Tag Archives: school

Yitzi’s siyum

Yitzi standing & singingWhen we finish learning a significant chunk of Torah – like a tractate of Talmud, or one of the six Orders of the Mishnah – we make what is called a siyum, a celebration of the completion. Near the close of the school year, Yitzi’s class made a siyum on Sefer Bereshis (the Book of Genesis), which they’ve been learning all year and now know essentially by heart. They made a really big deal out of the siyum, and it was really something. The results are perhaps too adorable for consumption by anyone but grandparents, but here we go.

The boys gathered up in front of the school, at Beit Rothschild:

Yitzi's class assemblesFrom there, they marched together to the hall at Yeshivat HaKotel, where the siyum was held:

When they got there, they started with a big song & dance number, then filed into their seats on the dais, looking like the typical VIP section of an Orthodox assembly:

Yitzi on daisYitzi singingAfter some singing and speeches, the class was mesayem (completed) Sefer Bereshis, reciting the last few pesukim (verses) of the Sefer, followed by “chazak! chazak! venischazeik!” (“be strong! be strong! and may we be strengthened!”) which is traditionally said during the Torah reading in shul on Shabbos when one of the five Sefarim of the Torah is completed, albeit without the arm pumping that you see here. They then immediately went into the first pesukim of Sefer Shemos (the Book of Exodus) – the quintessential Jewish approach, in which (a) learning is never finished; and (b) even as we celebrate what we’ve accomplished, we’re looking forward to what’s coming next. And then there’s the singing:

I didn’t intend to film that much of the siyum, but the boys were just too cute. I wound up burning through the camera battery, and had to film the part where Yitzi got his certificate with my iPhone. Here are some pics & videos of the rest:

Perfect star turn.

Perfect star turn.

arms on shouldersYitzi waving & singing

Yitzi with his Rebbe and me.

Yitzi with his Rebbe and me.

A year of school in the Rova (part III, the parents)

One addendum to the account of the boys’ year in school. The language barrier wasn’t just an issue for them, but very much for us. At least every Erev Shabbos, and at other times at well, the boys would bring home long notes from school, all in Hebrew. We’d have to figure out what was going on, or risk having our boys be the only ones without a swimsuit on a field trip, or the like.

The weekly Shabbos sheets were a serious workout for us. Yitzi would come home with a list of review questions on the section of Chumash they were doing that week. We’re used to a few parsha questions from school, but in Chicago they’d be in English and would be maybe a dozen or so. Yitzi’s list would be 30-40 questions, all in Hebrew, with a cursive typeface for the answers that was all but indecipherable. When the school days got longer, and they added Shoftim (the Book of Judges) to their study, that would be another 20 or so questions. I have to admit that there were times that I simply read the questions in Hebrew, not fully understanding them, and when Yitzi’s response pretty much matched the language of the answer, we’d move on with little-to-no comprehension on my part.

There were also the occasional calls from the school, or bumping into one of the rebbes or the menahel in the Rova, and having a stilted attempt at conversation. Everyone was amazingly patient with us, and we’re really grateful to Zilberman’s, the rebbes, and everyone for the great year they gave our boys and us.

A year of school in the Rova (part II, Shalom Gershon)

Shalom Gershon with the siddur he got from mechina at the end of the school year.

Shalom Gershon with the siddur he got from mechina at the end of the school year.

Shalom Gershon’s experience here was different from Yitzi’s but, in the end, also very successful. In Chicago, he would have been in “nursery” – a pre-kindergarten co-ed class with minimal academic content. We had expected to place him in gan (literally “garden”) here, which would have been a similar experience. But Zilberman’s wanted him in mechina (literally, “preparation”). Mechina is more like kindergarten-plus, with a rebbe and a focus on reading.

Shalom with his Rebbe.

Shalom with his Rebbe.

Shalom Gershon struggled in the early-going with the language barrier (even though he also had some English speakers in his class). He did figure out what was going on, and he managed to make a good connection with his rebbe, and to feel safe and happy with him. But he was initially very resistant to doing his “homework” – i.e., practicing the Hebrew letters they were learning – or hearing any Hebrew at home. He didn’t seem to undergo the same bit of hazing that Yitzi did, but we did get accounts of how one of the boys in his class (Yosef Abboud) protected him from boys who wanted to bother him. However, we weren’t sure how much of this was accurate given the fine line in his mind between fact and imagination. In fact, Shalom Gershon would frequently come home with elaborate accounts of the things his rebbe had said in school that day – even though his rebbe speaks maybe three words of English and Shalom certainly did not understand the Hebrew.

Shalom Gershon with beloved Rebbe Yedidia

Shalom Gershon with beloved Rebbe Yedidia

Things changed when an English-speaking aide, Rebbe Yedidia joined the class. Shalom Gershon became willing to practice (usually), and did an impressive job keeping up with the pace of the class. He also totally charmed Rebbe Yedidia with the sweet things he says, which we’d hear about every time we ran into Rebbe Yedida on the street. Shalom can now read (slowly) in Hebrew, including the full paragraph of text before Friday night kiddush, which he did last Shabbos. Although he doesn’t speak like Yitzi, Shalom does understand a fair amount of Hebrew, and speaks a bit occasionally. Interestingly, he seems to have learned differently from Yitzi. For Yitzi, the experience was more conventional, as he picks up new vocabulary and works it into the structure of the language, etc. But Shalom Gershon has learned to understand phrases and terms, and associate them with their meanings. For example, he knows that “sim b’pach” is an instruction to throw something in the garbage, but he doesn’t recognize the separate words as such. You could tell him to “sim b’mita” and, even though he knows that a mita is a bed, he wouldn’t necessarily recognize that you’re telling him to put the thing in the bed.

He is also attached to Israel, though it is hard to tell how much of that is a five-year-old’s aversion to change. And we wonder how well he really even remembers Chicago. But he said the other day that he’d rather live right here, and he’s going to miss Israel. He also complained that he needs to stay here to learn to daven like the Israelis do. He also professes great interest in places that are kadosh (holy). After being anxious about his happiness and experience here, it’s a relief to see what a good year it has been for him.

Needless to say, he’s well ahead of where he’d be in Chicago. In fact, we’re worried about how bored he will be this year in “pre-1A” (the inexplicable term used in the boys’ school for kindergarten). They’re going to be focused on learning Aleph-Beis (the Hebrew alphabet), but he can already read – in an Israeli accent, to boot!

A year of school in the Rova (part I, Yitzi)

Yitzi with three certificates attesting to his learning prowess.

Yitzi with three certificates attesting to his learning prowess.

Everyone told us that kids pick up Hebrew fast, and that it would be no big deal for them to be in a Hebrew-only school environment this year. Needless to say, it isn’t quite so simple.

Yitzi goes to Talmud Torah Aderet Eliyahu (nice promotional video here), a.k.a. Zilberman’s. There are a number of unique things about the school. It is famous for its methodology (the boys learn all of Tanach (Bible) by heart, then learn Mishna, and only then Gemara) and for the fact that they have school 364 days a year. The only day off is Tisha B’Av, when it is actually prohibited to learn (most) Torah. Even on Shabbos they have at least a few hours of school.

But the most immediately significant fact for Yitzi was that his Rebbe speaks no English, although there are a few English-speaking kids in his class. Also, we put him back in Kita Aleph (first grade), even though he’d be in second grade in Chicago, so he was familiar with the first few parshiyos (portions) they did in Chumash (written Torah) at the beginning of the year. But much of the time he simply didn’t understand what was going on.

Putting Yitzi in Kita Aleph was the right move for another reason. His birthday is at the end of October, right near the cutoff for school years. In Chicago, we wound up putting him in the older class (i.e., he’s among the youngest), which worked out fine because it’s a class of great kids. Here, he was among the oldest, which helped him get through the physical hazing of being the new kid. The kids here aren’t really mean, but they are tough, and they don’t hesitate to get rough with each other. Fortunately, Yitzi seemed able to defend himself, and wasn’t fazed by it. Part of it is that somewhere he got the idea that he knows some karate. Yeah, I have no idea. In fact, one day he came home and announced, “Mommy, I love fighting.” Their “fighting” is mostly little-boy wrestling, so it’s no big deal, but we are frequently reminding him that it is ok to defend yourself, but he’s not to initiate physicality, especially when we get back to Chicago.

I was really impressed by Yitzi’s approach this year. He never got discouraged, and went to school every day eager to learn, even when he didn’t know what was being said. In an early meeting I had with his rebbe (via a translator), he referred to Yitzi as a malach (angel), because he was always attentive and trying to follow along. Once, he had as a sub the second grade rebbe, who does speak English. Yitzi remarked wistfully that it would’ve been nice to be in that class because he could’ve talked with his rebbe, and we felt bad.

But it wasn’t too long after, maybe 6-7 months into our year, that it became clear that things had clicked for Yitzi. I knew his language skills had turned the corner when, one Shabbos, he had a non-English-speaking friend from school over to play. Yitzi pulled out Battleship and taught his friend the rules, in Hebrew. (To be fair, Yitzi later said he never wanted to do that again, because it was so hard.) At this point, his Hebrew is very serviceable, and he’s totally open to speaking and improving it. He plays with the other boys in Hebrew, speaks with his rebbe, and is up to the task when our visiting American Hebrew-speaking friends inevitably want to test his abilities.

Yitzi also now knows Sefer Bereshis (the Book of Genesis), in Hebrew, by heart (this is the primary curriculum for Kita Aleph at Zilberman’s).

Zilberman’s has a practice that gives some insight into their philosophy. If a boy asks a question in class that his rebbe can’t answer, he gets sent to the principal’s office (the menahel)… where the menahel (Rav Yom Tov Zilberman) answers the boy’s question and gives him a prize. After a year of being incentivized to ask good questions, Yitzi is now a trained assassin – metaphorically, of course, notwithstanding the strength of his karate. I’m going to have to meet with his prospective rebbe back in Chicago to prepare him, and make sure this impulse to question continues to be encouraged.

All in all, the year for Yitzi exceeded expectations. Not only did he pick up great skills, but he can look back and see that he was able to succeed in something tough. Hopefully, it will help him later in life when he needs confidence in his own abilities. Equally importantly, he had a good time and developed an attachment to Eretz Yisrael. When asked whether he prefers living in Chicago or Israel, he said he wished there were Chicago in Israel. “It would be like Ramat Beit Shemesh,” he said, “but it would be Ramat Chicago.”

The last day of school

Shalom with his Rebbe.

Shalom with his Rebbe.

Today was Shalom Gershon’s last day of school here, and the last day of my own zman (term) in yeshiva. Although I may be able to pop in a bit when seder resumes in Elul, that will be our last week here and there will be a lot of packing, etc., keeping me from really getting back into it. So, for all intents and purposes, this marks the end of my sojourn this year as an avreich (full-time adult yeshiva student).

There’s a tefillah that we say when leaving the beis medrash (study hall) after a day of learning:

…מודה אני לפניך ה’ אלוקי ואלוקי אבותי ששמת חלקי מיושבי בית המדרש ולא שמת חלקי קרנות

“Thank you, Hashem, my G-d and G-d of my fathers, for placing my portion among those who sit in the study hall, and not placing my portion among those who hang around on corners…” (loosely translated)

Leaving the beis medrash today, I had a really hard time saying the tefillah. I have a first-rate job, and a terrific life, waiting back in Chicago. It’s not exactly hanging out on street corners. But having my portion among those in the beis medrash

This entire year, I’ve been intending to write up some discussion of what learning in yeshiva is like. I keep putting it off because it’s easier to write about other things. I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to capture its essence, and there are aspects to many of the subject matters we’ve been learning that people might find distracting and cause them to miss the point. But I do need to try, since it has been the central point of our little adventure. B’li neder, I’ll try to put something together. (I also plan to put together a post on how the boys’ year in school has been.)

But I’m feeling the pain of leaving full-time learning behind on a lot of levels. It isn’t just that I’m going to have to massively cut back on an activity that I’ve come to enjoy so viscerally. Nor is it just (“just!”) the fact that we consider Torah learning to be the pinnacle activity for personal development and reward. There’s also the fact that, as a latecomer to observant Judaism, I’m so far behind in the skills and knowledge necessary to be part of the learning community – which is to say the mainstream. After a year, on top of what I have been able to cobble together in the past few years, I feel like I’m on the entrance ramp. I have basic abilities, though my language skills are still lacking. It seems like a little more work and the world of Jewish texts would really open up to me.

I knew that, whatever progress I made this year, I wouldn’t be satisfied with it. I’m sure if I’d gotten even further, I still would feel like I just need a little more. Satisfaction is always just out of reach, and I’m pretty sure that’s a good thing. So the question now is how much I’ll be able to close the gap back in Chicago, when I’m back in the regular routine. Of course, now matter how much it is, it won’t be enough.


Major adjustments ahead

I was downstairs this morning, getting ready to go to shacharis, when I heard the front door open. That was puzzling, since I knew Debbie was upstairs. It turns out it was Yitzi, coming back from the makolet (!). Debbie had sent him to pick up a few things.

This was yet another reminder, as we enter the stretch run here, that there are going to be some jarring adjustments when we get back to Chicago. Yitzi is not going to be strolling to the store alone to pick up pudding and yogurt. Nor will he be walking himself to school, or often seeing Debbie or me walking through the square when he comes out for recess. School itself is going to be very different for him; we’re just now beginning to understand just how far ahead he’s going to be in limud hakodesh (nonsecular subjects). He has been learning Sefer Bereshis (the Book of Genesis) and Shoftim (Judges), in Hebrew, with enough comprehension to ask questions that stump not just his rebbe, but also the principal (major nachas for us, by the way).

It is going to be really strange to be back in Chicago. Driving all over the place will be weird. We’ve gotten used to much less living space – we’re going to be lost in our house. (Frankly, if not for the love of our neighbors and the pain of moving, I’d be tempted to sell our house and move into something smaller upon our return.) There won’t be any jukim[1] (yay!) but also no lizards on the porch (boo!).

Of course, going back to the office, and tucking in an hour of Torah learning here and there when I can, is going to be a massive change from the luxury of learning all day. Not to mention being surrounded by others who are doing the same.

It will be strange not to be in a place full of Jews, where being observant is routine.

I won’t constantly feel guilty about the lameness of my Hebrew, but I won’t constantly have the opportunity to work on it.

It is going to be very weird.

The Apricot Pit Game (Updated)

Yitzi tossingAnother new day, another surprising Israeli phenomenon. Today’s is the Apricot Pit Game (I don’t know the Hebrew name yet). The kids save up apricot seeds, dry them out, and play a game where you throw them into a box with holes cut out in various sizes and shapes. Each hole has a point value, based on the difficulty of tossing in an apricot seed, from 3-4 feet away. The shooter gets back a number of seeds equal to his point total.

Deutsch fancy boxThe boxes range from the very basic – shoe boxes with holes punched in the top – to the very elaborate. One of our neighbors’ sons has one with an electric-turned wheel (pictured at right). Word is that the other neighbors’ son has an even more elaborate setup.

During recess, the front of Yitzi’s school is like a carnival. No, more like a casino:

There are a few things about this phenomenon that I find particularly difficult to understand:

C'mon, papa needs a new pair of ... apricot seeds.

C’mon, c’mon, papa needs a new pair of … apricot seeds.

  1. It’s all about apricot pits. That’s it. No other seeds/pits/etc. are suitable. It is a mystery why apricots were honored with this tradition.
  2. At no point are the apricot seeds redeemable for anything of real value. Yet they are highly sought-after.
  3. Even though the pits used have been saved for some time, even years, the game is only played in its season. It seems Opening Day was yesterday. There was no ramp-up, or early smattering of boxes; everyone shows up on the appointed day ready to go. It isn’t clear yet how long the season lasts, but I’m guessing it will be over long before the concurrently-commencing MLB campaign.

UPDATE: We have a new entrant into the apricot seed casino biz:

Yitzi with apricot seed boxes