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My Life in Talmud Torah (With Emphasis on Talmud): Recovery (Part 3)

Written 10/15/2009.

Rediscovered 2/21/2019 when I remembered that I had a blog and decided to go back and clean up some of the drafts that have just been sitting here, for all this time, while I have been freelancing and getting two masters degrees and teaching first grade.

Almost ten years later! Technology is crazy.

Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

I. Autumn 2004

I find myself in New York City, working for the organized Jewish community starting in August 2003. How did I end up here? Simple. The economy sucked when I graduated college in January 2003, and after managing to land several job interviews but no job offers in my desired fields of public history, voting rights advocacy, mental health advocacy, or, well, anything else I was interested in, I was offered, and accepted, a job in Jewish education. I pretended, during my interview, to be vitally interested in the future of Jewish education in North America although, of course, I was not. I probably helped my case in being able to articulate, quite sharply, all of the shortcomings of my own Jewish education, which, on paper, looked to be stellar.

So, I was, in the words of a dear friend, "working for the Jews."

For some reason, I decided, that fall of 2004, to take a Talmud class at the institution where I had spent the summer of 1997 so blissfully enraptured with limmud Torah. It was low-key adult-ed. It was easy for me--I was in the intermediate class, which was the highest offered at the time--and I had fun learning with a friend. I felt smart for the first time in a long time. (I felt mostly respected at the college I had attended, but rarely smart.) I couldn't believe how much fun I was having!

II. September 2005

I decided, as a result of that experience, to start learning Masechet Makkot with a friend in September 2005. He was a contemporary of mine, but from a completely different Jewish background. Namely, he was baggage-less as far as women's place in learning Talmud went. It was fantastic. We learned once a week. I knew things that he didn't know; he knew things that I didn't know. I could ask any questions I wanted and articulate when things didn't make sense--a freedom I never had in any of the Orthodox institutions that I had attended, where anything that didn't make sense could be rapidly, if not always intellectually honestly, smoothed over by the smooth machinations of a rishon or two.

III. November 2006

Fast forward to November 2006. I was working at a different job in Jewish education in New York City. It was challenging and I loved interacting with students directly, which I had not done at my first job. The students were adults, voluntarily coming and studying Torah lishma, for it's own sake. My responsibilities included working closely with students enrolled in a certificate program, students who made a serious commitment of time to complete a thorough course of study. Many of these students were discovering the joy of learning Torah for the first time. They spoke about how it was changing their lives. They described their hours spent immersed in Torah as an island, a refuge from their stressful, hectic, workday lives. They articulated a newfound job and appreciation and connection to their Jewish roots.

Although I loved facilitating those conversations and the few times that I taught those students, I did not love everything about my job. I was bored and listless. It was not creative enough. The next step from my position, at the time, would have been to go back to school to learn to manage people like me, and the very thought filled me with dread. I never wanted to reformat another Word document or go through records in Excel again. The highlights of my life were the Torah learning and the writing that I got to do both in the course of my job and outside it, in my spare time. I felt most alive when I was blogging (here!) and when I was learning with my friend and when I had the opportunity to create and share Torah in the course of my job. Nothing thrilled me as much as hunting down obscure Jewish sources in the mostly-unused library at my workplace.

During that time, I reflected a lot on the learning I had done in middle school, high school, and before college. It had been a panacea--an escape from the turmoil of everyday life. I realized that one reason that I had avoided learning throughout college was because I no longer believed in that intellectual rigor should be used as a salve for avoiding life. My study of history through the lens of gender had been a unique way for me to deal, head on, with my own life and the lives of frustrated young women who lived before me. In reading the wartime ruminations of college students in 1917, I saw that I was not the first, nor would I be the last, to articulate frustration with my approved role within my social community. It was the connection to truth, not the avoidance from it, that I craved. The Torah that I was articulating and experiencing through this blog,1 and in my professional life, and in my learning, was not a way to turn my back on painful things, but a way of experiencing them in a safe, contained, structure way.

I was dating a handsome young man at the time, and he was extremely supportive of my professional life and frustration with my job. Thanks to his encouragement, I asked for, and received, a raise that I deserved.

But he also asked me what I really wanted to do with my life.

Unable to answer--I was interested in so many things! How could I ever choose just one to pursue?--I rephrased the question: I asked myself, "What makes me feel most me, most excited to be alive, most connected to the world around me?" The unequivocal answer was: "Learning Torah and writing."

I decided to find a way to spend some time learning Torah and writing, with the hopes that that would lead to a more personally fulfilling career path than educational administration.

1. Examples from this blog abound. A few of them are:
  1. Happy Passover! Chag Kasher v'Sameyach!
  2. Innocent Laughter and a Delightful Sabbath
  3. First night of selichot
  4. Second day of selichot
  5. To New Beginnings
  6. Homes: Temporary and Semi-Permanent (or what I learned from the sukkah this year)
  7. Julia Sweeney and ALG on God
  8. "Why?" Thoughts on Parshat Toldot
  9. "Because you have struggled with God and with people and prevailed": Thoughts on Parshat VaYishlach
  10. In Memory of Shira, a"h: R. Abraham Joshua Heschel on Prayer and Song
  11. Free to Be You and Me!
  12. Happy (?) Purim and the way things are taught in Jewish day school
  13. "אסתר קרקע עולם היתה" and how the Tosafists and selected acharonim understood women's sexuality
  14. אי מזה באת ואנה תלכי [or] What have I been doing with my life for the past 5-10 years and where will I eventually end up?
  15. חרב מקדשנו and we lost many special people
  16. Reflections on Chanukah: "Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy cometh in the morning."
  17. Happy Tu Bishvat and the power of fruitful metaphor
  18. The Lottery
  19. Prerequisites for redemption and culturally-defined props during Pesach
  20. Whatcha' gonna' do with all that learnin'?

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