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Oct 1 2014

The Things I Learned Teaching English in Israel

By at 4:13 pm


When I made aliyah from Montreal, I never planned to teach English in an Israeli classroom. Aliyah was about leaving Montreal to become Israeli, rather than bringing a piece of Canada here with me. I soon discovered, however, that since everyone wants to speak English, teaching English is a much sought-after profession. As it turns out, it’s also a great day job for a writer.

I began the new school year by writing vocabulary words on the white board. The day’s assignment was to define and use certain phrases: “What is a relief map?” I ask them, quite certain they will be unfamiliar with the three dimensional map that portrays the ups and downs, mountains and valleys, of a geographical terrain. A hand goes up. A boy in the back. It’s always the boys in the back who give me butterflies in my stomach those first few weeks of school. We haven’t had our meetings with their homeroom teacher so I don’t know the family history of each student, which child might have lost someone close during this summer war in Gaza, which child might be struggling through their parents’ divorce, or who might be trying to hide socio-economic issues under fake designer labels.

There is still so much I have to learn before I can become an effective teacher. For now, each student before me is a tabula rasa. I have to ask their name when they raise their hands; I still have not matched the wire-framed glasses, the dimpled cheeks, or the intense hazel-green gaze to the names on my list. Read the rest of this entry →

Sep 29 2014

For The First Time in Nine Years, I’m Not Going “Back to School”

By at 11:05 am


As soon as I discovered I was pregnant at the end of last summer, I set the wheels in motion to take a half-year sabbatical from my job teaching music, theatre and English at Maine’s smallest K-12 public school. We’re allowed a full year at half pay every seven years, but my family wouldn’t quite be able to swing that financially. Besides, between my six-week maternity leave, summer vacation and a four-month sabbatical, I piled up eight months of time at home with my daughter Penrose. The second half of the school year might be a nice break from around-the-clock parenting.

The word “sabbatical” is derived from the word “Sabbath,” and it’s supposed to be just that–a rest. In an academic or ecclesiastic context, you’re supposed to do something wholly unrelated to your job. But a public school teacher’s sabbatical is a little bit different. I needed to come up with a plan for somehow enriching the school. Writing a book and caring for a member of the class of 2032 wasn’t quite enough, so I’m going to be working on curriculum mapping and taking clarinet lessons.

School started the Tuesday after Labor Day. Ordinarily I’d have already been in workshops for two days, agonized over a bulletin board (cutting out letters has never been my forte), and picked out a back-to-school outfit. Instead, I woke up on a pee-soaked trundle bed next to a happily kicking 4-month-old. We weren’t on a schedule and we didn’t have an agenda, so I cleaned up and moved us into my bed to get a few more hours of sleep.  Read the rest of this entry →

Nov 27 2012

What Homeschooling Actually Entails

By at 1:45 pm

When I was pregnant with my oldest son I made him a promise, and his brother after him, that I would do my best to give them happy childhoods full of wonder and magic, that I would prepare them for adulthood as best I could and give them the tools to live fulfilling lives.

That promise was at the center of my thoughts when we decided to homeschool and is the first thing I think about when I sit down every week to plan our schedule. Read the rest of this entry →

Oct 19 2011

This is the Torah

By at 1:25 pm

Oh, Simchat Torah. You’re the very end of a long holiday season. You’re at the end of Sukkot. You’re after Shemini Atzeret, the holiday almost impossible to define in less than 8 sentences. And you are known colloquially as “the holiday about the Torah.” That’s not doing you justice.

Simchat Torah marks the end of a full cycle of reading the Torah in the Jewish year. It is a religious yom tov (holiday) that is celebrated by dancing with the Torah in synagogue. The dancing is done in circles or hakafot, and the seven hakafot we participate in each feature songs, chants, and, quite often, increasing levels of a mystical power.

As a child, I attended a large Reform synagogue on Hollywood Boulevard, and they used to hire cops to shut down the street so that we could literally dance in the street. We received small Torahs, and since I was a giant nerd who loved Israeli folk dancing, I especially loved this holiday.

Now that I am a mom of two young boys and now that I have taken on more observance, Simchat Torah has religious implications to be considered in accordance with the halacha (Jewish law) I seek to hold to. And it’s also upon me to find ways to teach the significance of a holiday to my sons. It’s not easy to teach about the Torah in language I find appropriate for a 3- and 6-year-old, but here’s what I’ve got:

1) The Torah is Wise. Not all old things are wise, but the Torah is old and it is very wise. It has all of the instructions we need to figure out how to have families, how to be happy, and how to deal with problems in our family and our world. The Torah was written a long, long time ago, but that doesn’t mean it can’t help us understand our lives now. That’s what it means for something to be really wise. It applies to people over thousands and thousands of years.

2) The Torah is Divine. Without getting too far into the details of my personal theology, our sons know that there is something called HaShem (God). It’s not a person, but it has power. HaShem is in every single thing we do, see, feel, hear, taste, and know. HaShem is in our bodies and our hearts and HaShem is in charge of the world in ways we can’t even understand or imagine. HaShem “wrote” the Torah, not with hands (because HaShem has no hands), but by teaching and inspiring and talking to people thousands of years ago, especially Moses who was super in touch with HaShem. The Torah is incredibly special because HaShem made it all happen.

3) The Torah is Precious. When the aron hakodesh (ark that holds the Torah) is opened in synagogue, we stand up right away to show respect. That’s the way we show how special the Torah is. We should feel like we are seeing a flower opening up or like a newborn baby is smiling at us every time we look at the Torah. We can’t be rough with it, and we don’t want anyone to be mean to it or touch it with their toddler jam hands, and for sure we don’t want to drop it. (“How many days do you have to fast if you drop it, Mama?” my older son likes to ask. “600 years?” “Not quite, Miles, but we really don’t want to drop it nonetheless.” ) We kiss the Torah because it is a special thing we love and feel very, very close to it. There is nothing like the Torah, nothing we hold quite so special and precious. It’s like the best present ever.

We did a little arts and crafts project recently to make our own tiny Torahs:

-String a piece of 2 or 3 inch wide paper (as long as you want) between two toothpicks with scotch tape. We like to do this with fancy cocktail-style toothpicks so it looks like wooden handles or finials on the Torah, and I use grainy paper so it looks like parchment.
-Roll it up and tie it with a pretty ribbon or even just a rubber band. I had an old maroon velvet tablecloth in the house that I poked two holes in for the finials to stick through, and voila: Torah cover.
-On the parchment, we write our sons’ names in Hebrew.

“This is your Torah,” I tell them.

And it’s true.

The wisdom, Divinity, and preciousness of the whole Jewish people is in the Torah and we can access it any time we want to.

This is our Torah. Chag Sameach!

Apr 7 2011

Westboro in My Town?

By at 3:21 pm

A protester from Westboro Baptist Church.

I noticed the police cars first. Not one, but three. An accident? A bike race? As I got closer to the JCC, though, I saw them.

Not the police. The picketers.

God hates Jews. Jews killed Christ.

Their large neon signs shocked the crap out of me. I have to admit I felt a little scared, even though it was just four adults and one child (don’t get me started on that) behind a barrier, surrounded by police on both sides of the street. Looking back, it was a pretty pathetic demonstration, but in the moment, it felt huge. I wanted to roll down my window and unleash a torrent of angry obscenities on them, but I knew that would only inflame the situation. I drove on.

Jews are going to hell. God hates Jews.

In less than a minute, I was turning into the long driveway up to the JCC, and my mind immediately went to my daughters. What if they had been in the car? Well, it wouldn’t matter much now, as they can’t read. I could have told them it was a side-of-the-road party, and we could have talked about how there were pink letters on the sign. “Pink my favorite color,” Frieda would have told me. And we would have moved on.

But what about when the girls are older? When they can read? How would I explain to them that these people are condemning us? How do I tell them that there is blatant anti-Semitism in the United States? In Massachusetts, a progressive state that I am immensely proud to call my home, and in our own town, where we are supposed to feel safe? How would I explain that?

As I made my way through the JCC, I saw a group of women of all ages in an Israeli dance exercise class. It brought tears to my eyes. F*ck you guys, I thought. You can wave your stupid little signs, but you can’t stop us from dancing.

I soon learned that this angry little band was from the Westboro Baptist Church, an anti-Semitic, homophobic, family of all-purpose haters out of Kansas who has received press for picketing soldiers’ funerals, and more recently, those of Elizabeth Edwards and Elizabeth Taylor. Their frequent and senseless protests have rendered them virtually irrelevant on the national scene, even among the bigots who might have otherwise supported them.

All of sudden, my perspective went from that of a hurt and angry mother to one of interested and disgusted spectator. “When you think about it,” I said to my trainer, “Everyone hates the Jews. Whatever. That’s such a cliché. But who protests at a soldier’s funeral? That’s just absurd. Honestly, they’re like a caricature of an anti-Semite. They might as well be wearing fake Hitler mustaches.”

Humor makes it easier, but the truth is, they were still there, a stark reminder of the hatred and violence that has tormented the Jews throughout our history. And therein lays the challenge that my husband and I, along with thousands of other Jewish parents, face on a regular basis. How do we teach our children about hate and anti-Semitism? With Purim behind us, and Passover just around the corner, a good place to start might be by telling the stories of tragedy and survival of the Jewish people, and by celebrating what we have. Yes, in the years to come my husband and I will tell the girls about their family members who perished in the Holocaust, as well as those who survived. And they will learn of anti-Semitism, and unfortunately, they will probably experience it. But for now, we will celebrate our freedom, eat Bubbe’s matzo ball soup, and know that our community and our people are stronger than any little angry group of protesters with neon signs will ever be.

Feb 14 2011

Baby’s First Racist Comment

By at 12:19 pm

Shan Yu in Mulan.

The Princess invasion continues. My daughter, Ronia, is obsessed with princesses. She recently brought home a book from the library called the  Disney Princess Essential Guide. It is written like an ethnographic tome, explaining the particular traits of each princess: her house, her bio, her love interest, and most importantly, her outfit. We are told that the rustic Pocahontas, “doesn’t need shoes!” Despite this freedom from need, she too must be bedecked in a full gown.

I am predictably horrified. It’s not just the staggering number of synonyms for “spunky,” (though it is horrifying) it’s also the near identical personalities of the ‘cesses and the unreconstructed renditions of the plots. “Snow White longs more than anything for her prince to come.”

We are reading through the Mulan entry when Ronia helpfully points out “that’s a bad guy.” Since she has never seen Mulan, and is working purely from visual grammar on this, I ask her, “How can you tell?”

She gives the heartbreaking answer, “He’s black.”

Where do I start? First of all, while black is everywhere the color of shadow and the unknown, I am still flabbergasted that Disney has managed to render a dark-skinned villain in ANCIENT CHINA. And that Ronia has picked up on it so quickly.

I manage to stay calm and remind her of the black clothes she and I wear, the people she loves who have dark skin. She happens to have an African American male housemate and regular babysitter.

I did feel a bit out of my league with all of this though. So, like any good modern parent I turned to Facebook and asked for help. The Episcopalian minister who is also a member of our synagogue and an African-American woman asks, “What did you say and what will you do?” My Jew of Color friend offers me a trip to Iowa of all places to for a play date with her biracial children. Others are also sympathetic of Ronia and me alike.

Apart from the steps mentioned above, and blogging about it, I will have to monitor even more closely the colorism in the pop cultural works she consumes. Disney at least has the advantage of being very obvious. At least Ronia’s favorite Disney work is the mostly black “Princess and the Frog” a far too late apology for past racism that nonetheless STILL manages to have a villain with more “ethnic features.”

My mother, as we speak, is busy making Ronia two dolls, one black and one white.  A small gesture, but I’m trying to do anything I can. Any other suggestions of how I should deal with this?


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