about Ani ve-ami

Original Texts vs. Midrashic Retelling: When to Use What

When approaching Torah studies, we recommended two categories of books: original sources and midrashic retellings. In this post, we will discuss when and how to use each of these categories.

According to Jewish tradition, the Torah that G-d gave to the Jewish people on Mt. Sinai consisted of two parts: written and oral. The Written Torah, known as the Chumash, or the Five Books of Moses, is impossible to understand without the much more extensive Oral Torah, which elaborates on the details not mentioned in writing. For example, while the Written Torah tells us to refrain from work Shabbos, it does not explain what is considered work. For practical guidance, we consult the oral tradition.

For generations, the Oral Torah was passed down from parents to children, from teachers to students. They took great care to pass the tradition accurately. Just like in homeschooling, the relationship between the teacher and the student, as well as between the student and the text, played an important role in the transmission.

Eventually came the time when, exiled and persecuted, the Jewish people were busy with basic survival and no longer able to assure accurate transmission of the oral tradition. The Sages decided to write down parts of the Oral Torah. We will elaborate on this, G-d willing, when we get to the next time period, the period of the Talmud.

Meanwhile, as we learn the Five Books of Moses, or the books of the Prophets, or Writings, it is important to keep in mind that they are meant to be understood within the context of the whole of Jewish tradition. Originally, the student would learn the text, and the teacher would fill in the gaps by providing the context of the oral tradition. Later in history, commentators, such as Rashi, committed this context into writing. Today, Torah teachers usually teach their students both the text and the traditional commentary.

The midrashic retellings we recommend in Ani Ve-Ami are based on the Oral Torah. Midrash (pl. midrashim) literally means an interpretation. Midrashim interpret the text, making it more accessible and palatable to its students.

Which brings us to our topic. What should homeschooling parents do?

The answer, as often the case in Judaism, is, it depends. If the parent is thoroughly familiar with Jewish tradition and feels confident teaching the texts directly and providing the context orally, that’s wonderful. Unfortunately, in today’s day and age, most of us are not so well educated. We tend to rely on books rather than our own memories and our own grasp of oral tradition. That is why the midrashic retellings are so valuable. They teach our children, and ourselves, the stories from the Torah in a much more enjoyable and memorable way. Instead of cut and dry text, we are given vivid details that touch our hearts and minds and stay with us for the rest of our lives.

So should we just give up on the original texts and only study midrashic interpretations? Absolutely not! It is important to distinguish between the text itself and the midrash, for several reasons.

First, there are various collections of midrashim, compiled by early Jewish sages. Some of these midrashim contradict each other. Clearly, they can’t all be true. Not all midrashim were meant to be understood literally. Many are parables, meant to teach us values, not facts. How do we know which midrashim are metaphorical? Well, the truth is, we don’t. But we do know that each and every midrash contains a valuable teaching. The midrashim need to be studied, over and over again, not as historical, but as ethical, truth.

Therefore, when a midrashic retelling adds details to a Torah story, we need to prepare our children, and ourselves, for the possibility that we might encounter another midrash that contradicts those details. Neither of the midrashim is “wrong.” They are both valuable. But as we learn more Torah, it is important to keep in mind what is in the text itself and forms the basis of Jewish tradition vs. what came from a midrash and constitutes a secondary teaching.

Second, there are different types of midrashim. By studying and analyzing them, we form a bigger picture of the Jewish tradition. More of that in the next time period, G-d willing.

And third, as a midrash says, there are seventy facets of the Torah. Each verse in the Torah is multifaceted and contains layers of meaning. Those who don’t distinguish between the text of the Torah and the midrashim are limiting themselves to the one and only understanding of the stories – the one in the particular midrashim they happen to study. But they might be missing as many as sixty nine other facets of the same text! There might be other midrashim, no less traditional, that they are simply not aware of, because they are too stuck on the ones that are familiar to them.

So where does this leave us practically? For young children, who do not yet have the capacity for abstract thought and the understanding that the same passage may have more than one meaning, the midrashic retellings are sufficient. As children grow and begin to think more abstractly, I continue reading midrashic retellings to them, but I point out which parts are written directly in the Torah and which come from a midrash. At the same time, we work on their textual skills and introduce the Chumash in the original, a little bit at a time. When the children are older, they begin studying the texts in the original, first with Rashi, then with other traditional commentators, who may bring contradictory opinions and midrashim.

And this learning continues throughout life, because we can never exhaust the whole body of Jewish tradition. There are always more facets to discover, more ways to gain a deeper and more complex understanding. So take a deep breath, don’t worry about getting it right – there is no such thing – and, most importantly, have fun! Learning Torah as a family is a wonderful experience that your children will remember for years to come.

 

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about Charlotte Mason

A Day in the Life – Under 6

Learning for children, especially young children, can happen naturally. They want to explore and to exert control over their world. A Charlotte Mason education encourages that natural exploration before the age of six. Ms. Mason particularly emphasizes the necessity of outdoor play for the young child, so much so that formal education should be completely delayed. All this said – what does a Charlotte Mason education look like for a preschooler? Below I outline a typical day in our household:

 

 

8am – Make muffins with Tatty.   Mixing helps Leah with her gross motor skills. Measuring presents the concept of size differentiation – “choose the second smallest teaspoon” – and will one day lead to higher math skills as well.

 

9am –12pm – Play outside. We are lucky enough to live right next to a wonderful playground. Leah explores at her own pace, sometimes with friends, as Mommy watches from a distance. While there is some sliding and swinging occurring, the main entertainment is imaginary play. Here Leah makes sense of her world – whether playing car wash, dinosaur, or mommy (or the plethora of other fun adventures she and her friends can only understand). She learns empathy and cooperation as well. She certainly learns to control her own body, jumping and climbing as she pleases. Also great, she wears herself out to take a much-needed naptime (or rest-time if napping is past).

 

12pm – Lunch.

 

1pm – 3pm – Naptime. While Charlotte Mason advocated for only telling oral stories to children under six, there is now a great deal of research showing reading to children is very helpful for language development. Thus, nearly all contemporary Charlotte Mason curriculums provide a list of great books for children under six. We keep “twaddle” out of our home and thus only try to read quality literature. Now what is quality literature? Essentially it’s up to you. To me, it’s anything I can read over and over again without dreading. We enjoy classic books (such as Corduroy) and many Jewish books, mainly those we get from PJ Library. Naptime, is a story of her choosing and then the nap. If no nap is possible, we’ll have Rest Time, where Leah will “read” books to herself.

 

3pm – 6pm – Play outside. Yes again! Playing outside is so incredibly wonderful. Both Leah and Mommy are happy to be outside as much as possible. Mom will usually chat with neighbors during this time and all the kids will happily run around for hours. Of course there are bumps and bruises and squabbles (all with the kids), but it’s a learning experience for us, as I learn how to parent through childhood fights and Leah learns how to make amends when something goes wrong. The social and motor skills she learns now are something that are so important for later education and for life.

 

6pm – Dinner.

 

7pm – 9pm – Indoor play. It’s finally dark and indoor play takes over. We have a careful selection of toys that both are non-irritating to Mommy and Tatty (please none of those noisy toys!) and that provide for imaginative play and learning. We have very few toys, actually, as we lean towards minimalism, but the types of play are endless. Favorites here include wooden blocks, Legos, Mangnatiles, and a train set. We have some ABC magnets to play with and an Aleph Bet puzzle. There’s also foam letters in the bath, which are a big hit. Leah enjoys picking up letters and saying words that start with it. We play with Leah for at least some of the evening. As the night wears on, play turns into book reading on the couch. We usually filter through 3 or 4 we read again and again that night. Commonly a favorite magazine, like Highlights High Five, will be part of the line-up.

 

9pm – Bedtime

 

 

As you can see, no formal learning was done during the day. There is no set schedule, no worksheets, no unit planning or any planning frankly. The day meanders organically and so much learning occurs. Learning empathy, learning running and climbing, and even the learning the ABCs and Aleph Bet. Mommy’s work gets scattered throughout – sewing during outside time or making a blog post during naptime. Each day is a joy in and of itself. All too soon, early childhood will be over and formal Charlotte Mason lessons will occur.

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about Jewish education

Shavuos musings

In a few days we will celebrate Shavuos, the day when we hear the reading of the Ten Commandments, commemorating the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. When the Torah describes the Jewish people’s arrival at Mt. Sinai, it uses the word “encamped” in singular rather than plural. Rashi explains that the Jewish people were united “like one person with one heart.” A prerequisite for receiving the Torah is coming together — developing the feelings of closeness to each other, despite our very real differences and disagreements.

Often, people find it easier to get along with perfect strangers than with their own family members. But loving our neighbor as ourselves applies to our family too! In homeschooling, resolving conflicts between siblings and fostering close relationships likely takes more time and effort than academics. But this side of homeschooling is by no means extracurricular. Learning together as a family provides the perfect setting for personal growth and development, which is necessarily for receiving and absorbing the Torah.

Working on the Ani Ve-ami curriculum has also been an amazing opportunity to get to know people from different backgrounds who are united in the same goal of providing our children with a quality Jewish and secular education. And now that the curriculum is live, we see families from all walks of life turning to Ani Ve-ami for their educational need, uniting in transmitting the Torah our people received on Mt. Sinai to the next generation.

We are a link in the chain — a notion that is both humbling and empowering. May our educational endeavors be blessed with success! Have a wonderful Shavuos!

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about Ani ve-ami

Teaching Jewish History

When we set out to create Ani ve-ami, we spent many hours hashing out how the history sequence should be organized. We knew we wanted it to follow Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, but Jewish history is so different (in length, location, intensity, etc) from the British history she taught, that we knew it would end up looking pretty different from any other Charlotte Mason curriculum out there. For example, we wanted to start with the child’s history, but because of the 2,000 year diaspora, we couldn’t start with the child’s own geographical history or we would be writing a curriculum for every single country on the planet!! So, we decided to start with the child’s own cultural history, which left us starting back at the very beginning with ancient history. Charlotte Mason never started with ancient history because she wanted the child to begin with the hero tales of his own history, but in Jewish history, our “hero tales” are from ancient history. But, there was also another element that led us to believe that this was a good idea, despite the distance in time from our own era.

When I was a little girl, my first exposure to history came in sixth grade when my teacher did a series of history unit studies based on what exhibits would be in our area that year. One of those exhibits was a traveling Holocaust Museum. Now, I did not grow up Jewish, so I had never heard anything about World War 2 or the Holocaust. Our teacher read us The Diary of Anne Frank, and then we went to tour the museum. Our docent was the only survivor from her family. There were pictures everywhere of the camps. I was absolutely horrified, and for the next two decades (no, that is not a typo), I had a recurring nightmare of being put into an oven at a concentration camp. Everything was grey and eerily quiet, and then I would suddenly wake up absolutely terrified that there was a Nazi under my bed.

Eventually, the nightmares went away, but then that left me wondering “How do I teach my children these dark points in history without putting them through the same terror those dreams put me through?” What do you do when you don’t know the answer to a parenting question? You ask another momma! So, I asked a group of Jewish mommas, and their response was “You study the persecutions throughout Jewish history as you come to them, and by the time you get to the Holocaust, you are somewhat prepared because you have seen the same pattern over and over again throughout history.”

All of the sudden the decision to start Ani ve-ami’s history sequence at the very beginning with ancient history made perfect sense. Atrocities closer to our own time and place are often scarier than those that are further removed by time, location, culture, etc. By starting our history sequence back at the very beginning with ancient history, it allows our children to see this pattern happening over and over and over again so that they are better prepared when they see it happening in their own time period. Although this makes Ani ve-ami’s history sequence look very different from any other Charlotte Mason curriculum, I believe it is the best interpretation we could have made of her philosophy within a Jewish context.

Now, I should note that Ani ve-ami is designed to be used as a family because we did not want families to feel the added pressure of trying to balance completely different curricula for each child in addition to living a Jewish life. This means that younger children will be rolled into the sequence at different points in time, but don’t worry. We are taking extra special care to make sure that there is something appropriate for everyone in each time period, especially for those darker moments in history!

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about Charlotte Mason

Children are born persons.

I have recently been reading 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Psychology Professor, Jordan Peterson. One of his 12 rules is “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.” Probably the single greatest travesty in education today is our stubborn adherence to measurable standards. 19th century British educator, Charlotte Mason, was fighting against the very same thing we are today. Society had become so scientifically motivated, that people really believed they could educate their children in the same way they might organize an assembly line or, in our case, program a robot. But Charlotte Mason knew from her careful observation of children and her broad reading in science, philosophy, education, and many other subjects that education could not be about programming the best worker bee or the most successful high school graduate. It had to be about encouraging the children to grow into the people they were already! In fact, of the 20 principles that guided Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy, #1 is “Children are born persons.”

Charlotte Mason blogger, Leah Boden, described the difference between our modern system of education and a Charlotte Mason education in this way:

The difference between using Mason’s philosophy as a guiding principle in our homes as opposed to a traditional educational pedagogy is that we’re not seeing our children as a topiary project, clipping away when the growth doesn’t look like it should and trying to shape them to fit our family garden. What we’re doing is mixing ingredients for compost, we’re preparing soil to plant in, we water faithfully and watch our seedlings germinate and grow – as wild as the flower may look!

I would personally take that a step further. I would say that our children ARE the compost! We do our best to provide for their needs in the balance that they need, and then we see what happens!! If you have a compost pile at home, then you know just how often volunteer plants will pop up. Our children already have the seeds within themselves, we just have to continue tending the compost pile and then wait and see what was there all along hidden from our view.

But how does this look in an actual homeschool?!? Well, it looks different in each home because each family and each child are different. But, what it means is that when we sit down to copywork, we are not constantly comparing our child to objective national standards. We are looking at who they were yesterday and providing them with what they need to grow today….not in ten years at graduation! No one begins parenthood thinking, “How in the world am I going to manage to feed my child 2000 meals before they graduate high school? I better start early in case we don’t manage to get around to them all!” That would be ridiculous! You end up feeding your child approximately 2000 meals before they graduate high school by simply taking it one meal at a time.

Charlotte Mason is trying to tell us that feeding our children’s minds is just like feeding our children’s bodies. It happens by setting them before a variety of food one meal at a time. For example, with regards to foreign language, if your family has  recently converted to Judaism and is consequently learning an entirely new vocabulary of “Jewish” words, then perhaps that is all the foreign language your family needs at this point in your life. If your family has dual citizenship in Israel and the United States, then you likely already know English, Modern Hebrew, and “Jewish,” so you might want to consider learning another language. Perhaps you have a child with Dyslexia or Autism, and you just want them to be able to communicate effectively in their home community, so you work heavily in their native language, supplementing with “Jewish,” or perhaps sign language.

A tweet on Twitter today stated that “In the US we lack ‘fluency’ in soccer because we spend little time in the beauty, joy, and cooperation of the acquisition phase. Instead, from the earliest ages, the focus is competition, skills, and techniques of the more deliberate learning phase.” It’s not about developing the right skills and techniques in a foreign language, music, art, etc. in order to out perform others. It’s about learning to appreciate the beauty and joy of those subjects. As David Hicks wrote in Norms and Nobility:

The paideutic man’s attitude toward such activities as painting, drawing, violin playing, dancing, and acting is amateurish, not professional. He knows that one cannot learn the culture defined by these activities passively. Since culture is the unique property of the participant, not of the spectator, the classical academy resists the modern tendency to select only the most talented for participating. The modern school, to the contrary, frequently regards culture as entertainment, and the educator’s cultural mission is taken up with exposing his students to an assortment of entertainments. He hopes to arouse their uncritical appreciation of art without attempting to sharpen their habits of discrimination or to develop their participatory skills.

Give yourself, and your homeschool, the freedom to “compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.”

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