Germany Must Learn Problem-solving From Israel, Says Young Buddhist

Departures / Arrivals: Old college buddies reunite at Ben-Gurion Airport.

Liat Elkayam
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Liat Elkayam

David Jakobowicz, 80, lives in Herzliya; Larry Selinker, 78, lives in New York; Larry is arriving from New York

Hello, can I ask where you know each other from?

Larry: We were both in the dorms of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1958. I’d come for a year from Brandeis; I studied economics.

David: I took economics and geography.

Larry: We both lived on the same floor. Those were good times.

This was on Mount Scopus?

David: No way! Mount Scopus wasn’t ours then. It was on the Givat Ram campus.

And you stayed in touch all these years?

David: On and off. But since emails started, we’re in constant touch.

Larry: Later when David was a student at NYU and I was at Georgetown, I visited him.

David: Larry was here in 1968 with his son – remember how we went together to Nablus? That was great.

What are you planning now?

Larry: There were good deals, so I have a hotel in Netanya and I’ll meet up there with retired friends when they can make it.

What did you do before retiring?

David: I worked more than 20 years in the Diamond Exchange. It was very interesting. These days I do volunteer work in a primary school, helping kids with mathematics, and enjoy life.

Larry: I’m a linguistics professor. I’ve taught all over: University of Michigan, University of London, NYU; they still send me emails. And now I’m working on a startup.

What kind of startup?

Larry: The goal is to help people complete research in linguistics. There’s not a lot of money in it, but there are clients from all over the world. What was your research about?

Larry: It’s called second-language acquisition; the term I invented is “interlanguage.”

Please explain.

The Hebrew I speak is actually an interlanguage. It all started with my Israeli friend Shlomo. He was in New York and we were at a party. He said, “I bought downtown the postcard.” I made a career out of that. A Ph.D. It was surprising that Shlomo, who had good English, constructed the sentence wrong; that was related to the fact that he created linguistic structures and syntax from Hebrew. I deal with semantic patterns. We know the words we use are connected to other words and to the context in which they’re spoken. It turns out that people who learn a second language associate new words to different words in the second language than those for whom it’s their mother tongue. They create new patterns for the second language that are actually based on their first language. Those patterns are the interlanguage, and it’s the reason that people may speak the same words but don’t understand one another.

How did you prove the existence of interlanguage?

In 1964, I came to Tel Aviv for a year and conducted a study of children of 13, 14 and 15. I had 4,000 examples of speech using certain structures. My hope in coming back was to find the same children, now adults, to see whether they still speak like that. Maybe this is a good opportunity to ask any of them who might read this to contact me!

How many times did you live in Israel?

Larry: Four times altogether. I was a student for a year, a professor on a Fulbright scholarship for a year, a year of research and visits. The last time was in 1999; I went to Eilat with my Italian wife. It’s also interesting that now, when I’m here and practicing my Hebrew, I see that my Italian interferes with my Hebrew. That gives me a new idea ... Anyway, the first time I taught someone English, it was my friend David. I bought a Frank Sinatra album and tried to teach him the words. But along the way I also did something terrible ...

David: Every second word of his was the f-word. And, one day, I boarded a student flight for Athens. It was full of English-speaking students. And I’m talking to them and not noticing what’s going on around me. When we landed in Athens, one of the guys took me aside and said, “Listen, that’s not the right way to talk to ladies, all that ‘f--k you.’” It was really unpleasant for me.

Larry: In my opinion, that only proves that I’m a good teacher and he’s a good student. (They laugh)

Kai LimperCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Kai Limper, 18, lives in Oy-Mittelberg, Germany; flying to Moscow

Hello, can I ask how you spent your time in Israel?

Yes. I was here with a big group of 200 friends for eight days. We are Buddhists. We did a course at Metzukei Dragot [an outdoor-vacation village] on the Dead Sea, and we traveled around. Now we’re on the way to Russia for a trip on the trans-Siberian train.

How was the course?

Very nice. There was a feeling of freedom in the hills, because it’s so far there from any city and from civilization. You could do solitary meditation in caves, and there were also hot springs. It felt really good to be in nature. The isolation also makes it possible to connect with other people. We were a mixed group from all over: Europe, Israel, South Africa, Russia, the United States. It’s good to learn from one another and from different cultures.

What did you learn, for example?

That many concepts in our minds stem from the fact that people in a certain country tend to behave in certain ways. I discovered that in other countries things can be very different. In Germany, for example, people plan far ahead, but in the Czech Republic people are more laid back – you can just pop over to a friend and spend the weekend there. In Germany, if you want a friend to give you a lift to the airport, you need to ask him three days ahead of time, at least. But there are countries where people are so spontaneous that they will do it the same day.

 That’s something that Germans could learn from. Buddhists try to live in the moment, not in the past or the future. We Germans are always living in the future, and I think that’s why we don’t enjoy things so much – we always thinking about what is going to happen next and are not present in the here-and-now.

How did you come to be a Buddhist at such a young age?

Through my parents. My mother has been a Buddhist for 20 years, and when I was 9, I asked to join on my own. It wasn’t because of her; I myself had an inner feeling that this was the most meaningful way for me to improve my future life.

So you planned ahead.

Yes, like a German. (Laughs) I’ve heard the Buddhist message since I was young, through my mother. She took me to lectures, and I understood that we were trying to work on the qualities of happiness, fearlessness and compassion. It’s also useful for understanding other people. To do what will bring happiness to all living beings.

What will bring them happiness?

Everyone wants luck, to be lucky, but they don’t understand how to be happy. A big house, a beautiful wife, money – those might work, but only for a short time. If your happiness is dependent on the external world, it will not last. For example, if someone were to steal my bag now, I’d get upset, but I would try to stay happy. It’s hard, but if I focus only on what is happening out there and on my feelings, I will not be able to be happy.

But why not? I know I will be really happy if, say, X happens to me.

And if it doesn’t happen, you can’t be happy? The world is changing all the time and your feelings are changing all the time. If you cling to things that change, how are you going to be happy in the long term?

Don’t you cling to things that change?

I only completed high school seven months ago. I worked for four months in a company that sells cosmetics. Now I am traveling with Lama Ole Nydahl. I started in the United States, I was also in South America, there was a course in Prague, in Israel and next we go to Russia. That will be my last stop on this journey and then I will go home. I plan to study, but I don’t know what.

Will you be happy to go back?

Yes, happy and worried. Our politicians are dumb.

And here they’re smart?

It seems to me that here you know how to deal with problems, precisely because you are used to it. With us they are inviting all the refugees and the foreigners to come to Germany. That creates problematic situations that they don’t necessarily know how to deal with. They could learn from Israel.