Open Your Hand: Teaching as a Jew, Teaching as an American
By Ilana Blumberg
Rutgers University Press, 210 pages, $19.95
American popular culture lies to us about teachers. It tells us they ought to be magical. Teachers, in the American imagination, enter schools as shadowy outsiders, often inexplicably. It doesn’t matter whether we are in an elite, moneyed prep school or the slums of East Los Angeles. In “Dead Poets Society,” John Keating (Robin Williams) waltzes into the former having prepared himself, apparently, entirely by consulting The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations; in “Stand and Deliver,” Jaime Escalante (Edward James Olmos) quits his lucrative job as an engineer to introduce calculus to his poor Latino students, in defiance of all expectations. (In the true story, Escalante was both a teacher and the son of teachers, facts airbrushed out of the movie. But for Hollywood, lack of guild membership is the highest credential.)
Teachers are the sorcerers of the American dream: always the drifters and misfits whom Huckleberry Finn meets on the Mississippi, never the Widow Douglas and her staidly institutional schoolhouse. The American mania for charter schools and hatred of teachers’ unions derive from two peculiar and twinned convictions: first, that professionalized institutions and long-term expertise somehow impede learning, and second, that the education ought to produce social mobility miraculously, despite the brutal realities of every other feature of the American class hierarchy.
This pedagogical theory is lucrative for the hucksters in, as they would say, the education space; it otherwise has little to recommend it. Luckily, Ilana M. Blumberg’s new memoir, “Open Your Hand: Teaching as a Jew, Teaching as an American,” supplies an alternative conception of education. In the memoir, Blumberg narrates and reflects on her several decades of teaching secular and religious literature to everyone from young children to graduate students, in America and Israel. She understands her job in broad and humanistic terms: “to convey the pulsing drama of engaging with one’s life in language… a drama made of spiritual and intellectual stuff… low-profile but momentous intellectual discovery” — discoveries that always carry attendant moral obligations and demands. This is a good and beautiful aspiration.
What makes “Open Your Hand” remarkable is not so much Blumberg’s ideals but her explanation of how she learned to use declarative statements instead of questions to provoke students to respond, or how she cleverly built a poetry workshop around poems she had memorized in order to avoid giving unruly teenagers paper with which to distract themselves. Blumberg writes technically, in the entertaining but precise way that, say, Jacques Pepin cooks: with a sense that techniques can and ought to be learned, because in them resides the activity’s soul.
In the first, longest section of the memoir, she tells us how she learned to teach. Before starting her doctorate in English, Blumberg (a 2008 Sami Rohr Prize finalist for her memoir “Houses of Study”) was lucky enough to apprentice at Beit Rabban, an experimental Jewish day school in Manhattan. The school seems to have mixed frum piety with John Dewey. On her walls, Blumberg hung poems by Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg next to traditional Jewish prayers. A charity project culminated in leaving bagged food and kind notes for local homeless people and writing a letter to congressional representatives. When encountering religious texts, she had students generate their own questions, and then she would ask how to answer them — that is, teaching grade-schoolers to do research.
As the book continues, Beit Rabban seems like a lost Eden. Other schools can be adequate: At Michigan State University, Blumberg enjoys introducing her students to the wrinkles of unreliable narration and shocking them from the privileged complacency of their middle-class, white upbringings. Or they can be dismal, as is “Smith,” an urban, mostly black high school at which Blumberg volunteers. There, teachers are constantly calling in sick, and the students live in the narrow space between past and future violence. Either way, neither MSU nor Smith fully satisfies her. Secular, American schools are at once too constrained and too loose, pedagogically formal and morally laissez faire. They lack the thick knots that Jewish religiosity ties between text and practice, word and deed. In the memoir’s final act, she and her family emigrate to Israel.
This turn gives the memoir a slightly odd, unfinished feel. The closing scenes in Israel focus mostly on the schooling of Blumberg’s children’s rather than on her own teaching at Bar Ilan University: We get teaching as an American, teaching as a Jew and then parenting as an Israeli. Are we supposed to read the book through its conclusion? In a beautiful passage early in her memoir, Blumberg describes her Michigan students’ revelation that a narrator of “Jarhead” narrator is at once “the naïve self who had set out for war in Iraq and a man who had come back…. The simple letter I was supposed to stand for both selves.” This, of course, is always the genre’s trick, all the way back to Augustine’s “Confessions”: that the “I” at once connects the sinner and the convert, the naïf and the disillusioned, the past and the present. The memoir’s moral emerges by traversing the gulf between the two. But Blumberg is not exactly delivering a Zionist sermon about making aliyah (however, nor is she saying the opposite). It is not clear what shape, if any, her relocation imposes on the narrative.
Nevertheless, “Open Your Hand” is a beautiful, moving book. Blumberg is a scholar of Victorian England, and though her scholarship is marginal here, her Victorianism is central, evident in her insistent, high-minded moralism and her fine-grained psychological sensitivity toward her students. The result is a timely brief for the humanities: In the past year, a University of Wisconsin campus began liquidating 13 majors, and Claremont Graduate University laid off two tenured philosophy professors. As I write, the faculty of Wright State University are striking against an administration dedicated to downsizing and cutting their pay. In this context, Blumberg’s defense of education is necessary reading, as is her basic point that the humanities, when taught thoughtfully, make for good citizens and good humans.
Raphael Magarik is a doctoral candidate in literature at UC-Berkeley. He is a regular contributor to the Forward.