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Heder

People of knowledge use to say that mastering Jewish tradition is basically an interminable process. In Jewish milieu it takes one’s whole life. And its start is as early as infant age – first alphabet letters, first words read unassisted - and understood… These letters and words little people encounter first in heder (elementary Jewish religious school) whereto a Jewish boy is brought as soon as he reaches 3 years. By early 20 th century Odessa by the by numbered about 200 schools of the kind.

This ancestral tradition stems from an ancient instruction: “Educate your children”. These words were never taken by Jews as a merely nice saying. Through all times, in every Jewish community, even in those that could not boast excess riches – there inevitably was a melamed - “educator” was the name for the Torah instructor.

The tradition is still alive with the present Odessa Jews. The to-day’s “Tikva – Ohr Sameakh” Odessa heder has been enacted several years ago. And autumn 2007 became its home-warming date. Now the heder is under the hospitable roof of a “Tikva – Ohr Sameakh” education-and-tutoring complex new branch – in Tairovo residential district, in the spacious and light cozy rooms full of books, toys – of everything, in a word, a little person needs most.

The disciples – despite their early age – are very serious and no doubt very busy people. But somehow they manage everything – deep studies of Jewish tradition, and English, and math lessons, and drawing. And still more – joyful games! The lesson with Rabbi Daniel Nisenzon is barely over, and… where the staidness of those respectable young men has gone ?! They are in raptures mastering vehicles (although toys but still as if real automobiles) whereas their teachers get prepared for the next lesson.

This lesson may seem to be on…culinary – both attributes (a casserole, vegetables, tomato puree) and clothing (the remarkably comfortable aprons the boys seem pleased to put on) fully correspond to it. But in fact it is another lesson on tradition. And dedicated it is – no less – to the ancient story of two brothers, Jacob and Esau. To the story of their confrontation, and the mess of pottage for which Esau the elder brother has sold his first-born right to his younger brother Jacob.

Just this broth (a soup – to be strict!) Rabbi Shmuel Zotkin will cook at the lesson. The scholars help him – mostly with advice, to be true. Thus, they competently recommend using ketchup instead of the tomato puree. They are fascinated to follow all stages of the process, and at the same time, they listen and talk themselves about the central theme of the unusual lesson – the characters and events in the weekly chapter of Torah they have been studying.

Teaching tradition is not a forthright thing actually. Still more complicated it is when one needs to address very small children on such topics as principles of universal structure, laws of existence, the patriarchs’ lots. “Not easy – but interesting”, Shmuel Zotkin says. The principal thing with all that, as to him, is as follows: a person (whether an adult or a small one) cannot be made to study Jewish tradition, just like one cannot be made to believe, or love. In the same way, one should not still confine oneself to giving bare information – as interesting and diverse it can be. Here lies the peculiarity of teaching Jewish tradition: one cannot get going with the pure theoretical knowledge – however significant it is – you need to live within this tradition.

Being asked whether the problems he has to discuss with the kids are too comprehensive, he avers that the main idea is to arrange explanation to make it fascinating, and devise points of attraction for the pupils. And everything will turn okay – both with children and teacher for whom every such lesson is also a discovery.

“Every week we try to introduce something new, in order our pupils take personal part in what this or that weekly chapter presents”, Rabbi Zotkin narrates. “Thus, it is not long since we were talking about Eliezer who went searching for a wife for his brother Yitzhak in the neighborhood of a well; and we made a special trip to see the real well. The kids have never seen the one before. Their delight was literally overwhelming! And when it came to studying the patriarch Abraham’s life story, by mutual efforts here at heder a hut was constructed resembling the one the forefather used to live in. The very soup we have been cooking at the lesson is not a mere soup! In the process of cooking they learned how Jacob liked to obey commandments and how unimportant it was for Esau if he could sell the possibility of devoting himself to the Temple for a mess of pottage… I guess the kids will remember not only the soup but als o everything associated with it, what has happened due to it. Our goal is to inspire genuine interest in our pupils. This is the sole way to anticipate the kids to be not only amused with a lively game but to get the knowledge and understanding of tradition that will stay with them life-long.

…Surely, every real teacher of any subject should not be only knowledgeable in it and apt in teaching. Real teacher makes studies interesting! Moreover, it might be especially important for a little man to have such a teacher beside him when everything in his life just starts.

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