For Those of Y’all Joining Us for the First Time

by Laynie Soloman, Associate Rosh Yeshiva & Director of Transformative Leadership

Laynie stands in the bet midrash holding a volume of Talmud. They are wearing a yellow sweater and dark eyeglasses.

One of our favorite things about Fall Learning is the gift of welcoming a brand new community of learners to the SVARA bet midrash for the very first time. Next week, these folks will join us for New SVARA-nik Orientation, a joyous gathering filled with song, laughter, and lots of helpful information about how to usher in a new season of learning. It’s a time of great excitement here at SVARA because (to absolutely no one’s surprise) we can’t wait to learn with y’all! Our Associate Rosh Yeshiva (and frequent HOTS contributor) Laynie Soloman is one of the many incredible folks who teach here at SVARA. Laynie’s journey with SVARA began nearly ten years ago and in that time they have welcomed countless folks into the SVARA method and the SVARA community. In a previous Hot Off the Shtender piece, Laynie shares with tremendous clarity their own introduction to learning Talmud:

“For me and Talmud, it was love at first sight. Like Yentl, I remember walking through a crowded room of learners that was loud and buzzing with a sense of organized chaos. I sat at the table, across from my chevruta, opened up the masechet that I had purchased earlier that day (though I didn’t know what a masechet was—I had read the name of the book off of a book list I had been given), and I fell in love. I was immediately captivated by the swirling fonts on the page, which wove together like a holy combination of tapestry and Tetris game. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I loved it. I loved the minutiae, and the opportunity to find equal parts meaning in the tiniest of letters and the biggest of philosophical questions. I felt like I was coming home to something, or like something was coming home to me. It was a magical whirlwind of new relationship energy, and it carried me through my first few years of learning, during which I wanted to spend as much time with Talmud as I could.”

We grabbed some time with Laynie to catch up on everything they’re thinking and feeling about the start of a new season of learning. Whether you’re brand new to SVARA or you’ve been with us from the beginning, we invite you to delight in Laynie’s reflections!

Orientation for Fall Learning starts next week! What are you most excited about?
Honestly, I’m excited for everything. I’m excited for the folks in Alef-Bet Basics to start the hard, stretchy journey of learning how to put the Hebrew alphabet in their mouths and brains and hearts. I’m excited for folks in Queer Talmud for Beginners Mind to crack open a masechet for the first time, or memorize their first piece of Talmud. I’m excited for folks to deepen their chevruta relationships and learn new things about themselves as they practice navigating what’s hard and beautiful about being in a chevruta at all. I’m excited for our commitment to disability justice to grow and flow from the incredible offerings that both Jess and Elliot are bringing to the yeshiva this zman, each of them modeling what it means to use your svara to reveal new expressions of Torah that the world desperately needs. I’m excited for Fairy Hours to start filling up as SVARA-niks have incredible musings and questions about things on or off the daf to share. I’m excited for the art, the music, the divrei torah, the poetry, and the praxis that will come as folks take what we’re practicing in the bet midrash and bring it to other places in their lives that we can’t yet even imagine!

What has been the most meaningful part of welcoming folks back to the bet midrash?
I love Cheshvan! Elul and Tishrei are such beautiful times of reflection and introspection. For me, Cheshvan is when we do the work. Learning is, of course, such an essential part of doing this work. The experience of consistent learning, of prioritizing Torah and each other, of practicing the courageous act of not knowing, of reclaiming a love of our tradition, of learning hard shit that pushes us and inspires us and is messy and fun–all of that gives us a chance to arrive into the selves we’re hoping to be and bring those new selves to Torah. I always come back to bell hooks’ z”l famous words about learning at the start of each zman:

“The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.” (bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, 1994)

And as every zman unfolds, I am delightfully agitated and inspired by bell hooks’ vision of what learning is and what learning has to be. Welcoming ourselves back to regular learning gives us space to try, in whatever ways we can, to live up to this vision.

Can you share any memorable reflections from your first time in the SVARA bet midrash?
My first time in a SVARA bet midrash was in 2014 at what was called “Fall Talmud Retreat”–before Queer Talmud Camp was even a thing! I had heard about this retreat from a Facebook post, and at that time I had been learning full-time in yeshiva for about a year and a half. I thought, WTF is this queer yeshiva and how have I not heard of it?! So, I flew (with [SVARA Fellow?] Jess Belasco!) to the SVARA Fall Talmud Retreat, which was hosted in Benay’s house, where we learned all weekend with a dozen or so folks. At the end of the weekend when we did recitations, I recited the single mishnah and short line of gemara that we learned, and I remember feeling like I had actually learned it. It felt like the first time I truly learned a mishnah. That mishnah and gemara are still one of my favorite texts to learn and teach, and I still feel like they’re in a pocket inside me somewhere that no other text has been.

What goes into the process of choosing texts for a new season of learning?
Y’all know that when we’re learning Talmud, we’re not simply reading what it says–we’re learning to figure out how the Talmud says what it says. As Benay teaches, “the Talmud is a curriculum for educating and empowering those who will do this kind of upgrading in every generation.” We are invested in y’all not just learning what the Rabbis did when they created a dynamic new world of religious expression and commitment, but that y’all see how they did it, so that we can do it, too. So, when we’re thinking about texts to learn with y’all in the bet midrash, we’re looking for texts that can help y’all encounter some of the most dynamic, empowering moves that our sages have made, and texts that will be useful to all of us as we envision, shape, and recover liberatory expressions of the tradition.

What would you offer to folks who are learning with SVARA for the first time?
For those of y’all joining us for the first time, thank you. This community and this tradition needs you. Your voice, your svara, is what we all need to learn from. Learning Talmud is hard. Learning Torah is hard. Finding ways to bring our full selves to this tradition is hard. What we do in this yeshiva is hard work, and I am so glad and grateful to be doing it with each of you.

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