Non-Jew

One of the persons who commented on the article I submitted to English Journal was interested in learning more about my experiences as a non-Jewish teacher working at a Jewish high school. I decided not to go there because it would have detracted from the article’s purpose. I think I mentioned the fact that I am not Jewish in the first place because I wanted to credit my colleagues with helping me make connections between the literature we studied in my classes and the students’ Jewish culture and teachings. I never really meant to make a “thing” out of being a non-Jewish teacher because my students don’t make a “thing” out of it.

This morning our school dedicated a new sefer Torah, a Torah scroll. You can learn more about the making of a sefer Torah at Rabbi Miller’s website. He is a sofer, or scribe. A sefer Torah must be made of all-natural materials. The sofer must handwrite all of the Torah on a prepared scroll, a process which can take more than a year. In addition, any errors will render the Torah invalid. According to our Rabbi Gottfried, if the sofer makes an error, he or she must wait for the ink to dry, then carefully scrape the letter from the parchment. For this reason, sefrei Torah (Torah scrolls) are very valuable and expensive; however, they are not made to be showcased behind class — students handle the Torah during prayers, although to preserve the Torah as much as possible, the students avoid touching it with their hands and use a pointer to read. If the Torah needs repair, it must be done with natural materials — tape won’t fix a rip in a Torah scroll.

A Torah Dedication is a big deal. Students I had never seen in ties were dressed up. Students who don’t normally wear the kippah (yarmulke) were wearing one. Members of the community were invited to participate. Our headmaster played his accordian, and lots of people danced (I just got out of the way), including my principal, who is Catholic. Watching this dedication reminded me of something I do love about teaching at a Jewish school — watching the cultural traditions. Shabbat, or the Sabbath, is closed with a ceremony called Havdalah, and each time I have been present for this ceremony, it is followed by music and dancing that I can’t describe unless you’ve seen it. I suppose the best description might be this: last year when my husband and I took our children to a Shabbat trip, or Shabbaton, my husband was fed up with our kids and wanted to duck out early. I didn’t want to miss the music and dancing, but I agreed to go. Then it started, and I nudged my husband. “I thought you wanted to go!” I said. He replied, “Actually, now I want to stay and watch this.”

My own religious tradition has no such ceremony. I come from sturdy Protestant stock, I suppose. My immigrant ancestors included Huguenots, Quakers, and Pennsylvania Dutch of unknown religious origin. I have distant ancestors who may have been Crypto-Jews, but it is most likely something I can never prove based on the information I currently have. I find much beauty in the ceremony involved in Judaism. I am not sure I could ever live with some of the restrictions, such as kashrut (eating kosher), keeping Shabbat, and the like, but I do enjoy being on the periphery.

I was talking with one of our math teachers today. He happens to be Jewish, and he has taught me a great deal about some aspects of Jewish culture. For instance, he told me how to find symbols indicating whether or not food is kosher on packages. He regularly teaches Israeli dancing, but I haven’t learned yet. He is approachable and very kind. We were discussing the differences in our religions today, and I mentioned that for many Christians, there is no gray. You either believe all of the Bible or you are saying you believe none of it. Students at our school are taught to question or challenge everything, including religious teaching, in order to find their own path in Judaism. We have students who claim to be atheists as well as strictly observant students. The math teacher indicated that our school is unique in that regard because it is a diverse Jewish school; students from the three major Jewish denominations — Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox — all learn together at our school. Believe it or not, this is a somewhat radical concept, and our school is one of the first “transdenominational” Jewish high schools.

I told the math teacher that I have been undergoing what I consider a crisis of faith for about two years now. I am not exactly sure what I believe. I am interested in Judaism, but my Christian faith is too deeply entrenched. I don’t, for instance, question Jesus’ divinity as part of the Trinity. What do I question? Certainly other messages I have been taught — that anyone who is not Christian will not go to Heaven, for instance. My headmaster is the kindest, warmest person I have known in my life. I cannot for an instant belief that he is, as I have been taught, destined for condemnation because he is Jewish and not Christian. I heard one of my former colleagues telling a story about a friend of his who was, I think, a female pastor (though I am uncertain of her denomination). She was very interested in Judaism; she even said that she would consider converting except for one thing: she couldn’t give up Jesus.

Sometimes I think my religion is dominated by people who follow Jesus not because they want to — because they appreciate his teachings — but because they are afraid not to. I don’t really even think a lot of people of my faith even believe half of what Jesus said or believed; at any rate, many of them certainly don’t act like it. This conundrum is at the center of my dilemma. The age-old struggle with hypocrisy. I told the math teacher that I had actually considered making an appointment with Rabbi Gottfried to discuss my “crisis.” I laughed, noting that I found it interesting I was considering going to a rabbi before a pastor of my own faith to find answers. The fact is, I’m not really sure what Protestant denomination would be right for me, or even if there is one.

Last year, one of my former students declared I was an honorary Jew. She said it in a joking manner, but I knew that behind the joking was acceptance. Because I have tried to understand and to question and to bring elements of Jewish culture, history, and religion into my classroom, I am accepted. But the fact is, I would be accepted anyway; that is the way of the culture in my high school. I think the students appreciate the efforts I have made, and on one or two funny occasions, I found myself in the unique position of educating students about some element of Judaism that they didn’t know!

DaletBecause I was on the faculty as a new Torah was dedicated, Rabbi Gottfried dedicated a letter, “dalet” (“D,” for my first name) in our new Torah in honor of me. Furthermore, Rabbi Gottfried looked up the Torah Portion for the week in which I was born to find this letter. The Torah Portion the week I was born happens to have been Deuteronomy 26:15, rendered thusly according to the NKJV (which I have to admit is becoming a favorite for readability combined with poetry):

Look down from Your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the land which You have given us, just as You swore to our fathers, “a land flowing with milk and honey.”’

I haven’t figured out why yet, but I found it appropriate.

I suppose this was a very personal post for this particular blog, and I admit I am kind of nervous about putting it out there, but participating in the Never Forget Project has been making me think about my own role in our project and at my school. Feel free to ask me questions about this post, especially if you want me to explain any aspect further.

[tags]Judaism, education, Jewish high school, sefer Torah, sofer, Torah dedication[/tags]

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4 thoughts on “Non-Jew

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Dana. The Torah dedication description & comments are interesting, and the more personal stuff is, too. Hypocrisy is a nearly-universal problem with followers of any faith, isn't it? It's a human problem.

    Many times, the only way for me to resolve the dogmatic "absolutes" of the Christian faith is to remind myself that the absolutes are not decided by me or any person, but by the Most High. My own judgment, like any person's, is fraught with weakness, blindness, and self-centeredness. Remembering that helps me to step away from my own tendencies toward harsh line-drawing in the sand.

    And, like you, I work at a trans-denominational school. The intentional transcending of those dividing lines is one of the most appealing and truly Christian aspects of the school. So many times, I've let differences become major instead of seeing them as minor. My school's policies have helped me see things differently quite often, and that practice has been a blessing.

    Sounds like you and your students have a wonderful relationship, as do you and your colleagues. You're a fortunate one; your school sounds like a land "flowing with milk and honey."

  2. That feels really nice when Jewish friends include us in their ceremonies. I got to go to a friend's seder dinner and even was given a yarmilka to wear. One thing they seem to be better at than Protestants is they don't make such a distinction between the original Bible book and current interpretations of that book. The commentaries on the original work are interwoven into their canon more I think, if I understand right.

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Dana.

    I suppose I am sort of a dishwater atheist, with Episcopalian roots.

    I appreciate the power of story, of mythology. In the Episcopal liturgy, we "pass the peace"

    http://franciscan-anglican.com/peace.htm

    In my mind, it is not a state of mind imparted by an unseen being; it is that "still point of the turning world" — we wish it for each other, and greet each other in peace, and resolve to go forth into the world also spreading that sense of peace.

    I also have family members who are observant Reform Jews.

    I like the ceremony that begins Shabbat.

    When it is possible, I travel to celebrate Pesach with my relatives.

    In my mind, the joy of the Seder is imagining all the thousands of times over the centuries that families have gathered to say those words, enact that celebration.

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