LearningJ is hoping to study at Drisha next year, so we arranged to attend some classes there to get a feel for the place. It's a pretty amazing institution; basically, it offers a serious level of Jewish education for Orthodox women, and is well aware of the ramifications of doing so. I was very much hanging on to J's coat-tails, and I am really, really pleased that she gave me the opportunity to experience Jewish study at this sort of level. Wow!
We turned up and were given free run of a really lovely library for a couple of hours to prepare the texts for the class at the end of the morning. And what a library! A real yeshiva atmosphere, full of noise and arguments. Not to mention lots and lots of very cool bookies. Mr J's chevra is a Drisha student, and she was very sweet and welcoming to J and me.
Chevruta with J is such a delight; she's way ahead of me, but she's a close enough friend, and of course tolerant and patient enough, that the imbalance doesn't matter. (It's sort of weird, actually; it's not so long ago that I was teaching her the alef-bet!) But wow, we were so productive together. The lesson was centred round a shortish gemara passage about a technical detail of kashrut, and we also looked at commentators right up to the Mediaeval period. We didn't get through absolutely all the sources in the time allowed, but we got a feel for the sense of the ones we did look at, and had a real intellectual workout besides, and such fun!
The class itself was again a bit too advanced for me (and although it was taught in English, there was such a lot of jargon flying about that it was hard for an outsider to get at the content). But I learnt something, a few points we'd missed in the sources clarified here, a couple of general principles of halacha touched on in passing there. And a lot of fun, generally.
Oh, and I won at Jewish geography; there was an English student at Drisha who knows my sibs and whose sister vaguely knows me vaguely through youth movement connections. Go me.
The whole all-female atmosphere did start me thinking. Of course, I went to an all-girls school, so I'm very used to being in that sort of educational environment. But the Drisha Talmud class was a lot more of a discussion than a typical school class, more a seminar I suppose. There was one student who had what might be identified as a very 'masculine' style, in the negative sense, the sort of thing that some feminists complain about in mixed situations: loud and aggressive, asking a lot of questions which seemed more about showing off how knowledgeable she is than actually looking for information. It's hard to know if the class would have been different if it had been mixed sex (I mean, such a thing would be impossible for at least a section of the Orthodox community, but that's beside the point). But certainly there was real space for participation by women who did not necessarily put themselves forward, who do not have the blatant social confidence I do, and that I think is a positive thing. Personally, I'm not actually sure this kind of thing is gendered; creating an atmosphere in which shy people can take an active part in discussion alongside more extrovert people is simply an art, what ever the respective genders of the shy and extrovert people.
I must say though, it's been a long time since I've used my brain that intensely, and it felt so good!