Do we have classes over the Chaggim?

Rachel S. Harris
November 23, 2012
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My office doesn’t have a mezuzah on the doorpost, or a family photo on the desk. It is a fairly functional space which maintains my professional identity and from which my personal life is absent. Yet this balance between the public and private is disrupted every year on the first day of class, which is always the same. I go through the schedule and announce that I will be cancelling a number of classes at the beginning of the semester.

As a professor of Israeli and Jewish cultural courses in a university that does not observe the Jewish Holidays, whose students are not necessarily Jewish, I am aware every year of this decision. It disrupts the class schedule, the students’ ability to bond with one another, and to create the cohesive sense of class. Students are asked to complete additional work outside class hours, or to attend additional events on campus during the course of the semester that will be relevant to the material considered, so that I have not failed to discharge my duty to ‘teach’ them.  But my choice to cancel class is the real lesson.

Each year that I make this choice I feel that I am put on trial by my colleagues and students – whether they intend to or not. I am allowing my personal world to intrude on my professional life, and I assume that I am being judged for being absent during the semester, for appearing to ‘goof off’, and for penalising my students who aren’t (necessarily) Jewish or Jewishly observant but find that suddenly they will not have class.

I believe that when I take days off for Jewish holidays, I am modelling for my students a way of living as a professional and a Jew. I do not teach being Jewish, I teach secular academic subjects that in part represent information about ways in which Jews live. I teach this material for Jews and non-Jews. I present information for my students to assimilate or reject as they please, and I give them the tools by which they can make those decisions in an intellectually informed manner. I teach my students to think for themselves.

So when I take off days, I show my students that Jews who wish to observe the holidays (in whatever way that may mean) can do so. This subject is not open for discussion, and it is not flexible to be negotiated. It is a personal choice, and one I make. In turn I offer them the idea that it is one that they may also choose to make.

The other responsibilities in my life are set aside at a moment when I choose life over work in an attempt to find a balance in an impossible twenty-first century quest to have everything. I hope my students will learn from this that there are times when they too can make the decision to put something which is important for them (whether that is religious practice, family, health or well-being) over the expectation of their work. But I hope that they find in doing so, that they become a better employee and happier person.  I believe teaching my students to become adults is part of my job, and as a professor I believe I’ve discharged my duty after all.

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Rachel S. Harris is Assistant Professor of Israeli Literature and Culture in Comparative &World Literature and the Program in Jewish Culture & Society at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She has published on contemporary Israeli literature and culture in the journals Israel Studies, Shofar, and Modern Jewish Studies. She has written on suicide in Israeli literature, and more recently on women in Israeli film. Her co-edited volume bringing together articles on a range of subjects “Narratives of Dissent: War in Israeli Culture and Arts” will be published in the Fall through Wayne State Press. She is also the series editor for the Dalkey Archive Press “Hebrew Literature in Translation Series” and the Hebrew editor of “The Levant Notebook” an online literary magazine bringing together Middle Eastern fiction and poetry in English translation, along with reviews, and opinion pieces on the state of culture.

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