GoAbroad Interview

Dr. Miryan Sivan - Academic Advisor

Dr. Miryan Sivan - Academic Advisor

Originally from New York City, Miryam Sivan lives in the Galilee and teaches literature and writing at the University of Haifa. Her published works include SNAFU and Other Stories and Belonging Too Well, a book length study of the American author, Cynthia Ozick. She has published short fiction and academic articles in both the U.S. and the UK. Her novel, Love Match, is now looking for its home in a NY publishing house.

You’re originally from New York City, what brought you to Israel initially in 1995, and what kept you there for the last 20 years?

My story is a little bit more complicated than an American Jew making Aliyah for ideological and/or religious reasons. I’m a daughter of Israelis who moved to New York in the early 1950s. I spent childhood summers in Tel Aviv and have a large and loving family in Israel. I also knew Hebrew before arriving. Still, from all my parents' large circle of friends in New York, there is only one other 'child of Israelis' that moved back, so to speak, to Israel. So in some way, my decision to leave my home in New York was as much a choice of will and devotion as it is for any non-Israeli American Jew.

So why did I come? For the simple reason that I could. Israel exists, a modern country that fulfills the dream and the Jewish longing for autonomy and some degree of safety. Of course, seven months after arriving here the Prime Minister was assassinated by a young Jew associated with a particular stream of religious fundamentalism. With Rabin's murder the hope for peace, the process that was in motion then, was severely compromised.

Much has changed in these twenty years. Sometimes I ask myself if I would move here now. And my heart breaks when I hesitate, because I love it here so much. But, I am severely disappointed by our political leadership and by the lack of commitment to peace, and now increasingly the challenge to democratic principles.

University of Haifa International School Orientation

Orientation at UHIS!

What does an average day look like as an Academic Advisor for the University of Haifa International School?

Most of the work that I do as advisor is done via computer. There are many emails to answer, from and to past, present, and future students, faculty both here and abroad, and the staff I work with. When I am in my office, I meet our students who come with a variety of academic questions: from wanting to change the status of a particular course, to wanting advice about which courses to take, to expressing pleasure and/or discontent with a particular course and/or faculty member. My job is to listen and then to act; to be in touch with the relevant parties and to bring resolution.

Your received your Ph.D. degree from the University of Haifa, what makes the institution so special?

I received my Ph.D. from the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Haifa. I was already teaching in the department when I made the decision to do this advanced degree. The department was a home away from home. Sometimes when I was overwhelmed by how 'new' everything was in Israel, and not always understood in this new/old country (coming here as a child did not really prepare me for the grown-up issues of employment, taxes, housing rentals, and child care I needed to take care of), the English Department felt even more familiar. I had taught writing and literature in New York for over a decade before coming here. Academia is another kind of home. 

It is also special to work in English in a Hebrew speaking country. In fact, I just gave a talk on this subject. How we often love our 'mother tongue' and know ourselves through it. I am in utter awe of adults who emigrate and are able to write literature in their adopted country's language. I can't do this in Hebrew, and I am not sure I would want to. I love English too much. But my lack of fluency maintains my outsider status. I know this and sometimes force myself to read a novel in Hebrew. But, being an outsider may not be such a terrible thing for a Jew – for a writer-- after all.

Your academic background is in literature, how has this knowledge and your research impacted the way you advise students?

Literature is the world. When you teach literature you discuss history, politics, psychology, and aesthetics. I don't know if literature made me sensitive to complexity, or if it was my natural inclination towards complexity that made me a bookworm as a child and then a literature professor. 

Sensitivity to complexity, to human entanglements, directly plays into my job as advisor. For all advice ultimately rests on the ability to see the person in front of you, to listen well, and to bring words to the discussion that will enable this young person to feel out her own needs and make responsible choices.

You’re a well-published author, several articles and even a couple books (from studies to novels). Do you have plans to write any more books? If so, what are you working on?

A few months ago my short story collection, SNAFU and Other Stories was published in New York. The stories in that book span decades, literally, with the oldest based on a water tank leak on the roof of my Upper West Side apartment in the 1980s. And the most recent I wrote about a year ago in response to the ongoing violence against women in this country. Very different stories in terms of tone, structure, content, but I like variety. It's very important that I not bore myself. 

Which brings me to your question. I have a novel inside of me that is simply waiting to come out. I have decided though to make it wait some more. My next big project will be a screenplay. I have two storylines that are competing for attention. I need to speak to some people in the industry before I make my decision about which to tackle first. I intend to plunge in soon… intersession is on the way!

What is the most common question you receive when meeting with students about academics? How do you respond? 

There are two very common questions. One is whether they can take Hebrew language courses in the university. And the answer is yes, if they feel they can follow the lectures. Much of the reading material is in English and students can write their exams and papers in English since faculty here are proficient enough to mark them. International School students who do go into a classroom full of Israelis love it. 

The second question is usually about course load, can they take X number of courses while studying either Hebrew or Arabic and doing a 10 to 15 hour a week internship. Since both language studies and internships involve a considerable number of hours per week, I need to become familiar with the student's study habits and their work ethic before guiding them to the appropriate number of credits.

International students at the University of Haifa International School orientation

New students enjoying orientation.

What is typically the biggest challenge study abroad students face academically within the Israeli university environment?

The biggest challenge might be the free beer that is offered on the weekly Wednesday Lawn Party. From 12 to 2 p.m. on Wednesdays the Student Union organizes free music, beer, soft drinks, and sometimes snacks too. Students still have class after that at 2 p.m., or in our case, 3 p.m.. Free beer is no excuse!

But seriously, I don't know if it's a challenge as much as an adjustment for our students. They witness their Israeli roommates going home on weekends and then returning with home cooked food. Students have asked me: what's with the going home? And I respond that families are close here, both geographically and in terms of heart. They want to see each other. And the food? When they shake their heads at the home cooked food in the plastic boxes that fill their dorm room refrigerators, I ask: Yes, but isn't there food there for you as well? How many of your roommates' mothers started sending more food once they heard there was an International School student in the suite without a mother here to cook for him or her? And my students laugh and have to admit I'm right. And I know it. I've heard about the extra food parcels for years. That's Israel!

Culturally, what are the biggest differences you have noticed between New York City and Haifa?

This is a sweet question. New York City is enormous, right? The cultural center of the world, right? Haifa's population is comparable to my old neighborhood in Manhattan. Population density is a serious factor when it comes to the production of art. So that's one huge difference. Haifa has its art scene and its writers and musicians, but New York is in a different league – but that's true when we compare New York City to most places in the world.

On the other hand, the city's human cultural diversity does remind me of New York. If you go to the Talpiot Market in Haifa, you will see people from a myriad of countries and you will hear as many languages. Similarly, the foodstuffs represent the palates of many nations. And I love this. It is one of main reasons I decided to live up here when I moved to Israel. I wanted cultural heterogeneity, that's what I am used to being from New York. Haifa has that more than any other city in Israel.

What has been your most fulfilling achievement during your time as Academic Advisor?

This is going to sound dry, but here goes: making sure that all of our syllabi include a significant writing component. As a writer myself, and as someone who teaches literature, I know how critical writing is to thinking and I see them as part of one process. With the blessings of Professor Hanan Alexander, the Head of the International School, I instituted a policy of having more rigorous writing assignments in all courses. I love seeing young people 'feeling' the power of their minds and intellectual skills. This is most strongly felt while writing. All of us who write know this. So now students in all our courses will be given the opportunity and space to explore their ideas and to craft them into sentences and paragraphs. 

What is the best part about working for UHIS?

The students, of course. I love meeting students who come from the USA, Europe, Asia, and Africa. I love seeing the changes they go through from the first shy weeks to the emboldened last couple of months. They know the place by then. They've gotten the system down. By system I don't mean academics only. I mean Haifa. I mean Israel.

The second best part about working for UHIS is the staff. This group of people, mostly women, are so smart, hard working, creative, and supportive. Everyone is focused on the same goal, which is to create a meaningful academic and cultural experience for our students. The atmosphere of family and care that embraces the students extends to the staff as well. I smile coming into the office and I smile leaving. I am truly fortunate to be a part of this team.