Give It Away #18|
School Subjects & Jewish Jobs
As I was growing up, my whole wide world was Jewish: Jewish camp, Jewish synagogue, Jewish youth group, Jewish neighborhood. From nursery all the way up to the end of twelfth grade, I attended Jewish day school. I lived, ate, and breathed Jewdom, and inevitably all of my friends were Jewwy Jews, just like me. I didn't choose that life, mind you, it was chosen for me by my parents, and once I graduated high school, my universe expanded to include the ethnocultural communities that had always existed only a bus ride away, just beyond the pale of the Jewish settlement pattern. Now, looking back upon that era, when there were never fewer than three or four David's in a room at any one time, I can reflect upon the various advantages and disadvantages of living in a sheltered shtetl, the equivalent of a tiny little village nestled inside of a multicultural metropolis.
I don't have any regrets about the way that I was brought up. As immigrants and ethnic minorities, my parents did the best that they could under the circumstances. I sure learned a lot about Biblical and Rabbinic scripture, Jewish history, and how to speak Hebrew. But I'm a naturally curious person, and if I wouldn't have picked that up in high school, I would have learned it auto-didactically afterwards. At that time, my understanding of other people's herstories was regrettably minimal; but in the years that would follow, I availed myself of many other opportunities to become intimately acquainted with the narratives of other nations. I could not possibly have learned everything that I need to know in the world in only four years, or even in fourteen. Thankfully, I was born at the right time in the right place on the right side of the border, with the right amount of money, so I continue to have access to all kinds of information.
But I do feel that Diasporic Jewish education is delinquent in at least one way: in its inordinate focus on law and accounting, to the detriment of the arts. In the big city that I grew up in, the local Hebrew high school didn't have any arts program to speak of. I realize that because almost all Jewish schools are privately-funded, the cost of tuition is prohibitively high for many families, and so in order to remain economically competitive, something's got to give, and it sure isn't going to be reading, writing, or arithmetic. So we can't judge Jewish schools by same standards as federally-funded public schools, in terms of resources devoted to creative arts and media literacy. But the overwhelming emphasis that is put on the most economically lucrative professions means that Jewish generations Y & Z are not picking up enough of the artistic tools that they will need to reinterpret and reinvent the world around them. Instead of getting an education in the Classics, too many Jewish students are getting an education in classism.
If you've ever been to Israel, one of the first things you will notice is that almost all of the security guards here are Jewish. So are almost all of the waiters, as are a majority of the street sweepers. In Israel, Jews have cornered the market on carpentry, and the city streets are crawling with circumcised bike couriers. There are obvious exceptions to this general rule; in the last twenty years, Israeli big business drove down real wages for working-class Jews, so the government imported a third-world work force that is willing to labour for less than minimum wage. But for the most part, there is much less social stigma attached to doing manual labour, working in the service trades, and in general, earning modest wages for honest work. Here, cab drivers aren't considered to be stupid; they are the average man's go-to guys when you need some amateur psychological advice.
Back to the other side of the pond. Let me turn the tables and play devil's advocate for a minute. Wouldn't you say that there are probably enough lawyers in the world already? I mean, ideally, shouldn't the law of the land should be basic enough for just about anybody to be able to easily comprehend? Doesn't true democracy dictate that we should never require intermediaries or paid professionals just to negotiate simple justice? And I think accountants fall into this category as well -- the category of propping up an overly-complicated and often-corrupt system of centralization of power. Because if it's so complicated to calculate the amount of money that I need to contribute to the collective, then perhaps it shouldn't be leaving the community in the first place? Maybe more of the surplus that we produce should remain in our neighborhoods, so that we can see the good that it does in measurable amounts. Better that we have resilient local economies that bloated bureaucracies and impoverished peripheries, right?
I realize that some of the people reading this article may be lawyers and accountants themselves! Try not to take this as a personal attack, it's not about you, it's about the system. Ultimately, it's not about exchanging court cases and calculators for paintbrushes and poetry notebooks; it's about rounding out the Jewish school regimen with a curriculum that encourages creativity. You may point out that we are dependent upon the rich and powerful professionals who can afford to donate large sums of money to worthy community causes. Up until now, that may very well have been the case. But this is one of the very reasons that JGooders even exists: to make microphilanthropy a viable strategy, so that everyday people earning average incomes can financially contribute to the community. Together, we can all take care of the segments of our society that are still struggling.
Ultimately, it would be amazing if every single student grew up to become exactly what he or she wanted to. I hope that gets to happen as often as possible. But our children's choices do not exist in a vacuum; they are informed by the priorities that we establish for them, and more specifically, what we fund with our donation dollars. Parents and principals are setting benchmarks for the next generation of Jews, and so should the people. If your Jewish experience is informed by Jewish art and architecture, Jewish painting and poetry, Jewish music and theatre -- and when you think about it, whose Jewish experience isn't? -- then it is incumbent upon you to actively support a flourishing Jewish art scene. Because not every Jewish student wants to get their MBA, and thankfully not all of them need to. For every kid that really wants to go into business or banking, there are a hundred helping hands. And for the rest of us artsy-fartsy types, there is the Paideia Project and the Jewish Salons.