Ed. note: As part of October's month of Memphis firsts, I'm happy to share this guest post from Aaron Brame.
Come to the school where I work, and you will be surrounded by Hebrew. There are Hebrew books on every shelf, Hebrew posters on the walls, and the sounds of children singing in Hebrew echoing down the halls. I don’t know Hebrew, and when I shut the door to my classroom, I am the only illiterate there. I am also the teacher.
Before joining the Margolin Hebrew Academy, I was aware that there was an Orthodox Jewish community in Memphis. I would sometimes see them walking to and from services on Saturdays, but I never came into contact with them. Never mind that I lived only a few miles from the Orthodox school and synagogue – we lived in different worlds.
Then I met my students. They have taught me what it means to live an Orthodox Jewish life in Memphis—how to maintain a very specific, Torah-based lifestyle in the midst of our city. Like other high school students, they stress out over AP exams, audition for plays, and play basketball (extremely well, I've come to find out). But they also study Hebrew, keep the Sabbath, and commit their lives to Jewish law.
I have learned a lot about Judaism since I started teaching at the Hebrew academy, but I’ve learned even more about the people who make Memphis what it is. After living here for 26 years, I thought I understood all I needed to know. But now that I am a part of this thriving community, I realize that I only knew part of it. What would Memphis be without my new students and their families? It wouldn’t be Memphis at all.
Not content to remain illiterate in my own classroom, I went out last week and got a Hebrew primer for adults. I learned my first consonants and vowels—bet, kamatz, reish, shuruk, chaf, and sin–and penciled in the review exercises in my book. The next day, standing in the hallway at school, I searched the many Hebrew posters and signs that hang on the walls, looking for a word I understood.
I found one. Baruch, (בָּרוּך), or “blessed,” the first word of most Jewish liturgical blessings. It wasn’t much, but it was a beginning, and a reaffirmation of the value of education, the power of study, and the joy of understanding one another.
I accosted a passing student and had him check my work; he gave me a passing grade.
Aaron Brame has been teaching English for twelve years. When not teaching, he’s probably reading something by Raymond Carver, recording new music with The Perfect Vessels, or working on his blog. He lives in East Memphis with his wife and two children.