KJ Hannah Greenberg

Lecturing Stories: Part One

Years ago, when my family was blessed to make aliyah, I focused primarily on my children and only secondarily on teaching (focusing my energies on creative writing was yet a dream.) Accordingly, I applied for and was hired to teach, part-time, at various Israeli colleges and universities.

One of the courses I was tasked to teach was Introduction to Literature. As per norm, long before the term began, I prepared a syllabus. As was true for me for the decades prior to moving to Israel, my syllabus contained the name, locations and time of the course, my name, office location and office hours, a list of books to purchase, learning objectives, a breakdown of my grading heuristic, an explanation of each major project, and a meeting by meeting list of topics. There was information on those pages, as well, about absences, make-up work, and more (I had learned that by giving lots of data to students at a first class meeting, I saved myself hours of useless exchanges and would thus be able to use the greater portion of my face time for teaching.)

I don’t believe that ever, prior to that course, the words on my syllabi were ever questioned. In fact, in most cases, no department chair had ever eyeballed those sheets—merely, their secretaries had collected and filed them as emergency “backups” in case I became so sick or injured that I could no longer conduct my classes ( back in the day, we did not have computer files to which to refer.)

Anyway, a few days after submitting my syllabus to that chair’s secretary, I received a phone call. The chair wanted to discuss my syllabus with me. Specifically, she wanted to discuss one of the learning objectives listed on my sheet. More exactly, she wanted me to change the wording of the objective that stated; “become familiar with the four types of conflict in classic literature; man vs. self, man vs. man, man vs. environment, and man vs. G-d.” Whereas the administrator had no problem with my gender insensitive use of the word “man” (this incident occurred nearly 20 years ago), she balked, rather loudly, at my use of the word “G-d.”

I told her I was surprised. After all, we were in Israel, birthplace of three great monotheistic religions.

She replied I couldn’t be “religious” when teaching.

Wow! I answered that the four listed types of conflict in literature had been taught for hundreds of years and that I meant to deliver a “standard” grasp of the topic I was teaching.

She volleyed that referencing G-d was inappropriate to a university setting.

I said that I had been making that reference in North American universities for two decades. I said nothing about having had to dance around certain “typical” novels or anthology items that were colored with palpable Christian theology. Likewise, I said nothing about how audaciously, near most semester’s ends, including the one for the syllabus that she held, that I included literature written by women, by non-Europeans, and more.

I asked her if she wanted me to teach per the North American benchmark or not.

She said, “Yes, but remove the word ‘G-d’ from your syllabus.”

In the least, I was shocked. In the New World, I had deans who were mad at me for refusing to shake their hands (I’m shomer negiah), colleagues who couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t eat their homemade cookies (I’m shomer kashrut), and, once, in the late 1970s, at a midwestern university, students, who had never met a Jew, ask in earnest if they could see my horns.

Never, though, had I been told, especially by a Jewish supervisor, that I had to take G-d out of my curriculum. Similarly, never before had it been drawn to my attention that the hashkafa in Israeli universities leaned one way more than another.

I was dazed. I was shocked. I was hurt. Am Yisrael suffered so much to populate Eretz Yisrael. How could any of us reject a basic tenant of Yiddishkeit?

I talked to the rabbi who heads an important aliyah organization. We talked of klita irregularities and of kiruv.

In the end, I elected not to change the syllabus. I asked to be relieved of my contract to teach that course. It was funny and sad to me that a Jewish woman was objecting to a Christian Weltanschauung. Her complaint was not about protecting us from others, but about furthering the split amongst us. What’s more, she was protesting a tradition of pedagogy that wasn’t even Jewish.

On the flip side, her remonstrations were nothing relative to some of my later, local experiences. At another school, a dean asked me to water down a creative writing curriculum because the students didn’t want to work hard. Elsewhere, a student spent a break in a three hour course showing me an anti-Israel propaganda tape; he wanted to know my thoughts on the diction he was using. In yet another environment, I was sized up by a department chair (I dress modestly) before she extended her hand to me and was told (that as a Jew of a certain persuasion) that I could lecture for free. Bli neder, these stories will follow.

About the Author
KJ Hannah Greenberg has been playing with words for an awfully long time. Initially a rhetoric professor and a National Endowment for the Humanities Scholar, she shed her academic laurels to romp around with a prickle of imaginary hedgehogs. Thereafter, her writing has been nominated once for The Best of the Net in poetry, three times for the Pushcart Prize in Literature for poetry, once for the Pushcart Prize in Literature for fiction, once for the Million Writers Award for fiction, and once for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. To boot, Hannah’s had more than forty books published and has served as an editor for several literary journals.
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