New Years Resolutions 2020

Last night was a cozy solo night. I drank some wine, I cooked some dinner, I listened to lots of great music, and I ripped up Return of the King to make some New Years Resolutions. It was a good night. I went to sleep before midnight, and I woke up happy and content, with a phone full of text messages from friends and family. It’s an excellent start to the year and the decade.

Here are the blackout poems / resolutions I made last night:

1. They should fall not in vain
2. Victory, surviving, flying
3. Great wonder is coming
4. Gaze on my power
5. Rising wonder, rising voice
6. Love will come
7. Trust yourself
8. Deep darkness may yet bear joy
9. Good shall flower again

Decade in Review

So this isn’t everything I’ve done in the past decade, but it’s what came to mind over the past ten hours or so. And I included 2009 in this decade because I f***ing wanted to. Enjoy!

The beginning of the decade….

In 2009, I started college.

In 2009, I went on my first shidduch date.

In 2009, I quit my job teaching at Bais Yaakov of Boro Park.

In 2010, I won two scholarships to fund my college years.

In 2010, I went to the college career office where they told me I should be a professor, and I had my mind blown.

In 2011, I attended my first graduate class as an undergrad and realized I could definitely do grad work.

In 2011, I presented at NCUR in Ithaca, New York.

In 2011, I made arrangements to keep shabbos while at the conference but still got told by my father that I had my priorities wrong.

In 2011, I sang at karaoke for the first time.

In 2011, I went to a non-kosher sushi place with friends from my college French class and ordered a beer. It was my first beer. I drank only half of it and a friend finished it for me. I frantically chewed mint gum on the train ride home and hoped my parents wouldn’t be able to smell the alcohol.

In 2012, I presented at NCUR in Ogden, Utah.

In 2012, I spent a grand total of 28 hours in Los Angeles, spending shabbos with my cousins after NCUR and flying back to NYC right after shabbos was over.

In 2012, I graduated from City College of New York summa cum laude with a major in English Literature and a minor in Classical Studies.

In 2012, I spent five weeks at Neve Yerushalayim trying desperately to get back the faith I had lost over ten years before.

In 2013, I took a grad course on the French of England at Fordham as a non-matriculated student. [The final essay I wrote for that course used postcolonial theory, though I did not yet know the term.]

In 2013, I went to a bar for the first time, feeling only slightly out of place among my cohort of grad students entering the CUNY Graduate Center’s English Program.

In 2013, I started grad school.

In 2014, I moved out of my parents’ home and joined a Modern Orthodox girls’ apartment in Morningside Heights.

In 2014, I wore pants outside for the first time. I also had a lot of other first that were less significant (no, eating my first cheeseburger was not a momentous occasion).

In 2014, I went to England for the first time on a study-abroad program in Exeter.

In 2014, I taught my first college writing class.

In 2014, I presented at my first graduate conference in Cardiff.

In 2015, I dyed my hair red.

In 2015, I presented at Kalamazoo for the first time.

In 2015, I got my first tattoo.

In 2015, I moved into an apartment with no other Jewish roommates, including – gasp! – a man.

In 2015, I cut my hair short.

In 2015, I became co-chair of the English Students Association.

In 2015, I presented at a conference in Edinburgh.

In 2015, I met with a room full of rabbis and one woman at Agudah headquarters to talk about why people leave Orthodox Judaism.

In 2015, I had sex for the first time.

In 2016, I taught my first college literature class.

In 2016, I wrote an article about Yaffed for the GC Advocate.

In 2016, I organized some meetings with other Bais Yaakov graduates and leaders in the frum education world to talk about the many problems in Bais Yaakov.

In 2016, I buzzed my hair.

In 2016, I passed my orals exam.

In 2016, I came out as bisexual.

In 2016, I blocked my parents’ calls and texts and emails, and told them to stop trying to contact me.

In 2017, I submitted my dissertation prospectus and got it approved.

In 2017, I traveled to Eigg for the first time.

In 2017, I presented at Leeds for the first time.

In 2017, I attempted to end my life and spent a week on the medical ward and a week in the psych ward.

In 2017, I moved into my own apartment.

In 2018, I came out as genderfluid and nonbinary.

In 2018, I legally changed my name.

In 2018, I became co-chair of the Pearl Kibre Medieval Study.

In 2018, I completely changed my dissertation topic.

In 2018, I began tutoring home-schooled kids and teens via Skype.

In 2018, I designed and built the Bais Yaakov Project website.

In 2019, I held a tea party for my birthday and decided it would be an annual tradition.

In 2019, I was a semifinalist for the NAEd Spencer Dissertation Fellowship.

In 2019, I won the Lynn Kadison Dissertation Year Fellowship.

In 2019, I traveled to Eigg for the second time.

In 2019, I presented at Leeds for the second time, and decided never again.

In 2019, I made concrete plans to get away from the overcrowded, dirty, and noisy New York, and to spend six months traveling the UK and maybe a month or two in France, Germany, and/or Ireland. (And maybe other places, but I can get by on my basic French and German speaking skills, and I’m not so confident about going to a country whose language I don’t know.)

Countdown: 179 days to takeoff!

Chanukah 2019

Over the past couple of months, I’ve had a burst of creating art-poems. I’ve been posting them on my Instagram and Facebook, but I figured I would do a little year-end post here on the blog. And since a few of them were Chanukah-inspired, I’m sharing some photos of my menorah too! I didn’t light until the very last night, when I impulsively decided I wanted to light. I couldn’t get candles in time, so I used what I had: birthday candles. I think it’s quite mehudar, no? ūüėČ

And now for some poems. Most of the art is taken from a coloring book by Nina Tara. One of the poems includes art by Hanna Karlzon. The pages are mostly from my siddur, which I used throughout middle school and high school. It was a bas mitzvah gift from my group of friends. Two of the pages are from a book called Irish Fairy and Folk Tales.

And a bonus: some selfies, because why not ūüėČ

Data-Mining Olomeinu Magazines

Over the past few months, I’ve gone down a rabbit hole that’s hard to dig myself out of – and I don’t particularly want to.

My dissertation is about Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) children’s literature, with a focus on the decades of 1980-2000. My initial idea was that I would focus on four publishers (Artscroll-Mesorah, Feldheim, Hachai, and CIS), and I would study the children’s and teens’ books they published during those two decades. I knew I wanted to include analysis of schools and educational settings as well, but the main focus was going to be on the books.

Then I read more, and even more, and things shifted slightly, and then again – and before I knew it I was more focused on literacy and the world of the Haredi child reader during these decades.

My intended brief look at Olomeinu magazines turned into a full-blown intense study, as I uncovered and discovered more and more fascinating details about the magazine, its connections to various religious and literary factors, and the people involved in running it from 1960 onward.

So while I’ve continued to read about things like portrayal of the Holocaust in children’s literature, character focalization in children’s literature, history textbooks across the world, etc. – I’ve also been doing lots of intense study of the Olomeinu magazine.

I’m more focused now on discourse analysis. To that end, I’ve been gathering data in a spreadsheet, noting as much information as I can about each issue. The more I work with the magazine issues, the more I notice details I should have been noting all along – which means eventually I’ll do a second and third run over all these, making sure I have all the info I need from each issue. Meanwhile, here’s my working document:

screenshot of an Excel sheet showing data for individual issues of Olomeinu magazine
[yellow rows note issues I’ve cataloged but have not yet scanned; blue denotes issues I have PDFs of but haven’t yet cataloged; green denotes issues both cataloged and scanned/downloaded]

Despite its messiness and clunkiness, this spreadsheet is a major improvement from what I had been doing before. At first, I was trying to track features across issues, so I had columns labeled with recurring features like “Mommy’s Favorite Stories” and “Mitzvah of the Month.”

two-page spread, with “Mommy’s Favorite Stories” on the left side (December / Teves 1999)
two-page spread, with “Mitzvah of the Month” on the left side (February / Adar 1976)

That proved to be cumbersome and impossible, because new features were constantly being introduced from year to year, and some features had their names tweaked over the decades – and that is important to consider in my study!

So I switched to simply documenting the features of each issue, leaving the patterns for later. My next step – which I haven’t figured out exactly how to do yet – is to tag each feature with topics. I want to track topics like the Holocaust, Israel, and chagim. I also want to track their sub-topics: how many pieces on the Holocaust focus on faith, Nazi brutality, Jewish suffering, etc., for example? Is there a trend over the decades?

Another aspect of my examination will be on a more granular level. I started working with issues I was able to download from, and supplemented that with a collection lent to me by a friend. I scanned all the issues I had in physical copies (I still don’t have a complete set!) and ran them through OCR so that I could copy the text over into various other documents. Again, I’m not entirely sure yet how I’ll accomplish this next bit, but I want to think about the words used in each issue, each year, each decade…

I started playing around with this using a word cloud program (partly for fun, partly to motivate me to finish the tedious task of cataloging all the individual issues). I just pasted the text – minus Hebrew words – into the program. That means that words like “Olomeinu” (which appears at the bottom of every page) are over-represented. When it’s time to do this “for real,” I’ll clean the text before running it through a program. Some basic results:

word cloud created from the text of the February / Adar 1976 issue of Olomeinu
word cloud created from the text of the January / Teves 1977 issue of Olomeinu

I’m far from done, and I’m of course considering the historical contexts in addition to this granular examination. But I’m excited about the insights this level of analysis will yield! (Also, I get to play with cool toys ūüėČ)

Of Grief and Pain and Love and Loss

I miss my mother. 

Sometimes, when I tell friends about things from my childhood, they say things like “good riddance!” But they don’t have all my memories.

They don’t remember the long nights Mommy and I spent in the kitchen, staying up way past midnight while the rest of the family was fast asleep, talking and debating and excitedly sharing bits and pieces of stories from our days and things we read. There were times we heard my father’s disembodied voice wafting down from the upstairs railing, asking us to keep it down, and we would realize we had gotten so spirited that we forgot about the late hour.

Much of what I know about pedagogy comes from those discussions with my mother. She’s perhaps not the world’s best mother, but she is an excellent teacher. Her talents were wasted in Bais Yaakov. Of course, Rebetzin Kaplan thought her talents were wasted teaching American history when she could have been using her teaching skills in limudei kodesh, and my take on it is somewhat different… 

She would tell me about the goings-on at school, the discussions among teachers and principals, starting from when I was in high school. (Which, in retrospect, was highly inappropriate, for me to be hearing these things about the people who were supposed to have authority over me – like I said, an excellent teacher but not the world’s best mother.) We would discuss the pros and cons of each decision, the pedagogical underpinnings… Sometimes she would tell me about a student who was giving her trouble and what her plan was. 

When I started teaching eighth grade Language Arts after seminary, my mother bought me a book on teaching writing. She read it first and took notes in it, then I read it and added my notes, and then we discussed it all. (Seminary provided virtually no training, despite my having a teaching certificate from them.)

I miss that. 

Often over the past years, when I’ve been teaching college writing and literature, I’ve wanted to share with her something I did in class. Look, I wanted to say, I used that method we talked about, and here’s what happened! Every time I use the “jigsaw activity” – as I will tomorrow when I teach the Second Shepherds’ Play of the Nativity – I think of her and her explanations for why she used it.

To hear my mother tell the story of the deterioration of our intellectual and personal relationship, it’s all my fault. Here, in her own words, from a June 2014 email, sent while I was in Exeter, UK, on a course studying Arthurian legend:

As to your certainty that you are not ever going to make a decision different from the one you made over the last few months – does that mean I need to ask a rav if we should be sitting shiva for you now?  I don’t think such things are irrevocable, but they can become so.

So please don’t ask me not to hurt you when you initiated the actions that may totally change or delete our relationship. Do you think I enjoy contemplating what halacha might demand of me?

At the time, I believed that crap. I blamed myself for the change in our relationship. I berated myself for not being more open, I blamed myself when conversations at the shabbos table bothered me, for when I stayed away because everything I was expected to do when visiting Boro Park was dysphoric and upsetting.

I apparently had enough strength to write these words that I honestly don’t remember writing in response to her email after a few more hurtful emails had been exchanged, in which she asked if I really wanted a relationship that was devoid of meaning, which it would be (according to her) if we only discussed school and our daily lives:

I honestly did not think our conversations about school, yours and mine, were bland and meaningless. We were talking about things that are important to us. Why should that change? Why is that any less meaningful than philosophical conversations about every topic under the sun, usually completely unrelated to yiddishkeit? Its through these seemingly banal conversations that we exchange bits of ourselves with each other. The only difference now is that its no longer abstract and instead concrete and personal. That makes it harder, of course, but also much more meaningful and important. But only if its a conversation where you listen to me as much as I listen to you.

I no longer blame myself.

I was the one who chose to cut off all contact with my parents over three years ago.

And yet they are not blameless. 

True, I initiated the actions that demanded change of the relationship.

But at the time, I had no plan to “delete” the relationship, and reading her words was like a punch to the gut. 

Because when someone you love changes, the response is not “don’t ask me not to hurt you,” is it. The response should be “what can I do so that I keep you close, because I love you and I don’t want to hurt you.” 

Last year, I wrote a quick little poem. Thanks to Facebook Memories, I saw it today. 

I lost my mother when she lost her daughter,

when she thought she had to sit shiva for me.

But I don’t do shiva, I don’t do aveilus –

so how am I supposed to assuage my grief?

When I shared it last year, friends responded with answers. But this isn’t really a question in need of answers: it’s more of a statement – that I am in pain, that I am incredibly grateful not to have rituals that dictate when and how I can feel my grief, that I can feel with a depth of pain that allows me to recognize the tremendous hurt my mother caused me and yet still, at the very same time, acknowledge – I miss you, Mommy.

I know what we had is unrecoverable because neither of us is the same person we were then. But I grieve still.

Of Gossip and Defenses and Protection and Love

My well-loved copy of Anne of Green Gables

I always loved Anne of Green Gables as a kid. I read it over and over, imagining myself in all the magical places Anne imagined.

The last time I read it was when I was around 14 years old. My younger brother, who would have been 13 at the time, wanted something from me. He had (and probably still has) sociopathic tendencies.

Later in life, when we were both adults, he admitted to me – with pride – that he enjoys finding someone’s breaking point, their raw nerves, and needling them until they’re pushed past the breaking point. When he proudly admitted this to me, he was in the process of pushing my buttons, and I indeed lashed out after he needled me past my breaking point. I hit him on the shoulder when he pushed me to anger. In response, he kicked me in the stomach and sent me flying across the basement to crash into some cardboard boxes stacked against the wall. I was more stunned than hurt in that moment.

Back when we were teenagers, he grabbed my book, my beloved Anne of Green Gables, from my hands. He threatened to tear it up, page by page, if I did not do what he wanted. I stood my ground, sitting on the couch. He tore out one page, at which point I yelled. What happened next is vague, but I think my mother stopped it then and scolded him for ruining a book.

The page my brother tore out, taped back in by my other younger brother.
The edge of the book. The page wasn't set back in exactly evenly, and I could never bear to look at the book again.

I’m watching Anne with an E on Netflix now. I started watching it when it was first released, but the first episode was too dark and sad for me. Now I came across it again in my recommendations, and I decided to give it another shot. It is still dark and sad, but I feel dark and sad just now. The show is gorgeous and brilliantly made – true, it comes across as darker and more mature than the book, but it does great things by making obvious the abuse that Anne endured.

Image result for anne with an e

Watching Marilla Cuthbert standing up for Anne in Season 1, Episode 3 – when Anne sees Prissy Andrews, an older girl in school, getting intimate with the teacher and Diana tells everyone but Anne is blamed – reminded me viscerally of something that happened when I was about 8 years old.

It was summer, which meant that my family was in the bungalow colony in the Catskills. We had our permanent rental, 40R, the rear part of 40F. My father, as usual, spent the weeks working in the city and came up to join us on the weekends. My days were filled with daycamp up the dirt road, pooltime, and running free with friends.

During Bunk Day in daycamp. Each age group performed on the stage in the shul. The theme this year was "Super Snacks," and my bunk was "Pizza Wheels."
Crafts with friends at the picnic table near our bungalow.
During a break in daycamp schedule, my sister and her friend organized color-war for us.
At the pool.
Carefree days, getting ice-pops from the grocery store and putting it on our parents' tabs. As close as we could get to running wild.
Braid-trains with my sister and her friend. My younger brother peeks in from the side.

I became close friends with the girl my age from 40F. Let’s call her Michal. She had an overactive imagination – much like Anne – but she wasn’t as generous as Anne was. She told me fictions as if they were truths, and I swallowed them, wide-eyed and thirsty for more. She painted a picture of the mansion they used to have in Israel (her parents still spoke wit an Israeli accent), with balconies overlooking pools of purple water. I worshiped her.

My older sister was at a point in her life when she was condescending to everyone. She was a bored teenage far too early. Thankfully, she grew out of that. But I was caught in the effects of her derision many times. Back home in our bedroom in the city, she used to make me list all my classmates, and she would pronounce each one “cute” or “nebby.” My friends, of course, were all “nebby.”

One of the girls from 40F was her age, and she spent some time with her. Not in daycamp – they were too old for that. But my sister wasn’t friends with the girl her age – let’s call her Avigail – the way I was friends with Michal. They spent time together out of necessity. There was also one older sister in that family, who spent most of her time alone because most of the girls her age went to camp rather than coming to the bungalow colony with their families.

One time, late at night, my sister and I lay in bed and gossiped. Or, more accurately, my sister gossiped and I listened. In the course of her commentary on everyone and everything in the bungalow colony, she mentioned Avigail and called her “weird.” I protested, saying she seems normal to me, and lots of fun.

My sister dismissed that. “What do you know? You’re friends with Michal.”

“Michal’s nice,” I responded. “I like her. She’s not weird.”

“Of all the people in that family,” my sister pronounced, “Michal is the least weird. But that whole family is weird.”

To this day, I cannot understand why I did what I did the next day. I meant no malice, of that I’m sure. I think I told Michal what my sister had said because I disagreed so strongly with it. Also perhaps because I had been called weird my whole life, and while I didn’t quite wear it a badge of pride yet, I did dismiss it. I did not expect Michal to be hurt by my sister’s pronouncement, and I was right.

I told her, “My sister said your whole family is weird, but you’re the least weird.” She laughed, and told me more about the mansion with the balcony overlooking the pool of purple water.

But she told her mother about what my sister had said, and her mother didn’t laugh it off as Michal had done.

Dinnertime in the bungalow colony.

Later that evening, while my mother was serving dinner to all the children gathered around the kitchen table, Michal’s mother came up onto our porch and knocked on the screen door. Her eyes were red. She asked my mother to step outside with her. We kids got a little quiet, knowing something was wrong.

When Mommy came back inside, her eyes were red too.

“Dainy,” she said, “why would you say something like that? Why would you tell Michal your sister thinks her family is weird? Don’t you know that words have consequences? That’s rechilus.”

I was puzzled as to why my sister wasn’t being rebuked for saying that in the first place, and I was confused about the whole ordeal. I didn’t understand anything of what had happened. I had been innocent and trusting, and I had not realized that words could be so mean.

I’ve thought about this incident often as I grew up. Watching Marilla stand up to Prissy Andrews’s mother – apologize for the hurt caused but also defend Anne – made my heart ache with what I realized my mother should have done for me.

The Time Mommy Hugged Me

I can remember receiving only one hug from my mother in childhood and adolescence. She’s not big on physical displays of affection. She’s not big on verbal displays of affection, either. I didn’t know I was loved as a child. No – to say that, I would need to have had an expectation of love. But I didn’t know that I should expect to be loved, so I didn’t know to wonder whether or not my parents loved me.

My father did hug me fairly often. It was under precise circumstances – when he was feeling down and needed comfort. He never hugged the boys. The closest he came to showing physical affection to my brothers was holding their faces in his hands and crying and apologizing for hitting or kicking them earlier, while the boys stood stiffly, expressionless, waiting for Totty’s ritual of self-absolution to be over.

But Totty hugged the girls. Not my older sister, who made it clear early on that she would not stand for his hugs. But me – he hugged me, and I hugged him back – most of the time. The few times that I stiffened and said “not now,” he drew back, hurt, and said – seriously – “I can’t even get a hug from you? You care so little about me?” It never occurred to him to hug me when I was down – then he yelled at me for upsetting everyone else with my “ungeblusen” face.

But Mommy – the one time she hugged me, that was for me.

It was after Sophie Shabbos. The whole tenth grade had spent a shabbos together. We ate the Friday night seudah at a classmate’s home, and we slept in another classmate’s home. Shabbos day was spent in the school building, with singing and dancing and eating and fun. When shabbos was over, all the girls changed into costumes and the night was filled with performances.¬†

I felt hollow all shabbos long. I felt like I was on the outside looking in. I did not know why, but I felt – bad. I joined in the fun, and from the photos I have from that motzaei shabbos, I can’t tell that I felt anything other than adolescent joy.¬†

When I got home late on motzaei shabbos, I sat down on the couch, pulled a cushion onto my lap, bent over, and sobbed so hard I thought my throat was being shredded. 
My mother came downstairs – everyone else was in bed already – and asked me what’s wrong. She sat next to me on the couch, with her hands in her lap. Tears still streaming down my face, my face wet and my voice clogged, I sobbed into the cushion, “I don’t know! Everything is just – falling!”

And that’s when Mommy put her hand on my shoulder, and I half-turned, still leaning forward, to end up with my snotty face pressed against her shoulder, and she put her arms around me and rocked me and said “oy, shefela, oy, shefela.”

I remember thinking, even in that moment when I was overcome with inexplicable despair, how odd it was to feel her soft skin and to hear her heart beating beneath my ear.

Going Maverick: Writing Textbooks and Superheroes

Once again this semester, I’m teaching composition at a new campus. Ah, the life of an adjunct!

This time I was given a required textbook with writing instruction and readings, as well as a required sequence of essays. I have used chapters from that textbook before. I like the premise of the book, and I like a couple of its chapters. But I don’t like its overall structure. In my opinion, it doesn’t teach the basics of writing. It talks about the complexities of entering academic conversations, and it talks about broad rhetorical moves – but it does so in mostly theoretical terms, without specifics.

The department’s handbook stipulates that we may provide a few additional texts, but that the majority of assigned reading should be from the book. I see the point of that, of course, for a number of reasons – not least the financial burden of making students buy a book they won’t use for most of the class!

And since I picked up this class exactly four days before the first session, I was perfectly okay with just finding texts from the book.

The slight hitch in that was that the department didn’t have copies of the textbook to give new adjuncts yet, and they were relying on the company rep to give adjuncts electronic access. By the time I spoke to the director and was officially given the class, though, it was past 5pm on Friday, which meant that the company rep was out of the office and I didn’t get access until Monday morning – and I needed to have my syllabus all ready to go by Tuesday morning. So I used an old edition of the book, along with the freely-accessible online table of contents of the new edition, and slapped together a syllabus. I never did get a physical copy of the book, and I’m not able to print directly from the ebook, but I’ve been making do.

For the first few weeks of the semester, things were going okay. My students were quiet and didn’t really respond to my efforts to draw them out during class discussions. But we began to read texts and break them down; we read a couple of chapters about critical reading and about how texts position themselves in broader conversations; and a few students began to have ideas of their own in response to the texts we read.

I thought, at first, that the lack of engagement and participation was due to the early morning class (8am, dear lord – how many times have I said never again to early morning classes and yet went with it when one was offered to me later…), or the difference in campuses (this is my first class in a community college), or just the combined personalities of the students – which often is a major factor in determining how the class goes.

It wasn’t such a big deal for the first month. I wasn’t enjoying class as much as I usually do, but that’s not always a possibility. I assigned a lot of groupwork to avoid the excruciating silences during full-class discussion, but even during groupwork there was barely any interaction.

By the time I was receiving drafts of their first paper, students began to miss class more often, come to class without reading or without the text – a few students hadn’t even gotten the text by a month and a half into the semester. It felt like I was letting them down, but I was out of ideas. I suspected that these things were all connected to a lack of interest, and perhaps a lack of motivation. I was frustrated and resigned to not getting through to my students.

But one week the frustration bubbled over and I said, screw it, I’m redoing the syllabus and forgetting about the writing chapters of the textbook. I’ll use a couple readings from the textbook, but then just forget about it and use all of my own materials and sequences I’ve gathered over the past six years of teaching college composition.

We had already started working on the second essay. Students had submitted topic proposals; started doing research after a library visit; and were supposed to submit a first draft that week. I sent around an email – followed up by a second email to make sure everyone got it – telling them NOT to write that first draft, that we would be rewinding and going over some basics first.

I also decided to do some silly exercises at the start of each class to get students up and moving and talking to each other.

Both of those decisions turned out to be very excellent decisions.

The activity I did – just for fun – was this:

1. Write down five superpowers you would like to have.
2. Assign a value from 1 to 5 for each superpower, based on how much you value it.
3. Talk to your classmates and negotiate trades based on how much you and/or your classmates value each superpower. Make at least 3 trades.

I chose this activity for two purposes:
1. to get them all up and moving, to get the blood pumping and wake them up; and
2. to get them talking to each other, which might help conversations about classwork.

The effects of the activity were immediately obvious. When we all sat down to begin the lesson, students were more relaxed and slightly more alert than usual.

Despite the fact that by that time students had started doing research, based on strategies given to them by the librarian and by the textbook, I went over the skill again, this time using my own tried-and-true methods. I emphasized the need for a research question, I went over the need for establishing a “so what” at the start of research, etc. I used a worksheet I “stole” from UC Merced and revised a bit to fit my purposes. We went through the two filled-in rows together, discussing how it helps to have all this in mind before beginning research and before settling on a thesis.



I then divided the room into quadrants, with each one assigned one of the remaining four topics and research questions. Each group filled out the underlying problems and significance columns, did some quick little research on their phones, and wrote a potential thesis statement.

Each group shared their thesis statement, and I asked some questions about their process and reasoning. More than the theoretical discussion of how research is a conversation, this hands-on work allowed the students to see how research is a conversation (which the textbook’s end-of-chapter exercises did not effectively do).

Once we had done this exercise, I asked students to think about the topics they had chosen for their second essay (based on the readings from the textbook about various food-related topics), and phrase their interest as a question. Their homework for the following class was to fill out the remaining columns and revise (or write for the first time) a potential thesis statement.

I reminded them to bring their superpower papers with them to class the following session. At this point I had literally no idea what I would do with it. I thought maybe I could use this as an extended role-play game. Superheroes and role play are so not my jam – but if it gets my students energetic and talking and alert and engaged, then so be it!

Prepping for the following class made me see how I could actually incorporate the superhero activity into the lesson itself, though…

The pre-class activity (with the same two purposes of getting students up and energized and getting them talking to each other) was this:

Once the pairs of students had negotiated teams and settled down in pairs, I went over a handout about the five elements of a paragraph (which I got from my colleague Sarah Hildebrand):

I then asked each team to write:

  1. A thesis statement claiming that their team is the best.
  2. A paragraph structured according to these five elements that supports the thesis and includes “textual evidence” by citing events or situations from existing superheroes.

While previous sessions groupwork – using the exercises from the textbook based on readings drawn from newspapers and blogs, etc., were subdued and failed to engage students – this activity generated animated conversation from students whose voices I had barely heard all semester.

I circulated among the groups, as I always do, answering questions and guiding students. I know virtually nothing about most superheroes, and I made that clear – which led to my students excitedly telling me about their favorite superheroes and explaining things in ways that allowed me to say “yes! Put that in your paragraph!”¬†

So seriously – screw the textbook. Maybe I was following the rules too closely and I was never expected to just give up my personal methods. But whether or not that is expected of me, I’m not doing it anymore. My students are learning. They will be able to do well on their essays and their final exam. I saw major leaps and bounds of improvement in students writing – students who I thought were listless and not putting in effort.

I feel like – two months into the 3.5-month semester – I was finally getting to know my students.

Vidui 5780

On this Day of Atonement,
I ask forgiveness
for nothing.

I have been deceptive
smiling when I ached inside
pretending all was well and I felt joy
when I felt despair
when I felt depression
when I felt the world had gone mad.

I regret this.
But I do not ask your forgiveness.

I have been selfish
snatching joy for myself
wherever and however I could
in the face of despair
in the face of depression
in the face of a world gone mad.

I do not regret this.

I have been greedy
hoarding my joy
stockpiling moments of peace and serenity
for times of despair
for times of depression
for times when the world has gone mad.

I do not regret this.

I have been stubborn
insisting that joy can be found
despite overwhelming evidence
of despair
of depression
of a world gone mad.

I do not regret this.

I have caused others to be selfish, to be greedy, to be stubborn,
and I regret none of it
because we are coming soon
we selfish, greedy, stubborn hordes.

We claim joy for the world.
We claim peace
and beauty
and serenity
and we do not regret this.

(Review) Reasonable Doubts: Breaking the Kuzari, by the Second Son

A good friend of mine wrote a book, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Below is my review:

The Second Son writes in wonderfully clear prose, leading the reader through complex arguments with ease. He engages with popular formulations of the Kuzari argument as they circulate in the frum world, as well as with three representative texts (R’ Yisroel Chait, R’ Lawrence Kelemen, and R’ Dovid Gottlieb). This allows the Second Son to break down the argument into minute premises, rather than trying to tackle a huge and complex argument that is usually expressed in a single sentence. His treatment of the Kuzari Argument is, therefore, meticulous, methodical, and rigorous.

The book draws on traditional Jewish texts like Tanach , Gemara, and meforshim, but it also dips into many academic fields: linguistics, mythology, history, logic, philosophy, archaeology… The language is a delightful mix of rigorous academic writing and yeshivishe twists of phrase!

The tone throughout the book is a joy to read. The Second Son addresses the reader directly, leading us through complex points of logic and providing examples and repetition at every step – reading this book felt like I was in a fascinating class, gorgeously structured for maximum comprehension.

If you’re a practicing or believing Orthodox Jew, if you’ve used the Kuzari Argument before to try to convince others of the truth of Orthodox Judaism, if you struggle with your own doubts about the truth of Orthodox Judaism, if you want to not think of your friends and relatives who went off the derech as evil or damaged – this book is for you.

If you were ever told to read Beyond a Reasonable Doubt or Reason to Believe or Permission to Receive when you expressed doubt in Orthodox Judaism – this is definitely the book for you!