Open Your Hand: One Teacher’s Journey Between Classroom and World
This essay is the introduction to Open Your Hand: Teaching as a Jew, Teaching as an American (Rutgers UP, 2018), a memoir.
December, 2016. Jerusalem. The sun shines high in the sky and the air is cool, but on my way home from the neighborhood café, I pause to take off my wool scarf because it is already getting warm. This is winter. Though we have been in Israel two and a half years now, I still find it entertaining that as soon as the Jewish autumnal holidays end, children begin to go to school in boots and earmuffs instead of the sandals and T-shirts they wore the week before. For those of us who know weather — my husband, my three children, and myself — this seems sweet and mildly crazy. I know what we are looking at in this sudden shift of wardrobe is biblical, liturgical weather, not meteorological. After the holidays, we begin immediately to pray for the blessing of rain: hence, the children’s boots.
I know about the boots because in the mornings, about 7:30, I am in the habit of watching the city walk to school. Very young children tend to be escorted by older siblings, an occasional parent accompanying or watching from a distance. Older kids, sixth-graders, also serve as cross-guards, wearing reflective vests and yelling, “Ptach, sgor,” “open, close,” to the drivers who obey these young citizens reflexively. Children here sport big and heavy backpacks: no lockers in the elementary schools. They wear colorful T-shirts with the various school insignias. By now, I know where to go to get these ironed on.
In my south Jerusalem neighborhood, religious boys wear shorts or jeans or sweatpants with crocheted kippot on their heads, girls wear skirts and always leggings, cropped in the summer, long in the winter, so they can hang upside down on the monkey bars or turn cartwheels during recess. From my balcony, I can see my nine-year old son Shai and his friend stopping at the corner market to buy a fresh roll and chocolate milk, “shoko v’lachmania.” This is a morning treat he always asks for and I sometimes allow him.
School is our Israeli education in the most comprehensive sense: as adults in my case and my husband Ori’s; as children, in the cases of Priya (12), Shai (9), and Tzipora (7). Learning what to pack for the mid-morning meal, deciphering new report card formulations, following the culturally-incomprehensible conversations on the parents’ Whatsapp group: these are our acclimation.
They are also the undeniable measure of how different we are. Many things simply do not make sense to me — that a third of the children don’t show up on Fridays, for instance, or that there are three different teachers, notebooks, and class sessions for “Reading Comprehension,” “Literature,” and “Hebrew” — and my children both fight those things and fight me for not understanding. They say, “it’s crazy.” But when I say it’s crazy, they say, “That’s how it is here, Ima,” (Mom). The implication being that if I understand how school works, I might begin to understand an entire society.
And they are not wrong. I am coming to know Israel through its educational institutions, just as I learned America as a student and then a teacher. Granted, one learns only sub-cultures, but now from the vantage point of a different country, I see that sub-cultures, too, are rich and telling, if partial, indicators of host societies.
While this story will end in Jerusalem, it is mainly an account of teaching as a Jew and an American, a perspective sharpened now by contrast. Born in Israel in 1970 to two American parents, I grew up in the United States from the age of two and was educated in its private Jewish schools and then its research universities. Over time, I became a teacher, a scholar, a writer, a wife, and a mother in the U.S. From my first, formative job as a kindergarten-first grade teacher in a tiny, innovative Jewish day school in New York City, to my decade and a half teaching in major Midwestern research universities, to my volunteer hours in a failing urban public school, what I know about education I learned on American soil. It is also fair to say that much of what I know about America, I learned in and from its schools. American, as well as Jewish, experience shaped the questions of faith and citizenship that arose from my double vocation of teaching and writing. These questions now shape this book that is being written in Israel.
This book — and a swerve in my professional trajectory — was prompted by a crisis fifteen years into my university teaching career, a dramatic moment in which college students I particularly liked prompted me to ask myself whether I was successfully transmitting anything that mattered, as I taught year after year of humanities. In a new course I had fatefully titled, “Truthtelling in American Culture,” I found my students pushing me to reconsider the most basic assumptions I held about my work as a teacher, a vocation I could not separate from my identity as an observant Jew and a passionate American.
Simply put, I had been teaching with the belief that there was no meaningful education — whatever the immediate content — without ethics. That the deepest purpose of teaching and studying, particularly the humanities, was not self-advancement nor personal pleasure, but the transformation of a world in urgent need of intelligent, sustained care. I had believed that my students knew this about me and about our study, and that we were involved in a shared endeavor, even if only within the limited space of our classroom, over a single semester.
Yet my students did not reflect such an understanding back to me. In fact, as I will narrate later on in these pages, at the moment of my crisis, they reflected back something like the opposite. The great majority expressed no need to “give back,” to share, to consider their advantages or the disadvantages of others not represented in our classroom. They left me confronting anew my place as a person of faith in a secular academy, facing fundamental questions about my vocation. Why did I teach? Why did I teach where I taught? Whom I taught? What I taught?
Over time, as I recovered my equilibrium and examined the intensity of my own reactions, I refined the questions. What was the relationship I sought between teaching subject matter and skills, on one hand, and teaching moral values, on the other hand? How might one teach values in a public institution without advocating a particular politics or faith? On the other hand, how would one avoid teaching values? What was my role as a teacher in shaping young citizens in a democratic America? How was I choosing which children and youth in which to invest my time and best energy? If I were free to do so, how might I remake a teaching life — intellectually and practically — to address the pressing historical reality in which I found myself as a Jew and as an American at the turn of the twenty-first century?
These questions ushered me into a new phase in my professional life in which I found myself traveling, in memory and actuality, across the variety of classrooms whose dramas make up the bulk of this narrative. I have always tended to consider myself a teacher before a “professor,” in part because I have been fortunate to teach in a range of settings wider than many humanities professors traditionally encounter. I came to the world of the university after teaching young children in a fledgling Jewish school in New York City whose ambitious intellectual mission was in no way separate from its moral vision. My questions returned me now to memories of those formative experiences at Beit Rabban in the early nineties. I unearthed photographs, one video, and many written records: from detailed accounts of class sessions I had reconstructed on the same day they had transpired to the occasional letters I had written to send home to parents; from examples of student work I had collected to my notebook of lesson plans penciled in the barest of shorthand. I re-read our curriculum from those years and engaged in new conversations with the school’s founder.
Even as I found myself absorbed by the past, my questions demanded new action and new research. Prompted by the class sessions that had disturbed me, I set out both to volunteer my skills and to learn the realities of public education in the poorer districts of my home state, Michigan. I found my way to what turned out to be an appallingly failed public middle school. I arrived there every other week for a few months in the winter and spring of 2012 to teach young teenagers some poetry and encourage them to write.
I traveled from that school back home to Ann Arbor, where my questions accompanied me through the rituals and improvisations of mothering my three young children with my partner, Ori.
And though I continued to teach my courses at Michigan State University, the questions encouraged me to arrange for our family to travel to Israel the following year, on my sabbatical. Fourteen months later, we returned to Israel as immigrants, my husband and I bringing our American democratic ideals to this modern Jewish sovereignty. Now, in the imperfect democracy that is Israel, my questions present a new face, as I find myself teaching in university classrooms paradoxically more diverse and less segregated by race, religion or ethnicity than any I ever encountered in the United States.
Perhaps the distinguishing feature of this book will be my travel among classrooms, as I pursue a unified project that became more distinct to me as I tested it across diverse settings. Simply put, I sought to help students come to see themselves, in moral relation to others, by reading and writing as a community. While this story is idiosyncratic to my own circumstances and commitments, I hope it will be meaningful to all adults who see themselves as learners and teachers — whether in their homes, their classrooms, their work or volunteer places, their houses of worship, or their recreational spaces — and who know that there is more work to do than any one of us can do alone.
(Posted with the permission of Rutgers UP)