At Ease

By Rachel Kadish

Published January 20, 2010, issue of January 29, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The decision to send the three of us kids to the Solomon Schechter School was, I’m told, a difficult one. My mother, who is a daughter of Holocaust refugees and a staunch Zionist, pushed for us to attend. My father, who came from a more typical American Jewish background, worried that we’d emerge from such an education glassy-eyed, alien to him.

The result of this argument was a provisional agreement to try out the school for a year — a trial period that ultimately turned into a total of 27 combined years of Schechter education for the three of us.

These were the Wild West years of day school education — the age of wide collars, bellbottoms, and here and there a startup Solomon Schechter. The regulated, pristine day schools of today were still a dot on the far horizon. The teachers were a remarkably dedicated and quite uneven lot. There were, among the faculty, larger-than-life characters — the grizzled Hebrew teacher who’d fought in the Irgun, and the younger Israeli teacher who was rumored to have saved Moshe Dayan’s other eye. They might not have been politically correct, but they were memorable and had a sense of mission; they had, to join the faculty of a day school still in its infancy.

What all those years of Schechter left me with was a depth of education that I’m not sure is attainable in other ways. Recently I found myself explaining it to a friend this way: I may have done my homework in the French classes I took in high school, but my French is finite.

In contrast, my knowledge of Hebrew is a well, fed from multiple springs. If I don’t know a word in Hebrew, give me an hour — there’s a good chance it will bubble up.

I graduated from Solomon Schechter without knowing that ribs were pork, or what it was like to play on an organized sports team. I casually asked a Christian classmate, that first year of public high school, what day Christmas would fall on that year. But I soon got a remedial education in the wide world. I attended a large semi-urban high school — a glorious mix of everything and everyone: eight hundred kids in my grade, gangs and knife fights, and serious sports teams and vocational classes alongside the advanced placement courses.

Though I pursued some Jewish studies in high school and college, my Schechter years would prove the most important part of my Jewish education. And somewhere in there, quietly, a spark had been struck. I became neither a religious Jew nor a particularly reverent one. But I became a devoted, argumentative, passionate one.

I write about Jews and Jewish history. I’ve chosen, often, to point my efforts outward — that is, to use my focus on Jewish subject matter to build bridges with non-Jews, taking on a joint research project with a British West Indian writer or working on collaborative projects with a Jordanian scholar, a Catholic poet. While I’m an active Jew, I break plenty of rules, and I’m quite comfortable doing so.

Yet I also have dear friends who are quite observant. One of the greatest gifts of my Schechter education, I think, is that I’m at ease in both religious and nonreligious crowds, and I am fairly hard to intimidate as a Jew. It’s not that I think I know anywhere near as much as people who have devoted themselves to serious Judaic study, but I know the basics and I know I have a seat at the table.

In the end, I think my father ended up with three children whose worldviews he recognized, even if our education was markedly different from his.

Six years ago, as an old Schechter classmate and I sat talking, with our infant daughters in our arms, the conversation turned to whether we’d send our children to Jewish day schools. We both lived in areas that had good public schools, and if it had been a choice between public school and some regular secular private school, both of us would have chosen public school without a second thought — and with a great sigh of financial relief. Still, we both said we hoped to send our kids to Jewish day school.

As my friend said to me on that subject, he wanted his daughter to have the same education — and so the same freedom to choose and shape her own identity — that he himself had. That she should be an apikores he said, but never an am ha’aretz. A heretic, maybe, but if so, then a heretic on purpose and not out of ignorance. That’s a credo I can live by, as I pick and choose my own observances and watch my two kids — one currently in day school, the other still in preschool — begin to do the same.

Rachel Kadish is the author of the novels “From a Sealed Room” (2000) and “Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story” (2006).

Find us on Facebook!
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.