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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Maurice Sendak is my spiritual leader

Tuesday mornings, Aviva's second grade class is doing state-sponsored religious instruction. Some places it comes in multiple flavors (Catholic and Zwinglian Protestant, and it's possible that in some schools in Kanton Basel-Stadt or Z├╝rich, Jewish might even be on the menu?) In Kanton Basel-Land it's only offered in vaguely-ecumenical-Christian flavor.

It's optional if you're not feeling it -- though there isn't any organized alternative at that hour other than sitting in the playground. Aviva tried the class out in the beginning of last year, and found it okay, but pretty soon it got to be a little too much Jesus for her and she asked us if she could drop out.

So for about a year now, I stay home Tuesday mornings (in what would otherwise be writing time) to teach religion class to Aviva and Noah.

It's awesome.

They love it, I love it. Some mornings we don't get it together, in terms of getting dressed, eating breakfast, washing the dishes, brushing hair and teeth, and so on, enough to do more than ten minutes or so. But sometimes we speed our way through all that stuff so we can go up to the attic and spend our time doing the Jewish thing.

In a Jewish context, of course, "religion class" covers a broader range than it would for Christians in a Christian country. We could be atheists and still have almost as packed an agenda, since what I'm really teaching is an entire culture -- one of the longest-surviving integral distributed subcultures in the world, one so old the classical Romans marvelled at its antiquity, and at the same time one which is, in every generation, fought about, reimagined, and reinvented.

For a while there I was mostly teaching the Hebrew alphabet, but now that Migvan (the liberal congregation I found about a year ago and am now, to my great amusement, running) is offering weekly Hebrew school, we are able to venture more into the historical, liturgical and theological. Since it's now the run-up to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we spent most of our half hour this morning preparing for what it was going to be like in Rosh Hashana services.

Or that was my plan, anyway. Actually we spent practically the entire time on one song, Hashivenu, which has only seven words in it. It's a ravishingly beautiful song, probably my favorite in the High Holiday liturgy.

First we learned to sing it; then we read it and talked about it so we could learn to mean it when we sung it. The song says "turn us back, Adonai, to you, and we'll come back; make our days new like they were at the beginning."

It turns out that the best gloss on this song is the story of Pierre. You remember -- there once was a boy named Pierre, who only would say "I don't care."?

Teshuvah -- return, turning back -- is what happens to Pierre in the lion's belly. He's poured syrup in his hair, sat backwards on his chair, driven his parents from the house in exasperated resignation at his maniacal, implacable indifference, and allowed himself to be eaten by an extremely polite and solicitous lion. It is fair to say his day is not going well.

But once the doctor turns the lion over and shakes Pierre out, Pierre's attitude has shifted. He is glad to be back with his family, he is ready to engage with and treasure life. What happened? Clearly (in one of Sendak's typical acts of genius) the most powerful moment of the story is elided, offstage.

Pierre wants to go back. He wants to return to the moment when the day began -- when his mother woke him up with "good morning, darling boy, you are my only joy." Now that is a promising beginning to the day. Pierre reflects, in the darkness of the lion's interior, that he would like to return to it. He has screwed the day up, with his endless "I don't care". If he could get out of the lion, he would do things differently. He would like to roll the day back. He knows what he could do differently now.

But he cannot get out of the lion by himself. He needs not only good will, but luck. He needs someone to turn the lion over, to turn the day back to its beginning, to "you are my only joy".

Bring me back, Pierre says, and I will come back. Set the day back to the way it was before I screwed everything up, and this time, I will care.

Posted by benrosen at September 16, 2008 10:02 AM | Up to blog

I would give a whole tremendous hell of a lot to have you living nearby so Jeremiah could join your Tuesday morning classes.

Posted by: Karen at September 16, 2008 02:26 PM

Man, Ben, I wish I had you as my Hebrew School Teacher. For the life of me I can't remember even being in a class, although I know I must have been because I learned Hebrew (at least how to read and write it, not understand it) and consequently had a Bar Mitzvah.

I'm sure you've read it, or other books like it, but I really enjoyed Jews, God, and History. (actually I listened to the audio book)

There was a car in front of us as I drove Zia to school today with Swiss license plates, so of course I thought of you guys, but figured you probably wouldn't have driven back here to visit :)

Posted by: Levi Wallach at September 16, 2008 03:24 PM

I personally like Vidui the best among all the High Holiday liturgy. There's something about the chest beating that's just so very visceral.

And I agree with the above commenters... I might have gone to Hebrew school as a kid, if you were my teacher. =)

Posted by: Jenny Rae Rappaport at September 16, 2008 09:12 PM

Oh I loved this post!

Posted by: Haddayr at September 16, 2008 10:21 PM

I would give a whole tremendous hell of a lot to attend your Tuesday morning classes MYSELF!

And I'm your MOTHER!

Love, Mom

Posted by: Mom at September 16, 2008 10:47 PM

Incidentally: nice job with this Ben kid of yours, Mom.

Posted by: Karen at September 16, 2008 10:58 PM

I, too, would love to join your class... :-)

Posted by: glynda at September 17, 2008 02:21 AM

I think about this probably every time I read one of your posts about your family life, Ben, but I haven't shared it. Do you know the Chris Bowers quote about your family? I forget the context, exactly, and it probably doesn't need one. It went like this:

"That's the problem with the Rosenbaums. There's so much fucking love in that family."

This is probably 20 years ago, he said this. Probably that first year after high school. It was a memorable quote ;)


Posted by: Matt Hulan at September 17, 2008 01:45 PM

At the risk of being redundant, I wish Zula, Gideon, Eric and I could be in your class, too. And thanks for sharing the Chris Bowers quote, Matt. How are Chris and Stephanie Bowers these days anyway?

Posted by: Shoshana at September 17, 2008 03:09 PM

I haven't heard from Chris in... less than 20, but more than 15 years. I understand that he was in the pilot for the Bionic Woman TV thing last year or so, but I don't know if that went anywhere for him...

Posted by: Matt Hulan at September 23, 2008 04:38 AM

I, even I, would have gone eagerly to Hebrew School of you were the teacher.


Posted by: David at September 24, 2008 03:48 AM

You are all, of course, very welcome to drop by for Hebrew School chez Rosenbaum.

I've always loved that Chris Bowers quote.

I am in touch with Chris... he's in NYC, acting and doing well, last time I heard. He was indeed in the Bionic Woman for a bit, and I know he was in South Africa for a guest role on another TV show sometime after that...

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at September 24, 2008 08:01 PM

Well done, Ben!

All my deepest thoughts and feelings about the HIgh Holy Days (at the time) were poured into two radio specials I did, both available online at
"The Door Is Opened - A Jewish High Holidays Meditation"

If you ever get the chance to listen to them, let me know what you think.

They might work for older kids' classes, too.

Posted by: Ellen Kushner at October 4, 2008 05:42 AM
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