Sunday, April 26, 2009

You Know Everyone

When I was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (where I completed a masters degree in Jewish Education in the 1990s) I had a reputation for “knowing everyone” as I was often accused of by fellow students when they watched me greet others, especially those from other programs, by name and with a smile. A natural extrovert, I was confused by this reaction. At the time the Seminary population, including all forms of staff, could not have topped five hundred; most students were bound for clergy positions in congregations that were likely to be as large and in which most members would hope or even expect that the clergy staff would know them by site as well as by name. So why not start practicing now? That is what I really thought about these exchanges. I was unusually adventurous in my choice of classes: I sat and studied with rabbinical, cantorial and doctoral students. I also took courses at Union Theological Seminary and Teachers College, neighboring institutions that offered reciprocal enrollment. I participated in a number of extra-curricular projects in which I worked with representative students from other programs. So I have this tendency to explore and meet people along the way and get to know them. This is often because I am curious and friendly and ask lots of questions. When I was younger I think I thought everyone did this…
At Interlochen (see New York City State of Mind, entry below) I made friends with Geoff, who worked in the kitchen, because on the first day at dinner while I was waiting online I looked over at him while he was at the sink. I must have made a terrible face as I watched him work at the Army surplus trays on which we were served, causing him to ham it up. He kept me company Saturday afternoons; classes met and I attended but did not perform on instruments, due to my orthodox Jewish praxis, so instead of going to practice sessions I sat with him and debated theology on the lawn. I recently Googled him in a fit of nostalgia after telling the story to a friend (the internet is an amazing and dangerous thing) and learned that he composes music in the Christian world. It was lovely to hear samples of his music. I also became friends with a young librarian who was a pianist and studied at an evangelical college. Both of these friends became pen pals; my pianist friend worked hard to get me to convert. I still have the copy she sent me of a biligual New Testament in Hebrew and English.
Over time my gregariousness has faltered, especially when I feared that it was somehow unappreciated or seemed to be too much. I have been trying to re-cultivate it in different ways. In the last few years my building has undergone a change in ownership and a condo conversion that brought tenants together to discuss the changes and issues that have arisen. I live on the first floor and without the benefits of elevator chatting time I knew many folk by sight but not by name. As a result of the recent activity I have gotten to know most of my neighbors and become good friends with a few of them. It is a treat and a blessing that my building now feels like a shtetl. And it is one; many of the tenants have lived here for decades, are close with each other, and remember as I do the ways that the ‘hood has changed over the years.
I am quite fallible, despite the reputation. I have been surprised on a few occasions when younger schoolmates recognized me even though I had no recollection of them. I can still hear one alumna of my high school saying “But we remember you” and feeling terrible about the ageism of adolescents. There was a time when I really did remember most everyone I met but now I forget more often than I would like; I especially forget names. It is embarrassing, but names are hard for me to remember unless they are attached to people’s stories. So sometimes I can tell you many details about a person’s life and circumstances, but I have forgotten their name, especially if it is a more common one, like David or Rachel, because when I heard it when I met them there was not story yet.
In a related vein but somewhat off-topic, the Manhattan School of Music is in the same neighborhood as JTS. The first time I went with a friend to have lunch there I almost cried because the excited buzz in the hallways was so different from the church-like or sepulchral tone across the street (a common joke or slip of the tongue is to substitute “cemetery” for “seminary”). The School of Music was alive with noise, notes and chatter. I often wonder about the difference between the two places and if it can in part account for the phenomenon that I am describing. Do students at places like Interlochen or MSM engage more with each other because of the nature of their activities? There are of course a host of other factors to consider in making such comparisons; I can still feel what it was like to walk down the halls in both places. And I sometimes wonder why, after these experiences, I did not return to music or the arts; I am so moved when I remember the vibrancy of the arts settings in which I studied as a child. How do our environments inspire or dissuade us from getting to know each other and learn about each other’s lives? What are the educational opportunities and costs of these environmental factors in terms of how students learn and engage with each other? How might educators pay more attention to the cultures of their institutions? And can you teach people to be interested in others, in learning their names and stories?
© 2009 Leah Strigler

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