Exceeded Expectations

There is a famous story in the Talmud that describes several rabbis arguing about whether a fellow’s oven is fit for use.  In the course of trying to prove his point, the rabbi who holds the minority opinion attempts to convince his colleagues that he is correct by calling upon God to support him. After the river runs backwards and a voice calls out from heaven that he is correct, his colleagues scoff, saying that they do not determine legal matters based upon heavenly voices.  They quote God, who told Moses and the people of Israel that the law is “not in heaven,” but in their own hands (Deuteronomy 30:12).

The story concludes with God laughing and declaring “Nitzhuni banai,” my children have surpassed me! This is one of my favorite images of God: the parent who is delighted upon realizing that the next generation has finally grown up to be independent adults, who are indeed smarter and more capable than their parents.

I’ve been returning to this moment, at the end of last semester, when my students so surpassed me that all I could do was sit at my computer in the back of the room and project their videos to the whiteboard screen. Listening to them recite their poems of tribute and eulogy to a family member who influenced their lives, I remembered the first time I studied this page of Talmud with my teacher, the one who set high expectations that led me to the rabbinate.

I think my students would agree that I set high expectations for them: requiring repeated revisions of their written work, pushing them to think critically and bolster their arguments with evidence from the text, encouraging them to integrate art, music, and technology to the best of their ability in every assignment. I hope they realize how my soul is nourished every time they exceed my expectations.

This week I shout with joy that my students have surpassed me, as I share their Torah—wisdom—with you here:

  • Read Isabel’s poem about her great-grandfather and namesake, Charles Asman, and watch her slide show, which includes beautiful photos and documents related to his immigration, below.
  • Read “Ruth Leah,” Ruthie’s poem about her namesake, on the Jewish Writing Project. Ruthie’s poem was selected by the project’s coordinator and editor, Bruce Black, who offered feedback on eight poems and encouraged us to continue writing and submitting our work.
  • Watch videos created by Danielle, David and Jack on my website.

“Charles Asman”

Clothing. Charles liked to dress neatly, formally, and spiffy. He would never wear jeans. In this picture, he is wearing a hat. I happen to have a hat quite similar to it, and I, too, like to dress slightly formally, as I do with my button-downs.

He was very humble, due to how soft-spoken he was. A very charitable and generous man, Charles would do good deeds regardless of who was there to witness them. He didn’t care about getting credit for the good things that he did. All he cared about in that respect was spreading good.

An avid reader of the newspaper, Charles definitely was. Every day, he would read The Forward, a Jewish newspaper that was written in Yiddish, his first language.

Religion was very important to my great-grandfather. He and his wife, Fannie, helped start the Orthodox synagogue in Springfield, New Jersey. He went to minyan every day.

Love of laughter. Charles, although a quieter man, was a practical joker who loved to smile and make others happy. Once, he hid with his daughter – my great aunt – and they didn’t make a sound, so his wife, Fannie, couldn’t find them, which he found hilarious. He also convinced his great nephew that a stapler was a quarter machine. A quote of his, “don’t be skimmy,” is still said today in our family. He had a rather thick accent, and meant to say “don’t be skimpy,” as in asking for more portions of ice cream.

Entrepreneur and emigration. Charles lived in Minsk, Belarus until 1921, when he emigrated to Ellis Island, and lived in Kearny, New Jersey. He would later move to Newark, and finally settle down in Springfield, where my grandparents reside to this day. He became a US citizen in 1928. Both of Charles’s parents worked in the clothes department. His father was a tailor and his mother was a dress sales lady. In New Jersey, Charles and Fannie owned a large food market, Stop and Shop, on Broadway in Newark for many years. They also owned some apartment buildings. After operating the food market, Charles worked as an upholsterer.

September 4, 1900 was his birthday. 100 years later, on September 4, 2000, I was born. I was named for him in two ways: my Hebrew name is Yael because his was Yeshaya, and because of the name Charles, my middle name is Callie.



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