What’s up, Friday afternoon. Hey there. I’m a little bewildered, which is really an emotion as good as any to kick-off the blogathon I hope this spring will be. See, I just watched a promo clip posted by some NAJO (North American Jewish Organisation) or other featuring a spectrum of wise kindelach whose parents are probably affiliated with some NAJO or other. (Endearing as they may be, I don’t imagine that they are models who have been outsourced.) So, then, they’re real enough to watch, and not fabricating a been-done-before celebrity montage. Cheers to the readers who have welcomed my embryo of a North American perspective, by the by. It means a lot. Anyway, back to the clip. The adorable confessions get the viewing off to a nice start; you feel like this is a campaign that will work, because they’re all answering a very general question, ‘What will the Jewish Future look like?’ in an individually charming way. It’s heartening to hear the responses of intelligent children, or at least the mechanics of an intelligent script.
But then the gear shifts; we have to assume this new segment got lift-off from a more specific request, one I’d like to call ‘Please tell the adults watching this cute clip on youtube during their NAJO office lunch break that your future spouse of choice will be at least garden-variety Jewish.’ Yikes, plus sudden realisation: the whole premise of the video is based on a Q & A format; the community asks, the children deliver. Historically, when have we ever done this? Haven’t we always been taught that Judaism is more about questions than answers? Kids, of all backgrounds, are reminded of this every day in Math when their teacher says, ‘Show your work. Even if you get the answer right, you won’t get marks because I won’t know how you got there.’
In Judaism, our rabbi is our ‘show your work’ teacher. I say this because I’ve noticed, recently, as I’ve become more friendly with my rabbis and spiritual leaders, that they never casually ask, ‘Hey, see you in shul at the end of the week?’ the way a friend might ask you if you’re coming to a party. There’s no agreement, no pressure. They never, in my experience, demand that you make a pact about coming to shul. This would no doubt put you on the spot, and turn you off having a chat with them the next time you’re in the same line at Aroma. Thus, when we promote our causes, whatever they may be, we should go by the same principle: observe the path that someone takes to get themselves to a spiritual or cultural place, rather than telling them ‘here’s how.’ That’s what I’ve appreciated more than anything in the last 13 years of being an involved member of my community… that my leaders and teachers trust me, because they know they have instilled the kind of spark, the kind of question, that you want to pursue.
This is why I like Saul- let’s call him Saul- because in the clip, he’s totally confused. I’m relieved, of course, that this is acknowledged in the script. (We later see Saul in the video quietly flying the Israeli flag; in ten years he’ll be that chilled out Birthright participant who everyone wants to share their iTunes with on the bus.) Anyway, for now, Saul sits and ponders. He says, “I’ll try.” He’s appropriately mystified! He’s like, “Listen, I came down to the studio because my mom promised me some cheese goldfish after. I don’t have a Jewish continuity plan, ok?” I mean, Saul is what, eight years old? Asking him about his beshert is a big deal when he’s still coming home from school with a note pinned to the back of his turtleneck in case he forgets to tell his parents about Dinosaur Day. How is he supposed to ingest this product-placement of weighty communal expectations at this stage of his life? He’s the one I identify with, because he doesn’t have all the answers. He looks at the cameraman in a way that the other kids don’t. He has niggling questions, more than anything.
The sentiments expressed by the other kids about their eagerness to be affiliated is undoubtedly admirable. They know what they want because they’ve been immersed in a positive, enriching Judaism their whole mini lives and are quick with the responses, because they care. But I hope that on the day of filming, they were sufficiently prepped, and then properly debriefed. Not because every NAJ-ified promo video should arrange that, but because with kids it is necessary. If they really are the future (a cliche I don’t love, but I am continually reminded of its trueness) then we’ll encourage their questions, not just their answers. We’ll spur them on at a patient and gradual pace, in a safe environment that promotes their Jewish literacy and concept-building.
I understand that you have to give students some leading fodder in order for them to make a spiritual sandwich. But imagine if all these kids in the video were in the same class at day school; there’d be just one Saul out there, a lone dissenter, playing one-man tetherball or, later, stealing guitars from the music room. One guy who didn’t simply say what he thought his parents and teachers wanted to hear.
Saul is going to go through so many permutations of his style of Judaism in the next few decades; he’ll phase some stuff in, some stuff out. Why would we want to rush this beautiful process? And Saul will be grateful that he has bright-eyed, motivating peers around him to help sort out what’s important to him and what’s not. But if all these friends have the same advice, time after time, the complex beauty of the questions inherent in Judaism will be lost. That will then be the future for these kids- being fed the ‘answer’ by rote when all they showed up for, at age eight, was a bag of cheese goldfish.*
*Pretty sure kids still love cheesey goldfish. Right? They were my life in 1990. For a kickass, and totally unrelated, homemade cheese goldfish recipe, click here. Thanks for reading.