My husband saw the pair of decoder rings in a catalogue, long before our twins were old enough for them. Still, he ordered them and put them away. At the time, it amused me. How could he predict the future? Would our kids want these someday?
Fast forward to one October 2020 pandemic weekend. I’m not sure how he knew it was the right time. Before I knew it, two 9-year-olds were whizzing around the house, holding onto rings much too large for their fingers, and sending each other secret messages in code.
When they returned to school that Monday, they continued with the crazy codes, trying to teach their classmates about it. Unfortunately, this fun was short-lived. About a week later, we got an email from the school. It said that remote learning “may” be offered, and that we could sign up if we “might” be interested.
The situation was worsening in Manitoba, so we clicked through late on a Saturday night. This seemed wise, if we indeed understood the confusing letter correctly, that this remote learning might be happening. In any case, if some people signed up for the remote learning, it would allow more room in our older, smaller school building for others to social distance. Well, surprise! We were contacted on Monday morning and, by that Wednesday, our kids were at home again, learning with us. In the long run, this is the right choice – Judaism teaches us to value life above all else.
Both my husband and I are already working from home. At the beginning of my career, I used to teach school. Although I’ve never taught Grade 4 before, we’re muddling through. The remote learning we’re offered doesn’t continue the Hebrew curriculum we had before. It started with a single Hebrew packet, but, when it looked like we were nearing the end and I asked the school if it had more to share, I got a stern “no” in response. Remote learning offers only the basics, even if we can see via Instagram that, in class, the kids’ schoolmates are still doing fun projects without us.
It’s hard on children to feel left out. However, since there’s already been a COVID virus exposure at the school, we made the safe choice for us. My kids are lonely for their friends. My husband, a biology professor, thinks that schools should shut down now, until the infection rate lessens and the health system isn’t so overburdened.
Yet, here we are, with an everyday virtual, multi-age “school lesson” that lasts an hour. We do the reading, writing, math and science on our own. We also do something Jewish. One night, it was a discussion about Mezritch, which was a centre of Chassidism. Another day we talked about tefillin. On a third day, we learned about Sigd, the Ethiopian Jewish holiday celebrated 50 days after Yom Kippur, which is now a national holiday in Israel. The kids keep up their Hebrew as best we can, with my support and by using a free language program online.
Today, we hit the very last page of the Hebrew packet sent home by the school a couple weeks ago. There were moans about how hard it was and further cries when they realized there was no more of the “packet Hebrew.” For me, the last page left a special, coded gift.
This page taught about how each letter of the aleph bet, the Hebrew alphabet, also signified a number. Aleph is one, for instance. The numerical values of the letters of chai, the word for life, add up to 18.
My kids struggled with this page for entirely different reasons. But, if we can learn to write the numbers in Arabic numerals (also called the Hindu-Arabic system), we can learn the Hebrew ones. We’ll learn to spell out the number names in Hebrew. Like magic, I’d been given a gift, a secret decoder system to share. We just have to learn all the symbols together!
I won’t lie. I wish my kids’ class had all gone “remote” together, so they could see their classmates for an hour a day. I wish the pandemic hadn’t happened. I wish I’d gone to bed earlier over the weekend, instead of staying up late, reading the huge obituary section – but wait, that’s not right.
My biggest wish that puts all these little ones to shame? I want to honour every life that’s in those obits, every life that has been lost. There’s so much suffering, death and loss right now, and we’re all working our way through it.
I also want to honour the diverse positive ways we’ve innovated and managed during a scary, singular experience. Studying a textual tradition like ours, that’s thousands of years old, means we have deep resources. We can hear about deaths and the first obituaries in the Torah portions this time of year. We imagine similar chaotic experiences like Noah’s ark in the flood, or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. There are plenty of opportunities to think through our rich history during remote or home school.
On the plus side? It also means that I have a Hebrew lesson plan for tomorrow and beyond. We have access to an ancient, special Hebrew numerical code, called Gematria, and a mom teacher who now gets to figure out how to use that, along with those fancy decoder rings, for good – for the twins to learn math, puzzles, Hebrew and more … in Grade 4.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.