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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Va-y-chi: Mary Poppins, Eliza Doolittle, and the Value of Perspective

Many years ago, there was a beautiful young actress with an exquisite singing voice who landed the lead role in a magnificent new Broadway musical.

When it came time to turn the musical into a landmark movie, however, Hollywood producers doubted that the young actress had adequate screen presence, so they gave the choice lead role to a proven film star--even though her singing voice was so weak, her songs would be dubbed by a behind-the-scenes vocalist.

As a consolation prize, the young actress was offered the lead role in a pleasant, lightweight family film.

The young actress was Julie Andrews. The veteran film star was Audrey Hepburn. The magnificent-musical-turned-landmark-movie was My Fair Lady. The family film was Mary Poppins.

As it turned out, both films were made in 1964, and both actresses were nominated for an Oscar and somewhat surprisingl, it was Julie Andrews who won the statuette. Reporters asked her: Do you think you got the award because people felt sorry for you about being passed for the Eliza Doolittle role? to which  she replied with consternation, of course not.

Skip ahead in time some four decades, after Julie Andrews has crowned her long career with numerous films and a return to Broadway, has cemented her reputation with a whole new generation in the role of Queen of Genovia in the movie series The Princess Diaries, and has become a celebrated children's author to boot. Once again, she is asked if she thinks she got the 1964 Oscar as a consolation prize.

This time she smiles mischievously and nods. Yes, she says, there probably is some truth to that.

A long story to be sure, but it held my sixth graders spellbound when I told it as we discussed Va-y'chi, the last portion in the book of Genesis. There is so much to talk about in this moving and bittersweet story of reconciliation and closure--but the part that I focused on is the moment when Jacob, now reunited with his beloved son Joseph, goes to bless his grandsons. He puts his right hand on the younger grandson, and his left on the older--even though the older should get the benefit of the right hand. But before he speaks, Joseph, the boys' father, jumps in and urges that his father switch hands.

There is so much irony in this scene -- after all, Jacob himself "stole" his older brother's blessing through trickery, and Joseph was also a favored, albeit younger, son. As a boy, Joseph gloated and bragged about his undeserved, elevated status. But in this portion, an older and wiser Joseph tries to set things right for the next generation.

So I ask my students: Why do you think Julie Andrews reversed her answer the second time she was asked? Why do you think Joseph had a change of heart with regard to favoritism?

Personally, I think the Torah is teaching a lesson about the passage of time and the acquisition of perspective -- but my students surprised me with their own spin on the story. They pointed out to me that the young Julie Andrews was still creating herself and building her career. She couldn't afford to let her guard down by admitting that her Mary Poppins performance may not have deserved the Oscar.

Forty years later, my students said, of course Andrews was able to admit the truth. She was star, and her career was assured. She no longer had anything to risk.

Joseph, they added, also had come out on top by the time he was a father. At that point, they said, he could afford to hold a more balanced view about whether a younger son should have the privileges that normally go to the older one.

Then I asked: What about you? Have you ever seen things  one way in the heat of the moment  -- but understood things differently after time had passed?

They had many examples, but one student's response stands out in my mind. "Sometimes you get into a fight with a sibling or friend," she said, "and they say, 'You did this!' and you say, 'No, I didn't!' But then when you look back on it, you sort of say, 'Yeah, I guess I did."

As usual, my heart goes out to  my group of preteens, who naturally see everything through a prism of risk and uncertainty, and react automatically by going on the defense. Letting go of an advantage or admitting vulnerability is risky, in their world. It can put you in an emotional place that you really don't want to be. Getting older means becoming more certain of who you are. At that point, you can afford to let down your hair..

We talked about such sayings as, "Time heals all wounds," "With age comes wisdom," and "When you're mad, count to ten before you saying anything." My students agreed that perspective is a valuable commodity.

And while they were talking, they were giving me some new perspective as well.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Vayeishev: The Power of Words

A few years ago, a friend and I took our ten-year-old daughters to participate in a community art activity. At lunchtime, we walked into the one nearby deli. It was the type where  you get your food at the counter, and because it was so busy, so my daughter and I quickly ordered a couple of kosher hot dogs.

As my daughter went to get mustard and I looked around for a free table, I heard my friend's daughter from behind me, talking loudly enough so there was no doubt I'd hear. "Mom, even if it's kosher, you'd never let me eat a hot dog, right?" she said. "They're really unhealthy, right?"

Now, I don't usually let kids' offhand comments bother me, but that one went through me like a knife. I'm not a big server of hot dogs, but they are easy and tasty, and they seemed like a good choice at the time. Still, I couldn't help feeling embarrassed and regretful for feeding my daughter something that others considered off-limits. I'm sure this little girl didn't intend for me to feel bad (and, incidentally, her mom ended up buying her a bag of  greasy chips that were probably more unhealthy than the hot dogs); but I did. The fact is, words can hurt.

I think about this event when I teach Vayeishev, this week's Torah portion, which centers around the famed character Joseph and his tense relationship with his 11 brothers. As you probably know, Joseph is his father Jacob's favorite son. He showers praise on the boy, which makes the other brothers mad, and gives him -- and only him -- a fancy, colorful coat. The brothers' jealousy gets the best of them, and they end up selling  him to a slaveowner and convincing their dad that Joseph died. They think this will make their lives better.

Much has been written about the character flaws that drive the action. Joseph, some suggest, is at fault for flaunting his colorful coat in front of his brothers, and for recounting dreams that suggest he is bound for greatness while his brothers are not. Many say that Joseph, at least at this point is the story, is a vain, boastful boy.

But I don't agree that Joseph has a personality defect, and I don't think he is narcissistic or insensitive. I think he is simply young.

Because I teach middle schoolers, I tend to see coming-of-age themes in many works of literature, but I think it's a particularly important aspect to this Torah portion. When Joseph recounts his dreams, he seems, at least to me, as free of malice as my friend's daughter was. He and she were both relaying stories and thoughts entirely about themselves. They didn't realize what impact their words would have, because they just weren't thinking about others.

One of the most important changes that happen in the middle-school years is that children start thinking more about what others are thinking. Considering how others hear comments or perceive actions boosts clarity and often leads to better decisions. As adults and teachers, we can help them get in the habit of always looking for other perspectives. With both my students and well as my own children, one of my favorite things to say is, "I know how you feel, but how do you think he (or she) feels?"

"We can't invite her to the concert because there would be too many of us!"
"I know how you feel, but how do you think she'll feel when she learns you're all going?"

"We don't want him to be in our study group because he talks too much."
"Okay, but how do you think he'll feel when he sees you studying without him?"

The Joseph story concludes with Joseph engineering a plot that shows not only that he has learned to think before he speaks or acts -- but that he is ready to teach that lesson to others. But that's for another week.

Not too long ago, I observed a teacher trying to manage a fifth-grade class. Now, these kids were being unruly, perhaps even disrespectful. But rather than asking them to think about how she felt, and helping them become more aware of the effects of their behavior, this teacher proceeded to single individual students out, stand over them, bark orders at them, and basically intimidate them. Sure, they behaved; but they also felt humiliated and defeated.

Sometimes adults need to learn the lessons of Joseph as well.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Veyeitze: There is a God!

It was a difficult September for our local community last year. The school year started off with a brawl that sent two kids to the hospital, and when the principal tried to investigate the matter to determine whether consequences should be levied, he was met with silence. No one was willing to take responsibility for participating in the fight, or even to admit having knowledge about the participants. Even adults in the community were silent, causing the local media to denounce the parent body as lacking in integrity.

The principal was frustrated; the teachers and coaches felt powerless; parents felt attacked and defensive; and the students were demoralized, viewing the prospect of another summer ten months away as the only bright spot in an otherwise cheerless year.

 And then, an amazing thing happened.

The soccer team began to win.

And win.


Game after game, through divisionals, sectionals, and regionals, the teammates played their hearts out. Gradually the stands started to fill with spectators cheering the team on. By the time the state championship rounds started, the school was transporting busloads of enthusiastic kids, who were happy to travel more than an hour to each game, because they were proud of their team, proud of their school, and glad to be part of the moment.

I asked my sixth-grade students: So what did I say to myself as all this excitement was building?

And because they had been prepped, they sang out the answer: God was in this place and I did not know it!

It's a famous line in the portion Vayeitze, and arguably one of the most joyous of moments in the whole Torah. Jacob, having tricked his father and stolen his brother's blessing,  has fled from home to escape his brother's wrath, and is wandering in the desert at night with nothing but a stone to use as a pillow. But once he falls asleep, he dreams of a unique and marvelous ladder that stretches from earth up to heaven, with angels traveling upwards and downwards. He awakes with the revelation that God was right there with him, even though he hadn't known it.

I asked my students whether they had ever experienced a similar realization, and as expected, many kids recounted stories of sports teams that unexpectedly had winning seasons. But then one particularly insightful student spoke up.

"What are you saying -- that you really think God made your team win?" she asked. "Are you really saying that a miracle happened when your team won?"

It's a great question, given that we invoke God's presence all the time when something that could have gone wrong, goes right. "Thank God!" we sigh when a toddler who appears to be missing shows up around a corner. "There is a God!" we exclaim when a perennial cheater or scammer finally gets caught.

One girl in my class said she felt like saying "God is in this place and I didn't know it," one morning at school when she couldn't find her English homework and then discovered it hidden beneath a seam in her book bag. Another girl, a competitive figure skater, talked about going through a practice where she couldn't land any of her jumps, and then skating perfectly a short while later during the actual competition. She described feeling confused and unsettled during the practice because her difficulties didn't make sense -- and then feeling relieved when she ultimately performed the way she knew she could.

Ultimately we came to the conclusion that when we say, "God was in this place..." it's because we're feeling that the universe somehow makes sense, and that our actions are bringing on expected results and consequences. We feel safe and at home in our skin and in the world. Things feel right.

When I dismissed the kids later that morning, I felt good. I had prepared a good lesson, and all my students had been engaged and involved. There hadn't been any unexpected surprises. The morning went the way it was supposed to.

I smiled as I turned off the lights and left the classroom, thinking, "God is in this place, and I didn't know it."

Friday, March 8, 2013

Vayak'heil-P'kudei: What Can Tweens Give?

It happened nearly everyday when I picked up my sixth-grader from school.

"How was your day?" I asked.


"What happened at school?"


"Come on!" I teased. "You gotta give me something!"

She looked at me from the back seat, her backpack nearly bursting, her eyes tired from a long day at school.  And yet she might as well have been barefoot and empty-handed, with the pockets of her cut-off jeans turned out: "Nothin', Mom. I got nothin'."

This week, we have a combined Torah portion, Vayak'heil-P'kudei, in which Moses relays God's instructions for building the Tabernacle and other structures.  He tells the Israeli people that if their hearts are so moved -- that is, if they feel like it -- they should give their finest goods to God: their gold, silver and copper; their linens and yarns; their animal skins and wood; their oil and spices; and their precious stones. These will be used as raw materials for the building effort.

And what do the people do? They give their possessions willingly, with outstretched hands.

How did they get all this stuff? The Torah tells us that the Egyptians let the fleeing Israeli people have all their silver, gold and clothing. God intervened, we're told, and made the Egyptians look favorably on the former slaves.

But I think that subsequent verses hint at a more profound answer as to how the Israeli people were able to offer valuable gifts.

You see, the Torah goes on to explain that among the Israelis were designers and artisans and crafstmen -- people with specific and useful skills and abilities. It was the job of these skilled people to take the people's gifts and use them to fabricate the Tabernacle.

In this way, I think this portion helps us to understand that we all have gifts to share -- even when, as my daughter so eloquently put it, we think that we "got nothin'." The people, though only recently liberated from slavery, were willing to share anything they had -- and in so doing, they helped build the means to see God.

I knew that my daughter had many "gifts" she could give me when she got in the car every afternoon. She could tell me about an enjoyable conversation she had with a good friend, or a step she took to help someone, or a story about how someone helped her. She could tell me about a teacher who said something that made her feel good about herself, or a moment when random sparks connected in her brain and miraculously, an idea was formed.

But it was up to her to decide when her heart was so moved as to share these gifts with me.

Which means that it was my job to be there when her arms were outstretched and the gifts were there for the taking. It continues to be my job to do just that.

I'm reminded of a scene in the movie "Pretty Woman" -- not necessarily an appropriate movie for middle schoolers, or even a very good movie at all, but there's a moment in it that I like. It's near the end of the movie, when Julia Roberts is about to leave, and Richard Gere is sorry to see her go. "Impossible relationships," he mutters. "My special gift is impossible relationships."

As she walks toward the door, she gently tells him, "I think you have a lot of special gifts."

Middle schoolers have a lot of special gifts. And that's one of the most precious bits of knowledge that a parent can ever own.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Ki Tisa: The Roar of the Crowd

There's a scene in the Jimmy Stewart movie "It's a Wonderful Life" that's always bothered me. Yes, I know this is a Torah blog and that's a Christmas movie, but work with me.

Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, a man in crisis who gets the chance to see how the lives of his relatives and friends would change had he never been born. Even if you've never seen the movie, you can probably guess that their lives are greatly diminished in his absence. But I've always been more interested in the rest of the community. You see, with George Bailey as a community leader, the streets of Bedford Falls are neat, the shops are quaint, and the people are warm and friendly. But without George Bailey, the town -- now named Pottersville -- is seedy, the streets are lined with bars and X-rated clubs, and the people are mean and grouchy.

It's always troubled me, this view of group dynamics, which holds that people sink to their basest level without a strong and charismatic leader. According to this theory, it's the role of the leader to quell people's natural tendencies toward degeneracy, and to spur them to more cooperative and productive activities.

I think of this indictment of groups when I read this week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa. In Ki Tisa, we learn what the Jewish people have been doing while Moses has been up on Mount Sinai receiving laws from God. It's not a pretty picture! The people have created an idol -- the famed Golden Calf -- to worship, and they are dancing, drinking, and otherwise being, as Moses later puts,  "out of control."

As teachers and parents, we encourage our kids to behave like leaders. We portray individuals like Moses and Martin Luther King Jr., like Abraham of the Torah and Abraham of the Lincolns, as role models worthy of emulation. But in doing this, I think that we miss part of the picture. Psychologists tells us that middle schoolers hate to stand out. They want to look like everyone else, dress like everyone else, and act like everyone else. In short, they want nothing more than to blend in with the crowd.

Shouldn't we respect their inclinations, and try to figure out what makes a group successful -- even in the absence of a stand-out figure?

Why does one class of students continue to work if the teacher needs to leave the room for a moment, while down the hall, the kids will climb on their desks and hurl pencils at one another? Why does one group of middle-schoolers spend a Saturday night on their own, peacefully eating pizza and watching a movie in someone's basement, while another group of kids gets into trouble unless they are under the constant supervision of a parent? It can't be due entirely to the character of the individuals involved, since we all know children who act one way with one set of friends and the complete opposite way with a different set. What is the tipping point that turns Bedford Falls into Pottersville?

Can you find months an example in the Torah of a leaderless group that nevertheless behave cooperatively and productively? How does that group differ from the one in Ki Tisa? 

Above all, I think we need to recognize that groups -- whether families, school classes, or communities -- can do great things on their own. After all, there won't always be a Moses, or even a George Bailey, around.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

T'rumah: Oh Those Group Projects!

It's 2:30 in the afternoon, and I know what's coming as soon as I pull up to the curb at school and see the scowl on my sixth-grader's face. She climbs into the car, kicks her backpack, and skulks down in her seat.

"Guess what," she tells me angrily. "We have another group project!"

Group projects are the bane of a middle schooler's existence. They require patience, diplomacy, restraint, and a big-picture perspective -- characteristics and skills that don't always apply to your average twelve- or thirteen-year-old. Add to that all the drama that informs a middle-school environment -- crushes, shifting friendships, misunderstandings, hurt feelings -- and it's it's hard to imagine that any group project would have even remote chance of being completed.

My daughter is one of those kids who likes to stay on task, work diligently, and finish her assignments early whenever possible. So inevitably she gets grouped with at least one easy-going type who refuses to knuckle down until the eleventh hour. My daughter starts to make demands, the free-spirit calls her "bossy," the other kids take sides, someone winds up in tears, the teacher tells them to work it out, someone forgets to do his or her piece, another someone gets sick and stalls the whole process...

If there's one saving grace, it's that teachers tend to grade group projects fairly leniently. I think they know about the battle scars that inevitably result, and they try not to add to the pain. And some, no doubt, believe that the lessons kids learn about cooperation and collaboration may be more important in the long run than the quality of the finished product.

Funny enough, I've also discovered that middle-school groups tend to turn out some pretty special projects. Okay, maybe they're quirky and unusual, but that's what make them so interesting. As a parent and as a teacher, I've seen the most wonderful group projects appear -- posters, imovies, dramatic skits, painted crafts, and even decorated cakes -- that reflect a host of different personalities, and could never have been created by one student alone.

I think of middle schoolers and group projects when I read T'rumah, this week's Torah portion. In T'rumah, God issues directions to the Jewish people for building the Tabernacle, a kind of portable house of worship that will accompany the Jews through the desert. God tells Moses to have the people donate precious metals, skins, and specific types of wood. And God lays out dimensions and specific design requirements for the structure.

I can't help but see this task as a kind of group project, and I wonder how the Jews brought the thing to fruition. Did the strict rule-follower have the gold overlays ready before the acacia-table was built, and did this cause an argument? Did the free spirit want to play loose with the dimensions to see if the table might function better as a result? What if some of the group members were tired because they stayed up to watch American Idol the night before, so they lost count of the number of gold rings they were making? What if one of the members hadn't kept another's secret, and now the two of them were in a fight about just how long a cubit actually was?

How does the middle schooler in your life take to group projects? What role does he or she play? Does completing one group project help the next one go more smoothly? Is there any way to lessen the group-project stress?

Knowing what I do about human nature, I suspect that the Tabernacle didn't come out exactly as God specified.

And I suspect that ultimately, it was good the way it was.