Seven Blessings – Sheva Brachot

images.jpegPart of my making Shabbat a special day is to read the OU newsletter, Shabbat Shalom, at least in part, after I have printed a few articles prior to candle lighting.

Less than two months ago, one of these articles was The Last Kindness by Ruchama King. It dealt with the beautiful mitzvah of chevra kaddisha and denoted its writer’s tact and respect. She explained that she had begun to take interest in this mitzvah as she needed the background information for a new novel she was currently writing, had inquired about the ritual involved and then been asked to help when a woman in her community had died and a member of the burial society could not attend.

Because of the tone of this piece of writing, I wanted to read the novel she had already written and which she briefly mentioned in the article. That’s the reason why I ordered Seven Blessings and then read it over the winter holidays.

The title refers to the seven blessings (or sheva brachot) said during the religious wedding ceremony as well as part of the festive meals that go on for a week after the wedding.

In Judaism, marriage is highly considered and it is often seen as a failure in one’s life not to find one’s bashert (soulmate) and have children. Because of this very traditional and oversimplistic view (nice and decent people find it difficult to find their soulmate or do get divorced), I had a few reservations about the book but started it all the same because of the numerous praises I had read on the Amazon website.

In fact, it is a lovely novel. The characters are likeable, especially the women. Two of the main protagonists are matchmakers (sadchan) and see their action, not as little personal victories or achievements, but as a means to help G-d by introducing peope who are destined to be married to each other. One of them, Tsippi, is a particularly delightful character; the sort of person one would like to meet in real life. All characters have flaws as well as qualities, which contributes to making them more plausible.

I also enjoyed the subtle creation of an atmosphere: the little grocery store, the women’s yeshivah, the mental hospital, the hotel where the prospective partners meet since they are not allowed to meet in private, etc.

Shabbat Shalom

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The Big Blunder

images-1-1.jpegThis afternoon I had planned to attend the civil wedding ceremony of a close friend where I was meant to be one of the witnesses. I was teaching this morning but there was ample time for me to get back home, change into more appropriate clothes, jump back into my car, drive to the station and take the train. Or so I thought…

I left the class after the last lesson and went home. As I was leaving, the phone rang. I hesitated but thought it was wiser to get it. I suppose it has to do with having aging parents (although not that old) whom I find quite vulnerable since the death of my brother almost four years ago. I am constantly worried something might have happened to one of them. I suppose being the eldest child does not help.

When I picked up the phone, I realized that I was talking to the school bursary. I assumed he was phoning about the exchange as their arrival is close and he is the one who deals with all its financial aspect. I was ready to ask him whether he could call back or whether I could go and see him the next day since I had a train to catch.

Unfortunately, this was not the reason for his call. He was phoning because one of my students had drawn a big graffiti on a table in the room where I had taught this morning. I am not usualy in this room but had been asked to move for this morning’s lessons due to the mock exams which were starting today. Apparently this room had not been used since september and was meant to be a new IT room. The tables were spotless as they had been cleaned yesterday. From what I understood the maths teachers were supposed to take possession of this classroom in a very near future.

I guess I must have felt very guilty about this; I tend to pride myself on the fact that my students don’t write on their desks during lessons and I have never had to deal with such a problem before. So much for lacking modesty! I listened to the explanations, even asked where the inscription was, promised I would be at the school tomorrow morning before the first lesson so as to try and remeber who was sitting there. The fact that I was getting late was at the back of my mind but I didn’t dare to interrupt my interlocutor. We agreed to meet tomorrow and I hang up. It was too late.

I still tried to catch the train but got stuck in a roundabout and arrived just in time to see the train leave. I immediately phoned my friend, guilt-ridden. I felt, and still feel awful. This is the first time I have missed a train, I hate being late, and now feel I have let my friend down and even wonder if he believed me when I phoned. it seems such a foolish story.

Is this Lashon Hara?

images-2.jpegThis post is about a new website and a dilemma concerning its content. As a teacher this is something I feel quite strongly about.

At the end of January, a private company set up the website note2be. The idea is for pupils and high school students to rate their teachers. On this site, the students are asked to assess us according to 6 criteria.

Is the teacher:

– interesting

– clear

– always ready to help out

– fair

– respected by his/her students

– motivated?

When you look for a school and open its page, the names of the teachers concerned appear in alphabetical order with their average ratings.

The idea behind the site, according to its creators , is to help the teachers in their teaching practise, the way students are helped by the marks they get for their work.

I find this site and its concept appalling. I can see at least three reasons for this. First the teachers are rated anonymously. In fact they may even have been assessed by students who have left the school. How is this going to help them improve their practise if they are rated by someone who has not seen them for some time? A young teacher might have changed a great deal in only a few years. Then you get an average whether you have been rated by a single student or a whole class. Anybody with even a poor knowledge of maths knows that one mark (or even a few) does not constitute an average. Another thing that bothers me is that the results are public. My students’ results are never made public. Only they and their parents have access to them. Dont get me wrong; I acknowledge that a teacher needs to be assessed but not this way.

However this is not what has led me to write about this site but what I read online when I visited last night. In our school, 25 teachers have been rated so far. The results are mixed, which is not surprising. Some teachers are popular, some not quite so. What pained me is that the name of two collegues came up with poor ratings attached to their names. Although I don’t know them all that well, I happen to know, like most of my collegues, that both lead difficult lives. One of them has a severely handicapped son who is critically ill and whose life expectancy is very short. As for the other one, she is a widow whose only son committed suicide in the summer of 2006. I understand that they can’t always be cheerful and available to their students. On the other hand they are earnest teachers who take their jobs seriously.

As one who has been made aware of the laws of lashon hara by the teachings of rabi Telushkin, I feel quite upset by the whole thing and find it very unfair that these two people should have been given such poor marks. I have been very uncomfortable since I visited the site and have not stopped wondering if there is anything that should be done about it? What do you think?

Languages

languages.jpgThe start of the International Year of Languages was launched last week by UNO and UNESCO. Here are a few interesting facts about language:

– Over 3000 languages are in danger of disappearing.

– 96% of the world’s languages are spoken by 4% of the world’s population.

– One language disappears on average every two weeks.

– 80% of the African languages have no orthography.

– Chinese courses have been blooming internationally since 2000 at every level of education.

– By the time 200,000 Americans are able to speak Mandarin, 200,000,000 Chinese will speak fluent English.

– In June 1999, the Swedish Parliament enacted legislation giving Yiddish legal status as one of the country’s official minority languages.

– The Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Russian Federation is a federal subject of Russia where Yiddish is an official language along with Russian.

– Hebrew is spoken by about 5 million people in Israel. In addition, it is spoken by several hundred thousand speakers in expatriot Jewish communities around the world.

End of the Holiday

germany.jpgTomorrow our fortnight’s break will be over. I have spent two relaxing weeks reading, walking and trying to forget the school daily routine. For once I have managed to avoid having tons of marking, which for me is a feat. I must confess that being away helped a great deal. It is so much easier to unwind when you are not at home.

The next few weeks are going to be very busy, not to say hectic, however. A civil wedding in Paris on wednesday, mock exams for our last year students in about ten days (which means a lot of papers to mark), the religious wedding of the same people in Antwerp in less than three weeks and finally the Swedish exchange students arriving with their teachers the day after the wedding.

This kind of schedule generally makes me anxious in advance. I always wonder whether I’ll cope with the routine as well as with all the extra stuff, whether I’ll get enough sleep, whether I’ll keep my cool at home and with the students. The list could go on and on. Most of all I hope I’ll find the time for my favourite activities; those that keep me sane, namely reading, cooking, learning and blogging.

Juno & New “Friends”

images.jpegEverybody has heard about Juno, Jason Reitman’s latest movie, a well-deserved fame. It is a great movie with a fantastic soundtrack. However, this post is not really about the film, but rather about the reason why I selected it among the fifteen movies or so our movie theater has to offer this week.

Before the Internet age, I would rely on film critiques and friends for advice about films. Thus I regularly read a famous weekly French magazine (Télérama) that deals with TV and radio programs as well as movies. Its reviews are uncompromising and usually apropos. Regarding friends, with time you come to respect and value their judgement. You trust their recommendations because you know them and are able to assess if you are going to enjoy a book or a film they have appreciated.

The Internet has added another category of critics: fellow bloggers, or should I say “blogging Internet acquaintances/friends”. Thus two people, whom I have never met in person but whose judgement I trust, have written enthusiastic posts about Juno. If they liked the film, I reasoned, I would also have a good time watching it. I was not disappointed.

Now it is difficult to use a relevant term to designate these two women. This is true of the two people mentioned but also of a number of others. They are not real friends, in the usual sense of the word, and yet they are more than mere acquaintances. Because you read their blogs regularly, you feel you are familiar with them, much more so than with most of the people you come across every day. It may seem a bit weird, nonetheless it is part of what makes the Internet so enjoyable and sometimes a little magic. Despite all the technology involved, human relationships can still thrive.

Weary of Antisemitism

About 18 months ago, on the eve of Tisha B’Av, our small synagogue was defaced after it was robbed of most of the few valuable objects it contained.

Last week in the town of Amiens, only an hour’s drive from home, three policemen entered an Irish pub and ordered drinks at the counter. They then started making nazi salutes, shouted “Sieg Heil” and “Heil Hitler before yelling “death to Jews” and “the crematorium ovens must be reopened”. The bar owner filed a writ against the men for threatening him with reprisals if he revealed what they had done.

Only a few minutes ago, as I was searching the net so as to get the facts right, I came across an antisemitic blog which had also reported the incident. The blogger was just regretting that honest white folks had been put in prison (which isn’t true, they have only been suspended from the police) because we (Jews) collide with other semites to put white Caucasians behind bars (!!).

Sometimes all this is just too much. I’m fed up with reading that I am worse than nazis, that I am sickeningly rich, that I am part of a conspiracy to dominate the world, that I am a communist pig, that the Talmud contains hidden secrets, that I kill children in Gaza, and, worst of all, that the Shoah was just an hoax so that we could have a country.

Hasidic Judaism, Antwerp & Pictures

hasidicboy.jpg

Hasidic Judaism is a mystery to me. We share the same religion and pray the same G-d every day but I have very mixed feelings when I come across Hasidic Jews. I’ve met them mostly in Paris and Antwerp and they often make me feel uncomfortable. On the one hand I admire their seemingly unwavering faith but on the other hand I have a lot of problems with what I perceive of the way women are treated in those communities.

Girls are often married, at a very early age, to a man chosen by their fathers and soon have lots of children whom they push in prams that can contain two or three kids. lt usually makes me sad when I see the drawn faces of these still very young women pushing those carts. I guess I should not be judgemental yet I cannot help feeling that, in Hasidic circles, being born a man is a lot less hassle.

A young friend of mine, aged 29, is engaged to a woman from Antwerp. They met, through friends, at the end of October and announced their engagement in November. Thus Eli will be moving to Antwerp where they will live among the Hasidic community as his fiancée is a Chortkov Jew.

I’ve met her. She seems a nice and surprisingly open-minded woman, considering where she is from, but somehow it still makes me feel odd. I suppose I worry that one of the people I’ve been closest to in the past few years might become a bigoted, intolerant and prejudiced man who might start telling me why he no longer reads the books he used to enjoy reading, no longer visits museums or has stopped going to the movies.

Above all I fear I may lose a friend, someone I could confide to, since friendship between man and woman is frowned upon in those communities. Lastly I suppose his choices also makes me question my own and this is never easy nor painless.

To conclude (momentarily) on the subject, I’d like to share some photographs I’ve come across while browsing the web. They were taken in the Satmar community of Brooklyn.

Newly Discovered Blogs & a New Post

Discovering new blogs is sometimes as exciting as discovering new books or places. Here are a few blogs I have come across recently:

Frumteacher, a blog managed by a young History teacher. It deals mainly with teaching but not only.

JoyousJudaism. Ian Pear, a Rabbi, Lawyer and aspiring author who lives in Jerusalem with his wife Rachel and three children, aims at showing that “positive Judaism can inspire”. Spend a little while on this blog, it just does that.

Ima Shalom, this blog is managed by a group of women. It is both inspiring and funny.

JewsByChoice. Most of its contributors are observant Reform Jews, no longer a contradiction in terms. This is how they describe their blog: JewsByChoice “is a Trans-Denominational grassroots, peer run, group blog focused on providing Jews by Choice (as well as other interested parties) with opportunities for exploring, discussing and engaging with Jewish Identity, Tradition and Culture.” It is a thought-provoking blog suitable for people wondering about conversion as well as for Jews from all walks of life and levels of observance.

Last but not least, a stimulating post about JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and Cynthia Samuels’s reaction to girls’/women’s education in the Modern Orthodox world.