The Château de Chillon. Lac Léman. Switzerland. Color

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Social Studies Excitement

I almost take it personally when told that kids in various schools don’t like social studies. I think that this is one of the coolest subjects in school; maybe this is because as a social studies teacher I am obviously biased. I am not sure what exactly teachers do so kids would not have any interest in it, and I think this is very sad because in reality social studies as a subject is all about our roots and ourselves. It is about the way people used to live and continue to live nowadays. That’s why I believe it has to be taught in exciting way by immersing students in the atmosphere of the subject they are exploring at the moment. There are many ways to make the learning fun: making costumes, learning about diverse traditions, cooking food, predicting the outcome of events, holding discussions and disputes, doing research,drawing maps, creating visual presentations such as power points or movies, building family trees, and so on.  There are plenty of sources available online nowadays. The only thing needed is a bit of creativity and a spark of excitement!

Here is one of the great historical resources, and we are starting to do it this week.. My students already can’t wait to begin the research.
http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/educators/lessonplan/crack-the-case-histories-toughest-mysteries/

What mysteries does this site propose to kids? Great Chicago fire, Lost colony of Roanoke, The Disappearance of Amelia Earhart to name a few.. What did my students add to the list? Bermuda Triangle and Atlantis! It is such a pleasure to see kids  being so excited about this project, actually any project, even a small one.

The learning experience has to be alive, I would say almost tangible. It could be even a project combined with ELA or other subjects. Let’s say it’s a book report on historical fiction novel or biography, maybe some research about the great historical figures. As a part of American History, I am planning to take kids downtown  to play Scavenger Hunt with historical buildings. I also have in plans to make a book with memoirs of our community members about their life in Buffalo. There will be stories of people who were born and lived all their life here. There also will be stories of young couples who moved to our city from different countries.

We already did a hands-on project about diverse Jewish communities over the world. Kids were fascinated to learn about our rich heritage. They researched historical facts, drew specialized migration maps, made national costumes for themselves,  created the dolls’ exhibition in historic clothing, practiced traditional dances and enjoyed cooking the exotic foods. Believe it or not, but boys are eager to do it no less then girls.

There are so many things we can do to give our kids appreciation of the diverse cultures, to help them to learn lessons for the future from the past, and just simply to develop their thirst for knowledge by having fun in the classroom..

Doesn’t matter how tired and sleepy I can be, I know I’ll come to school and will be be loaded with my students’ energy and will feel recharged ! I am so grateful for my job ! It is the best one ! 🙂

In Search of Absolute Truth

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Being raised as an atheist, I had too many questions that atheism simply could not answer.

One of the examples: Why am I me? Why do I feel myself as I? Who am I? I was not asking about the personal details such as name, gender, nationality, talents and character traits, family relationships etc. I was asking about the ability to feel the universe as myself. Who is that I? Why was I created altogether? Why was the universe created?  Science could not answer these questions. As the world-renowned physicist Brian Greene states in his article in Scientific American: “Science is very good at answering the ‘how’ questions. How did the universe evolve to the form that we see? But it is woefully inadequate in addressing the ‘why’ questions. Why is there a universe at all?” Also, since I love science I knew that our world is a very harmonious and orderly place. For those who are not familiar with science, it will be easier for me to bring a quote from a scientific authority such as Albert Einstein on the matter: “Your question [about God] is the most difficult in the world. It is not a question I can answer simply with yes or no. I am not an Atheist. I do not know if I can define myself as a Pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. May I not reply with a parable? The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations.”( From an interview published in 1930 in G. S. Viereck‘s book Glimpses of the Great)

The only creature who is capable of bringing havoc into this harmony is a human. This quality is not his physical characteristics but his perception of the world and actions that follow this perception. The great Jewish sage Maimonides stated that humans are the only representatives of all living things that are themselves learning good and evil, and are choosing what to do from that study without obstacles.

Having all of these in mind, I was looking for the answers everywhere. If everything is so harmonious in the physical sense in the universe, it seemed logical to me that if I had a question there should be an answer. However, understanding how unimportant, though very complex we are compared to the universe, I had enough humility to realize that we could not possibly possess the knowledge of it. We don’t even know how to use our brain 100% (This one actually casts many doubts on the theory of evolution since the capacity of the human brain significantly surpasses the need of survival. But this should be in a different post).

The only possible answer that was given from without is religion. Yet there are so many of them! Which one to choose? Being raised in a completely assimilated environment, I first turned to astrology and to a church as a leading spiritual influence on the culture in the country I lived in then. Astrology satisfied me to a certain degree. Although being very structural, it still did not answer the WHY questions. Christianity appeared to me as a beautiful fairy tale that had little to do with the complexity of human nature and expected the not so perfect people to behave as angels. Plus both Islam and Christianity are trying to claim the truth that was already stated before. And surely a secondary source loses to a primary one – Judaism. Jews, on the other hand, still survive and flourish spiritually nowadays despite all the persecutions, whereas the mighty empires who tried to destroy them vanished. So the choice was made and now I practice Orthodox Judaism.

So what about the question of evil that exists in the universe? Why is it needed? I already hinted at it above. Humans are given the important role to be partners in creation and that’s why we have freedom of choice. All of these choices have meaning only from the human perspective as I already stated. However you can’t change people around.  You can only decide for yourself and maybe influence others, but you can’t make decisions for them.  For example, there were people who in incredible circumstances of social pressure in Germany during the Holocaust went against the rulers and made their choice by saving the Jews, risking their own lives.  They were in the minority, but this shows exactly that we do have freedom of choice.  There are many more examples but I will limit myself with one here due to the extensive length of the post.

As for why G-d needs evil in the universe, I can only tell you that even though I sincerely believe I was created by Him, I definitely will not claim that I can understand Him and read His mind. It says in Torah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” To understand such a difficult concept to a certain degree, I can refer you to the great piece of science fiction “Solaris” by Stanislav Lem.

I will also quote here from Leonard Susskind, the co-founder of string theory. He suggested getting rid of the term” reality” altogether. Because, he says:”The problem is that what people tend to mean by “reality” has more to do with biology and our neural architecture than it has to do with physics itself. We’re prisoners of our own neural architecture. We can visualize some things but can’t visualize other.” So the inability to understand G-d simply lies within our boundaries and limitations while for Him there are no such things. He gave us laws to follow so we will be able to choose the right path. However, we do believe that the ultimate time of pure harmony and absolute good will manifest itself here soon with the coming of Messiah, the king of the final redemption. It states in Mishna: “One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than the entire life of the World to Come. And one hour of bliss in the World to Come is better than the entire life of this world.” That basically means that yes, we all waiting with anticipation for these moments of the Messianic time since it is very painful to see bad things happening in the world. However, we also will miss this time because now we are partners in creation through choosing good or evil. Then there will be no choice anymore, since the choice can’t be made when everything is pure and only good .

Now this is Judaism and my own perspective on the matter. I am not trying to persuade anyone to follow me. I am simply answering a request from an acquaintance of mine to explain myself on this topic. I am open to questions on this subject.

P.S. And yes, people from  religious community are still people therefore have freedom of choice as well.  It implies that they also can make mistakes. The difference between them and people from secular world is that they have easier access to the laws that help to make a right choice.  However  what kind of choices people make  is solely up to them.

From the classroom

One of the worst things is to be sick with flu during vacation as you’ve been forced to stay at home. However even at home I was not able to do much. When the period of inactivity was coming to an end  I just wanted to run out of the house no matter where even to do grocery shopping.  Away from computer :) So when finally I went to work today I felt so happy that I am back to the classroom where we learn, think and explore together with my students. Today with the older grades we learned about the Jewish presence in the New Spanish Empire. I had some unresolved questions referring to the Jewish history at this time and place. Why, for Heaven sake, some poor Jews who have been prosecuted in their homeland went to Americas  under the leadership of the same antisemitic King instead of escaping to Ottoman Empire, Netherlands etc?! The possible answer I found in the article about the Crypto Jews in Mexico. It is well known that the same year Columbus sailed to find India Jews were expelled from Spain. It happened in 1492. So whoever left was forced to convert to Christianity.  Many just outwardly but there were some who decided to be devoted Catholics. So by the time Spanish established colonies on the American soil many conversos already thought of possibilities to have  better life on the different continent far from the pressure of Inquisition. Conversos started to settle in the New World approximately around 1520. Some even had prominent positions in government offices in New Spain like Luis de Carvajal, el Conquistador, who was granted the official power in a newly created province, the New Kingdom of Leon.   However it was an illusion and a big mistake!  Just several years later Spanish clergy became the real influence in the New Spanish society. The New World’s colonies were settled in accordance with Catholic rules and traditions. More than that,  the structure of society in the New Spain was such that only peninsulares, who were born on the Iberian Peninsula, were allowed to hold the highest positions in government and church. Creoles, people with Spanish ancestry but born already in Americas, were not able to play prominent roles in politics. I think it was done having in mind that a person has  strong connection to his Motherland and if he was already born somewhere else besides Spain he wouldn’t  be completely loyal to the Royal Crown. Therefore, the Jews in the far away land, where they hoped to find peace, met the same devoted bishops and others who enforced Inquisitorial rule and executed punishment for the divergence from these rules.  In 1571 the Holy Inquisitional Office had established the Holy Inquisition of New Spain (The Mexican Inquisition). By 1590 a large Jewish community had already made their home in Mexico City. Unfortunately the following history of conversos in Mexico was full of tortures and burning at the stake.

There is another interesting hypothesis regarding what happened to certain groups of Jews who wanted to escape the danger of Inquisition. I’ve never heard of it before. Mestizo Jews. Originally the term “mestizo” means the mixture of Spanish and Native American backgrounds. However when the definition “the mestizo Jews” is used it means the mixture of Jews and Native Americans. Interesting, right?  So how was it possible? The Jews were trying to hide themselves from the powerful hand of catholic church among the Indian population who themselves were Christians cause they’ve been converted as well by many missionaries. Luckily for the Jews these Indians weren’t so zealous as the Spaniards. The result was the establishment of mixed Jewish – Indian communities throughout all of Mexico.  Some of these communities still exist today in Venta Prieta, State of Hidalgo; Toluca, State of Mexico; Apipilulco, State of Guerrero; and Monterey, State of Nuevo Leon. Some of them were trying to convert Native Americans to Judaism in order to marry them and keep the laws of Torah, some mixed together Cristian and Jewish traditions, some thought that’s OK for the Jewish girls marry Indians because their kids will be Jewish anyhow, according to Othodox Judaism, some believed that the Native Americans were among lost ten tribes of Israel so there was no problem to intermarry  with them.   As the number of Mestizo Jews increased, so did their communities.  Venta Prieta is the best known Mestizo Jewish community in Mexico.

However the historian Americo Castro doesn’t support the theory of possible intermarriages between these two groups of population in Mexico at that time. He wrote: “The people who really felt the scruple of purity of blood were the Spanish Jew… there is a punctilious concern for family purity… as a consequence of the persecution in the fifteenth century he became still more acutely aware of his exclusive particularism” . There are also some people in the Venta Prieta and Mexico City “Mestizo Jewish” communities who claim that their ancestors were converted to Judaism only in the very recent past.  Nothing concrete has been established to refuse or support the theory of mestizo Jews but from historical point of view I think it is a very interesting hypothesis of possible developments in the New Spain.

Photo: Ida Cowen, USA

Jews in their shabbath clothes, Venta Prieta, Mexico, 1940