Yet, every now and then, Mikaela humors me. And we read a novel together. Slowly. One or two chapters at a time, followed by an in-depth discussion where she asks me lots of questions. And then goes on to answer all of them herself.
Last month was my turn to pick, so I'd chosen The Chosen. It was a favorite book in junior high, introduced by an English teacher who tossed out the regular 7th grade textbook in favor of bombarding students with excellent 'young adult' novels, class periods spent debating the morality of characters' decisions, and weekly, intensive essay writing tests. (She could only do such an irresponsible thing because she planned to quit teaching after that year anyway. Between classes, we drilled with the 1,000 handwritten vocabulary flashcards she'd made for the upcoming GRE. That is, when she wasn't busy in an administrator's office receiving poor evaluations for her unacceptably slacker teaching methods.)
The Chosen is a wonderful and challenging book, with layers of meaning and an intensely nerdy appeal. It's about the joy of learning. It's about friendship. And it's about the arduous, often tedious, phases one must endure for the sake of both. But, it also has kids as its main characters, so, compared to Mikaela's usual fare, is accessible and at the "appropriate reading level" for her age. Moreover, I could actually contribute something to the discussions, further explaining the numerous detailed passages regarding Hasidism, orthodox practices and the subtle distinctions in various sects' beliefs.
But the most significant theme in the novel is the necessity that intellect be complemented by the soul. It is a powerful concept when reading the book and identifying with its teenage protagonists, both Reuven, who seems to have a natural inclination to empathy, and Danny, whose brilliant mind often hinders his emotional insights. But it is equally poignant when rereading it as a parent, with the added responsibility of guiding a
After wrapping up our study of the novel, we happened onto this article in The New York Times: Yes, Miky, There Are Rabbis in Montana. It was a neat summation to our talks, as well as a reminder of how the history of Judaism comes into play in today's current events. The reporter prays upon readers' expectations in the post-9/11 era, toying with biases and perceived prejudice, both toward a Hasidic rabbi and the dogged police officer. The premise serves to provide contrast to commonly held preconceptions, by revealing a community in Billings that creatively fought intolerance, for example, as well as to set us up for his surprise ending.
Yet, it was not so very surprising to Mikaela. In part, this was due to our reading of The Chosen. But, its relevance went further, into homeschooling experiences that we never would have connected to the novel on our own.
We, too, had met a K-9 policeman and his dog. Back in 2004, Mikaela wrote about it in her own news article:
Her interview with Alpo came about by chance, on one of our many, many visits to the Houston Police Department's stables. At the time, our lil' National Velvet was in a typical, horse-crazy girl mode, memorizing everything equine, briefly taking riding lessons, and primarily devoting her energies to corralling her folks into weekly field trips to call on her HPD favorites (neigh, she loved them all). It soon evolved into a regular family outing, including a ritual first stop at a local Latino grocery for bags of carrots & apples for the horses and fritters & churros for us, followed by lazy afternoons spent watching & petting the horses. But, when we arrived early one morning instead, Alpo and his best friend were working out on a dog-sized obstacle course. In addition to learning all about K-9 duties, M&K's attentions turned to trying to coax Alpo into accepting a carrot and, with it, a vegetarian lifestyle.
More recently, we traveled to Bozeman and visited several small towns in Montana, including Libby, where we stopped for lunch. To our dismay, it perfectly fulfilled our every notion of the Wild West: As we stepped out of the (station)wagon, air thick with smoke & cinders stung our eyes... due to a wildfire raging on the ridge right above town! However, besides an occasional airplane pilot circling round to drop fire retardant, no one else seemed to notice. People were doing their grocery shopping, cracking jokes at the gas station or lingering over Subway sandwiches, with nary a glance at the looming orange flames. We city slickers got right back into the car & hurried on as fast as the 25 mph speed limit would allow to Glacier National Park, with a quick detour through its three gateway towns, one of which is Whitefish. Little did we realize then that being awed by Montana's scenery would also let us in on a sophisticated NY Times inside joke. (A rabbi, a cop and a German shepherd walk into a capitol building...)
None of these events were essential for understanding or appreciating The Chosen. And all happened independently of each other, with no foreseeable connections amongst them. But, one of the most exciting things about learning is seeing the relationships between what at first appear to be disparate things. And one of the greatest benefits of homeschooling is that it allows the time & opportunities to delve into topics of interest, engage in thoughtful conversations, build a one-reporter newspaper publishing empire, stroll around some quaint & heretofore obscure small town, or just pass the day horsing around. And, by doing such random things, find the connections between them. And, by doing that, see the connections to ourselves, as well.
My hope is that Mikaela has absorbed The Chosen's lesson that intellect must include compassion. It is a philosophy that applies to us as individuals, yet also necessarily extends to all levels of interaction. The conflicts facing the Middle East are just as complex and divisive now as they were when Chaim Potok described them sixty years ago. The need for an approach to the peace process which balances reason and compassion for both sides concerned, and the ultimate worthiness of engaging in talking rather than silence, would be well chosen.