison,” you might recognize that as the place where John McCain and other American pilots were held for years.  And we spent a fascinating half-day there.  To the Vietnamese, Hoa Lo Prison is where the French imprisoned hundreds of Vietnamese over the years and subjected them to inhuman treatment and torture – and the guillotine, which is still present.  It’s a place of a famous escape in the 1950s.  And it’s the place where they (by their accounts) gave fair treatment (the best possible under the economic strains of the war – again by their account) to the American pilots.  We know that the truth is much more complicated.  Do the Vietnamese people who visit know this?  I suspect they do.  Living in Hanoi for 2 months, it means something different to see the photo of John McCain being rescued from West Lake – the lake that is at the northern edge of downtown Hanoi – where today the ex-pat community lives in large numbers.  It is unforgettable to see the remains of a B-52 bomber in the middle of the city.  And it is so touching and hopeful to see the photo at Hoa Lo Prison of one of those pilots – Douglas “Pete” Peterson – who later become the first American ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam.  This is the kind of thing that says we can move forward with dignity, without forgetting the past, but with hope for the future.

At NTT, we taught 45-minute English classes to 6th graders through 11th graders, with a wide variety of English knowledge.  We taught 3 classes each morning and 3 classes most afternoons Monday through Thursday.  As there were about 40 to 45 kids in each class, that somehow added up to 800 to 1000 kids a week.  There were different tracks at the school.  Some spoke a lot of English – a few with little detectable accent.  Some spoke very little English – especially the kids whose specialty was science and technology.  One interesting phenomenon was that we observed that the kids felt very close to us and enthusiastic about us – because they knew more English than their own teachers.  This may sound like an indictment of the school or the teaching system.  But the plain truth is that, in the last 10 years, the broad availability of technology and entertainment in Vietnam means that the children are exposed to English in ways their teachers never were.  Their teachers learned English in classrooms.  The kids learn it from TV, movies, games, music and the Internet.

From the beginning, when we would walk around the school or enter a classroom, we received enthusiastic responses – unbelievably enthusiastic responses – from the children.  It almost felt like they had been indoctrinated to MAKE THE VISITORS FEEL SPECIAL NO MATTER WHAT ELSE YOU DO – but the truth is that these young people relish the connection to the outside world.

It’s true that time with Jack and Susan was a relaxed time – with less pressure than their many other classes.  They weren’t going to have to pass exams on what they learned with us.  And they didn’t treat us with the same kind of respect they accorded their regular teachers.  The school is a big and noisy place, and we almost always used a microphone to be heard and to save our voices.  We passed a lot of classrooms where the students were sitting quietly while their teachers had written math formulas or science diagrams all over the boards.  Why were they so noisy for us, we sometimes wondered? 

Did our game-like English sessions really make any difference, serve any purpose?  If this were the only English they learned, I would be concerned.  But it was really a supplement to other ongoing English study – and a chance to connect to foreign cultures.  For us, we used the opportunity to connect them to American and Jewish things – much more than the sponsors of the program might have imagined.

This brings me to one of the special qualities of all our time from November through February:  We Jews worry a lot about “What does the world think of us Jews?” “What does the world think of Israel?”  “How dare they say this or that about us?  Don’t they understand our story?”  Well, we have spent the last 3 ½ months in parts of the world where people DON’T think about the Jews.  They don’t (for the most part) think bad things about the Jews or Israel.  They just haven’t got a clue. 

But now, the students at NTT school – about 1000 of them – have some consciousness about Jews and America and Israel.  We didn’t indoctrinate them.  We just shared some things. 

The timing was such that our first set of lessons was at Thanksgiving time – whatever THAT was.  Actually, their books did teach them about Thanksgiving – but really as a foreign concept.  It was nice to share OUR Thanksgiving – and then Chanukah with them. 

If you think about it, Chanukah and the struggle to observe one’s own traditions opens up interesting and potentially dangerous subjects in an authoritarian regime.  And we weren’t seeking to create converts.  But it was nice to have the opportunity to share with them how many of their heroes from the TV, movie and entertainment world are Jewish.  (Adam Sandler was really on to something here.)

Our coup de grace with the kids was a video that was sent to us by a dear friend who grew up here at Tifereth Israel.  We found out early in our time that one of the TV shows that most of the kids knew about was How I Met Your Mother.  So I immediately contacted the Radnors to see whether Josh Radnor (who played Ted, a key role in the show) might be able to send us a greeting video.  Hey, I trained the kid (well, he’s no longer a kid is he?) for Bar Mitzvah.  Mentsch that he is (and my timing was perfect as he was home for Thanksgiving), he sent us a 38-second video saying hello to students in Hanoi who are students of Jack and Susan).  We used this strategically to blow the kids’ minds. 

Talk about developing “street cred.”  This was a powerful tool.  We used a few similar surprise strategies, but there was nothing quite like the Josh video, and it’s hard to imagine our experience without it.

Our lessons used game shows, madlibs, all kinds of strategies to try to successfully engage a broad range of students for a short period of time.  Susan was a brilliant partner for all these things, though partner is an understatement, as she actually HAS educational training and is a brilliant and fun teacher.  We have never spent so much time together as we did these 3 ½ months, and it was really precious to work through the daily minute-by-minute challenges as a team, changing so many things on the fly, not always agreeing, but moving forward together, and getting better and better at that.

The mantra that we used to restore attention in classes was to shout out “O-H”. . . and the kids were taught to respond “I-O” – and to (at least in theory) follow this with silence and attention.  When we first taught about where we were from, we showed pictures of people making O-H-I-O in various places around the world – including a photo from Jerusalem a few years ago that included our daughter Addie and Adam Berman.  

And the classrooms were all set up in 4 rows – so we had them craft their own O-H-I-Os.  This became our trademark – and as we walked around the school, students in the hall would smile at us and say “O-H” to elicit our appropriate response.  But it extended also to walking up and down the street – as occasionally someone would lean out of a car and shout it – and we even ran into it at the airport in Hanoi, returning from one of our several explorations of remarkable places in Vietnam.

NTT is a special place, and the atmosphere of excitement about learning and growing is palpable.  The culture’s a little different.  We actually saw teachers hitting students, students hitting each other. . . but there is a sense of community and pride and joy that is impossible to miss.

Susan and I have been here now since 1982.  I’m from Long Island.  She’s from Milwaukee.  I’m not sure when we became Ohio Ambassadors, but somewhere along the way, that seems to have happened. 

So if you get the opportunity to visit Vietnam in coming years – especially Hanoi, you might just try an “O-H” . . . and see what happens.

O-H. . . . . I-O.

Shabbat Shalom

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