A Pleasant Surprise

“Can I go to the bathroom?” she asked.

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes at the question. The girl had raised her hand and waited politely to be called on, just as I wished some of her classmates would. She was also a good student; she never backed down from a philosophical debate, especially if the subject was in any way related to feminism, and her positions were thoughtful and logical. It wasn’t her fault that the bathroom question was a momentum-killer from my point of view; the progression of my class discussion wasn’t her responsibility. She just knew that she had to pee.

“Not yet,” I said as her face fell slightly. “I’ll let you go in a minute, I promise. I just want you to hear this next bit because I think it’s really going to make you angry.”

She folded her arms and let out an exasperated sigh. She tried to conceal it, but the edges of her lips fought through and curled into a smile anyway.

This year, in Hebrew school, in addition to teaching Facing History,1 I’ve been teaching an elective class about gender and Judaism. We have focused on the roles of women in the Bible, the various aspects of a patriarchal society, traditional ritual obligations of both men and women and the concept that history is written by the people in power – in this case, the men. I’ve been able to predict with considerable accuracy which themes are going to spur the most severe reactions and I don’t mind admitting that those are my favorite moments of the lessons.

The student watched me as I continued and, as I had anticipated, she became angry. On that day, she took exception to the idea that women are exempt from most time-bound ritual obligations because of the assumption that they are more closely involved in tasks related to housework and child-reading. In other words, women are too busy cooking, cleaning and raising children to be expected to drop everything and pray at a specific time of the morning, for example. I happened to be facing away from the student when I finished my comment but I called on her anyway because I knew her hand was raised again.

“That’s not fair!” she exclaimed. “Why should the women be expected to take care of all that by themselves? What if they wanted to go to work? I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with a woman staying home like that if she wants to, but I was raised to believe that women should have the option of pursuing whatever career they want in addition to having a family.”

“Good answer,” I said with a smile.

She smiled back, satisfied with her argument.

“Unfortunately,” I continued, “in the time of the rabbis, nobody would have cared about what you wanted. You were woman; you weren’t entitled to have an opinion.”

The girl’s smile vanished and her jaw dropped. Her face had switched from pride to horror in a split second while her mostly male classmates broke into laughter.

“Now, you can go to the bathroom,” I added.

She rolled her eyes again and left the room in a huff but I was still able to catch the hint of a smile on her way out.

I taught a lesson a few weeks later about the rules for inheritance according to the Torah. The main focus was on a group of daughters who lobbied to keep their father’s inheritance, rather than it being granted to the next male of kin. I explained that any inheritance would usually go to the eldest son, no matter how many other siblings he had or what their sex was. In this case, however, there were no sons.

The student from the earlier lesson expressed her frustration about the initial rule about only sons receiving the inheritance. I was ready for her protests; the girl’s input had become predictable by that point and, though I still enjoyed watching the anger creep over her face, I couldn’t help but notice that even she appeared to be somewhat tired of raising the same objections each week.

That day, however, she had allies.

“It’s unfair,” one other student said. “Why should the eldest son automatically get the inheritance? What about the other kids?”

“That’s not right,” said another. “Isn’t that why there are wills? So that the parents can decide where their stuff goes?”

And one student, a boy, reacted particularly strongly to the whole story.

“I don’t get it!” he said loudly. He rose out of his seat and began gesticulating as he spoke. “We’re all people, why were women put out like that? I mean, look—” he began pointing at other students in the room– “human, human, human, human, human! Who cares if they’re boys or girls?”

I stopped my usual pacing and watched him speak. I was used to antagonizing my students (good-naturely, of course) in order to trigger their emotions and prod them to engage more actively with the material but the boy’s short soliloquy had caught me off guard. I knew that he paid attention in my classes, even if he did not necessarily look like he was, but he was often more reluctant to contribute than his classmates. The sight of him walking around the room and practically shouting at me along with his classmates was not something I had anticipated.

I’m not usually one to look for conflict; on the contrary, I generally work to avoid conflict like it’s the plague. In this case, however, I welcomed the onslaught from my students. They voiced their opinions loudly and forcefully and all I could do was smile. The young people in front of me were thinking about their world and their roles in society. They were considering the implications of their actions on others and thinking critically about the values of their people and of the current stakeholders in American government. And, they were passionate about their cause.

As a teacher and as a social worker (not to mention a parent), I worry sometimes that my efforts to convey a certain message to my students or my clients (or my children) are futile; that my words are falling on deaf ears or that others are picking up on my passion but dismissing it. Now I know that at least my students have internalized the concepts I have been teaching and they have been looking for ways to incorporate those concepts into their own value systems.

And, most importantly, they are not afraid to talk about their opinions either.

1. Facing History is a course about Jewish identity for young people using the lens of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. It’s squarely in my wheelhouse of learning about people and helping people learn about themselves and it’s easily the class I enjoy teaching the most.