Alma Class visiting Suzanne Dellal Center in Neve Zedek
My friend Dorothy was looking for a place to learn Tanach in English. She found Alma College, where she could not only learn Tanach, but also gain a broad understanding of Hebrew culture in the context of her own daily secular life in Tel Aviv. Alma offers “Beit Midrash for English speakers” a series that brings together classic Hebrew texts and the creative cultural life that is flourishing in Tel Aviv.
When Ruth Calderon founded Alma College in 1996 she had in mind the dream of Hayim Nachman Bialik for a renaissance of Jewish culture in a Jewish land. “Beit Midrash for English Speakers” answered Dorothy’s search. Many others also signed up for the class – adults of various ages from various backgrounds.
Jane Foss is a retired nurse who lives half the year in New York and half the year in Tel Aviv. Here’s what she said:
“I've always been embarrassed by my total lack of knowledge of my own religion. Not only have I felt extremely comfortable at Alma, and never embarrassed to reveal how little I know, but also there was a wealth of information presented in a user-friendly manner. Each person brought something different to the ‘mix’. I never in my life imagined I would be dancing with one of the instructors at Suzanne Delal or walking through the Trumpeldor cemetery.”
Deborah Friedes is a dancer, director, and scholar who is spending this year in Israel on a Fulbright grant. Here’s her response to Beit Midrash at Alma:
“I took a friend who is visiting from Canada to the Old Jaffa Cafe today and he loved it. I'm also happy to say that as I have been walking around and showing him Tel Aviv, I've drawn a lot on what I have learned in the Beit Midrash – it's amazing to think how much I've learned about the history of the city in such a short time.”
Steve Orenshtain and his wife Liz, who returned to Israel two years ago from Woodstock, attend the Beit Midrash. Steve has recorded many of the Beit Midrash classes on his website <IsraelSeen>. He says:
“Alma excites me because Alma understands the importance of Jewish knowledge. The knowledge is what lights up being a Jew. Alma provides an opportunity to take back ownership of our tradition. At the Beit Midrash we can learn the Biblical texts from a variety of perspectives, including the secular.”
Lola Gordon, who has lived in Tel Aviv for four years and visits her grandchildren weekly in B’nei B’rak, had this to say:
“As a student at Alma College since September, I have been very pleased with the religious aspect which has directed me to read and study something I found lacking in my everyday life in Tel Aviv for the last four years. I made aliyah from a very secular life and seeing how my observant family in Bnei Brak lives has caused me to question myself in respect of their total commitment. I seem to feel a sense of peace knowing that I am not disregarding what I want to learn. The cultural aspect of the class has been awesome, I have been introduced to the artistic talent in Tel Aviv and am totally impressed.”
Tamar Fono is passionate about the city of Tel Aviv. She says that for her Tel Aviv itself is a text to be experienced. She is the English-speaking hostess who brings creative artists as guest presenters. Ruth discovered Tamar at her mini-spa and nail-bar called “Luck”. A sabra, born in Herzliya, Tamar studied sociology and anthropology for her BA at Tel Aviv University and went on to spend five years in the US. She studied communication and received her MA from the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT). Ruth invited Tamar to help plan a program for English speakers at Alma College. Together they designed the series of four-hour classes based on the concept of Midrash.
I attended one of the Sunday afternoon classes. In the yeshiva tradition of study the group was divided into pairs and assigned to read the text Bereshit. My partner and I soon lost ourselves in the words as we read aloud to each other. Although the text was familiar to me, reading the words out loud with a partner made it new and even puzzling. What is this “let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters”? And what does it mean that these lights “rule over the day and the night”? Soon these questions absorbed our complete attention. At that point Ruth interrupted and declared that we were making the right sound (the sound of dialogue characteristic of a yeshiva class). We had been transported to a state of openness and questioning. Now Tamar introduced her guest, Ariel Horowitz, songwriter and singer. Ariel had composed a Midrash on the text we had just read, a song called The Heaven and the Earth which he sang in Hebrew accompanying himself on a piano keyboard and we followed the English text.
Ariel told us stories about his mother, Naomi Shemer, and sang some of her songs that reflect the Israeli daily life of her generation, one of her songs begins, “In the Nahal settlement in Sinai my eyes have seen many beautiful things, for example, a barefoot soldier her braid falling on her shoulders.” He also sang a few of his own that reflect daily life in the Israel of his generation, one of them is “Sigal Nahmias,” a popular ballad addressed to the girl who sent him the postcard from the army notifying him to report for reserve duty. He closed with a song he wrote recently when his mother was dying. It concludes with the words: “It is not in our power to change, only to collect more memories. And while we wait, instead of crying—we laugh.”
Alma Home for Hebrew Culture is situated in Central Tel Aviv, at 4 Bezalel Yaffo Street, Tel Aviv 61360. Phone 03-5663031.
Website <www.alma.org.il>. You can hear some past sessions of Beit Midrash for English Speakers via computer at