Friday, February 04, 2005

'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.

13 Comments:

At 3:42 PM, February 04, 2005, Blogger Passionate Life said...

Esther,

Bravo! Very thoughtful series stemming from the Shalit piece but taken to a whole other level. Much food for thought and will make great Shabbos dinner conversation around the country. You can write a book on your last paragraph alone "As a result, when I write today."

It takes a brave soul to tackle our understanding of who we are and what we truly believe. It's so much easier to not question and do what is easy or familiar. I applaud the questioners, the searchers, and the seekers.

Keep on, keep on,

The truth is out there.

 
At 6:14 PM, February 04, 2005, Blogger NB said...

great post, makes me think yet again on the relationship between fact and fiction, inspiration and end-result... if art's like what Salinger sais: a matter of leaving something beautiful behind, or more of a religios concern, who knows...

 
At 8:15 PM, February 04, 2005, Blogger Coelecanth said...

Good timing E, I'm pulling a 12 hour day and needed something to read and think about as my motivation flags.

Once again I'm struck by the universality of your arguements. We're all born into a society of one sort or another and must struggle to define ourselves within that framework. Well, we have to if we're to live a full and conscious life that is.

I think anyone who's been raised in a religious tradition faces a much deeper and more pervasive struggle than I do. Which is not to say you're worse off. Religious traditions give one a very concrete place to begin to define oneself, and because it's so all encompassing it makes one more likely to indulge in useful introspection.

Put another way: I've found I constantly need to define what my beliefs are before I can even begin to question them. At least you have a starting point.

That's what I see fiction's role as (or good fiction anyway): a place to begin one's understanding. Doesn't matter if the author is an insider or not. You can learn just as much by saying "That's not true." as you can when everything is perfectly accurate.

Great post, lots to think about.

 
At 10:05 AM, February 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Muffti remembers being told that he was 'a representative of the jewish community and so should behave'. At the time he wondered whether christian kids were told 'you are representing the entire christian community so behave...' Apparently they weren't. The underlying truth was clear, but sad: you can only express yourself without criticism from the entire community when your group is in power.

 
At 10:14 AM, February 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 10:43 AM, February 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday! I read the news on Plantation Todd's blog.

 
At 11:46 AM, February 05, 2005, Blogger Gatsby said...

Incredible series of posts. It was thought provoking without being judgemental. I think a lot about my own Jewish identity, particularly now that I'm wandering through the blog world and seeing all sorts of different ideas about who is jewish. It was also a struggle while I spent some time in the Traditional synagogue in the UK. I felt that I constantly had to justify my own practices in the shadow of more observant Jews. I came through the experience much better off, and much more of a well rounded Jew. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

 
At 12:43 PM, February 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a really well written and thought provoking post, Esther. I've always thought writing was more about searching for truth within yourself than just plunking attractive words on paper.

Spring
www.chaoticspring.com

 
At 8:53 PM, February 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're totally wrong if you think that the more you know, the more questions you have, and the less you know the fewer questions you have. It's actually a case of "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." It's when you know enough to question but not enough to really figure out an answer that you get stuck. For example, if your question is: what does G-d want from people, if you haven't read a whole host of (religious) Jewish philosophers, you will have no frame of reference for getting to any decent answer. Anyone who truly has a lot of knowledge will be awed by how much they know and, at the same time, how little -- because they recognize that the Torah is an enormous sea that no one can ever reach the end of.

 
At 10:39 PM, February 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

e,
it is high time i admitted that these days i am by definition a web 'surfer,' taking far too little time to really read what anyone has to say with an attention that will let me really understand it and feel like i've shared a piece of someone's life.
that said, i can't ever do that here, and this piece is an example of why. the same discussion that you place here in the context of the jewish community is one that comes up all the time with friends of mine who also grew up in the church. part of the journey for me has been to realize that what i would have defined as an "intellectual dissonance" had i read this a year ago was really a "spiritual dissonance" in that i never felt my churches or my community were being honest with me. until recently, i'd rarely been to a church service where i felt as if i was hearing "the Word of God" and not just another Chicken Soup for the Soul, "now go be a Good Samaritan" sermon.

it may seem different for you because you went to jewish school, but i am willing to be that the experiences you and other jews you know are having are shared not only by other people of faith who are struggling with shoes they know they want to have but haven't figured out how to walk in yet, but with pretty much everyone everywhere who has ever walked away from some aspect of their community's expectations. whatever "it" is, that "it" of lifestyle and values that we've had for so long, will never go away, no matter how hard we try to conquer it with our minds.

anyway, that might not have been exactly relevant, but they're thoughts inspired by the always-inspiring you.
candy girl

 
At 12:45 AM, February 07, 2005, Blogger Anna said...

esther,

i think this is a common area for our age group. as a christian, i have the same issues and questions with what was taught to me and how i handle believing just because i am suppose to. i am actually looking into judiasm. what better way to understand any religion than to look at others? keep questioning. we're all doing it.

 
At 6:46 AM, February 07, 2005, Blogger ontheface said...

Like everyone else, I'm impressed by how well written, non-judgemental and thoughtful this piece is. Not to mention thought provoking. I enjoyed reading this very much.

 
At 9:42 PM, February 07, 2005, Blogger Lyss said...

When I took INtro to Judaism my freshman year (promised to be more a Jewish philosphy class....) the teacher a JuBu (fmr Jew, now Buddhist) eventually got into the habit of checking facts with me (fresh out of eyshiva and all...). About 75% of the class was Jewish (and around 25% of the university). The scary thing was the lack of basic knowlegde by the majority of the other Jewish students in that class. The non-Jews, of course, have good reason for their ignorance.

 

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My Urban Kvetch: 'OBSERVANT READER' RESPONSE: CHAPTER 4

Friday, February 04, 2005

'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.

13 Comments:

At 3:42 PM, February 04, 2005, Blogger Passionate Life said...

Esther,

Bravo! Very thoughtful series stemming from the Shalit piece but taken to a whole other level. Much food for thought and will make great Shabbos dinner conversation around the country. You can write a book on your last paragraph alone "As a result, when I write today."

It takes a brave soul to tackle our understanding of who we are and what we truly believe. It's so much easier to not question and do what is easy or familiar. I applaud the questioners, the searchers, and the seekers.

Keep on, keep on,

The truth is out there.

 
At 6:14 PM, February 04, 2005, Blogger NB said...

great post, makes me think yet again on the relationship between fact and fiction, inspiration and end-result... if art's like what Salinger sais: a matter of leaving something beautiful behind, or more of a religios concern, who knows...

 
At 8:15 PM, February 04, 2005, Blogger Coelecanth said...

Good timing E, I'm pulling a 12 hour day and needed something to read and think about as my motivation flags.

Once again I'm struck by the universality of your arguements. We're all born into a society of one sort or another and must struggle to define ourselves within that framework. Well, we have to if we're to live a full and conscious life that is.

I think anyone who's been raised in a religious tradition faces a much deeper and more pervasive struggle than I do. Which is not to say you're worse off. Religious traditions give one a very concrete place to begin to define oneself, and because it's so all encompassing it makes one more likely to indulge in useful introspection.

Put another way: I've found I constantly need to define what my beliefs are before I can even begin to question them. At least you have a starting point.

That's what I see fiction's role as (or good fiction anyway): a place to begin one's understanding. Doesn't matter if the author is an insider or not. You can learn just as much by saying "That's not true." as you can when everything is perfectly accurate.

Great post, lots to think about.

 
At 10:05 AM, February 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Muffti remembers being told that he was 'a representative of the jewish community and so should behave'. At the time he wondered whether christian kids were told 'you are representing the entire christian community so behave...' Apparently they weren't. The underlying truth was clear, but sad: you can only express yourself without criticism from the entire community when your group is in power.

 
At 10:14 AM, February 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 10:43 AM, February 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday! I read the news on Plantation Todd's blog.

 
At 11:46 AM, February 05, 2005, Blogger Gatsby said...

Incredible series of posts. It was thought provoking without being judgemental. I think a lot about my own Jewish identity, particularly now that I'm wandering through the blog world and seeing all sorts of different ideas about who is jewish. It was also a struggle while I spent some time in the Traditional synagogue in the UK. I felt that I constantly had to justify my own practices in the shadow of more observant Jews. I came through the experience much better off, and much more of a well rounded Jew. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

 
At 12:43 PM, February 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a really well written and thought provoking post, Esther. I've always thought writing was more about searching for truth within yourself than just plunking attractive words on paper.

Spring
www.chaoticspring.com

 
At 8:53 PM, February 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're totally wrong if you think that the more you know, the more questions you have, and the less you know the fewer questions you have. It's actually a case of "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." It's when you know enough to question but not enough to really figure out an answer that you get stuck. For example, if your question is: what does G-d want from people, if you haven't read a whole host of (religious) Jewish philosophers, you will have no frame of reference for getting to any decent answer. Anyone who truly has a lot of knowledge will be awed by how much they know and, at the same time, how little -- because they recognize that the Torah is an enormous sea that no one can ever reach the end of.

 
At 10:39 PM, February 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

e,
it is high time i admitted that these days i am by definition a web 'surfer,' taking far too little time to really read what anyone has to say with an attention that will let me really understand it and feel like i've shared a piece of someone's life.
that said, i can't ever do that here, and this piece is an example of why. the same discussion that you place here in the context of the jewish community is one that comes up all the time with friends of mine who also grew up in the church. part of the journey for me has been to realize that what i would have defined as an "intellectual dissonance" had i read this a year ago was really a "spiritual dissonance" in that i never felt my churches or my community were being honest with me. until recently, i'd rarely been to a church service where i felt as if i was hearing "the Word of God" and not just another Chicken Soup for the Soul, "now go be a Good Samaritan" sermon.

it may seem different for you because you went to jewish school, but i am willing to be that the experiences you and other jews you know are having are shared not only by other people of faith who are struggling with shoes they know they want to have but haven't figured out how to walk in yet, but with pretty much everyone everywhere who has ever walked away from some aspect of their community's expectations. whatever "it" is, that "it" of lifestyle and values that we've had for so long, will never go away, no matter how hard we try to conquer it with our minds.

anyway, that might not have been exactly relevant, but they're thoughts inspired by the always-inspiring you.
candy girl

 
At 12:45 AM, February 07, 2005, Blogger Anna said...

esther,

i think this is a common area for our age group. as a christian, i have the same issues and questions with what was taught to me and how i handle believing just because i am suppose to. i am actually looking into judiasm. what better way to understand any religion than to look at others? keep questioning. we're all doing it.

 
At 6:46 AM, February 07, 2005, Blogger ontheface said...

Like everyone else, I'm impressed by how well written, non-judgemental and thoughtful this piece is. Not to mention thought provoking. I enjoyed reading this very much.

 
At 9:42 PM, February 07, 2005, Blogger Lyss said...

When I took INtro to Judaism my freshman year (promised to be more a Jewish philosphy class....) the teacher a JuBu (fmr Jew, now Buddhist) eventually got into the habit of checking facts with me (fresh out of eyshiva and all...). About 75% of the class was Jewish (and around 25% of the university). The scary thing was the lack of basic knowlegde by the majority of the other Jewish students in that class. The non-Jews, of course, have good reason for their ignorance.

 

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