Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Chanukkah: The Educator's Holiday

       Chanukkah is an educator's holiday. How so? It's been noted many times that the Hebrew word "Chanukkah" is derived from the same Hebrew "root" as the word for education: "Chinuch" (apologies for the abysmal transliteration). The three letter Hebrew shoresh of chet-- nun-- chaf has a double meaning: "dedication" and "education." Here are a couple of ways that Jewish educators might make the link between dedication and education in honor of Chanukkah.

1. Facilitate a conversation with our students by asking them "Why do we dedicate so much time and energy to studying Hebrew and Judaism?" While it's a simple question many of us will agree with the simple truth that many of our students haven't actually thought this one through. For those of us who are meshugah l'davar for Jewish education, the answers to this question might be so obvious that we've skipped the critical step of having the conversation with our students. "I don't know" isn't an acceptable answer to the question of: "Why do we dedicate ourselves to studying Hebrew?" Every student should be able to answer this question authentically and compellingly. Moreover, their answers should mature as they grow into their Jewish identities. If we fail to make this an explicit conversation with our students then we run the risk of having students who don't ever confront the importance of their Judaic and Hebraic education and end up going through the motions without understanding why.

2. Let's facilitate the same conversation with our colleagues and fellow educators. While it might seem unnecessary, it can be invigorating for a group of educators to revisit the basic conversation of motives and aims in our teaching. Why do we have a burning passion for teaching Hebrew? Why have we spent years training to be a Jewish educator? Why are we living out our teaching careers at Jewish schools even if we're teaching general studies rather than Jewish studies? Hearing what inspires others to dedicate their lives to Jewish education strengthen our ties with our colleagues. It's a safe way of moving beyond the small talk that often fills the pockets of our days. Also, we may have colleagues who honestly don't have compelling answers to this question, or may be looking for new ways of expressing long held commitments. Like our students, some of our colleagues may not have had the chance to really reflect on their commitment to Jewish education. Many of us work in schools that have a wide spectrum of Jewish knowledge and observance. Engaging our diverse faculty in the conversation can be truly educational and promote synergy among the faculty.

3. Go for gelt. At our weekly Jewish and Hebrew studies department meeting today we stumbled upon the fact that each of the educators at the table had a different explanation of where the tradition of Chanukkah gelt comes from. We laughed as we shared our varying interpretations. Rather than pretending that we knew the absolutely correct answer to what seemed like a simple question, we got on the computer and did some research. Laughing, we realized that, to a certain extent, we were all correct. What I'm calling "going for gelt" refers to the fact that, in spite of the many years of accumulated wisdom and knowledge at the table, there's always the possibility of learning something new. It's a wonderful feeling to be thrust into a place of uncertainty. It is great to realize that "I don't know" can lead to new knowledge. Everyone at the table today felt comfortable exploring the gelt question together. It was a simple reminder that learning is fun and that being a part of a learning community is rich and rewarding.

So there you have it. My 1/2 shekel on some of the many possible intersections of dedication and education that Chanukkah begs us to consider as Jewish educators.

Chag Sameach! 

Friday, December 9, 2011

OY Chanukkah

"10" Hanukkah Helpers® magically visit children during the Festival of Lights and enrich their lives with a timeless Hanukkah tradition. An embroidered snowflake over their heart is the mark of an authentic Hanukkah Helper. With their companionship, hugs, adventures and love, Hanukkah Helpers create memories the whole family will cherish for a lifetime.

The plush 10-inch Helpers are great companions during the day and often surprise the children during the night with mysterious and unpredictable adventures. When Hanukkah is over, the Helper must return home and prepare for the next year's visit. The tradition continues year after year, and each time the Hanukkah Helper visits, children (and even adults) experience the same sense of playful suspense, excitement and friendship."

Excerpted from the Hanukkah Helper website.

Allow me to quote the great Seth Meyers:

 "Really? Really?? Really???"  

Seems like a B-Horror movie waiting to happen...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Judaism as Burden

“The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.”
-Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984

“Before the beginning of the nineteenth century all Jews regarded Judaism as a privilege; since then most Jews have come to regard it as a burden.”
-Mordecai Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization, 1934

    How does Kundera’s notion of “the heaviest of burdens” as “an image of life’s most intense fulfillment” influence our reading of the opening line of Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization (above)? How can Jewish educators transform the feeling of burden that Kaplan describes, with its negative connotations, into the burden that Kundera describes? 

     Kundera’s burden is one that connects the bearer with the earth, with reality, and with truth. It is the burden that leads to fulfillment and happiness. The heavier the burden the greater the reward. 

     Kaplan’s burden is one that keeps the bearer bent, buckled and ultimately broken. It's a burden that oppresses, defeats, and distracts. 

    I believe that the burden of Judaism can be Kundera's burden rather than Kaplan's burden.  For starters, to speak of Jewish commitment is to speak of a life that is grounded in Judaism. To speak of Jewish commitment is to speak on one’s ability to take a stand with both feet planted firmly on Jewish soil. Judaism is a burden that should ground us, thrust us into reality, and make us feel like our actions and decisions have weight and impact. 

    When Moses approached the burning bush and found his life’s destiny he was told, “remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). Just as the bowler hat floating in midair is a central image for Kundera’s novel so too should be the bare foot planted firmly on the earth a metaphor for Jewish commitment. Jewish education that seeks to instill a sense of commitment must accustom students to “taking a stand” for what they believe in and a willingness to get their feet and hands dirty.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Maker and the Finder

         I recently "found" a book that's been on my bookshelf for years but that I've never "made" time to read.  Forty pages into Richard Rorty's, Contingency, irony, and solidarity, my only regret is that I didn't read it years ago when I purchased it. I'm consoled by the profound joy of reading it now. As I read I carry with me the wonderful memory of studying with Rorty as an undergraduate. I can vividly picture his always purple button down shirt (worn to each class) and can hear the sound of change jingling in his pocket-- an unconscious habit that contrasted humorously with his intensely brilliant lecturing. This book is one of those books that, by the time I'm done with it, will be mostly highlighted. This means one of two things: 1) I don't know how to highlight or, 2) it's absolutely brilliant. Among the many highlighted passages there's one that stands out to me at this exact moment as I think about the nature of liberal Judaism in the world today.
         In describing Nietzche's contribution to a postmodern understanding of the contingency of selfhood, Rorty writes, "They [certain philosophers that Rorty praises] accept Nietzche's identification of the strong poet, the maker, as humanity's hero-- rather than the scientist, who is traditionally pictured as a finder" (Rorty, 1989, p. 24).
         The maker categorically rejects the temptation to inherit. She resists the temptation to define herself using someone else's language. She refuses to copy, to adopt, and to conform. She'd rather be a misunderstood or failed metaphor than an already dead metaphor. Novelty is her aspiration, redefinition and redescription are her aims. She strives, she smashes idols, and is relentless in her pursuit of new language to describe her selfhood and her place in the world. Unavailable to her are all previous attempts at articulating meaning-- religion, philosophy, theology, metaphysics, science. If it's been done then it cannot be made, only remade, remixed, reiterated. The maker's task is to do something new.
        The finder seeks patterns, looks for evidence that will help evolve theory into law. She isn't necessarily a  metaphysician, priest, or positivist, but she isn't emphatically opposed to the idea of inherited wisdom. She remains open to the possibility that meaning is "out there" and that wisdom can be sought, heard, and integrated into the tapestry of her life.

         If liberal Judaism and Judaism generally is to survive then we need both makers and finders. 

        Judaism is fairly comfortable with finders. Our tradition teaches, hafoch bah d'chuleh bah ("turn the Torah over and over for everything is within it). Clearly the finder's orientation sits comfortably within the paramaters of the Jewish hermeneutical tradition. When it comes to makers Judaism is decidedly more ambivalent, even antagonistic.  Hadash asur min ha-Torah ("innovation is prohibited by the Torah")-- a famous teaching of the Chatam Sofer (18th-19th century rabbi) the 18th-19th conveys this antagonism. Given Judaism's enduring commitment to Torah and the rich traditions associated with Jewish history and practice, the question of how to embrace "makers" is both sincere and significant.
         The most obvious way of incorporating makers into the Jewish story is to point out that they've always been there. The three Moses'-- Moshe Rabbenu, Moses Maimonides (Rambam), and Moses Mendelssohn (the great Enlightenment philosopher) come to mind. More recently, the work of Jewish feminists such as Rachel Adler also come to mind, as does the work of GLBT oriented rabbis like Rabbi Josh Lesser of Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta, GA (where I live and work). I'd like to think that the album of original Jewish music I'm currently recording and producing is an example of "making." In other words, there's no shortage of "makers" in the context of Jewish history.
          Another way of thinking about the role of "making" in Judaism stems from the traditional idea of Midrash. Midrash comes from the Hebrew root doresh which means "to seek." Finding and making are two different and complimentary ways of seeking, of doing midrash. The finders task is analytical-- she scrutinizes, reviews, deciphers, and unpacks. The makers task is constructive-- building, innovating, and creating. The finder uses a microscope and the maker uses a telescope. The finder understands that interpretation is a never ending process. The maker understands that vision and novelty are the guarantors that the Jewish future is even more vibrant than the past.
          There's much more that could be said about makers and finders. We'll leave it here for now with the intent of returning to explore the dialectical relationship with fresh eyes sometime in the future.

Science Fiction Torah

"'Is it possible for me to understand?'

'Oh, yes. Many could understand it. What people do with understanding is a different matter.'

'Will you teach me what to do?'

'You already know.'"

-Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune

          As a side note I must recommend the first four books of the Dune series to anyone who is even remotely what one might call a "sci-fi" buff. Of course if you read any science fiction then you already know what I'm talking about. For the uninitiated, there's nothing quite like reading Dune. The fourth book, which is quoted above, has as its protagonist (possibly villian, I'm not quite done reading it) none other than (a/the) God. I'm sitting here trying to think of any books besides Dune and the Bible for which this is the case. Forget science fiction, if you're interested in religion, theology, or philosophy it's a must read. 

        I'm not going to bother trying to contextualize the passage from the book. Instead, I want to appropriate it, as it's a useful frame for thinking about education in general and Jewish education in particular. 

        1. "Is it possible for me to understand?" The last thing I want to do is strip Judaism of its nuances, complexities, paradoxes, and mystery. At the same time, more of us need to embrace the Deuteronomic concept of lo bashamayim hee (lit: "it is not in heavens..."). Judaism is a here and now faith. It's a religion of "whatcha gonna do next." It's a "what are you waiting for" way of living each day. Judaism is all about empowerment. There's no limit to how much you can learn or how masterful your command of tradition can be-- and that's empowering. At the same time, there's a lot you can do with even the slightest motivation-- this too is empowering. And while there's a lot of levels of understanding it is emphatically, undeniably, 100% possible to understand. 

        2. "What people do with understanding is a different matter." The Hebrew word for understanding is havanah. The Hebrew word for intention is cavanah.  While these words sound the same, and are transliterated into English using many of the same letters beware-- they are in fact different concepts. Havanah and canavah are not always mutually reinforcing concepts. There are many things that many people understand. However our actions are more less likely to be driven by our havanah than our cavanah. Understanding is critically important, especially given our unique nature as rational beings. But cavanah will always play a more fundamental role in determining how we live each moment. As Jews we are committed to havanah and cavanah. Let us pray for the wisdom to unite these two ways of knowing so that we may live lives of purposeful conduct. 

        3. "Will you teach me what to do?" There's a lot of wisdom floating around out there about the nature of education and how learning occurs. One area of profound consensus is that the openness to learning and the hunger to learn are preconditions for meaningful and transformative development to occur. As educators our role is twofold in this regard: 1) to kindle, or at least keep alive, the innate flame within every person that yearns to know, understand, learn and grow, and 2) to honor the student who comes to us with this question. If we can rise to the occasion of this question guiding our students beyond what they currently can do to that which they are capable of doing with our care, guidance, and teaching, then we're doing sacred work. 

        4. "You already know." While learning is about journeying into foreign lands, both literally and metaphorically, it's also about coming home. The wisdom we encounter in the world around us often resides within us as well. Creation is our mirror, showing us something that we can grasp because we are a part of it, and it is already within us, or least the capacity to grasp is already within us. While our students will surely grow weary if the response to every earnest question is "You already know" they will more quickly learn to draw on the vast resources that constitute their innate humanity if we lovingly throw the ball back into their court every now and again.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Cultivating a Spiritual Life

Lately I've been thinking and reading about spiritual growth. I've been thinking about it primarily in the context of my work as a Jewish educator with a focus on early adolescent spiritual growth. Thus far my thinking has been all about questions. What do people mean (what do I mean) by spiritual growth? What exactly is it that does the growing or developing? How does the spirit develop? Does the spirit develop in ways that can be assessed, studied, and replicated? What sociocultural "tools" (in the Marxist/Vygotskian/ Geertzian sense of the term) promote spiritual growth? What role do educators play in promoting spiritual growth for early adolescents? How can educators be most efficacious in terms of promoting spiritual growth for early adolescents? What kinds of educative experiences impact the spiritual lives of early adolescents? What milieus in the Jewish world today are most well-suited to support adolescent spiritual development? What specifically Jewish cultural tools can be resources for promoting spiritual growth in adolescents (i.e. tefilah, Hebrew language, Torah study, Israel experiences, summer camp, Jewish day school education, synagogues, youth groups, tikkun olam projects)?

Obviously I'm starting from the assumption that spiritual development is important-- for children, adolescents, and adults. I'm also assuming that spirituality is something that can be learned, transmitted, and acquired and that adults (educators in particular) have a responsibility to support and challenge young people to grow spiritually and not only cognitively, emotionally, and physically. In terms of Judaism I'm assuming that spiritual growth is part of living a vibrant Jewish life-- that is to say that Judaism condones and values spirituality and that spirituality can be achieved within the cultural framework of Judaism (as opposed to arguing that spirituality and religiosity are somehow at odds with one another).

I know that there are lots of great people out there who are working on the question of adolescent spirituality both within and beyond the Jewish community. I also know that a better understanding of this issue would help educators (would help me ) feel like I could assess whether my efforts and those of my colleagues are on the right track in terms of promoting spiritual growth for the young people that I have the honor and joy of educating in my capacity as a teacher and rabbi. If you've read this far and can think of people I should reach out to, please share their contact information or encourage them to reach out to mlapidus@davisacademy.org.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Day School Investment: It Means Much More than You Think

“They pretended to take the stuff down from the loom; they made cuts in the air with great scissors; they sewed with needles without thread; and at last they said, “Now the clothes are ready!”—Hans Christian Anderson, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”

“She is clothed with strength and splendor; she looks to the future cheerfully.”—Proverbs 31:25

What does it mean to “invest” in our Jewish day schools? Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to take out your checkbook… I just want us to think seriously about the word “investment.” I hope you’ll agree that investing in our Jewish day schools is an idea that the entire community can, and should, wholeheartedly support. It’s my belief that Jewish day schools are critical institutions on the landscape of Jewish life and that Jews and non-Jews alike will receive high yields when they invest in Jewish day schools.

Here’s the punch line:

We must invest in our local Jewish day schools because they’re the real deal and we can’t afford not to.

The setup:

1. Latin Detour. The word “Investment” wasn’t always about economics. As important as financial contributions, annual funds, and capital campaigns are to the life of our Jewish day schools, thinking of investment only in these terms entails a profound distortion of what investment was originally all about. Investment comes from the Latin investire which means “to clothe, surround.” Investment means: putting on the vest.

2. Elisha and Elijah. Investing in our Jewish day schools means “taking up the mantle” (2 Kings 2:13). When Elijah’s mantle (cape-like garment) fell, Elisha literally picked it up. As a modern idiom it means something like “assuming responsibility/ taking on a leadership role.” For our purposes, “taking up the mantle” and “investing” are related concepts. We invest, not only through our dollars, but by taking up the mantle of our Jewish day schools and metaphorically clothing ourselves in them.

3. Hans Christian Anderson. What a great storyteller! And what a telling story! I don’t know about you, but I get enough junk mail in a day to last me a lifetime. I’ve shred more fake credit cards and blank checks than I can count. It seems like everywhere I look there are invitations to invest in something. It’s almost always something I don’t need. Too often it’s something fake, illusory, or misleading.

4. Eishet Chayil. Jewish day schools are the “women of valor” of Jewish institutional life. A far cry from Anderson’s in-the-buff Emperor, they are clothed with strength and splendor and we need to keep them that way. In large part because of our Jewish day schools, the Jewish people can look to the future—not as though we’re still Simon Rawidowicz’s “ever-dying people,” but rather with a sense of optimism and cheer. The next generation of Jewish leaders is singing birkat hamazon before hitting the playground right now.

5. Technicolor Culture. Not only are Jewish day schools the eishet chayil of Jewish institutional life, but they are a majestic thread in the katonet passim (Genesis 37:3), Joseph’s “ornamented coat” of Jewish institutional life. Jewish day schools celebrate Jewish diversity, pluralism, Hebrew language, sacred study, secular study, Israel and Zionism, the study and practice of tefilah, tzedakah, tikkun olam, Jewish art, music and dance, Jewish athletics, and Jewish culture. They attract outstanding educators and motivated students. The engage children, parents, and grandparents, clothing families in the fabrics of Judaism. They can and do play a critical role in all of the communities that are fortunate enough to sustain (invest) them. Every year, The Davis Academy, where I work, sends 70 8th graders to Israel for a life-changing experience. Were it not for our Jewish day schools, many young Jews would be denied this formative experience, which, by the way, includes the purchasing of hundreds of pieces of Israeli clothing.

6. DIY. We invest in our local Jewish day schools by: (1) visiting; (2) advocating; (3) supporting; (4) promoting; (5) contributing; (6) enrolling your children and grandchildren; (7) caring; (8) loving; (9) knowing; (10) sharing; (11) friending; (12) following; (13) tweeting; (14) blogging; (15) celebrating; (16) championing; (17) affiliating; (18) doing. Jewish day schools need our money. They deserve our money. But what our Jewish day schools really need is for us (punch line) to take up the mantle and invest.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Why Jewish Day Schools are Unique

    Down here in Atlanta, GA many of us have just finished our first week of the 2011-2012 school year. It's a good time to pause and reflect on what makes Jewish day schools like The Davis Academy unique and exceptional. I recognize that this post is going to read like a love letter (or a brag) but I think it's important to put some of this stuff out there for folks that might not know! This isn't a comprehensive list by a long shot, it's more of a starting line. So feel free to run with it.

     1. Jewish Time. Jewish day schools are the only institutions outside the State of Israel that allow families to live the rhythms of the Jewish calendar. Unlike public schools or non-denominational independent schools which typically do not acknowledge major Jewish holidays, let alone minor Jewish holidays, Jewish day schools, due to our adherence to the Jewish calendar, help families explore the Jewish calendar by carving out sacred time for holidays like Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot.  While this makes Tishrei pedagogically challenging due to "swiss cheese" school weeks, it's important to recognize that Jewish day schools are unique and exceptional because they fully honor the Jewish calendar and empower families to do the same.

     2. Learning Community.  One of the greatest misconceptions about schooling generally and Jewish day school in particular is that 'school is for kids.' Every dynamic Jewish K-12 learning institution understands that, while our primary mission is to educate children, we also educate parents, grandparents, faculty and staff. At The Davis Academy and at many other Jewish day schools, the learning relationship, particularly when it comes to matters of spirituality, Jewish practice, and Torah study, is reciprocal. Students learn from teachers, but teachers also learn from the insights and questions of students. Parents who've made the investment in Jewish day school know that, while they will always have invaluable lessons to impart to their children, there will be times when their children are the ones who do the teaching. This is primarily because of the immersive Jewish environments that day schools represent (including the rigorous exposure to Hebrew and Jewish studies). It's unique and exceptional to be a part of a community where all constituencies are learning from one another and where all constituencies feel empowered to teach. The sense of kavod and hokhmah can be truly overwhelming.

3. Community of Practice. Fact: Jewish day schools "see" their congregants (students) more in a given week than many other organizations see their congregants in a month or even a year. The sheer intensity of Jewish day school means that issues of Jewish practice are constantly being discussed and explored. What does kashrut look like for a Reform Jewish day school with many families that come from a more "observant" background? What does kashrut look like on school trips? How do we practice Judaism on school trips? What siddur do we use for weekly tefilah? Why? What tefilot do we recite on a regular basis? When are they taught? How do we engage non-Jewish faculty or parents in the Jewish soul of our school? What, if any, are the boundaries to this engagement? What definition of Jewishness guides our admissions policy? How often do we daven? For how long? What guidelines do we offer families for bnei mitzvah celebration when there are 70-80 bnei mitzvah in a given year? How do we handle the issue of birthday parties on Shabbat? How does the existence of our school positively impact the overall Jewish and non-Jewish community in our city?
                  At a Jewish day school, these questions and those like them, are being discussed, debated, and put into practice every day. Parents, students, teachers, administrators, community rabbis, and other day school colleagues are all a part of this conversation. It's amazing to be a part of a Jewish day school where the asking and answering of these questions is directly impacting the Jewish future.

4. Tikkun Olam. Many Jewish organizations do amazing work in the realm of tzedakah and social justice. Even so, Jewish day schools are unique and exceptional. At Jewish day schools tzedakah and tikkun olam are integrated into both Jewish and general studies curricula. Changing the world isn't something that is done during specially dedicated times, it's something that is done regularly and consistently. Just as students learn math, science, and Hebrew, so too they learn the importance of making the world a better place. Perhaps most importantly they learn that their practice of tzedakah and tikkun olam is as critical to their overall intellectual and spiritual development as anything else they do. Only Jewish day schools have the ability to achieve this full integration of social action into the school experience.

5. Your thoughts here.

Thank You and Shalom,


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Life Lessons from the Recording Studio

Context: I'm working on an album of original Jewish music. I wrote the tunes and am arranging them (i.e. giving them shape, texture, and form) with an amazingly gifted musician/producer/friend named Will Roberston as well as a cast of unbelievably talented characters including Jamie Kudlats, Guy Strauss, Bob Michek, and Kendrick Phillips. It's my first time in the recording studio in any meaningful way and I'm finding the process to be very enlightening. As is often the case, a particular venue or set of experiences ends up being a microcosm of "life in general." That's proving to be true of the recording studio. So here are a few life lessons I attribute to the recording studio... This list is totally incomplete and not in any particular order, but here goes. I'm writing this post for two reasons: 1) to chronicle my own experiences and 2) with the hopes that it will resonate with others, even if they haven't ever recorded an album of original Jewish music!

1. The power of collaboration. I wrote a bunch of tunes. Good for me. Pat on the back. But the truth is that the music could never realize its full potential (if such a thing is ever possible) without the partnership and involvement of others. My role as "songwriter" isn't to cram a fully realized musical vision down peoples' throats, but rather to elicit the creativity, generosity, talents, and energies of others. My role is to facilitate and celebrate collaboration. And though the process is still unfolding, I can say with absolute certainty that openness to collaboration has radically impacted every level of this recording project, from the songs themselves to the musicians involved. Rather than being simply about recording music, collaboration has made this project about creating music, exploring music, celebrating music, and building relationships and community through music. Collaboration has made this a holy process, which, given the content of the music, is wholly appropriate.

2. Humility. Someone once attributed the following quote to Jewish tradition in a letter I received:

"The adornment of knowledge is wisdom, the adornment of wisdom is humility." 

     If ever there were words to live by! Far from being a kind of self-abasement, true humility is the recognition that, vast though our individual gifts may be, what's ours alone is not enough. Humility is what allows us to seek out people who have greater experience than we do. It's what allows us to apprentice ourselves, to learn from others, to be grateful, and to be open-minded. Humility is the capacity to learn and the ability to celebrate (rather than fear or attempt to hide) all that you don't yet know. It also means recognizing that there are some things you may never be able to do at the level you'd like (though it doesn't mean abandoning the pursuit!). For example, humility means recognizing that a song may sound better with another lead vocalist even though it's "your" song, or that, actually, there's someone out there who can play a better guitar part. Humility is what transforms a potential inadequacy into a strength. Not only is humility an "adornment" of wisdom, but it is also a prerequisite.

3. Ego is a double-edged sword. It would be hard to write songs without an ego. It would be hard to have the nerve to believe that the songs I write with a guitar in my home when no one else is around have any value beyond being a nice hobby... without an ego. It would be hard to set aside time from my amazing family (and my 3 month old daughter in particular) to go into a recording studio to produce these songs without an ego. You get the point. And yet, as we all know, ego is truly a double-edged sword. Ego is responsible for all sorts of mishaps, musical and otherwise. Ego can be a stumbling block, it can make you blind, it can make you fearful, and it can lead you astray. Rather than ennobling you and filling your life with a sense of purpose, it can cuckold and trap you. If the songs I've written have any life whatsoever, it will be because the collaborative process has keep the question of ego in the fore. If my ego were unchecked then the songs themselves would have no room to grow, mature, and evolve. Being as conscious as possible of ego is the first step in making sure that ego works for you and not against you.

4. Music is metaphysical. "Metaphysical" is a big word and I'm not sure I fully understand it (but here goes...). For me music is metaphysical because it starts with the physical-- bodies, musical instruments, voices, guitars, etc... but quickly moves beyond the purely physical. The minute you hit record and start editing, music becomes metaphysical. Yesterday Will Roberston did an awesome thing: he wrote an entire choral arrangement and recorded it completely himself. Hearing Will's voice singing 10 different parts simultaneously helped me to understand that music is indeed metaphysical. The fact that you can detach your voice from your vocal chords and sing along with yourself x10 through the act of recording means that music is metaphysical. Also, the fact that Will can write a 10 part chorale arrangement wherein all the different parts blend and complement one another creating an absolutely magnificent and glorious soundscape-- this wouldn't be possible if there weren't laws of harmony and melody that came, if not from God, then certainly from some realm other than the purely physical. I really believe this, and feel sad for anyone that hasn't ever sensed something metaphysical (musical or otherwise). I guess that's what metaphysical means-- something is metaphysical when it attests to the fact that there's a bigger picture to the world than physical, material stuff of our existence. Music is metaphysical, so is love, community, laughter, the connection between generations, and a bunch of other stuff. Seek and ye shall find I suppose!

Well, that's all for now. I've already exceeded my self-imposed word limit. It is great writing for an "imagined audience." It provides a strangely metaphysical motivation to articulate some of these random thoughts.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Proust and Talmud

"How different they were! And neither told a lie. This was a marvel, that two souls, two such separated tonalities, so to speak, could between them describe the true map of life."

- Cynthia Ozick, The Cannibal Galaxy

     I'm reading two books right now. One's a mystery/thriller called Christine Falls by Benjamin Black. The other is The Cannibal Galaxy by Cynthia Ozick. Sometimes I'm in the mood for Black, sometimes Ozick. Sometimes I'm in no mood for reading at all! 

     Every so often, when reading multiple books at the same time, an amazing thing happens. The two authors enter into a kind of dialogue with one another. Black meets Ozick for a cup of coffee. Of course this imagined cup of coffee doesn't take place in a local coffee shop, but rather in my mind: the mind of the reader. I'm fairly certain that Black doesn't actually know Ozick. More than likely I'm the first person in human history to be reading these two books simultaneously. The juxtaposition is even more unlikely because it's totally random and unplanned. It's no great feat, but it is interesting: different authors, different genres, different decades...  And yet, somehow, Black and Ozick are in dialogue with one another because of me. 

     Lately I've been pondering the concept of "integration." In reading The Cannibal Galaxy, I stumbled upon an insight that resonates with me: if you put two thoughtful individuals in a room, each will have something to say to the other. Meaningful and transformative dialogue can occur without anyone compromising their own unique point of view or surrendering their subjective "truth." That's the realization that Joseph Brill, the protagonist of Ozick's book, uncovers. 

     Brill is a young man hiding from the Nazis in the basement of a Parisian convent. Surrounded by Christian and secular books, he passes his time by reading. For Brill, reading fills the void left by the deportation of his entire family. Clearly traumatized and alone, Brill eventually musters up the courage to turn to the one Jewish book that, by happenstance, he has brought with him: the Talmud, tractate Ta'anit. He opens to a random page, reads a random rabbinic tale, and then sets the Talmud down. For no apparent reason he then picks up a random book, written by Marcel Proust, opens to a random page, and reads a random section. As he reflects on his reading he remarks to himself: "How different they were! And neither told a lie. This was a marvel, that two souls, two such separated tonalities, so to speak, could between them describe the true map of life." 

     Integration is a process. It's the process of creating a meaningful dialogue between two different forms of knowledge. The process of integration can take place internally or in a social context. Integration can be the result of careful planning and deliberate curricular decisions, or it can emerge from the normal juxtapositions and tensions that exist from living in a complex and interconnected world as symbolized by Black and Ozick/ Talmud and Proust.

     In the case of Joseph Brill, the integration of Talmud and Proust, was an integration that resulted in synthesis. For Brill, Talmud and Proust, though speaking in different "tonalities" played complimentary roles in helping Brill to further define the "true map of life." During a period of profound personal trauma, the awareness of an integrative possibility transforms Brill's mental and emotional reality. 

   But integration needn't always be smooth. The dialogue between different ideas can affirm difference and incompatibility as well as commonality and reconciliation. Black and Ozick might be a marriage made in heaven or oil and water. The process of integration doesn't dictate a certain outcome. Instead, habituation to the process of integration creates a cognitive and spiritual space that allows for the possibility of meaningful connections and juxtapositions. 

    As I've indicated elsewhere, integration is a paradigmatic human experience. It's a process that promotes spiritual and emotional health as well as intellectual creativity. The more accustomed we are to integrating different ideas, experiences, and other forms of "input," the more likely we are to figure out how the pieces of our or world fit together to form a "true map of life." 

    As educators we can model the process of integration by habituating ourselves to creating coffee dates where "separated tonalities" can engage with one another through the process of integration. Whether the outcome is compatibility or difference we can be transparent about our integrating by sharing with our students and colleagues. If students see us, not as transmitters of content (sage on the stage) but as more mature learners (guide on the side), then they will be inclined to emulate and eventually internalize the processes of integration. If we want our students to be critical thinkers, imagineers, creators, and connection makers, then we need to show them how. 


Thursday, July 7, 2011

8.2 Unsubstantiated Claims (and three questions) about the Meaning and Scope of "Integration" in Jewish and Non-denominational Educational Settings

Welcome! If you've made it past the unfortunate title of this post, then there's something wrong with you: you care. Caring is SO 1990!! Caring means responding, it means engaging in dialogue. It means lovingly denying the premise of the argument. It means sharing your thoughts with me or someone you like more.

Which brings me to the premise (AKA unsubstantiated claim #1):

(1) "Integration" is NOT about making cross curricular references between otherwise discrete and alienated academic disciplines. If that's the essence/ big idea of integration then "lame" on us!

(2) Integration is a noun and not a verb. It's not content specific. It's actually a "process" (really a series of processes).

(3) Integration is a series of processes that reflects a deep and natural human yearning: to be whole. The precondition for integration-- the thing that makes integration a necessary process-- is the fact that our world is fragmented and broken. The fact that teachers who share walls don't share goals is but one dim reflection of the shattered world which we are blessed to inhabit. Sadly it's not our biggest problem.

(4) God has many names: Truth, Good, Beauty, Love, Endlessness, Dwelling... Another name for God is "One." God is Indivisible Unity. God is Perfect and Seamless Integration. God is Process.

(5) The Divine image that resides within every human being remembers the experience of Oneness that we once self-consciously enjoyed (and still CAN enjoy) but more often than not fail to affirm. Healthy individuals integrate all the time and even have moments of joyful affirmation. Spiritually unhealthy individuals need to be guided back to an understanding of how to integrate. Healthy and unhealthy aren't meant to be judgments. I'm sorry that they sound like judgments and would love better vocab.

(6) Children know how to integrate IN SPITE of adults. Maybe it's because they're closer to the initial experience of Oneness. Maybe it's because they're children (but that would be a "tot"-ology). If we think that children are unable to integrate then we need to evaluate the conditions that we've imposed upon them that undermine this natural human process. I'm arguing that these conditions are generally unconscious, deeply embedded, and invariably lamentable and arbitrary.

(7) Two critical areas where the process of integration radically transforms social and educational experience (and therefore makes the world more integrated, whole, and healthy):

             Home/School-- There is nothing more powerful than the integration of these two institutions. Nothing should be easier. Happens all the time right? Go figure.

             Learning/Living-- The places where we learn and the places where we live (i.e. act, interact, impact) need to integrate. The school bell should never actually ring. Learning should be learning, learning should be living, living should be learning, living should be living, and this sentence should stop.

(8) Integration undermines the rigidity of roles and strips away the illusions that perpetuate the compartmentalization, departmentalization, Procrustian Bed-itization, Not In My Back Yard-itization, of the human experience. Teachers are students, students are teachers. We're all in this together. Kumbaya.

Three Questions:

If you've made it this far then let's ask:

(1) What identity markers am I so tied to that I can't experience the transcendent/grounded fullness of being a radically integrating, processing, striving, embracing creature of God?

(2) Why aren't more hugs initiated and received on any given day?

(3) Why do I say hello to some people I pass on the street and not others?




Tuesday, July 5, 2011

4 Things Every Jewish Educator Can and Should Do

I've been reading a lot of educational philosophy: Dewey, Vygotsky, Bruner, and Noddings, to name a few (and how is that for name dropping!).

I've also been reading a lot of Jewish educational philosophy: Twersky, Rosenak, Fox, Meyer... (now you're really salivating!).

There's a spectrum of responses that people have when they find themselves doing this kind of reading for, say, a class in Jewish educational philosophy. At one end of the spectrum is fear, anxiety, boredom, and even anger. At the other end of the spectrum is the highlighter toting, read-two-lines and have to look something up, I love this stuff response. That's me. I love this stuff.

But rather than trying to infect you with my love of educational philosophy, I find myself wanting to jot down some notes on the age old topic: The Joy of Learning. So here's an utterly incomplete, philosophically irrelevant, mundane list of things Jewish educators can do that make kids love being Jewish and learning about Judaism. I'd love for folks to post comments and add ideas to the list.

1. Give them challah and grape juice. I've never met a gluten-tolerant Jew that didn't love challah and grape juice. When we break out the challah and juice at The Davis Academy, as we do each Friday, the energy is amazing. There's smiling and sharing, singing and blessing. Invariably kids are asking for more.
     Now one might argue that sharing challah and juice isn't education. Wrong! Partaking in this simple ritual teaches countless lessons in a very profound way: community, fellowship, connection to Jewish history and tradition, the sweetness of Shabbat and others. Reciting blessings (in Hebrew, no less) is probably the most beautiful expression of theology there is. I firmly believe that if all we did at The Davis Academy was share challah and juice (and light candles) every Friday, we'd still be strengthening the Jewish future.

2. Ask big questions and have deep conversations. It's amazing what happens when you put a question box in a 2nd grade classroom. Explain to the kids that they can ask any question in the universe (as long as it's appropriate) and within a week even the wisest rabbi or educator will be stumped. Kids love to ask big questions and have deep conversations. The amazing thing is they do it without caffeine or existential angst. If all kids remember from their time at Jewish school is that they got to ask outrageous questions and have deep conversations with one another and an educator who actually took them seriously, dayeinu. 

3. Tell stories. Stories are the bread and butter of Jewish tradition. While Halakhah (Jewish Law) has undoubtedly played a critical role in preserving Jewish identity through the ages, I'd argue that stories are even more important. Stories transmit the values and teachings we hold dearest. They introduce us to the heroes (and villains) that came before us. They remind us that there's magic in the mundane. They also remind us that we too have stories-- family stories, personal stories, fictional stories-- that only we can tell. Also, kids of all ages (and adults) love a good story. Throw in a floor rug, some bean bag chairs, and a few props, and kids will literally sit at your feet and give you their undivided attention.

4. Make them read Dewey's Democracy and Education, 1916 (and write a massive book report). During the summer.

5. Connect Judaism to life. Kids are inundated with information. News, sitcoms, music, movies, social media. It's constant. Kids are amazed when they learn that Judaism has something to say about the National Debt or when they realize that Jewish values are being taught through The Simpsons. They're intrigued when they discover biblical references in popular songs. We all know this. We also know that Judaism is a vast and dynamic body of wisdom that relates to virtually everything. When we make these connections eventually our students start to make them for themselves. Once this happens our students are engaging Jewishly no matter where they are or what they're doing.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

This People Israel: Shavuot 2011/5771

"The dynamic is much more characteristic of this people than the static, the flexible conception more than the exact organization, the vision more than the system." 

- Leo Baeck, This People Israel: The Meaning of Jewish Existence

   On Erev Shavuot I found myself reading from Leo Baeck's profoundly moving, This People Israel. Written before and during the Shoah (in some cases on scraps of paper and from within Theresienstadt), This People Israel is a book that warrants close study. Let's briefly unpack the above quotation...

   Dynamic/Static: Judaism is a living tradition. Its authority derives from the fact of its ongoing relevance in the modern world. As times change, Judaism changes. Though much of Jewish tradition is "static", Judaism's interaction with our changing world is meant to be dynamic. While Judaism is undeniably a "tradition" and therefore capable of manifesting in very conservative ways, the excitement and potential of Judaism emerge only in the context of dynamism.

   Flexible Concept/ Exact Organization: Judaism isn't a bureaucracy. It isn't a rigid, impersonal, series of considerations. It isn't the "Borg." Judaism is flexible, or at least it's supposed to be. Judaism should be tolerant of humanness, of mistakes, of failures, of weaknesses of will, of lapses. It should also be tolerant of people who don't always make the best choices and those who deviate from the letter of the law. Being flexible is different from being weak, shallow, or invertebrate. Flexibility means the recognition that there's a gap between perfection and human aspiration, with the later being, in many ways, more beautiful. Judaism is flexible and resilient, rather than rigid and brittle. Flexibility and resilience are important features of Judaism both throughout history and today. 

   Vision/System: As someone who is fundamentally skeptical of all "isms" including Juda"ism" I love the idea that Judaism is a "vision" and not a "system." Sure, Judaism attempts to describe and systematize the world, but "vision" is the guiding principle rather than "system." When I think of "system" I think of a self-contained, self-organized, self-aware structure. Systems crave stability and strive to be comprehensive and all-encompassing. Things that threaten a system or undermine its integrity are often marginalized or even excluded from the system, as they threaten the status quo and established order. "Vision" is able to absorb and incorporate difference and divergent thinking. Vision is enriched by the marketplace of ideas and through the critiques and challenges of iconoclasts and varied perspectives. Rather than attempting to harmonize and incorporate, vision engages ideas, gleans from them, and transforms itself. I am interested in the Judaism of vision. The prophets didn't experience "systems" they experienced and prophesied "visions." 

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Spiritual Gardening

             Gardening has the potential to be an incredible spiritual discipline. It's all a matter of frame of mind.

             I should say that as I write my forearms and ankles are covered in anti-itch cream as I've just finished weeding (for the first time in my life) and I got all scratched up. Though I've been planting for a couple of years now I'm still very much a novice. Being a novice isn't a bad thing at all. The fact that gardening is an art that requires mastery and that many of us never get beyond the novice phase is a surefire sign that gardening is a spiritual discipline.

             Let's get practical. What is spiritual gardening?

             1. Different for every person. While all of us (or the vast majority of us) respond to nature in fairly predictable ways (awe, inspiration, fear, gratitude) we all connect in unique ways as well. For some it's the mountains, others the beach, some love skiing, others love sleeping under the stars. When it comes to enjoying nature's bounty we all have different tastes and palates. Foods awaken deeply personal associations. Spiritual gardening begins with an awareness that gardening is a way of connecting to and participating in nature. Through gardening we come home to the reminder that we too are created beings needing sun, water, love, and attention.

            2. Creation and creator. Gardening is a way of partnering with God in the work of creation. God provides the sun, water, soil, and seed. We tend, care, and protect.

            3. Constant energy. Gardens change day to day. There's great joy in discovering that cherry tomatoes have sprung up overnight or that the first strawberry is ripe for the picking. Visiting a garden every day we notice the subtle differences. The new shoot or blossom or pest-devoured leaf catch our eye. I know my garden more intimately than anyone else. I witness the sun and water stimulating the foliage.

              Becoming accustomed to spiritual gardening is different for every person. Here are a few techniques for infusing your gardening with spiritual awareness:

               1. While gardening recite the words of hamotzi as a mantra. Hamotzi is the Jewish prayer recited before eating a meal. It reminds us that God is the Source of all sustenance. By reciting hamotzi as a mantra we invoke the notion of divine blessing and sustenance. We remain mindful of the miracle of divine sustenance.

               2. Engage all senses. Working the earth is a multi-sensory endeavor. Whether we focus on all senses at once or one sense at a time, engaging our senses gives us a feeling of wholeness and connectedness.

               3. Garden intentionally. Know your garden. Aspire to understand what kinds of plants grow best in what spots. Be sure to honor plants by giving them the space they need to grow. Think about why you are growing food and what you plan to do with your harvest. Try to make your garden beautiful as well as functional. Care for your soil and try to make it rich. Embrace your role as steward and cultivator and think about how the lessons of gardening apply to your life beyond the garden.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Education and Inspiration

            This morning I returned to The Davis Academy after Passover break to find my fellow administrative colleagues smiling and chatting animatedly. What had I missed? A kindergartener, Jacob, had come to school with a book that he'd written (and illustrated) on the topic of "Passover" and told his teacher that he wanted to share his literary creativity with the Head of School. Eager to please, his teacher escorted him to the Head of School's office so he could proudly share his book. In showcasing his work he was sure to point out a few interesting features:

       1. He was not only the author but the illustrator too.

       2. The book was dedicated-- to his teacher. 
       3. On the back of the book (14 pages in length he pointed out) it said "PJ Library" because Jacob intends to submit his manuscript for publication to the PJ Library (a Jewish publishing house). 

          Education is about inspiration. It's about kids being challenged to dream, imagine, and create. It's about creating the desire and the ability to envision new things and bring them into being. It's about empowering Jacob to grab some markers and wide-lined paper and write a book. Then it's about celebrating, publicizing the daily miracles, and believing that the future will be brighter than the present because of our efforts and the children we teach. 

         At least that's what education is about at The Davis Academy. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

Jewish Music

This week was a major first for me. I've spent most of chol ha'moed Passover at Gallup Studios in Tucker, GA. I've been there laying the foundation for an album of original Jewish music. Mostly for my own benefit I want to grab some of the narrative surrounding this project. As with anything in life, the more reflective we're able to be, the greater depth of meaning and awareness we can achieve.
I've been playing music for a long time. Looking back, music has always been a form of communication. I find playing guitar and mandolin (my primary instruments these days) to be incredibly relaxing and comforting, and also a great challenge. Whenever there's a guitar close by I know I'm at home. If I end up strumming for more than 1/2 it usually ends up being a good day. When I play music I often feel a sense of gratitude and connectedness.
The idea of writing a song is a strange one. It's like writing poetry and music. For me there's not a formula. Sometimes the lyrics come before the chords, sometimes the chords come years before the lyrics. Sometimes the lyrics are original, sometimes they're lifted right from Jewish texts. Sometimes things are literal and sometimes abstract and free-associated.
One long held notion I have about music is that it teaches us about the transience and fluidity of life. A chord is strummed, it lingers and fades. True music enters the world, impacts it, and dissipates. While we'd like to hold onto a beautiful sound, there's something powerful in listening to it fade.
For many years I struggled with the idea of "songwriting" because of my belief that music comes and goes. There was so much joy to be found in strumming and noodling that writing a song seemed inauthentic. However in recent years I've found myself doing a lot of "songwriting" and deriving deep meaning and satisfaction from the process (if you can call it that).
Songwriting in a Jewish context is an interesting enterprise. For starters I've often said that inspiration is easy to come by because the Eternal/Holy One/Source/Good/Truth/God is an ever present muse. I don't need heartbreak, alienation, or melancholy to feel like I have something to say. Also, I stand firmly planted in a diverse community of Jewish musicians, past and present. From King David to Mattisyahu to Peter Yarrow and beyond, Jews have interpreted and created Jewish culture through music. For me (and for others) music is Midrash-- an inquiring, seeking, interpreting, engaging, loving interaction with Jewish thought, life and the world.
The universe is overflowing with inspiration. There's no place that's more inspiring than The Davis Academy. I can trace the moment when I started writing songs to the early months of my joining The Davis Academy community. The children, their humor, intellect, energy, and wisdom, are incredibly inspiring. It's also inspiring to be a part of an educational institution-- a place where hearts and minds are open to learning. At Davis it's not just the students, but the teachers, administrators, and faculty as well. There are days when I'll come home from a long day and come up with 3-4 song ideas.
The studio is a humbling place. As with anything the best way to improve yourself is to surround yourself with experts. That's precisely what I've done. The musicians that are joining me on this musical journey are incredibly gifted and incredibly "gifting." Meaning they are generous, creative, energetic, and dedicated to bringing the songs to life. Yesterday I spent an entire day in the studio without picking up a musical instrument. We were recording bass and drums and I was there to witness, affirm, celebrate, critique, and enjoy. I see my role as checking my ego, believing in the value of the music, carrying the vision (and making sure it is shared), and helping to create the context where the gifts of others can be fully realized. My goal is for this Album to be a gift to The Davis Academy, the Jewish People, and anyone who loves music. We'll see how the process unfolds!