Yikes. As I sit here in my favorite (and the only) free trade coffeeshop in Savannah, I’m listening to a man with a big belly talk Jesus and sin to a young man whom I don’t know well but has a distinctively Jewish last name. In spite of my seasoned eavesdropping skills, I can’t be positive that he’s trying to convert him, but it’s certainly what it sounds like. Either that, or he’s trying to enroll him in multi-level marketing. Excuse me…
So of course being the crazy obnoxious yenta I am, I had to go over to the young guy after his companion bailed and find out what the what was goin’ on. Turns out the dude didn’t need saving from being saved he was raised in an Orthodox home in Nashville, Tennesee and has his Jewish identity firmly in place. He’d accidentally invited the man’s Christian commentary by wearing a Jesusy t-shirt in a totally ironic way and was being polite while the man ranted. He was with an adorable girl, who giggled “Anyway, Jesus doesn’t play klezmer and we do.” The two of them have been hanging around Savannah since their bus broke down a few months ago (eep, sounds familiar. Careful, kids, 12 years might slide by…) They’ve been absorbed into the local hipster scene and play music for tourists when they’re not trying to fix their vehicle.
The kid’s a real mensch he was just as polite with me while I apologized for thinking I was Ms. Jewish Intervention Specialist Superhero. I explained that I feel rather protective of Judaism’s young people, those who didn’t grow up in homes that practice traditions, teach Torah and tell stories. I know there’s a Jews for Jesus chapter somewhere around these parts, and I couldn’t sit by and let a wandering Jew fall into the bogus trap that salvation comes by giving up one’s birthright of a 5760-odd year ongoing story.
I’m particularly senstive about keeping our kids in the fold since I taught Sunday school for the first time a few days ago. I was subbing for the regular teacher, so maybe my first grade charges (all girls, except for my son) were shy, but they didn’t seem to understand why they were there. First thing I tried to start off with how I remember Hebrew school, with a big loud round of “Hinei Ma Tov,” but my kid and I were the only ones singing. I finally got a whispery verse out of them, only after I told them to pretend they were on “American Idol” and I was Paula Abdul.
After a brief but enthusiastic cheer on how great it is to be Jewish, I stuck to the lesson plan. We went over the Hebrew letter of the day (“yud,” as in “Shalom, yeladim) and the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, commemorating when God gave Moses the tablets and the Torah, which led to a semi-lively discussion of the Ten Commandments, though none of the girls had heard that there are another 603. It’s not like I learned that in Hebrew school either in fact, I don’t remember much except the prayers themselves, even though I attended every Sunday from the age of six until my bat mitzvah. But I had to work not to let my frusturation show when I asked the name of the queen from the Purim shpiel and got blank stares. Throughout the day, I did everything I could to bring life to the story of Moses on the mountain, to keep repeating the names of Aaron and Miriam, to praise God and the Torah and the laws given to us so that our world could be a more civil place. I can only hope they retained something.
This is definitely not a critique of the teacher or the school itself it’s a beautiful place with an enthusiastic, intelligent staff made up of respected community members and is run by a progressive, kind gentleman who is open to my zany ways. There was a fabulous Israeli dance session (I haven’t pranced “Mayim” for ages!) with another teacher and the older kids know their aleph-bet through and through. I’m very honored to be a part of the school and I’m so excited to get my own classroom in the fall (if I still have the job after this post.)
But something seems to be missing from Reform/Conservative Jewish education, and it was missing from my own Reform “religious” school it just doesn’t seem that spiritual. It’s wonderful to teach history and culture and make cool crafts like havdalah spice boxes out of milk cartons, but where is the love? The joy of being Jewish? It’s almost like the Chassids have the monopoly on the “praise God, let’s dance” practice, leaving the rest of us to contend with the historical and social complexities of being Jewish in America, a struggle that many kids understandably become bored with and wander away from as they become adults. There’s got to be a spiritual or some other meaningful context to touch the hearts not just the intellect of Jewish little ones.
I’m just kinda ranting here, and it could be that those blank faces mean that I’m just a crappy teacher. But I worry about the future of these kids why should being Jewish matter to them? How can I make it matter? Why does it matter to me, why does it matter to you? As I’ve said before, I’ve learned more about Judaism in the past three years writing this blog than what I learned at Hebrew school and summer camp combined. If I weren’t doing this, would my son know all the lyrics to Matisyahu’s “King Without A Crown” and know that Moses stuttered?
Rabbi Shmuely had a piece in yesterday’s JPost that says maybe the Jews ought to start go against our traditional view of proselytizing I say we need to put a whole lot more focus into keeping the ones we got.
In the meantime, I’m thinking about getting a cape and a mask and stalking the guy with the big belly should he decide to talk anymore Jesus to any Jewish kids.