If the 1960s Hebrew school is really a thing of the past, then 1960s textbooks need to be a thing of the past, too.
by Josh Mason-Barkin
My wife and I went to see the Coen brothers’ latest film this weekend, A Serious Man. For me, it was a double-whammy must-see. First, I’m a huge fan of their movies. (“We’re talking about unchecked aggression here, Dude.”) Second, the movie purports to be about rabbis, Jews, and Judaism, and well, I’m a Jewish educator and my wife is a Jewish educator and soon-to-be rabbi. So suffice it to say that we were excited.
The film lived up to expectations, and then some. It’s a deep and fascinating look at Jewish life in 1960s middle American suburbia, complete with a Job-esque examination of a father’s quest to find meaning in his life. It’s rich with cultural and religious allusions, and has a lot to say about the relationship between Jews and Jewish leadership (especially rabbis).
But I have to admit I paid extra attention to the Hebrew school scenes.
Twice in the movie we visit Danny Gopnick sitting bored in his Talmud Torah class. It’s as old-fashioned a classroom as you can imagine. The teacher is trying to show the students how to properly conjugate the Hebrew word for “to go,” droning on “Hu holekh habayta, hi holekhet habayta, anahnu holkhim habayta…” The students are totally unengaged, they have no idea what’s going on, and their answers to the teacher’s questions suggest that they don’t understand anything he’s been trying to teach them. They each sit staring at their books, totally confused at the meaningless foreign language printed in front of them.
(As for me, I sat there during that scene praying. “Please don’t let it be a Torah Aura book…” Thankfully, the prop folks went with books from a different publisher. Whew.)
In a second school scene, the teacher tries to teach the students to say, in Hebrew, that they want to plant a tree in Israel. Not only are they all bored, but it’s clear that they have no idea what’s going on, they don’t care, and there’s virtually nothing meaningful, worthwhile, or redeemable about the entire enterprise. The non-Hebrew-speaking audience has no idea what’s going on either, which seems to be a very intentional choice by the filmmakers. As Naomi Pfefferman points out in the Jewish Journal:
The Coens chose not to subtitle the Hebrew lesson scenes in “A Serious Man” to help enhance the fictional classroom’s droning sense of ennui.
Pfefferman is a gifted writer, and her choice of the word “ennui” is perfect.
Ennui is “a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement” (thanks, New Oxford American Dictionary).
Jewish education has come a long way since 1967, when the film takes place, and I’m proud to say that I’ve worked with and in many schools whose students, I can confidently say, never feel a “droning sense of ennui.”
Schools are doing some amazing things to make Jewish learning exciting, engaging, and meaningful: experiential learning, family education, flexible scheduling, and rethought curricula. The entire idea of a supplementary (ahem, “complementary”) education has undergone a complete re-imagination (for the better!) in the past decade.
So if few of today’s classrooms look like the one in A Serious Man, why are too many textbooks designed for educational settings where children sit stoically at their desks as teachers attempt to mindlessly drill facts and Hebrew reading skills into their heads? (And lets be clear: Computer games that mindlessly drill facts and skills are just as bad. Being computerized doesn’t remove the ennui.) We’re not sure why these sort of textbooks still exist, but we know that we want to be part of the solution.
Here are four suggestions for improving the quality of Jewish educational publishing: