A pre-post note: I wrote this post a good while before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that was celebrated this past Wednesday night-Friday. And then I fiddled, added a bit, deleted a bit, forgot about it, and generally felt like it wasn't clear enough, or you know, the complete and final word on everything I wanted to say about the thinking behind Beyond Noah's Ark, ever. And so, I'm dedicating this post towards my New-Years commitment to striving for non-perfectionism, and its more important corollary, actually getting stuff done. In a professional sphere, definitely. But in addition, as you'll see I reference below, there's so much swirling in the global sphere that I feel a responsibility to respond to, to not turn a blind eye to the world's incredibly painful realities. I think that's part of being an adult, and one who hopes to convey that sense of responsibility to my kids. But how to respond when there's just so much, and so much that feels way beyond my pay grade. To my current thinking it comes down to acknowledging that we often respond most authentically to the things we feel most connected with. For me, as an ex-pat turned re-pat (ie, moved to Israel, currently in the US), and after having read Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy and a whole bunch of other related books/articles/hearing my friend Dena Weiss's personal reflections about her volunteer work/living in America, working to move us away from our system of mass incarceration of people of color especially is what feels most personally relevant and urgent. How to do that in a real way beyond donating money to EJI.org (recommended as that is!) as a busy mom, entrepreneur, person with no legal expertise or qualifications, introvert, etc, is the question I'm currently investigating. I'd love your thoughts, suggestions, etc, and I'd love to hear what you've been focusing your brain, heart, and time on.
And now, on to the post:
I'm starting to think that I should have a series in this blog called Personal Cheerleading Squad (we also have a Tiny Art Director, but that's another story!), in honor of Ariel's many creative cheerleading efforts to support my entrepreneurial journey. Our most recent addition, in response to my concern that I didn't belong at a networking event for already somewhat established ventures: You're not an alien, you're a pupa! (ie, future butterfly!) And an earlier classic, upon my complaining that I work too slowly: You know who wrote slowly? Rabbi Dov Ber Soloveitchick! That's who!
As you can tell, he's really pulling out all the stops with these, which is, for better or worse, often exactly what I need.
Friends, there's so much going on right now, as no doubt, there always is. Leave-takings from this world of beloved people. Crazy weather patterns that are disastrous for those in their wake. Constant reminders to be vocal in an authentic way for the things we believe in. And of course, blessedly, the Jewish month of Elul, when, as Bubby Nettie a"h used to quote her mother as saying in Yiddish, the leaves start to shiver. They shiver at the first brisk winds of fall -- I'm pleased to say that even here in Berkeley, where September and October are generally hotter than the summer months, I've felt some faint gestures of my beloved autumn -- certain smells, the change in the light, maybe some leaves changing color here and there. And the leaves shiver, of course, because even (especially?) the natural world is awake to the arrival of the High Holy Days season, of the more imminent presence of the Divine in our midst, accompanying us as we walk into the new year.
As Maira Kalman has written (in the context of her personal grief. I hope she wouldn't mind my quoting her here...) I could collapse, thinking about that. But I don't want to talk about that now...
Well, perhaps I want to talk about one very particular aspect of all that, which, as I see it, is a way into the rest. I want to talk about those gentle sensory experiences that accompany this season. The smell of the air and the leaves in autumn, maybe someone is making a fire in their fireplace already. As we enter the High Holiday season we get the sweet tang of the pomegranate, and that shock of sweetness from the apples and honey. The pink stains on our fingers with the stickiness from honey drips. On Yom Kippur, the quiet solemn beauty of stripping away so many sensory inputs. And then sukkot with the incredible lush smells and sights of the schach, the hadassim and etrog.
I also want to talk about Froebel Gifts, Reggio manipulatives and Montessori materials. While each of these had a distinct approach, they were all designed to nurture focused experimentation and learning through play in young children in developmentally appropriate stages and using natural and/or beautifully crafted elements.
What all of these do at their best (although they can certainly be pigeonholed into much less) is provide children with something in between toys and pure (narrowly focused) educational materials. Something in between total freedom to interact (or not) with whatever is around and rigid rules that prescribe particular actions. That something, that sweet spot in the middle, is then ideally a resource for deep personal and intellectual development.
So here's what I've been pondering lately: What would that look like in a religious context, when we're talking about tools and resources to nurture a deeply personal path within Judaism, one that has an awareness of formal constraints but also is vibrant with a sense of experimentation, play, and ongoing exploration? How do we locate the incredible pure sensory experiences of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes of the holidays in a slightly more constructed learning context to provoke inquiry and fruitful connections?
Child-centered or constructivist learning environments (as the three I mentioned above are often categorized) can be present in a classroom or in the home, but we most readily associate them with a school setting. So too in our assumption of where the bulk of religious education is happening. Other than in traditionally observant families (and not always then either) religious education is quite often presumed to be mostly the purview of some sort of organizational context, whether Hebrew school, Jewish early childhood program, Synagogue groups, summer camp. What would we gain by having the tools, the basic building blocks of religious life within which to experiment, investigate, play located first and foremost in our homes? How might our religious journeys be rooted and allowed to flourish in more vital ways if our homes were the foundation of those religious adventures, not bracketed out of them, due to supposed lack of fluency in the vocabulary and answers of our religion?
These ponderings, they are winding their way towards clarity through sensory experiences and creation b'chevrutah (learning/creation pairs) -- building blocks in what Beyond Noah's Ark is working on, what we are becoming. At the core of it all is the goal of making two things more manifest in this world: A framework for creation of Jewish experiential items (Judaica? Craft? We interestingly have no great word for this...) by collaborative pairs/teams of makers in a mode that is rooted in a spirit of deep authentic inquiry and creative play, and for those items to enable families to feel that they are in the driver's seat of their religious journey.
I'll leave you for the moment with a poem that Krista Tippet, host of the ever-inspiring podcast OnBeing, recently sent out, that speaks in other words to what we generally don't or can't get in school but (I assert) is such a sphere of possibility and opportunity within our homes. Sending you all, dear readers, so many blessings for a sweet year, at school, at home, and everywhere you travel!
What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade
by Brad Aaron Modlin
Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,
how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark.
After lunch she distributed worksheets
that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s
voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep
without feeling you had forgotten to do something else—
something important—and how to believe
the house you wake in is your home. This prompted
Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing
how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,
and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts
are all you hear; also, that you have enough.
The English lesson was that I am
is a complete sentence.
And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,
and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person
add up to something.