Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Freely Enslaved

The other day, a rabbinical acquaintance and I were having a discussion about a young fellow we knew who was having trouble in yeshiva. It was clear to both of us that the kid was reasonably bright, yet no matter what enticements were offered to him, he didn't seem to have much success in the part of the curriculum that was devoted to torah studies. I kept trying to explain to my well-meaning friend that he should stop trying to force the poor kid to do something he wasn't interested in, but the guy was determined not to give up, insisting that if only the kid was made to appreciate the beauty of what he was missing, he would have a change of heart. As the conversation wore on, getting ever more argumentative, I could feel anger and resentment bubbling to the surface of my emotions. This exchange was starting to sound all too familiar. I knew it was taking me to a place I shouldn't go, but at the same time a part of me was eager to step into the fray, desperately wanting to tell this person something he needed to hear.

But the conversation ended unexpectedly, he had to leave abruptly, and I lost the opportunity to express something that I had wanted to say to someone like him for a very long time.

Unfortunately, I missed the chance to tell him what it's like to be kept trapped in a box where your mind, body and all your energy is supposed to be devoted to something that doesn't interest you in the slightest.

To make him understand what it must be like for that kid, what it was like for me, to be stuck in a shiur for three consecutive hours, granted only a 15 minute reprieve in the middle; to have to sit silently, doing nothing, not understanding a word; imagine how much I try to keep my mind occupied in some way, but of course the rebbe keeps pulling me back from my mental excursions, figuratively putting his hand on my neck and forcing me to look into the gemara, to pay attention to something which I find utterly incomprehensible. And even when I manage to escape to my own world, what good does it really do me? How much tic-tac-toe and daydreaming can a person distract themselves with already? I can't sneak anything into the class to keep busy with. Although at times I was indeed tempted to smuggle in some such contraband, it always brought with it an attendant risk. If I was unlucky enough to have my rebbe catch me with such a thing, not only would it be summarily confiscated (never to be seen again in my lifetime), but he would always make sure to accompany the inevitable spectacle created specifically to highlight the infraction with an accompanying moral lesson in how terribly disappointing it was that a yeshiva bochur such as myself would consider such a meaningless diversion more worth his attention than the lofty words of Rashi and Tosfos. So I just sit there, frustrated and bored, hour after hour, day after day after day.

There are some moments when I actually do attempt the occasional escape. I take every bathroom break I can possibly get away with. Yet, upon gaining my freedom, I am faced with the disappointing reality that life on the outside is hardly more exciting than what I've just left behind. Usually there's nothing much for me to do other than wander the halls, reading the bulletins on the boards, the losts, the founds, noting the suits, shtenders, and sefarim for sale, hunting for something that even remotely piques my interest. Typically, nothing of any consequence. Still, I relish the fleeting sensation of being unshackled. Until my time runs out and I must return to my taskmaster. Eventually, after carelessly over-utilizing this tactic of gastrointestinal subterfuge, my rebbe catches on to my deception and decides to not allow me out of my cage even for that. Trapped again.

But it's not just shiur that is so wearying for me. Outside of class, among my peers, the day's sugya continues to be the primary focus of what the rest of them are preoccupied with, into the afternoon seder, and inexorably continuing into night seder too. And so I wander the halls of the yeshiva trying to find something, anything! to distract me and provide some entertainment. But of course, in the hallowed environs of the yeshiva they make every effort to ensure that there is nothing distracting you from Torah - no magazines, no Internet, no secular studies, nothing. Despite my ambivalence, I have to admit that the beis medrash is usually the best option there is to keep me preoccupied.

At times, I recall how, despite their best efforts, there are still some distractions the hanhalah is unable to eliminate from the environment, however dull they may be - there is still the daily goings-on of any large institution, the steady hum of its workers and staff persistently going about their daily routines. So I head to the kitchen to see if they need any help, maybe I could peel some vegetables, or watch the giant mixer in action. Or I'll stop off at the administrative office, hoping they have a mailing which they need help with. I'll even look out for the maintenance workers, curious to see if they're busy fixing anything interesting today. This is how pathetically desperate I am. I would rather find any sort of menial tasks to keep my mind focused than to have to dazedly sit through another minute of that mind-numbing gemara. But when they find out that I am doing this - and they inevitably do, because after all, how long can I keep up this charade? - my overseers sternly remind me: "This is not for you. You belong in the beis medrash." They do their best to impress upon me again, making sure I fully understand, just how wrong it is for me to prefer wallowing in the trivialities of olam hazeh than to be swimming in the heavenly waters of nitzchius. I understand. The pitiful looks of my classmates remind me how thoughtlessly I have behaved.

And I believe them. I understand how right they are. How I have to work harder to correct this flaw in my character - that I would rather choose playing with worthless trinkets than to be involved in the greatest undertaking a person could ever participate in! What is wrong with me? Why am I such a lowlife?! I'm being given the opportunity of a lifetime! And I would rather squander it to watch the janitor mop the floors! I disgust myself!

This is what I would like to make my friend understand. To hopefully make him recognize what being in yeshiva is like for those not fortunate to have the desire to spend their time buried in a gemara. To make him appreciate the awful self-loathing that being in such an environment creates in such a person. To make him realize the harm he is doing by forcing this kid to sit through another gemara shiur.

But would it even matter?

"Ain Ben Chorin Ela Mi She'osek Batorah" (Avos 6:2)
"There is no greater ‘free person’ than one who is involved in Torah study."

22 comments:

the trying rebbe said...

i'm a teacher. trying to be. not in a yeshiva, but a public school filled with kids from mostly poor, uneducated, disenfranchised backgrounds. all i could think as i was reading this was that a lot of my students probably feel exactly the way you described yourself in yeshiva. it makes me wonder how different the scenarios are. no doubt, i truly believe that some of my students should leave this "school" setting and learn a trade or apprenticeship so as to learn important life/survival skills (of which there are nowhere near enough programs/options/ways to legally get out of school). but at some level i feel all of my students need to be able to engage in the material regardless of the subject(literacy/critical thinking skills) in order to be able to become a healthy member of the type of society we currently live in. am i as crazy and wrong as the rebbes in the yeshivas? any thoughts on this? btw - i'm writing this while i should be teaching, but only three students have shown up 20 minutes into 1st period. i guess we don't have quite the pull the rebbeim do.

Abandoning Eden said...

I relate so much to this..we didn't learn gemarah of course in my girls school (although sometimes I wish they would have taught us gemarah instead of all the "women's" halachot, like stuff about cooking and kasharut..at least there's some interesting stories in the gemarah)

I spent so much of high school either distracting myself in class, or finding a way to cut class somehow- my senior year I was the 'set designer' for the class play and cut like 2 months worth of navi classes to "work on the set" before my navi teacher discovered I never actually got permission to cut class. I would play games...tic tak toe, these games where you would make 100 boxes and try to fill them up with numbers 1 to 100 in certain orders, an endless number of doodles...to the point where I almost flunked out of high school because I did so badly in my hebrew classes, and I had to retake an hashkafa and a navi final exam the summer after I graduated so they would give me my diploma. The hashkafa one involved memorizing a bunch of prayers and stuff...totally useless, as by then I wasn't keeping shabbas or kosher, let alone praying.

The english classes weren't much better, especially since my "english literature" class was taught by the same person who taught chumash, and related like everything we read to chumash.

I ended up graduating with a 2.1 GPA or something. In fact in my yearbook when they had "future professions" I think mine was "counselor for underachievers" or something like that- I was in all the lowest level hebrew classes, didn't do to great on my english classes either, but got a 1520 on my SATs.

Then when I got to college and actually got to pick the classes I wanted to take, I graduated with a 3.9 GPA and moved on to a top 10 sociology phd program. It wasn't that I hated learning, I love learning...I just hated learning what I felt were a bunch of fairy tales.

B. Spinoza said...

I used to doodle a lot. Even in the margins of the talmud. I still did well because gemara is something which came easy to me and I enjoyed understanding. But even in Yeshiva I understood that it wasn't for everybody. I used to argue with people that it was silly to insist that everyone should learn despite their natural inclinations

The Hedyot said...

> these games where you would make 100 boxes and try to fill them up with numbers 1 to 100 in certain orders

Haha. I was actually thinking of those when I wrote it, but I couldn't think of their name. I did those, and magic squares of various sizes, endlessly.

The Hedyot said...

trying rebbe -

I symapathize with your plight, but I think your case is slightly different, because some level of a general education is important for everyone to achieve, as you say, a modicum of literacy to be an engaged person in today's culture.

Of course, it wouldn't surprise me if my rabbeim would make a similar argument about the relevance of learning gemara to being a proper frum Jew.

The challenge for you as an educator, as it was for my educators, is not to force the kids to do anything, but to somehow engage them so that their natural interest in the subject is sparked. You need to figure out what's stopping them from being able to enjoy that learning experience. I know, easier said than done. I hope you succeed where my educators failed.

shoshi said...

Thank you so much for posting this.

Ex-Yeshiva bochur said...

I solved tic tac toe for every possible scenario (figuring in rotations and reflections).

That's how bored I was.

Shaya Getzel said...

I'd count the tiles on the roof, the bricks on the wall. There's only so much daydreaming one can do... Ahhh the good old days.

The Hedyot said...

> I ended up graduating with a 2.1 GPA or something.... Then when I got to college and actually got to pick the classes I wanted to take, I graduated with a 3.9 GPA...

I had the same experience. I was a crappy student in yeshiva, and thought I was just plain stupid when it came to certain things, but when I was allowed to learn the things that interested me, I flourished. Now that I'm in college, I'm getting mostly straight A's. What an awful waste of energy those yeshiva years were.

Josh said...

the trying rebbe:

Your situation is different also because your students aren't required to see the subjects you are teaching them as god-given requirements. True, they might be just as bored as someone in yeshiva, but after class is over they can go home and forget about it, whereas the yeshiva boy can never escape it.

Ex-Yeshiva bochur said...

I graduated with an award for secular studies, near perfect Regents scores, and a 98th+ percentile SAT score. If it was possible to have flunked out of gemara I would have--but it's not, so I was dragged along, bored out of my mind.

At the very end of 9th grade, when we got our math and bio regents back (I had gotten 100 and 98), the rosh yeshiva z"l stopped me on the way to breakfast and asked why I didn't achieve like that in limudei kodesh. I was too stunned by the fact that he knew the Regents scores to even reply, but the correct answer would have been, "Limudei kodesh? Plural? That almost sounds like we have a curriculum."

The Hedyot said...

Ex-Yeshiva bochur, your comment reminds of another issue that always bothered me:

Whenever I would perform well in secular studies, what would inevitably happen is that it would be used against me to "prove" that I was smart and should be doing well in limudei kodesh. A good grade in math would invariably elicit from my parents and rabbeim something along the lines of, "You see, you're not stupid! If you only tried harder you'd do well in gemara too! Your koichos should be directed towards avodas hashem, not limudei chol."

mnuez said...

Having been on both sides of the great Teacher-Student divide I have no meta-solutions to offer. We're all just temporary cogs in a large wheel v'hagalgal soveiv tamid - whether we take part or not. Particularly with regard to the matter of enforced education there's little anyone in "the system" can you do. The system is what it is and and there's very little that you can do to improve the lives of people caught under its wheels. They're there for hard labor and the best you can do is lighten their load, but the powers that be are still in charge and a fresh batch of young innocents will be fed into the cookie-cutter regardless. And for all I know, maybe it's best that way.

The boredom though I can comment on. My God did I despise school! How painful and pointless was the drudgery!

In fifth grade I alighted upon the idea to play with three coins on my gemara. One would go through two and then a different one would go through a different two and my three coins would dance their way around the daf. I myself may have felt that the daf was waterboarding me but my money could surf! The Rebbe pointed out however that "iron makes swords which cause death while Torah causes life, so it's assur to put metal on a gemara". Fuck.

Then there was my growing appreciation of some fine bloomen right outside the gated windows. "Mah Yafeh Ila..!" Yeah, that didn't fly for very long either.

Eh fuck. It all sucked. Save one teacher who taught English in 9th grade, I hated it all. Math was as pointless and hated as gemara. As with Gemara, I crammed before the Regents and aced it. The rest of the year was wasted life. But at least math was just 40 minutes a day and held no pretensions of nitzchias.

Anyhow, I hardly give a fuck about the Yeshivas and their "system" but I do enjoy reminiscing. Toisfes! Ritva! Rashba! What horrible, horrible stuff.

It should however be noted that not all of this is the fault of the original authors. The endless yam hatalmud which has no beginning, no end, no goal and no logic is not necessarily what many of the early authors intended. Had Rambam known that billions of breaths would be wasted on people trying to farenfer a shvereh rambam in the most doichak of ways and which bore no relevance to the reasons why he authored his books he'd have taken a fuckin flamethrower to the yeshiva buildings.

Anyhow, thanks for the memories,
thanks for the memories,
even though they weren't so great...

zei gezunt,

mnuez

TikunOlam said...

Was wondering when you would post again. . .

When you described what it was like being in Yeshiva, I couldn't help but think of the three years I spent working in a juvenile detention center, which was really a jail for teens. Only those who earned their place in the Honor Unit were allowed to work in the kitchen and mop the floor. And I am sure that only in jail would they have found that a privilege.

Ezzie said...

One of your best posts (after the first paragraph, where I thought it was headed in another direction), though with the caveat of "the trying rebbe".

I got A's (easily) in all general studies, aced the Math portion of the SATs in less than half the time allotted after BBQing on the beach all night long (I hadn't slept), etc. I walked into a Bekius test when I hadn't been there more than 1 day that week, got a 98, and the teacher thought it was a sign I should come more often. I laughed at him and noted that was a little backward. (I got Fs in Bekius and Night Seder.)

The part that resonated the most personally were the examples: I was the head of the kitchen staff by junior year, commissioner of intramural football (a big deal in the Midwest), ran pools (those were illegal), etc. From when I was a kid I was drawing constantly, coming up with other ways to keep myself occupied... 100 boxes by moving like a chess knight, right? Drawing increasingly complex football plays, trying to come up with the "perfect" play or sequence of plays... stuff like that: Lists, games I made up, etc. etc.

E-mail me?

G*3 said...

I used to daydream. A lot. I actually had storylines that I would play out in my head. I doodled a lot. When I was in elementary school I would count the seconds until recess. Five minutes is 300 seconds. 20 minutes is 1200 seconds. But I counted faster than the seconds passed, so when I finished I would start over with the current number of seconds. School was just hours of pointless boredom.

Unlike most others here, though, I didn’t do well in school until college. In elementary and high-school I never bothered studying. I would get failing or near-failing marks in Hebrew subjects and scrape by with 70s in English subjects. This is at least as much the schools’ responsibility as it is mine. When a smart seven year old is not motivated to learn, it’s the school’s fault. And when no one in fourteen years tries to change that, that’s also the school’s fault.

The yeshiva system is patterned on the European yeshiva gedolos, institutions that were never meant to educate the masses…

Ezzie said...

G3 reminds me of how I actually learned how to counts seconds incredibly accurately - I used to try and learn how to count 60 seconds in my head and see how accurate it was, and I slowly got better and better until I could nail minute after minute with great accuracy. Actually quite handy sometimes. :)

DYS said...

I forgot those feelings until you articulated them so well. That was me. Hour after hour - I was bored silly with gemara. And then being forced to sit in the beis medrash for 2 hours with a chavrusa and learn without guidance. Was a 14 year old boy with (unrecognized) ADD really expected to be able to concentrate? And then made to feel worthless over that failure to enjoy the beloved gemara.

As an adult, I've come to appreciate learning some gemara, but back then, I wasted thousands of hours.

DYS said...

I used to doodle a lot. Even in the margins of the talmud.

I did tons of that. Aliens and star trek figures graced the margins of Tosfos.

CB Guy said...

I used to have a copy of the Daily News under my sefer in Chaim Berlin and ogle grainy b&w pics of Marilyn Chambers in her newest movie.

Yonason said...

i still think that our yeshivot should be restructured.

including giving people an option of what kind of limudei kodesh they want to learn, halacha, gemorah, aggadot, chumash/nach chakira etc.

i know a fair number of people that would be misserable in one but succeed wonderfuly in others. (and indeed if the one they would fail at would be made of secondary focus, they'd probably do really well in it too.)

jajogluck said...

I think that the answer to the problem of boredom in education is a littel more nuanced. The trying Rebbe is right that secular education shares this same challenge. There's no fudamental difference between the child in public school who feels no connection and interest in what the teacher is saying in geography class, and the yeshiva bachur who's alienated from the Talmud.

The diffrecne is more subtle. As one of the commentators alluded to, 1) in the the secular education system, students study a much wider variety of subject ("curriculum"). 2) the subjects being studid are more likely to be embraced and eppreciated by students since they are more closely related to the world they are living in.

The Yeshiva world, on the other hand, 1) is studiyng an ancient text using antiquated, traditional methodoligies (hence, disconnect from real life). And 2) that's ALL they do all day long (in my experience, at least).

In theory, if English literature were being studied in my Yeshiva all day long, I would have been tuned out just as well.