Two times a week, I meet with a class of exactly ten students in a small conference room at UNC Charlotte. Those ten students are dealing with the most difficult history I teach – the history of European antisemitism.
It is challenging work because the readings assigned are among the most sophisticated I teach. It is challenging work because my students are almost always unfamiliar with this history, and it is a painful one.
It is likely that my students will be Christian. Some will be devout. These are students who usually came into my world via courses I teach on Hebrew Bible. We forge, in such courses, deep connections around biblical literature. Our learning may include rabbinic midrash as well as academic commentaries. The exposure to ways Jews have read biblical texts sometimes leads them to question what they might have believed about the Jewish relationship with bible. That can lead them to this course.
I am – and this is hardly unusual – the only Jew in the room. I know, from long experience, how much courage my students are bringing to our course of study. After we covered the way John’s Jesus vilifies Jews as children of the father of lies, as offspring of Satan (John 8:44), a student said: “I’ve read this before. Somehow, I passed over the text. It was just a story. I can’t believe I did that, now.”
Sometimes, as we gather, we trade small news. Recently, I told my students about my new glass whiteboard. It’s huge – it takes up a good part of the wall next to my desk at home. There are columns for each realm I work in – one for the course I am currently teaching for ALEPH Ordination Programs, another to cover administrative work in that realm, another for my work as the director of graduate studies for UNCC’s department of Religious Studies, one for the courses I teach for the department, another for the work I do as a spiritual leader of a small havurah, another for the little Etsy business I have making kippot and tallitot. There is a little corner for “personal.”
My students laughed and asked what was put in that corner.
“The first thing on it,” I said, “is ‘ethical will for Serafina.’”
My students know the name of my son and my daughter-in-law. So they knew who I was talking about – but not what I was talking about.
“Ethical will,” one asked. “What is that?”
I explained. “You know how you have a will for your assets, and what you want done with them after you die? An ethical will is a Jewish tradition. It’s a document that might include pragmatic information, like how you want your funeral to go and that sort of thing. But the main thing is writing down what you want to leave your children in the way of wisdom or learning. It’s a way of summing up what you hope your children will take from you that is truly important or good.”
I had long since written such a text for my son, Erik, and I explained that I periodically updated it for him. But it was now over two years since he had married Serafina, and I felt it was time for me to write her one, too.
For Sera has brought a perfect completion to our little family. I can no longer imagine us without her. She and I had become friends, and as much as I was learning from her, I hoped that there would be some learning I could give back to her. When I died, I would want her to have that from me.
“Well,” one of the students said, “we would miss you, too. What about an ethical will for us?”
The other students agreed, though one was afraid that given everything else on the board, adding something might not be the best thing for me.
“I think it’s a good idea,” I said. “I like it.”
I have been teaching for almost four decades. My students have given me life and hope. They sustain me and they teach me. I rely on their generosity, their kindness, the wisdom they bring into every classroom. I do not overstate: My students also complete my life and make it perfect.
I went home late that day and after I took off my coat and put my backpack in the corner of my office, I picked up a marker and drew a line from “Ethical will for Sera” to the word “students.”
And I will write both.
This post is dedicated both to Serafina, on her birthday. If I hadn’t thought about what I want to write to her I wouldn’t have ever been asked whether I would write to my students….