No, I don’t heal blind men; I don’t preach; I don’t walk on water, and my name doesn’t start with the letter “J.” But after I spend time in the limestone hills and mountains of Galilee, see sheep graze the valley floor, breathe the scented air — it’s just a matter of time before I remove my Nike shoes and slip on biblical sandals.
This rugged, ancient landscape is part of my twice-weekly 1 hour drive to Zefat Academic College in Upper Galilee. I’ve been teaching English there for several months. 30 students are enrolled in preparatory English. Ideally, by summer, they will acquire enough English vocabulary and skills to tackle English textbooks in social work, nursing, law.
Zefat, a mountaintop town, is on the fringe of the fringe.
It’s disconnected from the rest of Israel by space and time. It’s a 3 1/2 hour drive from Tel Aviv, the country’s main hub. It’s home to Orthodox Jews, seminaries, all-girls boarding schools, Kabbalah Centers — a mixture of old world and New Age; Jews who’d lived here for generations, Jews who’d arrived from Brooklyn, Israeli young men and women who attend college and the School of Medicine, art-lovers and those who wish to lose themselves.
Zefat College has several buildings scattered about town. I teach at an all-stone three-level building that in the 1930s housed the British Command Post.
Students come from far and wide; Arabs and Druze from the Golan Heights near the Syrian border. Jews travel from neighboring towns or from their rented apartments in Zefat. The ratio in class is 50% Arab, 50% Jews. Years ago, you could tell who’s who after one glance. The divide in appearance, dress, mannerism was obvious.
The Israeli Arabs are becoming more “Israeli.” They speak Hebrew fluently. They get stuck on a word here and there, and once in a while I hear myself say: “Can someone translate this word to Arabic?”
The Arab Israeli women dress conservatively but fashionably: boots, jewelry, make-up, the works. And the latest cell phone. The Israeli Arab men sport funky hairstyles, blue jeans, and Marlboro cigarettes.
The Jewish Israeli women, many of them from an all-girls schools, dress modestly, some with head covers. Their English skills are well below average, the result of studying the bible at the expense of the sciences. Some had married before 18. The Israeli Jewish men attend Zefat college after their military service and after they dropped off the face of the earth trekking in Thailand, or South America, and returned to “civilization” to get their degree.
Arabs or Jews, much of their education is subsidized by the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Defense in the hope of narrowing the educational divide between the Fringe and Tel Aviv.
As their teacher and as the “American Embassador” who’d lived in California for decades, I’m the go-to guy with all things American. They love Hollywood. Big cars. Music. And YouTube. Whenever I see their heads dropping, I know it’s time to play songs from Beyonce, Cold Play, Adele, Rihanna.
You might ask, Arabs and Jews together in the same class? So far I haven’t witnessed one incident of friction between them. Some topics are off-limits: religion, politics. Otherwise, the atmosphere is laid back. It’s as if everyone’s taking a hit from a joint, swirling the smoke in their lungs and mouths and exhaling serenity into the air.
Relax, man, it’s Zefat.
Semester one of two ended last week. I asked, “Why don’t we have a potluck lunch party?”
Hands went up. “Yes! Yes! Yes.”
Within minutes we drew up the menu on the board, who was to bring what. The following week we feasted on Hummus, Tabouleh, Grape Leaves, goat cheese, and a host of deserts.
Now, return to your seats everyone. English class is about to begin. But not before we listen to music, this time from students Elias and Jeries, twin brothers, Christian Arabs. They play the traditional drums, the “Darbuka.”
Here’s a clip from one of their performances at Arab weddings:
Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.
He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com
or at BN.com