Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Playing school--with real results

To a casual observer, I'm shortchanging my kids. 
Every morning after davening, we settle in for our schoolwork--all 45 minutes of it!  Thing 1 practices her reading in English and Hebrew, copies letters, and plays around with math, while Thing 2 cuts, pastes, and practices her ABCs and aleph-bet.  A couple poems and a story later, and we're done!  Our day then takes on whatever form we want--whether it's working on Frontier Girl badges, doing art projects, taking a trip, or just playing around.
And, yet...
Thing 1 can read.  She has a decent sight vocabulary and can figure out most one- and two-syllable words.  She can write letters that are completely legible.  She can add and subtract in her head.  Thing 2 can use crayons and scissors with relative accuracy (for a 3-year-old), and knows all her upper-case letters, most of her lower-case ones, and her numbers.  Also, the Things can find the US on a blank world map, classify vertebrates by class (fish, amphibian, reptile, bird or mammal), and can tell the difference between vertebrates and invertebrates (in fact, Thing 1 named the coral as an invertebrate).  They can identify George Washington and Barack Obama from pictures.  They know their Jewish holidays, can talk about the parsha, and can daven.  They know brachos, are learning to bentch, and know a thing or two about kosher laws.  So, whenever I get insecure about my decidedly loose approach to homeschooling, I just have to remember that.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The loss of a great man

When someone who has lived a long life passes away, it may not be a tragedy.  After all, this is someone who lived a full, rich life, worked, married, brought children into the world, traveled, and experienced life.  However, it is a great loss, because there are so many who were touched by this person, so many who will miss him.
So it was with Kurt Sax.  When I lived in San Diego, he and his lovely wife Ruth sort of "adopted" me.  I feel towards him the affection most reserve for their grandparents.  He taught me for my Bat Mitzvah, and in terms of both age and length of time known, he was easily one of my oldest friends.
Although he died over a week ago, I only found out yesterday.  Kurt, the world will miss you.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Whose schools are they?

Over at the blog Breathing Space, I read an article about the moral cost of Jewish Day School.  The article stated that because of the rising cost of tuition, families have to work longer hours, spend less time with their kids, and are steered away from professions that do not draw six-figure salaries.  Some families even choose to have fewer kids.
Of course, all of this falls into the old news department.  Tuition is high, and will continue to rise even in a down market.  Families spend less time with their kids and are more stressed out.  Usually, after bringing up all these downsides to the high cost of tuition, the half-cocked solutions come out of the woodwork.  Usually someone mentions vouchers (without realizing that the state will not give money without major state strings.)  Someone else mentions community funding.  This is one solution that people like.  Give your maaser money to the schools, and keep them afloat, so that we can educate klal Yisrael and keep it going.
Which brings me to the question--whose schools are they?  Are Jewish day schools and yeshivas a community resource, to be funded and utilized by the community at large?  Or are they private institutions, able to cherry-pick students on the basis of grades, family reputation, or hashkafa?
Judging by my experience, I'd have to go with the latter.  And, if I'm right, then I have to say this: suck it up and deal.  If you want to act like a private country club, fine.  However, you then can't turn around and cry poverty, insisting that everyone in the area pay your bills.  If my kid isn't good enough for you, then neither is my money.  And, after what happened, it will be a cold day in hell before I support institutional day schools.

Friday, May 18, 2012

What did I sign up for--Omerta

Omerta is the term for the Mafia's code of silence.  I'd say it works in the Nechemia Weberman case.

So much for family values.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

No beauty queens here

Although I've often prided myself on my intelligence, I really wish that I could have been pretty.
For years, I've consoled myself with the thought that even if I wasn't a great beauty, I had least had an interesting look.  I read a lot of classic literature, and a number of my favorite heroines were not classic beauties.

"Well, they didn't pick you for your looks, that's sure and certain," was Mrs. Rachel Lynde's emphatic comment. Mrs. Rachel was one of those delightful and popular people who pride themselves on speaking their mind without fear or favor. "She's terrible skinny and homely, Marilla. Come here, child, and let me have a look at you. Lawful heart, did any one ever see such freckles? And hair as red as carrots! Come here, child, I say."  
Anne of Green Gables

“Ill or well, she would always be plain.  The grace and harmony of beauty are quite wanting in those features.” 
Jane Eyre

"Why does she say I am a beautiful child?" she was thinking. "I am not beautiful at all. Colonel Grange's little girl, Isobel, is beautiful. She has dimples and rose-colored cheeks, and long hair the color of gold. I have short black hair and green eyes; besides which, I am a thin child and not fair in the least. I am one of the ugliest children I ever saw. She is beginning by telling a story."   Sara Crewe, A Little Princess

These characters, however, had an odd charm, where they couldn't be dismissed so easily in the looks department.  I'd often hoped that I could fit in to that category.  Sure, Queen Mom told me that I was pretty.  But, in all seriousness, what is one biased voice against a whole class calling you a "dog?"  My parents discouraged me from putting effort into my appearance.  Consequently, I knew nothing about how to dress to my advantage, how to wear makeup or deal with my hair (which was usually an overgrown, frizzy mop that I just tied back), or even how to pluck my eyebrows.  Usually, I'd skulk around with either drab, baggy, dark outfits, or else some hand-me-down from Queen Mom that was several years out-of-date and way too matronly for fourteen.  If I owned makeup at all, it was from the dollar store.  (Few choices, so most of it didn't work.)  Needless to say, I didn't attract a lot of male attention.  Sure I had a boyfriend as a teenager--if you could call him that.  We went through the motions of dating, but I wasn't really that interested.  Not to mention that I was usually about a thousand miles away.  I ended it when I started college.
After that, I didn't receive any romantic interest until the week before I graduated, two and a half years later.  The guy looked like Quasimodo without the hump--and had a personality to match. 
By the time I was twenty, the ugly duckling began to transform into a swan.  I cut off the frizzy mop, and started going for the pixie cut.  I began to wear bright colors and more fitted clothing that brought out my coloring.  I also figured out the mystery behind makeup.  By the time I was 22, I started putting my sewing talents to work making funky eyelet peasant blouses and halter sundresses, fitted tops in bright brocade, satin tunics, floral skirts, and little hats (OK, so most of those were crocheted.)  I developed a love affair with vintage and floral.  And, for the first time, I felt pretty.  Even though I will never be a beauty, I at least can make myself into an odd charmer.

Being tifrosh min hatzibur part 2--Rejection

In my last post, I talked about the ways in which my disagreements with the Jewish community were intellectual, and not based on personal rejection.  For the most part, people have been nice to me, so long as I keep my thoughts to myself.  (This is why I blog.)
Of course, there are exceptions.  For a total of two hours last year, I was made to feel like the dirt under someone's feet because I was a BT with a mind of my own.
A little background.  As many longtime readers know, my kids have never been students in any kind of school.  Last year, when Thing 1 was four, I decided to make Builder happy by checking out about five schools.  One Hasidic school near my house said right off the bat, "if you're not Chassidish, don't bother applying."  Fine with me.  Three others I rejected.  All three had the same problem--nice people, but the school itself wasn't academically rigorous enough for Thing 1's mind.  (I know, I know, all parents think their kids are geniuses.).  In one case, the school touted itself as a Montessori program, but only one of the teachers was fully Montessori certified.  For 15 grand a year, you'll have to do better than that.  Of course, Builder only saw what he wanted to see--nice little girls in nice little uniforms sitting at nice little tables.  But when I look at a kindergarten classroom, I want to see books--where were they?
And then Builder persuaded me to apply for a school that, for reasons that will become clear, I will refer to as Bais Yaakov of Doom (BYOD).  Apparently the principal had gone to yeshiva with Builder.  Also, the school was in walking distance, so no long bus rides.  To make Builder happy, I filled out the application, put on my good shaitel and a nice, modest outfit, and went to the interview determined to play along.
I needn't have bothered.
As soon as Builder walks in, he immediately assumed that Rabbi BYOD is an old friend, and starts shmoozing.  However, I could tell right away that Rabbi BYOD didn't know Builder from Adam.  First thing Builder says, "My wife is a BT who wants to homeschool the kids," in that "ha ha, big joke, she's a little weird but let's humor her" tone he always uses when he talks about the Things being homeschooled.  (Normally, I got around the question by stating that I believed preschool-aged children were better off with their parents if possilbe, and avoided the word homeschool.)  Immediately, the focus of the interview switched away from Thing 1 and right onto me.  (All he did with Thing 1 was ask her to draw some flowers.)   Rabbi BYOD informed me, in the most patronizing tone possible, that I was making a huge mistake.  He said Thing 1 would have a hard time adjusting both academically and socially.  She's be bored to death, have few friends, and it would be my fault.  Also, as a BT, I couldn't possibly understand the importance of the yeshiva system in a Jewish child's development.  For about the next two hours, he berated me on all my life choices.  He even refused to acknowledge that my kids were in a weekly Hebrew class.  He was aided in this by Builder, who told him that I was a social outcast (his exact words were "my wife has no friends,"), and that I let the kids watch TV.  (For the record, I let them watch non-commercial programming only, and it must be pre-screened.  Also, I only let them watch while I cook dinner.)  Rabbi BYOD even went so far as to give me the phone number of a woman who could "help" (read: brainwash and insult) me even further.  When I showed Thing 1 the number and she read it, Rabbi BYOD, informed me that the damage was done--because chldren shouldn't know how to read numbers until they were five.  (Too bad, jerk!)  Then he asked me what the rabbi who mekareved me in San Diego would think about my homeschooling.  By that point, I was past caring about being polite.  I responded: "You'd have to ask him.  Of course, he homeschools his OWN children."  Afterwards, we looked around.  I peeked into a Pre-1A classroom, and the teacher asked in my daughter was applying for kindergarten.  "No, Pre-1A."  "Does she know how to cut, and color within the lines?"  the teacher snapped back.  It was the first time I'd ever encountered a nasty individual whose job was the teaching of primary aged children.  Afterwards, I informed Builder, "If Thing 1 doesn't get in, I never want to hear the word 'school' again." 
Thing 1 didn't get in.  Builder blamed me.  I was relieved that she wouldn't ever have to deal with those nasty people again.  However, Builder sometimes says, "Wouldn't it be nice if she went to BYOD?"  No Builder, it wouldn't.  I would hate to think of those horrible people convincing my sweet little daughter that her mother is dirt under her feet because of her BT status.  My biggest fear was that my little girl would come home one day and say, "Mommy, I don't have to listen to you.  You're nothing but a BT."

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The irony of being tifrosh min hatzibur

Lately, Ive been thinking a lot about why I stay.  I have a list of disagreements with the frum community--the bigotry, the arrogance, the materialism, the sheer unsustainability of the kollel lifestyle, the shoddy, overpriced workmanship (Builder excluded--he's an amazing contractor!), the Balkanization along sectarian lines...so, why I am still here?
Simply put, because these issues affect me on a very intellectual level.  For the most part, everyone I've run across--my in-laws, my neighbors, my former landlord, the people in the various shuls I've davened in--have been very nice and accepting towards me.  So, I've learned to smile a lot and keep the controversial topics for the blog.
And therein lies the irony.  I am separating myself from a community made up of very nice people.  True, I may fundamentally disagree with them on many levels, but as long as I wear the costume and keep my remarks non-committal, I can find acceptance.
For the most part.
To be continued...

Sunday, May 13, 2012

What did I sign up for--Bigotry

Two months after Builder and I got married, we took a trip to Cleveland to visit his extended family.  While there, I got the shock of my life--the "n-word" crossing Jewish lips.
Now I'm not shocked.  I'm just appalled.
I've become accustomed to the all-too-frequent use of the word "schvartza" (a Yiddish version of the n-word).  However, my completely secular parents, the ones who supposedly had no values, never used racial slurs, and taught me never to use them.  All the ones I'd heard of, I picked up from TV--but I hate them all.
The truth is, there is only ONE race.  No group is superior to another.  And those most likely to apply the N-Word are just as likely to drop the K-Word.  We do ourselves no favors by trying to emulate them.  They will always see us as "children of the Devil" or whatever slur they wish to use.  We win ourselves no friends, and gain no respect.  All we do is alienate those elements of the world who might sympathize with our plight.

Friday, May 11, 2012

A true gadol hador

Rav Shteinman was presented with a question--a mechanech in a yeshiva had a parent with two boys enrolled in the school.  The father was about to get married to a woman who was more "open" and wanted to enroll her children in his kids' school.  The school was concerned that these kids would have a negative impact on the entire student body.  Here is Rav Shteinman chewing them out but good!!!!!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

What did I sign up for--Abuse and cover up

The New York Times has an article today about the Orthodox community's cover-up of sexual abuse and molestation.  According to the article, those who report suspected molesters to the authorities are harassed repeatedly by other community members.  Some have even lost homes and jobs over this.  Meanwhile, the molesters themselves keep their positions and their honor intact.
For all our knowledge, we haven't come very far.  In some ways, we've gone backwards.
The Talmud recounts the famous story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza.  (According to the Talmud, this story is why the Second Temple was destroyed.)  A man had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza.  By some mix-up, he accidentally invited Bar Kamtza to a party he was having.  When Bar Kamtza arrived, the host threw him out.  Bar Kamtza offered to pay for the whole party if he could stay and be spared the humiliation of being evicted.  However, the host refused, and threw him out anyway.  Bar Kamtza was angry--not at his host, but at the rabbis at the party who stood by and did not intervene.  So, he got back at the entire Jewish community.  He went to the Romans and told them that the Jews would not accept a sacrifice offered by the emperor.  The emperor sent a bull, but Bar Kamtza cut its lip, blemishing the animal and making it unfit for sacrifice.  When the animal was refused, the Romans retaliated by declaring war on the Jews and destroying the Temple.
In a lot of ways, we are no different.  We stand by silent while our own members are dishonored and humiliated.  We then turn it around and blame them.  The only difference is that we will not be destroyed by an outside authority, but from within.
In the meantime, for a group that claims to value families and children, we are permitting the murder of the souls of hundreds of children.  No one ever gets past abuse.  Especially when the abuser seems to have the community's stamp of approval.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Happy birthday, Piano Man!

Today is Billy Joel's 63rd.  Happy birthday to one of the greatest lyricists of our time!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Torah Homeschool Conference--a review

Yesterday, my friend N and I went to the Torah Homeschool Conference in Baltimore.  We went last year, and although it was fun, it had a very "thrown-together" feel.  No such criticism applies to the year's conference!
While there were a number of familiar faces from last year, there were also some new people, including a number of people from the NY/NJ area.  (I guess Bergen County tuition is as bad as they say it is.)  I also got to match a number of faces to names that I see online.  The weirdest meeting for me, however, was seeing someone I used to know from San Diego--although this is a person I would have nominated for "Most Likely To Turn Frum."  She used to sit in the balcony of a Conservative synagogue.  Guess she went all the way.
As for the speakers, there seemed to be a nicely overarching theme of all for Torah.  One speaker discussed integrating Kodesh and Chol--without bringing up creationism!  Another talked about the importance of teaching your children a love of Hashem and his Torah first--all the rest will follow.  A rabbi, who also ran a maple syrup farm up in Vermont, spoke about the importance of financial literacy.  Jennifer from Adventures in Mama-Land discussed different techniques for educating little kids.  Finally, a panel of veteran homeschoolers answered questions.
All in all, a great day and a wonderful motivator!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

What does "Al tifrosh min hatzibur" mean?

Over Shabbos, Builder and I have been learning Pirkei Avos.  (Yes, Builder is progressive enough to want to learn with his WIFE!)  This being Chapter 2 (Perek Bet), we came to the famous line, "Al tifrosh min hatzibur."  "Do not separate yourself from the community."  And, surprise surprise, the inspiration for this blog title.
But what does that mean?  Does it mean simply that an individual should march in lockstep with the rest of the Jewish army, swallowing down every chumrah, every Torah interpretation, no matter how far-fetched?  Or does it mean that we,  the Jewish people as a whole, must not seek to wall ourselves off from the wider community?
In my opinion, the latter holds true. 
Of late, we've become so obsessed with maintaining some bizarre idea of "kedusha" that we've forgotten how to treat people.  We shun those who are different, even through no fault of their own.  We look for differences as minor as type of head cover, color of shirt, or style of eyeglasses.  Our homes are virtual clones of one another.  We track our children into paths that we chose for them, regardless of their own aptitudes.  And we are quick to cast out those who are different. 
Somehow, I don't think that's what G-d intended.