Saturday, November 22, 2014

Things Heavy and Light

Every year, Maimonides School picks a middah (character trait) to emphasize. This year, the trait is kavod, which means respect or honor. Interestingly enough, the root of kavod (כ.ב.ד.) also means "heavy," the opposite of which is "light" or "easy" (kal in Hebrew). Therefore, if you are honoring someone, you treat him or her with gravitas; this person's presence has weight. If you choose to dishonor someone, you treat him lightly, just as Sarah was "made light" in the eyes of Hagar.

The words "heavy" and "light" have been drifting around my headspace recently in numerous ways. Specifically, I have been thinking about the phenomena of framing, storytelling, and perspective: how one event can seem so serious one day and so inconsequential the next (or vice versa). To illustrate my point, I have decided to do a writing exercise in which I describe situations from a "light" point of view and a "heavy" point of view. Here's the first scene:

That's not him, but you get the idea.
Take One (light): Our favorite question to ask is, "What is Alan* doing?" The kid is a chronic pencil-breaker and fidget-er. He is always twirling something in his hands, tipping backwards in his chair, singing to himself, screeching during davening, or making facial contortions up at the ceiling. He's tall for his age, and often wears an orange sweatshirt. In fact, he wears the sweatshirt so often that the cuffs are becoming permanently gray. The kids like him, but they often move away from him with the declaration, "Alan farted!" He does his homework -- sometimes (he's actually pretty smart). One night, he called the teacher to tell her he hadn't brought the right book home and couldn't do the assignment, so could he do it tomorrow in school? Oy vey, what a hapless child. One day, he threw a gummy ball at the ceiling and it didn't come down. The next morning, all the other kids were asking me if they could throw things at the ceiling to try to get the gummy ball down. I said no. Later, as Alan tipped back his desk chair with scissors, a rubber band, and heaps of mechanical pencil lead in hand, I asked the famous question in my head: "What is Alan doing?" The answer came to me immediately: probably farting.

Take Two (heavy): Alan is hungry. It's time for morning snack, and he's forgotten to bring one -- again. While the kids are out at recess, the teacher tells me, "I'm going to get Alan an apple from the teachers' room. He's so hungry. He needs to eat." Alan is one of six children; five girls and a boy. He wears the same raggedy clothes to school every day, including a sweatshirt that just gets dirtier and dirtier. He can't focus on anything for more than three minutes, and he is trained to entertain himself -- hence the weird preoccupation with objects that are definitely not toys. Sometimes, we scold Alan for talking or wandering or fidgeting or doodling or distracting other kids; we forget that these are only symptoms of a neglected child, and that such a child needs nurturing as well as discipline. On Wednesdays, Alan gets hot lunch. The teacher has bought it for him. "Pick a day," she said. "I'll buy it for you every week." A secret indulgence for a child who receives few gifts and not enough good food. A child who hungers for hot dogs and chicken nuggets, but also for attention and love. 

*name has been changed

*     *     *

Here's the second scene:

Take One (light): Last week, I had a break-down. Us girls, we're always having break-downs, and they're for all sorts of reasons. Our nail polish came off. The electric bill is too high. We put on three pounds. How are we supposed to deal with co-workers who are so annoying? But the main reason we have breakdowns: Men. Guys. Boys. Males. Whatever you want to call them. They suck. They're
stupid; they don't realize we're pining after them; they're 26 and don't want a serious relationship; they're irresponsible; they wander around waiting for the perfect job, the perfect girl, the perfect life. They want you to cook for them. In this modern era of liberalism, they've even given up their historic role of "provider" and taken on the role of teenager, constantly hinting that they have no money, they're hungry, and they just want to be taken care of (oh, and of course they want sex, too). So, what, now women are supposed to take care of their men emotionally, physically AND financially? That's a lot of work. Where are all the men who buy us flowers and take us out to dinner without commenting that they are spending their entire meager paycheck on us? Where are the men who are sensitive, caring, AND mature enough to take care of themselves? Seriously, it's a crisis. It's enough to make a girl have a breakdown at least once a month. Probably more. As Flannery O'Connor once said, "A Good Man is Hard to Find." 

Take Two: I haven't cried that much since the night I broke up with him. Full, heaving sobs; warm, coursing tears; the infinite desire to not talk -- just to cry and cry against someone's loving shoulder.                It has been a full eight months, and it is still with me. He is still with me. Heavily and guiltily. Still living on in every potential relationship and every empty moment. And every night that I fall asleep alone. 
               I had been dating someone for less than a week, and the warning signs were already blaring out at me; the flashes of him were fast but obvious. So I crumpled inside and put up a wall and accepted the small guilt sooner rather than wait for the bigger guilt later on. But it still made me cry and cry and wonder how one ever leaves something (or someone) behind. Because what is life if not shared? What is life if not full of love? What is life when it is dotted with holes and emptiness and a fishing rod that tugs you back again and again? Sometimes, the "what-ifs" are almost too strong to bear -- especially when those "what-ifs" meant the comfort of someone loving you. 

*     *     * 

So, you see? Lighthearted or heart-breaking -- it's only a matter of how you spin it.

Some events, however (and you knew this was coming) can really only be felt and described with heaviness. Take, for example, the terrorist attack in Israel this past week. Whenever I speak about it, read about it, or hear it spoken about, a chilling heaviness weighs down my arms and hands, and my heart -- well, my heart is always in the east.

The day of the attack, my mom and I exchanged text messages about how we had talked to both of my newly-Israeli brothers that day. Nothing like sheer terror to make you pick up the phone.

Imma: I hate how I feel when something terrible happens in Israel. So heavy and sad and scared for the boys. It is a new normal for me and I have to get used to it.

Naomi: Me too. I literally just wrote down the word "heavy" as a way to describe how this feels.

When all we can do is mourn for the lost, we must try to lift the weight off of our shoulders. And the first step to hefting the weight is feeling, intensely, its heaviness.

But then there are the moments we all live for. The ones where the only the response is laughter. Remember "Alan"? Well, despite whatever might be going on at home or deep inside of him, sometimes the kid is just hilarious:

Alan: Look Morah Naomi, I have two quarters!
Naomi: That's nice.
Alan (wedging one quarter into each ear) Look Morah Naomi! I'm listening to fifty cent! 

*     *     *

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Mark of Cain's Wife

ויצא קין מלפני ה' וישב בארץ-נוד קדמת-עדן. וידע קין את אשתו...
(בראשית ד', טז-יז)
Cain went out from before God and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain knew his wife… (Genesis 4:16-17)

            And thus we have one of the biggest problems in the Torah: Where did Cain’s wife come from?
            It is a simple question, often glossed over, and enough to unhinge our entire belief system (which might be precisely why it is so often glossed over). The discussion comes up a good deal in Christian theology, and most famously in Inherit the Wind, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's dramatic adaptation of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Henry Drummond, the lawyer defending Cates' right to teach evolution, interrogates strident creationist Matthew Brady:

DRUMMOND: Listen to this: Genesis 4:16. "And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the East of Eden. And Cain knew his wife!..." Where the hell did she come from?
The movie adaptation of Inherit the Wind
DRUMMOND: Mrs. Cain. Where'd that extra woman spring from? Ever figure that out?
BRADY: Never bothered me.
DRUMMOND: Do you figure somebody pulled off another creation, over in the next county?
BRADY: The Bible satisfies me. It is enough.
DRUMMOND: It frightens me to imagine the state of learning in this world if everyone had your driving curiosity...
(Inherit the Wind, Act 2, scene 3)  

Call me a creationist or call me a heretic - but please, read on and get ready to be unhinged.

The first option regarding the question of Cain's wife is that God created her and the Torah omitted this act of creation from the narrative.  The Torah omits lots of things, and our job is to figure what is important and why. In this case, we must ask the questions: Why did the Torah omit God's creation of Cain's wife? Was she created from the rib of Cain? Did the Torah omit other things that God created? Who wrote this book, anyway? etc., etc.

The second option is that God didn’t create her. She evolved from monkeys. This, however, leads to further problematic inquiries: Can evolution and divine creation exist in the same world? Can a product of one pro-create with the product of another etc., etc.

The third possibility echoes Drummond's theory above: Another “god” created her somewhere else (perhaps in the land of Nod, where Cain eventually settled). This leads to a faith-breaking problem however; namely: there goes monotheism.

The fourth possibility is one supported by the  majority of midrashic, rabbinic and other (read: Christian) sources: In Genesis 5:4, it says that  Adam had "sons and daughters." One of these unnamed daughters became Cain's wife. Aside from the incest issue, this answer is relatively easy swallow - except for one other thing: chronology. Cain gets married in chapter four, and these sons and daughters are not recorded until chapter five. According to the medieval commentator Rashi, however, this poses no problem because איו מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה - the Torah is most definitely written out of order. And the mention of Adam's sons and daughters was part of a long summary of many generations, so they really could have been born at any time. But then... why didn't the Torah record them at the time they were born? Who wrote this book, anyway?

And thus we come to the fifth option: Adam, Eve, Abel, Cain and Cain's wife did not exist. The story is completely fictional, and inconsistencies don’t matter because they can be attributed to human error. It's just a story, written by humans in an attempt to explain how they got to this earth and why they practice some crazy religion called Judaism (or Christianity or Islam). 

And this is where I put my descended-from-Adam-foot down. Because if this story is fictional, then why do I believe in God? Why am I Jewish? Who am I???  Well, the fact is that I love believing in God, I love Judaism, and I love who I am. And that is enough for me.

Case in point:  
Yesterday afternoon, as Shabbat mellowed into a rainy, cozy evening, my roommate decided she had
 to “catch  up” on the parsha—which meant that we read ten chapters of Genesis together. After reading and discussing the two distinct creations of humanity, she asked me,

“Do you ever find answers to these questions?”

I replied swiftly and happily: “Nope!”

 Because what is Torah for if not asking questions? Discovering the midrashic and rabbinic answers are an amazing exercise in intellect and logic, but they are neither complete nor satisfactory, and I will not accept drash into my understanding of the peshat. I accept the Torah as a divine book that is simply asking to be discovered and explored ("Turn it and turn it for everything is in it!" Pirkei Avot 5:24), and if we find all the answers there is nothing left. If we keep asking questions, however, we have everything.
*     *     *

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Songs of the Third Grade

Piping down the valleys wild,
  Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
  And he laughing said to me…”

Although William Blake (Songs of Innocence, 1789) put it much better than I, sometimes I feel like the children I see every day gain their energy from the fluff of clouds. I so greatly enjoy hearing whatever comes out of their mouths -- because eight-year-old mouths are losing their baby teeth and through the gaps flow unfiltered thoughts. Below are a few of the conversations that have recently brightened my days. Of course, not everything the students say is wonderful and cute. There is bullying; there is disrespect; there are fart jokes. But in a world full of deadly viruses, warring Middle Easterners and the pain of aging, the beautiful moments are the ones that need to be recorded. Here are some priceless quotations and the reflections of mine that often follow:

*  *  *
7:44 am. I walk down the hall towards my classroom. Three third grade boys run at me.
“Morah Naomi!”
“Thank God!”
“Where were you?”
“Why are you late?!”
“The classroom’s locked!”
I am, in fact, not late. Teachers are supposed to arrive by 7:45, at which point kids are allowed in the classroom. I had been making a point to get there early, thereby raising the early-comers’ expectations of me. In any case, one of them gives me a huge hug and says,
“I’m so happy today!”
“Why?” I ask.
“Because I’m trying to be happy about everything!”

Evidently, we do not need positive psychologists and self-help books to instruct us about achieving happiness. We just need third-graders.

*  *  *
7:52 am. The classroom is bustling with students preparing for the day. A dark-skinned, curious half-Israeli student who had gone to a Celtics game and brought his foam finger to school pipes up with,
“Would you believe me if I said I went to the Bahamas and kissed a dolphin on the lips?”
“Yesterday?” I reply. “No.”
“No, last year.”
“Okay, sure.”
A few minutes later, the same student has found a red feather in the craft supplies cupboard. He is now standing next to the electric pencil sharpener.
“I wonder what would happen if I tried to sharpen this feather.”
Me: “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
The student sticks the feather in the pencil sharpener. Whirrr. Two seconds later, he pulls out a mutilated feather. His face falls.

Obviously, some things must be experienced first hand. Let’s pray he limits his experiences to the realm of indoor, non-fire-related activities.

*   *  *
7:58 am. A blond, spiky-haired boy who could intermittently power a Prius with his energy walks into the classroom two minutes before tefillah and bursts out with:
“Some idiot from Africa brought Ebola into the US!”

Later, on NPR, I hear about Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian who unknowingly contracted the disease, traveled to Texas, and died there.

It seems I am now getting my news from third-graders (granted, it is biased third-grader news. The word “idiot” has not appeared on any official news reports about Ebola.)

*  *  *
8:40am. We say the first two words of the last of the morning prayers and the fire alarm goes off: our first fire drill of the year. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. The kids know what to do. They put down their books and crowd toward the door. One of them, the absent-minded professor who is always doodling complex maps and sitting calmly as his papers and markers fly everywhere, starts dancing as if in a disco club. After we are back inside, I ask him,
“Do you like fire drills?”
Pause. (He always pauses to think and fidget before responding): “First I freak out, but then it’s pretty cool.”

Another of my favorite comments of his:
“Do you know why I always get to school so early?” he asks me.
“No, why?”
“Because I live six houses away!”
“Oh, that’s great!”
“And sometimes I run! And leave my sister behind.”

And another:
“Want to know something freaky?”
“Of course.”
“This morning, I went downstairs before my mom and dad were awake and smelled the lulav and etrog! And they never found out!”
“Oh wow!” I reply. “Is that at 5 am when you usually wake up?”
“No, it was at 4:55.”

Apparently, smelling Jewish ritual objects is “freaky” and waking up before the sun makes for a very easy six-house commute.

Not this kid!

*  *  *
In class, we discussed the question: Why did Sarah laugh when she found out she was going to have a baby? The kids arrived at two answers:

  1. Because she was like, “What?!? I’m so old!”
  2. Because she was so happy that Hashem would do this for her and she laughed out of joy that a miracle was being performed for her (actually, this answer was more teacher-supplied)
The teacher told everyone that “Sometimes we just have to ask questions. We’ll never know which answer is correct!” At which point one of the kids muttered under his breath:
“Unless we had a time machine!”

When he gets the Nobel Prize for Science, Religion, and/or History, I’ll be able to say I knew him when he was eight, and witnessed the beginnings of the newest form of Bible scholarship: Torah Time Travel.

* * *
In addition to their sparkling words, I have come to the conclusion that most children are exceptionally beautiful. The wave of hair that falls across a face. The bright hazel eyes with flecks of gold. The long lashes that flutter softly over the pages of a book. The soft cheek that looks as smooth as milk. The sturdy, healthy little limbs that run around on the grass and carry strong bodies from place to place. Essentially, all of the physical attributes that adults work for, the children already have. Yes, we are chasing youth.

Don't we all want to look like this??

*   *   *
Above, I quoted a small piece of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. My appreciation of Blake was rekindled recently when I read Tracy Chevalier’s novel “Burning Bright.”  The book tells the story of two English children whose friendship Mr. Blake observes and weaves into his creation of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. As the book progresses, the children predictably mature from an age of innocence to one of experience--but they do so in an unpredictable manner: they notice and are thrust into the struggles of those older than them, thus learning about selflessness, loyalty, and the beginnings of love. A truly enchanting tale, this book fell into my lap at just the right time: I am surrounded by children who are growing and observing, yet who are also enjoying the peak of their innocence.

I recommend it! 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Rules of the New

Okay, so I moved to Boston. It all happened really fast, so if you are just discovering this now, don't worry about it. I accepted a job as a third grade teaching assistant at the Maimonides School in Brookline, MA (not Brooklyn). The past two weeks have been an absolute whirlwind, and I'm just now getting a few minutes to stop and reflect.

I'll first share a few thoughts about the job. For one thing, I never pictured myself in a third grade classroom. I always thought I would be teaching high school English or Tanach - two subjects I am very passionate about. But there is a different type of passion when teaching third grade: passion for
the kids and the childhood mindset. As the head of school told me during my interview, "If you're passionate about your subject, teach high school or college. If you love kids, teach elementary school. If you want a mix of both, teach middle school." For this year, at least, I'm banking on my love of kids to hep me teach. I'm not at all sure that this is the classroom I want to end up in, but I'm definitely willing to give it a try.

And it's pretty easy to love these kids when they do and say things like this:

See? I'm taller. 
J: What grade are you in?
Me: I'm with you guys! Third grade!
J: No, I mean (gesturing to the high school building) what grade are you actually in?
Me: I'm not in a grade.
J: What?
Me (whispering): I'm 23.
J: What?? I thought you were 15!!

Important note: I am taller than all of the third graders. Check in in June to see if that's still true.

T: Hamorah Naomi, what do you and Hamorah B. DO while we're in gym??
(I consider telling her about Teacher Gym Class, where third grade teachers chuck dodge balls at the second grade teachers who messed up their kids the previous year. Then I remember that third-graders believe almost everything you tell them.)

Important note #2: Because I am the assistant for the Judaics classroom, the kids call me "Hamorah Naomi," which roughly translates into "Naomi the Teacher" or "Teacher Naomi." I chose my first name rather than my last name because, well, I'm 23.

On Friday, we had an inter-grade activity where students made Rosh Hashanah cards for soldiers in the IDF. As I walked around surveying the students' work, I peeked over one of my kids' shoulders and saw that he had written: 
     "Dear Israeli Soldiers, I hope you win the fights versus the other states and I hope you don't die."
No one can make a point as clearly as a third-grader. 

In all honesty, I didn't really know anything about teaching third grade when I accepted this position.
I barely even remember third grade myself. Robo-math, biography projects, the Chumash presentation. Oh, and that was the first year my parents made me pack my own lunch, so I remember the blue thermos in which I packed leftover pasta and pretended it was still hot at lunch time to impress the other kids with thermoses. What I don't remember, though, are all the rules.

This was NOT what my lunch looked like when I was in 3rd grade.
GoGo Squeeze hadn't even been invented yet.

From day one, it is the teachers' job to create a routine and enforce rules. Once the kids know the expectations, they will learn more efficiently and accept the teachers' authority as the year unfolds. Which makes a lot of sense. But this also means that right now I have to be the rule-enforcer, which has never been my forte. Sometimes, it seems like I am constantly barking out orders:

"No sharpening pencils during class."
"Wait until you go outside to eat your snack."
"Everyone stand against the wall if you want recess."
"No climbing up the slide."
"Don't bring sticks inside."
"No doodling during class."
And, the most frequent: "When the hand goes up, we stop talking."

Often, I change up my tone or my phrasing. Sometimes I even smile when I say "You know we don't throw pencils, right?" My favorite is when I can turn the rule into cheerleading: "I know you can sit quietly during davening. I know you can do it! Show me how awesome you are!" And in truth, most of the rules make sense. But sometimes I let my mind wander...

What if I just let that student open her Fruit Roll Up and start eating it in the hallway before she gets to recess? The wrapper might fall on the floor. She might not pick it up. That's littering. And someone might slip on it. And she might choke because she's eating while she's walking and then her parents would sue the school. Or she might end up as a devil child who doesn't follow rules at all because I let her eat in the hallway! 

All of this comes to mind when a child whines, "But why???" Usually, I settle with a simple, "Because I asked you to."

I don't know why I don't remember all the rules in my own third grade classroom. Perhaps I was just a chronic rule-follower, and doing what the teacher said never bothered me. Perhaps we didn't have as many rules back then. Or perhaps the content eventually overcame the rules, which simply drifted into my subconscious under the category of "how to behave in school" and kept me from becoming a devil child.

So. I guess I have a job now. I am at school from at least 7:30 am to 4 pm with very little break time (hence, the classroom teachers love it when the kids have specials).  When I get home, I am often too exhausted to do much of anything. I go to sleep by 10 pm and wake up at 5:45. I have been staying with incredibly generous cousins and I am moving into a three-bedroom apartment in Brighton next week with two other girls. I am in a new city, with new people, new synagogues, new tasks, new schedules, and new roads to learn.

Sometimes I feel lonely, but not as much as I feared. After being with people all day, I am grateful for a few hours of quiet in the evening (#introvertpatterns). The only time loneliness really affects me is later at night or on Friday afternoon, when I wish I had somewhere, something, or someone to go home to. The thought of an entire weekend alone in a new city is daunting for me. So far, I've spent Shabbats in Cambridge and in Brookline, two very vibrant and very different Jewish communities. I am struck by how welcomed I feel by synagogue members and long-time residents, and for this I am so grateful. However, after a Shabbat full of introductions and life stories, sometimes I am ready to go for a long walk with just my iPod or curl up in my bed with a book, internet television, peanut butter, or a Skype date with a long-time friend. Or all of the above. When everything is new, the comforts that work best are the old ones. And that's a rule.

Sometimes, I just act like this.