Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
My Jewish life has always been active. I became a Bat Mitzvah right on time, inherited the position of cantorial soloist at my tiny congregation by age 14, and took on the stage role of a Holocaust survivor in my high school’s One Act Competition play before I got a driver’s license. But it wasn’t until the summer leading into 12th grade that I sat down with a chevruta, the Jewish equivalent of a study buddy, for the very first time.
I remember sitting criss-cross applesauce on the floor of a hotel ballroom, introducing myself to Avital, a smart-looking, fast-talking New Yorker who could quote Aaron Sorkin as easily and artfully as she could Rashi. We invited Dave, a shy Texan with a quick smile, to help us form a trio. We then dug into my inaugural text, Pirkei Avot 1:6.
“Make for yourself a rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person favorably.”
It seemed too simple to me. Is this what all the hype around text study amounted to? Avital’s Talmudic mind began whirring, and Dave focused his poet’s eyes intently on the slips of paper in front of us.
And that’s where the memory stops. I am left without closure. To this day, I can’t confidently discuss this text without backtracking on my own words and getting tangled in the minutiae of Hebrew linguistics. I don’t remember my friends’ comments or opinions. Exasperated, I’ve tried to just put this teaching behind me on several occasions.
I have a feeling, however, that this teaching is not done with me. Living independently for the first time in my life, set loose in a brand new city with all the friends in the world to acquire and every passer-by a rabbi in the making, I am working to judge each person favorably from minute-to-minute. This component is the key to the other two. Only by setting aside my own prejudices can I begin to see someone else’s value as a friend and teacher, and when we study together in chevruta, our compounded knowledge equals more than the sum of its parts.
With the diverse commentary I inevitably gained from Dave and Avital, one raised in the Reform movement and the other Conservative, my initial understanding of this text expanded threefold, and my connection with any text exponentially flourished from there. We have since lost touch, connecting via Facebook about the occasional article of mutual interest, but I believe that having once learned together, our minds are forever broadened.
The reason I return to this particular teaching at each turn in my life is because as I establish rapport with new people, I must also call upon my old chevrutas, nourishing our relationships through careful thought and Jewish text, like the Pirkei Avot quote still sitting with me. The quote itself, and the experience of small-group study and continued connection takes me back to a phrase that seems equally ancient and ageless and carries a similar message– the song I sang as a Girl Scout: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, and the other gold.”
The lessons I absorbed from past chevrutas and the skills I picked up from this mental and moral exercise have transferred seamlessly into my secular life. I can study a text Jewishly even if it is not a Jewish text. And when I invite a friend, either silver or gold, to sit and read and discuss with me, the result is truly priceless.
Pronounced: ah-VOTE, Origin: Hebrew, fathers or parents, usually refering to the biblical Patriarchs.