I taught an eighth grade class for a number of years in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish school in Israel. The secular class began in late afternoon and there were only two hours per week devoted to English language study.
However, I still wanted to introduce the students to classic literature, and so I created a unit on Shakespeare in which the students read and acted out a few seminal scenes from the great bard’s plays. Included was the assassination scene in Julius Caesar. The kids had fun wearing makeshift togas and learned about something about the wielding of political power. Moreover, we reviewed some of the classic lines in the play in their context.
This cinematic version of Julius Caesar still has legs although it was filmed in black and white over sixty years ago. The reason: the stellar cast which included Marlon Brando as Marc Antony, James Mason as Brutus, and John Gielgud as Cassius.
The story begins in Rome when Caesar is at the height of his power. Some, however, see his rise to power as a reflection of his unflinching ambition and as a threat to Rome. They recruit the honorable Brutus to join with them in a plot to murder Caesar and, by doing so, save Rome. Brutus’ participation gives the conspirators respectability and the courage to move forward with their plans.
After the assassination, Brutus gives permission for Antony to eulogize Caesar, and his emotional speech turns the crowd against the conspirators. His funeral oration beginning with the famous words “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” is a speech for the ages, and Brando executes it in iconic fashion. This sets the stage for war between Antony and Brutus and their respective constituencies.
When I discussed the themes of the play with the students, I inwardly lamented their lack of exposure to great literature, the touchstone of superior culture. Of course, I understood that Torah study was primary, but one can still learn from great literature and the study of the humanities in general. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, a rabbinic scholar with a PhD in English from Harvard, writes that the humanities gives us insight into the human soul: “Great literature presents either a rendering, factual or imaginative, of aspects of the human condition, or a record of the artist’s grappling with the ultimate questions of human existence: man’s relation to himself, to others, to the cosmos, and above all to God.” As such, reading exceptional works of literature can help us navigate our own lives.
There are lines in Julius Caesar that express truths about life in a poetic way that touch the heart as well as the mind. Moreover, they coincide with Jewish sensibilities. Here is one of them: “Cowards die many times before their death, the valiant never taste of death but once.” This passage makes us think about how to confront fear. Another passage: “There is a tide in the affairs of men/ Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune/ Omitted, all the voyage of their life/ Is bound in shallows and miseries/ On such a full sea as we are now afloat/ And we must take the current when it serves/ Or lose our ventures.” The message here is to take advantage of the moment. Evaluate the present and then act boldly to determine your future.
What I found in instructing students of all ages is that life lessons that were embedded in sacred Jewish texts often emerged in the secular texts I was teaching in my English literature classes. My students, many of whom were not reared in observant Jewish homes, connected with the secular source more easily than with the sacred. In teaching, I understood that when it comes to student learning “the readiness is all.”