Saturday, January 21, 2012


Having grown up in a house containing thousands of books, with a family addicted to the written word, and with full access to a good education, I have pretty much always taken literacy for granted.  When you hear about someone in the US being illiterate, your mind automatically jumps to the conclusion that they must be immigrants from some third-world country or something like that.  To me, illiteracy was always a faraway problem.

Fast forward to my adult life and my next door neighbor, a very old Yemenite woman who just lost her husband.  She comes from a very respected, intelligent family - her father was a big rabbi in Yemen.  She married a big rabbi in Yemen, and two of her sons have gone on to become rabbis here in Israel.  And yet, as I recently discovered, my neighbor has never learned to read or write.

I suppose this shouldn't surprise me, considering her background.  I'm sure that Yemenite women in the first half of the last century weren't exactly offered equal opportunities for education and betterment.  Heck, chances are they still aren't.  But coming from 2012, where people make an effort to make literacy a common thing in even the most remote or 'backwards' countries, it seems a little strange to me.

What must it be like to not be able to read your own mail?  To not even know if it's addressed to you or not?  Now that she lives alone, if she didn't have a son who lives 10 minutes away, what would she do to get through life?  I mean, think about it - a simple thing like grocery shopping can suddenly turn into a very big deal if you're not familiar with a product.  If you always buy exactly the same things then I suppose you don't need to worry, but what if you want to branch out?  How can you tell the difference between the five types of flour on the store shelf?  How do you know if something is cottage cheese or white cheese, when the containers are identical?

One part of me feels sorry for her and wonders what she does with her free time, but another part of me can't feel sorry for her because she doesn't feel sorry for herself.  She was always content having her husband manage things that required literacy; she was always content learning from him instead of searching it out for herself.  Illiterate or not, she is a super-independent woman who has somehow managed to get herself through the literate world without being able to read her own name.

As much as I think it's terrible to find illiterate people where there are resources for teaching them, apparently not all of them want to be taught.  Something to think about.

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