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Nonbinary Hebrew

 

I’ve been told, for years, that things are never all black or all white, but shades of gray in between. And I believe that. But I didn’t consider that these shades of grey could be applied to gender as well. The subject came up recently at my synagogue, when the clergy added their preferred pronouns onto their email signatures. None of the clergy members identify as nonbinary, but there are young people in the congregation who do, and this addition was meant as a sign of respect for them.

This is all new to me, and I’m still not sure I understand why someone would identify as nonbinary, rather than seeing themselves as a woman with some traditionally masculine qualities, or a man with some traditionally feminine qualities. But I realized quickly that I would need to think about this in more depth now that I’m teaching in the synagogue school, because Hebrew is a gendered language, like Spanish and French, and there are no clear ways to refer to a person who is nonbinary. Even if none of my students identifies as nonbinary yet, they may have family members who do.

English, surprisingly, is a much more egalitarian language than most, and nonbinary individuals have taken to using the pronoun “they” to describe themselves. The flexibility of the language, and the constant additions that have made English so hard to learn have also made it more capable of meeting our needs as society evolves. Hebrew, on the other hand, is an old language based in a male-dominated culture. If there is one man in a group and the rest are women, we have to use the Hebrew word for “men,” period. If a group of children is equally mixed between boys and girls, we have to use the Hebrew word for “boys” to describe the whole group, because there is no non-gendered word for “children.” This gender preference shows up in all of the Hebrew prayers, which led me to the obvious conclusion, growing up, that God must be a Man.

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“That’s ridiculous.”

When I first read some Hebrew blessings written in female language, a few years back, I felt wildly uncomfortable. It just sounded so strange! And I’m not the only one who found the change uncomfortable, and unsustainable. Women have been trying to push the Hebrew language into more gender equality for decades, without much success.

This whole topic feels prickly and uncomfortable for me, because I default to male gender words in Hebrew without thinking twice. I automatically say boys or men, or refer to male doctors or teachers. And even when I say or write “I” sentences, as part of my refresher Hebrew lessons, I default to male verbs automatically, because it doesn’t occur to me that I might be talking about myself.

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“What about dog words? Is Hebrew all people-centric too?”

I decided to search online to see how other people have been addressing this issue and I found a few articles about a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder who worked with their Hebrew professor to come up with a possible non-gendered addition to the Hebrew language. The two of them were inspired by the introduction of gender neutral terms in Spanish (though I haven’t come across these in my Spanish lessons so far, and only recently heard the term “Latinx” to refer to people of Latin American descent without referring to gender). The system the teacher and student came up with adds a neutral gender pronoun to Hebrew, and a way to construct gender neutral conjugations, at least in the present tense.

This new system has been controversial, and people have found it hard to learn. It’s also not the only attempt to address this problem. A Jewish summer camp in the States (not the one I went to) came up with another gender neutral term, specifically for “Camper,” in Hebrew, though they don’t seem to have gone further than that into adding new conjugations. It’s hard to know if either of these ideas will generalize to society at large, or if a new system will be inspired by them, or if none will take off at all.

And the fact is, it’s been hard for me to get used to using the word “They” to refer to an individual, in English, so I can’t imagine the discomfort Hebrew speakers must feel at being told to learn a whole new system in order to speak their own language correctly. But if we leave things as they are, with no gender neutral terms, where does that leave the people who feel like neither gender describes them? How can they ever feel accepted if they can’t be referred to correctly by their communities?

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“Now you know how I feel. You keep calling me a dog. It’s rude.”

As a society, we make so many assumptions and have so many expectations about ourselves that are attached to gender. Would that change if we all used gender neutral language? Would we lose something that makes our lives meaningful by referring less often to gender? I don’t know. I’ve always considered myself female, and despite whatever discomfort I have with societal expectations of women it still seems like an accurate description of how I experience my gender. But it intrigues me to think about this question, of how much might be roiling under the surface of this dilemma of language. How much of our lives have actually been determined by the language we use to describe ourselves? And what kinds of surprises might we find if we take some small steps towards change?

YG with Cricket

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

I Seem To Be a Teacher

 

The same week that I started teaching at synagogue school, I also ran a writing workshop on blessings at my synagogue. The combination allowed me to see very clearly how much easier it is to teach adults, and how much trouble I seem to have gotten myself into.

Things were a bit chaotic on the first day of synagogue school, because we only had partial class lists (most families register late, but the kids show up on the first day anyway), and the building was still a construction site, and, oh yeah, I’d never done anything like this before in my life!

It’s important to say that afterschool synagogue school is a unique set of circumstances: even the most well-behaved kids hit four o’clock and lose their minds; they can’t sit still; they have an enormous amount to say after keeping quiet most of the day; and they don’t really have room in their brains to fit in any more information. Desks are for climbing, other children are for bothering, and there’s a competition for who can say the nastiest things to the teacher – which would be me. It’s a joy!

I drove home after my first two hours of teaching in a state of shock. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. On top of the chaos, the classroom was too warm, and early on, I realized I would not be one of those teachers who stands the entire time. But I didn’t vomit or faint, so that was a plus.

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The girls were vicariously exhausted.

And, despite some rough spots, I actually did some real teaching (I know, because without realizing it the kids repeated things I’d said in week one when they came back for week two. They would be horrified to know this, so don’t tell them). The second day with the kids went much better than the first. We even came up with some ways to manage their extra energy: like standing behind their desks when they couldn’t sit still anymore, dance breaks, and even a little bit of Pachelbel Canon in D (“Ugh! Classical music!”), helped them get through it.

The blessings workshop, with the adults, two days later, was like a walk in the park on a cool day compared to synagogue school. We had ten people around the table, and everyone participated, and shared their blessings, and listened to everyone else with interest. The workshop was based on a post I did on the blog a few months ago (or the post was based on the work I was doing to build the workshop), with prompts for different categories of blessings, and an overall intention to help empower people to trust their own voices along with the voices of tradition. It went well enough that now I have to prepare for a new workshop on blessings leading up to Passover. I have six months, so I’m not too worried, yet.

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“I’m worried for you.”

The thing is, the one career I was sure I didn’t want was teaching. It’s not that I expected to be bad at it, exactly. No, the real problem was that my father was a teacher, and I was afraid to be anything like him; or accused of being like him. My father was accused, multiple times, of inappropriate sexual contact with his students, so the idea of teaching and of going to jail seemed tied together in my mind from very early on. When people told me to get a PhD, in something, and become a professor, or teach writing after I got my MFA, I said no. I was too scared. What if I was accused of hurting someone? What if I actually hurt someone? What if I said the wrong thing? Or failed to be a good enough teacher? In my mind, I could go to jail for boring my students, or raising my voice, or just being in a bad mood, because my father’s paranoid ramblings at the dinner table suggested that that’s the kind of thing he’d done wrong, if anything. Even after I understood that my father was truly guilty of a crime, and had caused real harm to his students, I couldn’t uncross the wires in my brain around teaching.

Unfortunately, I never had a chance to see my grandfather in the classroom. He taught high school Consumer Education, and was the principal of an afterschool Hebrew school, but he died at age eighty, when I was eight years old, and he wasn’t in good health for the last years of his life, so his teaching was just a story I was told, not an experience I could draw from.

And yet, people kept telling me I’d make a good teacher, or even assumed that I already was a teacher (I’m something of a know it all), and I couldn’t shake the idea that this was the path not taken. When the chance to teach synagogue school came up a lot of internal bells started ringing, telling me that I had to at least try.

The dogs have offered to help me test out some of my ideas, and they keep reminding me that chicken treats are great motivators and that leashes are very reassuring (though I’m pretty sure that wisdom won’t translate especially well to human children). On the other hand, they are great at comforting and distracting me when I get home. They’ve always been wonderful at reminding me that I am loved.

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“I love you, Mommy!”

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Cricket is thinking about it.

I’m still overwhelmed with too many ideas for what to teach, and how to teach it, and I can’t fit even a quarter of my ideas into my actual classes. And I’m still comparing myself too much with other teachers, and feeling less than. But I am, slowly, developing more realistic expectations of myself. It will take some time to learn about classroom management, and how to not take the kids’ comments personally. But for now I seem to be teaching, and sometimes even enjoying it. And, maybe someday, I might even be good at it.

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“Really?”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

Ellie’s Magic Carpet

 

For a year now, Ellie has struggled to jump up onto the living room couch. It seemed odd, since she can easily jump up onto my bed, which is significantly higher off the ground, but Mom pointed out that there is a rug surrounding my bed, and no rug next to the couch (because when Ellie first moved in she peed through the rugs in the living room and hallway to the point where we were afraid to replace them).

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“Oops.”

But it’s been a year, and we were at Costco recently and saw a (very) cheap area rug that would fit right in front of the couch. It wouldn’t be a terrible loss if the flood of pee returned to wash it away, but, maybe, we thought, it could be the magic trick to allow Ellie to jump up onto the couch instead of needing the Mommy elevator (that would be me) every time.

I was not especially optimistic: one, because Ellie still pees on the exercise mat in my room on occasion, and two, because I didn’t really understand Mom’s logic about wood floor versus rug as effective transport up to the couch. But it was worth a try.

We got home from Costco too exhausted to set up the new rug (this is a constant. I always look forward to going to Costco and I always come home feeling like I ran a marathon in cement shoes), but later in the day Mom set out the area rug, trapping it in place under the coffee table (or whatever you call a low table on wheels that sits in front of the couch and holds all kinds of miscellaneous tchotchkes).

At first, Ellie didn’t seem to notice the new rug. She saw Cricket sitting up on the couch and came over to me, as usual, with her front paws up in the air, asking for the Mommy elevator. But Mom said not to lift her up. “Encourage her to do it herself,” Mom said, sounding loving and sweet despite the horrible cruelty she was asking me to carry out.

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“But why, Mommy?”

I got distracted by something (dinner, TV show, news alert, whatever) and then noticed that Ellie was stretched out next to me on the couch, with Cricket looking extra grumpy next to her.

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“Harrumph.”

And that was it. The magic carpet had done its job! Ellie has been up and down, with no help from me, dozens of times since then. She still can’t figure out how to jump up onto Grandma’s bed – which is no higher than mine and surrounded by a fluffy rug – but I think that has more to do with Cricket’s dirty looks. It is, after all, Cricket’s bed. She kindly allows Grandma to sleep on it, out of noblesse oblige, but that courtesy clearly does not extend to her sister.

There have been no pee puddles on the new rug so far. It’s possible that Ellie has finally figured out that wee wee pads and carpets are not the same thing. Now if only that knowledge could extend to exercise mats…We’ll have to see how things develop.

I might also have to carry a piece of rug with me to place next to the car, so that Ellie will remember that she can jump onto the backseat by herself. Usually she only jumps in after she’s seen her sister doing it, but maybe the rug could work its magic there too.

 

In the meantime, I started to think that this metaphor might fit me too. Just like Ellie only needed one extra, small step to allow her to make a big step forward, something to help her feel a bit more secure and supported, would the same trick work for me?

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Will it work for Platypus?

I’ve been struggling with the social work job search ever since I passed my licensing exam in the spring. I’ve written cover letters and sent out resumes like a good girl, but inside I’m terrified that someone will actually offer me a job, or even an interview, and call my bluff. This next step just seems too enormous to me. Internships and classwork and graduation and the licensing exam were all big things, but they seemed doable. This next jump feels more like jumping off a cliff.

 

But after watching Ellie’s transformation into a jumping bean, I started to think about what could serve as my area rug, or magic carpet, to make the next step in my life seem more possible. And then I got an email from one of the rabbis at my synagogue, asking if I’d be interested in teaching in the synagogue school this fall. They’d only need me for two hours a week, to teach Hebrew language and Jewish holidays, and I thought about it, for maybe a second, and wrote back: Yes!!!!

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“Yes!”

I couldn’t believe I’d written that, and I was even more shocked when I went in for my meeting with the rabbi and couldn’t stop smiling. Teaching? Me? Children?

 

It’s only two hours a week, so that explains some of the doable-ness, but I think the real magic is that the job is at my synagogue. That’s my safe place. I’ve always been able to do things there that feel impossible everywhere else.

Of course, after I accepted the job, the anxiety flowed in and I started feeling like I had to write out all of my lesson plans for the year within the first twenty-four hours, and all of my internal monsters had to have their say: about what could go wrong, and how badly I could fail, and who would hate me, and on and on. But, surprisingly, but I still wanted to do it. How strange!

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“Very strange.”

It’s possible that some part of me is thinking that this two hour a week job will be instead of a part-time/twenty-hour a week job in social work, but I think it’s more that a deal has been struck internally, if I can have this, then you can have social work. I didn’t even know I wanted to do this, or that I could do it. Just like Ellie didn’t know she needed an area rug to get up onto the couch.

I don’t know where any of this will lead, and it’s possible that I will need a few more metaphorical area rugs to get to the long term goal of becoming a therapist, but now I think they might actually be out there, waiting for me to be ready for them, or waiting for me to imagine them into existence.

We’ll have to see. But for now, I really need to memorize the Alephbet (Hebrew alphabet) song, and practice my Hebrew print writing, and figure out what a lesson plan might be. Wish me luck!

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. Izzy’s father then sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?