Life Life Life: Learning to love literature

As educators in Israel ponder how to revitalize English Lit in our schools, they have some tough choices to make.

Illustrative (photo credit: TNS)
(photo credit: TNS)
"Trigger warnings” is a trendy new American phrase for a decidedly uncool topic: it’s a heads-up that college lecturers give before discussions that might be uncomfortable to some. Analyzing literature is always going to be uncomfortable to some; stories deal with conflict, and conflict hurts. So novels that tackle depression or rape or police brutality are deemed “sensitive”; warnings kick off each session.
Colleges, goes the rationale, should be safe spaces where everyone feels at ease; no one should be forced to sit through lectures which could cause pain. It’s a controversial concept, of course; aren’t universities traditionally hotbeds of heated ideas hurled around and bounced off peers with conflicting opinions and experiences; a place where academic freedom and learning-from-diversity are key?
Currently, as far as I know, it’s up to the discretion of individual lecturers in the US whether to warn about hazards reported ahead; about half do. The majority of students remain in their seats; some – ex-combat soldiers from Iraq, for example, who might panic if talking about wars – excuse themselves.
Good luck with that if you’re a literature teacher in Israel. Lately I have found myself questioning every single great work I present. Forget fmr, where Virginia Woolf, like Hamlet before her, questions whether to be or not. Suicide has to be a hard topic all over the world; statistics show that some students in each class must be fighting sadness.
But Israel has a whole lot more issues. In the college where I prepare English teachers to gift their own pupils with great stories and plays, I constantly tread on very thin metaphors and shaky symbols. Everything, it appears, is contentious here.
Romeo and Juliet, you would think, can’t cause much controversy. Right? Wrong.
The pious up and flee my classroom at the star-crossed lovers’ balcony chat; Juliet’s flirtatious talk, and her Romeo’s salacious puns, are too close to scurrilous for some. Especially coupled with the luminous Olivia Hussey’s moonlit shoulders. Not all my religious students exit as I show the Zeffirelli clips, not even most … but the few ultra-Orthodox in my very mixed college always do; not surprising, given that girls are totally erased from haredi textbooks – English and otherwise. “I walk to school; you walk to school; he/she/it walks to school” is illustrated by pictures of Yossis and Moshes; no Rivkas or Saras in sight.
Sex is contentious anywhere; it’s compounded here. Take Somerset Maugham’s Mr. Know-All – a beautiful, thoughtful look at British snobbery and racism. The plot hinges on a stifled urge to out a young wife who has clearly strayed; the pearl necklace she shyly wears onboard an ocean-crossing liner was given to her by someone other than her boorish husband; he is blissfully unaware. The whole story depends on that detail. But in some schools in Israel this issue is fudged; Mrs. Ramsay, or so some pupils are taught, somehow acquires the necklace by herself.
So sex is out; what about religion? Writers from Chaucer onwards examine man’s relationship with God. James Joyce’s Eveline, on the matriculation syllabus for half a century, is set in an Ireland replete with drinking, repression and dutiful saints. It’s hard to teach Joyce without referencing the Church; it’s easy to use this story to broaden minds and widen general knowledge. But (you gotta gasp), I’ve heard it said that certain students in the Holy Land do not need to know what Catholicism is; encountering the concept of Christianity is not considered of any value.
So sex and religion are alliteratively angst-inducing; what’s left? How about highbrow philosophy: your country versus your family home in the country? What’s the higher moral imperative: to die for your ideals, or to compromise your principles and live to feed your kids? (And the hell with the country, others will defend it.)
That wouldn’t go down well in haredi classrooms, but luckily their almost army-aged boys largely don’t learn English. But what about other matriculation classes, where Arthur Miller’s All My Sons is a staple? Is it fair to raise the questions that Larry and Chris ask of Keller about where a man’s responsibility lies? To his next of kin, or to his country? Does the world really end at the building line; or should one put one’s own life on the line to defend the values of our homeland? Can we teach that to our babies who are about to enlist in combat units?
Oy, oy, Israel. It’s so very complicated here. Recently, in my Feminism class I felt compelled to raise an issue currently igniting social media in the US. Mattel has just produced a new Barbie doll swathed in a hijab to honor Ibtihaj Muhammad, the Muslim American Olympic fencer, who always covers her head. This has got all manner of feminist writers’ clothing in a twist: is hair-covering a sign of female empowerment, or does it crush women down, together with their curls?
It’s one thing to argue this in California, where most female hair flows freely in the wind; try raising reasons to hide away your body in a class where almost half of the women do so, and not only Muslims. It’s edgy, to say the least.
So, bared shoulders make some uncomfortable; covered shoulders and elbows and knees make others squirm – and there’s worse. D.H. Lawrence, whose Blind Man has also featured on the matriculation syllabus, raises the specter of alternative sexuality. You can imagine how that goes down in certain schools.
Once A.B. Yehoshua’s The Lover was required reading for high school students; the tender coming-of-age love story chronicles the attraction between a Jewish teen and her father’s Arab worker. Today Dorit Rabinyan’s All the Rivers on a similar theme has been banned in schools; Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev are not crashhot on literature that investigates otherness.
As educators in Israel ponder how to revitalize English Lit in our schools, they have some tough choices to make. Maybe we should just teach the King James English translation of the Bible. Although, looking at some of the salacious stories there, and the epic, gutting conflicts of Man and God – even that might not be acceptable.
What to do?
The writer lectures at Beit Berl and the IDC.