The Start of School

The school year starts tomorrow in Israel. This generally leads to a flurry of discussion about the ills of education here in Israel, though I’m sure it’s true of the rest of the world, too. This year, Bibi unsheathed a 5-point plan for reforming education. And at least two of the points are good points.

One of the first things you’ll always hear when discussing educational reform, and Netanyahu is no exception, is “pay the teachers more”. Good, but obvious, point. If teachers are paid as well as lawyers, more people will become teachers. Fair enough. But, and Bibi should know this better than most given his economic policies, this will only solve the issue indirectly as it will encourage more capable people to join the ranks of educators. It will also require a massive education budget.

What would work more immediately and efficiently is not to pay teachers more, but to reward good teachers. If good potential educators know that they can achieve separation from their peers and be rewarded accordingly, then they will have more incentive not only to become teachers, but to teach well. The system as it stands encourages mediocrity. Pay is based on college degrees and tenure, neither of which says whether a teacher can teach.

Bibi’s point about giving more power to administrators is a good one. This is also consistent with his fiscal policies: the less bureaucratic interference, the better. If Parent A needs to get Project P implemented in the school, the more direct access the parent has, the better. This makes schools more responsive to their constituents and puts the purse-strings in the hands of those with direct knowledge of the situation.

I disagree with his “no child left behind” rhetoric. The goal of educations systems is twofold: to develop ambition and ability amongst those who can, and to squelch it in those who can’t. School gives people an idea of how far they can go with school. Beyond that basic set of skills (the 3 Rs) and values (civics, national/ religious patriotism/ pride, menschlichkeit) that schools impart, there’s no reason to keep kids in the same classroom if they don’t belong in the same classroom.

This leads to what seems to be Bibi’s main point – a refocusing on a core curriculum. The Naqba vs. Jabotinsky think is a bit of a red herring, but only a bit. The Revisionist narrative of the founding of the State of Israel is not the same as the Labor Zionist narrative, which is not the same as the Palestinian narrative. And schools, as their core, at least attempt to impart its privileged narrative to its pupils.

The thing is, however, that there are a lot more than 3 narratives floating out there, which means that the gummint has 2 choices: it can try to mandate the teaching of all (or the most common) narratives, or it can try to choose the privileged one. I’m not comfortable with either, but I’m far more uncomfortable with the latter option. Let the textbooks include a basic familiarity with different narratives, and allow the school its choice of privileging one of the various Arab, Revisionist, Mapainik, National-Religious, or Chareidi narratives. Lord knows the kids’ attitudes will never be shaped by what’s in the textbooks. It’s the subtler “hidden curriculum” which will promote values. Thus, the kids who remember what’s in the texts more than 5 minutes after the test will maintain a semblance of well-roundedness, yet the pupils in general will identify with a particular narrative – one not legislated by the government.

This leads me to my final point about education in this country, and it’s really the elephant in the living room. Gone are the days of the double public school system (Mamlachti and Mamlachti-Dati). There are dozens of new school systems – independent and semi-independent, affiliated with all different movements and religious stripes, etc. Rather than trying to impose the government’s will (regarding class sizes, curriculum, teacher pay, etc.) on an unwieldy system that will never submit in its entirety (the chadarim will continue to be goreis NEITHER the Naqba NOR Jabotinsky), why not go with that and introduce the world’s best tried-and-true method for improving a product: opening it up to competition.

I had heard that Netanyahu would be unveiling a new educational plan and was hoping that Mr. Privatization would pick up on this very point. Why not deregulate everything but a core curriculum and then make funding contingent on vouchers, local funding, and tuition? Let schools compete for pupils and funding. Let the school decide to hire a better but more expensive teacher. Let a school teach the Naqba but skimp on Algebra at its own risk.


The following job was posted on a message board I frequent:

Seeking knit-picking, pedantic, accomplished writers/editors of above-average intellectual agility for part-time freelance work.

I wrote in: “That should be nit-picking. CV attached.” I'll post in the comments if I get the job.

I can't help but think that this misspelling is just too ironic. The poster must have put that there as a test to vet applicants.


Shul Rags: Part II

Continued from here.

The second amusing (but in many ways highly disturbing) element of the parsha sheet that I picked up this week involves an “Ask the Rabbi” column dedicated to social and intimacy (a poor translation of the untranslatable Hebrew word “zugiut”) issues. The respondent is a rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva in a community in Northern Samaria. I no longer have the text in front of me, as it is probably now where it belongs, but I will attempt to reproduce the question and answer faithfully.

The questioner posed the following dilemma. He is 26 years old and has been going out for a while. He dates girls and wants to continue, but they have no interest in him. He finds himself considering dating girls who he considers ‘compromise candidates’ – girls who wear pants and who will not full cover their hair. Is it OK to date these girls?

Before getting to that rabbi’s answer, here’s what I would answer:

“Dear X, before answering your question directly, I would recommend that you ask yourself – perhaps with the aid of a professional life coach – why your relationships are not working out. Women who wear bandanas and parachute pants are just as sensitive to matters of personality, habits, and hygiene as the ones in flowing skirts and tightly bonneted kerchiefs. You have indicated that you would have liked to continue relationships with some of them, but that they did not wish to do so with you. Unless you can provide a good explanation as to why you think that girls who you believe adhere to a lesser standard would be more likely to continue a relationship with you, I believe that you are inappropriately dealing with your problem by projecting it outward, rather than inward.

“As to the issue itself, I would call your attention to the fact that there are a number of gedolim whose wives did not cover their hair, or who did so in a manner that you or I might be uncomfortable with. This does not necessarily mean that these sages approved of such behavior. Rather, they understood that there are issues far more important upon which to base a relationship and a marriage. You should not be asking yourself questions about her halakhic standards, many of which are her own business, but about her qualities and character as a spouse, parent, and matriarch of a Torah-oriented household.”

The rabbinic author of the column begins by quoting the Gemara in Sanherdrin and the halakhic codes which determine that “It is a mitzvah to compromise”. He then distinguishes between interpersonal monetary matters, where this halakha applies, and matters of personal principles, where it remains forbidden to compromise.

He then goes on to argue that if this alter bachur would indeed compromise and marry the girl whose standards he deems unacceptable, she would forever feel second-rate and forever know that his dream girl is someone else. This would strain the relationship right from the get-go.

The rabbi then sidesteps what should be the obvious question: since nobody’s perfect, isn’t everybody, essentially, a compromise? Wouldn’t the same logic apply to someone who compromises on, say, looks? So the guy who wants to marry a supermodel shouldn’t settle for anything but a supermodel?

The rabbi gets around this by positing a distinction between “compromising” (hitpashrut) and “sobering up” (hitpakhechut). When it comes to principled issues like hair covering and pants, agreeing to less would be “compromising”, and is thus verboten. However, when it comes to looks, a guy can “sober up” and realize that the important thing is that she’s beautiful to him.

Shul Rags

One of the most ubiquitous features of Israeli synagogue life is the plethora of pamphlets which grace tables and chairs throughout the length and breadth of the (I Never) Promised (You a Rose Garden) Land. There are, by now, dozens, if not hundreds, of these weekly publications. Some are local in scope, and others are national. They represent every religious stripe and ideology that you can imagine. They appear in Hebrew, English, French, Russian, Spanish, and Yiddish (that I know of). As a renowned rabbi affiliated with the moderate/urbane end of the Mercaz HaRav world recently noted, these pamphlets constitute the bulk of the average religious Israeli’s weekly Torah study.

Given that they’re written horribly (I previously wrote about an egregious and consistent typo in a particular feminist pamphlet), I generally read these things for their entertainment value (preferring to get my Torah from the blogosphere J). Below, I’ll provide two examples of amusement provided by one of this past week’s rags.

Incidentally, I just returned from an extended stay in the U.S., so I had been away from these masterpieces for some time. In Chayyei Sarah’s addendum to my “Bounty of Spain” meme, I would definitely have to put the parsha pages on my list, along with pita, chocolate spread, religious art and articles, and nursery schools. But I digress, as people with ADD are wont to do.

The first bit of entertainment provided by the shmatteh I read in shul was an ad for a service whereby 10 widows would pray for you at the graves of Jewish saints. As we all know, the prayers of widows ride the HOV-lane to God (unless, of course, that prayer happens to be Kaddish). This rubs me the same way that these Kupat Ha’ir gimmicks do. It’s amusing to see how modern technologies can be used to reinforce folk religion.

This post is long enough. The second amusing element deserves a post of its own.


The “Bounty of Spain” Meme

It would be easy for me to abandon all the bounty of Spain; as
It would be precious for me to see the dust of your destroyed shrine.

I considered entitling this post “The Things They Carried”, but I figured that an equation of aliyah to Vietnam is inappropriate. Instead, I lifted a line from the end of R. Yehuda Halevi’s famous poem, “Libi be-Mizrach”, in which he articulates how he prefers the dust of Israel to everything that Spain has to offer.

Nowadays, one need not leave all the bounty of Spain. Pretty much any bounty is available in Israel, albeit more expensive. Most olim, however, indeed abandon much of the bounty that is America when emigrating to the (I Never) Promised (You a Rose Garden) Land. We yet prefer the dust.

Nevertheless, every oleh that I know has a list of products that he/she still insists on obtaining from across the pond. Some of those products are relatively common, and some are individuated to the tastes of the specific consumer.

As I prepare to return to the erstwhile rose garden, and as my contribution to the Blogapalooza that will be taking place in Jerusalem tomorrow, I hereby launch the “Bounty of Spain” meme, which will list five items that an oleh personally imports from the alter heim. Here goes:

1. OTC pharmaceuticals (ibuprofen, loratidine, naproxen, kid’s chewable stuff)
2. Computers (including accessories – SO much cheaper, especially when buying refurbished from a reliable source)
3. Clothing (we’ve found that the cheap stuff in the U.S. is cheaper and lasts much, much longer than the cheap stuff in Israel; shoes are included in this category. I just bought me a pair of Rockport Prowalkers for a real good price).
4. Peanut butter
5. Toys
And here’s an extra:
6. Don Pepino Pizza Sauce – yeah, there’s the wild card; it’s just so good.

I tag: Jameel, Ben Chorin, Rafi (for a British perspective), Sarah (one of the Rebbetzin’s favorites).

Grilling, Frying, Baking and Cooking with ADD

As the summer winds down, and with Tisha B’Av behind us, barbeque season is in full force. Inevitably, I do the grilling. I’m not a particularly good cook, but for some reason when I grill it ends up pretty good. The same is true of frying. Anything that requires standing over a frying pan – I’m your guy. On the other hand, anything that has to go into the oven, I will inevitably botch.

For a long time now, I’ve felt that the reason for this discrepancy is rooted in ADD. Anything for which there’s an extended break in the action will invite the ADD person’s attention to wander. Even setting alarms won’t do the trick. “It need’s another 5 minutes”, for the ADD mind, spell culinary disaster. On the other hand, if I have to stand over the grill or frying pan, constantly checking, flipping, or whatnot, my attention is sufficiently engaged to keep me on task constantly. Thus, the burgers will come out yummy.

Admittedly, there are no great chiddushim in this post. It came up a few days ago, and I figured I’d post an example of how we ADD folks develop strategies to engage in the things that allow us to excel.


The J-Blogger Convention

Almost everybody missed the first annual Pocono J-bloggers Convention this past Friday. It was sponsored by Wal-Mart of Honesdale, PA. Participants included myself and Menachem of Seforim and Michtavim. We barely recognized each other behind the accumulated facial hair. It was inspiring.

I will not be participating in the NBN blogger’s convention. I’ll be on my way back from the U.S. then. Funnily enough, I blogged our own aliyah 2 years ago, without the hype. They had an “embedded” blogger on that flight, and didn’t even know it. I’ve posted quite a bit about the aliyah experience, about life in Israel in general and Modiin in particular, and about Zionism. See the labels. Maybe next year.


The Joys of Reading

At some point on Shabbat, the following three books were together on the dining room table (at the home of relatives):
a. Understanding Tzniut, by Rav Yehuda Herzl Henkin
b. Bread and Fire: Jewish Women Find God in the Everyday, edited by Rivkah Slonim
c. Carnal Israel, by Prof. Daniel Boyarin

An interesting juxtaposition, to say the least.

I was reading the latter. I’m very much enjoying it, in fact.

During my ongoing semi-hiatus from blogging, I have rediscovered the simple joy of reading. Sometimes it’s the pop-trash variety, and sometimes it’s serious reading. In the latter category, thus far this summer I’ve been working on said Boyarin book as well as his “Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash”, “A Thousand Splendid Suns” (pop, but not trash), and “Roots”. I’m also still slogging through “The Poetics of Biblical Narrative”, which is simply dazzling once you can decipher his very tight writing style and invented terminology. Finally, I’ve been learning through the works of Rav Yehuda Leib Graubart with a family member of his (this is technically a translation job, but a thoroughly enjoyable one). Fun stuff. Maybe I’ll podcast some of the sessions.

Regarding Roots, by Alex Haley, my readers know that I’m always fascinated by comparisons between Jewish and African-American history. There were a few interesting aspects here as well. One is whether the issue of oral culture and history. We are much more familiar with the idea of a ‘living book’ from Babylonian Jewish culture. In fact the shift from oral to written culture characterizes the shift from the era of the Geonim to that of the Rishonim in a manner similar to the way that the shift from the written to the printed word characterizes the shift from the era of the Rishonim to that of the Acharonim, but I digress. A less understood issue is the orality of Israelite culture in biblical times. We tend to project written culture onto all of Jewish history, and Chaza”l bifurcated the Torah to distinguish oral from written elements of Torah culture. I wonder, though, whether there were Israelite griots running around in the pre-Ezra days. What really threw me was the account of how griots memorized centuries worth of genealogies. Haley’s entire (fictional) project is essentially an attempt to construct a narrative from a genealogy. Food for thought.