'OBSERVANT READER' RESPONSE: CHAPTER 4
"Write What You Know": The Role of Jewish Education
Growing up, I received a modern, co-ed, Orthodox day school education and lived in a community where traditional observance was easy. My friends and their parents belonged to the same synagogues that my parents and I belonged to.
On paper, we all received the same education. But my high school did not churn out mindless clones. We all became individuals, with our own opinions and our own interpretations of what we learned. Today, some of them are not observant at all. Many are still Orthodox, and some have become even more religious than we ever imagined.
But many others live in the same kind of denominational limbo where I am: unwilling to give up on an observant lifestyle (and unwilling to accept a future where such a lifestyle is ruled out), but with a lot of intellectual dissonance. I know this because I have encountered them along the common road that we travel, searching for a resonant expression of Judaism that we haven’t found yet. We have discovered that to an extent, nurture doesn’t matter. You can provide educational tools, and an environment that’s friendly to observance, but how individuals integrate theology and observance into their lives is a matter of individuated nature, not communal pressures.
For these yeshiva graduates gone “wild” (wherein “wild” means independent), I don’t believe that it’s the familiarity of tradition breeding contempt. I do believe that it is the attempt to integrate a strict education into a contemporary lifestyle that engenders questioning. The more you know, the less likely you are to blindly accept "the package deal"; the more you know, the more questions you have. And the more you know, the less likely you will be pacified with an answer like “because we’ve always done it that way.”
When I left the dayschool environment for a secular university, I soon discovered that pretty much everyone on the floor of my dorm was Jewish. But there still wasn’t a lot of observance. I became the floor expert; people called me “SuperJew” and “Rabbi,” nicknames that baffled me because I felt far from either. For many, I was observant Judaism’s representative at Rutgers; because of my education, I found myself with knowledge that other people lacked. I found myself remembering all those trips from camp when they reminded us that we weren’t just representing Camp Ramah, but that we were representing the Jewish people, and therefore should be on our best behavior. I answered other people’s questions and challenges of Jewish observance, but didn’t spend the proper time answering my own questions.
As a result, when I write today, I grapple with authenticity, education, power, authority, authenticity, empowerment, tradition, feminism, modernity, identity and everything under the sun. It doesn’t mean that I have rejected everything that challenges me. But it doesn’t mean I accept it blindly either. How much more so would this be the case if I wrote primarily fiction...I would, per the standard advice, “write what I know,” which is the exploration of a committed Jewish identity between movements, an analysis of what works and what doesn’t and for whom and when and why. As they seek their own truth within their art, fiction writers with similar backgrounds are also likely to struggle with such themes.