Watching the Light Bulb Turn On

For most of my thirty-two years as the rabbi of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, I have been teaching a weekly class to our Hebrew High School students who attend public high schools.

The subject matter has changed from time to time- actually, some of my favorite years in that span have been devoted to teaching my students the classic Israeli songbook, with me on guitar and some of them who play joining in. Hearing them learn and sing everything from Shir HaEmek to Arik Einstein, z”l, has been priceless. Through it all, the challenge has been, and continues to be, how to engage teens in the study of Judaism and Israel on a serious and substantive level- from five to seven in the evening, after a long day at school, when they’re all tired and hungry. It’s not easy. What I’m hoping to study with the class this coming semester is a greater appreciation of Conservative Judaism, and the larger issue of the tradition and change dialectic as it relates to all of post-Emancipation Judaism.

Along with our education director at my synagogue, I came to the realization this year that getting the students out of the building as much as possible, and into the myriad experiences that Jewish New York has to offer, is a wise way to go, for them and for me. Heavy text learning with tired and hungry students (even with the pizza that we give them!) is hard to accomplish, and weekend commitments (on their parts and mine) make Sunday mornings impossible .

So, in the spirit of our newly found resolve, we took the students to see the Folksbiene National Yiddish Theater stage production (in English) of Canadian film maker Jan Kadar’s Lies My Father Told Me. The original movie version is a charming and poignant family drama set in old Montreal, focused on the relationship between an aging European old-world-Jewish grandfather and his adoring young grandson. In the middle, very much between them, are the old Jew’s daughter and her husband, a would-be inventor with a fountain of ideas that don’t pan out. The grandfather, who still peddles “rags, clothes and bottles” on a horse-drawn cart, is constantly being asked for “start-up money” by his son-in-law, and he becomes increasingly reluctant to fund yet another idea unlikely to result in anything positive. When he refuses, knowing that he would be throwing money down the drain, the son-in-law accuses him of being hopelessly stuck in the ways of the shtetl and its religious superstitions. Their relationship is bitter, and, ultimately, doomed.

The play and its story line stand nicely on their own. But on a deeper level, it is, of course, a metaphor for the timeless post-Emancipation tension between tradition and modernity- exactly the subject that I am hoping to cover in my work with the Hebrew High School. Like Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye, the grandfather in Lies My Father Told Me represents a world that is disappearing into a not-as-yet not totally welcoming new world, and it creates all kinds of tensions with family members who are struggling to find their place.

When I met with my Hebrew High students this week, I asked them what they thought the play was about, looking to see if any of them had picked up on the metaphorical dimension. Though all of them had found the play moving and worth seeing, to be sure, none of them had seen it as any kind of statement about the modern Jewish condition.

On one level, I had to laugh, thinking back to my own high school and even college years, when teachers were always pushing us to read the “deeper meaning” into poems, plays and stories. We didn’t always see them, but we were invariably told that they were there. Even more difficult for us to accept was the idea that the authors had actually intended us to read their work on more than one level. It takes a long time to appreciate literature that way, and my students of today were no different than I, and my classmates, were when we were their age. We liked the story, but weren’t all that interested in who or what each character represented.

But what was more apparent to me– and much more significant– was the degree to which, to a one, none of them had any consciousness whatsoever of a tension between tradition and modernity (which certainly would explain why they didn’t see it in the story).

These teens are coming of age in a time when they simply take their “American-ness” for granted. They are far removed from the kinds of discrimination issues that informed the childhoods of their parents and grandparents. And most significant of all… they have little if any awareness of the fact that up until just over two hundred years or so ago, Jews were not even allowed to be citizens of the countries in which they lived in virtually all of Europe. They were, as I explained to the students, in the status of a “tolerated minority” as opposed to empowered and enfranchised citizen members of the society.

Slowly, slowly, the light bulb began to turn on. I pushed further. You have to understand, I said, that since that process of Emancipation, every Jew in every country where he/she is empowered– very much including America– has to make a conscious decision of where on the dialectic between tradition and change he will find his place. Will you be the Jew who holds on to the traditions that have shaped your culture for thousands of years (i.e., the grandfather in the play), or the “citizen of the world” who embraces modernity and its promise without reservation or restraint (the inventor son)…. or somewhere in between (most of us!). Where will you find your balance now that that decision is yours to make?

You can’t always tell with teens when you’ve gotten through to them, but having raised four myself, I’ve learned that sometimes you can have a pretty good idea. I am reasonably sure that, as they left my study that night, tired and hungry though they were, my students were thinking. What more could a teacher want?

It should be an interesting semester…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.