Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Things My Shaliach Never Told Me: As Rabbi Kosman Always Says . . . .

So, I'm registered in a small Hebrew class in City Center called "The Short Story," which meets 6 times, every other week, to discuss, well, various Israeli short stories. The teacher speaks normal Hebrew but more slowly than she usually would, because it's a class for immigrants, and we spend a lot of time translating words and phrases before talking about things like symbolism, character development, post-modernism, etc.

Yesterday was the fourth meeting. Forty-five minutes before the 4 pm class, I was standing outside, trying to hail a cab -- I needed to get there early because I had not finished reading the story we were working on -- and there were no taxis, and I tried calling a dispatcher but there was no answer, and I was very strongly tempted to just skip the whole thing. I hadn't read the story, I had a lot of other things to do, the cab would cost 25 NIS, and I just was not in the mood.

But then I remembered the part of the story we'd started the week before. It's about an ultra-Orthodox woman in Jerusalem whose 18-year-old daughter has run off to live with her boyfriend on a secular kibbutz in the Negev, south of Be'er Sheva. Having heard that the girl is sharing a bed with the boy and "conducting herself as his wife," the mother, as the story starts, is on a bus to the kibbutz (she hasn't left her ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in four years), for the purpose of "dragging her daughter back to Jerusalem by her hair."

In the discussion the week before, I was the only religious person who had shown up to the class. Though I don't agree with the type of shidduch system and close-mindedness reflected by the mother in the story, I felt it was important for someone to show up who knew something about Orthodoxy. The teacher had, for example, said something about how Judaism is so strict about sexual mores that if a wife is raped she cannot go back to her husband, and I was the only one there who knew to argue that she was incorrectly applying a rule for Kohanim to all Jews. I do like the teacher, but these little springs of ignorance can cause a lot of damage.

I wavered. "Look," I told myself. "Discussions about religion happen in this country every day, and you can't be everywhere to prevent a chillul Hashem. They will just have to discuss the story without you. You've got other things to do."

But then I also remembered what my friend Ari always tells his guests at the end of Shabbat meals, quoting his wife's rabbi from Frederick, Maryland: "As Rabbi Kosman always says, never underestimate the power of your presence."

So, sighing, I walked to another intersection and hailed a cab.

I read the story as fast as I could in the taxi, and then for 15 minutes before class started I sat in the hot room trying desperately to get to the end before class starts. At some point the teacher came in and said "are you the only one?" I said "so far, but we have time." She said "no, it's 4 o'clock now." So we waited five minutes, and no one else showed up.

Eventually the teacher said "well, I guess you will get a tutorial today," and we started talking about the story.

We had a nice discussion. The story is, in fact, beautifully crafted, and even though I don't like its overall message about religion, as a former English teacher I appreciated the symbolism, word choices, metaphors, etc. And I was able, at one point, to dispel another misconception about religious Jews. But all I could think about was that if it weren't for Rabbi Kosman, this poor teacher would have suffered the humiliation of having no one show up for her class.

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