July 13th, 2011


Yeshivat Hadar mid-summer review

So this is the 4th week of my 8 weeks learning at Yeshivat Hadar this summer. But I'm missing a week later in the summer. So sometime this week is the midpoint. Setting the math to find the exact midpoint aside, I have more time to write on Wednesdays than the rest of the week, so let's call that midpoint RIGHT NOW.

I'm halfway done already! Sad. I wish it were lasting longer.

I've grown and learned a ton so far in the past three-and-a-half weeks! I think it's useful for me if I try to catalog some of them so I have something to look back on in this regard. So:
  • At the start of the summer I was not comfortable with reading and translating even vocalized Hebrew, even relatively straightforward Hebrew texts like the Torah (first 5 books of the Jewish bible). I couldn't even read for pronunciation, let alone comprehension, except with texts I was already familiar with. Now, though I still struggle with reading out loud, a lack of vowels doesn't hurt me nearly as much, and I tend to be able to translate well over half of what I read in Torah.

  • At the start of the summer I didn't know any Aramaic, and had even more trouble reading it for pronunciation than I did Hebrew. Now I know how similar it is to Hebrew, and can often translate or convert talmudic Aramaic into the corresponding Hebrew (even if I can't translate to English). I can also recognize when the talmud is using Hebrew instead of Aramaic, because my comprehension goes up...

  • At the start of the summer I knew that the talmud uses a lot of shorthand, acronyms, idiomatic/technical phrases, and generally a more concise writing style than you'd expect even from other ancient texts. I was really intimidated by all of that. Now I'm much more comfortable with the overall structure even in situations when the meaning is more opaque. In general, I'm not afraid to open a page of talmud and try to figure out what it's saying, even if I need a lot of time and multiple dictionaries to even have a hope of understanding.

  • At the start of the summer I had no idea why one would need multiple dictionaries to translate talmud. Now I know that there's a hard-to-use dictionary that has everything in it, if you know where to look and can understand what it's saying; and that there's an easier and clearer and cross-referenced dictionary that has only technical or common words and phrases in it.

  • At the start of the summer I had never been to a nursing home before. Now I've been 3 times, and am not dreading the next one.

  • At the start of the summer, I was bad at thinking about God, meaning, theology, and metaphysics. Now I can slightly better articulate the ways in which I am bad at those. (And now I at least have some sort of definition of "metaphysics"!)

  • At the start of the summer I had no idea why learning 14 hours a day would be fun (though was kind of sure that it somehow was), didn't know how I'd handle the lack of free time, and wasn't sure if I'd be able to handle 7 weeks of this. Now I'm already trying to figure out how I can one day do something like this again.

Really, so much of my skill-building comes from heightened expectations. A little tangent for you: I was always particularly good at math. When I switched schools in 10th grade, I went to a school that had more math competitions than I was used to, both in the form of a traveling team going to in-person competitions, and in the form of national tests. In my first few months, I took a monthly 5-question test I'd never heard of before a few times, scored better than my classmates in general, and was pretty proud of myself. After that, though, I joined the traveling math team. The next month, the monthly test fell on the same day as a competition we were going to. Before we left, our coach gave us the tests and said, "Our tradition for this competition is to just take the test really quick in the morning, score our fives, and then go." Score our fives? This test was supposed to be easy enough that people on the team could just get 5s most of the time? I was no longer happy with the better-than-my-classmates scores, and ended up pushing myself even harder to keep up with this new standard and get my 5s.

I came into the summer worried that talmud would be over my head, and hoping that they'd go easy on us so I could keep up. Well, they haven't gone easy on us and it wasn't over my head. Each talmud level calmly and prosaically expects more from the students than I thought they would, and covers harder material than I expected, based on the amounts of knowledge and experience associated with each level. People who have limited comfort with Hebrew are placed in a class where they're expected to just tackle talmud in its original text, which is not only Hebrew but also Aramaic, and can't use a translation? People who are better with Hebrew but have no talmud or Aramaic experience are expected to not just read talmud in the original, but also some of the (sometimes more difficult) commentaries?

Those heightened expectations, and the un-noteworthy way that they're just present rather than a hyped-up goal, have led me to be able to accomplish all that I've accomplished. I've been pushed by those expectations, pushed by my chevruta who encouraged us to move up a level to even higher expectations, and pushed by fantastic teachers and insightful classmates. It's not easy work. But it's led to a huge improvement, and in only three and a half weeks. I'm amazed, and grateful.

3 and a half more weeks left. 2 shabbatonim. Only 7 or 8 full 14-hour days left! Luckily, plenty of time to learn a lot more. And I can't wait.

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