Teaching Children How To Think

Then there is the one about the Russian ticket collector who accosts a Jew in one of the train cars. “What makes Jews so smart?”

“Herring,” responds the Jew.

“How much do you want for that jar of herring, Jew?”

“Two rubles.” He forks over the money, and begins eating the contents. All is fine till the next stop, where the collector sees herring for sale for a fraction of the cost, and angrily confronts the Jew, for grossly overcharging him.

Maintaining his composure, the Jew responds, “See, you’re getting smarter already!”

So what is the reason for Jewish intellectual success? Gefilte fish? The hostility of non-Jews leaving us no other option? A tradition of study? A genetic disposition for a fatty substance that speeds electric flow between synapses? G-d’s special blessing?

Popular interest in the cause of Jewish smarts leads to some interesting phenomena. Like my Korean friend, who has insisted for decades that Jewish study of the Talmud leads to Jewish overachievement. No amount of arguing that the vast majority of Jewish Nobel laureates he pointed to would not be able to tell if a volume were right side up or upside down could convince him otherwise. He always shrugs it off, claiming that the tradition of how to think survived in secular form even in families that had distanced themselves from religious practice. He still thinks that Talmud is the way to go.

Curiously, a series of books published in Israel primarily for charedi children promotes the same principle, The several books in the A Yiddishe Kop series are gobbled up shortly after publication. They have been translated into several languages (including English), and you’ve seen nothing like them before. They are not about a law-enforcement officer who speaks the dialect used for centuries by Eastern European Jews, but about the ability of the Jewish mind to solve problems.

They are the product of the creative genius of Gadi Pollack. We first encountered him many years ago as the capable illustrator of one of R. Baruch Chait’s books. Gadi hails from the former Soviet Union, and moved into complete observance. After considerable success illustrating books that others had written, he tried his hand at his own.

Gadi sees things were others don’t. (Learning once with a chavrusa, he asked him to switch positions at the table. He had been facing the Jerusalem-stone wall of the beis medrash. The veins of color running through the stone suggested all sorts of patterns and things. They were distracting his concentration on the gemara.) The premise of the books is that when you pay attention to detail and nuance, you can learn a great deal through deductive and inductive reasoning.

The books are collections of full-color illustrations of scenes from charedi life. Each is accompanied by a series of questions about the people and events in the picture. The reader’s first reaction is “how am I supposed to know! The picture doesn’t say anything about that!”

Having nowhere else to go, the reader then takes a closer look – especially at small details.

Each picture is saturated with them, largely because Gadi’s own eye takes in everything. A picture of a father and son in front of their home, poses questions to the reader about the weather the night before. (It was hot, as evidenced by the small pool of water near the drainage hose from the air conditioner.) A depiction of a frum family on an outing in their car is keyed to questions about the direction of flow of the river on their left (the hint is in a road sign on the other side of the car indicating a grade in the road), and whether the car is accelerating or decelerating (the answer combines the fact that the low-gas gauge on the instrument panel is illuminated, while the navigation screen shows a gas station just beyond the approaching exit ramp.) Many of the questions require knowledge of halacha and minhag that would be available to children with very strong Torah chinuch.

Answers are provided in the back of the book. Sometimes the author will show multiple ways of arriving at them. He does not, however, believe that there are multiple lessons to take away from his book. In a prominent introduction, he spells out for the reader what the takeways should be: If you enjoy the problem-solving, whether you got all the answers or only a few, there is only one place you should head – straight to your gemara!

Inviting people to learn more gemara certainly resonates with me. Exploring the sefer with the enthusiastic help of a collection of my granddaughters, I did find the message amusing. And very progressive. Half the readers of the books are girls. Apparently, there are some in the charedi world who, as of late, must be advocating gemara study for women!

Or maybe not.

Resonate or not, I don’t think that the author’s conclusion is correct. At least not if the author means (and he may not) that the sole place for observant Jews to go to develop sharper reasoning skills (and for parents to go to develop them in their children) is gemara. Gemara, in fact, is hard to beat. But it won’t work for everyone. Something that could conceivably reach some of the others is as close as the Shabbos table

A generation ago, I was irked by the parsha sheets that the kids came home with each week. These were supposed to be reviewed at the Shabbos table. Some teachers provided answers for the parents; others did not bother. The questions were often boiler-plate and unimaginative. The answers were often enough wrong! They were sometimes given out to entire grades, or multiple grades, which meant going over the same material several years running.

I thought that there should be a better way. I developed what became known as Abba’s parsha questions, which meant that they were next to impossible to answer, were quirky and often humorous – but forced participants to think. The aim was not to come up with the “right” answer, so much as to take a closer look at the way the Torah phrased things, and to think through the background to the action. Only two people had good track records at figuring out what was on my mind without more assistance. (One was my youngest child, now a founding member of a new kollel in Berlin; the other a bright young women who was a student of mine at Loyola Law School, and turned into a regular Shabbos guest. Both managed to figure out my twisted sense of humor.) That didn’t matter. When those around the table could not come up with a satisfactory answer, I offered a series of hints, calling attention to nuances in the text, or questions about the events described. After a few of those hints, the solutions appeared.[1] Along the way, my kids and our guests not only got to sharpen their thinking skills, but engage in animated conversation about the ideas and events involved.

A few of my kids suggested that I write up the exercises, and turn them into a book for parents. I began to do so, and approached a publisher. They were sympathetic, but turned down the idea cold. They knew book sales, they said. The last thing people want to do is to have to think! Too difficult and painful! The book would never sell.

So I dropped the idea. Perhaps the success of A Yiddisher Kop suggests that my decision was premature, and the time will still come for moving the Leyl Shabbos parsha event from uniform and boilerplate to creative.

  1. As I recall, the very first such question I posed was in Lech Lecha. I asked how Avraham’s story could have changed had he had a credit card. The first reaction of kids, of course, is that no one had credit cards back then. After urging them to use their imaginations anyway, I prodded them with some leading questions. What do people use plastic cards for? Are there occasions when many people need to purchase things they can’t easily keep with them? Someone eventually thinks of a road trip. Did Avraham take any in the parsha? In short order, some child would remember Rashi’s comment on וילך למסעיו (Bereishis 13:3) that Avraham stopped off at the same lodging inns on the way back from Egypt as on the first leg of his journey. On the way to Egypt, when he fled the famine in Canaan, he had not been able to pay what he owed. He now (according to one opinion in the gemara) made good on those debts. Had he possessed a credit card on his trip to Egypt, he could have returned to Canaan by a different route.

    Now, my real interest in getting them to this “discovery” was to get them to consider what Chazal meant by this. I asked them if they thought it was OK for someone to take a room, and then tell the proprietor in the morning that he couldn’t pay for it. Avraham would never do that! Perhaps he went from inn to inn, explaining that he could only stay if they were willing to trust him to return one day with what he owed. That would be a better way to go – but how likely was it that he would find strangers each day who would extend credit for food and lodging? Kids would offer solutions, and others would critique them. They learned that there was no “right” answer; different solutions had their advantages and disadvantages.

    I had the Chasam Sofer waiting in the wings. He insists that Avraham would never make use of a service that he had no means of paying for. The debt that Avraham owed was of a different kind. On the way to Egypt, he knew that people were murmuring about him. “That’s the silly old man from Ur. He left a wonderful life behind, because he thought he heard the voice of some god telling him to leave for an unannounced destination. He was told that things would be good for him there! Silly man. No sooner had he gotten to where this god directed him, that the bottom fell out of the local economy. Famine struck. People were starving. He was forced to leave his new “good” life and seek food in Egypt. Serves him right!”

    Avraham, says the Chasam Sofer, had a debt to pay. He owed the scoffers an answer! When he returned – recently enriched by the king of Egypt – he demonstrated that listening to his G-d paid off, exactly as he had been told.

    I could have simply announced to the table that I had a vort on the parsha from the Chasam Sofer, without the entire process. It might even have gone over well with some. But it was far more effective when the kids saw the Chazal as a puzzle to be solved, and analyzed different approaches. They got to use – and develop – a yiddishe kop!

    In this example, familiarity with a Rashi was crucial. That was not usually the case. The Shabbos just past (had I been home), one question would have been where we find a reference to eating leftover cholent during the week. The hints would have directed participants to two verses about how the Bnei Yisrael provisioned themselves for the journey ahead as they left Egypt. On the one hand, they were not concerned enough to pack lots of meals. (Shemos 12:39…Nor had they make provisions for themselves.) On the other hand, they did not leave empty-handed! (Shemos 12:34 …Their leftovers bound up in their garments upon their shoulders.) Why were leftovers more appealing to them than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? In time, we would have gotten around to Rashi’s explanation that the items that they wrapped and placed on their shoulders were leftovers of the matzoh and maror of the previous evening. As R. Yerucham Levovitz explains, they related lovingly to that first mitzvah they were given as a nation, and cherished its memory enough to preserve the leftovers. Sort of like cholent after Shabbos. Only different.


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20 Responses

  1. Meir B says:

    The book is genius – equal parts Sherlock Holmes, Norman Rockwell and Bnei Brak.

  2. Bruce Adelstein says:

    You should publish, even if you did it on the web.

    I remember spending a shabbos evening at your house. Why your kids found out I was a lawyer, they immediately started asking technical legal questions about the difference between conditions precedent and conditions subsequent in American contract law. As I answered, they compared and contrasted it with Jewish law, asked more questions, offered hypotheticals, and explored the differences. At several points, I didn’t know the answer. You got a word or two in, but mostly just sharpened their questions. It was great.

    That sort of engaging and sustained questioning is critical, and many people lack the background or sophistication to do it without help. You could be that help.

  3. lacosta says:

    maybe ‘avira deretz yisrael machkim’ , and more people thee would be able to answer your questions,,,,

  4. nt says:

    A sefer that helped me think and learn better is דרך תבונות by the Ramchal. He teaches logic using examples of application in the gemara. There is a great English translation called The Ways of Reason from Diaspora Yeshiva, and you can get it at fine Jewish bookstores.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    I can see the ad campaign for an ancient credit card – Don’t leave Canaan without it!

    Anyway, do all Torah commentators agree that Avraham Avinu had no choice but to go down to Egypt?

  6. Weaver says:

    A Yiddishe Kop is a great book, but I wonder our constant focus on having a “yiddishe kop” cultivates a certain shallow, smart-alecky cleverness that comes at the expense of yashrus and true depth of thought. The joke is a case in point: where the story to be true, it would have been a big chillul Hashem, and a cause for reinforcing anti-Semitic stereotypes!
    That being said, I am often in awe of Jewish achievement. From a recent article:
    “Earl Browder and his wife, Raisa, had three children, three boys. The first, Felix, became chairman of the math department at Chicago. The second, Andrew, became chairman of the math department at Brown. The third, William, became chairman of the math department at Princeton. And there is more Browder talent where that came from . . . Felix entered MIT at 16. He had his bachelor’s degree in two years. By 20, he had his Ph.D. from Princeton . . . [soon,] Felix was working at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, though he was not the most distinguished researcher: That was Einstein.”
    They only had a Jewish mother, but still! (She did push them hard to achieve intellectually, so I suppose this opens up a nature vs. nurture debate . . . )
    The whole piece is fascinating.

    • Raymond says:

      For me personally, this whole mindset terribly backfired. I had attended Rambam High School, where it was not only expected for everybody to attend college, but to attend Ivy League Universities such as Harvard. I myself had originally planned to go to my local city college the first two years of college as a way of easing into the whole college experience, but so much pressure was put on me by teachers and my fellow high school students to go straight to UCLA, that that is what I did, where I proceeded to go from being an honor student throughout high school, to crashing and burning at UCLA, where my grades were so sub-par that I had to drop out, and from which I have never fully recovered. Perhaps the moral of the story is that while a select few Jews can be Harvard graduates or, on a more religious level, great Torah scholars, for most of us, we can only have any success at all if we stick to more modest and realistic aspirations.

      • Bob Miller says:

        You write well, so consider doing that.

      • Raymond says:

        Thank you. It has been a long-time dream of mine to be a professional writer, yet I have no idea what I want to write (other than that I would write non-fiction, as I am not good at all at describing things that do not actually exist), nor how to go about making it in that world.

  7. YS says:

    I am reminded of an encounter I had a number of years ago when I met a former camp-mate who became a popular author of true stories. Being an author myself, we discussed our books and I explained that my first two books were focused on mussar. His response… he first wanted to write a mussar book and publishers told him it wouldn’t sell so he then considered writing stories with a mussar lesson and again they told him it wouldn’t sell. They reiterated that no one wants to hear mussar in any form. Finally, he just wrote stories and they sold exceptionally well. My books, on the other hand, did not sell much!

  8. Heshy Bulman says:

    Limud HaTorah and Shmiras HaMitzvos Is the only prescription for TRUE Jewish intelligence – “Ki Hee Chochmaschem U’Vinaschem B’Einei” Ha’Amim. There are myriad secular Jews who accomplish great things in all of the sciences and the arts – all too many are tragically superficial and self defeating in that which they advocate most strongly. I agree wholeheartedly with Gadi Pollak’s recommendation.

    • Bob Miller says:

      For these myriads, how much of the problem is their failure to learn and how much our failure to teach? Or their lifelong lack of exposure to true yiddishkeit in action?

  9. Steve Brizel says:

    I also worke thru the book in question and enjoyed solving the problems with our grandchildren.

  10. Rafael Quinoaface says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,

    A great sefer that provides these thinking kind of “riddles” is Mishmeres Chaim by R’ Chaim Pinchas Sheinberg zt”l. We had a seder going through it during Thursday night mishmar, and we loved it!

    • I remember the Thursday nights in the old days in which we would use Mishmeres Chaim to provide brain teasers during Mishmar. There is no shortage of seforim ancillary to the gemara that demand problem solving that tax the brain. (This was really Gadi Pollack’s point.) I would put Shev Shemateta close to the top of the list.

  11. dave says:

    Please write your parsha book. Families need to engage in the parsha. Many families only sit together for meals on Shabbos and this kind of give and take in Torah topics is a great way to stimulate conversation and when we’re lucky, even some passion.
    We often read from the “What If…” books from Rav Zilberstein. While some of my kids (now all 18 and up) take issue with some of the solutions, particularly ones that seem counter-intuitive, the noise level rises as they take sides on what the psak halacha is. Sometimes they groan when I take out the book, but that doesn’t prevent them from having an opinion.

  12. Allan katz says:

    There is another type of thinking missing today – the pro-active type , generating ideas , reading a passage from the Torah and expressing an idea , or generating an original thought

  13. Asher says:

    “A depiction of a frum family on an outing in their car is keyed to questions about the direction of flow of the river on their left (the hint is in a road sign on the other side of the car indicating a grade in the road), ”

    Sorry to point this out, but Gadi got that question wrong. On the GPS, the river clearly is shown as having come from three different tributaries. Tributaries only come together in the direction the water is flowing (that is, three tributaries join a river, but a river will not divide into three tributaries.) The reason for this is obvious: Water always runs down towards the ocean through the past of least resistance, thus many small tributaries will join a big one but not vice versa.
    Thus, the river has to be flowing the opposite direction of the car traveling, and not like Gadi’s answer.
    This shows the importance of not only training children to think, but to also teach thme science. Thinking without knowing facts gets you nowhere.

    • Alex says:

      Somebody better tell the folks who live in the deltas of the Mississippi or the Amazon or the Danube, then, that these don’t really exist…

  14. Asher says:

    One additional point: Although Distributaries most certainly can divide a river, the always split together and then widen (like a highway exit) but never join in a sharp turn (like an intersection.) Thus, the smaller rivers in Rabbi Pollack’s work are clearly tributaries and not distribitaries.

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