December 22, 2011
Opinion: Good writing counts
Each autumn, the Milken Family Foundation throws one of the best luncheons of the year, and it’s not the fine kosher fare at the Luxe Sunset Boulevard hotel that draws us in. This is when Gil Graff, executive director of the BJE (Builders of Jewish Education) and Richard Sandler, executive vice president of the Milken foundation, get to present awards to a handful of Jewish educators.
Think about it — we all love kids, teachers, awards — what could be more inspired, teary and happy?
So each year the Jewish world shows up to celebrate some truly inspiring leaders in the field of education. This year’s winners were Marnie Greenwald, a first-grade teacher at Temple Emanuel Academy Day School (think of piles of adorable kids cheering in the video); Lisa Feldman, head of school at Weizmann Day School in Pasadena (same kind of imagery); Hava Mirovski, Judaic studies and Hebrew teacher at Sinai Akiba Academy (ditto); and Juli Shanblatt, the physics and calculus teacher at Bais Yaakov School for Girls (a more demure, grown-up set of enthusiastic students, but same idea). The teachers all spoke at the lunch, and if they are any indication of what’s going on in our schools, I have one word to say: Bravo.
But I was more focused on another part of the program, which is in only its second year, and which, while honored, sort of flew by in a flash. And that was the Student Essay Contest.
Two categories have been established for this new prize, one for middle-schoolers, the other for high-school students, all of whom must be enrolled at BJE-affiliated schools to enter. This year, both groups were asked to “describe an unforgettable Jewish Los Angeles moment that you experienced.” I was among the jury for the younger group, while my colleague Julie Gruenbaum Fax was one of those judging the high-school students. The winner in the latter category was Emma Maier, a 10th-grade student at Milken Community High School, who wrote a lovely piece about chanting the Amidah before her congregation at Wilshire Boulevard Temple during the High Holy Days.
My group also offered many sweet stories, most very well done, about subjects you’d mostly expect — the family simcha, the meaning of holy days — the usual Jewish topics.
Then there was Nathan Bentolila’s essay. Titled “Making a Difference,” it begins like this:
“‘Nathan, you’ve got a letter!’ I had eaten my breakfast, brushed my teeth and was about ready to leave for school when my mother became excited. I sprang from my chair and raced to the living room.”
Drama. Who can teach a kid to write such drama? Turns out, Nathan’s letter was from a senior editor of the Glencoe/McGraw-Hill publishing company, a response to a letter Nathan wrote on his concerns about how the Israel-Palestinian conflict was portrayed in a history textbook. Nathan had found that no other modern conflict was treated in the book, and he felt that Israel was described with prejudice. He was “horrified.”
In his essay, he describes his extensive Internet research and how he talked to experts, only to learn that some 70 other conflicts were going on in the world in the “modern period,” but none of them was mentioned in the book. So, he questioned, why?
The editor’s response not only came quickly, but it clearly recognized the boy’s efforts.
“Dear Nathan,” the editor wrote, “we agree with your assessments and will change both photo and extended captions in further editions with something positive and unbiased.”
OK, so this was the real deal. Nathan had a kind of Jewish moment that doesn’t occur every day. He took it upon himself to stand up for what he believes in, did his homework, fought and won his battle, then was able to describe both his effort and his achievement in vivid detail.
The power of the written word in that history book — written by adults — was overcome by a young boy’s ability to use language and knowledge with even greater authority.
I sought Nathan out at the luncheon.
He wasn’t hard to find — he was one of the youngest people in the room. When I spoke to him, he was polite, eager and clearly very proud of the award, which for each of the winning students includes a prize of $1,800 for his or her school and the ability to designate a $500 contribution to an approved charity of his or her own choice. Nathan’s school is Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, where he is learning to write with such aplomb.
In an age of texting, Facebooking and abbreviated thoughts, a time of multitasking and short attention spans, I was inspired by Nathan’s commitment to a singular notion — that he was unwilling to allow what he saw as wrong to stand. He made an effort, a big effort, to fix the book. But just as important, he also now has a story to share.
And now, I want to share both Emma Maier’s and Nathan Bentolila’s stories with you, as well. To read both essays, please visit this column at jewishjournal.com.
It’s worth it.
There is nothing more fulfilling than the first few weeks of fall. The time we chant the story of Hagar and Ishmael, recite the Vidui, and pray that we are inscribed in the Book of Life. It is a time of year when we rid ourselves of the past and start over with a clean slate. The pure white robes worn by the Cantors and Rabbis, the blasts of the shofar, and the cello playing “Kol Nidre” create a meaningful aura that separates this time from the rest of the year.
It was 11 o’clock in the morning and my family and I walked into the main sanctuary of the historic Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the oldest house of Jewish worship in Los Angeles. Murals cover the walls, telling the story of the Jewish people throughout early history. One cannot help but be inspired. The choir began to sing: “Mah Tovu, how good is it to be here.” The words of this prayer perfectly capture the emotions permeating throughout the congregation, linking past generations to the present.
The Rabbi announced that it was time to rise for the Amidah. I rose with the rest of the congregation and then proceeded to walk down the long aisle until I reached the stairs leading up to the bimah, per the cantors instructions. I stood next to the president of the temple and chanted the rest of the Amidah until the ark was closed. We finished our prayer and then, I walked over to the podium to stand beside the Cantor and Rabbi. Thousands of eyes were on me. As I stood in this historic and holy sanctuary, between two of my mentors and spiritual leaders, I felt secure and excited to be part of this sacred morning service. The Cantor leaned over and reassured me. I took a deep breath and prepared to lead the congregation in prayer. The piano played an interlude and I began to sing: B’rosh Hashana yi-katei-vun, u’v Yom tsom Kippur y’cha temun, on Rosh Hashanah our fate is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
It was an auspicious way to begin the year, singing the words of my ancestors in such a magnificent and spiritually enriching environment. Our rabbi spoke of how we must “hold the Torah high,” a metaphor that inspires us to live full and meaningful lives. Singing these words in this sacred space was my way of “holding the Torah high.” I felt particularly enriched as I walked down the steps from the bimah to join my family once more.
As the service concluded and we left the sanctuary, numerous friends and congregants approached me with compliments. I felt myself blushing, but greatly appreciated their sincerity and trust that the cantor placed in my abilities. I look forward to services next year and I hope I will have the opportunity to sing once more. The temple is undergoing a major renovation, and High Holiday services will be held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion downtown. I can only wonder if the historic and sacred presence will transfer to the temporary location.
Making a Difference
“Nathan, you’ve got a letter!” I had eaten my breakfast, brushed my teeth and was about ready to leave for school when my mother became excited. I sprang from my chair and raced to the living room.
“Is it what I think it is?” I ripped open the envelope boldly imprinted with Mr. Nathan Bentolila. I had tried to be patient for the ten days I counted since I opened the blue door on the corner mailbox. My eyes popped out of my head when I realized that Robert Kohan, Senior Editor of Glencoe-McGraw-Hill, had replied to my urgent request.
Perhaps I should explain. Two years ago, at the beginning of 6th grade, my history teacher handed me Ancient Civilizations. Unlike your average 6th grader, I happen to love history, so I decided to skim through the book. Two facing paged titled “Links Across Time” caught my attention. The page on the right showed a picture of the modern Olympics next to a historical painting of Greek Olympians. I glanced at the preceding page, which showed a photograph of two Israeli Army jeeps in a conflict; this was radically different from any other image in the text. What was the picture doing in my book? I read the caption: “fighting today between Palestinians and Israelis….” I was horrified. The more I read, the more I knew that this picture was not supposed to be in any textbook. The description continued, “one of the fiercest and longest conflicts.” I was bewildered since this was actually a pretty modern conflict considered to be forty-five years old by some and one hundred years at most by others. Were millions of 6th graders and teachers across America reading and believing the words? Didn’t anyone notice this bias against Israel? I showed my parents, and they told me to look for other references or pictures of modern conflicts. I found none. My discomfort increased, and my questions intensified. The Arab-Israeli conflict was the only modern conflict referred to in the entire book.
My parents encouraged me to explore this further. After four months of searching the Internet and consulting experts on the subject, my research showed that there were over seventy conflicts going on worldwide. I decided to take action and write a letter for the editor asking why Israel had been singled out as the only example of conflict in today’s world. Even though I was pretty sure that one of the top educational publishing companies in the United States would certainly discard my letter, I knew I had to try. Apparently Fox News had previously tried to discuss Israel bias in the textbooks and never received a reply. So when I received an immediate response, I knew they had taken me seriously.
“Dear Nathan, We agree with your assessments and will change both photo and extended captions in further editions with something positive and unbiased.” I, an eleven-year-old passionate Zionist, had truly made a difference.
To whom it may concern:
I am writing you because of a page in my 6th grade Ancient Civilization class textbook that I think does not belong. My book is called Discovering Our Past, Ancient Civilizations, a part of the Glencoe California Series, 2006 Edition. The ISBN number is 007-868874-4.
I was very interested in my new history book this year so I decided to read ahead and look through it. That is when I saw a picture of Israel that did not make sense to me.
I was looking through the section linking the past and present and found a picture that I think does not belong in the book. For the Greek and Romans they put the ancient Olympics and the new Olympics of today and for China and India they put the Great Wall of China and the modern dams in China today, then for Mesopotamia and Israel they put a painting of people fighting from a long time ago, we don’t know where or when and a modern photograph of three Israeli military jeeps in an Arab area, with what looks like Arabs running away from the jeeps. The title said, “Fighting today between Israelis and Palestinians.” I don’t understand why all the pictures of other places were positive and the one about Israel was negative. It only makes sense to also make the one about Mesopotamia and Israel about something positive too, like some of the great modern things that Israel has contributed to the world (there are many). One idea I have for you is how in the past the Jews from 2000 years ago did irrigation and now how they know how to take the salt out of sea water, or how they brought water from the Kineret to the Negev desert. I have talked to my parents and others about this and they all agree with me that the picture and the caption on page 112 in the 6th grade textbook, called Ancient Civilizations is not right for the book and should be changed.
I went through the book page by page to see if your authors had included other examples of modern conflicts. I spent several hours of my free time, going through the book page by page looking for other photos of modern conflicts but I did not find any except this one. That is not fair. I am very upset because I feel that your authors have unfairly singled out Israel and that Israel is being treated differently than other countries. I think that because of the way it is presented those students who don’t know as much (or anything at all) about Israel and its history as I do will not have a fair chance to learn about the region as it is presented in the book. If I were a boy or girl who did not know about Israel and then I read this page I would think that Israel is only a place of war and not the beautiful place that it really is.
On the same page they described the modern picture like this: “Today one of the fiercest and longest conflicts has been between the Palestinian Arabs and Israelis.” I have researched this and found that this is factually wrong because the Palestinians are not related to the ancient enemies of Israel and this conflict is 100 years old at most, which makes it one of the newest and most modern national conflicts going on today. I feel strongly that this page needs to be changed because it is not fair to only show this modern conflict and not the 70 other conflicts1 going on in the world today, which are much fiercer and longer than this one. This book is called Discovering our Past, Ancient Civilizations and a modern conflict does not have anything to do with Ancient times.
I don’t know if you have ever been to Israel and seen how beautiful the land is and met the diverse groups of wonderful people that live there. It is very special in Israel, there are Jews, Muslims, Christians Bedouins and Druze and they all have equal Israeli Citizenship. They vote and share the same flag. This summer when I was there I saw all of these people shopping together in the same shopping malls, and doing so with respect for each other.
I hope that you will respond to my letter. I also hope that you will change this picture, because I think it does not belong in the book. I believe that after you have read this letter and looked at my points that you will agree with me and change the picture and caption for future editions. Israel should be treated with the same respect that other countries receive and it should not be singled out but rather praised for its accomplishments that benefit humankind. It is not fair.
I would like to offer to help you come up with a new and positive idea for that page. I have several ideas that I would be happy to share with you.
Thank you so much for your time. I look forward to hearing your response.