There used to be a slogan used by the Education Ministry to encourage more people to join the pedagogical profession by stressing the impact they could make: "Moreh zeh lechol hachayim!" "A teacher is for life!"
The phrase came back to me last month as I attended a reunion in honor of a beloved teacher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dora Shickman was no ordinary teacher, and this was no ordinary reunion. Giveret Shickman, as she was usually called in Hebrew, taught Chinese to scores of students crazy enough to want to learn the language at a time when relations with China were a dream as distant as the Middle Kingdom from the Middle East.
Students decided to join the class for many reasons; they nearly all stayed on because of Giveret Shickman. Her force of personality - the mix between a Yiddishe Mama and a traditional Chinese educator - was such that for the reunion, some 40 former students got together despite the fact that the person who should have been the guest of honor - Dora Shickman - had died 20 years ago.
Permit me, then, to use a Hebrew-language column to pay tribute to a remarkable lady, a native of China who escaped the Cultural Revolution with her Russian-Jewish husband and found herself somewhat an outsider in the rough Israeli reality.
In English, when something is incomprehensible, you can say: "It's all Greek to me"; the equivalent French expression decries that it is "Hebreu" (Hebrew), but in Hebrew the expression is: "Zeh Sinit" ("It's Chinese").
Studying Chinese in Hebrew is not as complicated as it sounds. Chinese is not as difficult as it looks. But like most foreigners tackling Mandarin, one of my main problems was the difference a tone could make. Poor Giveret Shickman spent weeks worrying about my brother. It was 1982. The Lebanese War was raging. Neither my brother nor I had access to a phone. Every time my teacher asked, I would admit I was scared because he wasn't out of danger and wasn't home yet. After many lessons, she asked me what the doctor said. Doctor? What doctor? It turned out that I had been saying he was "sick" instead of saying he was a soldier (both bing in Chinese, but with different intonation.) Had we spoken in Hebrew, we would not have confused the words "holeh" (sick) and hayal (soldier) so consistently.
For me, a major difficulty was trying to pick up another vastly different language when I had been in the country only three years (and losing 55 days to reserve duty). Strange to say, I used the Chinese lessons to learn Hebrew. To this day, certain words flow more easily in Chinese than the holy language. Recently I found myself in a shop looking for a kid's paintbrush. Unable to recall the Hebrew (mik'hol), I had to bite my tongue to stop the Chinese "maobi" from jumping off the tip of it and surprising the rather gruff vendor.
Dora Shickman was never gruff. But she could make a student curl up with shame for not preparing homework simply by looking upset. (Told you she was a Jewish mother.) The reunion was attended by her daughter, Zvia Bowman (also a former HU teacher), son Simon and two of her grandchildren. They listened to our impressions of their mother and grandmother. We learned, at last, some of her personal history.
Unlike normal reunions, former students didn't compare notes on financial well-being and achievements. If there was any element of competition, it expressed itself in a subtle difference between those who had turned Chinese into a career and either regularly visited or worked in a Chinese-speaking country, and those like me and my classmate Muli Vered ("a computer person by profession but Sinologist in my soul"), for whom the language remained an unrequited love.
Classmate. Another word which more readily springs to my mind in Chinese (tongxue) than in Hebrew (haver lesafsal halimudim). How many times did we hear the question "Aval ma ta'asu im Sinit?" "But what will you do with Chinese?" Well it turns out, 20 or more years down the line, that many students did use it - Israel even had a Chinese-speaking ambassador wandering the Far East.
Some, like my classmates Gadi and Yomi, are still teaching Chinese-related subjects. Some, like the reunion's chief organizer Sefi Saragusty, spent years in Taiwan (although now back in Israel and after a career change, he's probably the only local veterinarian who speaks fluent Mandarin).
It seems that through her students, and her students' students, Dora Shickman is basically the mother of all Chinese-language courses in the country. And nowadays the classes are tremendously popular and large. (You wouldn't need both hands to count my graduating class.)
Looking around the room last month I couldn't help but wonder whether Giveret Shickman would have been proud of us. I'm pretty sure the Jewish mother would have got some nachas, as they say in Yiddish, (nachat in Hebrew). The refined Chinese lady would probably never have showed it. The main thing is, we are proud to be able to say we had Dora Shickman for a teacher. In any language.