Eight years ago, when my husband and I started considering the kind of school we’d choose for our first child, a rabbi I know made a strong argument for going Orthodox.
“Children may follow in their parents’ footsteps, Jewishly,” he said. “But if anything, they’re likely to do less than their parents, not more. Wouldn’t you want your kids at least knowing what ‘more’ is all about – by learning it at school?”
His words left a lasting impression, but at the end of the day, we chose a secular Jewish school in our neighbourhood over the ‘frummie’ school where most of the boys sported payot.
Over the years that followed, I learned about some of the cultural or traditional conflicts at Canadian secular Jewish schools, ambiguities that are still, sometimes, a source of astonishment.
Carpool was my first instructional ground. Turn down the radio and you can learn a lot as you sit in traffic, confined to a warm car and in the company of tired children.
My son’s friend, Dan, had just heard that we’d never eaten shrimp, nor did we ever intend to.
“Wow! That really sucks!” he said in surprise.
In his family, the idea of not eating shrimp was akin to leaving fruit out of the diet – simply unheard of.
As I dropped another child at home a few weeks later, her mom shouted from the garage, “Come inside quickly! The pepperoni pizza is getting cold!”
I pictured her unpacking her school bag and leaving her notebook on kashrut on the counter as she grabbed a slice, still in her school uniform. The pepperoni pizza broke so many Jewish rules at the same time, I wasn’t sure where to start counting.
Naturally, I was stunned. Growing up in Cape Town, South Africa, modern Orthodoxy was the norm. No one I knew ate shrimp or pork products because they were treif, and that was justification enough.
Friday-night Shabbat dinner was mandatory, and there were no parties or sports activities on those days because of that conflict. At my kids’ school, though, Friday night could just as easily mean McDonalds’ takeout after a sports game for some families, as it could lobster salad around a communal Sabbath potluck.
The boundaries are very different.
Which is not to say the parents at the school don’t care about their Judaism. That would be far from the truth. So passionate are they about their kids’ Jewish education that many would sooner place themselves in the path of an oncoming train before they watch the school close its doors. If there’s one commandment they’re keeping, it’s “teach thy children.”
Conflicts in Jewish ethics and beliefs take all shapes and sizes.
There’s the bearded rabbi who keeps Shabbat to a fault, but thinks nothing about the ethics of smuggling cash across an international border. And then there are the kids at Jewish day school for whom a dairy lunch means a slice of takeout, rennet-filled pizza from the corner store. Which transgressions are more serious? And do the smaller ones lead naturally to larger ones?
There’s black, white and grey, I’ve learned, when it comes to Judaism, and in our individual searches to find meaning in this world, we pick and choose from the commandments and mitzvot we will keep. In so doing, we create a version of Judaism and observance that works for us in our personal and familial lives.
But it’s a slippery slope, I figure. Once you’re on it, how do you tell how far into the muck of assimilation you have fallen? When you find yourself standing at an altar for your child’s wedding – instead, of course, beneath a chupah – it’s already too late.