My late husband, Peter Lipton z.l., inaugurated his Cambridge University named Chair — the Hans Rausing Professor of History and Philosophy of Science — at a public lecture during the university’s Science Festival, an annual event aimed at introducing serious science to the general public of all ages. The 500 plus audience included not just academics, but interested adults from beyond the university, and a fair number of school-kids. If you’re familiar with the ivory towers, you’ll know that Peter made an unusual choice.
He began his intellectually demanding lecture, ‘The Truth about Science’, with an announcement: ‘I’m addressing this lecture to the twelve-year-olds in the audience, but I hope the rest of you will get something out of it’. He must have gone on to tell a joke — he usually did — but about the twelve-year-olds he wasn’t joking. He believed that if you explain a subject, however complex, clearly and accurately, a twelve year old is as likely as a distinguished Cambridge University professor to be able to understand it. And if she can’t, you’re doing something wrong.
Peter did not judge books by their covers. When he looked at a twelve-year-old, he saw not a kid in a hoodie on the brink of becoming rebellious, but a mind like his own. His world was not divided into teachers and students: we were all learners. Here’s an example. Every year Peter led the High Holyday children’s services at our Cambridge synagogue. I don’t know exactly what he did in those services — I was on the bima at the time — but suffice to say that a significant number of children in our small community went on to study Philosophy at university.
One Yom Kippur, Peter asked the children a question that fascinated him: can you change the past? (His bigger topic was whether repentance works.) First he made sure that everyone present had a basic grasp of theories of Time. What is the Future, he asked them? Twelve-year-old (or even younger) David Spivack’s hand shot up: ‘The future is today yesterday and tomorrow today’, he said. (I hope I’ve got that right!). Peter was blown away; ‘I couldn’t do that now’, he told me later.
An aside. After Peter’s tragically premature death in November 2007, someone else took over the responsibility for the children’s services. The following year, the new leader posed a question: Why do we read the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur? ‘Because it was Peter Lipton’s favourite book’, came the answer. Back to my story.
I often think about Peter’s inaugural lecture to twelve-year-olds. Lehavdil, I teach a parashat ha’shavua class at two Jerusalem homes for the elderly. My themes are typically those I once addressed in university lecture rooms and academic conference halls: Israel and the Other, religion and politics, the use and abuse of power, biblical attitudes to other gods, complex relationships between men and women, identity, memory, intercession… No-one ever questioned whether my university students or academic colleagues could handle texts on these challenging themes. But when it comes to my shiur, I’m often asked: ‘Wow [or is it, Oy?]! What do the old people make of that?’
I know what’s intended here. Being old is a characteristic that, in the eyes of many onlookers, eclipses all others, like being a Satmar Hasid or a self-indulging tattoo artist. Once you know that someone is, say, ninety, it’s easy to focus on that, and forget that they may also be a father or mother, a wife or husband or even a lover, left- or right-wing, self-confident or shy, fulfilled or unfulfilled, cruel or kind, unquestioning or full of doubt, social or anti-social, cynical or romantic, pragmatic or idealist, timid or bold.
Naturally people change as they get older, often dictated by their material circumstances and physical condition, but they aren’t reduced to a single defining feature: oldness. You can’t look at their wrinkled skin and stiff joints and know what’s inside, any more than you can look at the cover of a book and know its contents.
This should be obvious to anyone who has ever been misjudged or underestimated on the basis of their appearance, just as it should be obvious to anyone who’s ever been surprised to discover that their first, superficial impression of someone else was totally misleading. But it’s a very hard lesson for most of us to learn. We seem to have been born to homogenize, stereotype and label, all based on very little information.
Since my shiurim are fairly interactive, I’ve picked up details here and there about the lives of my ‘students’. Dorothy was the wife of a Conservative rabbi. She didn’t get involved, she said, when congregants called to speak to her husband: The Rabbi’s not here; call back later (I can hear her saying it). I first encountered Dorothy at a one-off lecture. I was certain that she disapproved of everything I was saying, but I was wrong. It’s because of her that I started to go once a week.
Dorothy has recently faced the unbearable pain of seeing her daughter pass away in her own lifetime. Sue also faced that pain when her only son Gil’ad was killed in the Six Day War. Every year on Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, Sue has organized a lecture in his memory. I went last year because she wrote especially to invite me and I thought that perhaps she needed an audience. There were about 100 people there, plus a reporter who covered it for the New York Times.
Nechama has a blog that she called Goingon90 — she started it last year, when she was eighty-nine. If you check it out, you’ll see photos of her as young girl in Israel (her grandfather came here from the US and built a large family home on Rothschild in Tel Aviv at a time when they had few neighbors); as a young woman (in America, I think), the soon-to-be wife of a Conservative Rabbi, and as she is today. You’ll also see that Nechama’s just renamed her blog.
Sometimes Lisa comes. Long after retiring, she translated Josephus’s Jewish Wars from Greek into Hebrew. Last year one of her sons won an Israel Prize. Her face broke into a big smile when someone else reported that good news, but Lisa never mentions her own accomplishments. I know only because my friend Jonathan edited and introduced her translation.
I didn’t know much about Shifra — other than that as a child she studied the parsha with her father, who sometimes skipped difficult passages — until I went to the shiva for her late husband. There a former colleague of hers told me that Shifra had been the remarkable head teacher of one of Jerusalem’s first schools for special needs children. On the same day, Shifra gave me a book about her husband’s early life, his often dangerous work in the US for what would become Israel’s air force, and, connected to that, their hurried marriage and aliyah. I was in awe.
Della and her late husband have given philanthropic and other forms of support to many institutions in Israel and the UK, but I know that only because since I met her, I’ve noticed plaques around Jerusalem acknowledging their generosity. Mike doesn’t give much away about himself, and doesn’t let me get away with much; he’s a great source of relevant anecdotes. Brenda, though quiet, is a supportive listener; that’s important. Avraham changed his name from Avram when his children became frum; it sounded to them more kosher. He loves his wife, who sometimes comes along too.
Mrs F., a serious learner, has just moved from Ramat Eshcol to be nearer to her son. Don’t try to beat her at Jewish Geography; she knows absolutely everyone you know. She and Della had not previously met, but it quickly emerged that Mrs F. went to the same Jewish school in Frankfurt as Della’s late husband. I think that Mrs F. may even have admired him across the playground.
Rachel came originally from Brazil. She’s very spiritual. Once I spoke of a connection between something in the parsha and the ending of Portrait of a Lady, which I had just re-read. That’s what my PhD dissertation was about, said the quiet and modest Rachel: Why did Isabel Archer go back to Mr. Osmond?
Claudia, born in Italy, has more than one PhD and speaks many languages fluently; she studied with Piaget in Geneva. She’s a force of nature. Freda, from London, is always on the ball. She arranged another gig for me — a lecture to the RAP (Retired Active Persons) group at the AACI (Americans and Canadians in Israel). Rivka, my only sheitl-wearer, is a Hungarian survivor of the Shoah who came here via South America. You would happily drown in her sweet, throaty voice.
Naomi exudes empathy. After a young Ethiopian man was beaten by a Jerusalem policeman, she asked me if I could recommend a charity that benefitted Ethiopians in Israel. (I recommended the wonderful Ethiopian music programme at Hassadna, a music conservatory on Emek Refaim.)
Hadassah sometimes comes with her daughter, sometimes with her mitapelet; we haven’t spoken, but I feel as if I know her. Recently a man, originally from Belgium, I believe, has started to come; we haven’t spoken yet either. Rose, who uprooted herself from her frum community Scranton PA to be near her son and his family. It’s because of Rose that I give this second shiur. She is unfailingly appreciative and enthusiastic. I’m grateful. Can this really be a proper shiur in her eyes, I sometimes ask myself?
Our common link, the force that binds us all, regardless of precisely how we regard it, is the Torah. We are all people of the Book. Without it, we wouldn’t be here, in the narrowest sense (a parsha shiur) and the widest (a Jewish state). That in itself is a miracle, but what moves me almost as much is this: All these people of the Book are books in their own right. And every week I have the privilege of glimpsing a line or two of the stories that are written between their covers.