I recall very clearly the afternoon in the early 1990s when the male eighth graders at the Jewish day school I attended learned about AIDS. Our physical education teacher, one of many Israelis imported to Toronto to staff the school, gathered us under the basketball nets in the gym and described the deadly disease. Then he told us that there are three ways to get AIDS. “First,” he said in his heavy accent, “before you’re born, if your mother has AIDS, you can receive it directly from her. Second, if you use heroin, you can get AIDS from sharing someone else’s needle.” He paused. “And there’s also a third way.” That was the end of the lesson.
Sex ed wasn’t the only lacuna in my education. Several such gaps cannot be blamed on the school, of course: I can’t blame anyone but myself that I was too busy flirting with girls in my 12th grade Sifrut (Hebrew literature) class to pay much attention to, or to appreciate, our assigned readings.
But some educational lapses did derive from the institution. We had no music program whatsoever. Even our coverage of Jewish subjects had major flaws: I remember that my Jewish history teacher, explaining the denominations that developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, shrugged and said he couldn’t explain what Reconstructionist Judaism was.
Now that I’m a professional scholar of modern Jewish literature, the fiction my classmates and I read in day school galls me even more deeply. We covered inevitable plays and books, like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Great Expectations,” in English class, sure, and plenty of mind-numbing Canadian classics set on the frigid Prairies. But no one ever suggested that we might read the great modern Jewish writers whose stories about immigration and suburbanization would have enlightened us about our family and community histories: We read no Sholom Aleichem, no Cynthia Ozick, no Isaac Bashevis Singer and not even Mordecai Richler, who fills the role for Canadians that Woody Allen and Philip Roth, combined, do for Americans.
Yet I don’t regret my 12 years of day school. Indeed, as a literary scholar and critic I rely on them in ways I never would have expected. Talmud class taught me argumentation and reasoning that informs my reviews and academic critiques. And by teaching freshman composition, I’ve found that the clearest way to explain the basics of “close reading” — the strategy of textual interpretation popularized by the New Critics in the mid-20th century, and still a staple of introductory college English classes — is to refer to my days in Tanach class, in which I learned to read the Torah in Hebrew.
As early as second grade, my teachers introduced the Torah not as a storybook, but as literature that was written by God and demands careful interpretation. Since God composed the Torah, these teachers instructed us, every word, every letter, must have been included for a very good reason. If God begins a pasuk (verse) with “And,” that “And” must contain some crucial information for us. God, with infinite wisdom and knowledge, would not waste humanity’s time with sloppy, inconsequential prose.
Close reading, I often tell my students, demands that we study and respect texts as seriously as believers approach the Bible. This means that every word matters. If an author whom we respect has chosen to write, “The dog ran up the hill” instead of, “A canine ascended until it reached the peak,” we can draw conclusions from the dozen choices she has made in selecting
the words to express her thought. I would never insist that my students regard the authors we read — whether Shakespeare or Dickens, Gertrude Stein or James Joyce, Roth or Toni Morrison — as infallible divinities. But in explaining how to read texts for all they are worth, the analogy of the Torah helps.
And this applies not just to my students. My ability to read texts carefully and to seize upon minor textual or contextual details and build arguments based upon those details, is owed in large part to my day school education. Sometimes, this is true in the most concrete sense: I noticed Henry Roth’s deliberate mistranslation of Isaiah 6, in his 1935 novel, “Call It Sleep,” for example — which figures in one chapter of my dissertation — because I could read Yeshayahu in the original.
In fact, my dissertation, which I recently completed and defended, responds to my day school education in a more general sense, too. The project examines the emphasis on sexuality in the works of a group of modern Jewish writers — particularly Henry Roth, Philip Roth, Adele Wiseman, Will Eisner and Jules Feiffer — arguing that the representation of sex has mattered for various reasons to modern American Jews. I also explore the roles of Jewish lawyers, judges, publishers, sexologists and pornographers in transforming American obscenity laws: As it turns out, it was largely thanks to Jews that novels banned for obscenity — including James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and D. H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” and Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” — eventually reached wide audiences.
In a sense, then, my research demonstrates that my eighth grade gym teacher was not upholding core Jewish values when he blanched at the idea of mentioning “intercourse” to his students. On the contrary, many Jews have fought for the right to discuss sexuality openly, especially in cases, such as the fight against AIDS, when doing so can save lives, improve social conditions or redress political imbalances. That I drew on my day school education to complete this project seems entirely fitting, and a tribute to the quality and influence of that education. What more could schooling provide than the tools necessary for its students to argue with, forge beyond and even correct the curriculum?
Josh Lambert is a Dorot Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow in the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, and the author of American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide” (JPS, 2009).