Thursday, March 11, 2010

163 days to Bar Mitzvah: in the ghetto

Today I took a little time out from driving around San Mateo County not eating frozen yogurt to think about what we've given the Jawa by choosing to send him to a Jewish Day School. That's the correct term, you know: Jewish Day School; as in "I chose a Jewish Day Schooleducation for my child," or, "yes, after all is said and done, I'm glad to have gotten a Jewish Day Schooleducation."

It's not "a Jewish school." Nor is it "religious school," though, as I am fond of reminding my fellow San Francisco Jews, we are able to write off our Annual Fund contributions because when we sign those checks we are contributing to a non-profit faith-based charity.

It is certainly not "Jew school," a pejorative I've been known to use myself, once famously in the presence of a (unknown to me) strident and stridently obnoxious Jewish woman I'd just met at a going-away party in Santa Monica for my friend Mod Mark. "You're ghettoizing yourself," she sneered.

At the time, I thought she was referring to my throwaway "Jew school" line, but the more I've thought about it, the more I think that the issue was with the decision to choose a Jewish Day School education for my one and only Jawa. She wouldn't be the first person -- and far from the first Jew -- to hold that opinion.

In fact, there was a period of time when philanthropic Jews purposely gave huge sums of money to non-Jewish causes, creating controversy within the religion and not, in my opinion, accomplishing what they'd set out to do, which was to build bridges between us and the non-Jewish world. The thinking, I guess, was along the lines of, "Hey, Monseignor, these Jews aren't so bad! They gave us all that money for the new freshman dorm!" (I use that example on purpose; the freshman dorm at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school and my alma mater, was named after the very Jewish Martin Swig.

I'm not sure the efforts worked. It doesn't seem like we're any better received by the non-Jewish world today than we were before we decided to extend tzedakah to include the gentiles.

If, however, you define the word "tzedakah" not as "charity" but as "balance," as we were taught in a recent family education program at Temple Emanu-El, then these efforts make sense.

As an aside -- the family education programs were led by Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, a very charismatic and engaging Rabbi who, we learned today, just had a heart attack. He's home and "resting comfortably," but if you've got any good mojo out there, send it his way.

As an effort to "create balance," giving to non-Jewish organizations makes a kind of sense. I'm of the opinion that it was a failed effort, but that's not the fault of the people dishing out the dough.

Back to the Jewish Day School education: "ghettoizing" was the last thing I wanted for my child, I think. I'm not sure. Having grown up in a world without Jews (also known as inland Orange County), I learned early on to treat other Jews like fellow secret agents. "I see you there, but I'm going to play it cool with all these other people around." Ridiculous, I know, but there it is.

So maybe I did want my kid to be a tiny bit ghettoized. Given that Sandra Bullock famously brings no ethnicity to the table, the Jawa is a default Jew. And you know what that means: you can run, but you can't hide. So why not surround him with other Jews? Why not make his Bar Mitzvah a real community-type event, where all of his friends are there and everyone knows how to act because they've already been to three dozen Bar and Bat Mitzvahs this year?

Why not have him never have to deal with Richard Parks gift-wrapping a box of matzo ball soup mix and presenting it to him in 9th grade drafting class and everyone, including the teacher, busting a freaking gut because it's so funny? Matzo ball soup mix! For the Jew in the class! Hilarious!

I can see both sides of the argument. While I personally tend not to seek out other Jews -- with the one major exception being the feeling of total relief and acceptance I felt upon starting school at Brandeis Hillel Day School -- there are some life experiences and attitudes that only other Jews get. You know, it's a Jew thing.

It's common for BHDS kids to leave school feeling "totally Jewed out." This is why almost nobody lists the Jewish Community High School on their initial wish list of high schools. Everyone checks it out, though. We're Jews; we're big on obligation.

Funny thing is that almost every parent I've talked to has raved about JCHS, which in no way helps sell the school to their Jewed-out kids. I think a few BHDS kids go there every year, about the same number that goes to St. Ignatius, which by the way is presently on the top of our list, the thinking being that after eight years of the Jewish Day School experience, it might be nice to balance that out with a more traditional, less hand-holding, more "normal" high school experience.

But honestly, I think that viewpoint is a response not to the Jewish Day School experience but to the San Francisco independent private school experience, which leaves some of us thinking that our highly-empowered children might benefit from leaving the shallow end and wading out to where the sharks are.

But overall, despite my almost-constant complaining, I think the Jawa has benefited from his Jewish Day School education. And I don't think he's been ghettoized, though it would have been easy to do so.

I just like to kvetch.

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