Monday, June 22, 2009

Letter From My Daughter's Graduation

Today was my daughter's graduation day. The whole ceremony was well put together. A couple of moments stand out in my mind. One girl spoke very proudly of her grandfather, who was born in Samarkand during the reign of Stalin. Samarkand was a bit more free for those who kept the Jewish faith, or any faith at all. The Muslim majority and religious Jews used to cover for each other at times, making their respective religious observances that much easier.

The girl's father had been a student in an underground yeshiva for two years while living in Samarkand. Unfortunately, the family was transferred to Azerbaijan, where there was no underground yeshiva with which their son could make contact. His Jewish education ended until he was able to emigrate to Israel as an adult. Despite his meager Jewish education, the strength of his two years in the underground yeshiva were enough to pull him to full Jewish observance. In Israel he became a professor of mathematics who drew others to religious observance.

The other story was of the Lubavitcher Rebbe who when he was a young boy ran into an old Jewish man who was opposed to religious observance. When he observed that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was wearing a yarmulka, he pleaded with him to take it off, saying that it looked terribly uncomfortable. He pointed out that it was hot out, and the head covering was making the Rebbe uncomfortable. The Rebbe deflected each argument and plea with tact and respect for the man's advanced years. Finally the old man said, "If you believe that you would be committing a sin, let the sin be on me."

The Rebbe answered, "What difference does it make if it's your sin or my sin? We're all connected, we are all one. If I sin, it hurts you and if you sin, It hurts me."

My Jewish education is even more limited than the man from Samarkand, since I was not raised Jewish but converted as an adult. I did, however pick up fragments on the way that shed light on my path, some from yeshiva teachers and some from secular instructors.

My rabbi, Rabbi Lipskier of Morristown once said to a student who said he was looking for G-d. "G-d knows how to hide better than you know how to look for him."

My fifth grade math teacher, Sister Barbara Joseph had been trying to teach me multiplication unsuccessfully for an entire year. Finally, she told me. "Don't worry about learning multiplication. You'll learn it eventually, because you must learn it."

When she said that, I felt a weight lifted from me. With less feeling of pressure I was able to learn that which had eluded me for most of the school year.

In junior high school, Mrs. Marchant and Miss Mattison were my English and Social studies teachers, respectively. Their classrooms were across the hall from each other. I was very much influenced by the hippies, the yippies and the radical politics that were dominating news coverage at that time. They both came from very conservative backgrounds. They were outspoken and eloquent in advocating their world view. Even though I opposed them and closed my mind to their arguments at the time, years later, I replayed the discussions with them in my mind as the years went by. They did me a great favour by challenging my world view, although I never came back to thank them.

When I was eighteen, I had a job as a dish washer. A co worker, "Jenny" was an Italian immigrant from Sicily. One day, she told a story of her childhood in Sicily. She spoke glowingly of how helpful Benito Mussolini was after a big earthquake destroyed her village. She had nothing bad to say about the fascists. She simply described what she saw. I was shocked that anyone could speak well of Il Duce. But I kept my mouth shut and listened. She taught me without intending to that everyone can be a teacher, that common people carry within their memory fragments of history. I learned from her to listen and not be judgemental, that everyone can teach you something. Since then, I have learned that each person I meet is like a book of history.

My homeroom teacher in ninth grade was one of the first orthodox Jews I ever met. It was public school and there was no opportunity to ask her questions. I was interested in Judaism, being of mixed ancestry. There was a series of absences in the fall. I knew so little of Judaism that I had only the vaguest idea of what the holidays were. When she got married, she covered her hair. She seemed to be more politically conservative than I had expected, from what I could observe. What made the most lasting impression was when she called me out in the hall one day. I had been picking on another kid in homeroom so I could stay away from the bottom of the junior high school food chain. In quiet yet insistent tones, Mrs Wolfson described how hurtful my words were. She was quite upset, yet she controlled herself. I was ashamed of my behavior. She taught me a valuable lesson about human decency. It was a lesson about her faith that I have thought about many times.

I had a Pakistani Muslim teacher who accompanied us on a school trip to Dachau. He was very tall. During India's bloody War of Partition in 1947, there were treacherous bands of killers who killed anyone who was of the "wrong" faith for the area they lived in. Hindus and Muslims were murdered. Around two million were killed in a few months, with knives, guns and bare hands. A group of Hindu bandits decided my teacher had to die, along with many others who were with them. They told him that he was not worth the price of a bullet. They lined him up with nine other Muslims, and shot them all through the neck. Because my teacher was much taller than the others, he took his bullet in the shoulder and lived to tell us about it.

I took a course in German, in which I had taken copious notes. Unfortunately, they were thrown out by accident. I was very unhappy, until I realised that most of the value of the notes was the act of taking notes fixed the material in my memory more thoroughly than if I had simply listened attentively. I heard the same observation validated in chassidic teachings years later. I am sure that science has made similar observations.

My teachers have been many. Some taught me well what they were supposed to. Others taught me without intending to. Some were not officially teachers, but traveling companions and co workers. My children have taught me at least as much as I have taught them.

A note was sounded at the my daughter's graduation that it was not the end of the student's education but the beginning. I was told the same thing over thirty years ago. It is indeed true. The only diploma that ever marked the end of an education was a death certificate. But who knows what awaits us? Sphere: Related Content

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