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Secular Jewish Education, a Critique

Bennett Muraskin
January 7, 2013
by Bennett Muraskin Thanks to the Sid Resnick Historical Archive at the Jewish Currents website, I recently read an article by Itche Goldberg from the September 1959 issue: “Secular Jewish Education in the U.S.A. — The Meaning of Secularism and the State of Progressive Jewish Schools.” Goldberg was for many decades the leading pedagogue among leftwing secular Jews. I found the article depressing for a few reasons. First, he bemoaned the fact that there were only 13,000 to 14,000 students receiving a secular Jewish/Yiddish education in four networks of shuln (schools)—Labor Zionist, Workmen’s Circle, Sholem Aleichem Schools, and the “progressive Jewish schools” — compared to the 20,000 students that these shuln educated in their heyday, the mid-1930s. Speaking of the “progressive Jewish schools” that Itche knew best, he wrote that there were “more than 80 . . . in about 20 cities and towns with a student body of about 5,000.” By today’s standards, that would be phenomenal! (For the uninitiated, the “progressive Jewish schools” were formerly the ordn shuln, affiliated with the pro-communist Jewish Peoples’ Fraternal Order until the JPFO was destroyed by McCarthyism in 1951. Itche Goldberg established the Service Bureau of Jewish Education to continue serving those ordn shuln that survived.) What remains today? The Labor Zionist and Sholem Aleichem Schools are defunct. So is Itche Goldberg’s own network. The Workmen’s Circle, may it live long and prosper, is a shadow of its former self. Based on my general knowledge of the “movement” — consisting of Workmen’s Circle, the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations (CSJO), and the Society for Humanistic Judaism, plus a few independent schools — I would guess that there are no more than a thousand students enrolled in secular Jewish schools in the U.S. today. Many, like my own Jewish Cultural School and Society in West Orange, NJ, teach Hebrew rather than Yiddish, although we try to keep Yiddish alive in song and in translation. These schools also meet less frequently than the older shuln and are mainly elementary schools. In the old days, there were many mitlshuln (high schools), too. Another of Goldberg’s critical observations was that the three networks of Jewish secular schools outside his own “progressive Jewish schools” were backsliding. They were, he complained, introducing Hebrew at the expense of Yiddish, and, worse yet, Bible study, and elements of prayer, Sabbath observance, and traditional bar mitsve preparation. It is not that Goldberg opposed the integration of more Jewish traditions into the school curriculum — he claimed to favor it. However, apart from the introduction of a secular bar mitsve, Itche mentioned no others. So what were these traditions he favored? I attended “progressive Jewish schools” from 1958 to 1969, two elementary shuln (schools) in Brooklyn, culminating in my secular bar mitsve in 1966 and then the mitlshul (high school) and hekherer kursn (advanced studies) in Manhattan. Itche Goldberg no longer taught, but he was still a presence. At no time did we study any Biblical, Talmudic, or midrashic texts. We were never even shown a copy of the Torah or the Jewish Bible. The only references to the Bible that I recall were fleeting and superficial: the “fact” that we were once slaves in Egypt and the “fact” that the Prophets were great crusaders for social justice. Did we ever actually read the Book of Exodus or any of the prophetic books of the Bible? No. It was enough to be spoonfed a handful of pull quotes. When it came to the Talmud, we learned nothing but Hillel’s famous “If I am not for myself. . .” adage and his golden rule. Even though Nathan Ausubel published his highly popular A Treasury of Jewish Folklore in 1948, when he was a still a communist and consciously included many Talmudic and midrashic stories with progressive humanist themes, the book was not used and I do not recall reading a single story from agadah or midrash. Hasidic folklore, already well-known in the US thanks to Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, only came to us through a few of I.L. Peretz’ literary adaptations. In fact I never heard Buber’s name mentioned — nor Mordecai Kaplan’s, perhaps the most influential Jewish thinker from that era. We were not even taught about two out of three founding secular Jewish philosophers and activists — Simon Dubnow, the exponent of diaspora nationalism, and Ahad Ha’am, the exponent of cultural or spiritual Zionism. Chaim Zhitlovsky was praised as our sole guru, but I swear we never learned his biography or studied anything he wrote. If his works were not yet translated in English, Goldberg or our teachers should have done it for us. As fate would have it, I married a woman who grew up as a Conservative Jew, and my two daughters received their elementary Jewish education in a Conservative synagogue Sunday school. As a result, I spent a lot of time sitting through Sabbath and holiday services. As boring as I now find these services, at first I was very curious, because I knew nothing. I was appalled that my secular Jewish education did not given me a basic understanding of the format of a synagogue service or the symbols one found in a synagogue. I felt like a complete ignoramus, until I picked up the essentials on my own and worked myself up to a “heretic” or apikoyres. In other words, I had to become familiar with religious Judaism before I could reject it. In rehearsing the kind of secular Jewish education I absorbed from the “progressive Jewish schools,” it pains me to say that it was grossly deficient. Yiddish culture I learned: the literature, the poems and songs. Jewish history I learned, albeit through a Marxist prism. I am still inspired by memories of singing the anti-Nazi partisan hymn, Zog Nit Keynmol during our Third Seder program. Ernestine Rose, the 19th-century women’s rights and anti-slavery crusader and Emma Lazarus, the 19th-century poet who wrote the classic sonnet engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty welcoming immigrants to America, were among my heroes. I knew about the Triangle Fire, the sweatshop poets, the great Jewish labor struggles, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The civil rights movement was front and center — from the poems of Langston Hughes (translated into Yiddish!) to the martyrdom of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney. We read King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Yiddish. This was a lot different, and in many ways superior, to what children learned in synagogue-based schools — but in many other ways, it was not, because of what we were not taught. Fast-forward twenty years to the February and March 1979 issues of Jewish Currents. The archive yields a powerful two-part keynote address by my friend Hershl Hartman, “We Secular Jews are Here: Challenging the Invisibility Myth,” which he delivered at a conference of the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations in May 1978. How dare mainstream Jewish makhers (big shots) and pundits ignore or scorn the secular Jewish movement, he thundered. Hershl was half right, considering the oversized contribution that secular Jews and their institutions made to American Jewish life, the American labor movement, popular culture, etc. — but by 1978-79, the secular Jewish movement had shrunk dramatically, with its schools educating less than 1 percent of all children receiving any Jewish education. So it should not have been such a shock that the movement received little notice. In describing the type of Jewish education he favored, Hershl hearkened back to the Bible. He cited “Moses’ and Aaron’s struggle with the allrightniks who pined for the fleshpots of Egypt,” and, like Goldberg, he praised “the Prophetic movement, which condemned and resisted the kings, the nobility and the priesthood.” Even pretending that Moses and Aaron were real historic figures, this seems to me today to be a peculiar way to describe their campaign to impose a single ideology and set of rules on the mixed multitude in the desert. Aaron’s two sons, killed by God for wandering too close to the “holy fire,” might have wanted to raise an objection, as might the tens of thousands of stiff-necked Hebrews killed for sundry transgressions by “God” or in Moses’ blood purge. Even Moses had strong cause for complaint: He was barred from entering the Promised Land because he annoyed God by striking a rock, rather than speaking to a rock, to obtain water for his thirsty flock. As Bill Cosby used to say, “Riiiiight.” Isn’t it a fortunate thing that this is a made-up story? Especially the part where the Hebrews commit genocide against the native inhabitants of Canaan? I wouldn’t want that on my conscience. But in my secular Jewish education, we never read the Bible, so how could we critique Hershl’s interpretation? To be fair, I have a strong feeling my friend Hershl no longer holds this view of the Exodus story, but he and other old timers in the movement still believe what I was taught in shule — that there was a direct line from the Prophets to 19th- or 20th-century secular Jewish socialists. In reality, the Prophets were religious fanatics far more concerned with stamping out paganism than social injustice. Perhaps that is why we were not actually shown their writings! I am still searching for any evidence that their ranting had any impact on improving the lot of “widows and orphans” in ancient Israel. Be that as it may, there are humanistic books in the Bible, but these were completely ignored in my secular Jewish education, although they could have genuinely enhanced my appreciation of Jewish tradition. These include the Book of Ruth (positive view of intermarriage), the Book of Jonah (respecting the humanity of non-Jews), the Song of Songs (an egalitarian view of women’s sexuality), Ecclesiastes (“To everything there is a season . . .”, i.e. life is what you make it) and the Book of Job (speaking truth to power). To these I would add the Talmudic tractate Pirkey Avot, which is an excellent source of humanistic ethics including but not limited to Hillel and a good many folktales from agada and midrash found in Ausubel’s book and my own Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore. Back in 1959, when the secular Jewish movement was at least 13-14,000 students strong, not counting thousands of affiliated adults in still extant fraternal orders, labor unions, Yiddish choruses and summer camps, Goldberg wrote, “Secular Jewish education, like Jewish secularism in general, is undergoing the most serious crisis of its history, a crisis of such dimensions as to discourage those of faint heart or faith.” The movement was considerably weaker twenty years later when Hershl wrote his articles, and the thirty-one years that have elapsed since then have not exactly inaugurated a new golden age. Oy vey! Nu, what does the future hold? The Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, formed in 1970 from the remnants of some of the “progressive Jewish schools” (the Service Bureau of Jewish Education, Goldberg’s network, did not join, hastening its own demise), and the Society for Humanistic Judaism, founded by the charismatic Rabbi Sherwin Wine in 1969, as well as the venerable Workmen’s Circle, are all painfully small. We have a few success stories like the Boston Workmen’s Circle, the Philadelphia Jewish Children’s Folkshul, the Los Angeles Sholem Community (thank you, Hershl Hartman), and the Birmingham Temple. There may be others. But there are more members in one or two large New York City or Los Angeles synagogues than in the entire CSJO and SHJ put together. The major contribution of the contemporary secular Jewish movement has been in developing new approaches to the holidays as well as fresh scholarship and related source materials. We now have a body of work we can be proud of — one that firmly establishes the philosophy and practice of secular Jewishness aka secular humanistic Judaism and its relationship to Jewish tradition. The most impressive are Judaism in a Secular Age: An Anthology of Secular Humansitic Jewish Thought edited by Renee Kogel and Zev Katz, God-Optional Judaism by Judith Seid and Respecting the Wicked Child by Mitchell Silver. Judith Seid, Lawrence Schofer, and I collaborated in a useful booklet: Celebrating the Jewish Holidays: A Guide for Secular Jewish Communities and Families. See the CSJO, SHJ, and Workmen’s Circle websites for a complete list of the available literature. (My own new guide to Yiddish short stories in English translation, The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, is available at the Jewish Currents Marketplace.) There are so many unaffiliated small “s” secular Jews out there, but whether we can reach them or whether they want to be reached is an open question. My hope is that there is still time. However, in order to be successful, we have to go beyond empty invocations to a genuine, critical engagement with Jewish texts and traditions — and we have to equip our students to be literate Jews who do not feel like strangers in a synagogue and know how to celebrate a secular shabes, because our secular Jewish communities can no longer provide a complete menu of Jewish activities, as they might have in Itche Goldberg’s heyday, and therefore cannot thrive in isolation. Secular Jewishness must become an element of Jewish life, not a world apart — and our shules are the starting point. I wish to thank my sister Laura Troutman for assistance with this article. She attended the same elementary shuln, miltlshul and hekhere kursn as I, two years earlier, and shared her memories with me, which filled in some gaps and reinforced my own recollections. Bennett Muraskin is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of several foundational books for the secular Jewish community.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman,and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.