Lessons for Life| October 18, 2022
Sometimes there are lessons taught in classrooms that don’t show up on school board curricula
The Three “Rs”: Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic. That’s what they told us had to be taught in school. (Obviously spelling wasn’t high on the list). Nowadays, the secular curriculum craze has switched to STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.
We Sisters have no problem with any of these subjects (though if the “S” in STEM stood for Schmoozing, we’d definitely be top of the class). But we do know that sometimes there are lessons taught in classrooms that don’t show up on school board curricula or in a teacher’s formal lesson plan book.
Come join us in a classroom where the voices of two generations combine to help young pupils internalize the message of our People’s most tragic — and most heroic — era in modern history. Sign up for an online course in technology and watch one student fail the first assignment — and learn a lesson about who she really is. And peek into a series of classrooms and learn from a master teacher what we really should be teaching our children in school.
Okay, turn the page… class is about to begin….
Lessons from the Shoah
She realized the Holocaust was becoming forgotten — even denied. So our mother, Rose Stark a”h, resolved to preserve the memories. By writing. By speaking.
Now, she’s gone. How do I continue that mission? Through Yom HaShoah presentations at schools. Each time I prepare, I consult mentally with Mommy.
Mommy, I’m second generation. I didn’t live through your horrors, thank G-d. How do I transmit your messages to the next generation?
Her voice pops into my head: Why do you think I wrote about so many recollections? Use my voice!
I pepper each presentation with excerpts from her treasure trove of writings, often opening with an attention-getter borrowed from her:
“How many Jews were killed in the Holocaust?”
“Six million!” shout 200 fifth- and sixth-graders.
“Wrong!” I respond. “There were six million and one.”
I then read from an article my mother wrote, entitled “Six Million and One.” The “one,” Mommy explains, was her mother, Malka — the grandmother after whom I’m named. “My mother — and, for that matter, anyone’s mother — should not become a statistic,” she wrote. “People do not realize what it means when we say six million.” Mommy then describes my Bubby Malka’s many extraordinary acts of chesed in prewar Munkatch.
Thanks, Mommy. That number has now turned into real people for the kids. But I can’t just keep reading to them. How can I convey the horror without traumatizing them? You were so good at speaking age appropriately.
Speak in a language they understand. Children are visual. Show them pictures, not just words.
I show the kids a picture of the famous Auschwitz gate sign: Arbeit Macht Frei. “Imagine going through those gates after a nightmare train ride, after being separated from your family,” I tell them. “How would you feel?”
“Scared.” “Alone.” “Despairing.”
I flash another picture — a tattooed arm — and ask another “how-would-you-feel” question.
“Like I’m a number.” “I’m a no one.” “I’m angry.” “They think I’m an animal.” “Not human.”
Mommy, they’re starting to internalize it. What’s another age-appropriate message?
Tell them about heroism.
I tell about a “nameless Polish Jew” who risked his life to save mothers and children as they descended from the cattle cars in Auschwitz. I read Mommy’s words about how this prisoner told her to hand her baby to her mother-in-law.
Surrounded by armed Nazis and vicious dogs, he assured her, “You’ll be going to the same place. Within an hour you’ll get your baby back.” Of course, he knew Mommy would never see her baby again. But he also knew that a woman with a baby would inevitably be sent to death. His lie saved Mommy’s life.
In her writings, she speculates: Was it this same man who saved her 13-year-old nephew, descending from another car, by ordering him, “Tell them you’re 18 years old!”?
I flash more photos — group shots of Mommy’s many descendants — and ask, “What else can you learn from this act of heroism by a ‘nameless Polish Jew’?”
“He saved ALL of you!” “When the Germans killed six million, they were really killing all those six million’s descendants. They were killing billions and trillions of people.”
Another question, prompted by Mommy: “What makes a person a hero?”
“Risking your life to save others.” “Getting past despair, bitterness, and anger. “Looking at the bright side.” “Rebuilding.” “Looking forward.”
See, Mommy? They’re becoming more and more insightful.
In a post-presentation thank-you letter, a student writes:
“Not only did your mother survive. She was able to rebuild her life, her family, and eventually even move to Eretz Yisrael! She was also able to recount the horrors of the Holicost [sic], and record her family’s legicy [sic] for future generations…
“I took to heart the message that it is our obligation, our duty, to carry on the mesorah of Bnei Yisrael. I will strive to learn Torah and do mitzvos in honor of the memory of the six million-and-one of our family, of Klal Yisrael, who died as martyrs…”
Emmy Leah gazes at…
A Star Pupil
She was one of the top students in my Israeli college English Department. Smart, hardworking, enthusiastic. Her English skills were top-notch, and she had that hard-to-define something — call it “presence” — marking her as a successful future teacher.
In short, Yael* was my star pupil.
My star pupil who, with one mistaken push of a button, became… a fallen star…
It happened about ten years ago. Technology was beginning to enter school classrooms, and our department had opened an intensive summer course introducing our teachers-in-training to the latest computer-based pedagogical tools.
In those days, when the word “zoom” was what you did to a camera lens to get a close-up shot, students were expected to come to the campus to study. Yael, however, asked for and got permission to miss classes because she was on bed rest. Instead, she would send in her assignments by email.
Apparently, Yael really needed a course in using technology. Because the next thing I knew, I received an email from her — one that was meant to go to her husband:
“Yosef,* would you do these assignments for me — it’s two courses, Computer Applied Instruction 1 and 2. NOT hard work, especially if you know computers. I just don’t have time for it.” It ended with a smiley face:).
I read the message over twice, and I was not smiling.
I was horrified. Shocked. Outraged.
And, mostly, Disappointed.
My shining star pupil had fallen through the academic atmosphere and plunged headlong into a dark and swirling ocean of cheating.
This was not a situation that should be handled over email. I called Yael, told her that I’d found out what she had tried to do. I spoke to her about the academic and religious implications of cheating. I explained that I had the option of calling her before a disciplinary committee — but that I wouldn’t. Instead, she would have to retake the courses in person next summer. I wouldn’t put this on her record, but I warned her I’d keep a careful eye on her from that point on.
Yael was distraught. She apologized profusely, told me how ashamed she was, promised never to do something like this again.
And that, it seemed, was that. End of story.
End of story, that is, until I received another email from her, three years later. No mistake this time, this one really was addressed to me, and if it didn’t fully return the glow of my star pupil, it did explain how being that star caused the problem in the first place.
Here’s how Yael put it:
“I sent you the email by accident — and it was meant to happen…
“When you called me, I could have died from embarrassment. Where did this all come from? My whole life I was a straight- A, top-of-the-class student, valedictorian, and would do whatever it took to succeed. I never cheated, my work was always mine and well deserved. My push for success came from a place of deep insecurity and fear…
“Baruch Hashem, and really it all comes from Him, I have learned some solid, important things about life. A bit late, but it’s never too late. Life is not about the A. The A could be anything. From a perfect kitchen to a perfect birth to a perfect essay… but nothing is perfect. Perfect is the last thing that matters, not the first. First, be a good person; first, take care of your health; first, take care of your family; first, pray; first, listen; first, know there is a Hashem Who runs it all.
“It’s been three and a half years. I hope you forgive me and see that I’ve changed. I cannot apologize enough, nor can I thank you enough.”
Technological tools change often. But Yael’s final lesson at school… that one is for life.
Lessons in Love
We’re in trouble now.
Shua* watched nervously as the menahel, Rabbi Zakon, walked into the classroom. Not with his usual exuberant stride. Not with the warm smile that greeted every talmid every day.
The menahel was not smiling now.
He’s really mad.
The boys in the class — a class well known for its mischievous antics — had crossed a red line. (When recounting the tale, Shua couldn’t — or wouldn’t — remember the details, but he knew what they’d done was outrageous.)
And now the menahel was here.
What followed was a major mussar shmuess. And then Rabbi Zakon pointed at the two class ringleaders.
“Shua. Avi*. Come with me.”
This is it. I am dead. I will be kicked out of yeshivah. Again.
He led the two boys toward his office.
Shua knew that office well. At that time, just a few short years after the term ADHD had been formally recognized by professionals, it may have been the only principal’s office in Eretz Yisrael equipped with a trampoline. Whenever Shua got thrown out of class — and it happened often — the menahel would point to it. “Half an hour of jumping,” Rabbi Zakon would say. And half an hour later, relaxed and even ready to learn a bit, Shua would return to class.
But this time they didn’t stop at the office. The menahel led them out of the cheder…
He’s taking me home. I will never see my friends in class again.
… and took the two boys down the block to the local makolet.
“Pick a candy,” said the menahel. “Never do that again. And,” with a conspiratorial grin, “don’t tell the rebbi.”
That was just one story I heard at the shivah for my husband, Rabbi Nachman Zakon a”h. There were so many stories, but it was the talmidim’s stories that brought me the most comfort, that taught me the most lessons. Lessons in acceptance, compassion, and understanding others.
Lessons in love.
“Rabbi Zakon wasn’t teaching Torah,” says Yaakov*, as we discuss the year that Nachman learned with him b’chavrusa. “He was teaching a person. Me. The way I needed to learn it.”
Rabbi Zakon would not read the Gemara. “You read it,” he told Yaakov, “and we’ll figure it out together.” When Rabbi Zakon explained the Gemara’s “shakla v’tarya” (the back-and-forth discussions between the Amoraim), describing it in terms of a ping-pong game, Yaakov “got” the concept.
“I finally enjoyed learning because it was the first time I fully understood it. When you know something very well, you get pleasure from knowing it.”
But there were more than just clever teaching tools. “One of the greatest things about Rabbi Zakon,” Yaakov remembers, “is that he was always very excited to see me. Mamesh like a grandfather. He really cared about me.”
Purim partying in the Zakon household always took on a special tenor (a very LOOOOUD tenor), since Purim was also Nachman’s birthday. In the years when he was a third-grade rebbi in Yeshiva of South Shore, the class would come and revel in the fun.
The climax of the party was “Rebbi’s Magic Stick.” We found it in a bodega, a Spanish grocery store near our Far Rockaway home. It looked like a cross between a lulav, a bamboo stalk, and an asparagus on steroids. But it was actually sugar cane.
Rebbi would cut off and give out small pieces from his Magic Stick. “Lick it,” he would solemnly tell each talmid. “If it tastes sweet, it means you are a tzaddik and Hashem loves you.”
Since 75 percent of the world’s sugar comes from sugar cane, every little boy left the party carrying his pekeleh of mishloach manos — and the unshakeable certainty that he was loved by Hashem.
The results of Nachman’s lessons in love?
Shua, the boy who couldn’t sit still, is constructing homes in Eretz Yisrael and raising his beautiful Torah family.
Yaakov, who didn’t enjoy learning until he saw it as a ping-pong game, is still learning in Eretz Yisrael, and encouraging young men with financial incentives in two different yeshivos to learn shakla v’tarya.
And a whole lot of talmidim know that they are sweet, and that Hashem loves them.
In memory of R’ Nachman ben R’ Aharon Yosef HaKohen
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 814)
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