Note: There are many terrific teachers, and even a goodly number of decent administrators, in the Israeli Education system, but they – like their counterparts in countries across the globe – are consistently stymied by a multitude of seemingly immortal paradigms that make students miserable and keep them ignorant. Let’s kill them (the paradigms, not the students).
About a week ago my nine-year-old came home all excited from school and announced that the teacher had charged her students with the task of writing a folk story. I was pretty excited myself: a homework assignment that requires kids to be creative and come up with their own, original plot? Fantastic! Somebody at the Education Ministry seemed to have finally woken up. On the morrow, my daughter walked into the living room and proudly presented me with her belletristic chef d’oeuvre:
“Once upon a time, there was a boy named Danny.”
Wow, what an opening!!! My appetite is whetted big time. Give. Me. More.
“One day, Danny walked to school.”
Yeah, right. My kids live less than two hundred meters from “Lapid Elementary” and nevertheless manage every morning, with the help of an endless battery of factitious arguments, to cajole me into driving them there.
“When he arrived, Danny and all his friends went into the classroom.”
“The teacher wrote on the board: ‘Today, dear children, we will celebrate the birthday of sweet little Shira.”
This was, no doubt, sweet little Shira’s third birthday party, after she had celebrated once with her family, and once with her friends. But it is extremely important to throw her yet another festive gala in school, lest the teachers are actually forced to teach.
“Everyone started to sing: ‘There, there, there, is no merriment, without, without, without, without a cake…”
It’s better in the Hebrew.
“But alas! There really was no cake! Where had the cake gone!?”
Where, indeed? The suspense is killing me.
“They looked, and they looked, and finally…”
“…they found the cake!
Yes!! I knew they would find it!! Hurrah!!!
“The bell rang, and all the children left class. On the way home, Danny looked up and saw three witches on broomsticks flying over his head. The End.”
A-mmmmmaaaaaaaaazzzzzzzzzing!!!!!! My little Tolstoy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Wait a minute – what’s with the witches? I called my daughter over. “Listen, your story is a genuine masterpiece. Took my breath away. You’ve obviously got real talent. But I didn’t really get the part about the witches. How’d they get in there?
My daughter ran to her schoolbag, extracted a sheet of paper from her looseleaf and handed it to me. Thus came I to be exposed, for the first time in my life, to “The Nine Rules of the Folk Tale,” the instrument used by the Israeli Ministry of Education to teach literature to the country’s fourth graders. It took only several seconds of perusing this document – itself, so I later discovered, based loosely on a list of guidelines compiled by a European professor over a hundred years ago – to clear up the business about the witches. Rule # 8 lays down in no uncertain terms: “In every folk tale there is a supernatural, magical or miraculous element.” Are you getting this? By law, now, a folk tale – in order to be a folk tale – absolutely must include the occult. So my daughter, naturally not wanting to be regarded as a literary criminal, added witches.
And why specifically three witches? Ah – that is thanks to Rule # 4: “The folk story is triadic – three protagonists, three animals, three situations, three tasks that the hero must perform…”
…three witches. Capish?
Hold on a second. In a famous Jewish folk tale about the wise men of Chelm, the town’s inhabitants decide to steal the moon. They fill a barrel full with water, wait for the white planetoid’s reflection to appear on the liquid surface, quickly cover the top and seal it with a padlock, and drag the barrel into the synagogue. A week or two later, on a particularly cloudy night, they break open the seal, only to find that…the moon is gone!
Something is wrong here. There is no supernatural element in this story. Nor is there – heaven protect us! – anything even remotely resembling a trinity. And what about Rule # 2 of “The Nine Rules of the Folk Tale,” the “Rule of Finales,” which stipulates that stories of this genre “invariably conclude with a happy end.” The people of Chelm were banking on that captured celestial orb to light up their dark streets, and in this they were sorely disappointed – their hopes were dashed! And what of Rule # 3, “The Rule of Repetition,” according to which “The author of the folk tale regularly reiterates qualities, names, events, etc. for the sake of emphasis”? There is – alack and alas – not a single repetition in this entire story!
“The Rule of Opposition” (# 5) informs my nine-year-old authoritatively that “In every folk tale a struggle occurs between good and bad, beautiful and ugly, etc.” Who is the villain in the Chelm story? The moon? Then there’s “The Rule of Afterparts” (khok ha-yarketayim, # 6) which draws my little sweet-pea’s attention to the fact that “In the folk tale three figures are presented in succession, of which the third is the most significant, the one that the reader roots for and that will ultimately achieve its goal.” Where are all these characteristics in the Chelm story currently under scrutiny?
Bad folk tale! You have broken the rules!! The policeman will come and arrest you!!! You will rot in prison!!!!
Or perhaps the story in question is not a folk tale at all. Perhaps it is – according to the nomenclature employed by Rule # 8 to describe literary compositions that do not contain the criteria on the list – “a realistic story”?
The unmitigated gall, as well, of the Brothers Grimm, who presumptuously added four extra birds to the folk tale that was, without doubt, originally known as “The Three Ravens.” And that idiot Hans Christian Anderson: his Emperor went to see just two weavers for his new suit of clothes. Where was their third partner? In the outhouse? And specifically twelve Labors of Hercules, including the killing of the nine-headed Hydra and the two-headed dog Orthros, the stealing of the four cannibalistic Mares of Diomedes and the shooing away of one thousand Stymphalian fowl? How did they dare, those chutzpadike Greeks, so roundly to ignore the folk tale’s “Holy Trinity”!?
And what shall we say to the Persians, whose most well-known folk story opens with the “exposure” of an unwanted albino baby on the side of a mountain. For according to “The Rule of Beginnings” (khok ha-petikha) – rule # 1 on the list we are reviewing – “A folk tale always opens with a calm and peaceful scene.” But last time I checked (by trying this on my own infant daughter), a baby abandoned and starving on the side of a mountain is neither calm nor peaceful. The same Persian story concludes with the inadvertent slaying of the grown-up version of the child (Sohrab) by his own father (Rostam), a flagrant violation of the “happy ending” rule. Maybe this is a post-modernist piece?
In the same vein, how shall we deal with the famous African folk story entitled “The Woman with Two Skins,” which opens as follows: “The great King Iambe conquered all the lands that bordered on his kingdom, slaughtered all the elderly, and enslaved all the young boys and girls.” No doubt he did this in a calm and peaceful manner.
And what about the original ending of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid,” in which the would-be fish-wife drinks a potion which causes her to feel excruciating pain at all times as if she were walking on knives so that she may live on land and marry the prince, but in the event the latter dumps her and marries another woman? Well, perhaps it is for the best: as Megan Markle can tell you, joining the royal family is no picnic.
* * *
I’m no expert on literature. Maybe I am missing something. But then, the extent to which the compiler of “The Nine Rules of the Folk Tale” got it right or wrong is not the main question here, now is it. The main question here, as you have already surmised, is this: Which high-ranking functionary at the Israeli Ministry of Education sat down one day and said to him or herself: “Let’s take fourth-grade kids – who as it is barely ever read anymore and spend most of their days on Tik-Tok, Instagram, Fortnite or Netflix – and instead of allowing them to derive pleasure from exposure to a rich variety of enchanting and edifying stories, and maybe even discussing with them the implications of what they have read for their own lives, loves and beliefs – instead of this, let’s force them to drill and learn by heart a long list of desiccated, boring (and erroneous) “rules” that do not speak to them in any way, and then let’s demand that they employ these rules not only to analyze stories but even to write them. In other words: Let’s destroy for the younger generation the experience of reading so utterly and irreparably that they will never again pick up a book for the remainder of their time on earth even in order to save their lives.
Those of you who derive pleasure from reading, please tell me the truth (and nothing but the truth): has your profound enjoyment of the amazing experience of being sucked headlong into the plot and the world of a really good novel (or even short story) ever been the product of parsing and analyzing said literary creation with the help of supposedly scientific “rules” of one kind or another? Was this the means by which you gleaned the optimal benefit, for your mind and for your soul, from a work of fiction into which you dove down deep, and between the covers of which you embarked on journeys, participated in adventures, and struggled, suffered and celebrated along with the story’s main characters? Well, was it? Was this the way you learned to love to read??
I didn’t think so. Then why in God’s name do we allow them to do this to our kids?
Even in the literary sections of the most prestigious and pretentious newspapers, no self-respecting critic would be caught dead employing “The Nine Rules” or any other etched-in-stone criteria as part of their learned evaluations. So literary critics, no, but kids in elementary school, yes?
This is nothing but pure, sadistic abuse, not to say revenge: we were bored to tears and wasted large, irretrievable chunks of our precious childhood in school, and damned if today’s youngsters aren’t going to suffer just as we did! Instead of making children love literature, the Ministry of Education goes out of its way to make them hate it with a fiery, unquenchable passion.
* * *
But the most heinous aspect of this curricular method has yet to be noted. Because by deploying the “Nine Rules” and similar pedagogical approaches, we teach our children to think like robots. We teach them to believe that art has precise regulations, just like science (even on the university level, while in the West you have “The Liberal Arts,” in Israel the same faculty is known as mada’ai ha-ru’akh – “The Sciences of the Spirit” – an oxymoron if there ever was one). In math class we may think like a Gestalt – and even there, creativity has its place on the really high levels – but in art class we are supposed to be individuals. The Ministry of Education, it would seem, prefers Gleichschaltung across the board. By demanding of our children that they both read and write with the help of protocols, we inculcate in their minds the notion that not only can one comprehend a story solely with the help of hard-and-fast, rigidly scientific rules, but that the only way to create a story is with the help of such rules, as well (my daughter’s teacher made a big red check mark next to the line about the three witches, and gave her a hundred).
Imagine: somebody up there, probably a committee of crusty old university professors of literature or education, thinks it is a good idea to encourage – nay, to obligate – our children to write fiction according to a pre–cast mold, which is more or less like demanding that Michelangelo paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by the numbers. We have to do here with nothing less than the premeditated murder of the creative instinct of an entire generation, an instinct that is the essential key not just to good writing, but to success in a whole gamut of fields and professions, from academic research to good parenting to gourmet cooking to Start-Up companies (I know – Israel is the Start-Up Mecca. Imagine how much better we could be if our curricula and pedagogical methods weren’t so god darn awful!).
This squelching of creativity is not a unique hallmark of the Israeli education system. When I was in first grade at the Lamberton Public Elementary School in Philadelphia, we cut out and designed paper ties for Father’s Day (in Israel Father’s Day has been replaced by “Family Day,” and nobody’s dad wears a tie anyway). All the kids drew diagonal lines across their ties, but I – evincing that sophisticated taste in haute couture for which I am widely known down to the present time – drew concentric circles on mine. Mrs. Graham, our teacher, having gone from desk to desk issuing words of praise, reached my desk, scrutinized my objet d’art, bent down and erased my concentric circles, and drew diagonal lines in their place.
I actually had a damn good literature teacher in seventh grade. John Wolfman, his name was, he had a Hagrid-like beard, one leg shorter than the other, arranged our desks in a circle and smoked a pipe during class. He was an open-minded guy who tried to open our minds. But we mostly read (or, rather, did not read) Nathaniel Hawthorne, an author who should be forbidden to anyone under (or over) forty years of age, and the curriculum forced poor John to spend an inordinate amount of time teaching us about “symbolism,” and that, in sheer regimented fashion. What I, therefore, remember about this entire subject is confined to two dogmas: (1) that bodies of water symbolize death, and (2) that wedding dresses symbolize shrouds. These associations subsequently added much pleasantness to summers spent at the beach and my huppa.
But American education underwent a transformation in the nineteen seventies – a gift of the counter-culture of the nineteen-sixties – in the direction of more intellectual freedom, more boldness, individualism, non-conformism, etc., and Europe, prepped by everything from Rousseau’s Emil to the Romantic movement to Dickens’ Hard Times to Dadaism to the Beatles, followed suit. Such that today in the West your chances as a student of having your originality and imagination cultivated are at least slightly better than they used to be (but then, so are the chances that you will be machine-gunned to death by one of your peers who couldn’t get a prom date).
Israel during the same period, on the other hand, was busy with slightly more existential matters, such as not being thoroughly overrun and eradicated by multiple Arab armies, absorbing over a million immigrants from a wide variety of countries, building infrastructure and making the desert bloom, etc., and didn’t have the leisure to participate in hippie “Be-In”s, EST seminars and Woodstock festivals. Although the country didn’t miss the transformative moment entirely – and currently holds the international record, way ahead even of California, for young people who have attended Indian Ashrams and come back looking like Bob Marley and propounding the legalization of weed as the sole solution to all the world’s problems – let’s just say that the concept of “free-to-be-you-and-me” never really sank into the bedrock of the Israeli education system.
Don’t get me wrong: there are undeniably positive sides to this. My kids attend a pretty run-of-the-mill Israeli public school, whereas my neighbor’s kids attend the “demokrati,” a kind of Montessori-meets-Anthroposophic-meets-“Let’s Commit Mass Suicide in Protest against Climate Change”-type institution. Things are definitely less square and straightlaced over there, with kids deciding which classes they do and don’t want to attend and calling their teachers “comrade” (just kidding – they don’t have teachers). But come a Holocaust Day or an Israel Independence Day or a Mock Seder, and absolutely no one knows how to put on a collectivist, demagogic, brain-washing show – marches, cantatas, pioneer-style dances, indoctrinating speeches, tear-jerking plays, the national anthem – like the good old, average, government-sponsored day school that my kids attend. And thank God for it.
Also, attempts to insinuate creative methods into the curriculum can backfire: last year education minister Shasha-Biton stayed in office just long enough to inaugurate a program according to which high-schoolers will no longer undergo national testing on any liberal arts subjects, but will engage in joint “projects” instead: make a video, draw a poster, write a poem, make a “presentation” – you get the idea. Nice thought, disastrous consequences (in trial runs, all the projects came back identical, having been commissioned – no doubt after some serious Jewish bargaining – from the same Internet source). We will be picking up the pieces of this mess for a decade or more.
Still, the pedagogical stagnation that plagues Israeli education must be dealt with, and let’s start – you know – with reading and writing (in general, it should be said, all those largely futile college courses on how to write were rendered necessary by an abject lack of reading, itself a product not just of tragedies like “The Nine Rules,” but of the satanic evil that must be eradicated from the face of the earth if humanity is to survive and flourish…known as smart-phones). And let’s narrow our focus even further – because, as our rabbis of blessed memory pointed out, “If you try to carry too many things, you will drop them all” (tafasta merubeh, lo tafasta) – and home in on the way literature is taught to pre-adolescents.
Let’s internalize, once and for all, the following truth: there are no “Nine Rules” of the folk tale, or of any other type of story or literature. There are no seven rules, or six rules, or five rules, or three rules. Probably, there are no universally applicable rules at all about story writing, or novel writing, or poetry writing, or essay writing, or writing of any kind, aside from this one: write in a manner that will interest the reader.
(I know, lots of “post-modernists” would no doubt reject this definition with all their might – to hell with the reader! say they – and no small number of their “modernist” predecessors too. So what? I reject them, and the entirety of their deliberately pointless and excruciatingly plotless oeuvre, with all my might. But at least we would all find common ground in rejecting “The Nine Rules,” with all our combined might…)
So, teachers: Refuse to teach “The Nine Rules of the Folk Tale.” Tell your students the world’s stories – they don’t know almost any of them these days, poor things – with zero technical literary analysis. Ask them, instead, what they thought of, or felt about, or learned from, the stories they heard or read, and what thoughts of their lives, or today’s world, it evokes in them.
Parents: Tell your kids to emphatically ignore these nine, and all such, literary “rules,” to rebel against them with your full support, to read for pleasure and for inspiration, and to write stories with a freedom that emanates from the fount of their very own original souls.
Students: Break those ridiculous “Nine Rules” with ne’er a care, smash them to smithereens, pulverize them beyond recognition. Tell your teachers you want to read and write freely, to build and deconstruct according to your own blueprint, to think and feel and create as you see fit and according to your own individual predilections.
Oh, and our vacuum cleaner? It is really a green goblin from the far-off land of Winklegard.
Speaking of literature that you just can’t put down, check this out:
Photosynthesis is a process by which plants and other vegetable organisms convert light energy into chemical energy that, through another process known as “cellular respiration,” can later be released and employed in fueling the organism’s various activities. Some of this chemical energy is stored in carbohydrate molecules such as sugars and starches, which are synthesized from carbon dioxide and water – hence the name photosynthesis, from the Greek phos (light) and synthesis (putting together). Most plants, algae and cyanobacteria perform photosynthesis…
Scintillating, no? It goes on like that for several pages. This riveting passage, which of course loses so much in translation, comes from my daughter’s sixth-grade biology textbook, where it is illustrated by a grateful-looking dandelion turning to a smiley-faced sun.
What’s that you say? Don’t I have anything better to do than leaf through my daughter’s sixth-grade biology textbook? Very funny. The reason I know about the thrilling tour de force whence the above excerpt has been lifted is that Tamar spent the better part of three days marching around the house reciting it out loud so as to memorize it verbatim in preparation for an upcoming test. Once upon a time kids were forced to memorize poetry, which may have been torture while you were doing it but at least served one well later in life as a pool of useful pick-up lines. Somehow “Did you know that the lysosome assists cellular metabolism by taking in proteins and nucleic acids in a process called ‘autophagy’?” doesn’t seem like it would get you a lot of dates.
In Hebrew, science class is called mada’im. Israeli kids refer to it as mada’ikhs, which means “disgusting science class.” It’s not hard to see why. Tamar happens to like her current teacher, but can’t for the life of her understand what the point of the lessons are. I asked her the other day what they were studying. She told me: “Well, we learned that when you take a piece of ice out of the freezer and leave it on the table, it melts.”
Now, Tamar is crazy about popsicles – has an average of three a day in the summer months – but she is also a major airhead and often forgets she is eating them in the middle, so the phenomenon of yellow, red, orange and purple puddles of sticky liquid on surfaces of every kind is far from unknown in our house.
“You knew about that ice melting business already, though, didn’t you, Tamar? You’re twelve.”
“Sure, but what I didn’t know is that the scientific term for it is not hitmossesut (‘melting’) but hatakha (‘melting’). “
“Ah. So, was this more accurate term you were taught to use accompanied by any new information about the process itself, like for instance, how it works on a chemical level?”
“Did the teacher explain how the melting actually takes place, what the mechanism is?”
“Dad, we learned that it isn’t called hitmossesut, it’s called hatakha. That’s what we learned.”
“I see. Well, uh, did you enjoy learning that, Tamar? Did you find it at all interesting or stimulating? Did it make you want to investigate the phenomenon further?”
“Dad, you’re a freak.”
I’m not saying that Israel has a monopoly on abominable science instruction. The high point of my biology class in eighth grade was dissecting the pithed frog, but that was primarily because of the unlimited scope for vandalism furnished by gutted green corpses and their harvested entrails, which could be thrown into fellow student’s lockers, inserted into their lunch sandwiches, stuffed down their shirts and the like. The rest of the year-long biology course was so uniformly and ineffably boring that I actually held under my desk a copy of Moby Dick – the single worst book ever written by a human being or member of any other species, in which Melville spends over five hundred miserable pages detailing every aspect of whale anatomy you can imagine while utterly neglecting to include a plot – and read it from cover-to-cover by the end of the first semester. Compared to biology class, this dull-as-dishwater protocol of leviathan dissection posing as a novel was a roller-coaster, magical mystery tour.
So, science is taught badly in lots of places. But Israel is special in this regard, because, on the one hand, it really needs to be better – gotta build those advanced-level tanks, missiles and laser defense systems! – but on the other hand, it is in fact a lot worse – because with all the talk in recent years about shaking up the methodology and thinking outside the box, science education in the Jewish State is still largely by rote.
Almost all homework is done by copying and pasting sentences or paragraphs from Wikipedia, with the teacher’s express authorization. As we speak, Tamar and her friend Dana are right behind me doing a “project” on Michael Faraday. They have correctly identified him – that is, Wikipedia has correctly identified him – as one of the scientists who contributed most to our understanding of electromagnetism. To Tamar’s understanding of electromagnetism, on the other hand, this project will contribute absolutely nothing. So what? She will receive a high grade – or, rather, Wikipedia will receive a high grade.
Why do we do this to our children? Why do we allow so very many hours of the most beautiful, most immediate, most magical part of their lives to go to waste? Why do we maintain them in a state of utter ignorance while accustoming them to plagiarize information without having even an inkling of what it means? Why do we take kids, who have more energy than anybody on earth and want nothing more than to move around and do stuff all the time, and force them to endure the torture of sitting still at a desk in a state of cadaver-like passivity for hours-on-end and (supposedly) listening to, or (supposedly) reading, lethally tedious material that would anesthetize a rabid bronco?
Of course, I know why we do it: for the sacred purpose of getting them the hell out of the house so that we can go and relax at work. But still: it doesn’t have to be like this.
There are lots of ways to spruce up science class, making it both exciting and edifying for our offspring. Here, in my humble opinion, is the best way by far, which we shall call “The Robinson Crusoe Method.”
Starting, let’s say, in third grade, all students are stranded on a desert island (not literally: we want them the hell out of the house, but it’s nice to see them from time to time). They aren’t going to be rescued in the foreseeable future, so we tell them – a papier mâché sand, sea and palm-tree mise en scene might enhance the experience – and they have to start building the technological trappings of civilization from scratch, more or less according to the chronological order in which these inventions appeared in human history.
Faced with a novel problem each time – How do we catch fish? How do we grow food? How do we take showers? How do we make clothes? – and furnished with the raw materials necessary for creating the solution, they rack their brains in small groups and forge – with occasional prompting from the teacher (perhaps concealed in a black obelisk, à la the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey?) – everything from the wheel, the sundial, the lever and the mirror, through paper, the printing press, the shuttlecock and the compass, and down to the steam engine, the bicycle, the telegraph, the solar panel and the computer (everything but smart-phones, may God strike dead their inventor – oh, wait, He did).
Imagine the intellectual adventure, imagine the sense of accomplishment, imagine kids who actually know how things in the world around them work, imagine not being gyped by your mechanic because your daughter understands the car engine better than he does, imagine the hands-on, tangible journey through human history, imagine the unparalleled stimulation and creative ability engendered in students when – instead of just explaining to them how stuff is made (which at any rate is rarely done in science class) – we provide them with the opportunity to figure out the technological solution by themselves, and then build and operate the requisite devices with their own two hands!!
Expensive? Yeah, a bit. Worth it? Every penny. And you can be sure that among the children who participate in that kind of science class, more than one will grow up to be a high-tech entrepreneur and donate a whole wing to his alma mater.
So, hey: If you are reading this, and you know a well-off individual who wants to go down in history as the savior who rescued the youth of Israel, and eventually the rest of the planet, from the excruciating misery of “disgusting science class,” then boy, do we have a pilot program ready to get up and running in Israel. Give us a call – on the smart-phone. We’re not Luddites.
My wife’s cousin’s daughter has served for over a year now in the highly prestigious IDF intelligence unit known as 8200, where she has been billeted to the (mildly important) Arabic section. She certainly has the requisite qualifications: an Arabic major at a top Tel-Aviv high-school, she studied five units of the language for the bagrut exam (Israel’s version of an SAT Subject Test) and aced it with a grade of 120 (Israel’s version of an 800). Since being drafted she has spent all day every day and a good part of every night studying the language. At a family gathering about a month ago I approached her and asked: “Hey, Maya – kayf al-hal? (‘How are you?’).”
“Whoa!” she answered, holding her palm up in protest. “That’s far enough!”
I confess I’ve done this rather often to Arabic majors – it’s one of the ways I get my jollies – including many who have had two or more years on the college level. While there are those who get through the initial greetings tolerably well, rare as a Zionist Ayatollah is the respondent who can last more than thirty seconds or graduate to more sophisticated levels of palaver. My own eldest daughter took five straight years of Arabic in elementary and junior high school. All she knows how to say is ismi Yael wa-ana mabsuta – “My name is Yael and I am happy” – and at a certain point after the conclusion of her course of study she actually asked me if Arabic was written from right to left or in the other direction. She got the highest grade in her class.
Nor is this disheartening phenomenon the lot of students alone. I was first exposed to Arabic – or, rather, not exposed to Arabic – as a graduate student at Columbia University. A world-renowned Arabist, one Jeanette Wakin, was teaching an intro course to this all-important Middle Eastern language, and though I was doing a degree in European history at the time, I had an inkling by then that I would end up in the Jewish State surrounded by five hundred million Arabs, so I figured what the hell. I visited one of Professor Wakin’s classes in mid-semester, and I swear by Him in Whose Hand my Soul is Held, dear reader, that I heard not a single word of Arabic emerge from the mouths of either teacher or students during the course of an entire hour-and-a-half – only a stream of abstruse, barely intelligible explications, entirely in English, of arcane grammatical rules and regulations that would have perplexed the Prophet Muhammad himself. Near the end of the period I was so indescribably bored that I dozed off, and as my wife can tell you, that is no quiet affair. According to eyewitnesses, I snored so loudly that the instructor could not be heard over the din. She dismissed the students and, waking me gently, requested with all due politeness that I never return to her class upon pain of death by torture.
I did not give up, but headed straight for the university bookstore where I purchased a book of 201 Arabic Verbs. I made good headway, even began piecing together some of my own sentences, when I discovered that the compiler of the book, one Raymond Sheindlin, was also a professor at Columbia, and an even more internationally acclaimed Arabist than Wakin. So I knocked on his door during office hours, barged in, and let loose with A-salaamu alaykum wa-rahmat ullah wabarakatuhu! (“Peace be upon you and the mercy of Allah and his blessings!”), qad qara’tu kitabak wa kana mufidan jiddan be-nisbati li wa kuntu urid… (“I have studied your book and found it most beneficial, and I would like…”) – at which point the great, internationally acclaimed professor of Arabic put up his hand and bellowed: “Stop!!!” Then, with a look of scorn on his face and a tone dripping with the utmost derision, he exclaimed: “I don’t speak the language!”
Arabic is taught nearly everywhere as an exercise in the grammar of a dead tongue, like Latin, and in Israel, despite the presence of living, breathing Arabs pretty much everywhere you look, even more so. Nary a word of it is spoken in the classroom by instructor or pupils, the latter spending almost the entirety of the course ingesting grammatical, morphological, structural and syntactical principles, or in other words, learning about the language instead of learning it. This is the “deductive” approach, which relies on the hope that students will extrapolate from such abstract axioms to specific instances of reading or speech when the time comes – a demonstrably false hope. This method is colorless, odorless and deadly. Its boredom and inefficiency are only augmented by the pointless concentration, for months on end, on the correct deployment of so-called “case endings,” a skill required primarily for the decipherment of about one line in a thousand of classical pre-Islamic poetry, a literary genre that these students have as good a chance of encountering at any point in their lives as they do a space alien from Alfa Centauri dressed up as a Zionist Ayatollah.
One of several specious justifications for this sad situation involves the claim that Literary Arabic, otherwise known as Modern Standard Arabic, is not spoken in the Arab world, and therefore what is the point of trying to speak it in class? (The fact that courses devoted to spoken Arabic, of whatever regional dialect, are usually taught no less “deductively” through the attempted inculcation of reams of grammatical principles, and are for the most part themselves bereft of any real attempts at dialogue in the classroom, we shall leave aside as…just plain heinous). The resultant passive learning, unaided by the creative construction and pro-active deployment of original sentences on the part of the student, is doomed to dismal, abysmal failure.
The whole premise is off by a mile. Literary Arabic is not a dead language: it is alive and kicking, and employed and even spoken in countless frameworks and contexts, including all over the media. Even were this not the case, it would be necessary to speak literary Arabic in order properly to learn it, for the active use of an idiom exponentially increases the passive understanding thereof, inter alia by building a vast and useful vocabulary the natural, fun way. Ruba muballaghin aw’ah min al-sami’, taught the Prophet Muhammad: “The preacher always retains more than the listener.”
But all of this is secondary. Here is the bottom line: the only way to teach a language – any language – is…by not teaching it. I am dead serious. The reason why ninety-nine percent of the language courses in the world, whether in high-school, college or elsewhere, fail utterly and waste countless hours of young people’s time, is that instructors take initiative and students participate responsively and passively. If we want to end this miserable farce once and for all, we must be willing to admit the truth: TEACHERS DON’T TEACH LANGUAGES; STUDENTS LEARN LANGUAGES, or, rather, seize them.
In other words, only when students take control of the classroom, reducing the instructor to little more than a human dictionary; begin peppering said human dictionary over and over again with the all–important question: “How do you say…” regarding individual nouns, verbs, adjectives and prepositions; and finally, combine these words at their own initiative into sentences expressing immediate, unscripted, down-to-earth meanings that actually matter to the speaker (“I wish I were at an amusement park drinking a slurpy instead of sitting here in this godawful class…”) – then, and only then, will students begin to learn languages.
From day one, when they know not a single word of Arabic (as opposed to day four-hundred-and-seventeen, when they know not a single word of Arabic), they must jump into the river of speech and ask: “How do you say ‘I’?” “How do you say ‘want’?” (professors of Arabic usually get around to the word “want” – the sole reason for the development of language in the human animal in the first place – sometime near the end of year two). “How do you say ‘ice cream’?” And now for the finale…”I want ice-cream!” Glorious! (Have a few popsicles handy).
Hard to get students to do this? Yes, for two reasons. First, the teacher never shuts up. Solution: shut up, teacher. Engage in some imitatio dei a la sixteenth century rabbi and kabbalist Isaac Luria, and “contract” yourself (tzimtzum) in order to make room for your students to move, dance, flourish and – as they used to say in the sixties – ‘spress themselves. I myself, as a lecturer, blabbed on in class non-stop for almost thirty years, whatever the subject of the course: history, religion, language, literature, politics. Sometime last Spring God gave me laryngitis, and I discovered for the first time, to my profound astonishment, that there were a whole bunch of really smart people around me, including, amazingly, some of my students.
The second obstacle in the path of convincing students to take initiative and seize a language from their instructor via unprompted cobbling together of unscripted sentences is embarrassment, fear of making mistakes and appearing foolish. I have no sympathy for this. First of all, which one of their peers is going to know they made a mistake? Hmmm? Second of all, making embarrassing mistakes, and lots of ‘em, is the only way to learn a language. When I first arrived in Israel, I walked around Tel-Aviv asking people – instead of the correct slikha, ma ha–sha’ah (“Excuse me, what time is it?”) – slikha, ma ha-sho’ah? (“Excuse me, what is the Holocaust?”). People looked at me in shock and pulled their children away. One elderly fellow actually sat me down on a bench and began to regale me with the story of World War II.
The correct method by which to help students overcome their indolence compounded by shyness in this connection is simple: threaten them. “You either start talking right now, one after the other – you can tell me what you see through the window, what you did yesterday, what you want in life, how much you hate school, your plans to carry out mass murder, whatever – or you fail this class. For each sentence each one of you puts together at your own initiative (with my help as human dictionary), you get a point toward your final grade – starting at zero, which is where you are right now.” No nonsense, pure force. Mitokh sheh lo lishma ba lishma, say the rabbis: “An act originally performed for the wrong reason, will, after some repetition, end up being performed for the right reason.”
Once they get the hang of puzzling out the rudiments of a language and using it to communicate, there will be – at least for many of them – no going back. It becomes an addiction. If you want to be nice and provide a carrot instead of just a stick, all kinds of simulation situations can be set up (a store, a restaurant, being kidnapped by ISIS), but my experience is that doing so essentially entails you, the teacher, sticking your nose in again and trying to script matters. Rather, the students have to learn, like Joan Rivers and other loquacious Jews, to Enter Talking… (I myself deal with particularly stubborn cases by employing a mixture of carrot and stick: I steal their stuff. “Sure, Tod, you can have your I-phone 14 Pro back. Just ask for it in Arabic…”)
The main reason to learn a language is in order to communicate with the people who speak it: to learn from them firsthand about their culture, their lifestyle, their worldviews, their worries, their aspirations, their culinary preferences – the works. Many years ago, I was a young lecturer in Middle East and Islamic Studies at the Hebrew University, and one day, upon exiting the classroom and heading down the hallway, I heard the distinctive sound of sniggering directly behind me. I whirled around in time to see the building janitor and two of his assistants – all three of them Arabs – pointing in my direction and exchanging pleasantries. Walking right up, I asked good naturedly what was so funny. Not missing a beat, the janitor replied: “You are. We listened to your lecture. It was ridiculous. You have no idea what you are talking about.” Dumbfounded, I demanded an explanation, and he furnished one – one which I shall never forget. “You stand up there in front of a hundred young people,” he said, “and presume to teach them about my culture, my religion, my literature, my history, my customs, my way of life. Bashtaghal hown dawman bi-janbak – I work here right next to you all day long: is’alni, ya sayyidi, is’alni – ask me, my dear sir, ask me!”
So here’s an absolutely crazy idea: you want to learn Arabic? What would you say about…talking to some Arabs! In two institutions where I had some influence in the matter – the Shalem College in Jerusalem and Bar-Ilan University – I set up programs in which students met with their Arab counterparts twice or thrice a week, one-on-one for an hour each time, and were not allowed to utter a word in the holy tongue. (I inaugurated these programs, by the way, in the face of fierce and persistent opposition on the part of esteemed Arabist colleagues from the universities, opposition that died down only after I insisted that the meeting which they demanded for the sake of expressing their furious disapproval of the initiative be conducted entirely in…Arabic). The programs, if I must say so myself, have been a runaway success story on all levels, and many students at both institutions now actually speak – and read, and even to a certain extent write – Arabic on a high level. Sahten!
To sum up: if we want Israeli students to learn Arabic, and if we want any students to learn any language anywhere, there is only one method that works: blah, blah, blah. In language learning, talk is anything but cheap.
I’ve got nothing for you. I ceased understanding arithmetic when we got to long division, and was eventually forced to take my high-school trigonometry teacher’s (not particularly attractive) daughter to the prom so as not to fail his class. My dancing skills not being much better than my math skills, I still got a C minus. So good luck.
“Hey, Tamari, how was school today?”
“So boring I wanted to hang myself.”
“Great. What class did you have first?”
“Cool! What are you studying in history?”
“Got it. But what period of history?”
“Well, what events are you learning about?
“Tamar! What did the teacher talk about in class today!?”
“Aaaaaarrrrggghhhhh!!!! Now listen here: tell me what you learned in class today or I will hurl your cellphone across the street into the building site!!!”
“Whoa, whoa, easy Dad…” (she knows I’ll do it). “We learned what history is. I’ll even tell you – the teacher made us memorize it: ‘History is a series of consecutive events that took place in the past and influenced people and nations in the future.’ Pretty impressive, huh?”
“It’s over a month into the semester, and what you have learned in history class is that history is about things that happened in the past?”
“And influenced the future, too – don’t forget.”
“Right, of course. And that’s all?”
“No, no, I remember now! We also learned that there are different kinds of history: there is ‘daily history’ and ‘general history’ and ‘specific history,’ and…”
“Tamari – did you ever hear of Julius Caesar?”
“Or Mahatma Gandhi?”
“Alexander the Great?”
“So pretty much what you learned about history so far is…the definition of the term?”
“Well, no, Dad, we’re not done learning that.”
“You’re not done…”
At this point Tamar’s cellphone pinged, may it be struck by lightning, and the conversation was over.
There’s a lot to discuss regarding how teachers should teach history, in Israel or anywhere else, but let’s leave all that alone. Because first and foremost, as it turns out, we have to convince them…to teach it at all, instead of spending the entire fall semester exploring over and over again until it comes out of the children’s ears and nostrils the captivating question of what the discipline they are going to study actually is, and the various categories into which it can be broken down.
What is this newfangled obsession with endless introductory characterization and taxonomy, at the expense of getting the hell to the subject already? It’s not just in the discipline of history, either; it’s everywhere. Authors and lecturers waste tons of readers’ and listeners’ time at the outset of their presentations as they dwell on questions of terminology and nomenclature that a four-year-old knew the answer to before he was even conceived. In a volume I was perusing this morning a political scientist, seeking to set the stage for his matchlessly informative dissertation on rogue states, enlightened his readership with the help of a colleague’s thesis: “Richard Davis states that revolution is ‘the overthrow of an existing regime.’” Gee, thanks, Dick – what would we have done without you? Some philosopher dude at Oxford recently wrote a runaway New York Times bestseller (not), entitled What do we Mean when we Talk about Meaning – a book that literally has to be read before you can read it.
Years ago my wife and I were invited (dragged) to a seminar-workshop on “Effective Parenting Practices” at Yael’s kindergarten at 9:00 o’ clock in the evening. Now, don’t get me wrong: there is absolutely nothing more challenging in human existence than being a good parent (on my Waze app, by some quirk, my home address is marked “Work”).
But the speaker spent the first half-hour of her talk facilitating a discussion of the question: “What does the word ‘parent’ mean to you?” (A parent, I thought to myself, is someone who is exhausted beyond belief after chasing four rugrats across the length and breadth of the neighborhood all afternoon and would love nothing better at this juncture than to be at home in bed munching Doritos and watching “Desperate Housewives” instead of sitting here and listening to this unrelieved claptrap). Even Socrates, who drove everyone in Athens so crazy over the issue of definitions that they finally dispatched him to Hades with the help of some hemlock, was at bottom a proponent of employing the generally accepted signification of terms among the common run of human beings as the starting point of philosophical deliberation. We all know what we mean by most of what we say.
Sixth graders are really difficult to interest. Who decided to make it not just difficult, but downright impossible, by forcing them to spend the first six or seven history lessons of the school year discussing (ha! Learning by rote) a long list of tedious and useless definitions and classifications of terms they comprehend instinctively – like “History”!? Here’s a wild, wacky, way-out-of-this-world idea: WHY NOT START RIGHT IN FROM DAY ONE…WITH THE ACTUAL STORIES? After all, it’s the stories that rope kids in, if anything does, right? Really good stories, about really amazing events that took place in the past, feats of daring and deeds of cruelty and insurrections and revolutions and explorations and acts of kindness and romance and revenge and wars and sacrifices and discoveries and inventions and slavery and liberation and underhandedness and fortitude and humor and guile and horror and tragedy and happy endings. Truth that is stranger – and even more powerful and miserable and wonderful – than fiction could ever be.
Once upon a time the discipline of history, as the Greek word indicates, was all about the stories. From Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides and the Bible through Plutarch, the Venerable Bede, Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta (whose name means “Son of a Potato”) – those who perused or listened to the narratives of the great chroniclers were enriched by a vast, multifarious cornucopia of sometimes factual, sometimes fabulous heroes and villains: their journeys, adventures, bravery, cunning, suffering, triumphs – the works!
Students sat entranced as they were regaled with dramatic plots. Some were even stimulated to probe further into the personalities and periods about which they had heard. All, willy-nilly, accumulated a massive store of anecdotes reflecting humanity’s hills and dales since the dawn of time, anecdotes whence they could garner insight, take inspiration, draw solace, derive amusement, spruce up a college paper or concoct a creative pick-up line. Every Roman kid knew how Horatio Cocles had single-handedly defended the Sublician bridge against the oncoming Etruscans; every British kid could give a play-by-play of the Battle of Hastings and sing the saga of Anne Boleyn; every Russian kid could enumerate the colorful exploits of Peter the Great and Yevgeny Onegin; every Israeli kid had heard of the valor of Hannah Senesh and the desperate resistance of the one-armed Trumpeldor. As they grew up, they made use of this knowledge in all types of situations, and gradually, independently and inductively, engaged in their own particular analyses and arrived at their own particular conclusions concerning the structure and significance of history.
Two factors intervened to put an end to all this enjoyable edification. First, the pedagogy professionals in their professorial committees, ever striving to keep up with the educational Joneses and practicing round after round of revisionism for its own sake, decided that teachers just spinning yarns is not enlightened or sophisticated enough for our progressive day and age. They therefore replaced the inductive with the deductive method – HUGE mistake. As a result, elementary school students are now forced to endure, for the first ten or so lessons of the semester, an excruciatingly uninteresting articulation of the principles and methodology of historical study; a lengthy, repetitive review of the supposed subdivisions of this august discipline; and an anatomy of the various modes of analysis and conceptualization employed by professional researchers in the field – all before they are privileged to sink their teeth into the actual material, all before they get to hear a single good story.
And when, after wading through weeks of this yawn-inducing tripe – meaningless to most adults, let alone to elementary schoolers – they finally do get to sink their teeth in (and here comes the second abjectly regrettable development), the same education experts have made sure that pupils taste nothing that is not bland beyond belief. It’s not these experts’ fault, however: it’s not as if they have minds of their own. They simply follow the most recent academic fashion at the universities, like a foppish dandy in a Russian novel blurting out the latest French bon mot to impress his friends.
Speaking of the French, the most recent academic fashion in this connection – i.e., the study of history – was pioneered way back in the 1960s by, among others, one Professor Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (make sure to pronounce the “Roy” as “ghgh-waaa”). Monsieur le professuer sallied forth with great fureur against the traditional preoccupation with “trumpets and drums” history that focused on extraordinary, interesting people and events, and inaugurated instead a discipline-wide focus on ordinary, un-interesting people and events. His blockbuster, The Peasants of Languedoc – chock full of exciting and exhilarating statistics minutely dissecting the prices paid for the wheat and oat crops in that same French province for every year throughout the first half of the fifteenth century – was a work the perusal of which gave me a new appreciation for the positive aspects of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (a novel about book burning). Ladurie’s magnum opus is rightly considered a seminal classic of the new genre of combined “social-economic-administrative” history, or in other words: unbelievably boring history.
Because of this feted frog and his manifold epigones, and their sycophantic acolytes at the Israeli Ministry of Education, my daughter will not learn much about Trumpeldor and Hannah Senesh – or Masada, or Magentza, or Maimonides, or Machiavelli, or Mahatma Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, or Malcolm X – but she will learn a whole heck of a lot about “feudalism and the emergence of the urban middle class.” (Note to scholars of pedagogy, curriculum creators, education committees and all sentient beings who care about the future of the human species: next time you have the urge to indite the words “feudalism and the emergence of the urban middle class” in a textbook intended for sixth graders, please insert a fork deep into your thigh, and then twist it around and around until this urge goes away).
To sum up: the way to fix this mess is actually pretty straightforward, and does not require (unlike some of the proposals tabled above and below) any sort of philanthropic abetment. What it does require is simply this: tell students as many interesting stories about the past as possible, starting from day one. Then, if it seems appropriate (i.e., if they are not busy throwing chairs at the teacher and/or at each other), discuss the thoughts and feelings engendered in them by these stories, and perhaps even – if you can keep it interesting – analyze some of the factors that caused, and the consequences that ensued from, the events in question.
Then, after the students have had their bellies filled with all types of piquant myths and facts – with great names, engaging episodes, profound conflicts, horrific savagery and uplifting struggle – then, and only then, is there a (possible) justification for proceeding to a treatment of the (possible) underlying structures of history: not dictated deductively from above in the form of enshrined, insipidly formulated principles to be memorized before the fact by empty and preemptively turned-off students, but in the form of ideas and conceptions hatched inductively and after the fact by the students themselves, who have already been engaged, energized and blessed with a bursting satchel of gripping material upon which to base their own personal thoughts on the subject.
So teachers: throw away those textbooks, and start spinning some tales! As we say in the Haggadah: kol hamarbeh lesaper, harei zeh meshubakh.
I don’t need to tell you how important knowledge and love of the Book of books is to the future of the Jewish State and the Jewish People. If you live in Israel, I probably also don’t need to tell you that – according to untold surveys conducted by the country’s major newspapers over many years – Bible is the single most hated subject of them all among the country’s student population. How’s that for a catastrophe?
Here, too, college professors – that pestiferous breed of free-lunchers who specialize in nothing so much as taking exciting, romantic, tempestuous, juicy phenomena and turning them into shriveled, desiccated, decomposed corpses – deserve a large portion of the blame, insisting as they have for decades in their august curricular committees that eight-year-olds need to know what a “chiastic parallel” is (do you know what a chiastic parallel is?) before they get to read about Abraham and Sarah, and must be informed as early as possible that Noah is just a cheap copy of the Sumerian Utnapishtim, lest they develop any pride in their own Judaic heritage, God forbid.
But let’s not play the blame game. The situation is sufficiently dire that nothing less than a drastic solution is needed. Newly designed workbooks with colorful illustrations, analogies to other disciplines and/or current events, tik-tok videos, hikes in the footsteps of the biblical stories – these are all unquestionably praiseworthy, but even combined together, barely make a dent in the overall negative trend. There is, therefore, no choice. It is time for shock and awe. Enter…
The Big, Brobdingnagian, Bible Blow-Out: Pedagogy goes Berserk
Israeli children are increasingly uninterested in – and in many cases thoroughly turned off by – their Jewish heritage, which is conveyed to them (if at all) via uncreative and lethally boring methods.
Israeli children (like children everywhere) spend an inordinate amount of passive time in front of screens, large and small, enervating physically and absorbing content that further distances them from Jewish and Zionist culture and ruptures their connection to Eretz Yisrael.
(Part of) The Solution:
A series of giant, non-stop, action-packed, outdoor games based on the colorful and adventure-filled stories of Jewish Scripture – our national treasure trove and the founding document of the State of Israel – experiences that will permanently plant in the minds of hundreds of thousands of juvenile participants the all-important equation:
“Bible = Incredible Amounts of Fun!”
Our games – like the famous Mary Poppins scene in which the governess and her charges Michael and Jane magically enter a sidewalk drawing – will usher children into the Bible stories themselves, where they will have the time of their lives. The games will also serve to pull them out of the passive and isolating “virtual” world that has become the habitat of so many in this generation, back into the open air of nature, movement, activity and togetherness.
The Babble Battle
It is Friday morning, and anticipation is building at the Brenner Elementary School in Petah Tikvah. Six groups of first graders have been struggling all week to sound out words – they are just learning to read – while simultaneously studying the Tower of Babel story in Bible class (through the inevitable tired textbooks and worksheets). At nine o’clock sharp a truck pulls up, and our team of zany actor-gamers piles out. They assemble the playing field lickety-split: a mountain of four hundred oversize (hollow cardboard) building blocks in the middle, every block inscribed on all six sides with words representing various levels of reading difficulty; a semi-circular mini-scaffold in each corner, with steps at one end and a slippery slide at the other; 6 cannons; 3 catapults; 9 battering rams; 3 cranes; a gargantuan wrecking machine; and a large arsenal of globular “word-missiles.” A blue-sky canopy is suspended over the whole arena.
The kids come out to the yard, and their jaws drop. King Nimrod stands high up on a pedestal in the midst of the hill of boxes, and after a hilarious but thought-provoking monologue, and a short skit with the other figures, divides the participants into three groups under his task-masters, and…pandemonium gets underway. The competing teams rush at the mound of blocks, scoop them up and sound out the appropriate words (with the task-masters’ help if necessary), and run back to contribute to their group’s rising tower. Other kids do the same with large plastic word-balls, insert them into cannons or catapults, and open fire on the opposing teams’ towers – POW!
They lift blocks with cranes for hard-to-reach spots, wreak havoc with the wrecking ball on the edifices of their rivals, climb the scaffolds to build the upper floors, slide down smack into the pile of blocks, and start all over again. Every seven minutes the field is cleared and the mobile battering rams are dispatched, to run the gauntlet of floor-level cannon fire (and ram their counterparts from other teams) in an action-packed quest to topple competing towers from their foundations. At intervals Nimrod bellows out a long word, and the students rush to spell it out using the letters on the blocks, then immediately return to the wild and wacky work of building and bashing…
Duration of Game: An hour-and-a-half
Number of Participants: minimum = 30, maximum = 120
Note: With minor adjustments, this game can be used to enliven a variety of school subjects: foreign languages (it’s the Tower of Babel, after all), multiplication tables, even history.
Save the Animals!
Excitement mounts at the Lapid School in Hod HaSharon. The second graders have been learning about different animal species in science class, and about Noah’s Ark in Bible class. Friday morning arrives, and our magic truck rumbles up the road. A massive white cloud (it’s an enormous balloon) is dangled above the school yard, equipped with loud-speakers and sprinklers. The kids are divided into three groups led by actors playing Shem, Ham and Japheth (who first put on a highly humorous play with their father Noah). Each group receives one hundred large, three-dimensional polymer puzzle pieces with which they must race to build an ark faster than their competitors, while all the while being berated and encouraged from On High.
Afterwards we introduce…The Animals: a dozen nearly life-size, remote-controlled creatures that zoom around the field (on hidden wheels) chased by gaggles of screaming students bearing lassos and tasked with catching and rescuing them. Once caught they must be hauled off and ensconced in the proper compartments on the ark, based on hints that hark back to what has been learned in class about various animal habits and characteristics. Finally: the storm breaks (those sprinklers in the cloud are hooked up to the school hose…).
Duration of Game: An hour-and-a-half
Number of Participants: minimum = 30, maximum = 120
The Bigger Picture
Many indirect lessons will be absorbed by the youthful players of our combination drama-games: about cooperation, about respecting others, about freedom (Nimrod, for instance, is the quintessential, Gleichschaltung–enforcing totalitarian). And the most important lesson of all? That learning – and especially learning about our Jewish heritage – can be an absolute blast!!
We plan to repeat the above projects many times, creating awesome, unprecedented, outdoor theater-games for all the great Bible stories: the Garden of Eden, Abraham and Sarah, the Joseph saga, the Exodus from Egypt (complete with oversize attack frogs), David and Goliath, Samson and Delilah, Jonah and the Whale, Balaam and his Ass, the Walls of Jericho, Jephtah and the Jordan Fjords, the Purim story, and much, much more. We believe that most every school, camp, youth group, neighborhood association and tourist group in Israel will be eager to order such games, and after that… we export from the Holy Land to the entire Bible Belt and beyond (after all, some four-and-a-half billion people on the planet belong to religio-cultural civilizations that are based on the Bible: they will ALL go crazy for our games!).
All of this is to say nothing of the endless chain of potential spin-off products: talking donkey dolls, biblical board games, milk-and-honey shakes, Samson fitness centers, Genesis toddler environments, Pentateuchal playgrounds, Leviathan Bible restaurants, parachuting manna candy bars, beautiful Bible Malls, amazing Bible amusement parks – you get the idea). Nor will we stop with scripture: the Bible is, after all, just the beginning of our people’s long and amazing journey…
Imagine – just imagine! – what all this could do for tourism to Israel. Imagine, more importantly, what it would do for all the children, adolescents and teenagers (and adults!) in Israel for whom, at present, almost all leisure and entertainment activities involve non-Jewish content. Imagine, finally, what it would do to energize Jewish education in the Jewish State and in the Diaspora…
What’s that you say? “Why should I invest? It’s not high-tech. It’s not an app. You can’t download it to your phone…” To which we respond: exactly. These are not the flat, vicarious, “virtual” experiences that the current generation settles for; they are genuine, tangible, participatory affairs, which are not only ten times more fun, they are ten times healthier for kids! Parents and educational institutions the world over are currently seeking (and largely failing to find) one thing above all others: a way to pull their children and students out of cyber-space, away from the mesmerizing, paralyzing screens, and back into the real world. Our project will be a big part of the solution.
This is an investment in the Jewish future like no other. It gets right to the heart of what makes or breaks Jewish continuity: the emotional attitude of our children to our heritage, that heritage’s active role in their upbringing and daily lives, and its ability to compete with the inexorable onslaught of foreign cultural material that has already overrun almost all segments of Israeli society. A relatively modest investment will engender, we believe, rapid and prodigious returns (both spiritually and monetarily: this isn’t a charity venture, it’s a profitable business that will out earn Disney, be”h).
So, dear reader, if you know – or are – that Jewish philanthropist-investor of whom we spoke above in the “Science” section, and you have an irresistible urge to help bankroll this project (without forcing us to go through the unbearable hell of filling out and sending in a dozen twenty-six-page-long online forms to the managers of your foundation, to which incomparable misery we emphatically prefer the Jewish People’s mass assimilation), then – get on board! Even if you are just an enthusiastic oremer yid – get on board!
Israeli education can be improved. It must be taken it out of the hands of professorial committees, and if possible (and it is possible), out of the hands of the Ministry of Education, and put…in my hands.
Just kidding. It must be put in the hands of genuinely creative parents and other people (not necessarily professional educators, some of whom are wonderful and others of whom are directly responsible for the nasty rut we are currently in), people who actually remember what it was like to be a kid.
This is more do-able than it sounds. Because the Israeli education system (and no doubt every other education system) operates on two basic principles: jealousy and imitation. It is not written anywhere that “Thou shalt not covet thy fellow school principal’s new and wildly successful curricular component,” and if a pilot program at a given institution or group of institutions takes off and stimulates and edifies children while simultaneously entertaining them (and keeping them away from screens), believe me, it will be snapped up by the rest in a New York minute.
So, whoever is game – let’s get goin’!