Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Fifth Commandment

Recently, I read the article "Great Expectations" by The Red Headed Rebbetzin. In it, she points out that just by mentioning something to someone (in this case, she offers the example of mentioning a mustache), that it becomes more prevalent to that someone. I often wonder about this in my own life.

While preparing for a religious school lesson on The Ten Commandments, I paused to think a little bit about the Fifth Commandment: Honor your father and your mother. Of course, I try to honor my parents with every breath I take, every move I make, with every step I take every single day. But any time parents are mentioned in any situation, I am sent hurtling into a memory maelstrom of my mom.

Mom passed away two years ago. She was my best friend, my biggest supporter, and my conscience. It was my goal every day to make her proud. I still want to make her proud. Today, I woke up thinking of my mom. Maybe there was something in my dream that made me think of her, I don't know exactly how she was put into my mind first thing. Maybe it is because she is always there. I don't know. But I do know that the minute the word "Mom" formed in my mind, I saw blatant reminders of Mom in my everyday activities.

But back to the "mustache" comment. Once a thought is in one's head, it is so easy to notice everything about that thought. It becomes everywhere, as if the Universe is "speaking" to you. I wonder if this is what people mean when they say that if they project positivity, positivity will be returned? I suppose that could be the case. If you are thinking and doing things that are positive, I imagine you would notice all things positive in your world as well. Just as you notice more mustaches when someone points one out to you.

This is what happened to me. I was thinking of the Fifth Commandment last night, preparing my religious school lesson, so Mom was on my mind when I went to sleep. I woke up with Mom on my mind. The first thing I heard this morning was a cardinal chirping in the yard. The cardinal was Mom's favorite bird. As luck would have it, I was meeting a friend at a local coffee shop for our "writing club" this morning. On the way there, there was a song on the radio by the Police. It was "Every Breath You Take." I had asked myself last night if I "honored" "my parents with "every breath I take, every move I make." It certainly seemed like the Universe was watching me. At the coffee shop, there were at least two more songs that played with the topics being parents.

I sat across the table from my friend and endured a little good-natured ribbing at the fact that I had remembered to bring along my notebook. Mom always used to laugh about my notebooks. I always had one with me because I never knew when I would need to take notes on something important. Particularly in the last stages of her illness. And even more strange, or coincidental, if you will, when I opened that journal, it opened to the entry I wrote the day I realized my mom was going to die...soon.

Yes, I think I honor my parents in actions, in words, and even in thoughts. I still hope every day that Mom is proud of me. I have my own "great expectations" of my ability to follow the Fifth Commandment. And, as The Red Headed Rebbetzin pointed out in her article, "Being Who We Are," I'm no Moses. I don't have to be Moses. I don't even have to be great. I just have to be the best me that I can be. And if the Universe wants to tap into my thoughts and drop signs to remind me of my Mom, I say, go ahead. It isn't difficult to find Mom on my mind.

She is always on my mind.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The gift that keeps on giving

The gift that keeps on giving. It is a cliché. However, to what does it refer? I have heard that the "gift that keeps on giving" is guilt. I would rather be more optimistic about it. I like to think that education can be the gift that keeps on giving. Especially when one is excited about learning.

How does this gift of learning apply to my Jewish identity? Well, it seems pretty simple to me. The Torah is the ultimate Gift that Keeps on Giving. The Torah is intimately tied with Jewish identity. It is the Law; the description of exactly HOW to be a Jew. The Torah is the epitome of education.

I am both a student and a teacher of the stories in the Torah. My big dilemma is how to get the students I teach as excited as I get about the knowledge one can gain from Torah study. I could sit and listen to the Rabbi talk about the Parsha for hours. Of course, my children would never allow that as they seem to think things like food and attention are important. So, I have to limit my classes to the same times as their classes and that is not enough for me.

As a child, I was introduced to the Torah. It was a mysterious and forbidding document. I was taught snippets of the secrets, but I was never granted ownership of the wisdom contained within. This is why I am struggling with my own children, and my students. Torah study is not only an important part of their Jewish identities, but it can also be fun. It can even be exhilarating if one takes an active role in that study. My youngest, from the time she began to talk, would point at the Torah during services and say (usually loudly), "My Torah!" Why it took a baby to point out this truth, I don't know. The Torah belongs to each of us individually and all of us collectively. As soon as one claims the Torah as their own, the study of it takes on a different, more personal meaning.

The stories and lessons presented in the Torah are as relevant today as they were when the Torah was first presented to the Jewish people. These stories come to life in the classroom when everyone participates and takes an active role in their own Jewish education. Not in the sense that they are acted out or put on as plays (although certain stories lend themselves to that method of explanation), but they come to life as they are filtered through each person's frame of reference. Even children as young as the students in my class can contribute interesting interpretations of the Torah stories. They may not have lived extensively, but they have lived enough to have experiences to reference when studying. For what second or third grader has not encountered extreme jealousy? What elementary student has not been faced with the temptation to take something that was forbidden to them? What middle school student has not encountered a clique where favoritism is rampant?

While these situations may not be exactly as those presented in the Torah stories, it opens the door for the younger students to ask those "what if" questions and become active learners of the Torah. It is my job, then, as their teacher, to help my students cast off the constraints of self-consciousness and allow the "what-ifs" to flow without fear of criticism. The insights that these young children can provide are amazing. And it is when they are allowed to make their own connections that the study becomes exciting for them, as well.

Torah study is an extremely important part of being Jewish, no matter what your age. This is the beauty of it. Because every day is a new experience with a new frame of reference from which to draw, every day provides the opportunity for every student, old and young, to accept the Ultimate Gift that keeps on giving

Sunday, April 18, 2010

To teach or not to teach...

I am not trained to be a teacher. Unless you count the eleven years of parenting, of course. But, I am not counting real-life teaching. I am talking about trained in education theory with a degree kind of teacher. I took only one course in pedagogy in college and that was because it was required. I guess I did teach a little in college, if you can count listening to speeches on how to rush a fraternity. But I only taught one basic public speaking course and that was so I could work my way through graduate school.

It wasn't until much later, when I had children, that I thought I could be a teacher when I grew up. But, as a stay-at-home mom, that just isn't in the cards for me right now. So, when the opportunity to teach Religious School arrived, I jumped at it. I can read beginning Bible stories and talk about the heroes and heroines of the Torah without too much difficulty. And then I would be able to call myself a teacher.

The first couple of classes I taught were not difficult at all. They were fun and the kids and I had a good time getting to know each other. But it didn't take long for the frustrations to begin to settle. I had issues with one little girl in the class. I couldn't get through to her. I tried sitting directly in front of her. I tried directing all my questions to her. I tried to ask her to share her thoughts first. It didn't take long for me to give up on that tactic. First of all, it didn't work. Second of all, I felt like I was ignoring the other students. Third of all, I got very tired of inane, completely out there responses.

I am not talking about answers that could be considered good guesses. I am talking about off the wall, no where near the question kind of answers. For example, if I were to ask who went before Pharaoh and demanded to have the Jewish people set free, she would respond with, "Ummmmmm, Noah!" and roll her eyes in the process. What made me really angry about this is the fact that this child's parent sat in on the class. This parent was there every day and did nothing to help her refocus her mind. This parent did nothing and said nothing when I moved my chair and sat directly across from her. This parent said nothing when I would call on this child to the exclusion of the other students. I spent a good deal of time discussing this frustration with my co-teacher. She very correctly pointed out that in order for one to truly learn, one must take an active role in one's education.

The concept that education is an active sport really hit home with me. As a "teacher," I want to see my students succeed. I want to do everything I can to help these students succeed. But at some point, isn't it more fair to them to encourage them to do the work themselves than to keep spoon-feeding them the answers? It seems like it would help my students to learn more effectively if they have to participate in the studies.

The hardest thing for me to do when I am teaching these classes is to sit through the silence that comes after a question like, "What do you put on a Seder Plate?" We go around the room and each student answers..."Egg!" "Karpas!" "Moror!" "Shank bone!" And then from my inactive participant..."Ummmm...chometz!" Yeah, we spend days preparing our homes by removing chometz to put it on our Seder Plate. Now, if this round of questions had taken place before Passover and before we spent two weeks studying Passover, I suppose I could see the confusion. But, this was after Passover, after two weeks of classes, after two Seders, and after review sheets had been sent home. After this incident, I told this child (and the rest of the class) that I would review this material one more time, but this time I would like each of the students to actually pay attention to the words I say. I was answered with a huff and a series of rolled eyes.

I am out of ideas. I am tired of the disrespectful attitude that this student brings to class. I try to be sensitive to the difficulties of being a young girl. I know it is tough to make the switch from "regular" school to "religious" school, but as a student, you have to be willing to at least try. You have to at least be willing to embrace your own education.

If you at least do that, you are one step closer to becoming an active participant in learning, and in life.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

By way of introduction...

I am an American-Jewish woman. I am happily married to a no-longer practicing Catholic man. Together, we have four wonderful children. Before we were married; before we had children, we had "The Talk." In this case, The Talk didn't involve anything exciting like who gets to sleep on the left side of the bed or favorite sexual positions. No, this Talk was all about the Big R. Religion.

I have always had Religion to a certain degree. I didn't always actively practice, but I always believed. I always identified myself as a Jewish woman. I went to temple when I could, and even as an adult (before children) had a fairly regular streak of attending services. As an adult, my attendance was sporadic, but I did attend. Okay, enough justification of why I do or don't attend services. I was supposed to be explaining about the Talk.

The husband and I had the Talk about Religion before we got married. Our religious affiliations were not a secret. In fact, they only presented a minor bump in the road of the wedding plans. We couldn't be married by a priest because I wouldn't convert, and we couldn't be married by a rabbi because he wouldn't convert. We were married by a Unitarian Universalist with a generic ceremony. The bump was barely felt.

Oddly, we had a moment of forward thinking. That is, we discussed religion for any and all children that would be created by our union. We discussed this BEFORE we were married. Well before we were even ready to have children. That Talk went something like this: Him: "What will you want to do about religion when we have kids?" Me: "Well, in my religion, the children are the religion of the mother from birth." Him: "Okay." Me: "I'd like to raise our children Jewish." Him: "Okay, but you have to do it." Me: "Okay." And then we went out to dinner.

So, maybe the Talk was not all that in depth or forward thinking. Maybe we didn't cover all the challenges that could occur in an interfaith marriage with kids. Maybe we didn't cover how hard it can be to be a Jewish kid in a small town. But the fact of the matter is, I really believe that children need to be given a religious identity. They need to be grounded in a faith when they are young. Not really an indoctrination, but a basic knowledge and faith with which to grow. Luckily, my husband agreed. Or was too lazy to put up much of a fight.

Fast forward to present day. We have four wonderful children who start to ask questions about G-d.  I figure there is no better time to start searching for a Sunday School to help me answer those questions. And that is exactly what I did. Little did I know that I would end up being as involved as I am.

I am not sure I am complaining about my involvement. I kind of like being involved in my children's education. I always wanted to be a teacher. But, this may be the only way I get to be a teacher. And, I am not only involved in the teaching aspect of the Temple, I am also active in Services and on the Board of Directors. I am sure, if this post site goes the way I expect it to, these topics will come up once in awhile. For now, I will conclude this mini-introduction by saying that I am a proud Jewish woman, married to a wonderful Catholic man, who fully supports me with our decision to raise our children in the Jewish religion.

I am one lucky mama!