"I read the book of Job last night,” Virginia Woolf wrote in a letter to Lady Robert Cecil in 1922, adding an understated comment that my friend and colleague, the late and much missed Jewish educator Maureen Kendler, loved to quote when teaching Job: “I don’t think God comes out well in it.”
Maureen’s death after a brief illness last year left many of her friends grappling, like Job, with the age-old theological “problem of evil”: if God exists, why do the innocent suffer? For some at least, God did not “come out well” in this story and the fact that the first major symptom of Maureen’s illness was a dreadful cough that made teaching difficult at first, and, as the disease progressed, impossible, seemed like a cruel irony.
Maureen and I shared an interest in the problem of evil and its relationship to post-Holocaust philosophy and literature. As well as teaching courses and writing her dissertation on the Book of Job, Maureen read and taught a lot of Holocaust literature, particularly the novels of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel. She was also a highly respected educator on the March of the Living tours of Poland—work which was physically and emotionally draining for her, but which had a deep impact on her students.
Despite her willingness to confront these dark themes — or perhaps because of it — Maureen knew how to enjoy life and find humour in it. Her day-to-day conversations, radio broadcasts and teaching were all peppered with amusing anecdotes, delivered with great panache. Colleagues in Jewish education, interfaith work and broadcasting have said how much they appreciated her quirky imagination, wealth of experience and ability to connect easily with others, whether in person or via her “Pause for Thought” radio broadcasts.
As much as she loved to perform, Maureen loved to empower students. As a qualified and highly experienced English teacher, she knew how to ensure that her adult education classes were not just enjoyable “edutainment”, but an opportunity for her students to engage deeply with the material they were learning. She was the leading educator on LSJS’s Torah L’Am (“Torah for Everyone”) crash course that culminates in each student delivering their own dvar torah (short lesson about a Jewish text or idea). I could always tell when the last of her weekly classes was taking place at LSJS; students would arrive with cake and flowers, to celebrate their achievement as a group and thank their beloved teacher.
Because Maureen’s Jewish knowledge was mainly self-taught, and she was not at all shy or apologetic about this, she was an empowering role model for adults approaching Jewish texts without the benefit of a degree in Jewish studies or a traditional yeshivah or seminary education. She drew on her finely honed pedagogic skills and literary insight, together with a passionate commitment to Judaism, to help her students discover the relevance of traditional Jewish texts and teachings to their own lives — and enjoy themselves while doing so.
Maureen was one of the first Orthodox Jewish women to achieve prominence as an adult educator in the UK. She was also a feminist and advocate for increased inclusion of women in Jewish communal life within the bounds of halachah.
In organising next week’s commemorative event, we’ve tried to reflect Maureen’s range of literary and textual interests, her penchant for particular biblical characters including Job, Jezebel, Jonah, and others beginning with the letter ‘J’, her important work as a mentor of younger educators, and her determined focus on the contributions of Jewish women to education and communal life.
As for our shared interest in the problem of evil, here is a professional secret: when philosophers say they have arrived at a solution, they are (almost always) joking.
THE BOOK OF THE BROADCASTS
For 20 years, Maureen Kendler thrilled Radio 2 listeners with her early morning insights, drawing inspiration not only from her deep knowledge of Judaism, but also from her experiences as a teacher, mother and Jewish educator.
A collection of her scripts for these two-minute “Pause of Thought” broadcasts has recently been published. Edited by Hannah Skolnick and Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, All Spoons and No Elbows: Inspiring Radio Broadcasts from a Distinctly Jewish Voice is available from maureenkendler.org.uk. The book is intended both to memorialize Maureen’s unique voice and to promote the Maureen Kendler Educational Trust.
Michael Wakelin, former BBC Head of Religion and Ethics, said “I worked with Maureen over many years. She was an expert at the craft. Condensing great theology, scriptural insight, and spiritual encouragement into a two-minute script that sits comfortably into a popular entertainment programme is a real skill, and Maureen had it in spades.
“Her quirky imagination and wealth of experience gave her scripts an authority and an accessibility which was much loved and admired.”
Dr Wright is director of academic studies at the London School of Jewish Studies, which is running a learning event in honour of Maureen Kendler’s first yahrzeit on Sunday, February 10, “Teacher, Mentor, Colleague, Friend”. Speakers include Judy Klitsner and Gila Fine. More details from www.lsjs.ac.uk