I'd come to Israel for three weeks to study Hebrew, and brought only novels; I wanted to escape the everyday when I wasn't in class. Little did I know that I'd be surrounded at school by characters juicier than the liveliest fiction: the Romanian masseuse who wrote romantic stories about her fisherman husband, the Hungarian travel agent torn between Zionism and her boyfriend back home, the fiftyish Italian with thong underwear peeking out from her skintight pants and a cell phone that curiously rang with "business" calls all day.
All but three of us in the class of 16 were new immigrants, there with the help of an Israeli government subsidy to learn Hebrew and assimilate as quickly as possible. But the language school -- or ulpan -- had its own way of teaching how to become an Israeli, and it meant far more than learning verb tenses.
Fifty-seven years ago, when Israel was founded from the ashes of the Holocaust, it had a very clear identity -- it was a Jewish state, formed as a refuge for all from anti-Semitism and secured by an army in which almost all citizens served, period. From early on, the language schools were used to help establish that identity. Today, however, things are much less clear: A growing number of immigrants are non-Jews, and questions have increased about whether an overtly Jewish flag and national anthem expressing the hopes for the Jewish people are appropriate for a more mixed society. The army has become less of an equalizing melting pot, with some people picking their professional path before they enter the military and young people finding it much easier to avoid service than ever before.
In this period of transition, language schools are one of the only places where new immigrants are taught some official version of what it means to be an Israeli. And at Ulpan Akiva, the school I attended in this Mediterranean beach city, that lesson is evident enough: We were being taught to be more Israeli than many Israelis I know.
Our vocabulary lists are loaded with words or phrases including: "to be killed," "duty," "to wound," "pressure" and "battles." We attend a lecture about Jerusalem that challenges the historic Muslim connection to the city. We practice prepositions by going around the room and giving reasons why a cartoon in our book shows a man lovingly hugging a map of Israel.
"Notice he is actually hugging the middle of the country, and where are his hands?" the teacher asks.
"Jerusalem!" someone yells out.
"Yes," she says, shifting slightly to a regional map on the wall. "Is Israel big?" she asks with a grin.
"Nooooo . . . " the class answers, together.
The teacher compares it with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Israel, she says, is a "nih-koo-dah," or a point -- just a dot on the world. It's not even possible to write the word "Israel" on the country on the map, she says, since it's so small.
We are instructed to finish the sentence, "Israel is a country . . ."
". . . that worries about young children and old people," says an Algerian woman whose husband was killed in West Africa.
". . . that I dreamed about all the time," says a French woman with dyed blond hair.
At one point the Algerian and the Italian launch into a tirade about "Arab behavior" that goes unanswered by the teacher or other students. At another point the Italian asks if she can sing a classic Zionist ballad called "I Have No Other Country." Her see-through pants and mysterious phone calls are overpowered by her moving a cappella rendition, and the classroom feels like a sanctuary.
I hadn't expected when I signed up such overt nationalism to be woven into Hebrew classes when I signed up, and it brought me back to the romanticized image of Israel I had been taught in after-school religion classes as a child in suburban Boston, in the years after the 1967 war. In fact, Israel has no required language or cultural curricula at the approximately 120 public and private ulpanim (the plural of ulpan) around the country; some, like Akiva, are considered more "right-wing," while others, such as those on formerly socialist kibbutzim, are the opposite. Ulpanim's purpose is to make immigrants more familiar with Israeli language, culture and values, and the schools are part of the federal agency for new residents, fittingly called the Ministry of Immigration Absorption.
While questions of identity are particularly acute today, it's not as though debate about what makes an Israeli hasn't always been simmering. As Dina Goldberg, head of the ulpan program at Bar-Ilan University, puts it, "When there are two Jews, there are four opinions at least."
But still, the Israeli language schools are amazing laboratories of nation building, places where the question about what today's "Israelis" have in common stares you in the face. As nations such as Britain and Holland begin to wrestle with how to connect disparate immigrants, it's interesting to observe what's going on in Israel, which has dealt since its founding with these questions. But even for countries of immigrants -- like Israel and the United States -- globalization is raising issues about identity: Is the business of teaching assimilation getting slipperier? How do countries make someone their own?
My experience at Ulpan Akiva -- and my reaction to the good-guy/bad-guy viewpoint being espoused there -- made me wonder what it is like to go through the naturalization process in the United States and what things are explicitly taught or subtly expressed. While I found the simplified political message here disturbing for a classroom of adults, the Israeli cousins with whom I stayed thought it downright funny. They giggled at images of this hodgepodge of humanity sitting at our little plastic desks, practicing the Zionist ballads that Israelis learn as children.
Their individual reactions are proof of what Goldberg was saying. I have one cousin, an ultra-liberal artist who gathers with Palestinian women for peace meetings, who encourages her children not to sing such ballads, or even to attend Memorial Day events, for fear that they will absorb the militaristic attitudes she believes perpetuate war. In the same family, I have another cousin who stopped short when I sang a little bit of "I Have No Other Country" for him in Hebrew. "That's exactly how I feel," he said of the lyrics, which include these lines: "Even if the ground under me is aflame, a phrase in Hebrew penetrates my veins and my soul. With aching body, a hungry heart, this is my home."
I had really become attached to Israel in the fall of 1990, when I came to Jerusalem as a college student and wound up in the midst of a regional war. Between the gas masks we had to carry and the sirens at night and the dancing in the streets the day the war ended, I felt the Israeli identity very strongly, although it wasn't easy to define.
One tiny, funny way was described by Eytan Peer, executive director of the Israel Program Center, which brings people -- tourists or immigrants -- to Israel from North America.
"Immigrants are amazed by the Israeli mentality. They don't understand; in America, when you ask for something at the bank or a store or whatever, first you immediately get the 'yes,' and then with time you get the 'no.' In Israel, you get the 'no' first, and then you get the 'yes.' " I had to admit this romantic image resonated with me, thinking of Israelis who will shove you onto the street in order to make sure they get on the bus, but then will invite you to dinner right then when they hear you are a visitor to the country. Some of them carry a certain pride in not being overly sunny, the way they think Americans are.
I knew that much had changed since the year of the Persian Gulf War, and Israelis are furiously raking through their identity, not unlike the way Americans are, asking: Where are we going? What do we have in common? Watching these new immigrants come to class each morning beside the beach seemed as apt a lens as any to understand that process.
My classmates brought their own ideas about what it might mean to be Israeli, ideas unique to them and these times. For example, after a decade that brought 1 million people from the former Soviet Union to Israel -- nearly one-seventh of the country's population today -- there were more Akiva students for the first time this year from France than from the former Soviet Union. My French classmates said they were always seen as "Jews," not "French" and that since the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000, conditions had become much worse for them in Europe. These immigrants, many originally from North Africa, bring their own ideas about Jewish-Muslim coexistence, as do the hundreds of thousands of non-Jews who came from the former Soviet Union simply in search of a better economic climate.
To look at my class was to see the world of reasons people everywhere today are on the move -- economics, idealism, nationalism. Some had old-world ideas about their identities, and some were willing to start anew. The question they made me ask was one that reaches far beyond Israel's hotly debated borders: Will they find enough in common to keep a country together? It's a question that Israel has spent half a century learning how to answer, molding an imperfect national unity out of the colorful characters who choose to live here.
Michelle Boorstein is a Metro reporter for The Washington Post based in Fredericksburg, Va. She was in Israel for three weeks in May.