Real learning is difficult… but essential
'The answer lies in practice to achieve mastery'
I indulge in weekly piano lessons. I figure it is an affordable and safe way to ease into my midlife crisis period. Every Tuesday I traipse off to the music house to learn what I wish I’d learnt when I had fewer responsibilities and more time. The lessons are wonderfully enjoyable but oh so hard! I’m having to think about difficult chords that are augmented, diminished or suspended, in keys I’m not familiar with, all played to a dextrously demanding rhythm that is too much for my short sausage fingers.
It’s 30 minutes of the week when my brain works the hardest. And it hurts! Because real learning hurts. It stretches the brain like a medieval torture device. And I don’t like my brain to be tortured, so aside from that 30 minutes down in the music house, I don’t practise. And without that practice, my progress is painfully slow.
The pitiful state of my piano playing is mirrored in the situation regarding the learning, command and love of Jewish texts. In an article by Simi Peters titled “Lost in translation: the cost of abandoning Hebrew” she laments the loss of knowledge and skills in our children’s ability to read and comprehend Hebrew Jewish texts. Peters teaches graduates who are academically strong, religiously committed, who have gone through 15 years of Jewish day school education and yet struggle to read classic Jewish texts with understanding. The result is a watering down of yeshivah and midrasha courses by teaching texts in English. The nuances of grammar – the beauty of intertextual links are so often diluted by (often poor) translation. This is the situation in our top Jewish institutions with the cream of our youth.
At first this gave me comfort in numbers, knowing that the challenges we face are not ours alone. But the comfort quickly dissipated and was replaced by a larger despair; the challenge and failure was both wide and deep, a chasm that not even the best of the best could conquer. This is what Jewish schools across the globe are struggling with.
So why should it matter? Is text really that important? Shouldn’t it be enough that our children have ‘fun’ in their Jewish studies lessons?
It does matter. A fundamental part of our rich heritage and religion is our sacred texts. Our texts are profound. Timeless. And the profundity and timelessness is compromised in translation. Margarine will never be as good as butter.
If our children’s knowledge of Jewish texts is basic and limited we risk them assuming that Judaism is shallow and infantile. Judaic texts speak truth and wisdom, but in a language our children don’t understand.
Teaching Jewish studies IS hard. I’ve too have had 25 rowdy year 8 students for a double Tanach on a Friday afternoon. Getting them to break their teeth on text was arduous and often excruciating, and I too have been guilty of pivoting the lesson to fun activities that focused on superficial (but exciting) narrative.
Easy routes have wormed their way into other subject areas also. CliffsNotes for Shakespeare, or choosing shorter novels as English texts. And this is before ChatGPT hit the internet.
Yep, real learning is difficult. And tough. But the key to engaging children with something initially difficult and tough, but ultimately essential for their development as engaged, practicing Jews, is something we must strive for.
Like me at the piano, the answer lies in practice to achieve mastery. While it hurts, and it is not the easy path, practice precedes mastery in textual proficiency, just as in musical proficiency.
The cost to our children of abandoning the teaching of classical Hebrew is too high. As a community we have to acknowledge this problem and want to rectify it. We need consensus that Jewish texts matter and learning them (in the original) is important for Jewish identity. This will propel us to invest time and money into the teachers and teaching of texts.
We must also recognise that early intervention is paramount and take advantage of the early years when children’s brains are non-judgemental blotting paper. When parents help their young children with Hebrew reading homework, they can do so knowing their efforts are opening a door to a priceless heritage.
Through textual learning, our children’s brains will be stretched. There will be repetition and rote learning and they may not always like it. But when the thing you don’t enjoy is nonetheless valued, the answer is not to avoid doing it, but to practice to achieve mastery.
Let’s allow our children and our students to feel the stretch, and subsequent joy, of real learning.
.ורצקי הנרב ,הﬠמדב םיﬠרזה
Jewish texts will connect them deeply to their rich past and contribute to a beautiful and meaningful Jewish future.
Shula Lazar is principal of Leibler Yavneh College in Melbourne.