12 December 2008
15 Kislev 5769
Early this week, one of our veteran English teachers, whose joy in her work always inspires me, walked into my office eager to share a learning moment in her classroom that inspired her. Here is her story:
We were discussing Frankenstein in my tenth grade English class. We had been talking about Victor Frankenstein’s hubris, how he is trying to be like God, and how characters “fall” when they do that. There are many parallels and oppositions to the Genesis story, including the fact that Victor Frankenstein recoils in horror and disgust and completely rejects his creation when the monster comes alive. I asked the class what God’s response was when He created the first human being: “Isn’t it something like, ‘And God saw that it was good?’” Immediately, some students enthusiastically agreed, some disagreed, and several grabbed Tanachim (Bibles) from the bookcase to look up God’s exact words and the exact sequence of events. We confirmed that, yes, ultimately God saw that creation, including the human being, of course, was very good. Suddenly one student asked, “How would you possibly teach this book (Frankenstein) at Newton North (a local public school)?” There was complete silence after his question while the students pondered it and waited for my response!
This Mission-in-Action story, as I like to call it, highlights so many dimensions of a Gann education, of the school we are and strive to be. The very fact that our English teacher took the time to come to my office to share this story illustrates her passion for teaching and her excitement about her students’ process of discovery. Her capacity to weave the story of Frankenstein with the Book of Genesis models her own integrated Jewish identity; it also represents an approach to curricular integration that puts classical texts from both our Jewish and our western literary tradition into dialogue with each other around big ideas and essential questions. I can picture students’ eager responses to her question and their grabbing of Tanachim to research, on the spot, God’s exact words. These are “knowledgeable, sophisticated and passionate” young Jewish adults who are engaged readers of English literature, empowered learners of Tanach (willing to settle for nothing less than the accurate textual reference!) and who are energized by the comparison and contrast between the two.
But I am most moved by the climax of her story and the dramatic silence that ensued. One can, in fact, teach Frankenstein with its Biblical references and parallels in other, non-Jewish day school, contexts – not necessarily in public schools, but certainly in college literature classes. To me, however, this student’s question, “How would you possibly teach this book at Newton North?” is less a question than it is, in the spirit of Abraham Joshua Heschel or the well-known Biblical verse “Mah tovu ohaleicha Yaakov” – “How beautiful are your tents O’ Jacob!,” a statement of wonder. This was what we call an “a-ha moment” – the learning moments for which teachers live and that sustain us. For me, this moment alone illustrates why we invest so much in Jewish high school education. Suddenly, for this student, reading Frankenstein in light of his canonical text became more than a mere literary exercise; it became a necessity. I have two interpretations of his question: How can one possibly understand Frankenstein without reading it in light of the Genesis story, something that we who learn in a Jewish high school are particularly empowered to do? But also, how could we as Jews read and make sense of Frankenstein’s meaning and relevance for our lives in a context stripped of our Jewish tradition and our foundational texts?
For this class, reading and interpreting Frankenstein became a Jewish intellectual and spiritual exercise. To read literature is to read literature as a Jew, through our Jewish lens. This gifted teacher opened her students’ eyes – both to the powerful integration of two literary works as well as to the seamless integration of their identities as knowledgeable, passionate Jews and their identities as intellectually rigorous American high school students. May we know what it feels like to live and learn as integrated Jewish human beings; and may we, like our tenth grade English class, find moments of joyous intellectual discovery and unfolding self-understanding.
Rabbi Marc Baker