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Tevye in Amherst: A Glimpse into the Great Jewish Books Program

I have known Hannah Elbaum literally since before she was born. Hannah’s mom and I have been fast friends since our freshman year in college; I was a bridesmaid in Hannah’s parents’ wedding; and I was among the first to hear that Hannah was on the way (and to meet newborn Hannah in the hospital).

So you can imagine how I began kvelling when I heard that Hannah had been accepted to the 2014 Great Jewish Books Summer Program for high school students at the National Yiddish Book Center. I asked Hannah if she would be kind enough to write up a guest post about her experience, in part because I wish I could attend the program myself. How I would love to spend an entire week in beautiful Amherst, Massachusetts, reading, discussing, and arguing about Jewish literature! When Hannah agreed to contribute her insights, I suggested that she might share with us a typical day in the program. She complied, and I’m delighted to present this glimpse into what was apparently a vibrant and memorable week.

Hannah Elbaum is a high school senior, eagerly awaiting the next chapter in her life. She was a Diller Teen Fellow of 2012-2013, and a Rising Voices Fellow of 2013-2014. Currently, she is the president of the senior youth group at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where she has held a variety of leadership roles and is an active participant in the North American Federation of Temple Youth-Northeast Region.

Please welcome Hannah Elbaum!

A Day in My Life at the Great Jewish Books Program

Guest Post by Hannah Elbaum


7:30 am: My alarm goes off, I hit the “off” button, and promptly, I fall back asleep. A few minutes later I hear a friend walking down our dorm hallway, and I get out of bed and make my way over to the dining hall for breakfast. Over scrambled eggs and fruit, my friends and I contemplate our readings for the day: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” and Isaac Babel’s “Story of My Dovecot.”

9:00 am: Among the group, there seems to be confusion over the plot of “Story of My Dovecot,” and we hope that our session professor, Sasha Senderovich, will be able to clarify for us. Not only is he able to do that, but we quickly delve into discussions about the characters’ relationships to each other and to the wider world.

10:15 am: “Gimpel the Fool” is the focus of the second class, taught by Professor Josh Lambert. Seminar-style, we talk about Gimpel and his position in the town. As a fool, Gimpel becomes a more accessible character for the reader, and we sympathize with him in his lack of autonomy.

Tevye11:30 am: Discussion groups of five or six, each led by a Resident Advisor, are my favorite part of each day. Within a small group, we are able to dig deeper into specific parts of the texts and draw connections into our own lives. For this group, we begin with [Sholem Aleichem’s] Tevye stories, a reading we all completed before the program started. Tevye has been such an icon of Jewish and Yiddish culture for so long that it feels strange to dissect his emotions and motives, but I leave feeling more connected to Tevye and impressed by his strength throughout the changing times.

12:30 pm: Lunch time!

1:15 pm: In our free time, optional activities are offered, or we are welcome to spend the time reading, napping, or just hanging out. Today, a group of us decide to venture though a cornfield to a local store to pick up a few snacks, and then spend some time in a gazebo next to the dorm, chatting.

3:30 pm: The group comes together as a whole to review El Illuminado, a graphic novel by Professor Ilan Stavans that we read before the program. Telling the complex and layered story of a crypto-Jewish family in New Mexico, the book opens a door to an entire world of Jewish culture that I did not know existed. Later tonight we will be meeting Professor Stavans, so we spend some time reviewing our earlier reading.El-Iluminado-A-Graphic-Novel-thumb-300x415

4:45 pm: We now spend some time reading our stories for tomorrow’s classes, which will focus on “When You Say You’re a Jew,” by Elisa Albert, and “The Deserted Wife,” by Dvora Banks.

5:45 pm: Dinner includes French fries, salad, and a general buzz of excitement for the arrival of Professor Stavans.

7:00 pm: Ilan Stavans has arrived! The group gathers in a theater to discuss identity and secrets. Our conversation is organic. Professor Stavans guides us with questions and pushes us to explain our points, speak concisely, and craft definitions of both “identity” and “secrets”.

9:00 pm: Dorm meetings, then time for bed. Reading and talking all day is really quite exhausting!

ED note: Exhausting, maybe, but so, so interesting! Thank you for letting us see a bit of your experience, Hannah!

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