We Need to Talk

In principle, Israeli teachers are encouraged to use literary texts as a basis for discussions about values. In reality, however, they can get into a real mess for doing so.

After they heard Idan Raichel's song "Between the Walls of My House," and read in the Book of Genesis about the first family, Adam and Eve, the discussion began. One of the students said that a family is like a greenhouse - protecting the child and preparing him for life. A consensus about the advantages of the family began to develop among the students, when one girl suddenly burst out: "What are you talking about? How many adults are there, who lie in their beds at night, with their family all around them, and still feel lonely?" It was a brief moment, but it was very different from the usual atmosphere at Rabin High School in Kfar Sava.

In recent weeks, this particular class, called Israeli Beit Midrash (beit midrash being the term for a traditional Jewish study house), has been at the heart of a public storm because of teacher Edna Resh's decision to use Yona Wallach's poem "Atah Haverah Sheli" ["You Are (He Is) My Girlfriend"], in a discussion about attitudes toward same-sex couples. After parents complained to the Education Ministry about the poem, which refers explicitly to sexual organs and raises questions about sexual identity ("Is this a case of sexual harassment?" wondered one mother) - the ministry ordered the school to remove the poem from the curriculum. However, the ministry made the decision without checking the circumstances at the school or talking with Resh. The criticism of the veteran teacher sparked an outpouring of support for her on the part of the students, and as a result, the winds changed and public criticism was then aimed at the conservatism of the ministry and its unwillingness to support the teacher. Two weeks ago the parents who filed the initial complaint transferred their daughter to a different school.

The Israeli Beit Midrash is a unique class that Resh and her colleague Regev Yakobovich have been teaching at the Rabin School for four years. It involves the participation of students from various grades, who meet to discuss issues of interest. Within the framework of Israeli Beit Midrash, all students are required to select two classes every year - some of them on subjects proposed by the students themselves, often on issues dealing with adolescence and relationships.

The poem "You Are (He Is) My Girlfriend" is far from untypical in the class. In a lesson a few weeks ago on "courtship and alienation between the sexes," the teachers offered a stanza from Natan Alterman's "Ancient Melody:" "If you ever laugh / without me at a party of your friends / my silent jealousy will come / and burn your house down on you" - as the basis for a discussion of jealousy and the boundaries of love. Blunt words like those in Wallach's poem, which so disturbed the Education Ministry bureaucrats, can also be found in the song "No One" by the hip-hop group Hadag Nahash, which the class heard as well. All this, alongside the Bible stories of Jacob and Rachel, and Potiphar's wife and Joseph.

The Israeli Beit Midrash sessions are not held in an ordinary classroom, but rather in a special room located, and not by chance, in the center of the school building. There is no teacher's desk there imposing a clear hierarchy, but rather a large round discussion table surrounded by identical chairs. The walls are painted orange and yellow, and in the corner is a small library of books on Jewish topics, a high table and a few bar stools on which some students sit. On the walls hang works of art by students. High up on one wall is a picture of Maimonides.

Last week, students discussed "the Israeli family." They were given a page including texts they would be discussing: verses from Genesis, relevant sentences from the novel "Black Box," by Amos Oz, a comment on the "new family" by former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak, a short article about how adolescents are affected by divorce, and the lyrics of the Raichel song and of Yaakov Rotblit's "Sabbaths and Holidays," as performed by Yehudit Ravitz.

"The question of what a family is didn't even exist 100 or 200 years ago," said Yakobovich, opening the discussion. "This issue is coming up because of the rise of individualism, which has led to many good things, but for which we are also paying a very high price."

During the course of an intense hour and a half, the teens talked about the reasons for having children, about the high divorce rate in Israeli society that is causing "the liquidity of the wedding" - a term coined by one of the students - and about the different attitudes society has toward single men and single women. One student had an account to settle with her parents about their differential treatment of daughters and sons: "When my brother was 16, he was free to bring his girlfriend to our house. I'm nearly 18 and I need to beg for this," she said angrily.

Yakobovich skipped nimbly among the topics by means of well-directed questions. "The word 'single' in Hebrew [ravak] comes from the word for 'empty' [reyk]. Is a person who has decided to live a complete life without establishing a family really empty?" he asks.

"There's no need to look at every single person as unfortunate," answered one girl, while another said, "Even today, in 2010, a single person will be received with a raised eyebrow. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but we all need a family."

Yakobovich persisted: "How would you relate to a single woman of 40 with no children? To what extent can we really accept someone who lives differently? And what would your attitude be toward a single man of 40?" Some of the students agreed that men and women encounter different attitudes, but the class ended before there was time to develop the topic further.

'About our lives'

"This isn't an ordinary class, but rather a discussion about our lives," explains Mor Turjeman, a 12th-grader. "There's a different atmosphere in this room, something that stimulates you to think. It's important precisely because in ordinary classes, we lack this kind of stimulation. Maybe the conclusion is that it's necessary to raise the level of the other classes."

Turjeman's friend Gali Siton (the two were among the organizers of the support for their teacher Resh) remembers a beit midrash class they attended two years ago. It was about Purim, she relates, and "the way costumes allow you to reveal your inner self. Suddenly I saw the holiday in an entirely different way."

Siton notes that some of her friends were surprised by how strongly she was affected by that class. "From the outside it really is hard to understand this, but when you're inside it, it's impossible to remain indifferent. You can even see in the behavior of the quiet students that they are 'fired up.' There is a different educational discourse here."

Edna Resh has been teaching literature and Jewish thought for 26 years now, 13 of them at Rabin High School. Yakobovich, who is in the final stages of writing his doctoral thesis (on Martin Buber, at Tel Aviv University), heads the Bible studies track at the school. Six years ago they launched Israeli Beit Midrash, initially as an open monthly encounter in the evening, and later also as part of the curriculum. The topic of the last of the evening meetings, held this past December and attended by about 30 graduates and a similar number of high-school students, was "the connection between advertising and stupidity."

As Yakobovich sees it, the discussions are the ideal forum for discussing social life. "During the weekly homeroom hour [the so-called 'education' class], when the teacher meets with all the students, it's impossible to get across content that is at all complex, and of course they don't deal with texts," he explains. "We've taken a fundamental issue, put a check mark by it and created the illusion that [these deeper topics have] really been dealt with."

Resh and Yakobovich have used their class to deal with a variety of subjects, many of them political, not in the sense of party politics, but rather with respect to their social significance. Thus, for example, in a discussion about faith, they look at Karl Marx's statement "religion is the opium of the people," and listen to a song by Shlomi Keinan ("One God sits in the sky and looks down scared / at the wearers of black who speak in his name / and distort the Torah").

As Independence Day approaches, a session will be devoted to "the image of the Arab in Israel: fifth column or free citizen?" The texts for discussion are already prepared: Ehud Banai's song "Mix the Plaster, Ahmed" and Muki's "Everyone's Talking About Peace"; rabbinical rulings by Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah, in which the medieval sage wrote that, "the gentiles with whom there is no war ... are not to be put to death, but it is forbidden to save them if they are dying"; an extract from Prof. Oz Almog's book on the native-born Israeli; and three pictures: of the Jewish Shomer organization early last century dressed as Arabs, of Palestinians throwing stones in the first intifada, and of the graffiti "Kahane was right."

"The attitude toward Arabs is a topic the educational system intentionally stifles," says Yakobovich. "It nevertheless comes up in the context of terror attacks, and hence the heated emotionalism, which doesn't allow serious discussion. Our idea was to use the various sources in order to present the dilemma with respect to the Arabs in Israel. Suddenly the students see the early Zionists with a shabariyya [curved knife usually used by Arabs]. This is not a simple discussion. There are students who say the Arabs want to destroy us. In any case, it's a discourse that has to be given a place, in the school as well."

"The education system," he continues, "like the society around it, prefers not to deal with conflicts. Education's most essential role - shaping an active citizen - has been relinquished here. It's true that dealing with the disagreements and sore points requires psychological strength, but we have to decide whether we want the student to read a given text and ask himself questions, to read a poem and connect to it at the innermost level, or if we are content with having students memorizing material for the matriculation exam."

Edna Resh agrees with Yakobovich. Two weeks after the first report in the media, she is hoping the affair is behind her. "I didn't intend to be the Joan of Arc of literature instruction," she says, "but the truth is that we teach with our legs hobbled. This is true of literature and other subjects, and it's difficult and frustrating. It is indeed possible to get to the students, it's possible to create the educational magic, if they'd only let us."

Resh recently reread "The Literature Curriculum for the State High School." The person in charge of literature studies at the Education Ministry is Shlomo Herzig, who is also the one who forbade her to use Wallach's poem.

Under the heading "Emphases in the Teaching of Literature," the curriculum brochure says: "As in every other field of art, literature is not obligated to a moral code, and usually writers do not see themselves as charged with nurturing their readers' virtue. Nevertheless, many literary works 'invite' us, the readers, to think about questions of values and morals, discussion of which could be of profound importance for adolescent students."

"These are fine declarations," says Resh, "but it's a pity they're not implemented. This is the embodiment of hypocrisy. I've implemented those guidelines all these years, and now too, when we listened to 'You Are (He Is) My Girlfriend' in the beit midrash program. I have always seen myself as a proud teacher of literature."