School Daze

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24 Aug 2006

Every September I am reminded of a series of photographs in a family album which I dubbed “First Days”. They were all taken at the same spot outside our house as our daughter left the safe, protected confines of home and family for her very first day of kindergarten, first grade, high school and then college. How and where all of those days and years flew to is something I still don’t quite understand, but that’s another story.

When she embarked upon her college career, I watched with something akin to envy, wondering if I would ever seriously learn a piece of Rashi – that giant of Torah commentaries – again, just for myself, just because I wanted to. I wondered if I’d ever finish going through the Prophets, from beginning to end, so that I’d know who all the kings were and what happened to them. I wondered if I would be capable of learning anything again, in a formal setting, if the opportunity ever presented itself.

After watching my daughter progress through her academic career, I decided to step into the stream myself. I had talked about it for years, and to my own, and everyone else’s, surprise, I finally did it. I registered at one of Jerusalem’s finest women’s colleges, the one my daughter learned at. I paid my tuition, bought a new pen and notebook, and sat back to wait for my first day of higher Jewish education with lower-aged Jewish women.

My daughter was very supportive, especially once she established two iron-clad rules.

  1. I was not to register for any class she had registered for (she was in her last year of the school at the time), and
  2. I was not to register any opinions during the classes unless I was specifically asked by the lecturer to do so. It seems that the “older women” taking courses were noted for their profuse comments and extended dialogues with the teachers. She didn’t want me making a spectacle of myself.

I promised never to speak a word unless first spoken to; to dress in a respectable manner suitable to my advanced age; and not to get overly chummy with any of her friends nor to inflict myself on them in any way. Nor was I to instruct the instructors. I was to sit quietly and unobtrusively, take my notes, and then go home.

She then checked my supplies, proclaimed them woefully inadequate, bought me a few more notebooks and other miscellanea, and presented me with a small bottle of mineral water to ward off dehydration.

“Everyone carries mineral water around,” she assured me. “It’s still hot in September.”

Since we had arranged never to meet on campus that was the last I saw of her until I returned home each evening.

The first day of school, I checked out the library, the small food store and the bathrooms. Then I gingerly made my way into my first class and eyed the seats. They looked smaller than I remembered them a few decades back. Was it just that I was bigger? No, the seats were definitely smaller. They were also too low. Did they perhaps bring kindergarten chairs in for grown women? Luckily, I saw a larger model floating around in the back row and hurriedly switched seats. There were quite a few head coverings – scarves, hats, a few wigs – signifying married women and a lot of minors with bare heads and long hair. I hadn’t expected many grandmothers, but a few more wrinkles in the room would have made me feel more at home. No matter. Being young has its advantages, but the wisdom I had acquired with age was surely irreplaceable.

Several of my daughter’s friends took me under their wing. They had, however, a nomenclature problem. “Geveret” – the Hebrew equivalent of “Mrs.” – is highly formal and somewhat stilted for friendly conversation between fellow students. After a few embarrassed tries, they kept addressing me as “Shani’s mother”, which is a rather clumsy way to conduct a conversation. Finally, one of the braver souls said, “What shall we call you?” Considering our scholastic camaraderie, we decided to relate on a first name basis.

The instructor came in, made his announcements, gave his introduction and then the first real shock registered. He passed out papers. They were only xeroxed sheets of commentaries, but they were written in Blurry Hieroglyphic. Or at least they looked like it. They seemed to move from right to left and considering the course, they should have been Hebrew. But they didn’t resemble any Semitic language I had ever encountered, not even Aramaic. Were they a heretofore undiscovered form of Rashi script? And how small they were! Even my bifocals failed to decipher all of those squiggly little marks running across the pages. Add to this a profusion of roshei teivot,, those contractions which the rabbis love to use and which make difficult things even more difficult. I sighed and sunk down into my seat.

The next whammy came in the form of the assignment. All of those hieroglyphical commentaries were not material for the year. They were just for one lesson! They were to be deciphered, understood, and cataloged by the following week! I did a quick mental calculation. At five minutes a line, I should get finished in around seventeen hours, and that assuming I could figure out the contractions.

I took a look at the students around me. No one seemed discomfited or surprised. The girls rose a few notches higher in my esteem while I sunk a few notches lower into my seat. By the time I reached the second class and fourth hour, my eyelids were drooping and my powers of concentration were off on an outing somewhere.

The second day was a replay, except that I noticed certain things I hadn’t noticed before. One rabbi spoke so softly that anyone past the third row had to lip-read. (Difficult to do when the speaker wears a beard.) One spoke so loudly and expansively that anyone closer than Row Five had to wear earplugs. One paced frantically around so that you could never find him, while one never picked up from his chair so that you could never see him. One expected you to do all of the preparation on your own before the class (so what was left for him to teach?) and one passed out lists of questions each lesson which he never asked for or referred to again. (Was he trying to clear the mounds of paper out of his office or home, I wondered?)

One instructor wouldn’t let you into the class once he began; another allowed all married women to come late. One forbad questions; one forbad knitting (a favorite winter pastime of many Israeli women) or crocheting kippot (a favorite year-round pastime of many religious female Israelis); another allowed eating sandwiches, but “only if you’re really hungry, not if you’re just eating out of boredom. But no popcorn!” And they all took attendance.

“Do they take attendance every lesson?” I asked the young woman next to me. “Of course,” she said. “It’s a school, isn’t it?”

Since I had attended a prestigious university in the United States which didn’t require you to attend a single class all year long – all you had to do was pay tuition and pass the tests – I was annoyed. “What happens if you miss classes?” I asked. She faltered. “I’m not sure. But you’re supposed to come.” She had obviously received a good upbringing.

All in all, it seemed rather…well, rather haphazard. At least until the lessons actually began. I had chosen second and third year courses and the material was demanding. The questions came fast and furious, both from the teachers and the students, even in the class were no questions were to be asked. And woe to the teachers who weren’t thoroughly prepared. They were all subject to close scrutiny and the students were hard to fool. I scribbled across my notebooks, ran out of pens, scribbled some more. It was all I could do to keep up.

So I caught up at home. Late into the night. “You won’t last long at this pace,” my daughter warned me. “Take it easy. After all, you don’t have to take the exams at the end of the year if you don’t want to.”

But I did want to. And I wanted to pass. With good grades too, just like those young, immature students who didn’t have my well-aged wisdom. So I plowed on and along, through the hieroglyphics and the roshei teivot and the Aramaic and down through the generations of Torah thought and learning.

How much I’ll succeed, and how much will stay put in the graying grey cells in my brain, is a matter for speculation, I thought. But it’s the struggle that counts, right? In the Saying of the Fathers, Ben Hei Hei, one of the Talmudic sages, said: L’fum tza’arah agrah – your reward is in direct proportion to the effort you invest. And if the Rambam and the Malbim and the Sforno – all classic Torah commentators – get a little mixed up in my notes or my mind here and there, it’s OK. I’m doing great. I must be. My daughter told me so, and she’s young enough to really know.

P.S. I passed all the yearly exams by a wide margin and didn’t leave any embarrassing trails in my wake. But the most important thing I learned from the year was — it’s never too late to learn!

Yaffa Ganz is the award winning author of more than forty Jewish juvenile titles including Sand and Stars – a 2000 year saga of Jewish history for teen readers. Her latest book – “A Different Dimension” published by Hamodia Publishers – is an anthology of essays on contemporary Jewish life.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.