Getting Our Learn On

By Leonard Fein

Published September 24, 2004, issue of September 24, 2004.
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Time out: With just weeks to go before the fateful election, which will at last put an (upside down?) exclamation point to the end of a campaign that has tested our capacity for sheer endurance, it is time (and then some) for a brief recess.

Two catalogs arrived in the mail last week — one from the Lehrhaus Judaica, which describes itself as “The Adult School for Jewish Studies of the San Francisco Bay Area,” the other from the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El in New York City. Both are different from Boston’s Me’ah program, of which I’ve written in this space from time to time in years past. Whereas Me’ah enrolls adults who commit to 100 hours of learning over the course of two years, Skirball and the Lehrhaus take the more conventional approach, offering courses to all takers. But what offerings they provide!

At Skirball, for example, consider just what’s offered on Wednesday evenings, from 6:30 to 8, over an eight-week period in the fall: There’s a course on “The Merchant of Venice” (just in time for the new film of the controversial play, starring Al Pacino as Shylock); you can study “The Jewish Body: Where Identity Resides,” or “The Jewish-Arab Relationship in Modern Israeli Literature and Film,” or “Suffering Servants: Jewish Narratives of Affliction and Consolation,” or “In Search of Jewish Classical Music” or “Learning to Read Hebrew.” Prefer less esoteric subjects? In other time slots, you’ll find “Rediscovering the Weekly Torah Portion,” “Creativity and Continuity: An Introduction to Rabbinic Literature,” “But Is It True? The Bible, Archaeology, and History,” and on and on and on, a total of 32 different courses — plus five seminars (three with the extraordinary Israeli philosopher, Moshe Halbertal), a course for engaged couples and another for newlyweds. The Skirball catalog also announces “Iyun,” a three-year certificate program in Jewish studies consisting of six eight-week-long semesters.

The Bay Area’s more venerable Lehrhaus, now nearly 30 years old, offers, incredibly, more than 100 courses in each of its two semesters. The geographic spread is almost as wide as the intellectual: Courses meet in Berkeley and Oakland, in Lafayette and Walnut Creek, in Tiburon and Santa Rosa and Palo Alto and Los Altos Hills and, of course, San Francisco. As you might expect from the Bay Area, there are courses such as “A Covenant With the Earth: Ecology, the Bible and the Jewish Tradition” and “Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Themes in Jewish Text.” But there are also 33(!) courses in Hebrew, at all levels of proficiency, as well as four courses in Yiddish. Ten courses fall under the general heading of “Introduction to Judaism,” and, for good measure — measure for measure, as it were — there’s “Shakespeare and Kabbalah.”

What are we to make of this? Skirball informs us that roughly half of its students do not belong to a synagogue; one imagines that the number of unaffiliated is still higher in the Bay Area. All this just when we may be clucking our tongues on the faddish interest in Kabbalah as exemplified by Esther — the Hebrew name that Madonna has adopted — and the red thread she wears around her wrist to ward off the evil eye. Madonna/Esther was in Israel for Rosh Hashanah, along with some 2,000 other Kabbalah enthusiasts from 22 countries. At a “Spirituality for Kids” (whatever that means) benefit program, she was joined by Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and others. (For whatever it’s worth, this is in a country where roughly 40% of the Jews attend services on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and about the same number don’t show up for either.) Apparently, Israel’s political leaders are as susceptible to the seductions of celebrity as your average reader of People magazine.

So: I refrain from comment on which is the more mysterious, the explosion of celebrity interest in Kabbalah (among those reported in attendance along with Madonna were Demi Moore, Donna Karan and Marla Maples, ex-wife of Donald Trump) or the explosion of sustained interest in Jewish learning. But it is clear which is the more encouraging.

Quite likely, if not always on so grand a scale, there are centers of active Jewish learning in other cities across the land. Many synagogues, of course, offer ongoing courses, and by and large, attendance at these as at centers serving an entire city, à la the Bay Area and New York, has grown dramatically during the past decade. The Bible remains the core text in most of these; ecology, Shakespeare, sex and such are typically the frosting on the biblical cake.

None of this was either predictable or predicted a generation back. There’s a delicious stiff-neckedness to our refusal to conform to the grim prognoses that were so popular back then (and remain vogue-ish even now, the evidence notwithstanding). There are problems, to be sure, among them the tuition costs of many of the courses and the inadequacy of scholarship support for those who need it, as well as the ongoing dilemma for parents of young children who cannot easily take advantage of what’s now available. (Every silver lining has a cloud or two behind it.) But as Philip Roth writes of the “unpredictability that is history” in The New York Times Book Review section of September 19: “Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as ‘History,’ harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable.” Some day, the current renaissance will be taken as a matter of fact, the sense of surprise it deserves erased. Yes, “all the assurances are,” as Roth observes, “provisional” — which is just one more reason to inhale deeply in an otherwise increasingly bleak time.

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).

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