02 June 2015

Experiments in Teaching Medieval Jewish History, part IV: early medieval Ashkenaz (up to c. 1230)

For this unit, I relied heavily on sources I found in R' Binyamin Sendler's The Chosen Path. Below I include only sources I found without the help of his excellent textbook (some of which he also includes). I didn't give all of these to my class.
As usual, I haven't inspected the sites I link to here; they are provided merely as a convenience. 

-A description of the education of a knight. I was tempted to use passages from The Once and Future King, but those are extremely funny and I wanted something more solemn.
-If they didn't all know how to play chess I would have taught them.
-We don't know the identity of the “King Charles” who invited the Jews to Ashkenaz to start a yeshiva. Still, I gave them the paragraphs from Einhard's Life of Charlemagne about Charlemagne's appearance and how he was “tolerant of foreigners” (paragraphs 21-23).
-The story of how Waterbury, CT wound up with a yeshiva parallels this episode nicely.
-The rather bizarre story of Charlemagne and the mouse.
-Piyut by R' Moshe ben Kalonymus.
-A list of "Occupations of the Jews" from Israel Abrahams (who, alas, grows less reliable each time I check his sources)
-The charter inviting Jews to the new city of Speyer
-The takanos of Rabbeinu Gershom
-Rn. Bussel's explanation of how to learn Rashi
-Letter from Mainz to the Jews of France warning them of the impending first Crusade
-The first paragraph of the prologue to The Canterbury Tales tells you a little something about the mindset of the Crusaders
-Kinna – kumi l'chi. This is an unusual kinna in that it is not about the devastation wreaked by the Crusaders but about the fact that they were going to Eretz Yisrael and we were not.
-Rashi's kinna about the People's Crusade
-Rachel and Her Children (very graphic) – also from the People's Crusade
-Many of the kinnos we say on Tisha b'Av are about the Crusades -- e.g. no. 25, also from the People's Crusade.
-Rashi's teshuva about the forced converts
-Christian account of William of Norwich
-The Forced Conversion of the Jews of Regensburg - 1137
-Kinna by R' Ephraim of Regensburg (Elokai b'cha achavek).
-Kinna for Blois by Baruch of Magenza.
-Sefer haYashar by Rabbeinu Tam. I didn't go through the whole sefer to get a sense of it and pick the most suitable piece; I just grabbed something, and that something was the fifth midda in the sixth shaar: what is atzlus, what causes it, what to do about it. This went over well.
-Tosafos Bava Metzia 70b – about why nowadays (i.e. in the times of Tosafos) so many of us are engaged in money-lending.
-There is also a Tosafos somewhere about marrying off one's daughters young due to the upheaval of the times.
-Tosafos on Sukka 45a: jousting as chasuna shtick. background information
-Jousting shu"t; I haven't read it closely recently but will note here anyway that standard practice was that if you lost a tournament you forfeited your armor and horse to the victor.
- Sefer Hasidim – paras. 94 (about knights), 135 (about the power of a wife's influence), 136 (about how books got copied), 149 (in which he invokes the queen coming to visit as a mashal for Shabbos - it means more when you realize that the queen was very real), 200 (about women cross-dressing for protection while traveling), 220 (about pretending to be non-Jews for protection while traveling), 702-703 (more about how women may protect themselves, e.g. dressing as nuns). One of these days I should get around to posting translations of these paragraphs. Let me know if you want any of them sooner.
-The Rokeach's hesped for his wife Dulce and his daughters Bellet and Chana. I haven't found the original text. If you can find it for me I'll be extremely grateful.
-Epitaph for Urania of Worms
- Ki hineh kachomer, in the Yom Kippur machzor, was composed, I think, in 13th-c. France.
- Rav Hirsch's essays on Iyar are largely about the time of the Crusades. I gave the girls the third, to put the massacres of this unit in perspective.

There are lots of horrific texts about the devastation the Crusaders wreaked on the kehillos of Ashkenaz, which I didn't give my class because I don't want to wear out such texts before the girls are old enough to understand tragedy when they see it.
And there are many disgusting little tracts containing the accusations of the libels at Norwich, Blois, etc., which I didn't share either because the idea of giving the girls tabloids to read, even medieval tabloids, is just too disturbing.
The libels got to be such a trope that images of them were popular engravings on walking sticks, like a medieval Hello Kitty.
(Hello Kitty was the analogy I told the class; but I have since noticed that even in our own times, it is considered laudable by people on our block to demonstrate their neighborly holiday spirit come Halloween by hanging skeletons in nooses in the trees in their yard.)

28 May 2015

Floor Wax Min HaTorah Minayin? An Experiment in Teaching Sefer Yishaya

My boarding-housemates and I used to play a game we called Min HaTorah Minayin. The sink is leaking? A leak min haTorah minayin, where do we find a leak in the Torah? (I found the leak, in parshas Noach). We're waxing the floor? Floor wax min haTorah minayin? That one stumped us. Floor wax min haTorah minayin?

Maybe a month later, as I was looking up a reference in Tanach, the page fell open to a verse in which Iyov (Job) reminisces about the days when he had his steps buttered.
I found it! I found it! Floor wax min haTorah!

Silly; but from that discovery I began to read more of the page, and really fell in love with the book of Iyov for the first time.
I thought my students might have a similar experience, so one day when we needed some space between units, I gave them a...

Sefer Yishaya (Isaiah) Scavenger Hunt

Can you find...

Something dripping?
A spice?
Glue or riveting?
Sargon, king of Assyria?
A piece of furniture?
A contractor's tools?
A song by Chizkiyahu (Hezekiah)?
An insect?
A very personal description of the navi?
A musical instrument?
A line from Lecha Dodi?
A long list of jewelry?
An agricultural tool?
A horse?
An extremely unusual name for a child?
A curtain?
A tail?
The shiras hakerem? (a song about a vineyard)
Daylight savings?
The Leviathan?
A list of ten animals in two consecutive psukim (verses)?
A mountain?
The land Rus came from?
A tear in something?
Something wearing out?
A pasuk from Aleinu?
A wall?
An island?
Rosh Chodesh?
A chasan and kallah (bride and groom)?
A color?
Something bubbling?
100 years?
A paved street?
A rodent?
Three kinds of birds? (not necessarily in the same verse)
The moon?
A word or phrase repeated?
Beis Yaakov lechu v'nelcha b'or Hashem?
Yotzer or uvorei choshech oseh shalom uvorei ra?
A song lyric?
A textile or textile fibre?
The defeat of an army?
A hill?
An alcoholic beverage?
Something that makes you, personally, happy?
The capitol of Syria?
Something (not a person) singing?
A mashal of childbirth?
Shaavtem mayim b'sason mimayenei hayeshua?
A reptile?
A night watchman?
Five kinds of trees? (not necessarily in the same verse)
Nachamu nachamu ami?
A pasuk from davening?
The name Yishayahu (Isaiah)?

I decided to err on the side of light and fun, but they didn't relate to it as expected; so if I were to do this again I would get heavier and have them look for certain messages and themes and ideas and feelings, with just a sprinkling of interesting superficialities.

However, it worked for an adult who came in as I was drawing up the list – he thought that this cutesy list looked like a good time, pulled out a navi to help me find objects, and got thoroughly sidetracked into just reading the navi: “Oh, this is beautiful! Ooh, I have to learn more Navi. Oh, wow, you have to read this.” – which is the reaction I was hoping for in my students. So I guess superficial scavenger hunts are better for adults.

What did R' Zacuto Change about the Astrolabe?

I haven't gotten to the library yet. Meanwhile, I can't figure this out.
Everyone knows he did something brilliant to the astrolabe but if you look it up online every website says it was something else.
He was the first to make an iron astrolabe. No, he was the first to make a copper astrolabe. No, he was the first to make a mariner's astrolabe. No, he was the first to make a spherical astrolabe.
Astrolabes are beautiful things and I would love to be able to walk into class with one and say, “This is a Zacuto astrolabe, and here is how you use it.” But what was it?

Taking the average, it appears that he was the first to make the mariner's astrolabe out of metal instead of wood, thus preventing it from warping.
I hope to post some final answer to the question, as well as a useful application of the mariner's astrolabe for the use of high school students. Check back.

21 May 2015

Sunflowers in the Drawing-Room: Some Notes on the 2015 Torah uMesorah Convention

As it turns out, the Torah uMesorah teachers' convention isn't a secret convention only for Real Teachers. There is a pre-convention for principals but (someone correct me if I'm wrong) that isn't exclusive either. There were high school girls babysitting and on their breaks they came to the lectures too. I wish I'd known this when I was in high school. Tell your students.

Our route took us through Torah uMesorah history, passing a number of cities I know only from the history of the day school movement. Liberty, NY – R' Shraga Feivel had a camp near there. Scranton – also R' Shraga Feivel. Ellensville – that name is familiar, too.

Then we walked into the hotel and into the Torah uMesorah present, a grand courtyard all draped with Torah uMesorah banners and filled with the murmur of mechanchim networking.

Networking means walking up to random people to ask them what they teach and how and how do you make class interesting to your twelfth-graders? It is the most fun I have had in a drawing-room, ever.

(Incidentally, my favorite answer to the question of how to engage teenagers came from the babysitters. Make it practical, they said. Practical, practical, practical.)

It was delightful to share a chatzer with a few hundred mechanchim. It was also delightful to giggle with all few hundred at once in response to amusing moments in the lectures. And it was a great privilege and delight to hear great talmidei chachamim addressing questions on Jewish education.

Here are some points that stood out to me from over the weekend. Some were new, some just timely.

Please read with caution – I often misquote people.

20 May 2015

How to Love Pesach

In the spirit of the Internet, here is my DIY guide to loving Pesach.


1. Identify the Quarry.
You can't love cleaning for chametz if you don't know what you're looking for. Call your friendly local halachic authority and find out what size and quality of chametz need to be out of your house by Pesach, rather than trying to “catch 'em all” when the pokemon in question are undefined. Know exactly what you're doing.

2. Put Your Ribbons in Glass Jars If It Makes You Happy.
Everyone says “Don't spring-clean!” and it's true that dirt is not chametz, Pesach-cleaning is not spring-cleaning, and the two should not be confused.
But Pesach-cleaning involves channeling the spring-cleaning instinct, not repressing it. So I say: start with spring-cleaning if that's what comes naturally. I started this year by rearranging ribbons on the sewing-shelf; we got to the kitchen cabinets eventually but every time I turned around I saw pretty ribbons in chromatic order and it felt... Pesachdik.

3. Appreciate that Love Is Born in Chaos.
Understand what the month of Adar is about.
Adar leads up to Nisan as Elul leads up to Tishrei. Pesach will not be all that it can be if you do not go through Adar first.
Adar is about chaos. Adar is about, I am so not in control of my life it's funny. Adar is about, Hashem is in control, not the king and not the vizier. Hashem.
Every Rosh Chodesh Adar something crazy pushes me into a corner so that I just have to throw my hands in the air and laugh. Will you will come into our school in ten minutes and extemporize teaching for four hours? The right answer is, No. But the righter answer is, Yes, and happy Adar to you, too.
Two weeks later, on Purim, we are so not on top of the situation that we can't even tell who people are by their clothes, and a good proportion of our social norms dissolve into one big happy day of giving food to everyone. If you try to maintain everyday order on Purim you'll short-circuit. It's a day when creation goes haywire.

Pesach flows naturally from Purim.

But suddenly people try to be in control again. Then they get frustrated and start wisecracking about how we give each other food for Purim just one month before all that food has to be cleaned out of every corner for Pesach.
What do you think, that G-d hates housekeeping? It's not an accident and it's not sabotage. While yes, you have to get all that chametz out, the very inefficiency of the arrangement pushes you to recognize that it's not about efficiency at all. It's not about having a clean house.

So, if not spring-cleaning, what is Pesach about?
It's about, Hashem came into Egypt suddenly to pull us out from nonexistence into existence and claim us as His own. The theme of the month is ahava, the love between G-d and the Jewish people. Pesach is the beginning of that relationship.
That relationship was formed in chaos. The feeling of not being ready is an essential part of Pesach. We threw the dough in the oven and ran.
No one said, “Wait a minute, G-d. This is too much chaos. I'd like to stay a slave in Egypt until my dough finishes rising.”
Lechtech acharai bamidbar be'eretz lo zarua, you followed me into the wilderness, into a place where the housekeeping was total chaos. Yeshuas Hashem k'heref ayin, it happened in the blink of an eye.
On Pesach we love G-d through chaos.
Just relax and enjoy it. You can get to places on Pesach that you can't get to the rest of the year. Make room for that.

4.  It's All about the Bottomless Supply of Chocolate.
A member of our community recently raised the question of how to explain the concept of chametz to her two-year-old.

My first thought was that before she switches her kitchen to Pesach mode, she could show the child how yeast produces bubbles (Loops like to cheer it on - “Eat, yeasties, eat!” - like Klara drilling Latin), and how those bubbles manifest in the finished loaf, but not in matzah.
But the truth is that when Loops was two, I didn't bother trying to explain chametz. It was all about look at these fancy pretty dishes with blooming irises on them, special for Pesach and here is your fancy new dress with pretty sparkly buttons, special for Pesach and here is matzah, special for Pesach. I hide all the things I want to buy her anyway in the closet for months and then give them to her special for Pesach.

Adults are big two-year-olds and the same principle applies.
In practice (says the halacha) this usually means that men buy meat and wine for themselves, dresses for their wives, and nuts and sweets for their children.

(My inner two-year-old also likes that the logo on the kosher-for-Passover seltzer bottles is the heroine from East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon, which is my favorite fairy tale because it reminds me of Jewish history: the wife wandering the world with a candle in her hand looking for her polar bear husband.)

Childish pleasures are a real part of loving Pesach (thus codified in halacha) and not to be sneezed at.

5. Get a Handle on the Haggada.
The haggada is totally incomprehensible until you put in effort to understand it but then it unrolls and it seems obvious that each paragraph couldn't have been anything else. Apportion some time before Pesach to learn where it takes us and how.
Here is Rav Leuchter's explanation. (truffles truffles truffles)

Apart from that, the four cups correspond to the four stages of the exodus:
1. And I will take you out
2. And I will save you
3. And I will redeem you
4. And I will take you to me to be a nation

This isn't a number game, it's the progression the seder follows. In the course of the evening we relive the experience, starting with being slaves in Egypt, and ending with Hallel for having come out and then Nirtzah. On top of that there is a custom to stay up and recite the Song of Songs.

At the beginning of the seder we put away half the bread for later, “just in case”. By the end of the night, there is no more concern about “just in case”. We take out our reserve and eat it, before G-d, as a korban.

The seder is not about “each person comes out of his own personal Egypt” and it isn't necessary to go down that route to make the seder meaningful. It is about a historical, national experience. You were there.

To review:


1. Know exactly what you're cleaning for.
2. Start with spring-cleaning if that's what comes naturally...
3. ...BUT recognize that Pesach is about ahava, not spring-cleaning.
4. Please your inner two-year-old. This is halacha.
5. Get up an understanding of where the seder takes us and how.

Happy Pesaching!