After graduating from eighth grade at a Manhattan Jewish day school, I enrolled at a secular high school. I promised myself that I would embrace my Jewish values, even in a different setting. The idea of leaving my Jewish school bubble worried me, yet I soon found unexpected understanding and interest in my Jewish identity during English class, of all places.
My ninth-grade English teacher announced one day to the class that we would read a translation of the Biblical book of Genesis, as a contrast with our earlier book study of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. When she uttered those words, I felt ecstatic knowing we would be discussing close and familiar. At my Jewish day school, we studied the book of Bereshit (Hebrew word for Genesis) by translating the Hebrew text into English, examining commentary from Middle Ages Judaic scholars like Rambam, Rashi and Abraham ibn Ezra, and analyzing the meaning of the text. This project felt like home to me, especially during this time of school transition. However, as I read through the book Genesis translated by Robert Alter, I looked differently at the very same words that my Jewish day school class had studied. Despite knowing the text intimately, I now read with a literary lens of searching for themes, the author’s literary devices, hidden motifs, character development and plot turns. Instead of a holy book, I followed protocols of literary analysis just as I would for any book in English class and that felt strange and interesting.
When participating in class discussions, I tried to share the duality of my understandings and perspectives, both proudly religious and fiercely secular. I wondered privately if there exists a right or wrong interpretation of Genesis and בראשית? I concluded that Jews interrogate Talmudic Scriptures and holy texts all the time, it’s part of the scholarly approach to Jewish learning. Often followers of one rabbi agree with one interpretation and followers of another rabbi arguing otherwise. Suddenly, I felt closer to the words of Genesis than never before, as this now summed up my experience, making Talmudic study my own and allowing for different understandings.
Learning in “chevruta” (a partnership) is a core Jewish value that I practiced as a student throughout my Jewish education. Judaism promotes communal learning—that is, text study with another person to fully understand the material. By understanding both the religious and secular perspectives on Genesis, בראשית, I gained a deeper understanding of the text that mirrors what occurs during chevruta. My great-great-grandfather, a Jewish rabbi and cantor in England during World War II, studied regularly with a Christian vicar who had a bachelor’s degree in Hebrew from Oxford. They set out weekly to study Talmud and Gemorah together and my grandfather explained to me that his grandfather enjoyed and benefited greatly from these sessions. Learning together, whether as Jews with a common faith or as a partnership or group of varied faith, strengthens the experience and knowledge gained.
Reading Genesis as a literary book helped me realize the importance of reading with a fresh lens. I experienced this both literally and figuratively. Genesis and בראשית underscore the importance of learning in a different way, pushing me to explore different understandings of the words. During my transition to a new high school, I had to read the world in a new way. I learned to take my previous knowledge and identity and apply my learning in a different setting.
As I continue to navigate high school and beyond, I try to follow lessons from the Talmud and actions of our ancestors. I will work to challenge my thoughts, deepen my knowledge and learn from others. Just as importantly, I will stay open to many interpretations and ideas that come my way.
Sarah Phillips is a freshman at The Spence School in Manhattan.