For the next few months, I will be teaching a synagogue school class on Leviticus (Vayikra, in Hebrew), the third book of the Bible. It’s an odd book for children to study, with its focus on laws that applied in ancient temple times: laws for the Levites (the priests and their helpers) around purity and sacrifices and holiness. There’s also a section on dietary laws.
But the fact is, the class will be based on a pre-set curriculum with very few actual quotes from the text, and much more focus on the ways these issues can be extrapolated into the modern lives of Jewish children. This makes a lot of sense. What’s the point of bogging down children’s minds with long passages, in Hebrew, about rules for priests who no longer exist? Judaism used to be a temple cult, with animal sacrifices, but long ago transformed into a synagogue and prayer-based religion.
Except, when I went to Jewish day school as a kid, we read everything, and we read it in both Hebrew and English, and it had an impact. We learned about “an eye for an eye” and that it should be translated to mean “money for an eye,” because the victim should be adequately compensated for the loss, rather than inflicting a similar loss on the perpetrator. We also learned about who’s responsible if someone’s ox falls into a pit on someone else’s property, and how punishments should vary based on whether a crime was intentional or accidental. It was, a little bit, like law school for ten year olds.
We also read the stories of the prophets in Hebrew, like a novel, without even bothering with the commentaries most of the time. Our Hebrew was pretty great, now that I look back on it.
I can’t say whether all of that was better or worse than what we do at the synagogue school; it’s just very different. My students still struggle to sound out words in Hebrew, confusing similar looking letters for one another, and struggling to remember which sound goes with which vowel sign. And the bible classes are meant to be taught in English. But I’d still like to infuse more of the Hebrew text into the process; not because it’s part of the set curriculum, but because I want them to know that there’s a connection between the lessons we’re learning in class and the Torah that we read with such awe during services in the sanctuary. We dress the scroll in velvet and silver, and we read it with a special silver pointer, from a parchment written by hand by a single scribe. I want them to hear the ancient Hebrew, and the strange melody of the chant, and to feel the connection to the past that makes it all feel so sacred and phantasmagorical to me.
I’m a little bit anxious about the transition to something so much more clearly planned out. This will be the only year, at least in synagogue school, that they study the book of Leviticus, so I can’t hop around and choose to teach whatever interests me at the moment as if I’m picking from a vast Chinese food menu, the way I do in the Hebrew class. There are important lessons here that won’t be addressed elsewhere and that will be helpful to them in preparing for their Jewish lives. But I’ve gotten used to the creativity of the Hebrew class, where we can spend fifteen minutes trying to shape the Hebrew letters with our bodies without feeling like we’re wasting time (I have one student who can do a bridge pose that looks exactly like the Hebrew letter Chet – it’s possible she has no spine).
It’s a balancing act, to bring the kids some of the magic that I feel, without overwhelming them with too much that is beyond their abilities for now. I need to make it fun, and relevant, and engaging, and useful to their daily lives, but I also don’t want it to feel so familiar that it loses its spark.
So, I need to study the lesson plans carefully, and study the book of Leviticus itself again, and try my best to teach my kids about holiness and where to find it in their lives, in their communities, and in themselves. And in dogs. There’s got to be room for the dogs in there somewhere.
Wish me luck!
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?