Teacha! Stories from a Yeshiva By Gery Albarelli Glad Day Books 104pp.; $10.95, Strange Bedfellows: An Italian-Catholic teacher finds his way into the hearts of his Satmar Hasid students.

I think it was Woody Allen who once turned Shaw’s quote on its head when he observed, “Those who can’t teach, teach gym.” Later critics added, “Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.” After surviving five years teaching in a hasidic yeshivah in Willamsburg, Brooklyn, Gerry Albarelli might offer a correction: “Those with unbelievable patience, creativity and a sense of humor teach English to Yiddish-speaking yeshivah boys.”

“Teacha! Stories from a Yeshiva” is Albarelli’s sometimes amusing, sometimes obvious account of a non-Jew teaching in a world where English is not valued, non-hasidic teachers are seen as outsiders, and students are cooped up from 6 in the morning until 6:30 in the evening without a single recess.

Albarelli answered an ad: English teacher wanted – yeshivah – Brooklyn – call Rabbi Steiner. Based on his prior experience teaching English, and an overall shortage of teachers willing to work in such a school, Albarelli was hired after a five-minute interview. On his first day of work, he was greeted by fresh-faced third-grade boys throwing wet toilet paper bombs, walking on tables, fighting on the floor and sneaking to the bathroom for a game of cards. Keeping track of the class was difficult, given that most boys were named “Joel” and some even shared the surname “Teitelbaum, “ after the late Satmar grand rabbi, Joel Teitelbaum. Behavior management was a huge problem – until Rabbi Katz, the disciplinarian, came in the room, wooden stick in hand, to reassure Albarelli that he knew exactly what type of “different medicine” each boy needed, be it a tap on the head, an affectionate smack, or just a good scare.

The rosh yeshivah (school head) was nice enough to give some practical guidance (in broken English, of course). He said, “Think of it this way – you’re going to Mars,” and handed Albarelli a mimeographed copy of “Rules for English Teachers,” which included such gems as “No current events. No talk about Israel. No movies. No TV. No vulgar language. No talk about the human body.” One teacher was reprimanded for bringing a paper skeleton to class since “they shouldn’t know what’s inside of their bodies.” The most important rule, “No girls,” was enforced by censors who reviewed each English reader and textbook to make sure faces of females were blackened out. Too bad there was no rule mandating enough books, supplies or even a curriculum.

Though Albarelli is tempted to quit, he “sticks it out” and becomes something of a local hero – neighborhood families invite him to march in the Purim Parade, cops greet him, and local coffeeshop owners engage him in conversation about his students at the yeshivah. Yet the secret of Albarelli’s success is no secret at all. He uses “tricks” that are obvious to all good teachers: He starts where his students are, making no assumption about their knowledge of the world beyond their neighborhood, tries the unconventional, rolls with the punches and forgets every bit of “formal teaching wisdom” he learned while teaching more traditional high school and college English courses.

In Albarelli’s bag of tricks: He brings pictures from National Geographic and instructs the students to arrange them and make up a story. The students have a blast, but this works for only a few days. So he moves on to Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad, asking the pupils to perform skits about slavery. In one lesson, Albarelli asks, “If you could be whatever you wanted for just one day, what would you be?” The answers include astronaut, captain of a ship and dope addict.

Albarelli clearly transports his students from the insular neighborhood of Williamsburg to a world they never knew existed. The subjects he exposes them to – social studies, math, civics and a dash of psychology – are no less important than the English he teaches them.

Albarelli has an eye for detail and nuance and captures the experience in a way that elicits pity for him and his colleagues and love for his young boys. The Italian-Catholic outsider, he gradually becomes something of an insider: Students share personal stories, rabbis invite him to holiday celebrations, and one parent secretly recruits him to tutor all eight of his kids. Even after he moves out of his Williamsburg apartment and has a long commute to school, he comes back each day – and not only to gather material for his first book.

Albarelli’s ability to tell stories respectfully, non- judgmentally, is both a strength of this rather short book and its major weakness. The reader is left wanting more “inside dirt” and critical analysis of a community that few know so intimately.

While reading “Teacha!” I was transported back to a lovely afternoon at the Bronx Zoo. It is the middle of Passover and the zoo is packed with hasidic families. I am struck by their long sleeves and black coats on an unseasonably hot day. I wonder if I have more in common with my fellow shorts-, T-shirt- and baseball cap- wearers, or with my matzah-toting brethren. Is my life more like Albarelli’s or his hasidim? Albarelli illustrates how knowing others comes not through distant observations and brief encounters, but through patient, open-minded interactions over time. His descriptions of everyday life allow us to get past our own judgments and stereotypes, and see the people behind the garb – if only for a brief moment

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Original Article Published on The Jerusalem Post

The stone-faced members of the U.S. Secret Service and of the Israeli Shin Bet’s VIP protection unit all boasted the wire dangling from one ear, close-cropped haircuts, dark suits and ties. But you could tell them apart, during the Shabbat service at Park East Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, by their yarmulkes. The Secret Service men were having trouble keeping their flimsy black ones in place; the Israelis had brought their own: a white crocheted kippah here, another one complete with clips, and a blue suede third – something of a secrecy blooper, this, stamped in Hebrew with the words Misrad Habitahon, Defense Ministry.

The security was for Israeli President Moshe Katsav, visiting our community after talks with President Bush in Washington, and just hours after the horrific Tel Aviv nightclub suicide bombing.

The Secret Service had come around during the week to scout things out. Its list of demands included: no children’s services on the second floor, no use of the 68th Street entrance, no one in any of the lobbies during services, and metal-detector searches for all entering the building. (I had to remove my tallit from the bag, as there was some concern about my silver atarah, or crown).

The visit, and the poignancy of its timing, made for a unifying service. The Manhattan Sephardic Society, which usually holds services at the same time in another hall at the spacious 111-year- old Park East building, joined the Ashkenazi minyan, and cantorial duties were shared. Katsav was called for the 3rd aliyah, Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Yehudah Lancry chanted the haftarah, and New York Consul General Alon Pinkas held the Torah during the Prayer for the State of Israel. Katsav carried the Torah around the shul for all to kiss – with his security team walking in front of and behind him.

But most moving for me was watching Katsav’s mouth follow the words during the prayer for Israel. It was good to see that even the president turns to a higher authority.

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Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Report

Putting a mezuzah on the doll’s house is just one of many ways to turn your home into ‘Jewish space’

Maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover, or even by its title, but that didn’t stop fellow riders on several Manhattan buses and subways from offering their comments about Anita Diamant’s new book, “How to Be a Jewish Parent: A Practical Handbook for Family Life.” One passenger exclaimed, “My parents never had any book like that,” and proceeded to tell me how much he hated Hebrew school, but has found his way back to Judaism. Another speculated, “You must be a new parent.” (No, I have a few kids, thank you, but isn’t there still room to learn more about being a Jewish parent?) A 15-year- old boy asked, “Why do Jews need a special book about being a parent?” And perhaps the most innocent comment came from a 14-year- old student of mine who noted, “It seems rather simple. From what you taught me, don’t you just have to be Jewish and have children?” If only it were so easy!

But get past the title and you will find another informative handbook by the author of such useful titles as “The New Jewish Baby Book,” “Living a Jewish Life,” “Saying Kaddish” and the recent best- selling novel “The Red Tent.” In this collaboration with Karen Kushner, a family therapist, Diamant shares with parents and prospective parents the wide range of choices available in creating a Jewish home and raising Jewish children.

It is this idea of “choices” that will give the book wide appeal, but at the same time make it difficult for some in the Jewish world to take certain parts seriously.

The person new to parenting or looking to reconnect with Judaism will love learning how to make his or her home a “Jewish space,” model Jewish behaviors in everyday interactions, and bring meaning to every holiday or other special day, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Hashoah. It is these “mitzvah as good deed” folks who will appreciate the book’s non-preachy approach and the flexibility Diamant’s brand of Judaism offers as they decide for themselves how and when to bring Judaism into their lives. This “liberal” Jew (defined by the authors as Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist – something sure to offend those Conservative Jews who do not like being called “liberal” and lumped together with the others) is the intended audience, the group “for whom Jewish law (halachah) is not the unifying arbiter of all Jewish life but a venerable authority and important source of values and standards.”

The more traditional “mitzvah as commandment” crowd will find the discussion of Jewish holidays and practices to be a useful albeit obvious review of basic Judaism. They may very well dismiss as hokey such suggestions as “make a mezuzah for the doll’s house”; they will cringe when they read that “some Jews avoid all forms of shopping [on Shabbat] but make an exception for a treat on Shabbat afternoon,” or that “some families forego synagogue observance on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and… [s]urrounded by the quiet beauty of the natural world, parents and children read prayers and poems, talk about forgiveness, and discuss family goals and Jewish resolutions for the coming year.”

Finding a parenting book that speaks to all Jews is like finding a universally acceptable prayer book or synagogue. Some Orthodox Jews will find this book unacceptable. But the majority of Jewish readers will find it a delightful and helpful parenting guide that tackles obvious as well as difficult issues. We discover how to look for a synagogue, travel Jewish and feed fussy kids on Passover, while also learning how to deal with death, adoption and kids of mixed marriages, who ask questions like “Why can’t I go to church with Daddy?”

Diamant and Kushner speak mostly to American Jews. However, any Jew looking to bring Judaism into his or her family will appreciate page after page of helpful suggestions. Those who already “do” will feel good and strive to do more Jewishly; those who “don’t” but are searching can confidently find a point of entry. A book that lets us feel good about ourselves as Jews and as parents is an important contribution.


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