Category Archives: education

learning companion

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September means back to school here, as in much of the world. And as I watch the young students with book bags and backpacks… on their way to school or coming home, my thoughts are on school and learning, and especially on the difficulties attached to both. This year we didn’t have a teachers’ strike. But in the past, such strikes often coincided with the beginning of school. You wouldn’t hear many students complaining about how miserable they were without the pleasures of the classroom. On the other hand, unhappy parents were interviewed, moaning in protest as they asked, how are we going to go to work with the children stuck at home? And I would wonder if school wasn’t just a self righteous cover for babysitting.

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As I have mentioned in the past, my teachers in the seminary would say, we’re not here to teach facts; we try to teach you how to learn. And one of the most impressive methods of study that I learned there, was studying with a learning companion. We could choose a friend to study with, or a teacher could suggest a match. The nature of the relationship was different from the sort of friendship that develops between people who find themselves thrown together and learn to love one another… or who discover a natural affinity with someone else. There are so many reasons that people become friends… and maybe as many reasons that friendships cool and wither.

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The learning companion is more like a partner in sports. It is best that you both have a similar capacity to study, and similar enthusiasm. Because the role of the study partner is not to drag his friend to class or to help each other study for a test. The idea is that every person sees the world subjectively. And when you study with a partner, each understands what is learned in a different way. Often the student thinks he understands well what he has just learned, but sharing the different perspectives offers us a wider view of the possibilities.

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I remember at times, having serious arguments with my study partner, and there was no obligation to come to an agreed upon resolution. Nor was there a need to agree to disagree. We could remain with our different conclusions, and in telling others of what we had studied together, I would mention, ‘my study partner came to another conclusion’, then telling what he understood regarding the subject. When we would study legal decisions made over 2000 years ago in the Talmud, the minority opinion was always recorded as well.

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I have mentioned recently my discomfort, gleaning the news from the media. It often seems as if I’m hearing propaganda. There is a common agenda that sets the tone in so many areas. The newspeak of George Orwell’s 1984 seems to have come full bloom at the beginning of this century, and it not only washes out the color of speech; it dampens our thinking as well. So discussing things that matter to us with a comrade who has a different opinion is an important part of learning.

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on noticing clouds

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A few weeks back, I got a comment from menhir, mentioning that someone had said that there were no clouds in Israel. I decided to photograph some immediately. Went out for a walk and did it. But then… just couldn’t think of any story to tell that would enable me to use the clouds for illustration. I guess I just like a wide open blue sky, and we do have them now and then. Watching clouds in the sky brings me very personal subjective thoughts… nothing I would share in public. I remember the cloud photos of Stieglitz and Steichen, and how people enjoyed them. But clouds never did that much for me as a subject for photography.

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When taking a walk, by myself or with others, I don’t look for subjects. They find me. Some to be appreciated visually, and some as thoughts, memories, dilemmas or inspiration. I do enjoy company, but when walking alone my thoughts are deepest and longer lasting. If I read a fascinating book, it’ll often accompany me as I walk. I have spent a lot of time with Theodore Roosevelt in the past few weeks. First his autobiography, and then ‘River of Doubt’ which Cheri recommended, and got me interested in TR. It’s an excellent book. As a study of Roosevelt, it reveals much of the same man that I got to know while reading his autobiography. Aside from that, it enabled me to know the others who were part of his great adventure in the Amazon, and provided the background to better understand TR’s passion to conquer new territory.

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A hundred years ago, when he lived his life, there had been a great leap in mankind’s understanding of nature and this planet on which we live. Roosevelt was inspired by the first successful expedition to the north pole. He found a romantic delight in the heroic feats of previous explorers who had revealed many parts of the world, unknown to Europeans and the west. The invention of the train, automobile, airplane, electrical light and devices aroused the hope in people that they would soon know and understand all of the world.

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From the start of the tale, we are aware of conditions and attitudes which will weaken and challenge the expedition. He wishes to learn unknown territory, to map the geography and examine wildlife and plant life which may be completely new to him. But because of prejudice, does not choose to first acquaint himself with the human beings who live on that territory. I don’t blame him. As we do today, he accepted the conventions of his time. He was exploring an area of Brazil. And Brazil was a sovereign nation, whose government was cooperating with him. The natives of that country, living outside of those territories that had the advantages of modern technology and culture were considered primitive cave men whose only hope was being civilized by the representatives of western culture.

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At the start of the expedition there were 19 officers, almost 150 hired hands, and 200 pack animals. As the expedition approached that leg of the journey which was completely unknown (to modern mankind), after reducing the crew to 22 men, there was no way of going back, not enough food, and a lack of equipment, especially appropriate boats to enable them to travel efficiently down a river in which the rapids were impassable. They were forced to bypass those rapids each time when encountered. How different the expedition would have been if they had found some way to cooperate with the indigenous tribes who were native to the land. Or if they had made a primary small visit to the area in order to acquaint themselves with the conditions in the Amazon jungle before attempting to follow a river nearly 1,500 kilometers in length.

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But Roosevelt was a romantic hero of historic proportions, and influenced by the standards of his time. He approached his mission with the preconceptions of his day. He traveled with an entourage that was fitting for a king, or for the ex-president of the USA. As difficult as the journey became, through sickness, wounds, fear and worry, he remained loyal to his principles. He was a man who did not fear to live his life despite the dangers.

life is a great adventure, and the worst of all fears is the fear of living

wisdom of the past

Since starting to use the internet, I’ve encountered a regular stream of quotations from well known thinkers and writers, on a variety of subjects meant to enlighten and encourage us. I’ve often felt that the quotations were false. They didn’t always fit the personality of the individual being quoted. Sometimes they quoted a person whom I’d previously read, and the quote seemed highly unlikely. Occasionally they were irrelevant, such as: “Always zip up your fly before going out” by Albert Einstein. When seeing something like that, I wonder how many people go to the source and try to understand the thoughts and intentions of the person quoted.

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I got a comment from our friend Cheri a few weeks ago that included a recommendation of River Of Doubt by Candace Millard. I read a couple of reviews, and bought the book. I had long heard of Theodore Roosevelt, but had never read him. I had read about him in history books. many years ago. I knew he had written quite a bit himself. But none of his books are translated into Hebrew. Thinking about him, and this tale of an adventure of his in South America, I thought that I would rather meet him in his own words before I read the book about him. I got his autobiography. It’s very different to read a man’s account of his own life as compared to how others see him. Even as I read the forward, I felt a great respect for him. I’ve been reading about American presidents and following their speeches and decisions since the days of Eisenhower and I had never encountered anyone like him. He reminded me of Thomas Jefferson who had led that nation a hundred years before Roosevelt.

As I continued to read the autobiography, I learned to love the man. He was a true leader and teacher. A modest man, he was very aware of his faults and his limitation. He saw himself as a regular fellow. He writes of an occasion when he was toasted by the crew of a Navy vessel on which he had sailed with his wife. It was a a time when he was working with a Government Commission to revive the inland waterways of the country. At the conclusion of the trip, one of the petty officers proposed the toast as follows “Now then, men, three cheers for Theodore Roosevelt, the typical American citizen!” That was the way in which they thought of the American President, and it pleased him greatly.

As a child he had health problems, was a bit weak. As he describes it, he was neither a genius nor exceptionally gifted in talent. But he kept on working on himself, trying to learn what this life was all about and what was truly valuable. He read and studied as a youth. Often beaten by bullies, he learned how to box in order to defend himself. And as a young man, he left his comfortable environment in a well-to-do neighborhood of New York City, and went out west (in those days the Dakotas were considered part of the west), and chose to live the life of a cowboy. As he progressed in life, he sought out challenges; tried to actually live the experiences that attracted him in books. Moreover, he tried to live his life according to the values he believed in, and though he had the greatest respect and affection for the common man, he was not satisfied to go along with the crowd.

Perhaps he was overshadowed by the second President Roosevelt, but in these days, when so many Americans are disappointed by the present American President, I think it would be very helpful to read this exemplary man. For he saw that there was something wrong with the direction his country was taking, and tried to change things. And he tells us what works and what doesn’t when you’re trying to make a change, trying to reform established practices. I don’t agree with all of his opinions, but I do think that what he writes about is important for all who love and care for democracy. And I believe that he presents his values well. He translated the ideas of ‘conservation’ (now called ecology), to a working plan for government, and was the first leader in the world who actually provided tools of government with which to control the abuse of the environment.

He writes:

The men who first applied the extreme Democratic theory in American life were, like Jefferson, ultra individualists, for at that time what was demanded by our people was the largest liberty for the individual. During the century that had elapsed since Jefferson became President the need had been exactly reversed. There had been in our country a riot of individualistic materialism, under which complete freedom for the individual— that ancient license which President Wilson a century after the term was excusable has called the “New” Freedom— turned out in practice to mean perfect freedom for the strong to wrong the weak.

He writes that he often listen and consulted with those with whom he did not agree. He even deliberates on whether one should listen to the arguments of truly evil people, and says that he was able to learn even from them.

I consulted all who wished to see me; and if I wished to see any one, I sent for him … and I always finally acted as my conscience and common sense bade me act.

I would find an occasional humorous anecdote here and there, and laughed along with him as I read.

There was a big governmental job in which this leader was much interested, and in reference to which he always wished me to consult a man whom he trusted, whom I will call Pitt Rodney. One day I answered him, “The trouble with Rodney is that he misestimates his relations to cosmos”; to which he responded, “Cosmos— Cosmos? Never heard of him. You stick to Rodney. He’s your man!”

He talks about reading and books, giving great advice to the student. He might not have told all about his presidency, but he did tell how he worked to live a meaningful life. Telling that, he manages to cover numerous activities that we all engage in. And there is much to learn from his words. I could bring you many quotes from the book, but I will conclude with a short one that I found most important:

But life is a great adventure, and the worst of all fears is the fear of living.

 

remembering Henny Penny

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the lobby of the Agricultural Center for Community Gardening in Jerusalem

As I mentioned in my previous post, it’s tiring listening to the political messages we keep getting from the news media. Thinking about it, and in discussions with friends, I realize that it’s not just politics. Something has changed in the way that news is offered us. Maybe it’s been a long process, starting with the more subjective approach to journalism, called the ‘new journalism’ in the 60s, and reaching the level of an hysterical rant in recent years. The way issues are presented reminds me of ‘re-education’ in China during the cultural revolution there. The news media, having taught us politically correct discussion, are now trying to move us into action. I haven’t joined facebook but every now and then, the various movements or causes that reach prominence on that social platform are reported in the news as well, and it’s not clear whether these reports are meant to point fun at the social media or whether they’re considered important concerns for all of us these days.

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the old nature museum

Of course, there are also the real world social movements, like the ‘me too’ revolution, the anti-smoking movement, and the warnings of climate change on the planet. I feel obliged to mention that I oppose the abuse of women, addiction of any sort, and have believed all my life that pollution of the environment is an affront to nature and a terrible abuse of the general public. All the same, I don’t like to be preached to constantly. And I’m disturbed when I see a large portion of the public resorting to extralegal means to influence the processes of government or the courts.

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There has been quite a bit of controversy regarding the climate warming issue. The big question seems to be not whether the planet is warming, but whether man is responsible for this change. But it should be pointed out, that even if we human beings are not responsible (and we know there have been ice ages and scorching periods on the planet before man took over), we still have the same interest in trying to prevent a world disaster, whether it be a critical change in climate or an asteroid that comes crashing into our world. DrBob sent me a very interesting article recently which suggests that there may have been some very sudden climate changes in the past as a result of a reversal of the magnetic field of the planet.

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Yet what is to be gained by scaring ourselves and our friends with extremely pessimistic forecasts regarding the future? I too have my doubts about the future. I am convinced that we are watching the dawn of a new age that will be different from anything that has come before. We can expect changes just as radical as those that came after the development of sophisticated tools by cave men. I don’t believe that we can stand in the way of such change, even if we disapprove the path that society seems to be taking. Virtual reality might be a preview to an entirely different attitude towards sensual awareness. And we have yet to see what computers can do when they’re designed by computers.

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inside of the hot house

So, in an effort to find a balanced perspective regarding our relationship to nature and the environment, I visited the Agricultural Center for Community Gardening of Jerusalem this week. What impressed me the most was the ‘hotel for insects and bugs’. I had some expectations before I visited the place, but this was something I hadn’t even imagined. A home built by humans to offer insects and bugs a little comfort in this world. Usually we are just killing them or banishing them from whatever space we seize. And this was just the sort of thing I had been wondering about… is there a positive way to deal with the phenomena that disturb us, rather than just complaining or crying about it?

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Another thing that impressed me profoundly was hearing that there are 70 community gardens in Jerusalem, including allotments and wild flower reserves. I wrote about the allotment in my neighborhood a while back. You can find it here: http://tinyurl.com/y9c673o6

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the hotel for insects and bugs

The agricultural center is manned by some very talented and schooled volunteers. They are situated right next to the nature museum. They build a lot of their facilities and furniture themselves from recycled wood, sponsor a free library, lend tools to amateurs, hold seminars and cultural get-togethers. There is the Saturday ‘garden meet’ every week featuring lectures and cultural events. A photography exhibit was still on the walls when I was there. They have a very professional looking compost facility, conduct experiments in growing plant life on water without earth, and rely on an exceptionally well designed nursery to provide plants to all the different community gardens in our city. Quite a few of the many plant species native to our region have become extinct, and the botanists and green thumbs of the agricultural center are doing their best to prevent the extinction of such endangered species today. As I wandered around the grounds, there was no end of delightful surprises and a great variety of sights and smells.

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a demonstration roof garden

There was a fascinating roof garden, with huge wooden plant pots in which you could grow your own food, even if you lived in an apartment house. I think it would be hard for anyone to visit this center without catching a bit of the excitement about what is going on and the enthusiasm of the volunteers of all ages. The attitude among the workers and visitors is one of encouragement and friendship.

for more pictures from this visit see:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/shimonz/albums/72157668282675148

myth of the washrag

Western culture as we know it, has been influenced to a great degree by the ancient cultures of Greece and Israel whose histories were an example and an ideal for the many countries of Europe and the Americas. Of course, culture is fluid, and change is constant, and every generation added something of value as societies evolved and developed. The Roman empire and its establishments still influence us today alongside the Christian ethic which spread some of the values of Israel while serving as an antithesis to early Roman culture. Through history, we defined and redefined our values, and these values found their way into art and history and the many different cultural expressions that were part of our education, recreation, politics and social services.

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I felt the holy spirit in the joy of the multitude

Even today, a youngster might have heard of Achilles. If not by way of Homer’s Iliad, then he might have met the hero in the pages of a comic book, or in a poem or a movie. Throughout history we have been influenced by heroes as an ideal. We loved Socrates for his questioning conventions, and Ulysses for his adventures, and learned that the first had a wife who made his life miserable, and the second, a wife who threw a party in his absence. Our heroes were strong and committed to ideals. They had to overcome certain disadvantages, and that is part of what made them heroes. Achilles was invincible except for his heel. Moses was a stutterer who, though extremely modest led a revolution against the pharaoh of Egypt. David was a small statured redhead, a guitar player who faced a warrior giant and defeated him before becoming king of Israel.

These heroes and the many who came after them were often flawed. They had to rise above their flaws. But it seems that in contemporary culture the flaws have overcome the hero. The more flawed the better. In literature and films, the anti hero is more popular than the heroes of old. I saw this process of changing direction in my own area of expertise some years ago, when photography became attracted to the banal. What was revolutionary at first when Marcel Duchamp challenged the decorum of museums by installing a urinal as a piece of art (called the ‘Fountain’) became quite tiresome as more and more artists extolled banality. One is just as likely to see an old washrag or used tire in a photo exhibition as once we saw the wonders of nature. That urinal was installed in the museum 100 years ago. Stephan Hawking took pride in the fact that he was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death, and now that he’s died on the birthday of Albert Einstein, there seems little question that he was an extraordinary scientist. Whether he’s the greatest ever is still not decided. What we can be sure of, is that he is the ultimate hero of this generation: a flawed hero who could not walk, and could not write. Couldn’t even talk. He was our first real bionic man, with a computer built into his wheel chair to talk for him; a mind bereft of a body. He was the embodiment of the myth we were looking for; the victim of evolution gone wrong saved by artificiality.

D2685_070and I felt the holy spirit here too, in the desolation

Unlike Albert Einstein to whom he’s often compared, his theories have yet to be proven. But like John Lenon (who said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ and that rock n’ roll might outlast Christianity), he had the temerity to state plainly that god didn’t exist. His theory regarding the creation of the world was that gravity could create the universe out of nothing. Now I have always had great affection for this man for no other reason than that he kept on going, regardless of the body that had betrayed him. Sigmond Freud, the inventor of psychology as science, faced a similar physical challenge. When cancer had decimated his jaw, and he was forced to sacrifice half his face in order to stay alive, he continued to hold on to life, wearing a veil to hide his disfigurement. At the end though, he did choose to die by an overdose of morphine rather than suffer the cruelty of nature.

yesterday

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almond blossoms at the top of the little hill where I live in Jerusalem

When I came into this world, it was hell on earth. My earliest memories are of nightmare qualities. My parents, who were orthodox Jews, were married by ‘arrangement’. and complemented each other in a strange and unexpected manner. My father didn’t really want to bring any children into this world, but my mother wouldn’t hear of such a plan. It was either marriage with children or no marriage and he agreed. In an attempt to offer me some consolation, he suggested that I read history, and this I did. It gave me a wider perspective of human affairs. My mother, on the other hand, told me of the good in the world. She tried to share with me what she loved about life. She was an incurable optimist.

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Nechama my cat does not believe in religion or any ideology. she looks at life from the ground up. she has an exaggerated faith in me. but when we’re taking a walk together and she sees a dog in the area, she hides behind a bush or up in the tree. she doesn’t rely on me to save her.

As a young man I started my learning with the study of religion, and from there I continued to mechanics, science and engineering. This was simply because Jewish people could not feel safe in any country. They had been driven out of one country after another and been forced to adjust to endless changes in language and cultures. The study of engineering or mechanics would allow me to feed myself and my family regardless of where I might have to go to find shelter. But after securing a professional base, I found myself drawn to philosophy. As I would read the thoughts of different philosophers, I was convinced almost every time, identifying with the thinker, and adopting his point of view until I came across the next which I would adopt too. I was naive and trusting when reading these volumes by intelligent rational people… well, some of them were rational. Eventually, I came to existentialism, and this was more or less where that search ended. I tried to live the present. Not to reach out in hope and prayer for the future… not to entertain fantasies about what could happen, and what I wanted to happen. And not to look back… because in my case, I couldn’t even take a peek without inadvertently seeing images of a blood drenched inferno, being beaten up, and tortured by fear.

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she’s an old one eyed cat, but she hasn’t run to fat. she watches the birds on the hill without disclosing her opinions

For most of my life, I continued on this path. And as I’ve mentioned many times in this journal, my life became better and better. To the point where after sixty some years, dying quietly on the floor of my college office after a heart attack, I argued with an ambulance paramedic who wanted to take me to the hospital, saying that I had a good life, and just wanted to be taken home, which was a good place in which to say good bye to the world. Circumstances outwitted me, and I was eventually taken to the hospital where I was saved, but that is a story for another time.

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this is wild mustard that grows freely in the fields at this season, and can be included in a sandwich without industrial additives

What I wanted to say, though, was that for most of my life I preferred to focus on the present. But as I grew old, I realized that in many cases that which was most precious to me, was not the contemporary favorite. It was not just that I’d grown old and was no longer able to keep up, and so waxed nostalgic about what had been popular when I was younger. In my youth I had enjoyed Vivaldi and Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. I had read philosophical speculations that were sometimes two and three thousand years old, and back again up till the present day. In the pursuit of happiness I had the advantage of checking out anything and everything that had been studied before me. And then… sometime after my retirement, I became entranced by the desire to keep ‘up to date’… and was disappointed.

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more almond blossoms at the same place

technology is a straight line; the arts, philosophy, and music are part of a timeless blossoming of the human spirit. there is no before and after in art.

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As we all know, there is nobility in ‘art for art’s sake, or studying for the sake of knowledge. One discerns music by taste. The reason to play is for the sake of enjoyment…of the player or the listener; either or both. But in the case of technology, there is constant forward motion and progress is judged by practicality. Technology started before recorded history, before the invention of the wheel, before the invention of scissors and pliers or the discover of the uses of fire. And we moved a step forward every time we encountered a practical way to get results that were even better than what we were getting before. There was a long period of time when man was learning how to harness the power of water moving in a river to perform jobs that people had previously been doing by hand. And then there was the steam engine, and then the internal combustion engine. And while these major industrial miracles were being celebrated, there were hundreds and thousands ‘little’ miracles that added to man’s ability to impose his will on nature.

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the same corner where we looked at post modern sculptures on that rainy day

The industrial revolution was perhaps the first time that major customs and conventions were replaced and changed in order to placate the demands of technological progress. After that came the electrical era, and we are now at the very start of the digital age. It is hard to guess just exactly where we’ll go. But I keep in mind that the god of technology is efficiency, whereas the god of art, music and philosophy is reflected in the infinite variations of human sensitivity, empathy, emotions, and the questioning of our own existence.

corner Jaffa & King George

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love