Sunday, December 07, 2003

Kindergarten Pluralism

Sometimes in life you have to define yourself. It isn’t fair, it isn’t right, but every once in awhile it’s what’s expected of you.

All the more so in Israel where life is too often lacking the shades of gray taken for granted in North America.

I’m not talking about the more obvious definitions like married-single, Ashkenazi-Sephardi, oleh (new immigrant)-sabra (veteran Israeli).

No, it’s the complex ones that get to you, the ones that would never be raised in polite company overseas but that are part of our daily discourse, finding their way point blank into first meetings…and even job interviews.

Are you right-wing or left-wing?

Likud or Labor?

For peace or for war?

Religious or secular?

This proclivity towards extreme labeling starts early. In kindergarten, in fact.

Every year Jody and I attend three separate parent-teacher meetings for each of our children. By now we know what to expect.

There will be an introductory lecture by the teacher on the burning issues of the year: daily schedule, security arrangements, permissible sandwiches (please no chocolate spread the teachers beg every year, apparently to deaf ears – otherwise why would the same request come up again and again).

Next there may be an inspirational story or a Bible lesson. An impassioned plea to join the Israeli equivalent of the PTA. We pass around some diet Sprite and a few cinnamon rolls and then we’re out of there, free to gossip about whether Merav’s teacher commands enough respect to handle a difficult class, or whether Amir is going to be sufficiently challenged by his junior high school curriculum.

At Aviv’s kindergarten, there was a surprise. Something totally unexpected.

Midway through the usual pleasantries, the teacher, Nirit, opened a discussion on who would be leading the daily prayers. Why not have the girls and not just the boys be in charge, she suggested.

Now Nirit looked to us like a pretty traditional religious Israeli. With three kids under the age of 3 ½, we certainly weren’t expecting any out-of-the-box thinking. We’d already given her a nice neat black and white label.

But there it was. Something new.

Jody and I looked at each other. Could this be true? Had we inadvertently sent our child to Jerusalem’s only pluralistic Orthodox kindergarten? Maybe there was hope for the next generation after all to overcome label-itis.

“So, does anyone object?” Nirit asked.

A hand shot up. Then another.

“Girls don’t lead prayer,” one mother said definitively.

“They’ll get all confused,” said another. “What, they should lead prayer here but not when they go to the synagogue?”

But Nirit was ready. “We’re not talking about a question of halacha, of Jewish law,” she said. “They’re much too young for that. All I want to do is give them a richer, fuller experience.”

You go, girl!

“No, no,” another parent shot back. “Next they’ll be asking why girls don’t wear kippa (headcovering) and tzitzit (ritual fringes).”

“So let them ask!” replied a more progressive English-speaking mother.

I looked around the room and sized up the tenor of the debate. The parents who were the most vocal against Nirit’s proposal were the least observant, at least in outward dress. Bare headed fathers and tank-topped mothers. The ones in favor lined up squarely in what one would normally define as more stringently Orthodox. More grays. I was getting altogether confused.

But this was a challenge to the status quo and the nay-sayers had made it clear that they were going to defend their position even if they themselves never stepped into a synagogue.

It reminded me of the old joke about a Jew who survives a shipwreck and is marooned on a desert island. He immediately sets out to build himself a place of worship and constructs two synagogues. One that he attends and one he wouldn’t be caught dead in.

I would have laughed if I hadn’t been rooting so hard for Nirit.

Trying to make peace, Nirit offered: “If there is one person who objects, we won’t do it.”

“I’m against it,” repeated the most outspoken mother, not unexpectedly.

And then, in a voice dripping with venom: “After all, we’re not reformim!”

And there it was. The ultimate put-down in a world of black and white. The only thing worse than being Orthodox to a stridently secular Israeli? It’s being reform.

Never mind the fact that most of the parents who invoke the cry of reformim have never actually met a Reform Jew, nor do they know anything about what the different denominations stand for. It’s us vs. them. Labels at their most simplistic and accusatory.

Indeed, the put down has become so common in Israel we barely take notice of it. But how different is this invective from the curses hurled at Jews over the centuries by those who have never met one of our tribe? Why do we have to stoop so low?

But once the reformim clause had been put in play, there’s no way to win. At least not today.

Debate and game over.

We walked out of the parent-teacher meeting feeling defeated…but also cautiously optimistic. If Nirit had the tenacity to try for such a cataclysmic culture shift once, she’ll try again.

She’ll probably get shot down the next time too.

But after a few tries, maybe she’ll find that sympathetic crowd of parents. Or maybe word will get out and families will gravitate to her.

This is how change happens.

And apparently it starts in kindergarten.

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