Pioneer in the Swim

An article in Issue 18, December 22, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. I am standing on the edge of the pool, in my Speedo swimsuit, feeling like a Second Aliya pioneer determined to speak only the language of their forefathers. It's Sunday night, Masters Swim Group, Jerusalem Pool. I'm about to swim three kilometers. My swimming is as bad as the typical pioneer's Hebrew was, but I'm going to do it anyway. I have an acquaintance who teaches meditation. She once suggested that I join the group she conducts once a month before Saturday morning services at our synagogue. "Mediation relieves stress," she advised me. "Relieve stress? What's wrong with stress?" I answered blankly. I go to shul on Saturday mornings to get stressed out. I'm not very good at praying. I go to Masters Swim for the same reason. It's like those yeshiva dropouts and intellectual women who arrived in Palestine in the 1910s to break their backs at manual labor and tie their tongues trying to make Hebrew their daily language. Imagine trying to express your innermost thoughts and feelings with a preschooler's vocabulary and grasp of linguistic nuance. It would be like a 52-year-old klutz doing the breaststroke. My stress comes mostly from within. Tzvi and Nir, the frogman-unit veterans who are our trainers, encourage and coach me, without being too demanding. At the edge of the pool stand Hezi, 30-something, and Tuni, mother of seven (including a set of 3-year-old triplet boys!). I jump in. If I don't get a head start, I'll never get through the routine that Tzvi has plastered on a kickboard. I'm joined by Tzviki, former army officer, veteran of the Yom Kippur war, erstwhile kibbutznik. Tzviki is almost 59; but for him, I'd be the oldest member of the group. He's lithe and fit, and swims a mean butterfly. I let him go first. Five hundred meters of warm-up. Warm-up is the part I do best. I set out. I am conscious of every movement. I raise my left arm above me, crooking my elbow, then extending it to full length as it passes my head. I extend my left shoulder, cut into the water with my hand, and pull myself forward through the water, trying to make the proper S-movement. But I've lost track of my right arm in the process. And my feet. Am I kicking properly? It's all so complicated. Tuni glides past me in the next lane as if she were a hawk catching an updraft; at the far end she flips like a Slinky going downstairs. It's a beautiful thing to see. The view from her lane into mine is clearly less picturesque. But I plod on. I will not be discouraged by the facility of others. As Yosef Aharonovitz said, it's better to stammer in Hebrew than speak another language fluently. Aharonovitz edited Hapo'el Hatza'ir, the most important Hebrew-language newspaper in Second-Aliya Palestine. And one written almost entirely by people who had grown up speaking other languages. I complete my first lap. A new swimmer has just eased himself into the water. He's got a long, scraggly beard and the impression of a large skullcap is evident on his stringy hair. He's clearly older than I am. I introduce myself. He is Sender, a name that harks back to the shtetl. My hopes rise. I must be faster than this guy. So I set out for my next lap. By the half-way mark Sender is passing me on the left. He strokes slowly, getting full power out of each efficient movement. Of course, there's a danger in persisting in something that you don't do well. At the beginning of 1919, Yedidya Shoham, a recent oleh, resolved to keep his diary in Hebrew. "I will endeavor to write Hebrew from this day forward and I will see how many mistakes I make. I will correct them each time and in this way I will practice using the language to describe my thoughts and feelings," he earnestly inscribed. But he soon became so accustomed to expressing himself inadequately in his adopted tongue that he lost the ability to express himself properly when he desperately needed to do so: "I write in Hebrew. I cannot do otherwise, I simply can't. Nevertheless, I love the Polish language truly. I am tied to it strongly. I have reached the logical conclusion that I must continue to write in Polish. But when I sat down to write, I was unable to do so. How awful! Which is my language?" Which is my stroke? After the warm-up, Tzvi has us do 400 meters of individual medley. The sequence is butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and crawl. My butterfly is a mutant. My backstroke is ungainly, my breaststroke inept. For a few weeks, earlier this year, when Tzvi was lifeguarding at the pool, he worked with me intensively on improving my crawl. And it improved. But only a little. So Amit, a 20-something student with the long torso and flexible, gangly limbs of a high school swim champ, passes me three times during the medley. He doesn't bother going around me. As he comes up from behind, he dives deep, like a cormorant, and emerges lazily before me. Amit was born with the perfect build and instincts to make a natural swimmer. With Hebrew now a vibrant modern language, we sometimes forget that the early Zionists were not born speaking it. In fact, in reading Anita Shapira's new biography of early Hebrew literary icon Yosef Haim Brenner, I've discovered that Brenner, novelist and polemicist, at first didn't think Hebrew could or should serve as the language of everyday intercourse. True, he urged his fellow Jews to adopt Hebrew as their literary language. Yet when a fellow Hebraicist once tried to strike up a conversation with this leading man of Hebrew letters, he was dismayed to hear Brenner mangle the language of his ancestors. It was only after he settled in Palestine in 1909 that Brenner slowly came round to accepting, and promoting, Hebrew as a spoken language. In the process, he had to learn to make it the language that he, and not just his characters, used to express his joy and grief and anger and love. Tzvi is now explaining the main set. All crawl. Three times 200 meters easy and long, with a few seconds' rest between each set. Then six times 100 meters, each one faster than the last, followed by eight times 50 meters. Each one faster than the last? There's just not that much difference between me going slow and me going fast. I do my best. I fall behind. So what does Michael Phelps have that I don't? Well, he has toes. I lost all ten of my toes 12 years ago when a nasty strep infection put me in Intensive Care for two months and led, among other things, to gangrene in my extremities. In theory, this may have some slight effect on my movement in the water. Good swimmers usually have large feet that they use like flippers. I'm that much shorter, and have less foot to flip. But that's no more than an excuse. The effect on my speed is minuscule. Anyway, hydrodynamic design isn't everything. True, most of my fellow swimmers in the Jerusalem Masters group are trim, but Ari's got a bit of a belly and he's faster than me, too. What I lack is grace. Swimming is like poetry. In poetry, every sound and every sense contributes to a harmonic whole that is greater than its parts. A swimmer, like a poet, creates harmonies and rhythms that are both esthetically pleasing and mechanically efficient. To a certain extent, through study and drill and practice, you can learn that. I'm certainly a much better swimmer now than I was five years ago, when I started swimming seriously. But only to a certain extent. True grace and fish-like speed will be forever beyond my reach. I'll always be a high-stress swimmer. Brenner and most other Second-Aliya writers have few readers today. Compared to the stylistic flair of Israel's gifted contemporary native speakers, the prose of Brenner, Aharonovitz, and Shoham often feels clunky and awkward. Yet we would have no contemporary native speakers had they not forced themselves to do something that didn't come naturally. To a large measure, we owe the cadences of Amos Oz and the music of Dahlia Ravikovitch not just to these writers but to those thousands of pioneers who forced themselves, often with great difficulty and considerable frustration, to work, shop, celebrate, complain, argue - not to mention swim - in a language that did not come naturally. How stressful. But how wonderful. We conclude the evening with a couple of easy, slow laps. As usual, I've fallen short and haven't managed to do the entire 3,200 meters. Sender climbs out after me. I learn that he works as a lifeguard down at the Dead Sea. And that he is 69 years old. "So now you're the oldest swimmer in the group," I tell him. "But I'm still the slowest." He looks me up and down and shrugs. "So what?" he says. "How do you feel?" "I'm totally stressed out," I say. "And it feels great!" • Haim Watzman is the author of "Company C: An American's Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel" and "A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel's Rift Valley." He blogs at South Jerusalem [www.]. An article in Issue 18, December 22, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.