My wife tells me that I should calm down regarding the school that our daughter will be attending next year. I’m trying to, but I won’t be able to get this out of my system unless I hash out my thoughts in writing.
This isn’t easy for me to write about succinctly because there’s so much wrapped up for me in the matter of my daughter’s Jewish education; still, I shall try.
I’ll start by throwing a word out there, which I shall come back to later. The word is: “Redemptive”; keep that in mind as you read on.
My family background
Eastern European Jews (Ashkenazi Jews)
In brief: with no exaggeration, everybody on my side of the family is Jewish. Both of my parents took DNA tests their results were quite conclusive: We are of Eastern European Jewish descent. Unfortunately for our ties to our Jewish heritage, my parents were both born in the USSR.
The USSR vis-à-vis religion & the Jews
For the purposes of this blog post, you should know the following: The secular, communist USSR did its utmost to systematically obliterate all religious expressions and institutions within its borders. This was true for all religious faiths, and it was especially true for Judaism, for the USSR was overtly antisemitic.
My parents both knew that their families were of Jewish descent, but neither grew up having much sense of what being Jewish actually meant. Neither was raised celebrating Jewish holidays; neither received a Jewish education; neither was taught Hebrew (or even Yiddish, for that matter, which their parents spoke fluently). They were the products of forced assimilation and secularization.
Repatriation to Israel
My parents were lucky enough to immigrate to Israel in the mid-70’s. At that time, Jews were not free to leave the USSR; only a very limited number were granted exit visas.
On the one hand, my parents gained fluency in Hebrew and gained exposure to traditional Jewish texts (such as Talmud) as students at Hebrew University in Jerusalem; and they became very close friends with Sephardi Orthodox Jews who observed the Sabbath and kept kosher. On the other hand, while they adopted some of the more fundamental Jewish traditions, they both continued to self-identify as secular Jews.
My Jewish upbringing
I grew up in the USA, but my parents raised me with a deep love for the State of Israel, which we often visited to see my mother’s family. Mine was a very Zionistic upbringing; the State of Israel was central to my family’s Jewish identity.
We did not adhere to religious strictures qua religious strictures, but we did not consume pork, nor eat meat and dairy at the same meal; and we did not eat leavened food products on Passover. We lit candles for each of the eight days of Chanukah, and we fasted on Yom Kippur.
We were more traditional than any of the other members of our extended family.
“Hebrew school” is an afterschool program for Jewish children, usually at their synagogues. I attended public school during the day and Hebrew school two afternoons and one Sunday morning a week. Unlike the majority of children at [my] Hebrew school, I attended that program of my own volition. I can’t say that I learned much, but it instilled in me a sense of belonging to the Jewish people.
Yearning & learning
Falling deeply in love with Judaism
It was in college that I began to increasingly fall deeply in love with and explore Judaism and Jewish identity, launching a journey that would come to profoundly shape my life. I have no idea why it is that I care as much as I do about my people and our shared heritage, but its a passion that continues to consume me.
I have become religiously observant, spent years studying Torah, and repatriated to Israel, among other steps along the way. For years, I fantasized about becoming a rabbi because I loved contributing to Jewish community and also wanted to learn how to freely swim the seas of Jewish tradition.
Moving back to Israel as an adult
Without getting into detail [right now], I decided not to pursue the rabbinate, and, instead, to move back to live in Israel when I was thirty years old. It has not been an easy journey for me.
Despite the challenges of adapting to Israeli culture, language, etc., etc., I have never doubted that moving to Israel was the correct decision for me, and that is because of my daughter. Watching her growing up in the Jewish State, speaking Hebrew, living according to the Jewish calendar… these are things that I can only wish I’d had as a child.
The Israel advantage
Providing one’s children with substantive Jewish education outside of Israel is a challenge and a great expense. Jewish day schools are incredibly expensive, and they’re not readily available everywhere. In Israel, on the other hand, Jewish children can attend state schools that provide them with a rigorous Jewish education – at very little additional expense. These schools exist everywhere throughout the State.
As I mentioned in my previous post, it is for this reason that I would have been happy “enough” if my daughter had been accepted into one of the three State-Orthodox schools that we applied for on her behalf.
Why only happy “enough”?
While Israel’s State-Orthodox schools provide children with the learning skills they need to navigate ancient Jewish texts in Hebrew and Aramaic, they are all ideologically Orthodox, and this includes even the most openminded State-Orthodox schools. They all espouse some form of theology.
Now, I have no problem with people who believe in God or believe in the veracity of the Torah, but I do have a problem with people adopting theological views simply because they’ve been actively discouraged since early childhood from considering any alternatives.
At a State-Orthodox school, publicly questioning the existence of God and the veracity of the Torah would not be smiled upon. The traditional party line would be enforced.
Our State-Secular school that is not secular
That’s why I’m so excited that my daughter has been accepted to this incredibly unique school, where students are provided with a rigorous, traditional Jewish education; but Secular children and Orthodox children study together and are not expected to believe in anything that they don’t feel personally comfortable believing.
In all of Israel, there is only one such school that I know of.
If you’re still with me, I will now get to the crux of the issue.
My family came from the USSR, which successfully obliterated Judaism within its borders, leaving most Soviet Jews without any meaningful understanding of their roots; but the Holocaust, which swept through Europe also succeeded at obliterating Jewish traditions – by obliterating the Jews who kept the tradition.
The point is that whereas for generations and generations and generations and generations, Jewish people passed down their traditions through their communities and families, those chains of transmission were largely destroyed in 20th century Europe.
Where there once existed a natural balance between the authority of the rabbis and the traditions of Jewish homes, there were left only ancient religious tomes and the few men who could decipher them. Those who wanted to live according to rich Jewish traditions had to rely entirely upon religious scholars because hardly anybody else was left to transmit the ways of the people.
And this remains true today for people like me. There’s nobody in my family who can tell me what my family’s traditions used to be. I am left with Jewish religious texts and the modern scholars who interpret them.
Every rabbi is a blacksmith
It is only natural that those scholars who continue to work to revive the ancient Jewish folkways by educating the new generations imprint their religious views and approaches upon their students. It is only natural. Only natural.
But to what extent, then, do the new generations own their Jewish identities? And to what extent are they their own Jews?
For those who feel little attachment to religious traditions, this does not much matter… but it does matter to me. In my ideal world, I would have loved to have received a Jewish education in my childhood that both empowered me to explore the depths of ancient Jewish texts and encouraged me to seek and find my self in them and in relation to them.
The empowered generation
And that is why I am so excited for my daughter. That is why I feel that this special opportunity is redemptive.
Decades ago, something was taken from my family that can never be returned to us, but, now, generations later, we finally have the opportunity to [re]build something from the ruins of our past. Judaism is a very complex and rich tradition, and one must be provided with the tools to navigate it, else she will only know enough to reject those ways that don’t feel right to her – limited, like her father before her.
I don’t want my Jewish daughter to grab ahold of somebody else’s mended chain. I want her to forge new, sturdy links for herself.