We have reproduced a plant cell using Lemsip capsules. We built a Museum of Tolerance which was too big to fit in the car. We created a synagogue in a shoebox, complete with a matchstick mechitzah and a cardboard congregation.
In all cases, of course, I played only an advisory role. Parents are not meant to do their children’s homework for them (at least, I don’t think we are) and, in theory, I repel all but the most anguished pleas for help with a shrug of my shoulders and an airy “don’t ask me, I haven’t studied g eography since 1976”.
In vain they beg for tutors (“Everyone has them”) to write their essays for them. Homework is their job, I say, and most of the time I mean it.
The problem is that by the evening I am tired and so are they, and we tend to view the homework-setting teachers as a common enemy to be defeated as quickly as possible.
So I check their spelling and grammar. I might suggest a website or two. I may tweak the odd sentence. Before I know it I’m eagerly waiting to find out what grade I — I mean they, obviously — have been given.
I hate homework. I agree with American educationalist Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth: Why our kids get too much of a bad thing, who blames homework for “frustration, exhaustion, family battles, loss of time for kids to pursue other interests, diminution of interest in learning” and points out that these disadvantages far outweigh any gain.
But generally homework is at least possible. The answers exist somewhere. Spare a thought for Archie, son of a friend of mine, whose crafty RE teacher recently set him an essay entitled “What does it mean to be Jewish?”
Archie, who is 12, lives on a farm, goes to a C of E school and has probably never encountered a Jew in his life. How was he meant to tackle a question which the Chief Rabbi himself would struggle to answer?
What does it mean to be Jewish? I don’t know, and I’ve been Jewish for more than 40 years. Does the teacher expect a treatise on conversion and circumcision, or a trot through the festivals?
Archie could write a sociological study taking in everything from the Bobover Rebbe to our friend Alan who’s converted to Buddhism and living in Rome.
Or perhaps a more practical set of instructions answer the question. How do you clean the house for Pesach? What food do you eat to break the fast on Yom Kippur? What’s your booba’s recipe for chicken soup? The problem is that every Jew would have a different answer.
Archie had his own way of dealing with the question. With magnificent decisiveness, he chose to dismiss almost every aspect of Judaism, Jewish history and culture, and focus entirely on the festival of Shavuot.
Jews decorate the synagogue with flowers, eat cheesecake and, if strictly Orthodox, stay up all night to study the Bible, he explained, adding, “there are few other customs associated with this festival”, which was probably the reason he chose it.
His essay was illustrated with a picture of a cheesecake. Having completed this impossible task, he is now expected to move onto “What do Jews think about Jesus”.
Funnily enough, another group of people have been considering what it means to be Jewish. Users of British Sign Language (BSL) used to mime a hooked nose to signify a Jew, but, it was recently reported, younger signers are more likely to stroke an imaginary beard to convey the J-word.
It’s better, but frankly, it’s not perfect, is it? For a start it renders invisible all Jews who happen to be women.
Second, it consigns all Jews to a beardy stereotype, just as picture editors on national newspapers always produce images of Chasids, ringlets flying, to illustrate a story about Jews marrying out or building an eruv in Edgware.
Enough with the beards. The symbol for “Jew” in BSL should clearly be a gigantic shrugging gesture, hands held palm-up to heaven. A gesture most often seen when kids ask parents for help with their homework.