Going Insane

dragon.jpgI am supposed to teach four classes on a Monday but twoo weeks ago I got a notice from the school administration informing me that my sophomore classes would be canceled today due to a double period of health education. My students were scheduled to be warned about he dangers of drinking and driving. This notice infuriated me as it meant I wouldn’t be able to go ahead with the project we’re working on at the moment. I could not help wondering why they could not use the numerous free periods these students have rather than teaching periods, unless they feared the kids would not turn up!

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that health education is essential and that young people take insane risks every weekend when they go out and drive back in a state of stupor due to the various products they have drunk or inhaled.

However I have my doubts about these lectures. I can’t help thinking that my students know about the risks involved; they probably know much more about drugs and alcohol than I did when I was a teenager. Information per se does not seem to be the problem, the problem is to get keep them from putting their lives in jeopardy whenever they are with their peers.

Still this is not the reason why I started this post in the first place. The point is that, when I arrived this afternoon, there was a short message on a board informing us that the health education lectures had been canceled. As could be expected, neither the students nor myself had our textbooks so picking up the lesson where we had left it was out of the question. It really angered me that nobody had deemed it important to phone me so as to let me know I would have to teach my classes while month ago they had called me about a graffiti.

It makes me wonder what the administration think our job consists in. Do they want us to supervise aimless teenagers until they go to college, drop out of school or look for a job (as the case may be) or do they want us to teach those kids? Do they realise that lessons cannot just be improvised, that you don’t devise a lesson out of the blue?

Education in my country, but apparently elsewhere too, seems so unimportant that it is maddening. We are supposed to prepare the young of today to be responsible adults but who really cares?

Pre-Pesach (and all Year-round) Tips

chametz.jpgIn response to a comment by a fellow blogger concerning her aversion to all the pre-Pesach work, I have decided to share some advice I have found useful over the years when gearing up for Pesach.

– Getting a house ready for Pesach is no easy matter, nor is it much fun, so start well in advance. Spread all your tasks over a reasonable period of time so that it does not feel like too much of a burden a few days before the Festival. You will probably save yourself from hysteria and anxiety.

– If you are newly-observant, don’t adopt the all-or-nothing attitude. For instance, try to do more than last year.

– My mother was a stickler for food, much before it came into fashion. She wanted us to eat fruit and vegetables, we had to finish our plates before we could leave the table, she hardly ever bought us any sweets and eating between meals was strictly forbidden. With three boys she was forced to relent on the last item; however she always insisted that my brothers’ cereals had to be eaten in the kitchen and nowhere else. I have kept the habit and it still amazes me to see kids and grown-ups munch anything at any time, anywhere and everywhere. Besides I am grateful to my mum for giving me habits which more or less garantee that most rooms in the house are chametz-free. it is the sort of stringency which pays in the end. If you are not ready to go that far, at least make sure you manage to enforce this rule after you have started cleaning rooms for Pesach.

– Never put any food in your pockets. If you do, you’ll have to go through all of them to make sure there are no crumbs left. Similarly if you do have to carry food in a rucksack, put the fod in a paper or plastic bag first and keep to one section of the bag so that you are positive the rest is chametz-free.

– If you have decided to kosher your dishes because you cannot afford or stock several sets of dishes, go through the different articles you own, throw away old pans and pots and get brand new ones for the Festival. It will save you time and will be a pleasure to use new dishes for the occasion.

– Search your cookery books and the Internet for recipes for the Festival, it should help you see the bright side of things. Buy tons of eggs, at least twice the amount you would normaly use as most sweet recipes will require more eggs than usual. In addition, when you are at a loss what to cook during Chol-HaMoed, you can always make an omelet or Matzah brei. They are easy, filling and good.

– Do not forget to buy a new toothbrush. Toothbrushes have to be changed from time to time, this time of year is as good as any.

– These recommandations are personal, check with rabbinical authorities if you are unsure about what to do.

Hasidism: More Questions than Answers

hasidism.jpgAfter the wedding I attended two weeks ago, and because I was so amazed at the welcome we got there, I proceeded to buy a used copy of Boychiks in the Hood, by Robert Eisenberg, in order to broaden my knowledge and understanding of the Hasidic community. It arrived last week and I am currently reading it.

It is an easy and clearly written book yet, after having read about half of the book, I am left with more questions than answers.

After meeting two Satmar young men on a ferry and discovering that one branch, albeit a distant one, of his family were Satmar followers, Eisenberg decided to visit the Hasidic world. The book is an account of his journey into the Ultra-Orthodox world, a kind of travelogue. There are interesting meetings and the beautiful and moving story of the rebbe of Bobov, Shlomo Halberstam, who re-established the Bobover Hasidic dynasty in America after World War II.

However, pleasant as it is, the books also has its shortcomings. Although Eisenberg visited one community after the other and presents them in the seemingly chronological order of his trips, he never really explains the differences between the different groups. As a result I feel quite as frustrated as a coupe of weeks ago and wonder where I could find the answers to the numerous questions I have asked myself since.

What are the main differences between the numerous Hasidic dynasties? If you are new to Hasidism, how do you choose one group over another?

Do these various groups have minimal contact with one another or do they care what happens in the Hasidic world at large?

How can you distinguish one Hasid from another? If you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, why do clothes seem so important for Hasidic men? Does a low and broad shtreimel point to something different than a higher and more narrow one?

If women’s education is not encouraged in those circles, how come I sat next to a woman who could speak seven languages? I just can’t think that her family deemed it necessary for her to learn so many just to raise children and walk to the grocery store round the corner.

If computers are frowned upon, why did so many people at the wedding own a digital camera?

If they live apart from the rest of the world, what is their relation to modernity? Obviously they do not shun everything about our modern society. Unlike Amish people, they have modern dwellings complete with modern appliances.

If they are not Zionists, why do they sell far more Isreali products in their small kosher shops than American kosher items?

Any idea about where I could get more insightful understanding of the Hasidic world is more than wecome!

Pre-pesach Period

21E660M996L._AA115_.jpgLast year, on a different blog, I wrote two posts about Pesach. They mentioned the preparation involved as well as the books I was going to read or was in the process of reading at the time.

Now with Pesach only four weeks away, I am beginning to get ready again for this beautiful festival. As usual I have ordered a book and was quite thrilled when I received it this morning.

As far as cleaning and getting rid of Chametz is concerned, I eliminated the ice in the freezer last Wednesday and discarded all the crumbs I could find there.

I supose it’s a beginning…

Teaching about the Holocaust

6E728F25-E7AB-4682-8370-56DDC24716DD.jpgAs a European Jew, I feel that teaching about the Holocaust is a duty I owe to those who were killed in the camps and to the human race as a whole. I suppose it is a very Jewish reaction, feeling responsible for klal israel (the community of Israel) as well as for other human beings.

Each year I like to do something different so that I don’t fall into a rut and teach about the Shoah in a boring and routine way. This year, thanks to an article published by the New York Times, I have decided to start by telling my students about a new graphic novel entitled “The Search”. It was created and produced by the Anne Frank House

I will teach three senior classes about this comic book. Because their levels are so disparate, I am going to use three different articles that deal with this book. I’ll show a page from the full-length book to each group, asking them what they think the document is and what it is about.

For the next step I have selected three distinct articles. For the weakest students, an article from The Telegraph online. For the middle group, one from The Boston Globe. Finally the most able students will get the original New York Times article, the one I got the idea from.

I am eager to know what they think about using a graphic novel versus using a regular textbook. I suppose they’ll favour the comic book but it will be interesting to see why.

The three articles present different aspects of the question. One explains that the book is targeted at underpriviledged German students in a context of rising antisemitism. Another accounts for the use of the “clear line” technic and how many of Heuvel’s (the artist) drawings are based on original Nazi-era photographs. The New York Times also recalls French president Sarkozy’s plan that French fifth graders should each study the life of one of the 11,000 French children killed during the Holocaust.. They are thought-provoking reviews that should be helpful in introducing a vast subject.

The New York Times artice is probably the most stimulating one, albeit the most difficult for foreign students. I also like its conclusion, even though I don’t fully agree with it, “the subject is not just about Germans and Jews. It’s about people and life.”

A Few Thoughts about Tibet

dalailama.jpgBecause of the currentt repression in Tibet by the Chinese government, the world seems to discover what has been going on there since the 1950s. As a result numerous journalists and politicians in Europe seem to wonder whether the Beijing Olympics shoud be boycotted. Obviously it is much too late to ask such a question. A lot of money is involved, athletes have been preparing the event for years so such a boycott is not feasible.

As far as I am concerned the question should be why was China assigned the Olympic Game in the first place? The political situation as regards Tibet or Taiwan is no secret. Everybody knows about China’s Internet censorship. More than 40 journalists are currently imprisoned in China. The list could go on and on.

With Pesach only a month away, this discussion about Tibet reminds me of the book The Jews in the Lotus. In October 1990, a group of eight Jewish leaders went to India for a week of discussions in order to teach the Tibetan spiritual leader what the Jewish tradition has learned about religious self-preservation.

I read the book that relates this dialogue a few years ago and really enjoyed what the Jewish leaders had to say about the role of the Passover seder in teaching the secrets of spiritual survival in exile. It is a powerful and insightful presentation by Blu Greenberg and one which I strongly recommend in this pre-Pesach period.

Ta’anit Ester, Cooking and Consulting

hamantashen.jpgThe exchange students and their teachers went yesterday. We had to wake up early as the coach was due to leave at 5.15 am. So getting out of bed before dawn again today to eat before the fast was not easy, to say the least.

I had prepared breakfast last night. Whenever the fast is a short one, i.e. from sunrise until sunset, I get up about 30 minutes before the fast begins so I can have a proper breakfast and some coffee. To last a whole day, I need plenty of coffee and a hearty breakfast. Therefore I had prepared a bowl with couscous, yoghurt, prunes, sugar and orange juice. It remained in the fridge overnight so as to allow the couscous to absorb the juice. The result was nice and filling. So far I’m not the least hungry!

This afternoon I thought I would make some hamantashen for tonight. I like to experiment with new recipes every year. I found the one I used to day on Frumesarah’s blog. Obviously I have not tasted them yet but they smell and look fine.

Unfortunately I also had to go to the doctor’s. I had had a scanner last month and I had made an appointment to have an opinion about the next step. I was not too happy with the verdict as my doctor thinks it is safer to have an operation. She took time to explain why she advised it and what would happen but I was a little surprised when she announced I would spend a short week in hospital and then stay at home for five to six weeks. I am still under shock even though she was very kind about the whole thing.

She gave me a list of surgeons she deems competent, humane and understanding in three different hospitals. I then proceeded to phone the rabbis in two of the three towns (the other town has a synagogue but no permanent rabbi) to ask if the hospitals in their towns provided kosher meals. One rabbi was not available but a woman told me the hospital has no kosher meals. As for the other rabbi he also said that it is not the case but told me to phone again later (after Purim) as he was too busy to go into details today.

So now I am doubly anxious: about the operation (and its consequences) and about the food I will be served there and what I am suposed to do about it.

Dealing with Difficult Teenagers

images.jpegThis has been a hectic day. It all began last night just after Shabbes after our Swedish guests had arrived for a friendly and relaxing meal.

We host one of the three Swedish teachers and as we had already started eating her cell phone rang. One of her students was on the phone complaining that her penfriend wanted to go out despite her own wish to stay in. Apparently the two girls had reached a point when they were no longer talking to each other. They were both firmly entrenched in their positions and would not budge. My colleague tried to calm her student down but in vain. At that point I endeavoured to call the French student; however she would not give in and was not ready to wait until her parents came back from the movies before going out.

Eventually hysteria reached a peak when the Swedish girl ended up in the street with her luggage, claiming she had been kicked out while her penfriend contended she had only hinted she could not stay any longer. We then thought it was high time to drive there and do something about the whole thing. In addition the girl’s mother had phoned my colleague, practically demanding that her daughter should be put up by a new family.

We decided to host the girl for the night and wait until the next morning before taking a decision about her. She seemed to calm down and her teacher tried to comfort her and convince her that flying back home was no solution. So this morning we phoned around and found a family who were ready to receive the Swedish girl. In the mean time we understood that no effort had been made on either side to reach a compromise. Moreover neither teenager seemed to realize that they had relied on their teachers to solve the problem for them while I am convinced they could have settled this disagreement easily.

Unfortunately more troubles were in store. Another girl phoned her teacher at 7.30 this morning. She was feeling homesick and her stomach hurt. She demanded to be taken to hospital to be cured. In turn her penfriend phoned me. She was worried about the girl’s health and anxiety. We advised her about what to do, where to go and suggested her parents should make a medical appointment as soon as possible.

Another teacher accompanied this girl to the doctor’s. She tried to cheer her up and make her see the positive aspect of her stay. It seemed the girl had spent a lot of time in front of her portable dvd player instead of mixing with her host family. Like the other Swedish girl, she had phoned home and her teacher before trying to explain how she felt to her own penfriend.

In spite of her host family’s kindness, the sick girl did not want to go back there and demanded to stay with another Swedish girl. Luckily a French family accepted to host her for two days, hoping that she would go back when she felt better.

People might argue that the language barrier was an obstacle to the communication between the two parties. However this is not the first time we have received foreign students in our school but it is the first time we have had such reactions. I can’t help wondering why this is. Why do young people (after all these girls are 18 and 19) so unable to stand on their two feet? Why are their parents so quick to back their children instead of trying to tranquilize them? Why are they so suspicious of our capacities to deal with the situations?

A Big Thank You

antwerp.jpgThe wedding is over. The ceremony took place yesterday and as the exchange with our Swedish partners starts in less than an hour, I have very little time to write about it.. Yet I want to say a big thank you to the kallah‘s community for their great welcome.

I am not sure why I had assumed the welcome would be tepid or at best pleasant but in fact it was warm and wholehearted. The hasidic community of Antwerp which hosted the wedding made sure everyone felt at ease and involved. They initiated conversations and expained the things that were not obvious to those who are not too familiar with their traditions and customs.

I am glad I was wrong. First because the whole evening was so festive and happy. We all enjoyed ourselves and will cherish the memories of this beautiful event. But above all, I am grateful to those people for having thrown me off base by such a display of kindness.

There is a saying in the Talmud which says that you should not ask your way to someone who knows you since you are sure never to get lost. I like the idea that we have to err before we can hope to get near the truth. Thus I feel I now have to ponder on the reasons for my assumptions, preconceived ideas and prejudices. An awesome task indeed!


Satellite.jpegThe rash kiling of 8 young yeshiva students in Jerusalem three days ago has left me speechless as I try to come to terms with the numerous feelings (some quite upsetting) that beset me.

It worries me that a lot of people an equate this murder with the IDF’s retaliation in Gaza, eventhough I think it was a disaster for more than one reason. Namely it should not have been announced three days before it took place, it seems the army had too little reliable information to be efficient and I fear it won’t change anything on the Palestinian side.

Mostly Golda Meir’s words keep coming back: “The Arabs will stop fighting us when they love their children more than they hate Jews.” I only hope we won’t be contaminated by this hatred.

Two of my favourite bloggers having written about the killing much more cleverly than I could have done, I wanted to share their feelings with you. One was written by Treppenwitz, an Israeli who made aliyah a few years back and the other one by Frumteacher, a teacher from The Netherlands.

P.S. I’ve just come across another insightful post about the attack on Merkaz HaRav Yeshivah.