Babylon: Myth and Reality (Nov 13, 2008-Mar 15, 2009) is an exhibition that changed my life – even though I had never seen it.
It was my father who visited this British Museum exhibition and brought home the catalogue (“the Babylon book”). Shortly after this, in 2010, I volunteered to teach the Book of Daniel to a class of thirty-seven 8th graders in Jerusalem, and where I was teaching as an undergraduate student-teacher. Using the resources I learned about through this book, I inspired these adolescents who were previously intimidated by the mostly-Aramaic book. This experience had made the book approachable to them, and the importance of archaeology for me – tangible.
At the end of the year, we celebrated with Nebuchadnezzar’s Ishtar Gates of Babylon – on a cake designed by yours truly.
End-of-year celebration, after learning the Book of Daniel. Jerusalem, 2010
The next part of this story was completely unexpected. Since those student-teacher days, I’ve been teaching professionally in the US for six years, and often guiding tours near the two real Ishtar Gate lions on display at the Met. Academically I’ve gone back to school, completing an M.Ed in Jewish Education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and currently studying for an MA in Ancient Jewish History at Bernard Revel Graduate School (Yeshiva University). It is in this context that I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Dr. Michael Seymour, co-author of the Babylon book.
Dr. Seymour moderated a symposium for The World Between Empires Met exhibition (Mar 18-Jun 23, 2019). This spectacular exhibition shows the complexities of life, religion, commerce and identity in the region between Roman and Parthian Empires; the two superpowers of the late Second Temple period to the 3rd century CE.
This was only possible thanks to my professor at Revel, Steven Fine, inviting students to the symposium.
During that symposium, I was reminded of how my journey began 9 years ago. But it was only later, as I was guiding a private tour in the World Between Empires, that I recognized Dr. Seymour as he spoke to a group, and introduced myself. We kept in touch, met again when I was guiding students, and finally sat down for an early Friday morning coffee at the museum.
We sat and told lots of stories about shared interests. It was a fascinating conversation, and hopefully just the first of many.
Dr. Seymour is an assistant curator in the Met since 2011, when he began work on the exhibition Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age (Sep 22, 2014-Jan 4, 2015). This was the very first exhibition I saw, on my very first Met visit.
I had brought along my copies of the Babylon and World Between Empires books, which are now autographed in a place of honor on my bookshelf.
We never know who we will touch and how we will make an impact. Whether it’s something we say, an act of kindness that we do, or a book that we write.
The impact that Dr. Seymour had on my life in turn had an impact on my students’ learning, on my career path, and down the line – on countless other lives which were inspired and invigorated because of some old rocks someone dug out of the dirt in Ancient Babylon!
Be the change that you wish to see in the worldMahatma Gandhi
Starting from the Bottom Up
It is 2019, and the grassroots, bottom-up approach has been proving itself to be the way change happens. This is happening in so many fields, including education – and there is no reason why it should not apply to Jewish Education.
How do we adapt?
The internet, technology and social media have changed the way we interact. They are vying for our attention, and that of our children. It has a losing battle, once you allow that small device into the home – and I am not here to say that you should or should not do that. What I am saying is that, the impact on the Jewish Educational system is inescapable.
Where do we make the change?
How do we make a difference?
How can we get our school on board?
I am a firm believer in the vitality and relevance of Torah to our life. I believe that the goal of a Jewish Education system cannot be just to convey information or preparing for a BJE test. There has to be a deep commitment to, and belief in, the reality of Torah. Only with that in mind, can we proceed with confidence into the unknown future of Jewish education, learning, leadership and change.
As a jewish-educational-entrepreneur (for lack of a better title), I work tirelessly to convey this message to laypeople, parents, schools, administrations, synagogues and publications. Having spoken to many schools and rabbis and community leaders in the past three years, I realized that the change cannot come from the top down.
Schools, institutions – they are all systems that have to run a certain way. They have a tremendous amount of responsibility to their parent bodies, congregants, and general clientele. This is both a vital part of the system, and what can make it very hard to move, when necessary.
That is where I come in. I believe that with social media, today, we can engage people in new ways. Not only students. I am not talking about creating multimillion dollar online curriculum – that has its place. I am talking about inspiring educators and just simply – Jews – to respond to the call of Torah. To realize that it is real, that it can be vitalized in the classroom or the synagogue without expensive materials, without learning new curriculum but rather, with a change in approach.
This week I took action.
I spoke to several colleagues who are on board with me, and said “guys, let’s do an Instagram Live session on this De’Ara Tanach Map”. We have been trying for two years to figure out the logistics of doing this with our own school, while I am traveling the country doing this with other schools. Instead of talking about it – let’s be the change we want to see.
To find out more about the map, and see a video about it: http://foundationstone.org/Store/store.html
The results we incredible. The three teachers were super-energized and excited about the possibilities of integrating this simple and powerful tool. Social media is playing its part, and we are reaching people in new ways, bringing the change from the bottom up. Here is a short video from the excitement:
Rosh Hashana is about self-calibration: Being in touch with ourselves, with the world, and sharing in its creation. If we are in tune with ourselves, we can listen to the world, and through it – to God, as “he” whispers to us.
I don’t have a cliche apple and honey picture, but this picture tells a story.
My short experience of 34 years has taught me that when we stop fighting ourselves, stop fearing our uniqueness, and let the force of life flow through us – amazing things start to happen.
This picture is a confluence of amazing things happening to me, through being open, vulnerable, truthful and embracing my creativity: A second year in a job I love, connecting between my passion for teaching, for entrepreneurial jewish education and technology.
Mercava (represented here by Moshe Azizollahoff) the one hand, which is connected to my entrepreneurial side, meeting new enthusiastic colleagues at Magen David Yeshivah, where I continue as a formal educator – on the other side.
May this be a year where we breakthrough our barriers, embrace our uniqueness, and share ourselves with the world and bring it more happiness. Shana Tova! שנה טובה ומתוקה
It was last Shabbat in the Golan Heights when I had a profound and timely experience: Being in the land that was bequeathed to Reuven, Gad and Manasseh, while we read the Torah portion that discusses it (Num. 32:33), right before Tisha b’Av, the day in which we deal with the destruction of that area.
I was asked to address the youth in an agricultural community on Shabbat afternoon, and was honestly a bit hesitant. It is one thing to share my story with American educators and students: I grew up in Jerusalem’s Old City, and that comes with a unique perspective that is very valuable in the diaspora. But it is quite another to speak to kids who grew up in the land, and perhaps even take it for granted?
That is when I thought about Superman and Tisha b’Av, a concept which I have used in summer camp, and which has worked with kids and teenagers on several occasions, with surprising effects. So what is this idea?
Tisha b’Av brings out the worst in religion: Suffering, mourning, synagogue and fasting, and the best part is, it is in the midst of the summer vacation. No swimming for over a week!
It is a challenge to engage youth who are already jaded or perhaps overstimulated from attempts to make Judaism alive, relevant and meaningful to them. And yet, I find Tisha b’Av to be a special opportunity to do exactly that – if I prompt the question of relevance from the start.
The talk with the youth revolved around two main ideas.
- Tisha b’Av has the status of Mo’ed – generally understood as a ‘holiday’, but clearly not a happy one. Mo’ed actually means “an appointment in time” (e.g. Gen. 18:14), and just as Passover is a time for Freedom, and Sukkot is a time for Joy, Tisha b’Av is an annual meeting in time. But a time for what? For loss, mourning and destruction (Lam. 1:15)
- Tisha b’Av didn’t happen because we cried. We cried because it was Tisha b’Av. Just as we say that we left Egypt on Nissan because it is a time of redemption, so too all of the ‘bad stuff’ is associated with Tisha b’Av, because it is a designated time for destruction. Why? Why do we need such a time?
Superman and Smallville
Background: The origin story of Superman relates that he was born Kal-El on the planet Krypton, before being rocketed to Earth as an infant by his scientist father Jor-El and his mother Lara, moments before Krypton’s destruction…. Discovered and adopted by a farm couple from Kansas, the child is raised as Clark Kent and imbued with a strong moral compass. Early in his childhood, he displays various superhuman abilities, which, upon reaching maturity, he resolves to use for the benefit of humanity through a “Superman” identity (from Wikipedia: Superman).
The main idea: Upon discovering his true identity, Kal-El / Clark Kent’s ambitions and life goals change. He is imbued with deep purpose, and knows that life as he knew it was no longer the same.
The idea of Tisha b’Av is an awakening, a profound realization that all of the symbols that we hold dear, from the Promised Land to the Two Temples in Jerusalem – could be lost. As long as we have not fulfilled our full potential, there is no compromise. We cannot settle for mediocrity.
It is painful. It is cruel. It is uncompromising. And precisely because of that, it is the most meaningful holiday, and the most hopeful. Jewish tradition says that the Messiah is born on Tisha b’Av. It tells us that we have a superpower, that we are meant for greatness, and that we should never compromise.
May this be the last Tisha b’Av in mourning. May we merit to bask in the Light of Truth, and rejoice in the true beauty of a united and rebuilt Jerusalem.
Some of the youths’ responses (translation, and Hebrew below):
My takeaway is that I will never give up until I find myself in a place where I am making a difference, and fully utilizing my capabilities
…that I am really part of something big, whether it is the Jewish People or Humanity as a whole
Truth be told, it was one of the more interesting discussions, it…gave me a different perspective on Tisha b’Av and also on our lives as a whole in Eretz Yisrael, and that we need to appreciate our lives here…
You can take kid out of the Rova, but you can’t take the Rova out of the kid.
Growing up in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter in the Old City (“Rova” – רובע means quarter in Hebrew), I did not see closed fences or ‘do not enter’ signs as an obstacles. From age 8, I would hop from roof to roof and climb walls and pipes to explore the web of connected rooftops and buildings. I thought I was Spiderman (my parents thought something different entirely).
Revisiting my old stomping grounds, during one of the busiest times of the year (the annual Jerusalem Lights Festival has thankfully brought lots of traffic into the Old City), it is hard to get a clear and quiet view of the Kotel – the Western Wall – the remains of what was once a glorious Temple. But the Rova boy in me saw the ruins of an ancient building, and I instinctively knew what to do. Climbing to the top of the structure, I was able to sit alone and contemplate, and I would like to share with you my thoughts from the ruins of Jerusalem.
The Shattering of Icons
Sitting atop what was undoubtedly a shelter and secure place at one time, overlooking a place that combines shattered hopes and despair and a source of prayers and millennia-old commitment, I was struck by the lack of imagination that besets us – as humanity, and as the People of Israel.
The fast of the 17th of Tammuz is the 2nd in a series of Four Fast Days (depending on how you count them), relating specifically to the destruction of the Temples. Several things happened on that day, and they all have a common denominator: Shattering of icons –
- The Tablets were Shattered by Moshe, in response to the dancing around the Golden Calf (Exodus 32)
- The Walls of Jerusalem were breached by Nebuchadnezzar (ca. 586 BCE)
Several other severe deeds were done, but these two captures the spirit of the day: We had something which we thought was eternal, untouchable, incorruptible, and it was shattered.
Time and again, our sacred icons have been shattered: The Holocaust shattered century old establishments; 1492 ended the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry; Two Temples were destroyed, the Mishkan in Shiloh was destroyed (Jeremiah 7:12-14), entry into the Promised Land was snatched out of our hands, and the list goes on.
What about our lives? How many times have we been so sure of something, just to have our faith in it shattered? Job security, health, relationships, cherished family and friends.. and what about humanity? How many scientific truths have been shattered, how many social ideologies have delivered false messiahs?
And so, sitting on the top of a ruin, I wonder: Can we truly stand and say “never again?”about anything?
Lack of imagination is perhaps our worst sin. We cannot imagine losing a whole lot of things, and this may skew our judgement. Like Rabbi Zekharia ben Avkulas, who jeopardised the survival of Jerusalem because he could not factor the possibility of losing Jerusalem and the Temple into his calculations (B. Gittin 55a), we proudly look at our current State of Israel and say “never again!”
I am not suggesting that, G-d forbid, another holocaust is possible, or that our State will be destroyed. I surely hope not. What I am saying is that we need to be wary of the possibility of tremendous consequence, if we cannot fathom our icons being shattered. To just stand by and do nothing at the rise of radicalism and hate, divisiveness and disasters around the world, and so on.
On the flip side, it is perhaps just as terrible a sin to lack the imagination of what is possible.
How many times have we despaired and given up? How many times have we had the temerity to say that things will never get better? Both in our personal lives, and in the world as a whole?
Be it the generation of the desert who insisted “For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death” (Exodus 16:3), or the skeptical dignitary (Shalish) who said “Even if G-d were to make windows in the sky, could this [surplus and abundance after a hunger and draught] come to pass?” (II Kings 7) – we fail to imagine just how good things could get. And we give up, or give in.
Our daily life is surely beyond the wildest imagination of any of the prophets, and we have the chutzpah to give up? To think it is hopeless, because of a passing political / social / economic or even personal issue?
Looking at the Temple Mount, all of this came together for me with one story. The famous story of Rabbi Akiva (B. Makkot 24b), who looked at the same place – witnessing the utter destruction of the Second Temple, and started laughing. Laughing, as his comrades were weeping.
On another occasion they were ascending to Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. When they arrived at Mount Scopus and saw the site of the Temple, they rent their garments…When they arrived at the Temple Mount, they saw a fox that emerged from the site of the Holy of Holies. They began weeping, and Rabbi Akiva was laughing. They said to him: For what reason are you laughing?
Rabbi Akiva said to them: For what reason are you weeping?
They said to him: This is the place concerning which it is written: “And the non-priest who approaches shall die” (Numbers 1:51), and now foxes walk in it; and shall we not weep?
Rabbi Akiva said to them: That is why I am laughing, as it is written, when God revealed the future to the prophet Isaiah: “And I will take to Me faithful witnesses to attest: Uriah the priest, and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah”(Isaiah 8:2). Now what is the connection between Uriah and Zechariah? He clarifies the difficulty: Uriah prophesied during the First Temple period, and Zechariah prophesied during the Second Temple period, as he was among those who returned to Zion from Babylonia.
Rather, the verse established that fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah is dependent on fulfillment of the prophecy of Uriah.
In the prophecy of Uriah it is written: “Therefore, for your sake Zion shall be plowed as a field, and Jerusalem shall become rubble, and the Temple Mount as the high places of a forest” (Micah 3:12)…In the prophecy of Zechariah it is written: “There shall yet be elderly men and elderly women sitting in the streets of Jerusalem” (Zechariah 8:4).
Until the prophecy of Uriah with regard to the destruction of the city was fulfilled I was afraid that the prophecy of Zechariah would not be fulfilled, as the two prophecies are linked. Now that the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, it is evident that the prophecy of Zechariah remains valid. The Gemara adds: The Sages said to him, employing this formulation: Akiva, you have comforted us; Akiva, you have comforted us.
I guess that above all, the thought that comforted me on this day is that just as our tragedies were a shock and an awakening, so-too are our blessings. The best times are yet to come!
I love Capoeira – a Brazilian Martial art that combines self-defense with music, acrobatics and dance.
I started training in martial arts at 13, at age 17 I joined Capoeira, and by September 2006 I was teaching it. I taught for seven years, have hosted radio shows, national championships organized international trips and have taught thousands of students.
And I hated my job.
I loved my students, I loved doing capoeira, but I hated working in capoeira. Why?
Skipping over my ups and downs of my 8 years (and counting) in formal education – which I still do and still love but thankfully am not invested in full-time. Perhaps in another post for time.
Today I have the job of my dreams. I never knew I would be entertaining hundreds of people in the museum, connecting jewish history and archaeology, pop culture and talmud. And yet, everything I did until now has prepared me for it.
I would like to share with you the treasure that helped me start turning things around: From being a creative, enthusiastic, engaging – and frustrated school teacher, to someone who is passionate about what he does.
I follow a podcast called Art of Manliness by Brett McKay. I listened to an episode called The Myth of Following Your Passion, which is an interview with Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You. The title, by the way, is a piece of advice by Steve Martin.
What happened after that?
I was still teaching full-time, but I was in a different head space. I became a Jedi. I was going to knock the ball out of the park. I wasn’t just doing my job (with care, love and commitment, as a teacher should), but I was stretching myself, building my skill and becoming more versatile. I became noticed in the whole school, not just locking myself up in the teachers’ lounge with piles of work to get through, the daily grind, trying to get through the material and prepare the students for this and that.
While hitherto I was working in the middle school, I volunteered to give special workshops to 1-6th graders. I engaged with other department, and became an asset to the school.
I told myself every day: ‘Be so good, that they can’t ignore you’.
And so it happened that I lost my job, and found my dream.
Below: Living my dream job!