Posts Tagged ‘Pirkei Avot’

Asking and Telling

February 28, 2010

One might be tempted to consider Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School, a film about a lesbian teenager trying to start a GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) at her pluralistic Jewish day school and all that that entailed for her, her family, her classmates and her teachers, dated or passé given what has transpired since it was made in the earlier part of the past decade. But that would be a mistake, because even though the film Trembling Before God about gay Orthodox Jews made a splash almost ten years ago, the Conservative movement has begun accepting openly gay and lesbian individuals to its rabbinical school, Israel’s military boasts an “ask and tell” policy, and matters involving LGBT inclusion have risen higher on the Jewish communal agenda, there has yet to be an appreciable trickle down effect into Jewish education.

Unlike most public schools, many Jewish day schools have yet to establish GSA’s. Few,even ones that tout their inclusive, pluralistic natures or are located in areas with liberal constituencies, have not yet  figured out how to best address issues of sexual identity and orientation. I believe this avoidance is at its core due more to a reluctance than a mere lack of time. I am embarrassed to say that somehow, even as a Jewish educator who has worked in and with Jewish day school high schools in recent years, I never learned of Hineini, nor did I ever engage in any serious effort to discuss the topic with which it deals with my colleagues – let alone my students.

Ironically, now that I am not working directly with students and educators, I stumbled across this important film and resource. I know that it is easier to be on the outside looking in, to have stepped out of the trenches of the daily teaching grind. But it is this view from the balcony rather than from down on the dance floor (that’s a reference to the Ron Heifetz‘s theories of adaptive leadership) that enables me to see that the time in which all Jewish schools will have to confront what it means to have non-heterosexual students within their communities is, if not already here, then coming extremely soon.

It will no longer be enough to look the other way and say nothing. A policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” doesn’t work well in the military, and it certainly isn’t fit in a setting which is designed to nurture the next generation and help them grow into confident, proud and committed Jews. It would be wrong to minimize the challenge that LGBT inclusion presents to traditional Jewish schools and curriculums, but it would be even more so to minimize the risk to the continuity of the Jewish people if we were to act in a way which would potentially turn away a tenth of our members. The world is different now. The younger generation will either vote with their feet or dig in and demand change. My hope is for the latter, but I can’t say my money is on it.

No longer should a young Jew (or any Jew) recite the following religious texts and think that by virtue of their sexual orientation, they are neither the “other people,” the “any person,” nor the “creation” that deserves to be fully accepted by their religious and cultural community and live with dignity within it:

Rabbi Eliezer says: Let other people’s dignity be as precious to you as your own.(Pirkei Avot 2:15)

Ben Azzai taught: Do not disdain any person; do not underrate the importance of anything – for there is no person who does not have his hour and there is no thing without its place in the sun.(Pirkei Avot 4:3)

Blessed are You, Eternal God, who makes Your creations different. (Traditional liturgy)

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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Bode Miller Returns

February 20, 2010

It appears that Rabbi Hillel, the great Talmudic sage known for his patience and compassion who lived two millennia ago , has come back to pay skier Bode Miller a visit. What wisdom did he impart to the extremely talented athlete, who blew his chances to win medals at the Turin Olympics in 2006 by partying into the wee hours before his races? My money is on Hillel’s injunction from Pirkei Avot (2:4): Al tifrosh min hatzibur, do not separate yourself from the community. The community, in this case, being the US Olympic ski team.

Bode Miller in yesterday's Super-G race. Photo by Charlie Krupa.

Now four years older and wiser, Miller at age 32 has won a bronze in the Downhill and a silver in the Super-G, making him the most decorated American Olympic skier in history and giving the US team the most Alpine medals in a single Olympics. Miller’s focus in Vancouver extends beyond the few minutes he skillfully careens down the mountain during his races to his overall attitude during these Games. “After being part of the US team in Turin in name only, Miller has become head cheerleader for the Americans,” writes Elliott Almond in today’s San Jose Mercury News. After briefly retiring from the sport last year, he returned to help elevate US skiing. Teammate Andrew Weibrecht was quoted as saying that he has benefited from Miller’s presence in Vancouver and his “making sure our team is the best that it can be.” Miller himself, in explaining why it was important for him to be part of these Games, said, “Our team is feeding off each other, and that’s one of the things I wanted to bring back.”

The Bode Miller many remember from Turin

One would certainly never want to encourage young sports fans to behave in the reckless, irresponsible and selfish way that Miller did four years ago, but one would be remiss in not holding him up as an example of successful teshuvah. I remember being extremely put off by a sermon I heard given by a rabbi exactly four years ago. In it, he was pointing to Bode Miller as a case of irredeemable extreme narcissism and destructive self-absorption, as someone damaging and bring dishonor to his country. I recall feelings of anger rising in me as I listened to the rabbi and considered shouting out at him, asking how he could publicly bash Miller and presume to know what was really motivating his behavior. Young people (and older ones too), often act irrationally or in unexpected ways when dealing with the kind of pressure and expectations that Miller was facing at the time. Give the poor guy a break, I thought to myself. Had the rabbi forgotten about our tradition’s belief in the ability to repent, to admit faults and return to the better person we can be?

As it turns out, time and distance have done their thing. The Bode Miller who in Turin bunked in his own trailer has chosen this time to stay in the athletes’ dorms and share a bathroom with his teammate Weibrecht, eight years his junior. His decision to come back to the community, to care about the success of others, has enabled him to make his own spectacular comeback.

Rabbi Hillel, though not a skier but still someone who knew what it is like to be out in the cold and snow*, is surely smiling.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

Hillel on the roof of the study hall

* While perfecting his Torah scholarship in Jerusalem, he [Hillel] was forced to maintain his family and himself on whatever he could earn from manual labor, half of which went to the porter at the house of study. Once on a Friday, at the height of winter, Hillel lacked the fee and was unable to gain admission [to the study hall]; he therefore crawled onto the roof so as to hear the lesson through a skylight. At daybreak, Shemayah and Avtalyon [the Rabbis of the academy] caught sight of his figure obstructing the light and had him brought down, nearly frozen to death under a blanket of snow. Although it was a Sabbath, they had a fire lit to revive him, declaring that he was worthy of the Sabbath’s being profaned for his sake (Yoma 35b). (Encyclopedia of Judaism)

Update: Bode Miller won his first Olympic gold medal, finishing first in the Super-Combined race on February 21.

Don’t Look At The Jugs

January 22, 2010

What a relief to read yesterday in the Wall Street Journal that there now seems to be no single leading fashion trend and “everything is in style.” Despite the fact that following fashion is not high up on my to-do list, I still take comfort in knowing that – at least for one season – it’s trendy to be my usually untrendy self. I feel so fashion forward to discover that “people now dress the way they see themselves, choosing looks that flatter their bodies and fit their lifestyles,” basically adopting my long-held approach to clothes. The article further explains this idea by saying that, “Most of us dress with our social groups or professions, rather than fashion trends, using clothes to flash messages about who we are.” So it would seem that it is completely fine that my overall look was formed and ossified circa 1998, making a clear statement of who I am: A super -busy working mom of three boys who has neither time nor budget for annual fall and spring shopping sprees.

The sort of jug the Rabbis of the Mishna would have been referring to

Fashion, shmashion. After all, doesn’t it matter more what is inside us than what we wear on our outside?  The Mishna tells us (Avot 4:27), “Al tistakel bakankan, elah b’mah sheyesh bo” (Don’t look at the  jug, but rather at what is inside it), just as the English maxim reminds us to not judge a book by its cover. Well, the answer is yes…and no.

As the piece in the Wall Street Journal pointed out, what we choose to wear makes a statement about who we want people to think we are – which in turn says a lot about who we really are. Let’s just admit that we all see the jugs and make inferences about their contents (Yes, there is a double entendre here – but I am not going there since this is not a post about breast augmentation.) And we all know that the activity of judging oneself and others based on appearance begins at the youngest of ages.

I suppose that it worked out well for me, having not inherited my family’s X-chromosomal genes for fashion and shopping, to be the mother only of boys. I have been mercifully spared from having to make regular accessory buying trips to Claire’s, buying pouffy princess costumes, and finding shoe racks to hold a zillion pairs of rhinestone-studded sparkly shoes. But, as we all know, appearances matter also to boys – even to those who don’t admit it. You don’t have to be Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin or Mr. Blackwell to figure out why my highly social and politically-minded middle son carefully cultivates his signature look featuring his mane of long, thick, curly hair (think Jim Morrison) and trendy skater-surfer togs. Similarly, it is no surprise that our cerebral and frugal oldest son prefers bargain-priced jeans from big box stores and logo-adorned freebie t-shirts handed out at tech conventions. As far as our youngest son is concerned, it’s too early to tell. He’s still working his way through endless hand-me-downs.

The standard uniform colors - navy, white, khaki and light blue

As much as I appreciate the role fashion plays in personal expression, including how it helps my sons try on different personas as they grow up, I often think back to the years when the two older ones wore uniforms to school (it’s hard not to think of this, given that so many of the aforementioned hand-me-downs are navy pants and light blue and white oxford shirts). Having never worn a uniform myself, I was at first unhappy about it and dubious that the uniforms were anything but an attempt by this particular Jewish day school to position itself as a fancy Manhattan prep school. But I soon came to appreciate not only the time saved in the weekday morning rush from the boys’ not having to decide what outfit to wear, but also the mindset it put them into as they started their day.

The uniforms did more than just level the economic playing field at the school. They erased the walls of the kankan, the jug, making what was inside more readily visible. It really did seem when you were in the classroom, that you could see the children better, the uniform attire ironically making the uniqueness of each boy or girl more apparent. Concurrently, the sameness of the children’s dress made the setting come more into focus. With the attention no longer on the students’ appearance, the colors of the vibrant learning environment “popped” like a painting set against the right background.

With our boys’ having attended schools with uniform codes and without, I can appreciate the benefits of both approaches. I still have not settled on a definitive preference. However, one thing I am sure of is that no matter what is showing on the runways of Paris, New York and Milan, the wisdom of the Sages never goes out of style. Fashion is fun, but appreciating others for what lies beneath their skin is serious business to be pursued by us all.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.