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Learning Web Programming for Zayde

“So, what are you learning?”

Every conversation I ever had with Ben Zion Wacholder, my Zayde (grandfather), turned to that same question. When I was in Yeshiva high school, I would start telling Zayde about a Talmud passage I’d learned recently and he would recite the next five lines by heart. In college, I’d mention Homer and he would nod in approval. After I graduated and took a part-time personal assistant job, answering Zayde’s well-intentioned interrogations became a painful part of returning home, a reminder that my brain was melting away answering phones and booking travel arrangements. Stuttering through an answer, visiting Zayde became a constant reminder that I was learning … nothing.

A little background. Famously, while living in hiding as a non-Jew on a Polish farm during World War II, my Zayde used to teach Talmud to the cows. Even alone in the fields, talking about Judaism put his life in danger, but life without learning was impossible for him. Decades later, when he was a Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, my Zayde and his student Marty Abegg published the first partial translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which previously had been kept secret by a small group of scholars, earning himself more than a few enemies in the world of early Christian and Rabbinic scholarship. Again, he believed that knowledge is meant to be used, and he couldn’t stand to see it hidden away.

In March of 2011, Zayde passed away and I traveled to Israel with my mother and her siblings for his funeral. We were in Israel for five days, and the whole trip is a blur of emotions, jet lag, confusing ritual dancing at the cemetery, and small talk with strangers at shiva. But what I do remember is the stories my Zayde’s former students, colleagues, and friends told me about him, and the letters they started sending my family.

The stories were so rich and varied that I decided I wanted to compile them and piece together a complete picture of my Zayde. While I was struggling to decide whether I was capable of putting together anything that somebody would publish, my mother—who was using Google while the rest of us were still Asking Jeeves—put my 21st-century self to shame by pointing out that the best way to share information with lots of people is online. So I went back to school, and signed myself up for courses in Web programming and design.

It turned out that after drowning in the liberal arts for years, my brain was starving for a little quantitative reason and binary logic. After four years of college and then two years working in the art world, I was bored to death with spurious interpretations and pretentious nonsense masquerading as theory. Growing up in a family of academics, I felt like a failure when I realized that academia frustrated me, that my brain is too concrete and results-oriented for the ambiguities and abstractions of studying the humanities. But Web programming was empowering. Work with a clear purpose and a defined end point! Actual right and wrong answers! Visible results! I finally found a field that feels relevant and current, and a place I could contribute more than yet another paper or article.

It also turns out that programming was kind of hard. For a year and a half, instead of building an online archive about my Zayde, I’ve been busy building HTML tables and struggling through PHP control structures. But, as I slogged through the busywork, I was relieved that I finally had an answer to Zayde’s eternal question, “So, what are you learning?”

And so, a year and six programming languages later, I finally created It is a tribute to my Zayde not just because it contains his writing and writing about him, but because through preparing this project I rediscovered my love of learning. The site is a work in progress—I’m still gathering knowledge about my Zayde and the programming skills I need. And that’s exactly as it should be. As long as I’m still learning, I know that I’m remembering him the right way.

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