January 27th, 2008

teapot

This week I have mostly been...

...making myself useful to the Jewish community. Bar Mitzvah teaching continues to go well, and my pupils enjoy challenging me with difficult questions. (How do you as an English Jew feel about the British Mandate in Palestine? Um, you may be mature enough to ask that question, but I don't think I can answer it at a level that would be meaningful to a 12-year-old...) I am quite pleased that I managed to convey the idea that there are conflicting just claims on the land. The kids from an American background tend to be gung-ho pro-Israel and think the Palestinians are evil fanatical terrorists etc etc, whereas the kids from a Swedish background have been brought up with the idea that Israel is an oppressive colonialist power. So I think everybody came away from class with a more nuanced view.

The most unreasonable question came from someone old enough to be my grandmother, though, when I was leading a discussion of last week's Torah portion. I was talking about the idea of shabbat and asking whether we could work out from textual evidence whether the Patriarchs were aware of shabbat, or whether it was a new idea introduced to the children of Israel as they came out of Egypt. And this woman took it into her head to ask me who told God to rest on the seventh day... I was all, look, the traditional idea of God is as the unique originator of everything, by definition there's nobody who tells God what to do. But she wasn't satisfied with that, she seemed philosophically unable to cope with the idea that God could exist if there was no other being that created God. So I tried a little elementary Kabbalah on her, which I don't think she found entirely satisfying (partly because it's a bit hard to explain mysticism off the cuff like that). It ended up with her getting into a tearful row with a younger (but still adult) woman, because the latter was personally upset by the idea of someone asking the question of where does God come from. *sigh*

I organized to have a meeting with the mother of my pupil whose ceremony is scheduled first, in order to plan the practical details. She told me to wait at a certain bus stop a short walk from her house (and incidentally absolutely miles away on the other side of town), and she would come and pick me up. But then she went and forgot that we were supposed to be having this meeting, and turned her mobile phone off. I waited for 40 minutes (and it was a pretty cold night), and then gave up and got back on the bus to return home, at which point the mother called me in a panic. Because I am too nice, and because I didn't want the faff of rearranging the meeting, I turned round again and had the meeting, by this time over an hour later than we originally planned. It was a good meeting. It can be quite awkward to be caught between a parent and an adolescent who have conflicting views about how a bar mitzvah should work, but in this case the boy in question was exceptionally mature about it and negotiation happened and the conclusion satisfied everybody.

There was also the secret Talmud study cabal, where we were talking about house leprosy and why bad things happen to good people (because if your wicked neighbour gets punished with house leprosy then your party wall is still going to have to be torn down even if you are a totally wonderful person). I made what I thought was a really obvious point about the irony of Miriam criticizing Moses for marrying a black woman and being punished by being turned snow white with leprosy, and everybody acted like this was the most amazing chiddush. And I got to give an intelligent answer to a question about why menstrual impurity still counts while other kinds of impurity don't and how it all relates to Torah scrolls. Because knowing hatam_soferet is very useful!

Then I went to a meeting of community educators, one that has been postponed several times since November. They want to do something about the sorry state of bar mitzvah education in the main part of the community, and were trying to get some advice from those who have experience of what does work. It was quite nice in a lot of ways. There were four Orthodox tutors and me, and I think they were expecting me to be flaky, whereas in fact we all had very similar ideas about how good BM education should work, not to mention that I have more experience and currently rather more pupils than any of them. So that was good propaganda for the Progressive group, and good for my Swedish besides. It was hard to stop the discussion from getting derailed into "why the Conservative community isn't working as it should", because of course this is at the root of the problem of why the education offered by this sector of the community isn't working as it should. There was an awkward moment where the only other woman started talking about how it's important to teach girls girl stuff like how to make challah and how to have a Jewish life outside the synagogue context, and she sort of wanted me on her side. But I had to tell her that by her definition I'm a man, I am much more use at teaching Torah than baking challah, and I contribute to the community by leading services and doing education, not by making a beautiful Jewish home.

And next week I have a ton of committee meetings and I seem to have been roped into helping out with day Limmud in the autumn, which is going to mean even more committee meetings. Hey ho.

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Inappropriate

Apparently Sweden is marking Holocaust Remembrance Day. Seen on the way through town this afternoon:
  • a series of large bonfires arranged around a central pavillion with banners proclaiming "Holocaust"
  • a bunch of Christians holding a service in a public square, surrounded by people carrying Israeli flags

    While I appreciate the sentiment, neither bonfires nor Israeli flags strike me as a particularly tasteful way to remember the Holocaust...
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