As a child, I always dreaded going to Hebrew school. Although it was only a few blocks from my public school, the lonely bike ride felt like miles as I watched my friends walk away in the opposite direction, arms linked together like a gum-wrapper chain. Being Jewish in the small town in which I grew up meant being different. It meant missing school in September for a holiday where I was hungry all day long and not having a Christmas tree or colored lights on our house during the dark month of December. And being different was the very last thing I wanted to be as an emerging adolescent.
“How come your Jewish books open up backward and have those funny-looking letters in them?” Cheryl asked me one day.
“Why do you have to go to school after school? Are you stupid or something?” Linda asked, giving me elbow digs that hit deeper than the surface.
I didn’t have the words or the convictions back then to explain what it took me years to appreciate; that an essential part of being Jewish is the continuing responsibility to learn, study and grow throughout our lifetime.
To learn: from our sacred texts such as the Torah, Talmud and hundreds of other works by Jewish sages, rabbis, philosophers and teachers.
To study: alone, in pairs and in groups, with our children, our parents, our partners and our community, so that our decisions and choices in life can be informed by Jewish knowledge, wisdom and practice.
To grow: into a “mensch,” a person who is compassionate, caring, respectful, honest and aware of the responsibilities we have to each other, our earth and the Source of creation.
Over the years, my teachers have come in different shapes, sizes, ages, affiliations and sexes. I have learned from rabbis and student rabbis, from cantors and professional educators. I have sat at the feet of great masters from New York to Jerusalem, aware that I was learning from some of the best and brightest minds in Jewish thought and theology.
I have also learned from some of the finest people I know, who guided me through the canyons of my curiosity, embarrassment and ignorance and taught me how to love Judaism without even realizing it. My grandmother stands out as one of the greats, a woman with no more than a fifth-grade education who taught me how to light Shabbat candles and make chicken soup sweetened with parsnips. My friend Esther, whose generosity of spirit and willingness to share her love of Judaism inspired me to be a better Jew and a better person. My colleague Jeffrey, who patiently explained Hebrew prayers to me; my sister-in-law Judy, who helped me keep kosher; my husband Ray, who fought to maintain the Sabbath in a home where weekends looked like whirlwinds.
Jewish tradition recognizes that we encounter many teachers in our lifetime and that it is up to us to take what we can from each. Simeon Ben Zoma, a great talmudic rabbi, answered the question “Who is wise?” with the following: “He who learns from every person, as it is said: ‘From all my teachers I grew wise’ ” (Psalms 119:99).
Regardless of whether we choose to study Jewish history or ethics or decide to attend a Jewish cultural series or book club, Jewish learning is an integral part of being Jewish. When we commit to Jewish study, we give ourselves the opportunity to learn how Jewish beliefs and traditions can guide us in our daily decisions and help us make sense of the world. Jewish learning is more than a decision to learn about Judaism. It is a pathway to learning about living a more meaningful life.
There are numerous opportunities in the Los Angeles area to engage in adult Jewish learning. Courses are offered on an ongoing basis through our synagogues, the Whizin Center for Continuing Education at American Jewish University, Kollel, Skirball’s Learning for Life, Aish HaTorah, the Florence Melton Adult Mini School and the Sephardic Educational Center, among others. A phone call to any of these institutions or organizations can help you determine what course of study you want to pursue.
It has always been hard to set aside the time for Jewish study. That is why the Talmud cautioned us more than 1,500 years ago with the following advice: “Do not say, When I have leisure time I will study, for you may never have leisure time” (Pirkei Avot, 2:5).
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an award-winning, nationally syndicated columnist, author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney. Her book “One God, Many Paths: Finding Meaning and Inspiration in Jewish Teachings” (Wheatmark, 2008) is available at amyhirshberglederman.com.