Your Main Educator

your main educator - piaseczner

A lot of  people walk around thinking that they’re owed something because their education wasn’t as good as it could have been.

  • It was my school’s job to make sure I knew how to speak Hebrew
  • It was my parents’ job to push me harder
  • It was my parents’ job to push me less
  • It was my Jewish college or Hillel’s job to create a more [fill in the blank] environment

Every educator – whether it’s a parent, teacher, counselor, clergy member – has a responsibility to make their domain of education the best it can be; to foster each and every individual’s growth. And you know what, maybe you’re right. Maybe they messed up.

But now that you’re old enough to care about your growth, advancement, and quality of life (and let’s be frank, you were probably old enough 10 years ago), they can’t care anymore than you do. They can’t make any more of a difference in your life than you’re willing to make in your own.

Decide who has the greatest impact on your life – other people or yourself – and own it.

Because only once we’re willing to own our stories can we really learn from others.

My Great-Grandfather’s Grave

Hearing about the recent desecration of headstones at Jewish cemeteries across the US hit a really personal nerve for me. Exploring and collecting the life stories of my ancestors is important to me, maybe more so than the average Millennial.  Look, there were times when I asked myself why I care so much about people who I never knew. I didn’t always care. As a teenager, visiting my ancestor’s graves was a nice ideal – an auspicious thing to do before the High Holidays – but not worth time away from my burgeoning present and future. As I think back today though, on my great-grandfather’s yartzheit, I feel that it is my duty and responsibility to ask my fellow Jews, both in the Diaspora and in Israel, to learn more about who they come from and to go visit their gravesites.

 

Amram gravestone

My great-grandfather’s gravestone, the National Capitol Hebrew Cemetery, Washington DC

 

It was the beginning of the next chapter of my life. After of a year of working and saving, I was finally beginning college. My family wasn’t spared from the negative effects of the Recession, so instead of enrolling in university right after my gap year in Israel,  I took a detour in the name of fiscal responsibility.

Another detour that I wasn’t thrilled about was the one to the National Capitol Hebrew Cemetery at the border of where D.C. and Maryland meet. My Bubbie and I were in the middle of a five day road trip from her condo in Florida back up to her house in Upstate New York. The deal was this: I’d help her pack up and drive her pristinely kept 1995 Nissan Maxima back Upstate, and at the end of our journey, the car was mine for keeps. With my college career starting along the winding, expansive roads of Rockland County, New York, this was a definitely deal worth taking.  Beginning my 20’s with a bank account full of cash, next-to-no-tuition (thank you, Rockland Community College), and a pair of wheels? Yes, please.

I had begrudgingly agreed to visit her father’s grave on our way up Route 95. Begrudgingly because I had a life to start in New York: college most days and evenings, and a part-time job at a New Jersey Jewish day school twice a week. Taking a pit stop in our fine country’s capitol meant missing the first days of both. My 20-year old mind had no patience for the past when the future I so anxiously awaited was nearly in my reach.

Still, I understood that I owed my grandmother the respect of paying respects, especially since she was giving me her car afterward. She’d mentioned that it had been at least 25 years since see last visited her father’s grave. Twenty-five years…nearly half of the amount of time since his passing in 1963. During that trip, she was determined to document his memory for generations to come, bringing along her camera. Accidentally, she left the camera in the rental car. She was crushed.

Amram Armand Levy

My great-grandfather, Armand Amram Levy, passed away when Bubbie was 16. They’d been living a simple yet idyllic life in Silver Spring, Maryland, enjoying a Jewish-ish suburban life in a two-bedroom apartment. When he suddenly collapsed from a heart attack, life as they knew it changed. My great-grandmother, Libby, packed up my Bubbie and her younger sister, and resettled near her parents in an even smaller two-bedroom apartment, in Albany, New York. Life left her – and her young family – with a gaping hole. My Bubbie described to me how, after her father died, she felt like an orphan, floating through life on her own. Without the resources or support system to help her, visiting his grave wasn’t even an option: her mother worked full-time, they didn’t own a car, the price of bus fare was too vital for their everyday needs. She could only dream of confiding in him, being close to the place that still kept his memory in this world. For many years, it was just a dream; a longed-for moment to anticipate for another time, another day.

When we finally spotted his gravestone, the dream became reality.

Suddenly, the lively, funny lady I knew so well was a girl, crying, “Daddy, Daddy. I miss you.” She rested her head on my shoulder, her warm tears falling onto my hair. Suddenly, the hard-nosed, laser-focused college student was softened and affected. I too began to cry, and felt something I’d never felt before.

It’s hard to put those feelings into words, but the first one that comes to mind is ‘timelessness’. Though I had two feet in this world and in the year 2010, I was also highly aware of my connection to a line of life that started long before me and will please G-d exist long after. There we were, great-grandfather, grandmother, and grandchild, all existing in the same moment. Together. In that moment, I knew deeply in my core, and without a doubt, that I’m not alone in this life, and that my part in it matters…my life story is eternally bound to those who came before me. With this eternal binding and embrace also comes great onus and responsibility: to continue the story and legacy vested within every generation, in my generation.

I got to school and work a day late. It didn’t change my life. Visiting my great-grandfather’s grave did. It’s a moment that will stay with me forever, and still serves as a guide and grace when I feel life is too big for me to deal with alone. If you know where your ancestors are buried, go visit them. Make a statement to those who want to erase our loved ones’ memories on this earth, and make it known, that though they might bring down their gravestones, they won’t bring down our loved ones’ legacies. Show the generations past, present, and future that you -and they- are a part of an eternal embrace, an epic story that is still unfolding. Have your own timeless moment for yourself, for your family, and for our future.

Just this week, my uncle, Bubbie, and cousins mounted plaques in memory of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother in our shul there, Congregation Beth Abraham Jacob. May their memories be a blessing and inspiration for years to come.

 

 

 

First, Bet on Yourself

pablo.png

We’re all still students, or at least, we should be. Even though some of us may have our academic days behind us, the School of Life never stops teaching.

That’s why I flip through Chovat HaTalmidim at least once a year.

You see, the Piaseczner was no softy. He wasn’t soft on teachers and he wasn’t soft on students. When it came to owning education, the onus was never on the other party. Sure, your parents and teachers could have been more encouraging. Sure, your children and students could have taken more initiative. In his book, what other people believe about you doesn’t matter. What matters is what you believe about yourself.

Allow me to serve as a test case.

I’m up to Week 4 of my job hunt. Overall, it’s been encouraging, thank G-d. Still – and I think this is true for most job seekers – doubts creep in. Is my limited Hebrew stifling my potential? How long will this take? How much more of my savings will I have to use?

Then, at the beginning of this week while I was taking my usual morning stroll around the yeshuv, my proverbial heels dug in: I want to make my life here? I want to give it my absolute best shot? No one’s going to bet on me more than I’m willing to bet on myself. It’s time to start living that way.

Not just feeling that way, not just thinking that way, but really living it with every ounce of strength and intention.

As the Piaseczner alludes, as long as we think someone else is deeming us reliable, dependable, or worthy, we’re not achieving what we’re capable of.

You want to be a writer? Write. Don’t wait to be noticed.

You want to speak Hebrew? Start speaking. And watch more Shtisel.

You want steady, stable, loving relationships? Be steady. Be stable. Be loving.

Others will bet on you once they see you’re already betting on yourself.

The Question: Do You Have a Father?

This story is an a favorite of mine. It goes along really well with the whole genealogy slash appreciation-for-your-roots theme.

And, it’s a great example of a successful, hit-you-in-the-heart Hassidic/Litvish philosophical fusion. Yes, they do exist.

And its inspiration derives from this week’s parsha. I first heard it from my rebbe, Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet, a student of Rabbi Joeph Dov Soloveitchik z”l.

On a cold, dark, Russian day, not long after Chanukah, the young Joseph Dov found himself at cheder (a Jewish school) with a bevvy of sleepy, unengaged peers. The teacher, hearing how monotonously his students were reading the words of that weekly Torah reading, brought them to a halt with a seemingly simple question. What resulted was a life-changing moment for Joseph Dov:

What kind of question did Joseph ask his brothers, Ha-yesh lachem av? Do you have a father? Of course they had a father, everybody has a father! The only person who had no father was the first man of creation, Adam…Joseph asked the brothers,  [are you] rooted in your father? Do you look upon him the way the branches, or the blossoms, look upon the roots of the tree? Do you look upon your father as the feeder, as the foundation of your existence?…Are you modest and humble? Do you admit that the old father represents an old tradition?

Do you believe that the father is capable of telling you something new, something exciting? Something challenging? Something you did not know before? Or are you insolent, arrogant, and vain, and deny your dependence upon your father, upon your source?

All in all, as Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet said when he told over the story:

do you have a father

Lots of good questions, and sometimes, it’s good to sit with those questions rather than answer them. But please feel free to share your thoughts and answers below.

 

 

 

 

 

Reflecting on Today’s News

In my Holocaust education class today (I am in graduate school for Jewish Education), our professor gave out a survey called HEEQ. It’s used to gauge the resilience and engagement a student can handle when learning about the Holocaust. After completing the survey, those of us who wanted to could share their answer to the questions. One of them was:

“During this unit, have you thought about the Holocaust in connection with reading/watching the news [regarding] current events?”

Of course, there was no way of knowing that today would be the day that a deal would be reached between the Free World and Iran. The truth is, today isn’t the first day I’ve thought about Iran in this way. For a while, negotiations have smelt more like Neville Chamberlain than Winston Churchill, and the sad thing is, I got used to it. I’m not one to look at current events and say, “see, there’s another holocaust in the making,” but I am one to look for similarities in history, and from this side of the 21st Century, appeasement doesn’t seem to work in the long run.

Really, more than saying something, I’m asking something: What can I do when I feel as though history is repeating itself? The props, techniques, and characters are different, but the plot is nothing new.

I don’t have an answer other than live each day for the gift it is. Stand up for your (my) values. Choose a life of responsiveness and responsibility. In a small effort to cope with the weighty question above, I’d like to start posting quotes from a book that changed the way I think and speak about pretty much everything, Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Every day, his ideas find me, in the the newspaper, books, podcasts, conversations, and especially prayer. Here’s a good one to start with:

One's Own Way