Thanks to the lovely 405 freeway, I was running a bit late to our meeting. I called Professor Hakak to inform him that I was coming as quickly as possible.
“Don’t worry! Don’t worry! Take your time!” was his response, and I could tell from his voice that he was smiling. I put down the phone, relieved. “He sounded nice,” I thought to myself.
Stepping into the Northern Lights café, I saw Hakak sitting on the opposite side. Upon noticing me, he quickly got up and introduced himself. “Would you like something to drink? Maybe a pastry? Come, come.”
I have never been one for spoken eloquence and I wracked my brain to begin some casual chit-chat. I was here to talk to him about a Jewish Studies class he is offering in the spring — Modern Hebrew Literature Made into Films. I knew I couldn’t just open up with, “So tell me about this class of yours…what angle will you be taking?” How do you make small talk with a professor?
He made it pretty easy. “So tell me about yourself. What are you studying? What are your interests?” he asked. Sad as it may be, I was surprised that he seemed interested, that he followed up with more questions.
And so the conversation went. I learned that he grew up in Israel and I told him of my recent travels there. I shared some family background and he reciprocated, showing me pictures of his children and twin granddaughters. I expressed typical college concerns and he told me that he knows of these concerns well. His son is dealing with the same “What should I do with my life?” decisions. He promised I would figure things out. And that I would get what I want and the clarity that I need in the right time. I had never met him before, but I felt genuinely reassured.
I found it hard having to switch gears and to begin asking him more directed questions about his class. I was really enjoying our conversation. And I was pleasantly surprised that what I thought would be a checkmark off my busy list of things-to-do turned out to be more than I had anticipated. He wasn’t hurried, or overly formal. He was engaged when he listened and excited while he spoke. And I got excited that he was excited.
“My class is about life — love, family, war, death, politics — you name it. These topics are universal. These are things we all face, but now in the context of the Israeli experience with its unique people and history, its problems and values,” Hakak shared regarding his upcoming spring course.
I found myself nodding a lot. He spoke about national identity and the complexity of happiness and personal perception as discussed in works like Black Box by Amos Oz and Himmo, King of Jerusalem by Yoram Kaniuk. “Through literature and film,” he said, “you can discover a new country. And a new perspective on life.”
I came and left the café in the course of an hour. I cannot say that I came away somehow changed or different — that would be a bit overly dramatic. But I was inspired by the professor’s sincerity and, yes, his perspective. “I want to leave students with a thirst for literature. I want them to enjoy learning. My goal is to bring curiosity and good spirits into my classroom, simple as that,” he said. I definitely left in good spirits.
“Thank you,” I said. “It was very nice to meet you.” As we walked out, I laughed to myself, thinking, How often do you get to say that and actually mean it? Then again, how often do you meet people who ask questions, wanting to hear the real answers? (Don’t answer the question; it ruins the mood of the story.)
We parted ways and I started thinking about how I could rearrange my schedule to take this class. I realized how absorbed I was in my own life. It would be nice to focus some energy on ideas and cultures outside my own line of vision.
I remembered learning about what Rabbi Bunim of P’shiskha would share with his students: “Everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written: ‘I am but dust and ashes,’ and on the other: ‘The world was created for me.’ From time to time we must reach into one pocket, or the other. The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each.”
To be honest, I think I’ve been pretty partial with my selection of pockets.
As I got into my car, my thoughts were interrupted with a call from my mom. “How’d your meeting go?” she asked.
“It went well,” I answered. “Gave me some perspective!” I said, half-laughing.
“Nothing, nothing. It went really well. The professor was a very interesting man. And he seems genuinely caring. It wasn’t just a checkmark off his to-do list, you know?”
Professor Lev Hakak of the Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Department at UCLA will be teaching a Jewish Studies 175 course on Modern Hebrew Literature Made into Films. Jewish Studies 175 is General Education class which also gives Jewish Studies major and minor credit.