My entry into teaching at a modern orthodox yeshiva in Brooklyn was far from graceful. For starters, my interview could’ve ended in disaster, as I went into school wearing my favorite blue slacks.
“Yes,” I thought to myself. “These pants are sure to impress.”
Yet beyond the initial interview, it was never communicated to me that skirts were required. Forging ahead, I again wore pants (this time my next best gray slacks) to teach my model lesson. I thought the students were enthralled by my rousing lesson on dialogue, but in retrospect, they were staring because I wasn’t wearing a modest knee length skirt. Some primordial instinct warned me not to remove my cardigan even though I was burning up. After my lesson, walking down the hall, the assistant principal gently informed me of my faux pas.
Little did I know, this error was to be the first of many. It’s not unusual for me to ask a naive question.
“HOW is your hair SO shiny?” I finally asked one of my coworkers after weeks of admiring the sheen of her hair. Since revealing she was wearing a wig, I routinely pester my coworker with incessant questions about how to manage pinning up all your hair every day while trying to get out the door. (I STILL don’t get it.)
Once I told suggested to a student she could finish her homework on Friday night. “But it’s SHABBAT!” she exclaimed, horrified. A few weeks ago some of the boys and I were discussing why there isn’t a large representation of professional Jewish athletes. “Because they have to play games on shabbat,” a student said, looking at me like I was living under a rock.
On the way to recess I said, “Oh, so Purim is like Halloween?”
“DID YOU CELEBRATE HALLOWEEN?” the girls I was talking to asked, scandalized. I tried to distract them by talking about how pillowcases made a good container for stashing more candy.
I get the majority of my survival information from my sixth graders. I like to think of each student as a religious informant. They teach me right from wrong. They are full of knowledge. The truth is, many days I feel like I’m living in a foreign country. I relish the cultural newness, but I need guides.
I hear Hebrew in the teacher’s lounge. My students mutter Arabic words to each other as a sort of insider’s only language, like the pig latin of my early school days. I was warned that some of the male teachers might not shake my hand. As I result I awkwardly skirt around any male faculty member, as if I might suddenly forget and shoot out a hand.
The campus is kosher. I’m learning to not only identify, but to look forward to traditional Syrian dishes: rice and lentils, fried onions, baked cauliflower. Until recently I thought the dish spanach, or spachejibbon was pronounced “spanna.” I’ve been told which dishes not to eat (the meat sauce makes everyone sick) and I eat more tuna fish then is likely healthy.
When I walk into school each morning, my female students hold their prayer books and sing, some of them holding their fingers over their eyes in an attempt to keep them properly shut.
Hashem comes up a lot in class, mostly, I’ve noticed, young minds trying to understand how something so powerful can be unseen.
“You can’t see Hashem, you only hear him,” I hear one student chiding another.
My students are generous with my questions as I often find myself asking, “What does that mean?”
I’ve learned how to pronounce mincha without the word sounding flat and the kids dissolving into giggles.
“Are you Jewish?” they ask.
“A little,” I respond. Since my students are Sephardic, my Ashkenazi last name is mispronounced in wildly inventive ways from Livingston to Liebenstein to Leebsen.
In the afternoons, the Rabbi comes over the loudspeaker to pray for those who are sick. Although the students are meant to stand and sing, they often continue during their work and I find myself shushing them so I can hear the daily prayer.
Recently we were going over the word “odd” in class. One students used the example of parah adumah. I was lost, desperately whispering to a student in the back row while my co-teacher continued on with the lesson.
“It’s like when all the dead people come back to life,” he explained to me, a 12 year old’s version of the return of the messianic era.
Half listening, half trying not to cause a scene I whispered back, “WHAT?”
“We’re waiting for a red cow, but it can only have one black hair. And it can’t have ever worked,” he added, as if this will clear up any remaining confusion on my behalf.
Parah adumah remains unclear to me.
But my days at the yeshivah pass in a happy blur of teaching and learning. I practiced saying mishloach manot for the entire week of Purim so I could accept my challah without pause. My hair is blonde, so I stick out like a sore thumb among mostly dark and red headed students. I don’t have a Brooklyn accent. I haven’t been to Israel.
But my students are patient, and the community is welcoming, decoding Hebrew jokes about Marvin S. Simcha in the elevator for me.
And mostly, I feel at home, murmuring the afternoon prayers beneath my breath.
Kelsey Liebenson-Morse is a writer and teacher living in New York.