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Saving ‘Catcher’s’ Phoebe — and Other Youths

I read “The Catcher in the Rye” this week. I should say, “re-read” because I did, actually, read the book in high school, though the fact that I couldn’t remember anything about the plot or characters beyond the name “Holden Caulfield” is a reflection either of my poor reading habits or my high school English class — or perhaps just my bad memory. In any case, J.D. Salinger’s recent death prompted me to find out what all of the fuss was about.

In the many Salinger threads on the Internet following his death, the dominant theme of “The Catcher in the Rye” analysis of is “disaffected youth.” The New York Times ran an interesting collection of comments from teenagers about whether the book — published 59 years ago, before most of their parents were born — resonated with them. The comments were articulate and thoughtful, and I cheered as the writers contested the tone of prevailing public opinion about “youth today.” I hate that, too. I live with three teenagers, and I find them (and their friends) to be thinking, engaged, aware, articulate and capable of emotional complexity in ways that some of my own peers are not. Tellingly, the reason why the Times ran this series is because they had run a previous debate several days earlier in which they asked five adult “experts” on teenagers whether Holden Caulfield is relevant to “youth today” — and several talkbackers pointed out that the failure to consult teens about teens is exactly the kind of “phoniness” that Holden Caulfield would have hated.

As I read the book, though, I found myself thinking about one particular comment by Carolyn Paul. “I’m continually surprised that people miss Salinger’s underlying theme, which is grief,” she wrote. “Holden is a kid unstrung by his brother’s death.” This comment changed everything for me. I think she’s right. The book is not about “disaffected youth” as much as it is about the failure of the adult community to meet the emotional needs of adolescents. The book is about a boy who is struggling, who is confused and depressed and lonely and searching for answers and meaning — and not a single adult in his life helps him. They give him all kinds of lectures about buckling down, about being a man, about staying “focused” and about not getting into any more trouble. But not one adult listens. When Holden cries, he cries by himself.

In that light, I was so very moved by the description of “The Catcher in the Rye,” Holden’s dream of what he wants to do in life:

I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean, if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.

Well, of course. His brother died, “fell off a cliff,” in a way, and Holden, the older brother, was unable to “catch” him. The guilt of being the older brother must be unbearable. But there’s more. He is also describing himself — now he is the one falling off a cliff with nobody to catch him. Yet, Holden, with the pure idealism, boundless energy and clear vision that only adolescents seem to have, turns his experience around and dreams of a way to make a difference. He focuses on one person, his little sister, Phoebe. Protecting her is the only thing that can bring him back to life. He actually does “catch” Phoebe; she is about to run away from home but he successfully convinces her not to and instead spends the day at the zoo with her. That pulls him out of his depression — it keeps her from “falling”, but really it keeps him from falling. Looking after those who are vulnerable restores meaning in life, the direction that was completely missing for him since his brother died. It’s beautiful, really. He saves his little sister, and his sister in turn saves him.

After reading this book, I thought, we have to pay more attention to our youth. The Jewish community is not immune from social ills. Jewish youth, including Orthodox youth, suffer from depression, loneliness, anger and confusion. Often, they struggle alone in their vulnerability, like Salinger did in real life, afraid of being hurt by the world, never quite knowing whom to trust. In all of our talk about Jewish education, focusing on curriculum and tradition and texts, we often forget the most basic elements of education: care and compassion. Listening to youth, protecting them, providing a safe space for them to go through their journeys, these must be our primary goals as parents and educators. If we do that well, then they, too, can emerge safely, protected, as caring, compassionate beings.

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