Tag Archives: study

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.


intimate conversation

One of my favorite writers is Rabbi Nachman of Breslev.  He had thousands of followers, but told his students that it was hard for him to speak to more than ten people at the same time. Because, he explained, when he talked to people, he wanted to communicate with each person present on a one to one basis, and he was unable to focus on more than ten people at one time.  After writing that blog post that I called ‘comeback’, a very dear friend of mine said, ‘Now you’ve done it. You’ve spoken straight from your heart. You ought to write that way in the future’. But instead of encouraging me, this advice put a damper on my ability to write. I started thinking about those subjects that I study in solitude and about my dreams… and realized that were I to discuss such things in a public forum, it might lead to the unhappiness of a reader. Not because they would feel sorry for me, but because they might challenge themselves with those same thoughts… even if they weren’t ready for them. The questions I ask myself, and my perspective in life have been influenced by what I saw in childhood. Rabbi Nachman chose to tell stories that were complex parables, and each reader could take from them those messages that appeal to him or her. There have been many commentaries of his stories. Some of them very deep. To others, his stories resemble fairy tales.

graffiti in memory of Rabbi Nachman

When my children were little, I remembered that my parents had never spoken to me about sex. At that point in my life, I was trying to correct my parents mistakes in the way I raised my own children, and so when my two oldest children got to the age when I thought they might be curious about the subject, I decided to tell them ‘the facts of life’. They were about the same age that I was when I became curious about such things. But when I took them aside and told them how this particular function, essential to human continuation, works, they showed very little interest. They couldn’t wait to find another subject to talk about. I realized that any knowledge may be meaningless to us till we’re ready to deal with it.

As luck would have it, I was exposed to cruelty and death at a very early age. In fact, I was born at a time and place that introduced me to circumstances so extreme as to make me feel as if I had been born on an alien planet. I could find no emotions to deal with what I saw and heard outside of my well furnished room, and the comforts my parents afforded me. As I grew older, life around me improved. I discovered the pleasures of nature, and liked riding my bicycle. My greatest pleasure was reading and studying. That was what comforted me in my loneliness. The writers that I read were like older brothers and sisters to me. I heard their voices in my head, and felt a familiarity with them that I was unable to find in the social world around me.

men in prayer

Life kept getting better though. It seemed to me that the world relaxed. There still were wars, but they were far away now. And the people I saw around me seemed to be busy chasing happiness and sensory pleasures. They seemed most cheerful when accumulating money, eating rich foods and playing with toys. When I heard about post traumatic stress syndrome, I thought such phenomena only concerned other people. For me, it seemed that all of life was a cluster of ripe traumas. When reading psychology, I learned that for some people a real trauma seemed to be wanting to have sex with a parent and realizing that it was forbidden… or wanting something else that was forbidden. Ah, happy normality. I remember listening to Woody Allen in an interview… he mentioned that as a child he worried about the sun dying in another 5 billion years. Okay, I thought, he discovered his mortality, and could joke about it. Humor might provide relief from anxiety… but what about horror?

a glimpse of my Jerusalem

As a professional photographer, I used to prepare lecture slides for some of my customers. This was before the PC and PowerPoint. I was once having coffee with one of my customers after having delivered his work. He told me of the amazing progress that was being made in chemical treatment of psychological complaints. He said there were new medicines that effectively cured depression. I said to him, ‘you know, I suffer from depression occasionally’. He said, ‘Ah Shimon, if that ever happens to you again, get in touch with me, and I’ll give you a pill that will just amaze you’. Some time later I called him up and told him I felt pretty depressed at the time. He said, ‘I’m really sorry to hear that. Why don’t we get together today, have a beer and talk’. We got together at a pub and drank a couple of beers. He never mentioned the pill. And I didn’t want to ask if he didn’t offer it. I’ve lived most of my life without pills.

Devil’s Island

Fido was here

My dear readers and friends, I would like to start out this time with an apology. Just as I wouldn’t normally write you about a bad case of diarrhea, or a vigorous attempt to remove a booger from my nose, I believe that there are some things better left unsaid. I know; the internet and blogging sometimes indicate that this might just be old fashioned thinking. But I can’t help it. My sense of decorum goes back longer than most people in this world have been alive, and it seems too late for me to change.

seminary student in the city

When the three seminary boys were kidnapped, and later found murdered, some weeks back, I was overcome by sorrow, heartbroken by the cruelty of it. I actually went into mourning, and found it hard to think about the subject rationally. But as events unfolded, I realized that what had happened was the first move in a contest… one of the worst in which human beings participate. It’s known as war. Surprise and confusion are considered legitimate openings in war. Witness the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, or the Trojan Horse in ancient Greece. It has happened over and over in the history of man. And yet, more often than one might expect, we are still surprised. We may study sociology, psychology, anthropology or culture. But after a long career as a perennial student, I’ve reached the conclusion that the key to understanding mankind, is the study of history.

a charity box

We told the Hamas in Gaza, ‘if you give us quiet, we’ll give you quiet’. Can you imagine saying that to someone who wants to knock your block off?! That was all they needed to hear in order to realize that we didn’t want to fight, and it just gave them more confidence. So they started shooting missiles at us. Now we’re fighting. By Tuesday, we already had missiles falling on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. I’ve heard an interview by a BBC reporter of a government official here. He asked, ‘how many Israelis have been killed by these missiles?’ Well, we don’t want to wait until we’re counting the dead. It is provocation enough for us to have missiles falling on our people!

peppers in the market place

When fighting a war, each side is trying, by way of force, to have its own way. The contest is one of life and death. Surprises and obtuse behavior are an integral part of the game. It is always easier to understand what was happening after the fact, rather than during the action. We are presently engaged in a war that is called Steadfast Cliff in Hebrew, and Operation Protective Edge in English. Jews lived in Gaza before the modern state of Israel was created. But we gave the Gaza strip to the Arab population that lived there nine years ago, after forcibly removing the Jewish population. And this was because the Arabs claimed that they couldn’t possibly live alongside Jews in peace, even though a large minority of Arabs live in Israel and enjoy more freedoms and a higher living standard here, than in any of the Arab countries.

dried fruit

Since then, the Arab population of Gaza have made fighting the Jews their national pastime. Though they were given the vineyards and farms left behind by the Israelis who lived there, they let these farms die of neglect while digging smuggling tunnels under the Egyptian border, and doing their best to develop a burgeoning arms industry. Their greatest accomplishments have been in the field of weapons production. They teach their little children that the highest purpose in life is fighting the Zionist devil. They are very proud of some missiles they have made themselves. But they have also managed to smuggle into their country a large quantity of professionally made missiles from Iran. Meantime, we invented an anti missile system that has had 90% success. It is the first of its kind in the world. But that still leaves a 10% chance of killing or wounding innocent citizens. Not to speak of the dismal sight of watching women and children stumbling as they rush to the shelters. In some of the towns near the Gaza strip, they have only 15 seconds to get into a bomb shelter! Over 400 missiles have fallen on our cities this week as I write this. And we have not forgotten that over 1000 innocent people were murdered by these terrorists a decade ago.

Arabs and Jews at a bus stop… living in peace in Jerusalem

As a people, we’re not enthusiastic about war. We try to avoid it. We have other interests. We are able to compete in the global market, invent new contraptions… and do academic research. We’re pleasure seekers. Most Israelis like toys and enjoying the good life.. We’ve tried to buy our neighbors off, to flatter them, and to outwit them. Using our intelligence, we’ve managed to build much better instruments of war than they could put together. But no matter what we’ve tried, or how hard we’ve endeavored… and despite the fact that we’ve won every war in recent history, they know our weak points, and they keep on coming back for still another round. It is exasperating.

missile in Florentine
folks in Tel Aviv have a look at a missile that fell in their neighborhood

Usually, when the fighting is over, the United Nations get together to make a few resolutions. Since there are a lot more Moslem countries than there are Jewish, the numbers are at their service. And we’re not especially impressed by the objectivity of many ‘neutral’ nations either. If you were to check out UN resolutions, you’d get the impression that we are really the devil’s workers.

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.

a hot week

looking out from our backyard, Nechama

This has been a very full week for me. We’ve been having a heat wave, and saw temperatures as high as 39º in Jerusalem. That is unusually hot for us. And aside from that, there have been some very shocking things in the news. Of course, everything is relative, and what may be shocking and earth shaking to me, might not seem worthy of much interest somewhere else. In our country, we usually call this time, the cucumber season, and it is well known that sometimes the journalists have to scrounge around for a human interest story to fill the pages of the newspaper. Because of that, it came as even more of a surprise that every day brought screaming headlines, and mind boggling stories from our neighbors and fellow citizens.

some cats take the side road

And since these things are occupying my mind right now, it is hard for me to write about the subjects that I usually choose to share with my friends on this blog. Yet, at the same time, I find it hard to believe that my readers would have any interest in those things that have occupied my thoughts and feelings for the last week. In fact, I was tempted not to write anything at all. Perhaps, just to share a picture or two, and let it go at that. But I am a creature of habit, and it is my habit to have a little talk with you, at least once a week. So I’ll try to share with you one of these stories… a story that meant a lot to me.

a modest cat

We had a rabbi in our town that was thought of as one of the greatest students of his generation. He dedicated himself to study, and from the time he was a teenager, he used to study all the time. Day and night. His name is Rabbi Elyahiv. You’ve probably never heard of him. Because though he was thought of, as an extraordinary wise man, and a great scholar, he was very modest and never cared much for the spotlight. He married the daughter of one of our favorite Rabbis here, the man we used to call ‘the convicts’ rabbi’ because he was always going to the jail to try to encourage and give solace to those behind bars. Mrs. Elyashiv, used to try and take care of all the work in the house, and all of his routine obligations too. She worked all the time, yet also managed to raise twelve children who all turned out well. They lived a very modest existence. Their home was a small apartment with minimal furniture, and they didn’t change it with the passing of the years. Occasionally, politicians and people of state would visit the man, and they would speak of his very minimalistic apartment; the simple chairs and table. One minister who visited him, mentioned that he was astounded that anyone in the country still lived so simply.

Nechama checks to see who’s coming to join us

Rabbi Elyashiv was made a rabbi, and afterwards was appointed a judge in the highest religious court of the land. In the 1980s, he disagreed with a majority ruling, and quit. Since that time, he has continued as a rabbi, but has sought no other office, nor has he argued publicly with those who held office, or condemned the decisions of others, or spoken in derision of those he did not agree with. He wrote a number of books, but they were published under the names of his students; books of a religious or scholarly nature. As the years went by, more and more of the people in the religious community would seek his opinion on religious question. His authority became great. But only because he was wise and learned, and not because he held any special office. This week he died, after a difficult case of pneumonia, complicated by chronic heart disease. He had asked of his students, that no one make any speeches at his funeral. He just wanted to be buried like a regular guy. But there was someone in his family that just couldn’t withstand the temptation, and gave a speech anyway. You see, the moment people can, they do whatever they want to do. It’s hard to trust anyone.

הרב אלישיב
the rabbi

He was buried the night after he died, as is the custom in Jerusalem. We usually bury someone on the same day he died. 250,000 people came to the funeral. There were people ~ not family… but those who saw him as a father to the entire community, who tore their clothes in mourning. Many of the streets of our city were completely blocked. He was buried, and then everyone went home. He died at the age of 102.

I’m looking forward to a quiet Sabbath.

back to school

This week, most of the students are going back to school. For some, it is a holiday; the start of a new chapter in the process of learning. For others, unfortunately, it is a burden. I wish with all my heart that it was a joyful occasion for all. But it is easy to understand why it is so difficult for some of us. We’re not all the same. We all have different talents, and different interests. Once, there were trade schools for young people who didn’t have the patience to sit around all day, studying history, grammar, and mathematics. But in recent years there has been more and more focus on the academic education.

beggar with flowers

Somerset Maugham was a very fine English writer who wrote countless stories about human problems and how people deal with them, and in the best circumstances, manage to overcome them. He himself, though born into a privileged family, did not fit in. His most obvious problem was that he stammered. I read a book by him, ‘The Razor’s Edge’, which told the story of a man who searched for true meaning in life. Though I read the story more than fifty years ago, it has stayed with me all this time. What impressed me most about this story, was that his hero went to the far east in search of the spiritual meaning of life. But when he found enlightenment, he chose to return to his own country, and live the life of a common working man.

Society offers respect and financial rewards to certain professions, that are out of all proportion to the salaries given for other sorts of work. We need garbage collectors as much as we need doctors in this world. And so, I’ve always thought that garbage collectors should not only earn as much as engineers, doctors, and lawyers… but that they should get an added bonus for doing work that is not particularly attractive. I think it is not in the public interest, that all the talented young people go running after the same ‘glamorous’ jobs. How much better it would be, if we all tried to find what was really right for us? And those who were after the money, would do some of the less attractive work.

And thinking about this, I am reminded that in every profession, there are the A students, and the C- students. The ones that excelled in acquiring an understanding of their profession, and the ones that barely got by… some of them only made it because of the compassion of teachers and friends or because of the fraternity of students. And as we go through life, we are grateful for our good luck if we find ourselves in the hands of a truly excellent doctor, or plumber, or auto mechanic… and we find ourselves close to despair when we have to go back to the operating theater, to remove the glove that was forgotten inside of us, or return to the garage, over and over again, to fix that same leak that brought us to the mechanic in the first place. The lesson to be learned from this, I believe, is not to put too much emphasis on the position that a person occupies, but to look for excellence in all places.

There was another writer, whom I came across as a young man. He did not become that famous, but I loved him especially, because though he was a gentile, when living in New York, he learned to master the Yiddish language, and even wrote a column in one of the Yiddish newspapers of the time. His name was Alexander King. In one of his stories, he tells of being wakened very early in the morning, by the garbage men outside his hotel window. There were two veterans, and a young man who was learning the trade. He peeked out of the window, and listened to the lesson, and was amazed to discover how much there was to learn about something that we all took for granted, and thought of, as the simplest of jobs.

I have always been on the lookout for excellence, and found it in all professions. Here in Jerusalem, we are blessed with a fair share of beggars. I suppose, this is because the people of Jerusalem are known for their compassion and their pity. And begging is a profession too. The picture at the start of this post, is that of one of the most impressive beggars I ever had the pleasure to meet. I took this picture years ago. Unlike others, who tell of their bad luck, or sometimes exhibit a written statement of being handicapped or disadvantaged in one way or another, this man would greet passers by with great enthusiasm, and bless them with success and happiness, and then give them a flower as a gesture of his respect. And in conclusion, he would admit, that though they had no obligation, he would very much appreciate any donation. I was always glad to see him.

science museum

Being that it is the middle of summer, and all the kids are out of school, I have the honor of hosting some of my grandchildren who’ve come from the city or agricultural villages, from different parts of the country, to our capitol, Jerusalem. And these visits give me the opportunity of visiting places that I don’t visit often… and some that I’ve never visited before. This week, I had the pleasure of visiting the Science Museum.

understanding the optical illusion

The visit brought to mind a lot of problems connected to education, and the study of children. We have quite a few museums here, in our city, covering all sorts of subjects, ranging from fine arts to history. And some of these museums have won the praise of experts from all over the world. Not to speak of a very large number of educational institutions, many of which are as interesting to visit as any museum.

the history of scientific exploration

A curious tourist, or a cultured local citizen can view tools and antique objects found in archeological digs, giving us a peek at the life style enjoyed here thousands of years ago. One can look at model rooms with furniture and clothing from different places of the world, showing how people lived in different cultures a hundred years ago, two hundred, five hundred and a thousand years ago. One can see manuscripts of important literature and religious writing from thousands of years ago. I have visited an automobile museum, photography museums and one of motion picture history, as well as museums of natural history, and of pre-history, and of clocks. But it seems to me that the museum of science and technology presented the greatest challenge to the planners and designers of the museum.

a guide explains with the help of audio visual support

In most museums, it is enough to have displays of various sorts, and objects attached to the walls and the ceilings or protected in display cases. And people can walk around quietly, and examine the different exhibits. But the museum of science tried to introduce the visitors to the exploration and the understanding of the physical world, to the process of learning, and to that of innovation. And assuming that the visitors come from many different backgrounds, and levels of knowledge, and age levels as well, getting their message across is a complicated and difficult task. And as if that weren’t enough, the exhibits are explained in three languages, Hebrew, Arabic, and English.

separate exhibits on a cental subject

The first hall that one enters, is dedicated to examples of optical illusions. Because many of us believe that reality is what we see. And this exhibit shows us, by way of numerous examples, that we are influenced by what we expect to see, by our prejudices and preconceptions, and by our point of view. For someone who has the patience to study the subject, in the best of conditions, and has an open mind, this exhibit alone could be a turning point in his or her understanding of the world around him.

the guide explains innovation

The museum itself is three stories high, and has many rooms and halls, filled with countless exhibits on the many aspects of the study and understanding of science, including the last hall which is dedicated to understanding innovation and. invention. The subjects are fascinating, ranging from the development of the cherry tomato, to the improvement of the modern computer chip, and the behavior and utilization of water. Groups of visitors can join in a guided tour and listen to an expert guide explain the exhibits and tell about the history of the innovation. But many of the separate exhibits had headphones attached to them, and if individuals visited the museum when there weren’t guided tours, they could listen to an explanation of the exhibit in one of the three languages of the museum.

a large display of the behavior of water

Unfortunately, I saw many children moving quickly from one exhibit to the next, from one room to the next… without much pause to take in the messages of the exhibit, and on the search for play and for spectacular examples. It seemed to me that the designers, in their effort to make the place as appealing as possible to young people interested in science, might have put too much emphasis on game playing. And as a result there was less depth to the study of the many exhibits. But perhaps this is a general problem, related to appealing to a generation that has gotten used to passive reception of the many offerings of the TV and other modern media.