Monday, May 30, 2011

Education Israel style

The headlines made it nearly impossible for me to pass the opportunity to address my feelings about the school system in Israel. “Netanyahu, officials launch highly anticipated education system reform.” Wow! You’d think they adopted New Math, but whatever you might have thought, you would probably be mistaken. Here’s the tag line; “New program, coming after years of deliberations, would see teachers' pay increase by 51% in exchange for additional working hours.” And the worst part, it’s a bad deal for teachers. They increase their work hours from 24 to 40 per week, 16 hours or 66%, and they only get compensated for 51%. The net effect is a lower hourly wage. But this change doesn’t even get close to deserving the word reform.

There is a lot to fear when reform is used in education in general, and in Israel specifically. I’m not referring to the difference between revolution and reform, between which Israel needs the former. I am talking about the long history of educational reforms that Israel suffers from because of the unfortunate tie of the ministry of education to the political system. These reforms make our kids schizophrenic. For example, under Yuli Tamir, the students learned about the Green Line and Naqba Day. Now, under the Likud’s Gidon Saar, the state of Israel and the land of Israel are virtually synonyms, saying Naqba is punishable by law and schools will be doing field trips to Hebron. But this is not the subject of this tome.

The revolution I call for is directed at high schools and matriculations. I firmly believe that the existing system of training kids in grades 10-12, to remember materials and take tests, is at the core of many of Israel’s problems. We cannot have a dynamic society of individuals who know how to creatively solve problems and imagine the kind of country they want to live in if we feed them answers and ask them to regurgitate them in tests. Maybe this is what the country needed 63 years ago when we had to draft as many resources as possible to the cause of defending the homeland, but today the challenges are different and the anachronistic approaches are doing much more harm than good.

I believe that personal anecdotes help vivify important social questions. Here are a few. I taught Israeli high school civics and Bible. I did things like ask my students to try to understand the Israeli Declaration of Independence via comparison to the American Declaration. I thought it would be helpful for them to see that Israel leaves out God and democracy while America includes both. In Bible, my class of all immigrant students wrote about their immigration in comparison to Abraham’s calling to “Leave your country, and your homeland, and your father's house, and go to the land that I will show you.” My principal responded by telling me that I was too philosophical and creative. She handed me the matriculation tests and the answers and told me that, “this is all that matters.”

My daughter Maya recently saw her Solomon Schechter eighth grade teachers who were here on a day school trip with their students from Chicago. Her English teacher asked if she was still doing the great writing she had done in middle school. Maya told me that the question made her upset because it reminded her that she is never asked to be creative. “They ask me to write answers to questions in a very narrow way that gives their understandings. They don’t care what I think, only what I know.”

The irony of the situation is that the Jewish state has primary Jewish sources that complicate the idea of what education should look like, and we don’t look to them. In Pirkei Avot, Moses receives the Torah and passes it to the elders who pass it forward as if education is concrete and reified. This is the Education ministry model. But we also have the story of Moses sitting in Rabbi Akiva’s classroom dumbfounded because he doesn’t understand his own Torah. In this model, knowledge is made by the individual through engagement with ideas. It is not something that can be remembered and repeated for standardized tests. Moses doesn’t recognize his Torah because it is not the a solid, unchanging thing. Knowledge making is a skill of the individual and it is fluid. In our Talmud, both of these ideas exist side by side, but in the Israeli education system, we only want to pass a tangible, specific Torah, and it changes with every government.

The other Jewish example is also found in Pirkei Avot. We read of Yochanan ben Zakai’s five students. I will recount two. “Rabbi Eliezer the son of Hurkenus is a cemented cistern that loses not a drop; Rabbi Elazar ben Arach is as an ever-increasing wellspring. [Rabbi Yochanan] used to say: If all the sages of Israel were to be in one cup of a balance-scale, and Eliezer the son of Hurkenus were in the other, he would outweigh them all. Abba Shaul said in his name: If all the sages of Israel were to be in one cup of a balance-scale, Eliezer the son of Hurkenus included, and Elazar the son of Arach were in the other, he would outweigh them all.” The Talmud never decides for us what is better to be a vessel of knowledge or to produce a vital necessity. It leaves us with two models that contradict each other. Both have their time and place. Why in Israel do we have to stick with just one?
My daughter is in the middle of her high school experience and I feel like I am doing her wrong by not choosing the best education system I can find for her. Nothing is perfect, but I think America is better, at least my America. I hate having to face this choice, but those are my cards. Now the question is whether to stay and fight to improve things while my daughter finishes school here or move to where I can do the best for my kids. It seems like a simple choice, but not when you live in a wonderful city like Tel Aviv. Right now I’m feeling the old Yiddish saying, it’s hard to be a Jew, but I’m feeling it about Israel.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Lag B’Omer 5771 and the doomsday prophecies

Lag B’Omer 5771 is a gleeful irony of history. Why? Because the same holiday celebrating the Jewish romance with mysticism and secrets behind the revelatory texts paradoxically coincides with the prediction of the end of the world.
For Jews, Lag B’Omer is the celebration of the life and teaching of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, on the anniversary of his death over 1800 years ago. According to legend, upon dying he instructed his disciples that the day of his passing is “the day of [his] joy.” This year, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, the barley harvest, coincides with a prophecy of the end of days.
Rashby, as bar Yochai is known, was the author of the foundational work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar. Tonight and tomorrow, half a million Jews will descend upon Mount Miron in the Galilee, where he is buried, to pay homage to their mystical leader by lighting bonfires and slaughtering sheep. To my sensibility, this is avodah zara, idolatry, in the fullest sense of the word.
According to tradition, God, not humans, buries Moses to avoid the site of his grave becoming a shrine. Jews don’t mark the location of the Sinai revelation because they don’t want to make idols out of land. Why does God ask Moses to build a Mishkan for Him “to dwell in it”? Because holiness exists outside of geography. The only thing close to being holy in the Bible is the land of Israel, and even it is made holy by our actions.
The celebration of Rashby and his mysticism shows how much the idea of hidden meaning has found a place in Judaism. Rashby’s teacher, Rabbi Akiva, gave us the term, “the language of God,” in opposition to Rabbi Yeshmael’s “language of man,” to avoid fundamentalism and strict adherence to the letter of the law in exegesis, but the anti-literalism of the Akiva school can be a pandora’s box. The minute we open the door to mysticism, anything goes and we often end up with radical predictions.
Fox News recently reported, “The [recent] prediction [of the end of the world] originates with Harold Camping, an 89-year-old retired civil engineer from Oakland, Calif., who founded Family Radio Worldwide, an independent ministry that has broadcast his prediction around the world ” Here is the basis of this forecast according to The Telegraph, “The number five, says Camping, represents atonement. 10 represents completeness. 17 represents heaven…Using the three numbers, if you multiply atonement, completeness and heaven, and then, multiply the sum by itself again, you end up with 722,500 i.e. (5 x 10 x 17) x (5 x 10 x 17) = 722,500. If you add the number of days on from the crucifixion, you arrive at, at least in Camping's view, May 21, 2011, the day of the end of the world. ” Some of you may now want to stop reading and start getting ready.
These predictions sound crazy in the hands of an 89 year old radio network owner from California, but they are common place in mystical traditions and go back to the origins of Lag B’Omer. Rabbi Akiva read the verse in Numbers 24:17, “There shall come a star out of Jacob,” and renamed the Jewish warrior, Shimon bar Kosiba, bar Kochva. He then declared that he is the messiah. In the seventeenth century, Nathan of Gaza made a similar claim about Shabtai Zvi, and in recent history many in the Chabad movement have said that the Lubovitcher rabbi was the messiah.
There is something very liberating about mysticism. It creates space for a power in the world that exists but cannot be fully understood. My favorite mysticism is in the texts which use metaphor to explain science of the world. Some claim, for instance, that the Hebrew letters are the DNA or atomic building blocks of all things.
Metaphors are wonderful as long as we acknowledge the fact that we tend to live by them, as Lakoff and Johnson remind us.
The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities.
A hidden system of an all-powerful God’s will, discoverable in texts and complicated calculations, is a dangerous metaphor to live by. By what criterion ought we say that the prophet in California is less qualified to determine hidden meaning from the texts than Rabbi Akiva or Nathan of Gaza. In the time of Shabtai Zvi, half of all world Jewry believed that the messiah was about to reveal himself. Some sold all their worldly possessions, some even moved to Israel. The pilgrims to Mount Miron will account for 4 percent of all Jews worldwide. How many more are pilgrim wannabes? How many believe but are hedging their bets to see what happens to the early-adopters?
Actually, the glee I take from the Lag B’Omer celebrations this year comes from a completely different train of thought. Forget the end of days for a moment and focus on the celebrations themselves. Lag B’Omer starts at the end of Shabbat. The main event of the celebrations is the lighting of bonfires. This year, as last, controversy has arisen from the concern that if Lag B’Omer is celebrated on Saturday night, thousands of secular Israelis will defile the Shabbat by building and lighting their bonfires before the end of the day. I despise religious coercion in Israel, but I love the fact that the religious are so concerned with us fellow Jews that they would even consider changing the date of this minor holiday. That is what Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef wanted to do.
Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas was successful at getting a compromise from his anti-Zionist, Haredi colleagues who moved the lighting of the first fire to midnight tonight. Wow! This may seem like a small feat, but I assure you it is reason for celebration. First of all, it is an expression of Jewish concern for one another. Moving the time of the bonfires symbolically expresses an attempt to prevent fellow Jews from sinning in their efforts to participate in this national celebration. Second of all, this is a victory for internal, civil dialog among Jews in Israel. A Sepharadi, Zionist rabbi was heard by an anti-Zionist, Ashkenazi rabbi and his words were considered. In light of these events and the speech of President Obama this past week, instead of dwelling on doomsday scenarios, I suggest we choose a different metaphor to live in, at least for today. “Yes we can!”

Sunday, May 8, 2011

My Alternative Memorial Day Commemoration

It would have been much easier to put on my black shirt and wrap myself in blue and white and head over to Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, where I live, or the Kotel, the Western Wall, in Jerusalem, where I study. But tonight I chose to commemorate the fallen with members of my species and not my collective self. Sometimes we think that we can get closer to our individual corpus when we incorporate and draw lines that separate us from the others. That is not how I experienced the eve of Memorial Day in Israel this year.
This evening, I waited in line outside of the concert hall, Reading 3, at the Tel Aviv Port, with nearly a thousand human beings, as the sirens sounded to mark the battles of Israel, but the crowd I stood with was unlike any other. Tonight, at Reading 3, for the sixth straight year, the members of Combatants for Peace brought together human beings to mourn their losses, and the absence of flags and anthems and generals and otherness was astounding.

Tonight, Moti Fogel mourned the loss of his brother and his brother’s family, to a savage terror attack, beside Palestinians who also lost their loved ones to violence. And Yair Dalal sang his prayer for peace in Hebrew and Arabic with the accompaniment of a children’s choir. And a bereaved, Palestinian, Israeli, Druze sister mourned the loss of her brother, who served in the Israeli Defense Forces, and shared with us the story of being asked, “How could your brother have pointed his gun at his Arab brothers?” Whoever wrote that schoolyard verse, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” must have been deaf.

I knew I was in the right place this evening when Yoni Richter took the stage and put music to the words of Yehudah Amichai’s The Place Where We Are Right.
From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in the spring. The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard. But doubts and loves dig up the world like a mole, a plow. And a whisper will be heard in the place where the ruined house once stood.
Tonight, surrounded by a thousand members of my species, in a place where everyone mourned, and we all recognized the humanity of the person sitting beside us, flowers grew and the possibility of peace felt like more than a whisper.