Tag Archives: students

learning companion


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


a fence worth looking at


As I have mentioned previously, Hebrew is a conceptual language. It is built on a great many roots which are found in all verbs. When the same root is found in different words they reflect a conceptual relationship. For instance, the words: writing, dictation, correspondence, letter, and reporter all have a common root. The very nature of the language hints at certain values which are part of our culture. And so, it’s interesting to find that the root of the word ‘definition’ is the same as that for ‘fence’.


A fence, we learn, gives definition to an area. Which goes together well with a saying I’ve heard in English, ‘a fence makes good neighbors’. This fence was found in one of the two industrial neighborhoods of Jerusalem, Talpiot and Givat Shaul. Both of them accommodate factories and workshops. And since there are workers there, they also have restaurants and simple eateries, shopping centers and stores. And because no one sleeps there at night, you’ll find night clubs there too, so people can enjoy themselves as noisily as they care to, at all hours. And where there are fences, they are meant to hide an unsightly industrial property or designed to keep people from wandering into a construction sight.


I was visiting some clients in Talpiot when I first noticed this fence. It was made of sheet metal that had been put up between posts in the ground, and was painted in three colors with black lines. Turned out that a few businessmen had put together the money to buy paint, and some students from the Bezalel Art Institute in our fair city had volunteered to decorate the fence. The unpretentious stick figures fit in nicely with the many examples of graffiti found in the area. The paintings have a somewhat humorous, minimalist approach. And in my eyes, it’s art.


As for fences, their very existence is something of a provocation. One wants to trespass or transcend. But if they’re designed well, they might seem like the skin that surrounds and protects our bodies. Though Jerusalem was a walled city in ancient times, there are relatively few fences within the city. The housing is fairly dense, yet here and there are open spaces, which provide that very important taste of nature in the city. I hope to do a post very soon on some of those public spaces here.


You can see the set of the fence pictures here:


going back to school

Since I like to think that a great many of my readers are students in elementary and high schools around the world, it seems only appropriate for me to dedicate this blog post to ‘going back to school’… an international phenomenon, usually timed for September 1st. And it seems fitting to start out with a prayer. ‘Cause you know, whether it’s allowed by the courts or not… the school year usually starts out with a prayer. It’s called ‘the prayer of pupils’. And even if it’s not mumbled into the mustache, as we say… even if it only goes from the heart to the mind, and from there to god almighty.. what’s said is this: “please don’t let me die of boredom.” No matter if the proverbial notebooks have been replaced by laptops or tablets. Nor is there salvation in the classroom just because half the students have gotten their daily dose of Ritalin. You sit in a class with 30 other human beings who have been randomly assembled on the basis of the date of their birth, and try to absorb the wealth of information offered by the teacher at the head of the class… a person who has had only minimal exposure to the entertainment industry.

fish may swim in a school… but these fellows don’t

The clever kids catch it the first time around. But then… they have to listen to the good news explained over and over again, in a variety of ways, till the second from last dumbbell understands. Now that can be boring, no matter how hard you’re trying to keep a positive attitude. And those at the back end of the bell curve have given up long before the classy illustrations come into play. Listening to a teacher talk can be like your first taste of meditation. It can work like hypnosis. Your mind wanders freely. You watch the light refracting on the very edge of the nose of the girl in the row in front of you, a little to the left… as the words continue to flow meaninglessly, on and on. It’s soothing. If you’re not careful, you can fall asleep. Then teacher asks a question and someone drops whatever gadget it was they were playing with… and the sudden noise is a distraction. You look around to see if folks are smiling or sleeping. A few have their hands raised. Bob asks if it’s okay to go to the bathroom. There’s a lone fly moving slowly through space overhead. It makes you wonder if nano technology has developed a tiny camera which is strapped to the chest of that fly… and recording right now… you scratching your elbow… or something else. Time is relative, you think. Who said that? Einstein or Muhammad Ali? The class lasts less than an hour, but it can seem like three hours if you take it seriously. Muhammad Ali is 191 centimeters tall.

portrait of a graffiti artist; extra curricular activities

Students in Israel have it easy. The first of September usually arrives just before the High Holidays. You meet your teachers and your fellow students and get reminded of all the rules, find out where you’re going to sit… and then it’s vacation for the Jewish New Year. You come back and listen to a few introductions to subjects you’re going to be learning, and then it’s time to take off for the Day of Atonement. If you happen to belong to a religious family, you know that atonement is mainly for adults. Children get to do whatever comes into their heads while the adults are busy all day in the synagogue. You can just play around. Or if you like to read, that’s fine. It’s a great holiday for reading. And you get to eat while the adults are fasting. If you come from a secular family, it’s even better. For seculars, the day of atonement is national bicycle day. Everyone gets on a bike and rides around on the freeways. Because no one drives a car on that day. And there are no buses or trains either. Just an occasional ambulance, coming for someone who’s fallen off his bike. And then you can always throw rocks at the ambulance for disturbing the peace. You’re not supposed to, of course… but since most of the police are atoning too, it’s not very likely you’ll get caught.

a weed in a meadow; worth looking at

A few days after the day of atonement, comes Succoth, the holiday of booths. We move out of our homes and into temporary shacks with fancy adornments on the inside, to remember just how frail and temporary life itself is. That lasts a week. For those who don’t like temporary shacks right outside their homes, there’re always tents and camping in nature, so long as a little rain doesn’t bother you. The whole business called ‘the holidays’ lasts about a month. And just a few days of school, all that time. You get a whiff of it, that comes and goes. And you break into it easy. Of course, once the holidays are over, that’s really it. No getting around it. School every day. No teachers’ strike till towards the end of the school year. But you keep hoping for something that’ll break the routine. And you know, that can happen too. We’ve got to think positively…

a man eating his lunch in a temporary booth in honor of the feast of Succoth

Not This Time


Most every week, I sit down to my computer on Friday morning and share with you a bit of my world… what’s important to me… what occupies my mind… something I’ve learned or experienced. I find a few pictures to illustrate my post. If I can, I try to keep it light hearted and amusing, and hope that it’ll be a comfortable experience for my readers. I might ask some questions. I might raise some issue. But I’ll try to provide answers too. And wrap it all up with conclusions. Not this time, though. I’m suffering, and my heart is aching. I don’t have any answers. I have no conclusions. What I’m telling you is with a heavy heart. And there’s nothing about it, that I find amusing.

A week ago yesterday, three teenage boys were on their way home from school. They are Ayal Yifrach, Naftali Frankel, and Gillad Shear. They were seminary students on their way to enjoy the Sabbath with parents and family when they were kidnapped by a terrorist organization. Minutes after they were captured, one of the young men sent a message to the police, saying that he had been kidnapped. Since then, we haven’t heard from them. The parents of the three boys have shown great courage and restraint under pressure.

But this story isn’t just the story of the boys and their families. As a society, we have faced extortion before. Using just such methods in the past, our enemies succeeded in getting the release of convicted murderers. In the last year alone, they managed to get 75 convicted terrorists released as payment for their willingness to talk peace with us. Once they got these murderers released, they lost interest in peace. Many of the released terrorists have gone back to their previous inclinations, and have continued their criminal behavior.

Most of my countrymen, including myself, are horrified by this latest kidnapping. I feel as if I were holding my breath, waiting for the return of the boys, hoping that the army or the police will find them soon and return them to normal life among us. It is hard for me to think of anything else. These boys could be my own grandchildren. I love them and worry about them as if they were. And a lot of people around me feel the same.

Ayal, Gilad, and Naftali
Ayal, Gilad and Naftali

studying art

painting in the forest

Teaching art is in itself a rather difficult occupation. The teachers are almost all artists themselves, but what they teach is not how to be an artist. They teach the tools and the methods which an artist needs in order to produce his art. And aside from that, try to expose their students to varied and far reaching examples of works of art. They teach the history, and the stories of how different artists grew and evolved from art enthusiasm to the stage where they felt capable of producing works of art. The student is not graded or judged for his capacity as an artist, but rather for his ability to use the tools which he or she has chosen to learn or employ. Before the art, comes the craft. One has to learn to draw or to sculpt, or paint, or photograph. Each craft has its own rules. Though it might seem that a small child is able to produce a picture with complete freedom on the basis of talent alone, once that child has grown up, and tries to draw a tree or a horse, he discovers that there is a large gap between his intuitive ability to express his impression as a drawing on a page, and his own perception of the subject of his drawing. In order to bridge that gap, he or she has to study the techniques of drawing.

metal sculpture of a spider’s web with fly

What makes the study of art more difficult than the studies of bookkeeping, law, or engineering, is that only a very small portion of the students will eventually become artists. For unlike other crafts or professions, art demands a personal commitment, and a life of continuous doubt and danger.

being an artist is risky

A master carpenter will build a fine set of table and chairs. And after he has completed his work, he will build another set just like it. He may include a few improvements as he works, but the basic idea will remain the same. What he has learned from the first set will make producing the second set that much easier. But an artist is not permitted to be repetitive. He has to start from scratch, even after his greatest successes.

painting and photography in the forest

There are students who realize, shortly after beginning their studies, that they do not have the many characteristics needed to become an artist. But even so, they do not abandon their studies, because most of the students are motivated by a love of art. Many say, ‘even if I can’t be a great artist, it is enough for me to be part of the art community. Perhaps I will teach painting; perhaps I will find work in a community center. Perhaps I will learn another profession… But art, even as a hobby, will enrich my life’. There are artists who learn their crafts by apprenticeship. But most artists, these days, study in art schools. And the dynamics of the class, working together, learning together. Competing, and helping one another is extremely valuable to their education.

working on a sculpture made of oranges and orange peels

Taste is an important part of the creative process. It is personal, and not to be judged. An individual student may excel in learning how to draw or paint, or how to make silk screen prints. He may receive the finest grades in all his classes. But even so, his fellow students and his teachers may find his works atrocious. All the same, it his choice as what to draw or paint. His teachers won’t judge him according to taste. His work in the craft might even be an inspiration to his fellow students, but when he leaves the school and tries to sell his art in the market, he might find himself unable to find an audience.

an installation supporting empathy for our environment

Of course, we all know the stories of those artists who were rejected in their own lives, and after their deaths were acknowledged as great artists. These stories give hope and encouragement to artists who are unable to sell their works. But even so, one has the need for recognition and approval from some source. If one receives praise from critics or fellow artists, there may be reason to continue to work at his art, even if the artist is unable to sell it. But only a very few are willing to languish in poverty for years, in the faith that eventually they will be recognized.

the head of an enormous centipede made of stone and wood

In late spring and early summer, I used to participate in creative art seminars for college students, in which we would leave the lecture halls, the classrooms and the libraries, and try to experience the creative process of producing art in a natural environment. These ‘art trips’ were among the most enjoyable and challenging experiences I’ve had as a teacher. During these trips, the students would try out some of what they had learned in school, which enjoying the surroundings of nature. Teachers, and artists of all sorts were invited to join the trip. Some of them would work alongside the students, some would give helpful advice, and some would offer criticism. The students viewed such criticism as a positive input.


In the evenings the students would share their work, and they would criticize each other’s work. The pictures I’m showing today are from such a trip.

thoughts on education

I went to meet a student of mine, yesterday. It was a hot day, but quite pleasurable, sitting at an outside table at the café, in the shade of a wide umbrella. A gentle breeze wafted through the space. As is my habit, I came about a half an hour before the meeting, so as not to be late… and the time was well spent. With my little laptop at hand, I was able to continue my studies. And from time to time, I would lift my head, and watch the other patrons who’d chosen to sit outside.

afternoon in the café

Those in groups, chatted freely, and those who came by themselves enjoyed all kinds of private pleasures as they drank their ice coffees, beers, or ate ice cream. There were telephone conversations, and people who listened to music through ear phones, as well as a number of people who had computers with them, or phones that hooked up to the internet. Wifi was available free of charge.

children in the park

I was reading theories on education in the west. A strange read for someone like myself, who’s been a student all his life and a teacher as well. The emphasis seemed to be on the sympathy of the teacher towards the student; on the necessity to make the student feel loved and respected. It seems to me that this might be necessary for an incapacitated student… one who suffered from despair, or extreme psychological problems. But the students I have known did not search out teachers who would pet them, hug them, and make them feel good.

the life of students as a celebration

I believe, that in study, the student does the most of the work. At the very first stage, of course, he has to learn the basic tools; reading, writing, and arithmetic; the proper use of language, and the ability to research in the library. After that, the teacher provides direction, criticism, and checks to see that the student understands well that which he has learned. The teacher may also answer the occasional question. But since ancient times, it is well known that the question is more important than the answer. Learning is the work of the student, and a good student doesn’t wait for the entire class to move on, as do the sheep grazing in the field. Nor does he wait to be spoon fed. Enthusiastically, he devours the text, and checks out the bibliography at the back to find other points of view regarding that which he has now learned. He welcomes the exercises, because they challenge his ability to think, and to express himself in a clear crisp manner. And in his discussions with other students, he widens his understanding of the subject matter, and learns of other ways by which to reach similar results.

the sheep grazing in the field

In our culture, teachers are revered. But every student has a study partner, with whom he studies constantly… getting feedback as they compare notes and exercises. The business of study is not an emotional experience, but an intellectual accomplishment. I wonder, if athletics and sports are taught in the west according to the same ideals held as an example for intellectual studies. Are the football and baseball players given sympathy and compassion, as their teachers worry to insure the students’ confidence and emotional stability?

at the far end of the park

After enjoying a coffee together, and discussing the advantages of modern digital compact cameras, we took a walk through a nearby park. The children, free of the demands and obligations of school, were having a fine time on the grass. Young mothers with babies in their arms were enjoying the calm of the late afternoon. It was a beautiful summer day.

choosing an objective

The father of an ex student of mine called me up last week. He wanted to study photography. He had heard a lot about me, and he wanted to know if it would be possible to study with me. Normally, I wouldn’t be interested in such a job… but hearing whose father he was, I entertained the possibility. It might be a great pleasure. He explained that this is something he wanted to do for many years, and since he had retired recently, he thought he’d the time to realize his dream. What’s more, in recent years he had bought a digital camera, and found it very interesting. Our short conversation revealed that he had already picked up the importance of the aperture, and shutter speed, and the balance between them. But then he told me that he wanted to learn photography using a film camera. He had already bought a second hand box camera and that’s what he wanted to use.


A box camera. What a challenge. I asked him a few questions to determine if that was really what it was. No mistake there. It was a very simple box camera. And in those cameras, you are unable to adjust either the aperture or the speed of the shutter. Even the focus is pre-set. It is the sort of camera where you just press the trigger when you’ve got the picture you want in the viewer window. But unlike the modern digital automatic camera, which measures the light and gives you an appropriate exposure, the box camera was set for average conditions, and then in the lab, the printer corrected the effects of the exposure. It was made for people who didn’t want to trouble themselves with the little details, or for children. It was quite difficult to get really good photos in such a camera. On the other hand, occasionally, an accomplished photographer would take just such a camera and use it as a challenge. But this was a rarity, and you had to be really good to produce fine pictures with a camera like that.


First I asked him why he wanted to use this camera, and then I explained to him the drawbacks and the difficulties of the camera he had chosen. His explanation was simple. He had seen the camera and been attracted to it. He wanted to understand the characteristics of shooting with film. And he wanted to get to know the advantages of film that you could no longer find in digital photography. Well I thought his choice in camera was really inappropriate for what he wanted to learn. But I know that often a student has to be given as much freedom of choice as possible. I am willing to give advice in order to avoid unnecessary blind alleys. And there is something to be learned from any and every attempt. I told him that I would not actually teach him, but that I would be willing to answer his questions and to give him critiques of his work.


The conversation with him left me thinking about the many ways that photographers relate to their craft. Many, like this man, fall in love with the instrument, and just want to use it and study what it can do. Sometimes, a beginning photographer is totally absorbed by one subject, and just uses the camera to document his finds or work. Some start photographing as a way to make notes, or record scenes which are later turned into hand made drawings and paintings, and some desire to produce pictures that have the quality of art by way of the camera. I’ve met people who chose the camera because it seemed easier at first, and afterwards they found themselves working very hard. And I’ve also known people who chanced upon the instrument, almost by accident, and found that it did just what they wanted to do, and learned to love what it produced without suffering at all.


Some go looking for pictures, and others wait for the pictures to come to them. It reminds me of the difference between the hunter and the fisherman. I see myself more the fisherman, I sit by the stream, my back solidly supported by a large tree trunk, my line cast across the water, and I wait for the fish to come to me. Sometimes I tempt them… but usually, I try to enjoy myself as much as I can, and when they take a bite, I try to pull them in. For me, the work is in the development of the image, till it finds its place on paper. Sometimes it’s a lot of work. But I enjoy that too.