19 April 2007

Help Wanted!

Community after-school Hebrew program is seeking a Hebrew and Judaics studies teacher. Applicants should not be "too religious" and should be willing to step aside should the powers that be determine that you are "not right" for them, despite a successful teaching record and legions of loyal students as well as their families.

Perhaps that is the ad that my school should put in the newspaper. The upside is that the new director would like to place me at another branch of the school with same number of hours, etc. However, the two people who judged me for being "too frum" from DAY ONE have managed to get me out. As I told the director today, "Removing me will not end the problems between them and the school. They have made complaints about every teacher in the school. If I am being sent away, then so should all of them."

The best part is that the director determined that they are "key players" in the school's future, yet they account for 10% of the ENTIRE STUDENT BODY! My boss, at least one colleague, a few parents, and some students have already pledged to go to bat for me. One parent even told me that my being religious was a good thing for her children. They have learned to have pride in their Judaism that was never there.

Wish me luck as coolyiddishemama fights for her job.

17 April 2007

Post Pesach Re-Hash (one week later)

A struggle we all have as halakhically observant Jews is finding the line between halakhah, minhag, and chumrah. I do not claim to even have the first answer on the distinctions, but I do think that it is important for people to learn them. Being frum today involves knowing these boundaries and respecting them. Due to the Shoah, entire communities (and along with it, their m'sorot) are gone. The lines for Ashkenazic Jewry are so blurred. In my understanding, G-d gave us ONE TORAH. From there came Halakhah. This is something we follow since we are Jews. It's what we do and we do not wait for the kavannah to be right in order to do it. Due to our dispersion and relative isolation from each other, the leaders of our communities consulted the halakhah to ensure that the members of THAT community were following halakhah according to their understanding. Along the way people have CHOSEN to take on more than what was required for whatever reason.

In my effort to get healthier, I meet with other frum ladies for the united purpose of losing weight. Essentially, we are all friends but one in particular that I can most talk to, Rivki, said that as long as the conversation does not go into hashkafah, we're all set. This did not present itself so clear as when we started off sharing diet strategies for Pesach and ended up revealing our minhagim. Luckily only one woman seemed to feel (but did not vocalize it) that none of us were "making Pesach" properly.

This woman's family is not yekkishe but her father's father took on the minhagim in Europe. Upon arriving in NYC, he settled, where else, but Washington Heights. Her family has a "minhag/chumra" of only accepting KAJ hechsher for Pesach. I heard this story last year when she was telling me that the year she was engaged to her husband, her father would only allow her to eat by her chattan's family on the eighth day. Why? They willingly accept Manischewitz, which apparently, had a "concern" by the KAJ crowd years back. To her family, Manischewitz was "chametz". After marriage, she insisted to her husband that they continue to only use this hechsher on their Pesach products, including on (which I don't get this marketing ploy) "18 minute matzo". According to my undertanding of the halakhah, isn't kosher l"Pesach matzah BY DEFINITION REQUIRED to be out of the oven WITHIN 18 minutes or else it's chametz? [Please correct me if I am wrong.] I told her happily that I managed to "get by" on "regular" dairy products like specially labelled (but same price) cream cheese and butter. I only had to break down and buy "frummie cheese" when I normally buy other certified cheeses that I can find at Trader Joe's.

Rivki's family does not eat grebrokts because when her mother became frum, the rebbetzin kept the minhag. However, their father also decided to keep it. Her sister married a Farsi this year so immediately proceeded to kitniyot. Finally, a third lady who only knows Sephardi customs as she married a Sephardi after conversion in Israel, was surprised to hear that her house is not "chametz" to us, but to just skip the rice. [Her husband is friends with every Sephardi in town and tends to prefer his friends.]

My first significant frum rabbi experience was with a rabbi who does not eat grebrokts until eighth day. He knows that it is not chametz, but al yad sheni, it has been his family's custom. He instructed CYP and I specifically to NOT take it on.

In several recent posts, Barak has been echoing this theme in regards to the two day yom tov for us outside Israel, chumrot in kashrut that are causing the price of keeping kosher to sky-rocket. Minhagim seem to serve to divide us, but it seems to also cause us to look down on those whose customs seem meikel (leinient) or up to the more machmir (strict). A seminary girl from "the old neighborhood" one time told me that since we don't "keep chalav yisrael" then we don't keep kosher. Ironically, this is the same girl whose mother admitted to have purchased a local brand of ice cream that is chalav stam years earlier. (The entire family has been frum for generations, so it was not a matter of being ba'alei teshuvah.)

For some, grebrokts are presented in the same light. Orginially a chassidishe custom (in the Gemara, it is permitted to dip your matzah into water before eating if it is difficult to eat AT THE SEDER), it has also taken on a similiar air of being more machmir. One time, someone had said that this was the last year for eating matzo ball soup for the sedarim since the following year, they intended to not eat grebrokts, understanding it to be a "more frum" thing to do.

If our desire is to be "more frum" than there also needs to be an understanding of the hows/whys of what we do and not just assume that being frum means excessive hardships.


A large part of being a Jew it seems is the obligation to have a perfect memory. We are to remember what G-d did for us in Mitzrayim (Pesach), that as slaves we never had a day off (Shabbat), and that in almost every generation some "bad guy" has risen up to try to annihilate us, spiritually or literally (Tisha B'Av, Chanukah, Purim, and Yom Ha-Shoah). As a teacher and a parent I struggle with how much or how little information to give my students/children. There are just elements of our history that I do not feel obligated to show cool yiddishe maidel (CYM) or light of my life (LOML) until they are old enough to ask questions. I can't ask them to even understand it because there are adults who can not begin to grasp the full extent of hate.

Sunday was Yom Ha-Shoah. Communities all over the world held ceremonies to fulfill a modern interpretation of "ZACHOR"--Remember the Shoah so that there may never be another one.
At what age is it appropriate to show children the horrors of the Shoah?
Like many in my (and my parents') generation, our questions started when we saw the numbers tattoed on the arms of our grandparents' friends or our neighbors. With the witnesses to the horror getting older and dying, this may not be such a reality as my children (and i'y'h, my grandchildren) start to have questions. To answer the above question (without saying whether it is the most appropriate age), I was eight. My mother was avoidant so I tried to read Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl. When she saw the book in my room, it was the first (and only) time she attempted to censor my reading material. She instructed me to return it to the library right away. I was sent off with the "short answer" that Hitler hated the Jews and wanted them to all die. If he had succeeded, none of us might have been born. [To end the story, I finally read it at 13 and took a Holocaust studies course my senior year of high school.]
Like many other places, our 7th-8th grade class, with the help of their teacher, created a moving ceremony commemorating Yom Ha-Shoah. Fifth and sixth graders were also invited to attend, with fourth grade and below remaining in their classes. (While my third and fourth graders are aware of the Shoah, we decided that the assembly was not pedogically appropriate for them.) At the end of the day, I saw a child, perhaps a year older than CYM, walking out of class wearing a paper star created to look exactly like the one at the top of the post. She is in a mixed class of kindergarteners, first and second graders. She is a part of the groups that wants to be with us for our building, but not for our religious instruction. The instructor, a special-education teacher by trade, deemed the Shoah appropriate for five year olds!
This is the same group who, last year, pulled themselves from the gan teachers' "Muffins with Mom" on Mother's Day which included the children doing a "Ani ohev/ohevet et eema sheli ki..." with pictures. The reason? "They already do Mother's Day in public school. Why not do something more appropriate like Yom Ha-Shoah?" Our answer had been, and will be, that kibbud av v'em is universal, like being thankful (ie Thanksgiving, Sukkot).

Please take the opportunity to sound off about this! This is a rare time when a J-blog is not attacking hashkafah. I want to "hear" how you feel about this.
A brief aside...Those who know me in the "real world" know that I have not been blogging for a while because my husband and I have left "galut", what we affectionately call our charedi neighborhood in which we lived for eight years. Someone said that we should have known where we were moving at the time, but not realizing my husband's dream to own a house that we could afford (at the time) superceded living in that neighborhood. At the same time, I know another couple who has settled there in the past year and feel that they have truly found a home. We are making a sacrifice in our move, having sold our house for slightly less than we paid for it in 1999, but even CYP (the financial maven) agreed that happiness is not something we can put a price on. Our house will close at the end of the month, i'y'h, so my life should uncomplicate a tad so that I can return to more blogging.

Back to the intended topic...by trade, I am a teacher. For the past three years, our school has been in a "partnership" with a grass-roots Reform congregation. In exchange for using our school building as their homebase, the families are to enroll their children in our religious school program. The obvious exception includes those who chose the day school route. Seems like a fair arrangement, yes? Well, from day one, they have used the word "partnership" to imply control of our curriculum.

For the record, I teach at a "community" school, meaning that we do not have any official hashkafah. My students' families range from completely secular, with some who are from intermarried families, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and two who belong to an Orthodox synagogue. To many, teaching these students may seem like a daunting task. However, my theme all these years has been to focus on what all of us have in common as Jews and discuss our differences as "options".

Officially, this year, I am out of the loop with them because the president (whose child would have been a student of mine) petitioned to allow their congregation to use our teachers and classroom space to give them a completely separate program. The reason cited was that I'm "too Orthodox" to teach their children. By the way, I teach modern Hebrew, which the last time I checked, was universal. [Ironically, the teacher they requested is also frum, perhaps with less tolerance towards their lifestyle based on conversations she and I have had about the class.] Their fear has been that I would use the class as a soapbox for expousing my "beliefs" that everyone needs to be frum and I would proselytize to them. [This accuasation was thrown about without their knowledge that both my husband and I are ba'alei teshuvah and have many non-religious friends and family that have never felt that we force an observant lifestyle on them.] With a new director coming in, I am thankful that I am not their teacher. Any complaints from them are not based on me, at least.

This week I have to meet with my new boss to assure him that my personal life does not affect my abilities to be a professional Jewish educator. As we all know, who we are and how we think does seep into our professional lives. On that I'll keep you posted. Since I am feeling quite productive, I'll be posting twice today.

"Chanokh lana'ar al pi darko"

["Teach a child according to his way", --sefer Mishleh]

In an earlier post, I have commented on parents who have handed over parental control to rebbes out of a lack of confidence in their own parenting. Now, I am looking at this passuk from a different perspective. What does it mean to be "fair"? Does it mean to treat everyone equally (including ignoring each person's unique situations) or does it really mean to assess each person's needs differently?

I feel that it means to follow the second opinion. After a search online, I found that the Vilna Gaon
and I see eye to eye[side note, a friend of mine found out that he is a descendant of VG after finding the name of one of his ancestors in a book about VG]. (It has been a while since I found the quote so apologies to the person who posted it on the Web.)

"The Vilna Gaon asks, 'Why do you have to teach a child according to his way, why not according to our way? The reason is, because each person is born with a unique nature. We have to train the individual according to his or her character and personality traits - the method that will work for that person.'"

As children we see our parents treating our siblings differently as "unfair", but then, when we become parents ourselves, we start to see the wisdom behind it. However, this is something that cool yiddishe maidel fails to understand when I am dealing with light of my life. While it may not be "fair" to compare my children to each other, I will anyway.

When CYM was 2 1/2, she was clearly more "verbal" (using more words) than LOML is currently. However, I can tell LOML detailed instructions (as in a string of sentences) and she shows complete comprehension while I had to (and still do) break it down for CYM. The girls are three years apart in age. By necessity, I have to do things differently for each of them. CYM can be left for a playdate at a friend's house while LOML still needs constant supervision.

Just something that I have reflected on and decided to share with you...
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