19 March 2014

Experiments in Teaching Medieval Jewish History, Part II: Bavel (from 750)

The Chosen Path is an ideal textbook. But our school doesn't have it, so I made my own.
Here are some sources I liked (whether or not I shared them with the girls).
NB I have no idea what sort of sites I'm linking to here or whether they follow copyright law - I found all these sources in my house; I just looked up these links so the Gentle Reader can see them too.

-There's a very enlightening passage from the Meiri's introduction to Pirkei Avos about why the gaonim didn't write much.
-The Baghdad part of the Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela.
-The first voyage of Sinbad the Sailor and what I take to be its original source – the Gemara is a powerful mashal explaining Jewish history in galus. As for its peculiar appearance in Sinbad, well, I think this is  interesting even if no one else does.
-Story about R' Achai Gaon – in The Carlebach Haggadah. Since I didn't have time to find anything in the She'iltos itself.
-Story about R' Saadia Gaon – that one about doing teshuva every day for yesterday's understanding of Hashem.
-R' Saadia Gaon's ten explanations for shofar (these are included in The Book of Our Heritage, pp. 31-33)
-I gave them a random piece of Emunos ve'Deos part 5 from the hakdama, about how knowledge works, and part 6 from same, about the relation of mesora to knowledge. I call this random because I did not go through the Emunos ve'Deos to get a sense of it before picking these out.
-I also gave them a piyut by R' Saadia Gaon and had them write the next stanza. They all read their compositions aloud in class – it was rather a magic moment.
-Letter from Yitzchak bar Dorbolo  - amusing example of the shu”tim that got sent to the gaonim in Bavel.
-R' Sherira Gaon's letter describing Torah study in Bavel and asking for people to continue sending shu”tim and financial support. I don't know if this was part of the Iggeres or some other correspondence.
-I'm still looking for something by R' Hai Gaon. All I could find in my house was a poem.
-I don't think I have sufficient excuse to give them part of Tennyson's poem about Haroun al-Raschid...
-Maxfield Parrish's painting of medieval Arab pirates. Silly, but I love the colors. [they are not quite true in the link.]
-There are a lot of great passages on the Islamic lands in Bernard Lewis' anthology A Middle East Mosaic: Fragments of Life, Letters and History. Random House, Inc., 2001. I found some poetic treatises on government (I love that the Persians, Moors, &c. cannot write about the driest of political science without putting their thoughts into rhyme or fairy tales about owls) and descriptions of the markets where pirates sold their captives.
-The Pact of Omar. Why people share this when they get to Spain, instead of back in Bavel (which was also under Muslim rule), I have not figured out.
-Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted is a very clear summary of Islamic history from Mohammed to the present. I didn't give the girls any passages from it, but I did draw on what I learned from reading it.
-Here's my theory on why people became Karaites.

Falling on One's Face in the Haymow: Some Thoughts on Russian Novels

Part One: The Unhappy Family

The characters in certain Russian novels, as a genre, have a curious habit of experiencing great revelations, falling on their faces in moments of ecstatic clarity, shouting their innermost thoughts with many exclamation points and many ellipses, and setting off into the future with bold ideals aflame within them. They are forever going into raptures or suicidal rage over the time of day, the sticky leaf buds, the fact that no one answered the door, or just how Russian Russia is. You know that someone is a bad guy in a Russian novel when he has the presence of mind to speak at something less than full throttle and in French.

(What I find especially curious about all this expressiveness on the printed page is that most of the Russians I know in real life are extremely reserved.)

I was trying to figure out whether the emotional intensity comes about because the protagonists of these novels are all in their teens or early twenties (there is always the wise old man with a Russian face who serves as a sort of foil to their youthful exuberance and confusion), or if this is how a person should live, even as an adult: in a constant state of amazement.

There are little revelations in my life, even daily when I remember to notice them, but I am not shocked that there are revelations. I occasionally discover something new and exciting to become but it does not make me fall on my face in the haymow; it feels more like checking the mail and learning that there is a sale on the pots I need from IKEA: like, oh, yes, correct, goody, what hashgacha, let me put that on my calendar, it will be fun to get round to that.

I began to wonder whether the emotional intensity of Russian novels should be attributed to the fact that so many of them were written by aristocrats: perhaps, I said, this is what people experience every day when they have no housework to do (since no matter what turmoil you experience in life, dishes remain dishes)...

...but no. The answer to this riddle (thank you Rabbi Estuary) is that one doesn't experience constant, dramatic, sweeping redefinitions of self and the world unless one is a bit lost about how to define oneself to begin with.

(In other words, you don't make a good Russian novel unless you are an “unhappy family”...)

Part Two: So What Is Life Like in the Happy Family?

In the Megilla of Esther, Achashverosh wished to rescind the taxes from the province to which his new queen belonged; and, when she would not tell him which it was, he rescinded the taxes from all 127 provinces. This morning I saw (in Rav Brevda – so the Gra, probably) a strange verse in Ch. 10, at the very end of the Megilla. There has been life and death and political intrigue and hangings and rioting in the streets – and what is on Achashverosh's mind? Reinstating those taxes. Achashverosh hu Achashverosh, he remains the same villain at the end that he was at the beginning; he is completely unaffected by Purim.

Which is not the case with the Jews, who are still putting a fedora on the lab skeleton and turning the furniture in the classroom on its nose to celebrate Adar, not even Purim yet, a thousand-odd years later.

So yes- a person is supposed to be sensitive to the lessons set out in this world. “When life gets boring, make yourself interesting,” said Rabbi Iridescent to me, once. Or as my friend Zokaif said once, sometimes we need to furnish our own background music.

The little revelations do not make for great Russian fiction, but they are not so little for that. Sometimes the sticky little leaves are in the housework.

G-d is in the Megilla although His Name is not.

My Dream House from When I Was, Oh, Much Younger

I unearthed an old journal recently and found in it the description of my dream house which follows.
The house was meant to be constructed in an ideal world in which lavish expenditure no longer presented  moral difficulties.
If I were to design my dream house today, it would look rather different.
Ovens like this - more or less - actually do exist.
Errors sic:

Now then. A kitchen must be primarily warm colors, and there must be much sun. Everything must be eminently cleanable. The oven must be the most efficient thing this side of the Nile. Therefore I shall have, in one corner, a great mud oven like the Tryphillians. It will not be a massive block; it will have nooks and crannies cut into it. So on winter days, one can tuck one's shoes in to dry, and climb on top to sit in a warm seat and smell baking bread and read. There will not be only flat benches. I shall have seats at strangely comfortable angles, and mounds to be used for tables... in fact there will be a pair of seats with a table between them expressly for studying Gemara. And there will be seats where one can easily reach over and adjust the oven without losing one's place in one's book. The inside of the oven will be large enough to bake pies and breads and casseroles and lasagnas and what-have-you, and it will have several doors so that one need not burn oneself to reach the back. In fact – as I don't know the laws of oven kashrut – perhaps we will have two ovens in this mud complex. Never fear, it will be painted with traditional Scandinavian designs, and will not be too large. It will be a thing of beauty and a joy forever and extremely useful. The smoke will go out a chimney from the two ovens and from the fireplace (dear me, we must have a fireplace!). And it will smell so delicious on Friday afternoons that all the hobos and whatnot from miles around will come to the door, and I can feed them my wonderful challah from my large oven, and they if they like can stay for Shabbos and we will have all these yeshiva-bachurs sitting around on the stove learning Gemara in the winter. Our house will be a meeting place for Sages […] Yes, that's what we'll have. A traditional Scandinavian/Ukrainian kitchen, with wonderful Scandinavian/Ukrainian/Italian/Israeli/etc. food, full of Eastern-European etc. yeshiva-bachurs, and they can hang their kapotes or whatever on the oven and they will dry nicely. (There will be stovetops, too.)

I think I will have a mud floor in the kitchen, to reflect the light. In some rooms I shall have mud and in others wood. I shall wax the floors in some rooms (the mud will have a sealant on it) so that we can all go sliding around in our socks.

Hanging from the wood beams on the ceiling of the kitchen, I have drying herbs and my pots and pans, which are copper. If one needs for whatever reason to go atop these beams (for they are sturdy and support weight, being broad) one simply need climb the oven. So I can have all these Gemara-kops sitting on the ceiling, learning – what fun would that be, to learn Gemara on the ceiling, fragrant herbs dangling below? By the way, the mud is a lovely light color. And it is easy to clean, being smooth.

The sink will face a window. And beside it, cut into the wall, I will have cupboards with cute little door in which to store sponges and soap. The doors will be of delicate wood sticks, and they will be sliding doors. There will be no dishwasher if I have anything to say about it. Ah, I know! Some of the people who spend Shabbos with us will stay on and we will teach them a trade, and they will help us if they wish if we have not time to get all the cleaning done. Nor will there be a dryer, though I suppose we must have a washing machine. It will be in a room just off the kitchen so all the soapy water things are in one area. The room will be quite dark, so it will be good for testing flashlights and whatnot. It will have however a powerful bulb with a cord (not a switch; I think cords are more fun) so probably halogen, so that one can easily determine if one's clothes are stained. It will be the ideal room for make-believe for children because of the darkness. We can string clothes from wall to wall, or what-have-you. The washing machine will be something quite small; we will tuck it into a closet with a cute little door. It will be silent.

The floor in this wash-room will be of wood. It will be squares of different colors of wood and each color can be used for a different pile of clothes. Thus one can toss dark clothes on the ebony square, and light clothes on the birch, and extra-hot water on the palm, and delicate on the willow, or whatever woods they use these days. It will be an easy way to teach children to sort clothes. And inlaid in these woods will be pictures of the trees whence they came, so that laundry-sorting will be an aesthetic exercise. There will be a broad swing that can be lowered from the ceiling (exposed beams are not always beautiful, but we can make them so, and they will be wonderfully useful in all things) so that one can sit beside one's laundry pile if one wishes, and swing back and forth above the piles, tossing clothes as one passes.

Another room off the kitchen is the parlor/living room/dining room. Perhaps the Remarkable Oven forms part of the wall between them, if there is one, so one may have the fireplace in the parlour. It is exceedingly Scandinavian, with built-in benches. It is a wood room, with many windows. We will eat in this room. Inside the built-in seats is storage space.

Two rooms open off this humble room; both are for entertainment. One is the spare room with no ostensible purpose. It is all Middle Eastern à la Sheharazad. Brilliant colors of tapestries, and silks, and all other exotic materials (all, I assure you, from fairly-paid workers!) adorn the walls; the floor is piled high with pillows. There are low tables here. Some of the furniture – though there is very little – is made from the odd materials people make things out of on islands (but of course none of it comes from animals that died anything but a natural death). There is mother-of-pearl, and horn, and coconut-shell, and quill, and shell. It is a lovely room. When we have lots of guests we use both it and the parlour. For both are parlours.

The other room opening off these parlours is the fancy-shmancy room. It is large, for when we host dancing events or NCSY parties or what-have-you, it is here. This is the only room of the house with a Versailles/Winter Palace-ish theme, and even that is restrained to be tasteful. As you ought to have figured out, the rest of the house is vegetable. This room is mineral. The floor is of black-and-white stone  à la Delft, in checks. The walls, I must confess, are gilded BUT ONLY HERE AND THERE, FOR I AM NOT A ROMANOV. They are wood, with twining inlays of flora and fauna, and many mirrors. There are great sweeping draperies. Inlaid into the inlays are precious stones, in the most tasteful places. In short, it is the royal ballroom, a sight for sore eyes, and the place of elegance.

Let me see. The kitchen is fire. The Scandinavian parlour is earth. The Sheharazade parlour is water. The grand ballroom is air. Perhaps I ought to do solid, liquid, gas, plasma... or the four humours. Hee hee hee.

Adjoining the grand ballroom is the library, and it is breathtaking. Its wood is more refined than the rough lumber of the Scandinavian parlour, but it is still a dark color. There is inlay in places, but it lacks the jewels of the sweeping ballroom. And it does not twine quite so much. Think not grapevine but sealing wax. The library is full to the brim of books. It is a most amazing sight. The banisters leading up to the second level – for it is a two-level room – are perfectly polished and curved to effect a most enjoyable ride. Velvet couches are placed here and there on which to sprawl and read. There is one of those funny round chairs as well, and a porch swing beneath the stairs. If necessary, the doors can be opened so that the library adjoins the ballroom. It has high, tall windows, with the draperies to match. It is a room full of light. It opens onto the gardens, which I shall get to later, about the time I assign a color scheme to everything. Or perhaps it is in the center of the house. I shall decide later.

Somewhere in this house there are bedrooms and bathrooms. I think all these rooms shall be on the second floor. So let me first put a ground-floor bathroom in place. It is a sensible guest-bathroom, with a toilet and sink. And a mirror, of course. The floor is of the same black and white check as the ballroom, but the bathroom is small. Tapers frame the mirror above the sink. The counter is generous, so guests preparing to dance can dump all their makeup on it.

As the guest bathroom is downstairs, I suppose the guest bedroom had better be as well. It is a sweet, homey thing. It is a sunny room.

O, I nearly forgot part of the ballroom! Cut into the outside wall – if there is one; if not I will move it elsewhere – is a clear glass case. In it, each in its own tiny pigeonhole, is a collection of clear glass marbles. So we can take them out and play marbles on the vast marble floor, and the rest of the time the light shines through their many colors.

Now can I go upstairs? Yes. The children's rooms will be connected to each other with sliding walls à la Japan that can be locked on either side. So that when everyone is in a good mood, the rooms are really one long row of beds in a long room. They are all of birch wood and are well-lit.

Experiments in Teaching Medieval Jewish History: Connect the Dots

So, if I were writing a textbook, I would make a nice tidy outline for each chapter.
But, under the circumstances - and given that each era of history is such an interesting bundle of people and places and ideas all interacting with each other - I wrote the terms for each unit all over a piece of paper, and told the girls, “connect the dots”.
The non-linear thinkers love it, the linear thinkers hate it, but in practice they all take their notes on this paper.

As an experiment, I gave a list of the exact same terms, in the exact same non-order, but left-aligned on the paper.
The lights went on for the linear thinkers. They said they realize now, retroactively, how well they understand everything, now that they see it in a nice straight line.
So, I learned something.

06 March 2014

The Language of Loops

Loops (formerly introduced on this blog as Babyloops) has mastered the English language. More or less.
She has added a few excellent words to it:
yourternity leave
serving metensils