the whole world is open
for your pure delight
on this holy night
the whole world is open
the whole world is open
for your pure delight
on this holy night
In my composition class this week, my students read an essay by Gabriela Moro, “Minority Student Clubs: Segregation or Integration?” Over the past week and a half, we’ve discussed how to summarize and respond to an author’s argument, in preparation for their first essay assignment (a textual analysis). But as much as I tried getting discussion going, no matter how provocative I got, my students were not responding. They were willing to answer questions, they were okay with listening to me talk and with writing things down when I asked them to. And they were okay with working in groups. But in full-class discussions, when I wanted them to talk to each other, I was just met with a wall of silence. Not antagonistic silence – just silence.
So I decided to plan this week’s lesson around groupwork with only short breaks for full-class discussion.
I started, as I always do, with a “Write Now” asking them to plan a student club. The prompt was brief: Plan a student club, thinking about its mission and activities. I gave them a shorter amount of time than usual (I usually allow 15 minutes for free-writing to start class, and this time it was just about 7 minutes).
Then we got down to business.
I asked students to get into groups of four, share their club ideas with their group members, and write a mock-application. Pretend you’re actually trying to apply to Student Affairs, asking for permission to create your club. And pretend you’re actually trying to convince your fellow students to join your club. What is the purpose of the club? What do you plan to do in this club? How can you write that up into a mission statement? They did not need to explicitly engage with the debate of the text – minority student clubs – but I did encourage them to do so if they wanted to.
After a half hour of planning, during which I circulated and prodded them to think more deeply about purpose, I explained to them what tabling at a club fair would look like, and asked them to pitch their clubs to me and to their classmates. I used the first group (who I knew had a solid proposal) as an example, asking them questions in the role of a student. By the end of this activity, students were actually calling out to ask each other questions! I was so proud of my rowdy little bunch.
The club ideas they came up with weren’t too bad, either.
My purpose for this class was mostly just to get students comfortable with talking in class. The content of the essay was not the main point of the class, to be honest – but we managed to come back around to it after they got thinking about the purposes for their clubs, and tying those thought processes to what Moro says about the uses and effects of minority student clubs.
When I tried to get them to discuss that in a full-class discussion, they went silent again. Work in progress!!
In my class on children’s literature this week, I assigned their first essay of the semester: a close reading paper (loosely defined). The assignment:
Choose one item from Freak the Mighty. Track that item through the text. Find two or three moments in the text where that item has a significant role or comes under discussion by the characters or the narrator. Write a 2-3 page paper analyzing the item within the context of the text.
For my first few semesters of teaching literature, I didn’t spend a lot of time teaching students how to write. They learn that in Intro to Literary Studies, right? That might be the idea behind sequenced courses. But in reality, we know that just because students took a class on writing, that doesn’t mean they can thenceforth write brilliant papers on command. As with any skill, it requires practice.
So for a while I amended my syllabus and started devoting one-hour sessions to peer review and revision sessions. But that didn’t work either – I needed to teach them how to write before asking them to write. And I then needed to give them a chance to revise. And I foresaw my literature class turning into a writing class…
After months of talking to my mentors and colleagues, I was able to construct my syllabus and assignments so that the “talking about the book” portion directly teaches about essay-writing. And so far, I am more than pleased with how it’s working.
Here’s how it went down this week:
The text for this week (a 2.5-hour long class that meets once a week) was Freak the Mighty. As I always do, I started class with a “Write Now” – a prompt on the board that students come to expect. It works well as an opening activity because 1) I can direct students to thinking about specific points I may want to raise, and 2) it allows latecomers to catch up.
This week’s prompt was:
After about ten minutes of quiet writing, I asked students to put that sheet of paper away. We went on with the lesson, talking about multiple aspects of the book with a focus on realism as a genre, and dis/ability studies.
For the last hour of class, I assigned groupwork. Each group of 3 students chose one character from the text and tracked that character. The instructions were to first find a few key passages where that character talks, acts, or is talked about, and note the citations and some impressions of characterization. Then, each group talked about what they had found and tried to answer whether and how the character changed and/or our perception of the character changed.
I circulated among the groups for half an hour, guiding and correcting and making sure students stayed on track. We then came back together as a class and each group shared their results. I asked each group to structure their “presentations” by beginning with a thesis (their conclusion/argument about whether and how the character changed), following it up with evidence (the passages they cited), and finishing with a conclusion (a repetition of their argument to remind us what they just proved).
Two groups who had chosen to focus on Gram came to very different conclusions, so I started with those groups.
One group argued that Gram changed from being apprehensive about Max to being affectionate and loving. For evidence, they used the moment at the beginning of the novel when Max says Gram touched him with a light, feathery touch; and the moment at the end of the novel when Max says Gram hugs him really tight.
The other group argued that Gram did not change, but Max’s perception of her did change – that Max thought she didn’t love him and was terrified of him at first, but ultimately came to accept her love. They argued that through examining the character of Gram, they were in fact able to gain more insight into Max’s character. For evidence, they used the same moments as the previous group…
I began with these two groups because I knew they had different theses (from my rounds during groupwork), and I wanted to use that to demonstrate that the same text can be used to argue completely different things. Later, the same thing happened with two groups that had tracked Max’s levels of confidence throughout the novel.
Each group presented their findings, and I insisted on the structure: first the thesis; then the evidence; then the conclusion.
In the last 15 minutes of class, I distributed the essay assignment sheet. In addition to the essay prompt above, the sheet includes a “WHAT” and a “WHY section:
WHAT: A close reading asks you to narrow your focus to ONE aspect of a text.
WHY: 1) Trying to analyze an entire text can be daunting. Narrowing your focus and analyzing a single aspect of the text helps you get at some ideas more easily. 2) Any larger analysis of a text needs to use concrete evidence from the text. Having the skill of close reading will help you do that.
After the prompt, I provided an example:
Example: Books. You might track the dictionary that Kevin makes for Max and the blank journal that Kevin gives Max. Looking at the significance of each scene, you might conclude that the dictionary demonstrates the pair’s thirst for knowledge and the journal demonstrates the pair’s desire to be remembered and to have an impact on the world. You might then note that the first gift (a dictionary) helps Max learn words, and the second gift (a blank journal) invites Max to write his own words. Your thesis might then be something like this:
“Kevin and Max are both seen as outsiders in the world they live in. They both want to be remembered and leave an impact on the world. Kevin’s two gifts to Max, the dictionary and the blank journal, indicate that given the right tools, anyone is capable of expressing themselves and leaving their mark on the world.”
Your essay will then analyze these two gifts, and make a case for how each represents a step in learning self-expression, etc.
I pointed out to my students that they had already used the skills necessary for this essay: they had tracked characters and analyzed them, and the essay asks them to track objects and analyze them. And they already had some ideas of which objects seem significant to them, from their “Write Now” exercise.
Students were excited at this and pulled out their free-writes from the beginning of class. Wheels started turning, and students asked me about specific ideas and potential thesis statements.
It was the most productive essay assignment session I’ve ever had.
On the first day of my English 101 class, I had my students do an activity I called “Syllabus Hunt.” The goal was simple: get students used to looking for information in the syllabus.
This was the earliest possible class: 8am on the very first day of the fall semester. Every student is required to take English 101 in their first semester, and this is a community college, so I was 99% sure that all my students would be entering a college classroom for the first time the morning of my class. I asked them if this was true, and all but one student said yes – they had never been in any college classes and had never seen a college syllabus before.
Assuming students know how to read a syllabus and what kind of information they should expect to find there is always a bad idea, in any level class. But going over the syllabus, reading it section by section, is a monumental waste of precious time. It does nothing to propel the class along, it’s boring, it puts students (and professor, usually!) into a stupor.
Confession: there were at least four goals I had in mind for this activity. Yes, the first goal was to get students used to looking for information in the syllabus. The second was to set the tone for the semester, by showing students that their minds would need to be active, that they should not get used to being passive recipients of knowledge. The third was to get them talking to each other, because discussion in English 101 is so important. And the fourth was to begin giving them practice in citing, as well as using citations to find information.
The activity accomplished all of these goals.
I tried this activity in my upper-level class the next day, and it worked okay, but not as well. That might be because students in an upper-level course have all seen syllabi before; it might be because I had other groupwork that accomplished the other goals in that class; it might be because that class is a 2.5-hr evening class rather than a 1.5-hr early morning class… Whatever the reason, I didn’t attempt it in my third class of the semester the next day, another upper-level evening class.
Here’s how the activity went:
And okay, a fifth goal: They now had a classmate’s contact information, so if they miss class or are confused about an assignment, they can ask a buddy or form a study group and save emailing me for a second or third option…
CW: emotional abuse, intersex
I’ve been preparing for the fall 2019 semester this week. A few days ago, I wrote an introduction on Blackboard. I ask my students to introduce themselves by answering a few questions about themselves, and it’s only fair I do the same.
For my class on children’s literature, one of the questions I asked is: “What’s your favorite children’s book?”
The answer I gave:
One of my favorite children’s books (because you can’t make me choose just one!) is The Moorchild by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, published in 1996. It’s a middle grade novel about a girl who doesn’t fit in and is made fun of by her whole village. She in fact does not belong – she’s a changeling, switched for a human baby because she couldn’t do enough magic to please the Moorfolk (kind of like fairies). Turns out, her mother, one of the Moorfolk, slept with a human man, so Moql/Saaski (the girl) is half-human and half-Moorfolk. She makes a place for herself and learns to love herself and accept friendship from people who accept her for who she is. I love that message. I have a soft spot for books with outsider main characters who find their own way…
I almost wrote more. About how I felt like an outsider almost all my life, in so many ways – gender, religion, smarts, interests, hobbies. But then I decided it wasn’t entirely appropriate, and/or I didn’t want to spill my life onto the screen for my students to read.
I haven’t been able to read and enjoy books for quite some time. Years ago, I used to read at least one book a day, maybe even two or three if they were aimed at younger audiences. My shelves filled with Young Adult and Middle Grade books because I read them, and loved them, and returned to them over and over. But over the past few years, I’ve been struggling to concentrate on the page.
I could attribute it to the strain of reading for orals, writing my prospectus, trying to write my dissertation, rewriting a whole new prospectus, and getting to work on the new dissertation.
But that’s not the reason I couldn’t read.
It was because I was always crying on the inside, and the books I like best make me cry on the outside, and I knew that if I unleashed the tears, they would never stop.
Back when I was in my teens, from about 7th grade onward, I dreamed of being in the Bais Yaakov High School play. After my shower every night, I would stand in front of the bathroom mirror and act out random scenes. They were always overly dramatic, and almost always tragic. Many of the scenes I made up on the spot involved a girl in an orphanage, usually Miriam from A Light for Greytowers. I spoke the lines I made up in a whisper, staring into my eyes in the mirror, until my eyes welled up with tears and the tears streamed down my cheeks. Then I would wipe my face with my towel and get on with drying myself off and getting dressed.
There are times now when I feel the tears stopped up, when I think “I really need to cry,” and I engage in similar exercises to gain the sweet release of tears. (It’s a coping mechanism, and not one without scientific validation.)
But the kind of crying I get from YA or MG books is special. It can reach deep inside me and twist my guts into knots, make me feel things I haven’t let myself feel for fear of the emotions taking over me.
I’ve been getting better at regulating my emotions (thanks, therapy and anxiety meds).
And over this past summer, I’ve had to read many many Middle Grade books as I prepared my syllabus for my class on children’s literature. I’ve enjoyed them, though I was reading them with a critical eye, an eye towards whether and how the books would fit my syllabus and be teachable. Now that my syllabus is finalized, my Blackboard site is set up, and my first-day PowerPoints and lectures are prepared, I’ve been relaxing with some of the books I got from the library, books that I knew I wouldn’t teach but wanted to keep an eye on anyway. I’m reading these purely for pleasure, for enjoyment. Maybe with an eye towards using them in future courses, but mostly just curling up with a good book.
And they are indeed making me cry again.
One of those books is Alex as Well, by Alyssa Brugman. According to the publisher’s website:
Alex is ready for things to change, in a big way. Everyone seems to think she’s a boy, but for Alex the whole boy/girl thing isn’t as simple as either/or, and when she decides girl is closer to the truth, no one knows how to react, least of all her parents. Undeterred, Alex begins to create a new identity for herself: ditching one school, enrolling in another, and throwing out most of her clothes. But the other Alex-the boy Alex-has a lot to say about that.
Heartbreaking and droll in equal measures, Alex As Well by Alyssa Brugman is a brilliantly told story about being intersex, exploring gender and sexuality, navigating friendships, and finding a place to belong.
I’m not intersex, but I struggle with my gender identity. And there was a time in my teens when I worried that I might be intersex (I do have PCOS, which is why I had some symptoms that made me freak out).
But that’s not why I related so much to the book that at times it felt like someone was punching me in the chest.
It was because of Alex’s parents, because of the interludes where Alex’s mom posts to “motherhoodshared,” a parenting forum, about her troubles and anguish and how much Alex is hurting her, and how she’s a terrible mother, and how she wishes Alex would just be a good boy.
“Your choices make me a failure as a mother,” my mother said to me. “My purpose in life is to raise Yidden with yiras shamayim, children who do mitzvos and follow the Torah. My purpose in life is to raise children like that, and you – my child – are throwing that away. And that means I failed at life.”
It was because of lines like “And then I recall that some of the times he held me down, it might have been because I was having a bit of a tantrum. You are a shit, Alex says. And it’s not just Mum and Dad who think so. Those reports in the attic said you were a shit too.” Because of Alex’s Dad, who says, “You are now, and have always been, a hyperactive, self-obsessed little shit, and caring for you is exhausting.”
“You were always so dramatic,” my mother said to me. “How was I supposed to know when you were really upset and when you were just being melodramatic?” And I would wonder, maybe this is my fault. Maybe if I had been better-behaved. Maybe if I hadn’t always been “chin-in-the-chest” upset, maybe if I hadn’t been “ungebluzen,” maybe if I hadn’t been such a “slob,” maybe my mother and father would have loved me more?
It was because of Alex’s Dad who says “you still haven’t actually asked anything. You have guessed, and assumed, and accused,” about Alex’s intersex status and the reason for her double birth certificate, it’s because Alex then remembers “that first night – back at the beginning – when I said I felt like a girl and my mother had the big hysterical fit, he left. He just walked out,” and my hearts screams for this young teen who didn’t follow her parents’ unspoken rule about asking and that’s why she didn’t get any answers and instead got called a pervert.
Maybe if I had spoken more rationally, I think, maybe if I hadn’t gotten upset, maybe if I hadn’t sarcastically said “don’t worry, I haven’t been raped yet” when she expressed concern over my new mode of immodest dress, maybe I could have patched things over with my mother, I think. And then I remember to be kind to the crying child I was, despite being over 25 by that point.
It was because of “It’s abuse, isn’t it? I’m not being a pussy. But it’s not the sort of abuse I could go to the Department of Community Services about – my father wanting to wrestle with me or my mother insisting that I eat French toast,” and pages later a brief memory of Alex’s mother hitting her with the phone, and who even needs to go that far ahead when in the previous paragraph Alex remembers how she fought back and asked her father to stop, and cried because she didn’t want to wrestle.
“Could you stop” was a laughing refrain in my childhood home, a remnant from when my father was tickling my younger sibling and they weren’t enjoying it, and asked for it to stop, but my father was having fun so he didn’t. My throat closes up with the memory of how my father hugged me when he was sad, or when one of “the boys” was in trouble at school yet again, and I knew he was hugging me for his own comfort and I felt suffocated, but I went along with it because if I didn’t his eyes would get all hurt and he would accuse me of not loving him. And I remember how I watched my friends’ families with envy, wishing I had their homes, and then berating myself because a parent hugging a child is not abuse, is it.
It was because of what Alex thinks while she and her father pack up clothes for her mother in the hospital: “This is good – taking things of hers and packing them in a bag, as if I am taking memories and packing them in the back of my mind.”
The dream finally stopped. It used to happen once or twice a week: I would be visiting my parents for Shabbos or Yom Tov, and either something would happen or I would just feel horrible, and I would try to pack up my things and leave. But no matter that, in every iteration of the dream, I was trying to pack the same belongings I had come with into the same bag I had brought – the things would never fit inside. I would stuff them, and stuff them, further and further in, and they still kept overflowing. Each time, I wound up taking extra bags away from the house with me as I escaped into the air outside.
Last time it was different. Last time, just two weeks ago, and the dream has not happened since. This time, my dream-mother said something unforgivable, and I responded calmly, standing up for myself. Then I went upstairs to my bedroom, took a big suitcase from under the bed, and calmly packed up every single one of my belongings. Neatly, carefully, and they all fit into the suitcase. All my clothing, all my books, all my memorabilia – not a stitch of me was left on the shelves. And then I left, and that house does not get to contain me anymore.
It was because of “You know what it comes down to? Alex says to me. People who don’t want to lose their babies shouldn’t treat them like shit.”
There’s just about a week left before classes start. I’m teaching two classes this semester: a survey of medieval and early modern literature, and a class on children’s literature. I’ve taught both these classes before, but I’ve completely revamped both syllabi.
For the medieval and early modern survey, I’m trying to actively resist the canon (I disappointed myself by using enough texts that exist in the Norton that I could justify assigning Volume A). The three times I taught this class before, I used the most obvious texts, working from the Norton instead of thinking about what I wanted to accomplish in the class. This time, I worked the other way around. It was far more challenging to plan and prep this way, but I sincerely hope it will be worth it!
I’m also not following chronological order. I loosely organized the syllabus around genre, supported by themes or topics I want to discuss. I’m going to rely heavily on a timeline during my lectures so that students leave with a sense of the history. But one of my weaknesses as a teacher is emphasizing history at the expense of literary analysis, so I’m also hoping that this rearrangement helps.
For my children’s literature class, I reorganized by reading about a million Middle Grade books over the summer. It’s been fun! I’ve taught this class only once before, and while I was very happy with how it went, I had a few self-criticisms. Most of them stemmed from the fact that I was trying to teach the historical development of children’s literature as opposed to its current state. While that is a worthy goal, it doesn’t fit my students’ expectations or needs – many English majors at Lehman are also education majors. So maybe I’ll get my department to give me a topics elective where I can teach that… For now, I’m focusing on recent texts.
This one was also a challenge to plan. I mapped out the genres and issues I wanted to cover, helped by a few textbooks and teaching guides:
Then I requested a shitton of books from the library, and read or skimmed as many as I could. I tried to find books which can do double-duty in helping me teach genre and issues. I actually managed to find one book – The Witch Boy – which does triple-duty: we’ll be talking about fantasy, graphic novels, and gender that week.
Both syllabi are below. I’m hoping to blog now and then about the individual lessons and assignments throughout the semester.
Whether you’re like me and can quote whole passages from books by Robin McKinley, Tamora Pierce, and Diana Wynne Jones, whether you’ve never read a single book by these authors – join us for a Robin-Tamora-Diana Twitter book club!
Kristi Fleetwood and I are organizing a session at NeMLA 2020. Below is the CFP for our session.
The collection Children’s Geographies explores children’s places from playgrounds, social networks, schools, streets, villages, etc. Peter Hunt’s “Unstable Metaphors: Symbolic Spaces and Specific Places” differentiates between the internal/personal of the “space” and the external/reality of the “place.” Drawing on these ideas, this panel seeks to continue the discussion of children’s spaces and places by asking how children exist in the real world and the fictional world, in addition to how their literature serves (or doesn’t serve) as a distinct place of its own.
Children’s and Young Adult literature are often treated as their own cohesive categories. However, the spaces of children’s and YA literature are shared by many genres and cultures, and children’s and YA literature themselves share space with adult literature. The readers of these categories frequently overlap, despite publishers’ marketing. The conventions of the books divided by readers’ age also overlap when they share genres (for example, children’s historical fiction and adults’ historical fiction share generic conventions, although those conventions may manifest differently).
This panel aims to put these various elements of children’s and Young Adult literature into conversation, exploring the spaces that they share in order to deepen our understanding of how children’s and YA literature function on the page and in real life.
Possible topics include, but are not limited to:
Submit 250-word abstract to the NeMLA website by September 30, 2019.
It’s the end of the semester, and I’m waiting for final papers to come in so I can do some grading. So, naturally, I’m looking at my syllabi for fall…
I’m teaching two classes in Fall 2019:
I’ve taught both these courses before, but I’m making drastic changes to both syllabi. I have a lot of thoughts about even just the name of the 301 course (origins? okay then). But I’ll save that for another post (maybe). Here I want to focus on one aspect of the 335 syllabus: the picture book assignment.
The last time I taught the class, in Fall 2018, I had students write two essays, an annotated bibliography, and a picture book. There was an essay that explored a children’s book award and one book that won the award; an annotated bibliography of children’s books focusing on either a genre or a time period; and a traditional literary final paper.
I thought of the picture book as a “small” assignment, and was astonished when students told me they were spending lots of time on it. I had envisioned it as a fun end-of-semester activity. I emphasized many times that stick-figure drawings were fine – as long as the picture book achieved its purpose of demonstrating that students had grasped some of the concepts we had discussed throughout the semester.
But I had erroneously been counting on students understanding pedagogical strategies.
Sure, I could know in my own mind that I would not grade the quality of art or construction of the book (beyond that there was some art and that the book was held together somehow).
But for students, when I ask for a picture book, the assignment is monumental. Coupled with their final paper, which I assigned to overlap with this “fun” assignment, they were understandably very overwhelmed.English-335-picture-book-assn
Doing this assignment also made me aware of benefits I hadn’t even thought of. I had done creative assignments before, but they had been obviously smaller. In my early British literature surveys, I ask students to write a short poem or create a composite digital image (among other options) related to one text or theme of the course. But the picture book assignment – which I had designed based on other professors’ assignments I had seen – was actually far more complex and beneficial than I had realized.
I had left the picture book assignment for the end of the semester last fall because I had planned to read picture books with my class throughout the semester. I teach the class once a week, for 2.5 hours each session. I had planned my syllabus chronologically, providing a historical overview of the development of children’s literature. I intended to discuss one Middle Grade book each week, and then read and discuss one picture book each week. The idea was not to require students to buy picture books – we could have “reading circle” where I or a student would read the book aloud and show the pictures.
That didn’t work, for a number of reasons. First of all, doing a chronological study necessarily foregrounds white colonial children’s texts, and I was not happy with the way that turned out. We also had so much to discuss about each Middle Grade book that we didn’t get to the one-a-week picture book. Instead, we did a few focused activities using four or five picture books twice during the semester, and I set aside time in class for students to workshop their picture books at multiple stages.
For Fall 2019, I’m planning to do a unit on picture books at the very start of the semester instead, with students creating their own picture books at the end of that unit. I’ll assign the picture book in place of the first essay, and I will incorporate more direct instructions and limitations, thus allowing students to approach it the same way I intend it (or, more accurately, intending it the same way I know students will approach it).
Below are some samples of the books my Fall 2018 class made (used here with their permission). They show some great skills:
This past weekend, I attended and participated in the wonder that is ICMS Kalamazoo. Thousands of medievalists descended on the campus of Western Michigan University for our annual session of conviviality of all kinds, including intellectual, social, emotional, and nonsensical.
I presented twice this year: Once on a traditional panel of 20-minute presentations, and once on a roundtable, semi-informal talks on a particular question followed by general discussion among the presenters and the audience. The roundtable was an amazing experience, centering the identities of the speakers and audience members as we talked about what we do. I loved how the session ended: with an affirmation that the “default” identity of scholars has for so long been “Christian white male,” and that our acknowledgement of biases (based on religion, cultural identity, gender, sexuality, etc.) does not mean we’re more biased than the “default” Christian white male – just that we’re aware of our biases in a way he isn’t. And calling out the inherent bias in the “default,” traditional mode of scholarship is a large part of why we assert our own identities so much.
That session wasn’t live-tweeted, at the request of the presenters, because of the sensitive and personal nature of the talks. It was hard enough making ourselves vulnerable to the people in the room! But I do want to share my remarks, so I’m posting them here, lightly edited.
In a tweet that got a lot of attention a while ago, a medievalist joked that people who grew up religious have a leg up as medievalists. My reply: “depends which religion.” The tweet referred to Catholic terms, for sacraments or other practices, that show up in medieval literature that isn’t explicitly religious. Growing up with ultra-Orthodox Jewish religion did not give me a leg up in understanding Catholic terms. But the religion I grew up with does sometimes give me a leg up in my studies. It also adds a lot of complexity and complications to my study, in both textual and emotional spheres.
So first, here’s a few examples of when it helped me:
In a class on animal studies and Middle English literature, we talked about the way insects can be viewed as a category separate from “animals.” Having grown up with the idea that eating a bug is a sin with such severity that it would give me the equivalence of seven other sins, I was at least primed to consider bugs as “not-animals.” Not only that, I was able to draw on halachic discussions, conversations about Jewish law, that I had grown up with. When I was a teenager, someone discovered that the New York reservoir doesn’t filter out all organisms – it allows a non-harmful number of organisms to remain in the water. But some of the organisms are non-kosher “bugs,” and an argument raged in haredi communities about whether microscopic bugs can even be considered non-kosher. So in this seminar on medieval ideas about bugs and fleas, I explained the halachic concept of “able to be seen by the naked eye,” and I recounted the way people in my community sat staring at glasses of water to try and see these bugs – because if they didn’t see the “bugs,” they could drink the water.
In that same class, I mentioned that we would always check figs before eating them, opening them up and spreading them out to see if there were any bugs inside the fig. Someone did a quick search and found information about wasps that die inside figs and then decompose, fertilizing the fig. That added to a great discussion about the connections and interactions between humans, non-human animals, and plants.
The thing is, bringing these things up in class was emotionally complicated for me. I have bitter associations with these concepts. They were stringencies that made my life unnecessarily complicated – for example, I couldn’t refill my water bottle from the college’s water fountains, because they weren’t filtered according to rabbinic stringency. The knowledge that my Jewish upbringing gave me, the knowledge I was able to bring to class to enrich discussions, was always emotionally loaded.
We also talked a lot about decomposing bodies in this class. At one point, we talked about how people in the Middle Ages thought that uncorrupted bodies were signs that the people were holy and sainted in life. I joked (bitterly, to myself) – Christians in medieval Europe, and Jews in twenty-first-century Brooklyn believe the same thing… There are stories still told and fully believed today, about great rabbis whose graves were desecrated, and the bodies were intact years after burial – interpreted as signs of their greatness. This wasn’t solely an academic discussion for me – it was viscerally connected to things I had grown up with, and things I had consciously left and distanced myself from.
Before I left that whole world, I encountered emotional complexities involuntarily as well. When I started grad school, I was still religious and living with my parents in Boro Park, Brooklyn. I moved out and left religion that January, after my first semester was over. In my Old English class that first semester, when I was still visibly religious, I was once assigned a passage from Aelfric’s Preface to Genesis. I translated it as usual. It happened to be arguing that the Old Testament book of Genesis proves the Trinity, because God says, “let us make man in our likeness” – plural “us,” singular “likeness.” I had fun with the translation, as I always do – I love the puzzle of grammar and translation, and the fact that this one was focused on a bit of grammar itself was added fun! This kind of exegesis is also very familiar to me – Rashi, an eleventh-century Jewish commentator on the Torah and Talmud, often uses grammar to make a theological point. The moment it became not-so-fun for me was when I read the lines aloud in class and my professor’s immediate comment was, “I’m sorry for making you read heresy.” I hadn’t cared about the “blasphemous” content of the text – it was an academic exercise for me. And while I appreciate his thoughtfulness in trying to spare my religious sensibilities, it lifted me out of the academic dissociation (which had been a good thing!) and forced my Jewish identity back into the room, where I didn’t want it.
During that semester, I also became painfully aware of how little my deep and broad knowledge of Torah and Judaism would help in the sphere of mainstream medieval studies, centered as it is on Christianity. We were reading the Old English Judith, and the class turned to me, as a Jewish person who has extensive Jewish education, to clarify where in the Torah the book of Judith appears. I said, with great certainty, that Judith and Maccabees are books that do not exist in Hebrew – they exist only in the Christian Bible and as oral Jewish history. I was half-right. These books are not part of the Hebrew Torah (there are 24 books which I can still recite by heart). But they do exist in written Hebrew versions. They just weren’t accepted as canon in the Jewish Torah.
Being surrounded by medievalists means that I find out more about my own heritage. I grew up in ultra-Orthodox Boro Park and attended a Bais Yaakov all-girls school, where I often did not get a historically-accurate account of Jewish history or theology. In an attempt to portray haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Judaism as the one true version of Judaism that has its roots at Mt Sinai, the community often flattens out the many twists and turns that Jewish theology and Jewish law took through the ages (this is something I discuss in my dissertation about haredi children’s literature).
Bais Yaakov schools also often bowdlerize Torah and commentaries to avoid uncomfortable discussions about sex (among other things). So when I was in twelfth grade, I learned “Adam yadah es Chavah,” Adam knew Eve, as “Adam married Eve” – no mention of sex. I knew enough by that point to recognize that this “knew” referred to “carnal knowledge” (I read books from the public library against my school’s rules…) But I wasn’t always so aware and sophisticated… So I often retain wrong knowledge of Torah and commentaries.
Recently, I discovered another verse in Genesis that had been censored in Bais Yaakov. Rashi has a controversial explanation for Adam’s request for a mate. As we had learned it, Adam saw that every other animal had a mate, and he felt lonely and asked God for one of his own. But according to Rashi, Adam tried to have sex with every single animal, realized that none was compatible, and only then asked God for a mate. We usually read Rashi’s commentary on every word in every verse – we only skipped the comments where he translated words into “la’az,” the French vernacular. But we had apparently skipped this comment of Rashi’s, where he talks about Adam’s bestiality (or, possibly, the haredi-published edition of Torah we used in school leaves out this comment). I found this out because I read medievalist blogs – this one in particular was on Karl Steel’s blog, where he was writing about medieval posthumanism and the various ways in which medieval people wrote about human-animal interactions.
Again, while this is a “cool” moment of discovery for many people, for me as a formerly-ultra-Orthodox Jew it’s tinged with bitterness – this is my own heritage (I mean, not just that I’m Jewish, but according to my uncle, who traced our genealogy, I’m actually a direct descendant of Rashi), but that heritage was stolen from me by omissions from the text we supposedly knew very well. It’s being given back to me by medievalists – and by my own studies in medieval literature. In a more direct incident, my paper for a class on “Medieval Conversions” with Steve Kruger focused on Hebrew chronicles and liturgical poetry of the Crusades. I recognized some of the poetry from the times I went to services on Tisha b’Av, when the Book of Lamentations is read along with liturgical poems commemorating Jewish tragedies throughout the centuries.
My dissertation is no longer medieval (I’m writing about contemporary haredi children’s literature). But I’m working on an article I hope will be ready for submission this summer, an extension of that seminar paper examining twelfth-century Hebrew chronicles and poetry about the Crusades, when many Jews in Europe were slaughtered by Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem. It’s a difficult process for me – these atrocities happened to my ancestors, and I often break down in sorrow as I read the texts.
But the rhetoric in these texts, about the martyrs who gave their lives rather than convert to the “horrible impure” Christianity, is far too similar to what my parents and grandmother said to me, when they told me not to associate with goyim, and when they told me that I owe my faith to my ancestors who suffered to hold onto their own faith. But at the same time, studying these texts gives me release – I can reclaim my heritage through academic study. I also finally have that “leg up” because Biblical references are embedded throughout the texts, often unexplained, and I can recognize them – I can recite many verses of Torah and Talmud because of my twelve+ years of school, and I grew up with many of them as part of my everyday language.
So being a Jewish medievalist, especially an ex-Orthodox medievalist, is emotionally very difficult. But davka because of the very things that make it difficult, it’s also emotionally great.