Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Term 2, Week 5: What’s in a Name?

In case you’re losing track, we’re now in early February, and I decided to tackle Hebrew names. Jewish children from even slightly religious families are given a Hebrew name at birth which is used for religious purposes – being called up to read from the Torah, for the marriage contract, and so on.

A ‘Hebrew’ name can actually be Hebrew or Yiddish (or presumably Ladino or any of the other Jewish languages/dialects). It can be a biblical name, or a more modern Israeli one. It can sound like the English name, have the same meaning, be the name of a relative or of a characteristic the parents hope their child will develop…the world is pretty much your [kosher] oyster when it comes to choosing a Hebrew name.

I get the bonus of being able to choose my own Hebrew name when I eventually finish my conversion. I’ve decided on Shifra Esther bat Sarah – Shifra was one of the midwives in Egypt who lied to Pharoah when ordered to kill the Israelite baby boys, and she is the absolute definition of chutzpah (not to mention bravery). Esther was the Queen of Persia whose story is celebrated on Purim. The bat Sarah bit would have been my mother’s Hebrew name if she were Jewish (‘bat’ means ‘daughter of’; boys have ‘ben’ and their father’s Hebrew name). If you convert, you take Sarah or Abraham, since they are the ancestors of the Jewish people.

The problem we had with the cheder kids is that they don’t have any contact with the Jewish community in a religious setting (i.e. they don’t come to services), so until the beginning of term they had never encountered the concept of Hebrew names. Come to that, some of their parents were a little fuzzy about their children’s Hebrew names, since they hadn’t been used since the baby naming shortly after birth.

The most traditional family had no idea what their kids’ Hebrew names were, so had a family conference the night before to choose some. If their son had a bris (brit milah = circumcision), he must have been given one then, but there are some things you just don’t ask, so if he was given a name, he’s now got a new one! I did a quick bit of research on the web, and it doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem from a halakhic point of view (halakhah = Jewish religious law).

The kids were fascinated by their new names, and I got them to decorate slips of card with their names in Hebrew. Since then, I’ve greeted each one by Hebrew name every week, and now they’re getting used to it, I’ll teach them how to say “my name is…” in Hebrew. The cards are up on our new huge notice board in the meeting room of the synagogue, and new kids joining the cheder get to do their names at the first available opportunity. One family with a slightly older girl got her involved in choosing her own Hebrew name, which she got a kick out of. As we’ve learned more Hebrew letters since, I’ve used some of the kids’ Hebrew names for reading practice.

The only thing I feel slightly uncomfortable with is that I don’t use my own [future] Hebrew name in cheder. When the kids have asked, I’ve told them it’s Shifra, but discussing it further would mean explaining the whole conversion thing, and I’m wimping out on that. The parents all know, so I’m sure some of them have explained it to their kids, but for the time being I’m avoiding the subject. There will be time enough to go into it when the conversion is done. Yes, I am a wuss.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Term 2, Week 4: First They Came

One of the nice things about teaching Cheder is that I can decide what to do from week to week, and if I think the kids need extra time on something, it's easy to re-jig the term plan. I have a rough idea of what I want to cover in a term, but it's not set in stone.
After our Holocaust Memorial Day session, the children definitely needed more time to get the hang of the tolerance theme, so we spent part of the following week looking again at the Niemöller poem and writing our own version. After a slow start and lots of help from the parents, they suddenly seemed to understand what I was getting at, and the relevance to their own lives, and after that, there was no stopping them. I felt immensely honoured that they trusted me (and each other) enough to talk about painful experiences that they had had, as well as what they had seen or heard about happening to other people.
We brainstormed on how people can be different (differences they might be treated badly for), and ways in which they are treated badly. After that, we talked about standing up for people, why we should stand up for other people even if we are not directly affected, and how they might be able to help, since one person wading in on a gang of five might not be the best plan...
After the session, I compiled the results of the brainstorm into a poem modelled on Niemöller's. Here is the original (there are several versions, but this is the one we used), followed by our version. I think they speak for themselves.

First They Came
By Pastor Martin Niemöller

First they came for the Communists,
And I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Socialists,
And I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists,
And I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
And I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me,
And there was no one left to speak up for me.

First They…
By Cheder Nitzanim, Exeter Hebrew Congregation

First they made fun of the people who looked different,
And I didn’t speak up, because I didn’t look different.

Next they didn’t let the people in wheelchairs play,
And I didn’t speak up, because I was allowed to play.

Then they laughed at the people who weren’t very good at school work,
And I didn’t speak up, because I was good at school work.

Next they left out the people with different-coloured skin,
And I didn’t speak up, because I didn’t have different-coloured skin.

Then they bullied the people who were too short or too tall,
And I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t too short or too tall.

Next they played tricks on people from other countries,
And I didn’t speak up, because I’m from this country.

Then they picked on people with different clothes,
And I didn’t speak up, because I didn’t wear different clothes.

Next they fought the people who had a different religion,
And I didn’t speak up, because I didn’t have a different religion.

Then they made the people who felt bad feel worse,
And I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t feeling bad.

Next they called people who wore glasses names,
And I didn’t speak up, because I didn’t wear glasses.

Then they said nasty things to the people whose families were different,
And I didn’t speak up, because my family wasn’t different.

Next they teased the people who cried,
And I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t crying.

And then they turned on me,
And there was no one left to stand up for me.

If you would like to use this poem for anything, please drop me a line asking for permission first!