At Ease

By Rachel Kadish

Published January 20, 2010, issue of January 29, 2010.
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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).

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