Saturday, January 26, 2008

So what do you actually do in Yeshiva?

I've been asked that question a bunch of times, most notably by my parents, so I figure I might as well explain what actually goes on for me during the day. Studying at the Conservative Yeshiva has been an exciting opportunity for me to meet new people and interact with them in a way that's different from the experiences I have at school and elsewhere. All day we're immersed in this word of Jewish text study, and because of that the way we speak and think generally follows that model. It's actually really funny how a discussion on just about anything turns into a Talmud-style debate, all in good fun of course.

Every morning begins with Shacharit services at 7:30AM (I haven't woken up so early on a regular basis since high school), and then a break for breakfast (one of the two meals a day that I eat at the Yeshiva, consisting of my milk and cereal that's in the fridge in the kitchenette). The other meal is lunch, which can be a peanut butter and chocolate spread sandwich, or something completely different. We pray all 3 services each day, the second being after lunch and the third at the end of classes in the evening.

We have Talmud class every morning from 9 to 12:30. We are currently studying topics related to the categories of things you are not allowed to do on Shabbat. We spend the first two hours of study with a partner, working through the difficult Aramaic text and trying to figure out what the arguments and questions are, and how the rabbis from the 4-5th century resolved them. For the last hour and a half, everyone in our class comes together with our teacher Reb. Mordechai to review what we've been working on and discuss it further. Usually, the time does pass relatively quickly, and I enjoy the "scavenger hunt through the dictionary" process of figuring out what the text is saying and what it has to teach us about the process of deriving law from original Judaic sources. It's also not all serious work - we do get a little silly sometimes. Reb. Mordechai drinks tea from a huge bowl and enjoys his eccentricities and random knowledge. We often end up on strange tangents and spend ridiculous amounts of time on moot points and crazy details.
One day we were discussing the value of studying the way we do in terms of preparation for rabbinical school, and I looked around and noticed that out of the five students in the classroom, I was the only one not headed in the rabbinical school direction. Reb. Mordechai then amended his statement to include the value of the experience even if you're not going to be a rabbi - and I thanked him. In general, I've been impressed with the overall sense at the Yeshiva that learning is important whether or not you're going to be a rabbi, and as the head of the Yeshiva pointed out,
"We need good Conservative bankers and lawyers and doctors too." (and filmmakers?)

Every afternoon offers a different assortment of class options. Some of these classes required that I do some catch-up work in order to follow along, and others were just starting as new courses for the spring. Twice a week I have Hebrew language class. We read newspaper articles and excerpts from stories, discuss what we did over the weekend or what news we have to share, and once a week we watch an Israeli movie - in Hebrew with the Hebrew subtitles on. Having the subtitles actually makes a huge difference, and I really enjoyed watching "HaKayitz Shel Aviyah," "Aviyah's Summer."

Sunday is Psalms class. We're studying Psalms 145-150, which are part of the daily morning service. Each week has been a different psalm, and I've really enjoyed looking at them in detail. It's made me really appreciate the quality of the poetry and the use of words, as well as the ideas they present and the value in saying them each morning. It's also the kind of study that I feel like I could bring back to the Penn Jewish community, maybe to make Shabbat morning services more meaningful instead of routine.

-- Did you notice I started the weekly schedule with Sunday? That's right. The culture that created the idea of a weekend with the institution of Shabbat goes right back to work on Sunday. At least we have Fridays off.

Monday I have Liturgy class, and we've been studying the central prayer of all Jewish prayer services - the Amidah. The course is a continuation from last semester, so I kinda picked up in the middle, but it's definitely been meaningful to spend a lot of time really picking apart the prayer I've been saying three times every day.

Tuesdays I don't go to Yeshiva. It's kinda a mid-week break for me. Since we don't have Talmud on Tuesday mornings, I decided to use the day to explore or travel or sleep late, and it's been put to good use.

Wednesday afternoons is Kabballah, mysticism. On the first day Simona gave me a crash course in everything they'd studied from the fall semester. Let me just say it's crazy philosophical and detailed and confusing, but at the same time whatever I do end up understanding provides some deeper understanding of the Kabbalistic perception of G-d and His interaction with people. It's neat, but I can totally understand the need for the traditional custom of not studying this until you're very learned in everything else, and at least 40 years old.

Thursday's schedule includes a lesson/discussion with the head of the Yeshiva - about whatever issue he deems worth bringing up or discussing - and a class about the week's Torah portion, taught by a different person each week. The discussion opportunity is a very interesting one, because it's the only time everyone from the Yeshiva comes together to talk, and it's usually something existential about the ideas of learning in a yeshiva environment or being a committed Conservative Jew, etc. Studying the weekly Torah portion is a great opportunity, because Israeli synagogue services rarely include a discussion as extensive as the rabbi's sermons common in American synagogues, and it's a good opportunity to take a close look at what we're going to be reading over Shabbat.

So that's my week. It's incredibly intellectual, usually exhausting, and a lot of fun. Learning for its own sake requires a lot of motivation and a real desire to stay away from distractions (like e-mail). I often rely on my partners in class to keep me focused on the days when I've had too much sugar or would much prefer to be taking a nap. It might also have to do with the fact that I'm only here for a month, and they've gotten into the rhythm of study since they're here for a whole year. But I show up every day ready to pray and to learn and to really expand the way I think about and relate to Judaism. I love being able to put on my tallis and t'fillin each morning, along with the other guys and girls who do, as well as the girls who choose not to. I know that each of us is encouraged to think openly and freely, to relate what we're learning to our own experience in the world, and to really question in a way that's not even thought of in other institutions. We are not fed a world-view and told to simple take it in, we are really lead to find our own answers, which is incredibly valuable.

I am incredibly thankful to everyone at the Yeshiva who, from the moment I arrived, were welcoming and inclusive to me. I have met wonderful people and made great friends and really enjoyed my time studying in this environment and community. At no time did I feel like an outsider or a stranger, and that made a huge difference to my experience.
So now you have maybe more than a taste of what it's like to take on this lifestyle for even just a short amount of time, and I would love to talk to you more if you have questions or thoughts... so feel free to e-mail or comment to let me know what you think.

Finally, I will be flying home to the States on Wednesday, and I look forward to seeing whatever Philly, Cherry Hill, and NYU people I run into while I'm home.


Ira Blum said...

I hope you're logging all of these insights into sabbath observance, hymms and other treasures. I'm sure your stories woul beat my dad's drashs. I've heard them all...

David Mitchell said...

So, Maddy,, I had just written a long comment and it was erased when I had to sign up as a blogger. In any case, good to see you are enjoying your studeis. Remember, traditionally most learned peopple did not become rabbis, and if they did, most end up doing something else. One of these days I'll tell you a real story about that.

Hope you will still have time to come here for a quick visit before leaving on Wednesday.

I read about your cousin Lauren being here. I believe I spent time with her parents in June 2006 when they were here for the bat mitzvah. they will probably be here next June again for a bar mitzvah this time....small world.

Shavua tov,

Rebecca said...

Sounds like you have been really busy! I hope that you come out dancing when you are back. :-)