Thursday, October 31, 2013

The First of the Lasts: Retirement Inches Closer

So already, many of my twelfth-graders have their foreheads pressed up against college early-action/early-decision deadlines this week, so they have been engaged in epic amounts of crafting and revising, fretting and plodding in alternation.  Still, I think the pressure is easing a bit:  it's almost over.  For many of the students, the deadlines have been extended to sometime next week, due to problems with the Common Application web site.  My big fantasy right now is that come mid-December, through some snafu that crosses dysfunctional web sites, many twelfth graders across the US will discover that they now have their own health insurance, while thousands of health insurance applicants nationwide will discover that they've just been admitted to college.  Hmmm . . . .

It's been some weeks since I've written about  approaching retirement and the questions that it raises -- about next steps, time, and losses and gains.  But last week had a number of noteworthy "lasts"-- and suddenly I could see retirement standing in the wings getting ready to come onstage after I finished my scene.  I figure that in my education career, I've written no less than 650 letters of recommendation for aspiring college applicants.  But last Wednesday, I wrote the last one of them. I even enjoyed writing it because it was about a student who has so much to recommend him.  But still, I was glad it was my last -- and that I could retire my royal blue folder. 

Last Thursday night marked my last-ever evening of parent conferences.  Yes, I was okay with that.

I can get used to these two lasts.  But I had a more poignant last on Tuesday when my AP English Literature and Composition students went on our annual "War Memorials Field Trip."  We did this in preparation for our study of  Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."  My former Pilot School history-teacher colleague Betsy Grady and I conceived this field trip many years ago when we co-taught these poems in interdisciplinary units that contextualized them in their historical moments while asking if and how they resonated in the present. 

Betsy and I got the idea because not only is Cambridge Rindge and Latin School located within easy walking distance of several war memorials -- most notably on the Harvard campus and the Cambridge Common -- but it contains a memorial to the city of Cambridge's war dead within its own walls. Back in the 1990's, we wondered whether the kids actually ever looked at the inscribed names that they passed regularly while going to and from gym classes -- and if they did, we wondered how often. And while some students reported knowing that there were names and wars listed, most reported spending no time actually reading the walls. The degree to which we did and should pay attention has always been a more emotional discussion topic when students have had siblings or other family members who are or have been in the military and overseas on active duty.  Discussion of the "good guy we" has grown more complicated over the years as increasing numbers of our students come from Vietnam, Japan, and other countries which they remember, and to which they return regularly if not often to visit relatives "who remember."
Over the years, we learned to ask students to look in complete silence at the names, and to think about a number of questions.  What wars are represented here?  Does anybody here have your last name -- or a name like yours? Are you related to someone whose name is on the wall?  What do you think of the number of names here? Do you see any women's names here?  After some quiet observing, we've generally headed outside to start to talk about what we've seen, what's surprised us, and what we've been wondering.

Since I've started teaching AP, there have been some curricular changes that seem to have affected our perceptions of the memorials. Usually, we have headed off on our field trip when we've just finished Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One, which portrays armed and armored noblemen engaged in a conflict that yields significant casualties. And what we have encountered are memorials that outfit and equip soldiers who died in much later conflicts characterized by  technologically "advanced" ways to maim and kill --  the Civil War and World War I -- as if those soldiers had lived and died a few hundred years earlier and might have crossed swords with Henry IV himself. 

Furthermore, we have usually just read a Veterans' Day speech written by a college friend of mine in which he talks about what it has meant to him throughout his life to have been named for an uncle who is honored on both the Korean War and Medal of Honor plaques in Harvard's Memorial Church. So my students (here they are en route to Memorial Church -- I've been very careful both here and above to use only photographs that will not allow you to identify any of the students individually) have gotten to hear at least one answer to a question they've generally posed:  how would I feel if I personally knew -- or knew the family of -- someone who's up here on the wall?

It's a heavy day, but a great day, an unrushed opportunity that requires everyone to put aside at least for an hour the usual school routine augmented in intensity by the college application process. We've been very lucky that every year that I've led this trip, Memorial Church has been empty, so we've had the church to ourselves to explore in silence  -- unless, as was the case this year -- and the kids always love this -- the church organist is practicing some piece that dominates the whole church until it ends, leaving us to explore in its ringing absence. Even though our field trips have generally happened in late morning, the unworldliness of those moments has always reminded me of the first stanza of one of Emily Dickinson's poems:

               There's a certain Slant of light,
               Winter Afternoons --
               That oppresses, like the Heft,
               Of Cathedral Tunes --
There's a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons –  That oppresses, like the Heft Of Cathedral Tunes – - See more at:
There's a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons –  That oppresses, like the Heft Of Cathedral Tunes –  - See more at:
There's a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons –  That oppresses, like the Heft Of Cathedral Tunes –  - See more at:

Homework is always the same after this day -- to write a "War Memorials Freewrite" about anything or everything that's on your mind as result of today's field trip.  This has been one of my favorite assignments to read:  one experience, so many varied responses.  Regardless of the variation, however, the students have all chosen in their own ways to begin to wrestle with one of the questions that guides the unit: "How – and why -- do we love and mourn 'great' strangers whom we 'know' and admire?"

I will miss this day. And I don't know if there ever will be another War Memorials Field Trip at CRLS. 

I do know, however, that there will be more Hallowe'ens at CRLS, though today was my last "high school Hallowe'en."  I wore my special Hallowe'en scarf -- the one with the candy corn border; and when one of the new Bilingual/English Language Acquisition teachers -- she makes incredibly good chocolate chip cookies and is married to a very memorable former student of mine -- asked me about my jack-o-lantern pinkie ring, I made a snap decision:  "I'm going to give this ring to you after today.  This ring belongs in a school on Hallowe'en."  You can see the ring here sitting next to my computer mouse.  I love that ring, but it needs to be around lots of kids.  So today was the last time I wore this ring to school on Hallowe'en.  For some reason, that felt like a terrible but right loss.  I think there are going to be more of these.

There's still a lot to be done before it's over -- two more end-of-the-term's worth of papers, exams, and grades for sure. These are the seasons of the school year that make all teachers' lives about late nights, early mornings, online grade system anxieties, endless negotiations with students about "what they can still do and by when." The four "personal teaching stuff" file cabinets at the left represent all the folders and papers that I need to go through before my final exit:  a lot of mysterious content that I can probably toss with curiosity but little emotion, but also lots of old units and old courses that it took me years to develop.

There's one "last" that I'm working toward -- but it needs a process.  That's providing the monthly poetic reminder to the staff of CRLS, past and present, and to our colleagues and friends from elsewhere, that the first Friday of the new month is upon us, requiring us  to gather at Grafton Street, known in the old days as the Bow and Arrow Pub and the older days as Father's Six.  It's the bar that's featured in Good Will Hunting. 

This month's poem discusses the need for identifying a new First Friday poet, or several of them, relatively soon.  So I end this post with my poem -- and with gratitude to Shakespeare for Henry IV, Part One and  Macbeth -- and with a promise to report other lasts as they occur.

"When shall we . . . [all ] meet again?

In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

When the hurly-burly's done,

When the battle's lost and won?"

Of course, the day aft Hallowe'en --

The usual place, at 3:15 --

When souls and saints are 'twixt and 'tween,

And Term I's end is clearly seen!

All saints.jpg

As light declines each day an ember,

We'll meet time next the First, November

In might right rites of Friday First --

Do not to good times be averse!

Eye of newt, and toe of frog,

Pint of ale, mug of grog,

Stein of beer, and glass of coke,

Join together, lass and bloke!!

MACBETH WITCHES.jpg10252013_75324_1.jpg

But now my months but number three

'Tis time to cease this poetry

And hand this monthly happy chore

To colleagues who have some months more.

And I am sure that it is mete

These monthly bans for Grafton Street

Must stem from pen that writes at Rindge --

Upon this doth tradition hinge.

First Friday's bard must so well know

When staff feels joy and staff feels woe,

When grades are due, when MCAS roars,

When spirit sinks and spirit soars.

Macbeth 3.jpg

And I, alas, your longtime bard

Will not find it all that hard

To yield this monthly call to rhyme

To one or more in few months' time.

Perhaps a CRLS Bard Council

Will craft together verse whose bounce'll

Rouse us to our proud tradition,

Keep Grafton Street our monthly mission.

And in some shadow, perhaps lurks

A secret poet whose writing quirks

Will steer our First Fri steady ship

With generous heart and ready quip.

And while I'll write just two poems more,

I'll always pass through Grafton's door!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Howard's End #3: Closely Watched Trains of Thought

So already, I love Margaret Schlegel.  But what's really intriguing me at the moment is the relationship between Margaret and E.M. Forster, or that narrator of his in Howard's End.

In Chapter 2, Forster describes Margaret as "not beautiful, not supremely brilliant, but filled with something that took the place of both qualities -- something best described as a profound vivacity, a continual and sincere response to all that she encountered on her path through life."  Not mere cheerfulness, but "profound vivacity." Sigh!

Interestingly, Forster makes Margaret an orphan.  The legacy of her father and mother seems to be only Margaret, her brother, and her sister; their father's sword; and pieces of furniture that seem perfectly suited to the rooms of Howard's End. 

Maybe Forster (I'm now going to talk as if Forster himself is the narrator, even if I'm wrong about that) does that so he alone can be her protector and her very gentle critic. In my second Howard's End post, I spoke about Margaret's aborted attempt to join Mrs. Wilcox at King's Cross -- imagination was dismissed by family. (Maybe this is why Forster gives Margaret no interested or concerned parents?) But earlier in the novel, Forster reveals that "Like many others who have lived long in a great capital, she had strong feelings about the various railway termini. They are our gates to the glorious and the unknown."  That second sentence feels stream-of consciousness to me:  Forster has just switched from reporting that Margaret attaches meanings to railway stations to saying in her voice what purpose those stations play in "our" lives.  

What could be more romantic, more confident of happy triumph than such a thought! I could imagine thinking such a romantic thought to myself at various points in my life, could imagine imbuing a physical place with significance and symbolism; but I can also imagine feeling both silly and inspired to be thinking such a thing -- probably silly enough that I would either mention nothing about it, or share it with a very, very few carefully selected friends.  But unlike Margaret Schlegel, I'm not being tailed by a third-person limited omniscient narrator who occasionally quotes my inner voice.

But only a paragraph later, Forster protects Margaret from our (with "our," I'm referring to all of us as the readers) unfavorable judgment:  "To Margaret -- I hope that it will not set the reader against her -- the station of King's Cross had always suggested Infinity."  Forster then lays out Margaret's reasoning, revealing that she is keenly aware of the London's commercial preoccupations: "It's very situation -- . . . -- implied a comment on the materialism of life.  Those two great arches, colourless, indifferent, shouldering  between them an unlovely clock, were fit portals for some eternal adventure, whose issue might be prosperous, but would certainly not be expressed in the ordinary language of prosperity."

So now we have the double understanding challenge of an "unlovely" clock flanked by disinterested arches ironically marking the point of origin of an "eternal" enterprise -- and a language related to prosperity that is insufficient to the task of explaining the rewards of such a time-transcending enterprise.

Anticipating that we might find this baffling and dismiss Margaret as strange or out of her mind, Forster swoops in to rescue her by blaming himself for our potential negative opinion, and reminding us that there's no harm in Margaret's ideas:  "If you think this is ridiculous, remember that it is not Margaret who is telling you about it; and let me hasten to add that they were in plenty of time for the train; . . .."  Thoughts of greatness and eternity emanating from King's Cross do not hinder Margaret from getting to the station in time. Forster assures us that Margaret can imagine, philosophize, and continue to function in the world of ordinary time.

But this is exactly where my Forster-as-the-narrator assumption could break down:  this narrator is not talking as if he created Margaret, which Forster did. Or maybe, the narrator is Forster, and as the creator and chronicler of Margaret, he has wound her up and let her go, empowering her to have authority over her own story and views. Or maybe he's just playing around -- because it's his book and he can if he pleases. I vote for the last option.

Margaret talks about trains again as she joins her life to Henry Wilcox's.  She explains to Helen, who disapproves of men of commerce, 

     "If Wilcoxes hadn't worked and died in England for thousands of years, . . . There 
     would be no trains, no ships to carry us literary people about  in, no fields even. 
     Just savagery.  No -- perhaps not even that. Without their spirit, life might never 
     have moved out of the protoplasm. More and more do I refuse to draw my 
     income and sneer at those who guarantee it."
For Margaret, trains have become practical necessities, symbols not of beckoning glory, but of progress and material comfort purchased by commerce; they've metamorphosed into needed transport for those who pursue "the glorious and the unknown" but who hardly can be counted on to figure out how to travel there. Margaret ends her defense by taking a stand against hypocrisy -- always noble.  She's the deficient one here; the Wilcoxes and their like are the liberators and civilizers -- the dependable ones and perhaps even the visionaries.  Helen interrupts Margaret at one point; the narrator doesn't. 

But right before Margaret delivers this mini-lecture to Helen, the narrator says, "She waved her hand at the landscape, which confirmed anything."  I love that Forster doesn't say "which confirmed nothing."  He's still on her side!

And as for Margaret, her ability to argue for the romantic and the pragmatic in alternation is good-hearted and hopeful, but . . .

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Howard's End #2: Beginning to "Only Connect"

So already, the great news today is that my student, Solomon, is loving Howard's End.  He's read the first twelve chapters, which we began talking about today, and he's hooked.  Yesterday, as we planned that we'd each choose ahead of time some passages from Chapter X and Chapter XI -- they blew him away -- to discuss today, he remarked that he already knew this was a book a person could read multiple times and always have new thoughts about.

Recently, Solomon has been talking a lot about loving books that portray people who are in conflict -- whether or not they understand the conflict, or are choosing to acknowledge it to others, or even to themselves.  He's fascinated by the degree to which the characters in these books are willing to explore and confront whatever differences distinguish them and to resolve the conflicts between them, even if that simply means respectfully acknowledging their differences, or walking away from each other because of them. So Howard's End is very satisfying to him in this regard.  

Solomon's interest in how we come to understand the simmering and overt differences between people, especially as readers of literature, made him aware much sooner than I was of the way Howard's End's anonymous narrator regularly inserts societal commentary into a novel that seems to be mostly about two families and a house.  I think that because I so quickly became fascinated by Margaret Schlegel and her relationship with Mrs. Wilcox, and then with Mr. Wilcox, I paid less attention on my first reading to the narrator's remarks about London and its inhabitants.  But I couldn't ignore the narrator  (Forster as Forster?) and the way he seemed to be enjoying himself when he pronounced at the beginning of a paragraph in Chapter XIII, "To speak against London is no longer fashionable."  It was a relief to know this.

I plan to write about London and England, and about Margaret Schlegel's relationship to them, in a later post.  As a matter of fact, this topic has been the root of my sustained fascination with this novel since I reread it.  Once I got beyond being obsessed with what was transpiring between Margaret Schegel and Mr. and Mrs. Wilcox respectively -- no doubt fueled by my reverence for Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, and Vanessa Redgrave -- I became completely fascinated by Margaret's relationship to London, and even to England as -- I think -- some kind of a function of her relationship with Howard's End itself. I haven't been able to wrap my mind completely around what it is that Margaret's negotiating with England, and with herself -- which is where Solomon comes in.

I'm so excited that Solomon seems drawn to those same passages that make me stop and say, "Wait a minute, has the tone just completely changed?" or "Wait minute, how seriously should I be taking him here?" or "Wait a minute, are they understanding each other at all? Are they even really listening to each other?" When, in Chapter X, Margaret regrets not accepting Mrs. Wilcox's spontaneous invitation to go to Howard's End that very afternoon, the narrator reports, "She had failed to respond to this invitation merely because it was a little queer and imaginative -- she, whose birthright it was to nourish imagination!" Is he being mocking? serious? kind? appreciative?  some of the previous? all of the previous? A little later, after Margaret reverses her decision and joins Mrs. Wilcox at the train station, he seems more on her side:  "Before imagination could triumph, there were cries of 'Mother! Mother!' . . .."

I'm wondering what kinds of relationships London and England can have, will ever have, with imagination, according to Forster.

This is all my way of saying that I think my conversations with Solomon are going to help me develop answers to the questions I have. Solomon and I are connecting here, so other connections are bound to be forthcoming. We're actually choosing a lot of the same passages to share and discuss.

And speaking of "Only Connect," here is a picture of a store I saw in Cushing Square in Belmont, MA a few weeks back.  I don't know if this business is opening or closing -- the storefront was definitely looking empty, but that could signify extreme newness or yet another failure to "only connect," at least with Belmont consumers. Somehow I don't think that the tree on left side of the photo is the wych elm -- a very English tree. Even so, clearly Forster is electrifying!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Ode (Owed) to the Kids

So already, for the first time in a number of years, ninth-graders are a part of my daily school life. My ninth-grade homeroom group -- or community meeting (CM) group as we call them at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School -- reminds me on a daily basis of what it is to be fourteen-turning-fifteen. Even the coolest ones who like to sit on the periphery of the group need only a gentle reminder to move closer and join in. Maybe my CM co-teachers and I are just very lucky, but lots of the kids raise their hands when we're having full-group discussions; and individual kids initiate conversations with us.  We manage to raise an occasional smile even from the small number of kids whose tendency is to whine, complain, and lament.

In general, they're a sunny group who are very much viewing high school as some great big buffet table:  they talk a lot about what to join, sample, check out, in their quests to "get involved" in high school. They want to like high school. They're also  very creative as a group:  in a skit they co-developed to dramatize the consequences of stealing at CRLS, they had one boy actually play the role of the stolen cellphone (the thief fled with the phone-boy on his back); and when it came time to decorate our door for "Aloha Day," they worked miracles using post-it notes.  Lots of them right now are gathering signatures to run for Homecoming Prince and Princess.
Like all CRLS CM groups, we receive weekly guidance, suggestions, and resources for ensuring that the students know about school-wide opportunities and can reflect on how their own behavior and attitudes are helping or hindering them as students beginning their high school careers.  Recently, we had two days' worth of CM stimuli directly related to the recent research on the roles that  grit and resilience play in school and life success:  research says that students who "bounce back" from setbacks and disappointments (we didn't discuss the factors that predict resilience) often learn more and achieve more than students who are more intelligent* but less resilient.

The day we were supposed to discuss resilience, I was excited because resilient behavior was occurring at that very moment in our CM group:  two girls were raising money for their sports teams -- volleyball and soccer respectively -- and were both needing to persevere in their efforts to find classmates to sponsor them per mile for a fundraiser road race -- because not everyone was willing to pledge.  So I said to the group -- and I'm changing the names of the students as I must -- "We have resilient behavior happening in our group right now.  We have Shawna and Nancy  trying to raise money for their teams, and they have to be resilient -- they have to keep asking, even if three times in a row, they hear 'no.'"

"You forgot Karen," three voices said practically simultaneously. "She's raising money for her team, too."

Suddenly, I got it. I remembered.  

These were ninth-graders in their first month at a new school, and I had committed the crime of not noticing one of them.  Resilience didn't matter to them -- neither the concept, nor my unbelievably relevant, in-time, highly personalized example of it. What did matter to them was not being unknown, anonymous, or invisible (even if cool behavior made it appear that some of them wanted to be unseen or overlooked).  Furthermore, no one wanted anyone in our CM group to be unknown, anonymous, or invisible.

I should have remembered this.  I've taught so many ninth-graders over the years and loved watching them grow over the course of a school year, even the ones that made me want to tear my hair out.  But my teaching of ninth-graders occurred before pacing guides and common assessments became such prominent players in teachers' instructional decisions, before aggregate data from standardized assessments became the primary way -- or even the only way -- that schools gauged their success.  In the 20th century, there always seemed to be plenty of time to know one another and plenty of time to learn, and the two were invariably connected.  Furthermore, I was entrusted with the power to decide how to use the time I had with my students to foster learning and community, even though the term "learning community" hadn't yet been coined (or so I think).

It's not the Common Core that's the problem.  The problem is an educational establishment that attends relentlessly and exclusively to the quantitatively measurable while professing its commitment to the "whole child" and to equitable "college and career readiness" (which means preparing all students to become innovators, which means helping all students develop certain skills and habits of mind that aren't readily reflected in quantitative data). And there's another problem, too: iterations of the Common Core that focus almost exclusively on basic skills development, essentially ignoring the document's guidelines for 21st-century skills development. Check out this graphic: very good stuff, but nothing particularly innovative, collaborative, and creative -- so perhaps not good enough?

Frankly, the moment I was most excited about the Common Core's potential was when I attended the Deeper Learning Conference** in San Diego last April and saw presentations featuring student projects, many interdisciplinary, that teachers, students, or both had aligned to the Common Core standards. In fact, in a number of cases, the students had been required to submit proposals that specified the Common Core standards with which their proposed projects would align. Although I appreciated the degree to which the school encouraged accountability, what really excited me was the investment of the students, evident in both the quality of the projects themselves and in the documentation of students' processes in creating them.  These projects weren't about the students themselves, but they radiated the students' interests, concerns, knowledge, talents, and values -- and, yes, their investment.  My ninth-graders would have felt visible and proud to have made such projects. 

I just finished reading Ron Berger's An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students -- and it gave me just the shot in my educator arm that I needed. That word "craftsmanship" is such an unusual educational word choice.*** It suggests personally held very high standards and the pride associated with them; it suggests beautiful products (Berger talks about the importance of beautiful work -- not just high quality work) and the pride associated with them. In Berger's book, an extended project about the quality of drinking water in people's  homes became about community service and personal ownership simultaneously for the sixth graders who undertook and met its embedded science and communication challenges. No invisibility here: so much relationship between students and work, students and teachers, students and students, students and community.  No skills for skills' sake; plenty of skills for the sake of the project, though.

Alignment, inspiration, and personalization:  a great combination for ninth-graders -- and for all high school students. Ninth-graders are a very special case in terms of their initial need for being noticed.  But high school students of all grades need and want to be recognized (some clamor; others wait and hope) as individual people -- perhaps not by their teachers, but by somebody -- and to better understand who they are, what they're good at, what they might love, what they want to know more about.  

This is much on my mind as my seniors write their college essays, many of which are due on November 1.  They've all already begun to "prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet," though we're not even beginning "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" for another two weeks.  It's a poignant, meaningful, stressful time for them; the stakes are high. 

Meanwhile, my student Solomon -- also a senior treading this path to self-understanding and next steps -- is blogging about Kurt Vonnegut and Phillip Roth and their very personal effects on him, which he values highly; I hope you'll check him out and respond. "The Kid That Nobody Could Handle" by Vonnegut is definitely one of those stories that raises all kinds of issues around invisibility, caring, assessment, judgment -- what really matters when.  At least it happens in a school that has an arts program.  When I reflect on my ninth graders' ability to use post-it notes as art materials, I know they're already brimming with innovative  and artistic capacity.  Hope they get to develop it.

* "Intelligent" as measured by traditional intelligence tests. 
** These projects generally came from schools in which project-based learning played a central if not exclusive role in student learning.
***"Culture" is a little more usual, but still unusual:  if you can't quantify it, why talk about it, I fear the "evaluators" would say.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Fire and Knives: Reflections on the Pew Research Center's Recent Survey of American Jews

So already, Tuesday, October 1 was no regular Tuesday.  On that day, my father successfully underwent surgery, I celebrated my fifty-eighth birthday, -- and the New York Times reported the results of the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project's survey of American Jews. As the first sentence of Laurie Goodstein's article summarizes, "The first major survey of American Jews in more than 10 years finds a significant rise in those who are not religious, marry outside the faith and are not raising their children as Jewish -- resulting in rapid assimilation that is sweeping through every branch of Judaism except the Orthodox."

I find myself having strong feelings about what this New York Times article reports -- and I say this knowing full well, as I explained in a July blog post, that my own life makes me part of the statistics that alarm me personally:  I belong to no synagogue, have married a man who isn't Jewish, and have not produced children, thus have raised no children as Jews.

So I find myself wondering how many Jews, who, like myself, belong to no synagogue, would be really upset if there were no synagogues at all.  How would we feel, what would we do, if there were no synagogues that we could visit for the occasional service, head over to in search of rabbinic counsel, or choose to join? Personally speaking, I would feel really upset.

Interestingly, it's been the culture of some synagogues* that has been problematic for me:  too family-oriented, too suburban, too affluent for one whose life and work are decidedly urban and cross-cultural. So the Jewish cultural belonging I have felt has been most often outside of the synagogue -- when I am with members of my family who represent all kinds of active and passive Jewish life, and when I am with Jews I know from work -- because we've all made similar choices about how to express our values, Jewish and not Jewish, in our work lives -- and often even in our home lives.

But given that synagogues respect and even cultivate Jewish cultural belonging -- the delicious, celebratory, and communal aspects of Jewish life -- I especially find myself wondering why Jewish "cultural belonging" has grown increasingly detached from Jewish "religious belonging," as I'll call it here.  Are many American Jews, even some of those who are active in synagogue life, so immersed in the familiar cultural "euphoria" of the delicious, celebratory, and communal that the religious takes a back seat -- so that, for example, the celebration of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah as an achievement somehow obscures its importance as the commencement of the adult phase of Jewish interior as well as communal religious life? Is the robustness of Jewish cultural practice inadvertently drawing people away from Jewish religious practice? I ask this question (it occurred to me last night that I ought to add this thought) knowing that the rabbis I've had the chance to know are always working to be sure that people experience the cultural and the religious as profoundly connected.  I know that as I write this, I may be emphasizing a division between culture and religion that may not really exist -- but people's responses to the survey are suggesting that this line exists in their minds.

Personally, I wonder if Jewish culture in the absence of Jewish religion poses a threat to Judaism as a religion, as a set of practices, beliefs, values, and texts and stories that require study and interpretation. Since culture seems to me to be in a perpetual state of mutation, existing always as a combination of transmitted traditions and innovation based on circumstance and agency, I wonder at what point Jewish cultures might cease to have any resemblance to one another and -- even more importantly -- to have any traceable connection to Judaism as a religion. Will we get to a point that if anyone who's Jewish does something or believes something that other Jews as Jews adopt and pass on, that something will become a variation of "Jewish culture"? 

I find myself thinking of Philip Roth's short story "The Conversion of the Jews"** as I reread Goodstein's report that "In a surprising finding, 34 percent said you could still be Jewish if you believe that Jesus was the Messiah."  I am trying to make sense of the fact approximately 1/3 of self-identified American Jews feel this way, while only slightly more than 1/5 of American Jews identify themselves as Jews religiously. Is there some kind of relationship between these statistics that needs exploring? Are culture and values enough to make one Jewish? Personally, I can't let go of the idea that what Jews believe matters. And frankly, I don't want to.  I think Jews are different, and not just culturally different.  Not better, but different. I think every religious group is different but not better. Being a Jew is definitely better for me personally, though: I think that what we've always known, unless we object to it on some important grounds, is often the best spiritual fit for us for that very reason.

That said, I find myself wondering what American Jews*** think about belief itself, specifically about what happens when one commits to belief; commits to saying, silently or out loud, maybe not even in words, "I believe"; commits to a religious tradition, not just a cultural tradition. Maybe the question is what happens next if one commits to belief and religious affiliation in the heart. I thought about this a lot when I taught "Religion and/in Literature" at the Pilot School, and I came to believe that belief, like any other kind of commitment, exacts something from people.  That's why in my Teaching for Understanding planning and curriculum articulation, there was one understanding goal that remained constant across the various religion-centered units:  "What does (insert the name of the religion) ask of people, and what does it offer them in return?"

I know that such a question opens the door for those who strongly dislike religion to jump in. I know a number of them personally, and I know their argument, proven so often, is that religion leads to war, terror, and death. Personally, I'm not comfortable blaming religion for the actions of those who abuse it, but I also don't know how to document religion's life-preserving contributions -- although I did find myself really grateful for the prayers that so many people, Jewish and not Jewish, were offering on behalf of my father last Tuesday.  

So I find myself thinking of knives.  We all know that knives can cause injury:  they become lethal weapons under some circumstances on the street and in the air, and almost all of us have had the kitchen experience of cutting ourselves while chopping, slicing, or dicing.  And still we need and keep knives, and we keep them sharp. We take responsibility for our knives because we know their power:  we wash them, dry them, and store the with care.  We teach our children to respect and eventually to use these tools, and our kitchens would be poorer places without them. And we marvel at and express gratitude for their contributions to our cooking.  Given that we need to eat to live, we can't imagine our lives without knives.

I also know that my understanding goal question, and in fact my whole "Religion and/in Literature" course, leaves out the experience of those who feel no need for organized, institutional religion, and often for God.  To those who list for me the countless places where and ways that they experience the divine, without needing God or affiliation with a religion, I think I can understand: I see what they're looking at in the art museum or in the forest, I hear the music they're hearing that advertises divine inspiration.  As a Jew, I feel lucky that so many aspects of our lives and the phenomena we encounter are acknowledged and appreciated as a matter of Jewish practice. Back when I was a student at the Hebrew school at Temple Emeth, I received a prayerbook that has ten pages dedicated to "everyday blessings"  -- prayers to be recited on the occasion, for example, of "smelling fragrant woods or barks," "putting on a new garment," "eating any fruit for the first time in season," "witnessing lighting, or beholding falling stars, lofty mountains, or vast deserts," or "seeing the rainbow."  I love that Judaism sanctifies and thanks God those phenomena that I believe we often experience as divine.  

Interestingly, the prayer book ends with "The Star Spangled Banner" -- so I guess religious life at Temple Emeth was not separate from American life.  Which reminds me of another strange aspect of this prayerbook:  it was given to me in 5725 -- forty-nine years ago -- for "Excellence in Studies."  Does this mean the kids who were less excellent in their studies were not given prayer books, were provided with fewer tools for reaching out to God?  If so, maybe we've come upon another reason that culture is triumphing over religion in 21st-century America!!

Which brings me back to my Sabbath candles. For a long time, I lit them weekly for reasons of culture and family tradition:  my candlesticks belonged to my maternal grandmother, and my own candle-lighting habit derives from my mother's faithful Friday night lighting. I have also been perpetually inspired by my paternal grandmother's faithful celebration of all Jewish occasions:  I remember visiting her in December when she was ninety-one years old and realizing that she was lighting her menorah nightly, as she had done as a Jew her whole life. I've been lighting Sabbath candles much of my adult life, but it's only been since my "spiritual efforts" of this past summer that I've been lighting them more out of belief than tradition.  I am still feeling very much at the beginning of my "personal" relationship with God, so I use candle-lighting as my weekly opportunity to connect, to be in relationship with Him.  It still feels quite strange at times, but it does feel real.  And I still don't know how I really got here.  It has me wondering where "belief" will and must lead me next.

By the way, I love that as an American Jew, I can light and keep my candles on my dining room windowsill:  no need to conceal my Jewish practice (as the Crypto-Jews did) from the state; no need to fear my neighbors' retaliation in the Wollaston section of Quincy.

So the flames of those candles bring me weekly right back to Moses and the burning bush. Some scholars say that that bush was always burning -- whatever that might mean -- but it wasn't until Moses was "ready" that he could actually see it.  I know that Billy Joel wasn't writing about this when he said, "We didn't start the fire/ It was always burning/ Since the world's been turning," but I worry that Jewish culture divorced from its religious roots might make it more difficult for people to see those burning bushes that are yearning for us to see them.

* Please note:  I haven't looked all that hard for the "right synagogue," so my critique should in no way be generalized. I'm hoping to have more time for synagogue shopping in my retirement, especially given my most recent spiritual developments.
** In this story, Ozzie Freedman asks the rabbi at his religious school why God, who enacted so many miracles in the Bible, would not have been able to produce a virgin birth in the Gospels.
*** I could just as easily be asking this of other American religious groups; I have many friends and acquaintances, for example, who identify more as cultural Christians than as believers.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Solomon's Blogging!

So already, my student Solomon Abrams is blogging -- this week, about blogging itself -- and also about the experience of being a high school senior doing the requisite college touring.  The URL for his blog is <>, and the blog itself is called Blogging on Blogging, Literature, and Writing.

Being Solomon, Solomon has predictably found a distinctive perspective from which to experience the college tours that he's taking. He's moved from paying attention to the tour guides (I'm not sure how much attention he's paying to the colleges themselves, but he may already know all about them from their web sites) to paying attention to his potential fellow applicants and their families -- and not just to their faces, smiles, reactions, personalities. I'm pretty sure that when I was on the college visit circuit forty-one years ago, there were far fewer of these big group tours than my current students seem to go on with regularity and intensity.  As a matter of fact, I can't remember one.  But maybe I'm blocking as well as blogging!! Solomon, meanwhile, has managed to find a way to take it all in stride.  And striding generally requires shoes. 

Hmmm . . . So I find that often when I type the word "blogging," I initially mistakenly type the word "blobbing." Solomon's other post in some ways is a defense of both blobbing and blogging.  He's been doing some research about the role of blogs themselves, particularly blogs that offer opinions, interpretations, theories, and personal tastes and preferences related to literature. And he's been reading some blogs and articles about the importance of people's being able to publish blog posts and comments on blog posts, even if these people write without particular skill, discipline, grace, or beauty.  A proliferation of voices, sincere voices (which can be very funny voices, we know from Vonnegut and others), seems to be what blogs have to offer. They communicate something of individual and communal value, even if they do so without literary verve.  They hit singles rather than home runs, so they help the team as long as other hitters and runners are also contributing.

This has me wondering what Walt Whitman would have thought about blogs.  "I hear America blogging"?