Educating identified Jewish kids in the United States feels like working off-script. It’s one long improvisation. This is certainly true in America’s smaller Jewish communities, like the one we lived in. In Ann Arbor, Mich., where my husband and I raised our three children from 2004 until 2014, there is one Jewish day school, so if you want your kids to begin a serious education in Hebrew and Jewish texts, you send them to the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor. But the work only begins there.
How do you educate American kids in a language they don’t hear around them, on a calendar that doesn’t exist for their neighbors, in sacred texts that you can’t buy at a local bookstore? If you’re an observant Jew, how do you send them to birthday parties where little of the food will be kosher or find a sports team whose games won’t fall on Shabbat?
You learn to make your home the center of your children’s lives. It turns out that everything they live needs interpretation. You’re inventing a childhood for them that merges all sorts of everyday influences. When we celebrate our oldest child’s birthday on Passover, she notes that no one else she knows (except for the Feb. 29 kid) celebrates a shifting birthday dependent on a lunar calendar. When we walk to synagogue in fancy clothes, we bump into kids from preschool on their way to the park in shorts and sneakers, with shovels and pails, baseball mitts and a picnic.
Our own actions merit others’ questions and conversations, too. When we come out of the sukkah from lunch, on a day that seems to threaten snow, the kids listen to us chat on the driveway with the neighbor about what they call the “blue cube” we have erected for a week in October: it’s a major Jewish holiday they have never heard of, Sukkot; we are reliving traveling through the heat of the desert on our way out of Egypt to the Promised Land.
This was our eclectic, challenging life for 10 years. In 2014, we moved to Jerusalem. We wanted a rich Jewish world for ourselves and for our children, where Hebrew would be a language they sang and dreamt in, where the streets were named for prophets and poets, and the geography recorded the stories of our ancient texts.
The surprise came once we had landed, once our children had begun to study in preschool and school, and later join youth movements. We had landed in a place where there was a script. Where it all held together. Where the kids you went to school with were almost always the kids at your youth movement (Bnai Akiva or Tzofim), where those same kids were the ones you saw at shul on Shabbat, or at the very least an hour later in the park, usually dressed kind of like you — in clothes for Shabbat but also for the basketball court or the swing set. Where you could eat the food at any of your friends’ houses. Where at school, public religious school, when there was a class party, any kid could bring baked or cooked food from their own kitchen and no one asked questions about kashrut.
I began to notice that not a few kids went to schools their parents had gone to. Israeli parents laughed and occasionally bemoaned how little had changed in those schools, from the building infrastructure to the curriculum.
When I asked questions, especially in school, about why something was the way it was — why, for example, did children have to copy full paragraphs down from the board each day into notebooks? (as my 6-year-old asked, “Haven’t they heard of a Xerox machine?”) — I was told by teachers and then by my kids, “that’s just the way it is.” When I asked why religious public schools and secular public schools have the same workbooks with different illustrations for subjects even as innocuous as “Rules of the Road: safety on the streets,” I was told that different communities need pictures that reflect their different realities. Because street-crossing is different while wearing a kipa? When I volunteered to join the third-grade parent committee, a thing I tended to do naturally, it turned out I shouldn’t have bothered. The program for Chanukah, and the program for teacher appreciation day and the program for every other already designated event, was already basically known. I got to go to the bakery and pick up the big box of sufganiyot for the party, but all the decisions had already been made.
During the week of Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Independence Day), ask any Israeli parent and they will tell you that from Yom HaShoah forward, they just keep washing the same white school insignia T-shirt and the blue pants or skirt that the kids need to wear on these national days. They wear them yearly on these occasions for the tkasim, the assemblies that every single school has to mark these days.
There is much good that goes on in these schools. There are individual teachers who love teaching, who strive to innovate, whose words go directly to children’s hearts.
But I don’t hear many questions. I don’t see — and let me be specific, in these kindergartens and elementary schools, where identities get their early public stamp — any drive to reconsider. To ask: What are we doing? Why are we doing it? What might we do differently? Should we have an assembly every year? What would it mean not to act out military induction?
It turns out I’m improvising here in Israel, too. My husband and I are raising kids to ask many questions, especially of the things so hardened they seem impossible to question. Those are the hardest questions to identify, to articulate and to work toward answering. They are also, by far, the most important.
Being a Jewish minority in an American town had its problems. It had its lonelinesses. Being an observant family in a pluralist Jewish day school was not simple. Being a Jewish majority in a young Jewish state is not simple either. If American olim have something particular to offer the state, I wonder if it isn’t our experience improvising, interpreting, working with difference, explaining, yearly, to our neighbors that we are still on the path to the Promised Land.
Ilana M. Blumberg is author of “Open Your Hand: Teaching as a Jew, Teaching as an American” (Rutgers University Press, 2018) and director of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University.