It certainly is a different world than the one I grew up in.  Or maybe it’s just a different community.

In a class I observed today, the kids discussed the meaning of their newest vocabulary word, poverty.  As vocabulary is not a subject taught lightly here, it was not merely taught as a synonym for “poor”; the teacher wanted to make sure his 6th graders understood relative poverty and standard of living, how a person owning in a house in Haiti might not have a TV, but would be considered wealthy, while a person in a similar situation in the United States could very well be in poverty.  He left their heads swimming with thoughts of kids so poor they can’t afford shore houses or annual trips to Vail.  I’m sure it will be a stretch for some of them to connect to a Mexican immigrant girl living the life of a migrant worker in the 1930s.

Ignorance, like poverty, is relative.  And just as these student struggle to relate to characters from stories of far off places, times, and socio-economic statuses, I, too, find myself amazed at the level of ignorance of Judaism in this community.  Note I did not specify the degree of ignorance; what astounds me is the dynamic of power the Jewish community seems to wield over a private school.

I don’t know if the changes between my childhood and the ones I’m currently observing are a result of shift in attitude and tolerance over the last 20 years, or merely in the presence of a more sizeable Jewish population in this part of the world than in the one I grew up.  I do remember the complete ignorance in my community in the late 1980s and early 1990s – not so long ago – and how it shaped my views of what is happening around me now.

My school district had not heard of the separation of church and state.  They put on Christmas concerts, tossing in a “Dreidle, Dreidle” to pacify the six Jewish students in the school.  They orchestrated crafts of countdowns to Christmas.  They let out all the Catholic students 30 minutes early every Monday for catechism, while the remaining 4 or so of us non-Catholics clapped out erasers and helped the teachers put up bulletin boards.  It was no wonder that the district continually had to be reminded each year about “our” holidays in the fall.  My rabbi had to, for each school a student in her congregation attended, call or write a letter explaining what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were, why we were to be excused from school, and how the Holidays were of great importance.  Still, they balked.  Still, we got confused looks at our excuse notes.  Still, we did our homework sitting in the religious school classrooms during breaks between services.

Last December, my jaw nearly dropped as I witnessed the suddenly very observant Jewish students present verbal excuses about not doing their homework for a period of 8 days.  The miracle in my mind was not that the oil of Hanukkah lasted all 8 days, but that the teachers simply accepted it.  Hanukkah is, for a child, a 15-minute observance involving lighting candles, saying 2-3 blessings (and not Catholic-style benedictions, either), and opening a gift.  Sure, there may be a night or two with family over, or a party, but do other family/party occasions warrant a week-long homework pass?

Kids take off “mental health” days leading up to and after their Bar Mitzvahs.  I think they’re at suit fittings and hair appointments.  Kids show up 2 hours late (or call out Jewish) the day after the first and second Passover seders.  Granted, the seders of my father’s youth (now we’re turning back the clock) used to involve a cover-to-cover reading of the Haggadah, and not the Maxwell House version, either.  I believe he’d be falling asleep in the matzah ball soup at 11:30pm.  Today, only the very observant still have marathon seders.  And their kids miss school as if they were the ones grating horseradish for the seder plate and making matzah balls out of their textbooks.  Do the adults call out from work, too?  Do they use the holidays as an excuse not to be meet deadlines or not to finish work projects?

What lesson are they teaching their kids about budgeting time to complete work in a busy week, about reading ahead in their textbooks so they can enjoy an evening with extended family, about being accountable for responsibilities that go on outside the protective bubble of their home/school life?

In spite of the Jewish families seemingly taking advantage of a) the school’s widespread acquiescence to Jewish holidays and customs, and b) the Jewish parents’ power (and tuition), there is still ignorance.  Though Thursday will be a school holiday (one I will not have to use a personal day for, nor acquire a note from my rabbi), the head of school decided to schedule a back-to-school barbecue for all staff…Wednesday night.

They don’t even know that all Jewish holidays start the night before.  Forget sundown, forget waiting for three stars to come out, forget even the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah, Friday, when several suddenly religious students will be out, you can’t schedule a barbecue for the beginning of the High Holidays when you have Jewish employees you would like to include.

So they moved it to Friday night.  I won’t even pretend to be insulted that Friday nights are always a holiday.  I won’t pretend there are any Jews on staff (or in the student body) who even feign that level of observance.  I am grateful they made the right choice to move the barbecue.  I am grateful they are trying to respect my religion and my customs. I am grateful no one has asked me in a long time why the Jews killed Jesus.

In spite of the families who take advantage of gentile ignorance, and use their checkbooks and their righteous indignation to cow the administration into special treatment for their kids (and people wonder why there is still anti-Semitism), it is still a more pleasant and more tolerant world to live in than it was in the community of my youth.

L’shanah tovah, y’all.  May your New Year be sweet.

Advertisements