Teaching with Joyless Joy

Image by Myriams-Fotos from Pixabay

By Rabbi Philip Graubart

Last week, in a high school class where I was discussing the differences between animals and humans, I let slip that under normal circumstances we would be supplementing the in-class learning with a trip to the beach to watch the seals. But not this year, of course. How would we get there – in separate cars? What about the students – half the class – zooming from home? How would we social distance, avoid the cheating, maskless crowds? It was out of the question. Predictable teenage whining ensued – groans, moans, protests, punctuated by a loud “We never have any fun!”

I couldn’t deny it. No field trips, no sports, no group projects, unless it’s in a chatroom, no live music, no singing, no dancing, no hugging, no touching. Half the class muffled and weirdly veiled, so one sees a smile; the other half ghost-like, on a screen. Not a recipe for fun learning. I remembered during our brief teacher training for asynchronous learning – rules for distance and masks and zooms and swivls – one of my colleagues remarked “how joyless.” The students in my class bemoaned the lack of fun – that we couldn’t visit the beach – but fun is much too thin and pedestrian a word for what they’re missing. They really crave joy – that combination of intellectual spark, emotional validation, friendship, flirting, humor, play and adventure that, at its best, defines their high school experience.

Of course, in Judaism there is an ancient and powerful association of learning with joy. We put honey on the first letters a child learns to read. We celebrate the end of a Talmud chapter with a party. Rav Nahman of Bratzlav tells us we should “be joyful all the time.” We call completing the Torah a Simchat Torah – a Joy for Torah, and we sing and drink and dance wild shoulder to shoulder circle dances, snuggling up tight with each other and the Torah scroll. Was there ever a less joyous Jewish celebration than last month’s zoom Simchat Torah services? Virtual repenting on Yom Kippur is one thing; I can do it on my own, and I don’t need to touch anyone. But Simchat Torah without the crowds, the sweat, the hands tightly gripping my shoulders? It was Joy for Torah without the joy.

When my thoughts wander to these precincts of self-pity, I often think of a story my grandfather told me of his first Rosh Hashanah away from home. He’d just witnessed his mother being killed in a pogrom. He’d managed to smuggle himself on a ship headed to America. He was deep in the hold, surrounded by strangers, but he bargained for a shot of whisky, and he knew most of the prayers by heart. “I drank a lechaim to myself,” he told me about a thousand times, “toasting in the new year. I was just happy to be alive.”

To be honest, the point of that story when he first told it to me, was to remind me of how spoiled I was, wanting for nothing in the land of the free. How could I complain about my parents forcing me to attend high holiday services when he spent Rosh Hashanah in the belly of a crowded boat? At least that’s how I took, as a kid. Now I think maybe he was telling me something about joy. You grab it wherever you find it, even if you’re all alone, with no idea what the future will bring.

In my strange, lovely, late career shift to high school teaching, I’ve encountered more moments of joy with students and colleagues than in any other of my other professional endeavors. I loved officiating at weddings, but somehow the joy of kindling a spiritual/intellectual spark in a sixteen-year-old beats even that. I realize now that as the pandemic drags on, and asynchronous learning, with all its blessings and curses, becomes the new norm, it’s not impossible to find joy even under these weird, strained conditions. We can’t take field trips to the beach, we can’t mingle with humans, much less seals. But we can tell jokes, laugh, share stories, learn. It seems to me that the primary work of Jewish educators for the near future will mostly involve finding new ways to inject joy into our oddly configured classrooms. During a prolonged pandemic, being “joyful all the time” is probably too great a stretch, even for Rav Nahman. But joy has a way of bending toward the human condition. With effort and creativity, we’ll find it.

Rabbi Philip Graubart is a teacher and writer living in San Diego. His new novel “Women and God” will be published early next year.