Tag Archives: children

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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old as the hills 2

for readers with time to spare
this is fiction

My first impression of the new place was emptiness and quiet. The landscape seemed to continue on and on to the horizon. There was the big house and a barn. But mostly, what I could see of this world… new to me… was heaven and earth. Aside from the two structures, and a few sentinel and shade trees, everything that wasn’t in the heavens was found close to the ground. The few people that I met spoke little, with little intonation in a language that was so far unintelligible. The landlady took us to our quarters, We were shown what to do by example. The first familiar voice I heard was the crow of a rooster, It was reassuring, recognizable sound.

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Time seemed to move slower than ever before. the newspaper which I saw passed from one person to another, was foreign too. Very likely, even if I could read it, there’d be nothing there that’d interest me. My bible and prayer book had been pulled out from between the shirts and the socks in my suitcase, and were now on a little table next to my bed. but I hadn’t brought pages to write on, and I longed for some connection to my parents. The one phone in the house, hardly ever used, held no promise for me. In those days, international calls were a rarity and expensive. Such things were beyond me. The radio too, which was turned on for about an hour, or an hour and a half in the evening, seemed like a special luxury, and it occurred to me that the classical music we listened to, in chairs arranged around the radio, might have been especially for my benefit. For I was asked more than once if this was the music I liked. Music was a word that I knew.

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As the days passed, the shock of landing in an unknown environment receded leaving the door open to curiosity. I began to notice that there were sounds, mostly subtle and of lower intensity, but sounds all the same, which seemed to be interwoven with the landscape. Daytime sounds and the sounds of night. A bird that sang at the approach of sundown. People here seemed to get up with the rising sun, and went to their beds not long after night had fallen. Little by little I began to realize that my first impressions had been incorrect. The quiet that at first had overwhelmed me was merely the absence of sounds I was used to. My eyes began to register distances as my feet mapped the territory from the house to the farm and from there to the fields. By way of my feet, through socks and shoes, I sensed the land. My nose and ears became sensitive to this new reality. The hair follicles on my head could recognize a gentle breeze when it came. washing face and hands was less a ritual and seemed a necessity. Some of the vile smells which at first I had tried not to smell (that was impossible) became pleasant after a while.

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In my parents’ home, my earliest associations had not been defined. Home was a medley of familiar voices and smells; routines that I expected without ever thinking about them. The warmth and good cheer of mother. I thought she knew everything, and I trusted her implicitly. Singsong voices wrapped around me like a comfort blanket. Home was familiar and protective though I often discovered new objects or signs that bore meanings, were there for me to learn. There were orders, requests, and instructions from parents to children, usually in a matter of fact voice without emotion. Punishments were so rare that I can remember only one example. But it was quite easy to read the faces of mother and father, and a message of disapproval or disappointment even if unspoken, was punishment enough. The word that could best express my relationship to parents and teachers was awe. A person who could be completely trusted was usually described as a person having awe of heaven.

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Our sages used to say, turn your home into a meeting place for the wise. This advice had been so thoroughly absorbed by the adults I knew that it never needed mentioning. As much as human beings were an integral part of our home, so were books. They could be scrolls, or pages sewn and bound together. There were holy books and there were kosher books. These were the scrolls on parchment. And there were secular books too.

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There was often a book or two on the dining table, and occasionally a group of books, some of them opened to a particular page, if someone had searched for an explanation or information regarding some obscure subject. On all the doorways of our home, except for the toilet, there was a little box made of wood, attached to the frame of the door. I had once seen this box opened. Maybe it had been opened especially for my edification. Inside was a tiny scroll. And on the scroll there was writing, black square letters on white parchment, crying out to all of Israel that god was one, and he was all encompassing. This was followed by a few paragraphs from the bible regarding how one should or could relate to that.

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This tiny scroll looked much the same as the torah scrolls which were read in the synagogue on Mondays, Thursdays and twice on Saturdays, except for the fact that the torah scrolls had two poles and the tiny scroll was rolled into a cylinder without any pole at all. There were scrolls without poles, with just one pole, and with two poles, depending on how much parchment there was to read or study from. They were all called books. In my new home I found only one book, obviously a bible though I couldn’t read the writing. It was kept on the same shelf that carried numerous ceramic figures.

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Later, a teacher once told me, ‘we’re not here to teach you facts, but to teach you how to learn’. I wonder if I knew that then, or if it was a natural reaction to an environment completely new, but soon I was learning from the bushes and the trees, and from the vegetables whose leaves were still anonymous. How thrilling it was to discover that there were carrots, radishes and onions growing under those leaves, and a little scary to observe the tomato bugs trying to get to that fruit before we were able to enjoy them at the table. I learned to fold leaves or rub them to intensify their smell; to check the taste of leaves; to smell the barks of trees… to hold dirt in my hand. Dirt, which had always been an unwelcome intruder in my parents’ home, and whisked right out… had joined the assembly of characters who now occupied my new world.

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The language of the locals was my biggest challenge. No one talked to me, so when I heard others talking my mind would stop and stand at attention. I would try not to think at all. I would let the words enter my head like waves at the sea shore, reverberating sometimes back and forth till they were replaced by others. I would watch the faces of the speakers, discerning expressions that accompanied the sounds. It was difficult at first to know when one word ended and another began. The faces were more expressive than the sounds. Occasionally there were familiar sounds. Now and then there was a word that I thought I recognized. And then there were more. I was in no rush to speak. I knew I was different enough without spilling broken and twisted words in front of everyone.

all photos here from the Makor Baruch neighborhood
in Jerusalem

old as the hills 1

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this is a work of fiction, no flash intended; any similarity to persons living or dead must surely be coincidental

“I was about your age”, said the old man, looking at me as if he was searching for something in my face, “and we were suffering through the previous war then… my parents worried whether we could make it through. We’d seen sights in the streets…” he paused. I knew he was thinking maybe it was best I didn’t hear what he’d seen in the streets at that time. He was still looking at me with that big question in his face, but I figured I might have to wait a long time till I figured out the question. Maybe he was wondering if I’d cry when he finally got around to telling me what he had to say. I knew it wasn’t about the sights he’d seen in the last big war, because he never talked about such things… and I knew that no matter what he said, I wasn’t going to cry… because it was hard for him to bear, and we didn’t have too many of these heart to heart talks. They usually came when there was bad news in the offing. I’d tried now and then to initiate a conversation with him. But I really didn’t know the things that interested him. So I just did my best to hold up my side of the conversation. The contact… the communication was precious. This time, he wasn’t telling me something that I was supposed to have known before he even started talking. No, this was about getting a piece of news. And my part of the interchange was just waiting for it to get out there; the less I said, the easier it would be for whatever it was to get out.

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We were heading towards another war. That I knew. He said he didn’t think it’d have to be as bad as the previous one… though you never can tell. Still, there might not be much food around for a while. And food is very important when you’re growing. Children, he explained… didn’t see any of them around… have all kinds of needs. They make noise, even without realizing it. I couldn’t help wondering about that. I knew children made noise. But it seemed to me that they were aware of it. Didn’t say anything myself. Because I knew that such facts had been assembled to let me know what was coming… this wasn’t about sharing mutual experiences.

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It turned out that we children… me and my sister, and the next door neighbor’s boy and a few other kids were going to be sent far away, though it wasn’t really that far… to a farm, where there’d be all kinds of animals, and nice people who weren’t like us at all, and chores that we could do, to help out on the farm. Maybe there were children there too, that we could get to know and play with once we learned their language, and it was a lot easier to learn a new language when you were a kid. We’d have plenty to eat, and lots of new things to learn. We’d see where food comes from.

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Now, here was a new idea… my first thought was I knew where food came from; from the market, from the green grocer, from the bakery… but his words told me that I didn’t. It sounded interesting. For the first time since he’d taken me aside to ‘talk’ I realized that the news might be seen as an opportunity. I didn’t like the idea of going far away… nor all the rest of the things that had been mentioned… terrible things to be seen in the streets, or nice people that spoke a different language… it didn’t seem like I’d want to go far away, even to see animals. I’d seen my share of animals. But none of them had been quite as intelligent as my cat, and he was always here with me. mmmm… I wondered if my cat could join us on this trip. But I had a feeling I knew the answer to that one. No. All the same, it would be interesting finding out where food came from… before it got to market.

serendipity

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it takes a village

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Always had this romantic love for the country… It was half a century ago, and I was on my way to visit a friend in a little village up north. I was used to buses that ran every few minutes, back in the city. Hadn’t occurred to me to check the bus schedule. So here I was, out in the country, after the big intercity bus had let me off… waiting… and no bus came by. I slipped my bag over my shoulder and started walking along the country road. What did it matter if it took me an hour… or even three. I was young, and the day was beautiful. I could walk.

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After I’d walked for about a half an hour, I heard the sound of a tractor coming down the road. It wasn’t moving fast, and you could hear it a long way off. I turned around and watched as it approached. Made the sign of the hitch hiker, and he slowed down to a stop. “Where you going?” he called out to me over the noise of the tractor. It was a big one, and it towered over me. I told him the name of the village I was headed towards. “I’m going to the same place,” he said. “But you’d have to sit on this dirty fender, and you’ve got your Sabbath suit on”. I’m not worried about that, I said, and with a smile, got up on the fender and rode the rest of the way. It was like visiting heaven. There was nothing I didn’t like about the place.

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bomb shelter

In the years that followed, I never got over the love I had for that beautiful piece of country. We even lived there for a while. But my darling wife couldn’t appreciate it the way I did, so we went back to the big city. That wasn’t hard for me, because I was part of Jerusalem too, as she was part of me. But there was something about living in the country that left me with a great longing for that kind of life.

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play car at the kindergarten

This was long before people started having ‘virtual’ experiences, and living the virtual life. But even back then, the difference was profound. I felt an intensity in the country life that made the colors more brilliant and the earth under my feet more immediate. There was an intimacy with nature that was always with me. I could listen to the plants growing… hear the flies as they flew in the air. I always had the feeling that it was a better place to bring up children. When you live in a village, you get to know a lot of people, all of whom are contributing something to the welfare of the general population.

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art

It isn’t as abstract as living in the city. You actually get to know people and the way they work… what they do all day. That’s the benefit of a real community. When you grow up with people you meet every day, you get a more realistic example of what can be gained in this life. You might get to know the garage mechanic and the barber, the horse trainer and the scholar. You see them working. You see a working man or woman on their feet from morning to night, and the farmer repairing fences. When you try helping with the chores for a neighbor or a professional in town, you get something of an idea of whether their work would interest you, whether you could really figure out the sort of problems that they have to deal with all the time.

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The photos here are from the same village… taken just a few years ago. Time moves a little slower there. The society I got to know there has changed a lot. But the village itself still carries traces of its past. And the people too, aren’t quite as up to date as we are in the city.

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Sabbath Chanukah

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in the south of Israel

Most of us live in little homes, hidden away in the back streets of the city, or on the horizon, at the edge of the fields. We wish for rain in the right season, and the light of the sun at other times… privacy, and peace… quiet. To learn a little something each day… to enjoy the company of those we love… peace and freedom is reason enough for a holiday.

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little houses

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planting potatoes in the field

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a bicycle built for three

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the fifth day of Chanukah

islands in the raging sea

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with violence erupting
from deranged, festering, unthinking minds…
thirsty for action in the Hollywood style
so like the action thrillers that perked them up
as they stared listlessly
at the silver screen… in the theater
or the computer screen alternative
to their meaningless existence.
rivers of blood and forbidden sex
as an antidote to boredom and insignificance
wishing for a moment of glory before sacrifice
empty moon faces lost in space
spastic hyper active bodies
distended from shallow minds
the Arab spring, they called it, a few years ago
you can find it on facebook, I’ve heard…

can it be…
that we, on our island of serenity
may still enjoy some peace of mind
in the light, filtered through fall leaves
chickens picking at grains of vegetation
in the gravel…
and the cats, leisurely in their presence
taking pleasure in life itself,
cleaning themselves from time to time
awake, aware, but calm
in the patches of sunshine between
the approaching rain clouds

islands in the raging sea
in the midst of the storm

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