Authoring, Authority, and Authenticity: The Storying of Jewish Education

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March 7, 2010
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Tali Zelkowicz

Since the major Jewish immigration wave to America in the 1880s, Jewish educators and communal leaders have argued over the proper ways to socialize the next Jewish generations into American society. The integration story is fraught with the tension of multiple and competing values: shifts from outsider to insider and back again and from material scarcity to abundance, the ongoing dialectics between universalism and particularism and between faith and peoplehood, content and relevance, survival and transformation. These have been the main characters in an ongoing story whose tensions can be managed, periodically even embraced, but not resolved.

This is the case I make to my Jewish education graduate students each fall, in a course called the Sociology of Jewish Education. I explain to an initially unnerved classroom that there are no guarantees for Jewish continuity, only experiments. Together, we explore how, by relinquishing belief that we can control the future, we become bold and powerful in the present, especially if we use knowledge of the past. For example, we investigate the evolution of the American bar/bat mitzvah — how it became tied to those infamous “minimum relgious school requirements” over which parents and administrators engage in power struggles daily, who determines what a “real” bar/bat mitzvah entails, and how such copyrights become established. And through stories and narrative we uncover the fluid nature of the field — how it changes and how all the stakeholders in the field of Jewish education — educators, students, parents, institutional leaders, and philanthropists — are responsible to author or reinterpret our story.

Most of us have inherited an overarching and often unconscious master narrative, which I refer to as the “Humpty Dumpty Narrative.” With uncanny precision, Humpty’s tragic tale echoes contemporary American Jewish communal anxieties about qualitative and quantitative survival:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
There was a putatively whole, “authentic” place where Jews once lived and belonged —namely, Europe (the master narrative is thoroughly Ashkenazic).
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
Leaving Europe for America and shifting homebase to new shores (and not Israel), may even represent the “sin” of Jewish modernity.1
But all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not put Humpty together again.
American culture and ideology have driven an unnatural and unholy wedge down the middle of a once-integrated Jewish life, leaving Jews and “Jewishness” bifurcated between ethnic and religious dimensions, hyphenated, truncated, and episodic.2 In short, American Jewish identities are broken in pieces. And now, all the Jewish educators and all the Jewish professionals cannot seem to put Jewish life back together again in America.

Was there ever a high, holy place — a “wall” from which we fell? And are American Jews expecting just the right educational antidotes and formulae that will (ideally, once and for all) heal and fix the wounds from our “fall”?

Though besieged with news about the woes of contemporary Jewish life, today’s students are rejecting Humpty’s story of loss. They are experimenting with a new way of interrogating the narrative of change and loss and, under the surface, the politics of authenticity surrounding Jewish identity formation — a key to Jewish education. In class, we’re learning to ask: How can we as Jewish educators navigate multiple and competing definitions of authenticity? How do we relate and respond to the boundary pushing?” In other words, how do we make explicit and transparent some of the stories Jews tell about themselves to each other about the authentic and authoritative, and ultimately generative, versions of Jewish identity formation?

Here’s one way we’re experimenting: Students identify one artifact of contested authenticity — something that pushes Jewish boundaries in a controversial, threatening, or problematic way — and then analyze and examine their own personal and professional strategies about how it might be addressed.

I suggest to the student that examples of such artifacts3 could include: photos of Halloween books featured in a religious school or Jewish day school, a “Miriam’s breast pump” as a Jewish ritual object, the canine ritual of “bark mitzvah,” an article in New Voices magazine that extols the virtues of intermarried clergy, the text of a blessing offered to all the non-Jewish spouses in a congregation during High Holiday services by the senior rabbi, or a YouTube excerpt of Rabbi Funnye Capers leading his African-American congregation in Shabbat services in Chicago. Along with a tangible version of the chosen artifact, the students should bring to class responses to these questions:

  • What are the advertent and/or inadvertent purposes (religious, physical, sociological) of the artifact?
  • What boundaries does it push? How, for whom, and why?
  • What questions, feelings, and dilemmas does this artifact raise personally for the educator?
  • How do the concepts of scholars Stuart Charmé4 and Shaul Kelner5 influence your understanding of the artifact? Where do you draw the boundaries, and how might you communicate this stance to a group of congregants, learners, campers, or colleagues?

After examining the artifacts, we invite a Jewish historian and a feminist theologian to offer critical responses to the students’ treatments of the artifacts. The discussion — among students, respondents, and other faculty guests — is charged and stimulating. One of our respondents probed the difference between “inauthentic” and “kitsch,” and all present became the main characters in an ongoing dramatic story. Indeed, reflecting on the session the next day, one student reported feeling “both frustrated and appreciative of the lack of definitive answers.” Rather than resolve, each generation’s leaders must accept their authorial power and write new culture responsibly — that is connected to our rich and varied past.

Another student imagines bringing this method of inquiry to the classroom, where
seventh-graders “would identify things that are marginal or on the boundaries, and [I’d] invite my own colleagues to be the respondents.” While it can be deeply unsettling to learn that boundaries are not fixed, it should be equally empowering to realize that they can be navigated and negotiated. Herein lies part of the authority of today’s liberal Jewish educator: to determine what it really means to push the limits. With the example of Jew-Bu’s, the authenticity question becomes, “Is there some kind of acceptable syncretism, the blending of two religions, two systems of thinking?”

Liberal Jews want their boundaries to be porous, but not too porous. An orienting metaphor of porosity emerged that day, which, not surprisingly, also applies well to the social-scientific study of Jewish identity formation as a whole: the metaphor of a living cell, with a semipermeable membrane. A cell has a way to let things in from the outside and to let things out from the inside, without being inundated or losing its integrity. Words, metaphors, and narratives all shape our understanding of the past and the present, and our vision for the future. Write on.

1 In 1900, Jacob David Wilowsky, rabbi of Slutsk, Russia, told an audience in New York that any Jew who came to the United States was a sinner. In his view, Judaism had no chance to survival on American soil. “It was not only home that the Jews left behind in Europe,” he said. “It was their Torah [biblical text and learning], their Talmud [rabbinic texts and learning], their yeshivot [Jewish academies of learning] — in a word, their Yiddishkeit, their entire Jewish way of life.”

2 See Jonathan Woocher’s full argument about all eight types of brokenness is his (1995) “Toward a ‘Unified Field Theory’ of Jewish Continuity” in A Congregation of Learners: Transforming the Synagogue into a Learning Community; Isa Aron, Sara Lee, and Seymour Rossel, eds. (UAHC Press, New York)

3 One can find the list of the artifacts that students selected and analyzed at shma.com.

4 Charmé, Stuart. “Varieties of Authenticity in Contemporary Jewish Identity.” Jewish Social Studies. Pp. 133-155.

5 Kelner, Shaul. “Birthright and Creating of Ritual.” pp. 1-3. And, Kelner, Shaul. (2001) “Authentic Sights and Authentic Narratives on Taglit.” Paper presented at the 33rd annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies in Washington, D.C. on December 16, 2001.

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Dr. Tali Zelkowicz is an assistant professor of Jewish education at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles.

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