Art and Study, Memory and Torah
At the end of each academic year, the graduating senior class at Rochelle Zell Jewish High School in Deerfield, Illinois, selects a quote that serves as the cornerstone for the graduation ceremony and speeches for that year. Looking through the quotes from the 18 graduating classes in the history of our school, we journey through modern Jewish thought, Talmud, the Tanakh and Western literature, a rich tapestry of the education that students receive inside these walls.
During the summer of 2019, we installed a new art exhibition going up the main stairway and snaking back in the second stairway. Climbing the stairs, students, faculty and visitors walk by translucent windows, each one featuring the class year, the theme for its graduation, and the name of our school at the time (it was Chicagoland Jewish High School from its founding in 2001 until 2016).
This exhibit exemplifies the goal of sharing the collective memory of the school, while simultaneously connecting students to their individual memories during their own high school years. Whether people are new to the building or are veteran students, when they see that our walls are lined with Torah and great works of Western literature, they see that the culture of the school is built on a shared language and vision. The work of sharing the collective memory of the school parallels the work that we strive to do each day in classrooms, of fostering critical thinking, deep care and love of texts, and empathy and vulnerability among classmates.
Our teachers often note that “words are a translation of experience.” They are the lens through which we explore the world. The quotes from each graduating class exemplify both the spirit of our school as a whole and the character of each individual class. When they see these quotes, returning alumni are transported back to the classes where they studied these works. Whether graduates studied in the rented synagogue space during the first six years of our school’s history or in our current building, whether they graduated with CJHS or RZJHS on their diplomas, these texts unite our school community in a shared purpose and shared memory.
Jewish Learning and Memory
Sharing memory is an act of sharing creation, one of shared love of both the texts we read and also the community that we build in that learning process. The learning lives on because of the bonds that the students develop both with the text and with the community in which they studied it. Fittingly, creation marks the highest level of learning in Bloom’s taxonomy, a creation of memory and relationship, both with text and among the learners in a classroom and school.
In his book Zakhor, Yosef Yerushalmi famously draws a distinction between Jewish memory and history. In The New Jewish Canon, Alexander Kaye summarizes Yerushalmi as follows: “History, in Yerushalmi’s definition, is a record of things that happened and presuppose both contingency and human agency in its account of the world. Memory, by contrast, is an understanding of events through the lens of mythical narratives and (at least in the Jewish case) prophetic portent. Whereas history seeks facts, memory asserts meaning. Whereas history is found in the archives and preserved in works of scholarship, memory is transmitted by the liturgy of ritual of holy communities.”
While the distinction sometimes presents a false dichotomy of priorities in Jewish education, as I and many others find great meaning and even holiness in combing through archives and examining history, the framework is quite helpful in framing what to prioritize. He memorably suggests that “the Holocaust has already engendered more historical research than any single event in Jewish history, but I have no doubt whatever that its image is being shaped not at the historian’s anvil, but in the novelist’s crucible” (98). Here he emphasizes how the legacy of the Holocaust will live on most by the way that the stories are told, both through the literature that it engenders and the rituals that are enacted for communal commemorations.
How much more is this sentiment true when fostering active love of Jewish learning and Jewish living. Our learning must reach toward transcendence and meaning, of conversation and deep connection between people, individuals and the text, and introspection about a life of faith. Fostering classroom environments that engage core questions of existence, leading with empathy, vulnerability and deep care, creates ties within the classroom and well beyond it, as well, living memory into the future.
Windows Outward and Inward
The medium of featuring the quote on translucent windows also speaks to the Talmudic mandate that all prayer spaces must have windows:
Rabbi Chiya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: “A person should only pray in a house with windows, as it says: ‘And the windows of his upper chamber were open toward Jerusalem’ (Daniel 6:11).” (Brachot 34b)
Rashi notes that “looking out at the heavens and seeing the grandeur of the created order subdues the heart to God.”
But in addition to allowing the worshipper to look outward, windows also are important because they let light into the room. Windows ensure that we are ever present to the events of the world, allowing them to be a part of who we are as learners and as Jews. But it is not that we just read the news and we watch the trail of headlines on our phones. In a prism, light enters one end and refracts to create a rainbow of new light.
In his book Attuned Learning, Elie Holzer quotes Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg that “the similarity of panim [face] and p’nim [inside] reflects the intertwinement of the external and the internal, the seen and the concealed. Panim also carries a relational meaning: its root consonants can also form the verb lifnot el — ‘to turn toward,’ ‘to face,’ or, in a broader sense, ‘to address’” (126).
In the ideal sense, that is what our learning does: It fosters memory and relationship. We engage the world around us through the language of our texts. Light comes in from the outside, and throughout our learning, we have a new language to speak about a specific situation.
Like the windows that are required in a prayer space, these are the windows of our beit sefer, our school, our beit midrash, our house of study. Light shines in through windows, and our words of Torah travel out of them as well.
But there’s another character to windows. They are translucent, allowing light to pass through them, and also reflect objects or people in front of them. In this way, as we climb the stairs, we see visually what we can feel intangibly: We are reflected in the words of Torah. It is a living metaphor.
The words of Torah are a part of you. And you are a part of them.
This is a message for all who enter our building, teachers, students, alumni and guests alike. The words bring together the community in shared learning, memory and purpose.