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  • Ruthie Davis

Profile of a Teacher

Reuven Baruch Spero, very occasionally known as the Gerev HaKadosh (the Holy Sock), teaches at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel. He is about 5’5”, solid, of indeterminate age (but somewhere towards his late 60s), with a close-cropped white beard, a full head of hair, a permanent tan, smile lines, and twinkling eyes that hint at something more. And, tucked not quite far enough away, a handgun resting in a holster on his right hip.


The Muss program — particularly the 3-month version that the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, a pluralistic Jewish high school in Bryn Mawr, PA, sends its juniors to — is a unique one. Though it bears resemblance to other pluralistic Israel programs aimed at American youth, its educational structure, and therefore the role of its teachers, is wholly different. The school has a campus in Hod Hasharon, about half an hour from Tel Aviv. You live in “The Hod” a bit over half of the days on Muss and continue your normal studies (except science, which for some reason waits until you get back to America) for a little over half of each campus-based day.


The core of the program, however, is its Core – a Jewish History course that starts with Adam and Eve and reached, as of the fall of 2017, somewhere around 2012 (it gets a little rushed at the end). Core class takes up half of each day on campus, and fills the rest of your days with tiyulim (trips around Israel). But while Muss hits all the main tourist attractions, they aren’t just recreational. Each site fits chronologically into the curriculum, and in the midst of hikes up and down mountains and free time in the shuks, you sit down, pull out your notebook, and pick up the thread of Jewish history for an hour or two.


Reuven was, as you may have guessed, my Core teacher. His teaching style was serious but informal — cut with humor, humility, charisma, and a bit of teasing. He encourages students to argue. He friends them on Facebook, where he posts many articles a day from Quillette and Tablet and the Times of Israel Blog, along with divrei torah and life updates chock full of a truly unbelievable number of typos. He’s more intellectual than most high school teachers, let alone Israel tour guides — he’ll pull in Nietzsche and Locke, engage in philosophical debate, place Jewish history in terms of much broader historical trends. He has, you suspect, a theory of the world, although he wouldn’t phrase it as such. He encourages you to come up with your own.


Reuven’s teaching is inextricable from his personality, and the arc of Jewish history is inextricable from Reuven’s teaching. I can picture him lecturing about David in the City of David, about the Mishnaic Rabbis in Tzipori, crouched in the dirt explaining Bar Kokhba at a Roman amphitheater, telling us about the Essenes as we stared out into the desert at night, about Josephus on Masada, asking us, in preparation for a 10-day trip to Poland, what we would have done if our government shut down a certain ethnic group’s businesses, asking us to feel complicit, and then, in Poland, taking us past former Jewish factories and synagogues and cemeteries and death camps and into the Krakow JCC and asking us to feel the lives and deaths of Polish Jews, telling us in a synagogue in Łańcut that the lesson is to “do a little Torah” whenever you can, and then back in Israel, teaching us about Independence and the Nakbah and about the subsequent wars on trips to the beach and to the Golan Heights. I remember him in the in-between time, too, joking with students before class, carrying his walking stick on hikes, chuckling at me when I got up to sit next to him for yet another bus ride, comforting me as I cried in Poland, hugging me as I sobbed when our time had finished and we had to return to America.


Shabbats are also split between campus and tiyul, although obviously there’s no class on Shabbat. (You also get a handful of free Shabbats, to encourage independence, family-visiting, and recreation). You get one Core teacher per Shabbos; Reuven was with us for our very first. To see him then was like seeing Moses descended from the mountain. Wearing a clean white shirt to match his beard, he practically glowed. He doesn’t wear his gun on Shabbat.


Reuven is from Louisville, Kentucky. He has a bit of a twang, but you suspect it’s a bit put-on. The whole gun-slinging cowboy thing. After all, he grew up in a standard middle-class household, studied international law at the University of Virginia, and got his gun only after moving to Israel (he did not serve in the Israeli military, in case that’s what you were picturing). I don’t mean to accuse him of pretending. His persona is real. His humor is real, his Kentucky is real. But it is also the self-effacing irreverent text that belies the rather more serious meaning. He makes his own bourbon. He makes his own bourbon, not in Kentucky where he grew up, but in the West Bank, where he settled, where he has raised six children.


What I mean to say, two pages in, is that Reuven is not just the best teacher I’ve ever had. He also, by fact of himself, makes it impossible to regard Muss as a no-strings attached feel-good romp through Jewish history. Because Reuv – brilliant, self-deprecatory, warm, grandfatherly as he is – is also the only person I’ve ever met who I suspect might properly be called a terrorist. There is always Chekhov’s gun.


When I tell people about Reuven’s gun, the first question is invariably, “In class? Is he allowed to do that?” The fact is that I can’t remember whether he brought it inside the classroom building on the Muss campus. It’s possible he just wore the empty holster. But enough of Core takes place outside that my image of Reuven is one with the gun. He helps that along, in his own way, with frequent use of the cowboy emoji and a stash of nerf guns that he keeps in his desk on campus. He’ll pull one out and shoot at you if you’re falling asleep in class or not paying attention. A charming habit, and also, as my sister pointed out at the time (five years after her own experience of Reuven’s class), totally jarring in retrospect.


Reuven, as far as one can tell, is a responsible gun owner. He’ll tell you, sometimes, that in fact owning a gun is no fun and no it does not make him feel more masculine – it’s a burden. That carrying a gun means something different in Israel. That even though (or perhaps because) every 18 year old in the army gets a gun, the process of obtaining one as a private citizen is much, much stricter than we’re used to thinking of in America. And he’s right, owning a gun in Israel does mean something different. It’s just not clear that it means something better. He does, after all, carry the gun because he lives in the West Bank. So the gun implies he’s worried a Palestinian will threaten him on his way home from work. The gun implies he wants to be able to threaten the Arab back. If not worse. He doesn’t shirk from the implied violence of his beliefs.


Reuven doesn’t just live in the West Bank. He doesn’t just carry a gun because he just happens to live in the West Bank, whatever that would mean. He lives in the West Bank. He lives in Shiloh, which is somewhere in the middle of Samaria, about halfway between Ramallah and Nablus. A Biblical city, as he reminds us on Facebook. Where the ark was first kept, in the days of Samuel. He invites his class for a Shabbat — I was not allowed by my parents, on ideological grounds, to attend, but other students report it as quiet, peaceful, beautiful, warm, and a little culty. Everyone wears white on Shabbos. Reuven doesn’t believe in rebuilding the third temple, I’m pretty sure. But if I remember correctly, one of his neighbor’s sons was arrested for trying to do just that.


Reuven himself has been proudly arrested by the Israeli government, multiple times. Including once in Gush Katif in 2005, while protesting the disengagement from Gaza and evacuation of Israeli settlers. Chained himself to a roof or something.


I did not come up with the terrorist label on my own. It is a label he poses as a question to his class. Sitting down in a small room in some memorial house with nearby picnic tables, surrounded by trees somewhere in Israel I cannot place, perhaps Rosh Pina in the Galilee but perhaps anywhere, he tells the story of Shlomo Ben Yosef, a revisionist Zionist, a member of the Irgun, who in 1938, after a car of ten Jews was ambushed and six of them killed, went out with two of his friends and attempted to kill a bus full of Arabs. Reuven also, I think at the same time, tells his own story of revenge — of going with a group of men from Shiloh into the neighboring village and throwing Molotov cocktails at cars. The question is whether or not these attacks were justified, whether the Jews involved should be considered terrorists or not. If too many people take Shlomo Ben Yosef’s side, Reuven will play the other and argue “not justified”. This happened, he reported, in the Barrack class a year below mine. “16/18 sided with SbY. those little fascists!” Among the 16 was his favorite of the year, a principled Democrat and future politician. Afterwards she came to him and they discussed how uncomfortable she was with the position she took. It was a good talk, he told me.


As for me, I didn’t remember the stories, either of Shlomo Ben Yosef or of Reuven and the Molotov cocktails. I have now pieced the class together from my texts with Reuven the year later, with my sister’s memory, and with Wikipedia. I also don’t remember my answer. I don’t remember discomfort. When my sister mentioned the Molotov cocktails about a month after I came home from Muss, I was surprised. Not because Reuven’s participation in an attack of that nature surprised me, but because the story — which back in America came across to me as fairly obviously fucked — had made no impact on me if he told it. When he told it. Because I’m pretty sure he did. But all I remember of that day is the room, the question, and sitting at a picnic table after class talking to Reuven about an email he had sent my father. You see, I had put them in touch for this reason or that having to do with Poland and Reuven’s pretend ancestor Nathan Spira, but ultimately I had put them in touch because I wanted the man I regarded as my surrogate father to know my real one (and vice versa).


This is, incidentally, not my first attempt to write about Reuven. Almost exactly five years ago, I wrote my common app about him. Yes, the common app, that famous 500-word essay where you mold yourself and fold yourself into the ideal Ivy League candidate. It’s really not a bad common app, as far as common apps go. Here, five years later, I’ve done little more than rewrite it. But there is something about the conclusion that has always haunted me.


How to love and respect someone who you can’t help but think is on the wrong side of history? My common app focused on debate: on Reuven’s charming habit of pushing you to disagree with him, and on his ability to make you feel valued and listened to when you do. My closing line, I admit with no small embarrassment, was, “I’ve learned I can value him and not agree with everything he believes – that I can love and admire many parts of him and still stick to my own (metaphorical) guns.” It got me safely out of tricky waters. It fudged the truth. It let me tell the colleges, to tell myself, to tell you, to tell Reuven, that I loved him for reasons that were totally removed from “everything that he believes.”


I wrote that piece as if it was not, on some level, the strength of his convictions that I found inspiring. Found tempting. Found scary. Find scary. Find inspiring. As if the letter I wrote to him on the last day of Muss, where I addressed him as the Gerev HaKadosh, emphasizing both the warmth and sheer silliness of his being a sock and the absolute truth of his being holy, was written in spite of his gun and all that it represents, in spite of the beliefs that God gave us the Land of Israel and yes, that means Jews have the absolute right to it, to all of it. As if I would still call him holy without them.


I framed debate as productive; ignored the part where a thoughtfully posed question ended in 16 out of 18 members of the class below mine arguing in favor of taking revenge on the Arabs. I framed the moment when you know you’ve overstepped your moral boundaries — the moment after you find yourself dreaming of one day moving to Shiloh — as a teaching moment. A learning moment, where you determine and strengthen your red lines drawn in the sand. But underneath it all, I knew then, just as well as I know now, that even after you “return to yourself” and redraw your lines, a part of you will always be stuck on the other side.


So no. No, no, Reuven didn’t teach me to stick to my guns, although he might have been trying to. He taught me that living out holiness and belief, with its certain beauty, operates on a tilted axis from what is just or good. He taught me to see extreme positions as sympathetic, as reasonable. How to cede a point to anyone. He taught me that what you say will not sway anyone, and also that it will. To love Reuven, to feel close to Reuven, to feel tied to Reuven, as I obviously still do, is to accept contradictory truths as possible.


To bring contradiction into reality is difficult. I haven’t been in touch with Reuven for two years, and not in any serious way since two years before that. At the time I wrote my common app we were still in semi-regular contact, but I had already basically given up on engaging in political debate. Two years ago he sent me an email out of the blue saying, “I thought of you three times this week so I decided that was a sign I should reach out.” He sent me a dvar torah he had written. I sent him back the most recent issue of our Davis-sisters zine (it happened to be the “Enemies” issue but I hoped he wouldn’t be offended. I don’t think he was. He likely didn’t read it. He never responded).


He’s reappeared with a vengeance on my psyche in these last months. As everyone called up their loved ones in Israel, I thought of Reuven. I dreamt of Reuven. Something innocuous — we were on a bridge, talking. But there he was. I thought about reaching out, all of me wanted to reach out. To tell him I’m thinking of him, that I’m praying for him and his family. Because I am. Instead, I checked his Facebook. To make sure he was alright. A post angry at Palestinians for voting in Hamas, and for not revolting against them. A post about buying his daughter a gun, the burdens of gun ownership, etc. A few about trying to appreciate Shabbat, despite everything. Three of his sons were called up on reserve, are stationed in Gaza. He made a huge vegetarian cholent for them. A few days ago he posted that they were able to meet one of his sons at a secure location in Ashkelon. He reported what his son told them about the situation on the ground. He ended the post simply with “Amalek,” which lands somewhere between a dogwhistle for genocide and just saying “Evil.” He posted a family photo from that same visit: him, his wife, his son, and his son’s six-or-so year old daughter. It was taken before Shabbat. He wore a clean white shirt.


I have no neat bow to conclude this profile, no bow at all. I haven’t been in touch with Reuven for two years, and — besides it being normal and very healthy to fall out of touch with one’s former teachers — it feels like the coward’s way out. I told myself if I dreamt of him three times I’d reach out. I have yet to dream of him again.

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