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The Benefits of Being Stupid When You’re Old

The Benefits of Being Stupid When You’re Old

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First of all, I’m not really stupid. And second, you can’t really call 53 old. But lately I have been feeling very stupid, and being the oldest in my class makes me feel very old. But perhaps there is some benefit to all of this.

I haven’t felt so stupid since I was 10 years old and my family moved from the upper-lower class Chicago neighborhood where I fit in, to the upper-middle-class neighborhood where I did not. I felt pretty smart at my old grammar school. But when I transferred to the new one, I seemed to be the dumbest in the class. It was a tremendous blow to my self-esteem, especially since both my sisters were honor students.

I got through grammar and high school, but I dropped out of college and chose instead to apprentice at a film company, where I eventually learned a lucrative trade and then went on to develop a career. I even received a college degree at the age of 32. I am married, with some very nice children.

So, self-esteem-wise I recovered. Until I moved to Israel and started going to ulpan to learn Hebrew.

I am the oldest and the dumbest in my class. I’m having a terrible time learning Hebrew. I can’t remember any of the words, no matter how often I hear them or look them up in my English/Hebrew dictionary. Verb conjugation is beyond me. And trying to form a sentence just to answer a question, let alone express a thought, causes my throat to tighten involuntarily. I am embarrassed by my incompetence among the other students. I sit in dread of being called on by the instructor, a very kind, middle-aged woman who, I can tell, takes pity on me. She calls on me rarely, and even when I make mistakes, she treats me kindly and pretends I gave sort of the right answer. Fortunately, it is an adult class, so people don’t make fun of me; at most, they treat my erroneous responses with compassionate sickly grins, and then look away quickly. At break time I grab a cup of coffee and stand by myself, hoping no one will come up to me and try to start a conversation in Hebrew.

I sit in class with a terrible pressure in my chest, difficulty breathing, and with a constant running diatribe at myself: You’re so stupid! How come everyone else gets it, and you don’t? Why are you so shy? Why can’t you just speak up and make your mistakes, and practice? Why have you put yourself in this position? Why didn’t you just stay in America, where at least you could speak?

There seems to be this downward spiral of thoughts leading to a dark cavern of negativity that feels old and familiar, more connected to my childhood than to my reality.

By the time the class is over, I feel terrible. Like a loser. And I dread the next class.

On the train ride home, I try to console myself. “Look, it’s just a class. You’re the public relations director for one of the largest organizations in Israel. You speak and write English better than most. You have a lovely wife and beautiful children . . .”

But it doesn’t help.

Fortunately, I have a wife who I can talk to, and when I express all this to her, she makes me laugh and I feel better.

But today she didn’t laugh. Today she said to me: “Can you imagine what it’s like for a young child to sit in a class and feel the way you do? Or what it must be like for someone who is learning disabled? Or for the Goldsteins’ daughter, who is failing miserably in school and wants to drop out?”

“No wonder she wants to drop out!” I said. “And maybe she should!” I continued, surprising even myself. “Maybe she can at least salvage her self-esteem, if she doesn’t have to sit in a classroom feeling like a dummy.”

I had just returned from a particularly difficult day in my Hebrew class, and so I had no difficulty doing the imagining my wife suggested.

What if, I thought, I were 10 years old instead of 53? What if I didn’t have any professional success to counter the stupidity I was feeling in class? What if I didn’t have a lovely, understanding wife to talk to, but rather two demanding parents who were embarrassed at my failures? What if the teacher was not so kind, and instead mocked and embarrassed me when I made mistakes? What if my fellow students were other 10-year-old brats who enjoyed teasing and giggling when I goofed up? And what if these little cruel monsters were the only kids I knew? And what if I was so embarrassed by my stupidity that I avoided other children and had no friends? And what if—and this is the big one—I spent not just three hours a day three days a week in a Hebrew class feeling dumb, but six hours a day every day of the week in school feeling this bad? And then, to top it all off, when school was over, I went home to face my parents with my poor grades or a note from the teacher?

What if I were the Goldsteins’ daughter, who is now 17 years old, and has probably been feeling like this, hour by hour, minute by minute, for the past 12 years, since she was 5 years old and entered kindergarten?

Yes, I thought, drop out! Save your life! Stop the torture immediately and save your self-esteem! It’s more important than math and science. Save your pride and go on with your life!

Feeling stupid is awful—at any age. And no one should be made to feel this way. It’s damaging and will only lead a person, like my friend’s daughter, to a series of bad choices just to avoid the terrible feeling. To survive, they’ll find some place, some group of people where they don’t feel stupid. Maybe other dropouts, maybe drugs, maybe just boys looking to give a pretty runaway girl a place to stay and some kind words to make her feel attractive rather than stupid.

But, there is one benefit in feeling stupid, at least when you’re old: compassion. Hopefully, a little more patience and kindness with my own children. More diligence in rooting out the source of their problems at school. Making more time to advocate for them with their teachers. More encouragement and recognition of their successes.

Every person has his strengths and his talents. And it is up to us, parents and teachers, to find them and nurture them. It could be a good sense of humor, or the ability to sing, vacuum the rug or set the table for dinner. It may even be as simple as being pretty. Fostering self-esteem in any area is better than destroying it, even when a child does not live up to our expectations. In the long run, it is this sense of self-esteem and confidence that will yield the courage to learn, explore and succeed far more than any knowledge.

I hope I’ll hang in there at Hebrew class. But I’m not sure. After each class of feeling stupid, I find it harder to get up on time in the morning of my next class. Other responsibilities seem to be more urgent than learning Hebrew, and the distraction of reading or playing with the cat at night after a long day’s work seems more important than struggling with my Hebrew homework.

But I’m an adult, and hopefully the importance of learning the language of the new country in which I live will keep me plugging away. After all, I’m not 10 years old, or even 17; I’m 53, and should have learned how to handle these feelings by now, don’t you think?

In truth, I don’t know if I would really encourage the Goldsteins’ daughter to drop out of school. That’s a tough decision with many serious consequences. But, I tell you, before feeling this stupid in my Hebrew class, I never would have understood how it could be a consideration for her at all. Now I do.

Jay Litvin was born in Chicago in 1944. He moved to Israel in 1993 to serve as medical liaison for Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl program, and took a leading role in airlifting children from the areas contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; he also founded and directed Chabad’s Terror Victims program in Israel. Jay passed away in April of 2004 after a valiant four-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and is survived by his wife, Sharon, and their seven children. He was a frequent contributor to the Jewish website Chabad.org.
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Kate Burbidge goderich April 20, 2016

I was in my Skills and Upgrading class at the Centre For Employment and Learning in Goderich, Ontario,struggling to learn how to use this darn computer when it occurred to me that the Syrian refugees in the next room learning English and I were in the same boat. I am 60 and have a university degree from 1980, almost useless by modern-day standards. Just as the Syrians must adapt to life in Goderich, where the number of immigrants you can count on two hands, I must learn to speak the language of technology -- I, too, must adapt. The Syrians have it much worse than me. Thanks for being honest. Reply

Anonymous hollywood March 5, 2014

I tried to learn Hebrew at age 35 sans any foreign language experience. When the morah talked about "7 mishpahot" (families) I drew a blank until I went to town and was introduced to "201 Hebrew verbs fully conjugated." That was 1975. Today, it's "501 Hebrew Verbs etc. and still the best book for understanding how the verb-based language is built; the new book even has examples (in Hebrew & English). You WILL learn Hebrew is only by osmosis; my co-workers at Tadiran helped me with both vocab and grammar (no, you cannot "mistamesh et ha-telephone", you have to "mestamesh ba-telephone"). My Hebrew is a bit better than survival level, but you have to use it. Try to find easy Hebrew newspapers, sit down with the Tanak, the Torah is _mostly_ "evret kalah"- get a humash with an English translation and study the week's parasha. As ar as the sedur - start with the major prayers - Shema, Ahmedah and slowly build on those. Worked for me. Still learning at 71. Reply

sarah leah jerusalem March 5, 2014

if you're old enuf, do wha's needed and stop whining I am closer to 63 than 53. I have started some of my greatest journeys way past the median age. So what? Reminds me of the story of a woman who was 50 and wanted to complete her dream of going to med school. "ahh...it will take at least 7 years and i am already fifty," she kvetched to a friend, who answered, "and if you don't do it - how old will you be in 7 years then?" so enough with the boo hoo. do what you need to do. do what you dream of doing most of all, let it always run through the Torah filter - and have the spine to accept the consequences (good and bad) of a decision. Reply

Ilana Wherry March 5, 2014

Hebrew Class... Jay: I absolutely know where you're coming from or frum. I've been there many years ago at a religious kibbutz in Israel. It takes about 3 months to absorb a rudimentary vocabulary in a new language. There are other methods, one of them is to get someone to help you by making up cue cards and testing you until you've memorized the alep bet and then simple phrases like; "how are you?" "I would like to buy..." Etc., After 3 months it will still seem alien, but not so much. Then you will have a wonderful moment when it all starts coming together for you. It will be a moment of euphoria and it will happen, just keep at it. If I can learn Chinese, Arabic and Hebrew, then so can you. Ulpan made me feel mentally retarded so don't feel bad, Blessings on your studies! Reply

Anonymous March 5, 2014

re: Old dog, New tricks I agree with Wendell on the necessity for a "remedial conversion class" for the over 40s i.e people like me who seem to have a mind like a sieve and require reading glasses !

On encouraging children , I still remember being praised by a primary school teacher when I was 10 for solving a math problem. I was the last student to take my notebook up to my teacher, but her big smile was worth it.
After that I did not believe that I was bad at math , and also got through university level Stats papers when I was older because of that basic belief.
So please encourage and praise your children/pupil, it has a lasting effect on their self-esteem and self efficacy. Reply

Howie Glendora March 4, 2014

Wendell...

There is an excellent book out there...I have bought it for several people...it does an excellent job of explaining the interplay of ritual, custom, religion, procedures and all that kind of stuff...I wish I could remember the name of it...maybe "To Pray as a Jew".

Look dude...it is unlikely that you will learn Hebrew to the point of understanding the Old Testament or much of the Siddur...that would take utter dedication though it can be done. But realize spoken daily Hebrew and the Biblical stuff is kind of like comparing a newspaper with Shakespeare. One day at a time Wendell...it is a daunting task, even those that start as infants and dedicate their lives to it...the various aspects and knowledge of Judaism...not even they can master all of this stuff.

Start by looking up "Torah on one leg". Learn that and you have an awesome start. Reply

Wendell Gillespie Heading up an icy hill on roller skates. March 4, 2014

Old dog, New tricks Do I ever know how this feels! I am 53, living in Eastern Oregon, and I am converting to Judaism. There is a huge, very steep learning curve to all of this. I've joked that once a person hits 40, there should be a remedial conversion class for those of us who's brains are full. I have found that no one thinks this is funny but me. Ah, well.

I shall, however, stay the course. Since I'm a bull headed old Marine, vet I refuse to quit. You do the same, Sir. Hang in there.

Semper Fi, and Shalom. Reply

Howie Glendora March 4, 2014

Learning Hebrew Doug it is doable, if that is what you want.

I started 33 years ago in adult ed...learned my first LETTER "aleph" at age 28...I went about it full fury though...and though a long story...within a few years could read it, write it and speak fairly fluently. However, 33 years later...I still have a TON to learn.

Acquiring language is tricky, especially if you are not born into it and/or in a situation where you MUST learn it and are surrounded by it. Don't believe these stories of people saying they are fluent in 7-8 languages...meh. However, I digress.

I go back to what I said earlier, it is a metaphor for life. If you want something bad enough...persist, persist, persist and you don't "get there" on this journey...you get better as you go along. Reply

Douglas Denver March 3, 2014

stay with it! Even though it won't get any easier. If it did it wouldn't be worth it. I know because I'm learning to read Hebrew from the resource's on Chabad.org (thankyou!), and speak it from tape's. And every time I try to speak it with the only person I know who does, she can't help but break out laughing. Reply

Chana Sarah Levin Toronto March 3, 2014

We owe so much to you Mr Litvin!. You had the ability to describe everyday human circumstances, struggles in our lives and inject them with insight, emotion and love. I also was in ulpan but was more than 10 years senior, and I can tell you, that it wasn't easy then. I am grateful for your legacy of beautiful writings. Reply

Ann Throckmorton March 3, 2014

At least Jay Litvin was feeling dumb, in Hebrew class, in Israel! Would that many of us could achieve that level! Reply

Howie Glendora March 3, 2014

You don't quitq It is a metaphor for life...learning Hebrew can be a metaphor for life. You never fully "get it"..but you can get better. Reply

JDV March 3, 2014

Feeling stupid This article is SO my life and i never continued with Hebrew because i started crying in class! It's important to remember to learn SMART. There are many ways to learn and maybe that class was not the most appropriate. perhaps a tutorial where you don't have to be distracted by what others might think, could yield better results. i know it did in my case. Reply

Judy Resnick Far Rockaway, NY July 14, 2009

The Saddest Part of All This Jay Litvin was born in 1944, so this article about his struggles in Ulpan at age 53 must have been written in 1997. Sadly enough, he died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma in April 2004. People posting encouraging comments to Jay in 2007 were three years too late. If you read Jay Litvin's articles from 2003-04, the last winter of his life when he was struggling not with learning Ivrit but with terminal illness, it puts this 1997 article into perspective. In fact, it puts most of our everyday problems into perspective (don't sweat the small stuff, and it's all small stuff). This of course is not to minimize the very real heartache of young people fighting learning disabilities and not succeeding in school. It's just extremely sad reading these 2007 comments knowing that Jay Litvin never had a chance to read them. Reply

Marla Jacobson Denver, CO/USA August 30, 2007

Ulpan at 53 Knowing exactly what you're going through -- from when my husband attended the ulpan, from my own research, and from being a teacher for 25 years -- I have a few questions/suggestions. Try approaching just one day as if you were going to a concert. Do you have to have the sheets of music in front of you? Of course not. Listen for a while, even with your eyes closed, to start to get the music of the language. Start over if you have to, Kitah Aleph, with this attitude. You are not 10, as you said, and you know you're not stupid. Take control of it. Be your own teacher as well as the ulpan's student. I have my Ph.D. in second language acquisition (did my research in Israel on ulpan methodology), and would be happy to walk you through this. You are so articulate in English, you obviously have a facility with language. To live in Israel, you've got to do this. It takes time. One "a-ha" moment I had came from a remarkable ulpan teacher at Ulpan Akiva. There was a high school student who was treated as "special ed" by all the other teachers, and virtually ignored because his answers were inevitably wrong. One day Nurit, a substitute teacher (on Sabbatical) walked into the room, and in one day this student was performing and learning. I asked her how she did this. She replied, "Everyone talks -- whether they have a disability or not. The teacher's obligation is to find out how the student learns." (I liked the comment of the woman from Tzfat who suggested spending time in a kindergarten. They'd love you, and you'd learn!) Reply

Anonymous Brisbane, Australia via chabadbrisbane.com February 5, 2007

my daughter There is ALWAYS light at the end of the tunnel with teenagers Reply

chava Israel February 5, 2007

my daughter is 16 years old and just dropped out of one of the many schools she has been to. I must admit that I did not encourage her but did not entirely discourage her, just gave her options. But I never looked at things like the perspective of the author. Thank you. Reply

Anonymous November 29, 2006

Too smart? The problem here that the author is adressing is the intense feelings of inferiority that a person feels when they struggle and work hard but still do poorly. Every test that comes back with a bad grade, every correction is a huge blow to the person's self esteem. While sitting in a class with a complete understanding of the material is tedious at worst and almost a blow to the person's intelligence (and yes, perhaps self-esteem as well) it just doesn't compare to the dumb student who works so hard for something out of their control. What do you prefer--praise or critism? Even if the poor student is not openly critiqued by the teacher, the poor student generally suffers from acute feelings of inferiority and "what am I doing wrong?" The smart student may praise themselves or be constantly praised by the teacher. One speeds through the racetrack of academic accomplishment and the other one constantly falters. Who do you feel bad for now? Reply

smarty pants toronto, ontario November 26, 2006

everybody feels bad for people who feel stupid. but what about the people who are too smart? what about the students who are forced to sit in class when they know and understand everything the teacher is going to say? why doesn't anyone feel bad for them? Reply

Anonymous October 11, 2006

Unbeleivable! This has been such a huge problem for me, and it's so gratifying to hear the problem discussed in such a stark, honest way. Yasher Koach! Reply

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