Monday, September 7, 2009

First Day of School

"At age five or six, a Jewish boy living in medieval Germany or France might begin his formal schooling by participating in a special ritual initiation ceremony. Early on the morning of the spring festival of Shavuot (Pentecost), someone wraps him in a coat or talit (prayer shawl) and carries him from his house to the teacher. The boy is seated on the teacher's lap, and the teacher shows him a tablet on which the Hebrew alphabet has been written. The teacher reads the letters first forwards, then backwards, and finally in symmetrically paired combinations, and he encourages the boy to repeat each sequence aloud. The teacher smears honey over the letters on the tablet and tells the child to lick it off.

Cakes on which biblical verses have been written are brought in. They must be baked by virgins from flour, honey, oil, and milk. Next come shelled hard-boiled eggs on which more verses have been inscribed. The teacher reads the words written on the cakes and eggs, and the boy imitates what he hears and then eats them both.

The teacher next asks the child to recite an incantation adjuring POTAH, the prince of forgetfulness (sar ha-shikhehah), to go far away and not block the boy's heart (lev; i.e. mind). The teacher instructs the boy to sway back and forth when studying and to sing his lessons out loud.

As a reward, the child gets to eat fruit, nuts, and other delicacies. At the conclusion of the rite, the teacher leads the boy down to the riverbank and tells him that his future study of Torah, like the rushing water in the river, will never end. Doing all of these acts, we are told, will "expand the (child's) heart."

--Ivan G. Marcus, Rituals of Childhood: Jewish Acculturation in Medieval Europe

Tomorrow, unmarked by public ritual and foodstuffs, is my first day of school. It has been over two years since I have been enrolled in a class and I am a little nervous about my return to graduate school. I have planned for this for months and I have recently ramped up my preparation by buying books, starting assignments, and meeting with professors. Still I feel unready.

Graduate school this time around has a finality and seriousness to it that was lacking in my first experience of it. That is a very good and promising thing, but also a deeply troubling one. What if I am just not cut-out to be in academics? What if I am not successful in my studies? Or worse, what if I hate being back in school? What do I do then?

It is probably best not to think too far along these lines before I even start; better to just eat an egg and hope that the Prince of Forgetfulness keeps his distance.

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