08 December 2008

"He Can't Study Torah if He's in the Torah!"

I am ready to admit it. I am raising children who question things their teachers tell them. Cool yiddishe maidel is in kitah alef now, so she brings home her parsha sheet for us to, ideally, discuss at the Shabbat table. What ends up happening, in reality, is she starts to tell me about some midrash involving the principal characters. I will inevitably ask her if this story came from the Torah, and she will say "yes". I open up the Chumash and start reading the parsha to her. When we get to the disputed part, she'll say, "Oh, I guess it's a midrash." 

[From a chinukh perspective, I feel it's important for a child to understand the difference between p'shat and d'rash from the beginning. Starting in kitah bet, she will study each of the parshiyot in Chumash. It'll be a significant disappointment for the students when they realize that some of those "fun" stories their kitah alef teachers told them are not even in the Torah, but were creative stretches done by the Rabbis. It's particularly problematic for the "drier" parshiyot in Vayikra and Bamidbar. A veteran kitah alef teacher I read about revealed the "disservice" she did with her students by teaching midrashim and since then, sticks to p'shat.]

This was particularly fun to do for Toldot (yes, I'm a week late posting it but oh, well!). CYM started to tell me about the part in the parsha when Yaakov left to study Torah with Shem and Eber and that was why G-d selected him for the brakhah. I asked, "How can Yaakov study the Torah if he's already in it?" She answered, "Oh, Morah xxxx never told us that." I continued, "So ask her about it." This past week, for Va'yetzei, I guessed she asked her morah the question. Apparently, her teacher said, "I don't know" and pushed on. (Am Kshe Oref's wife joked that a card is being prepared on my daughter and at some point, she'll get kicked out of school for asking the "wrong" questions. As AKO's wife also pointed out, the morah is not an "educated" da'ati/l'umi, but an Israeli who allegedly borders on being chillunit.) 

Tznius: The "Big Idea" in Bais Yaakov Curricula

A question many teachers ask themselves when they are creating lesson plans or units of study concerns the "big idea" that they want their students to walk away when it's all over and take with them. Of course, there are objectives and standards that need to met as well. During my "first career" years as a Judaics teachers, we were urged to create units of study that encouraged the "big ideas" and the "big questions" which would cause our students to seek out answers. It was important for them to understand that there may not be one "right" answer to these types of questions.

Boy, was I in for a rude awakening when I started working in a charedi school! For the first month, per the mother's request, I was at the school from 8:30am-3:30pm, working with the same child. Shortly before Rosh Hashanah, some disruption ensued from by being there and I was relegated to General studies only (in the afternoon). [It's a topic for a very long complicated post but suffice to say, there may have been issue with my being "modern". You can fill in the gaps if you wish.]

Concepts are presented in a very black and white/right and wrong/this way or the highway attitude. I had read about this in accounts of people who fell "off the derekh" when they described their school experiences and even saw evidence of this when I lived in the charedi neighborhood, but still found it hard to believe. This particular school recently changed its dress code for the girls, limiting them to long-sleeve powder blue polo shirts or blouses, navy skirts, and navy socks (which allowed for compromise if they wanted to have "decoration" on them). My student happened to be wearing white tights (which the mother had been assured was okay for her age level) and the school interventionist (and self-appointed "uniform police") did a spot check one morning to see my student in these "illegal" white tights. [Keep in mind that my student is classified as "special needs" with high anxiety and emotional problems while the adult in this situation is supposed to be an "expert" in dealing with special needs children.] In front of the other girls, she caused my student to feel bad about the tights, explaining that they HAVE to be the same color as the skirt.]

This ties into a recent rant on Frum Satire and here about the "charedi goth" look we have been seeing recently. I'm sorry, but by definition, tzniut does NOT mean following a fad. As it appears to me, does it make a difference what color her socks were as long as they do the job of covering her legs? [It's easy to file it under "dress code" but I wonder if it has more to do with some "chumrah" that dark stockings are more "tznius" than white ones. I'm honestly not joking about this one.] 

My friends in real life has heard me rant about this before. I'm convinced it's revisionist history, at best. Somewhere, there's a picture of Beis Yaakov girls in Poland from the 1920s-1930s wearing dark stockings. [There are several practical reasons for this: 1) It's essentially winter in Poland ten months of the year; 2) Dark stockings are lower maintainance than white ones. If they rip, the mending will not be as obvious. 3) Along the same point, they don't show the dirt as badly. Remember that people did not wash their clothes after one wearing, nor have ready access to hot water and washing machines.] I understand there are chassidishe sects who require the women and girls to wear dark stockings. This seems to me to be yet another example of charedim borrowing the strictest thing they can find and turning it into halakhah. 

The "big idea" that charedi schools want their children to take with them is that there's only one "right" way. Anything that does not quite measure up is just not frum, no matter what you may think. This could lead to thinking that talking to a boy is just a step away from sex. (I was young once but I can't recall any occasions when that was all it took.) There is even a comprehensive curriculum for Beis Yaakov schools to use for their 1-12 girls on the evolving theme of tzniut. It even includes a study of collarlines, sleeves, hemlines, and slits to determine what would be kosher. I have a basic question to ask. Why can't the morot and the mothers simply model tznua dress with their children like I do with my girls? Cool yiddishe maidel is almost seven years old and we have already started looking at clothes and she analyzes whether it's tznua. I gave her some simple guidelines (about covering the belly even with arms up, for example) and she has been somewhat successful on her own. How about giving the children the tools to understand and moving on from there?

Aren't Manners Part of Good Middot?

Last Monday, I walked into class and did my daily ritual of asking the head teacher the plans for the day. (I work with a special needs child and I am often required to make on-the-spot modifications to her activities.) The teacher told me that another General Studies teacher wanted to come in and speak to the girls. A minute later, the teacher walked in. She works with the older girls on Reading. She opened by telling the girls that Rabbi K (the General Studies principal) was due to visit them soon. "Do any of you remember what you are supposed to do when a rabbi walks into the room?", she asked. "Say 'hi', one girl replied. "Ask 'how are you?" was another response. The teacher finally told the girls they had to stand when he came in, etc. The reason she wanted to come and talk to them was because she noticed some of the older girls she worked with (sometimes for two years) would ignore her when she said "Hi, Plonit". This spoke volumes to her about their manners. She then spent another ten minutes having the girls role play "basic" scenarios involving "manners": introductions, etc. My student asked about a couple extremely hypothetical situations and her teacher deemed them "inappropriate" so I was asked to escort her out of the room. 

I don't know the end result (whether the rabbi walked in and the girls "passed"), but I found the experience odd. I commented to the other personal aide (a Beis Yaakov graduate) that I thought this was the job of the "morning morot" (since having good manners are a part of having good middot). One of the observations I have made about this school is the major compartmentalization going on. It almost seems like there are FOUR different schools using the same school building: Girls Judaics, Boys Judaics, Girls General Studies, and Boys General Studies. The priority is easily placed on the Judaics teachers and whatever requirements they have. [One of the teachers, a kollel wife, seems quite happy with the balance of power she has based on her (by marriage) yichus. To detail some of what I have witnessed would definitely be telling lashon ha-ra, so I will not.] 

Come to think of it, though, good manners is something that is best modeled by parents and teachers. The morning morot will cluster onto one end of the playground at recess and start gossiping about who's getting engaged, or about to have a baby. They will demand that the child will stand there at attention until they are acknowledged (good for teaching not to interrupt an adult), but will interrupt a child asking a question in class with a flippant response. The students have also witnessed the morning morot act disrespectful towards their afternoon teachers. For example, one of the afternoon teachers wanted to place a string in the back of the room to hang projects (and the morah said it was fine). The following day, the string was cut and the morah claimed that the girls were playing with it "too much". After further questioning, it turned out that the morah just cut the string even though "no one" was playing with it. [I realize that young children tend to see things one-sided but since I have seen this morah in action, I have to believe the students more.]

When I wonder about the rudeness I see in frum Jews, I was told that it's justifiable since they study Torah, there is no need to demonstrate good middot. However, since girls are technically exempt from Torah study, more time in school should be focused on good middot rather than studying hemlines and shirt collars. 

Why We Need "Stam Kosher"

Last Thursday, I was pressed for time and bought my Shabbat needs at the local grocery store which stocks Meal Mart and Empire products in tray packs. I purchased a package of "fresh" stew meat (at $10.59/lb) and on the bottom, there was a sticker stating product origin: "Product of USA, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Uruguay." 

Rubashkin's shutdown has majorly impacted everyone. It's a reminder of the negative side of "big business kashrut". The advantages may include a "universal" definition of kashrut but this can also be a problem. A big "turn-off" to keeping kosher has been the complaints of the costs. On most kosher-certified processed foods, it is "the same" since many processed foods are things people buy anyway. The "deal-breakers" seem to be meat and dairy products. I accept the halakhah against "g'vinat akum" but why can't companies make DECENT cheese from chalav stam AND get reliable certification? Glatt kosher, though, is not a halakhah. It's a CHUMRAH! It is an extra stringency people have had put upon them, since the average person may not know/care about the difference. In the shtetl, if there were a handful of cows that had to be made to work to feed everyone, it happened.

It's yet another example of putting up too many fences. I have several friends who are in dire financial straits. Keeping kosher to the standard of our community is yet another "frum" expense which keeps them in the hole. None of them buy chalav yisrael, but if they want meat (even if only for Shabbat), they are forced to pay these outrageous sums of money for inferior product. (The local butchers are also high-cost considering that a great deal of their meat also comes in pre-cut from the SAME local distributor.) We are all keeping to standards for these "people" who may not otherwise eat in our homes. I have an idea if the rabbis "allowed" stam kosher meat again, it would drive the costs back down. As it stands down, some of the "big business" meat packagers are tossing "stam kosher" meat and only selling glatt. If they packaged that and sold it as "stam kosher" (under a reliable hashgachah, of course), it would make glatt accessible to the people who truly demand it.

Disappointing News for the anti-Chumra Frum Jew

For some time now, I have been advocating a "lower tier" kashrut level for people who either can not afford (or no longer want to bother with) mehadrin prices/standards. This is already being done in homes and "modern" schools who use chalav stam dairy products. Now, more than ever, there needs to be a call for the return of "stam kosher" meat. There used to be "stam kosher" meat. (The word "glatt" means "smooth". There are no adhesions/punctures in the lungs. A lung with a removable adhesion is then filled with water. If there are no leaks, the animal is still kosher, but not "glatt". For more details, click here.)

At some point (before I became frum), glatt became the standard. Now, even poultry is marked "glatt" (when there is NO distinction in the halakhah for poultry). Major rabbinic organizations tell people only glatt is "recommended". The major source of "stam kosher" meat had been Best's/Sinai Kosher (owned by Sara Lee), Hebrew National (owned by ConAgra), and David's (a line of stam kosher meat produced by AgriProcessors under the UMK hechsher and previously available at my local Trader Joe's). In recent months, Sara Lee has announced they are shutting down their Best's/Sinai Kosher line and we all know the situation with AgriProcessors. A few years ago, Hebrew National launched a huge campaign in the Jewish community promoting their certification by the "triangle-K", instead of the ambiguous "KOSHER" which had been prominently displayed on their packages for years.

This certification has continued to put into question the "reliability" of the triangle-K. We hear different disclaimers: "On fruit or juice it's fine but not on products using oil." Another friend of mine used deductive reasoning to determine if the O-U is certifying certain products for a company (such as Lay's) but others are under triangle-K, then there must be some issue.

Saying all that, I am disappointed to report that we will not see "stam kosher" meat anytime soon. The sole producer now is Hebrew National and my husband received word from a family friend (who has little credibility as a rav, but has s'mikhah) that he is now a mashgiach for Hebrew National. (We had no intentions of buying Hebrew National but it throws a wrench into triangle-K's "vetting" process. This family friend is not on my list of "reliable poskim" because he has tried to give me p'sakei halakhah that even I know are not correct.)
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