Call ‘Em Like You Siyum: How the Orthodox Jews Get Learning Right

Netflix’ Operation Varsity Blues is ranked #3 in America this week. And like most of you I assume, I watched the story of privilege, greed, and deception unfold with a heavy heart, a dropped jaw, and a dash of nausea.

As a veteran educator who is also the mother of a college student, I couldn’t help but ask: Where did the education system go wrong? What has become of this thing called learning? Why do I bother teaching anymore?

On the other hand, a week ago at my Yeshiva high school I witnessed my first Siyum or סיום — what translates to “a celebration of learning.” Full disclosure: when the intercom called us all out of our overly wiped-down classrooms to observe the Siyum, I was minorly annoyed. I mean, I was busy navigating my fancy-pants toolbox of learning platforms like Kami, Formative, EdPuzzle, IXL, and LitXYZ+Fun (okay, I made that last one up). The fact that my good friend and colleague — a woman at that — was the one being honored is really the only reason I left my laptop, donned my mask, and hightailed it out to the parking lot tents teeming with Kosher pizza and the obligatory giggling of high school girls.

But boy am I ever thankful that I did.

What I witnessed was singular and beautiful and without a doubt happening in the presence of the Lord. And here’s why: my female colleague, a Yoetzet or יועצת הלכה — a female advisor not unlike a rabbi specifically for women — was participating in the Daf Yomi דף יומי (daily page of Talmud) movement which studies a folio of Talmud each day, the goal of which is to complete the entire Talmud, which will take seven-and-one-half years (37 tractates, 2,711 pages).

That’s seven-and-one-half years, y’all.

If you’re anything like me, you have trouble reading a Psalm a week. If you’re anything like my son, you have trouble reading a Rick Riordan chapter a semester. And if you’re anything like me, you too have trouble keeping the Talmud, the Tanach, the Chumash, the Mishna, the Gemara, and Haggadah to the left now, cha cha cha and slide… straight. My feeble and relatively unlearned Christian-New-Testament-limited brain has been learning non-stop over the past three years at my Yeshiva high school. One thing I learned is that the Talmud תַּלְמוּד is the central text of Rabbinic Judaism, which is the source of Jewish or Halachic laws, a holy ancient text that for centuries was not available to women readers.

When one completes the reading of a tractate, a Siyum is held to celebrate its completion; the communal celebration represents a commitment to studying Talmud as part of daily life. This act of reading is innately private, an internal and contemplative endeavor, especially concerning a religious text, while the gathering of one’s community to sing and eat (and giggle) to commemorate one person’s accomplishment is wildly public and remarkably conspicuous in the absolute best sense of the word.

Fear not — the overwhelming irony that day was not lost on me.

There I was, too worried about teaching to enjoy learning. Huddled in my self-imposed hovel, myopically finding creative ways to help my students learn proper coordination, literary analysis, and Fitzgerald’s portrayal of the Jazz Age that I almost missed out on an ancient Judaic ceremony celebrating a woman’s commitment to learning. I fear my experience could be emblematic of our post-modern concept of learning, especially in the age of Covid-19 when every tentacle of American schooling is being interrogated, especially in the age of Chegg, Quillbot, and Slader (and no, those aren’t Hebrew words), especially in the age of Rick Singers.

My hope is that while we reflect upon what makes a true student, a good school, a worthwhile education, and authentic learning, we look to a 5,000+ year old tradition — Judaism. Coming from a follower of Jesus that might sound odd, but hey, I just call ’em like I see ’em.

May we all be called away from our cozy, safe, sterile classrooms, laptops, or debilitating cynicism if not by an Aussie voice on an intercom (that is, my school’s sassy executive assistant), then by the voice of G-d, Hashem, the master teacher and sovereign creator of the universe who called us, calls us, and will continue to call us all to learn.

Baruch HaShem and Thank G-d.

Published by candicekelsey1

I was the nominally Catholic girl who loved helping my friends study for their B'not Mitzvah. I was the English major who obsessively read Holocaust literature. I was the law student who studied abroad in Jerusalem instead of Rome. I was the twenty-five year old who studied Judaism in order to know G-d. I was the thirty year old who unexpectedly met Jesus one magical summer midnight in a Tennessee living room. Now I'm a Christian English teacher at an Orthodox Jewish girls school. And I want to write about it...

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