Neil Manel Frau-Cortes' blog on music, Judaism and new technologies

It’s back to school day. While I am hooking the projector to my laptop, one of the kids is telling me something I have heard way too many times in the last two weeks: “I don’t want to play recorder anymore; I’ll be trying viola.” The 4th grader has been playing recorder for less than nine months and he cannot yet tell a G from an A. Nevertheless, he’s got enough: it’s just too boring. While this conversation is taking place, another girl, of Russian origin, has unpacked her violin and started playing, page after page, a rather elaborated concerto with accuracy and gusto. I never taught her that, so I ask how has she improved so much in the short span of three summer months. Apparently, she has been in Russia all summer visiting relatives, and she has taken lessons there. Being of European origin, I confess I had almost forgotten how different the musical education abroad is, even with its many flaws. As a kid I was taught to take my music practice very seriously because the effort pays off. From the age of nine, I took lessons twice a week, practiced daily, and took exams in front of three teachers year after year. There was no money to go around jumping from instrument to instrument: your choice or an instrument implied a certain commitment to it. Yes, it may have been a little too tough, but I’m grateful for all that discipline, which fostered in me a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Do not get me wrong: there is nothing bad about children trying out instruments and different kinds of sports, nor about making their education a little more playful. My big question is if we –teachers and parents– are actually doing enough to encourage them to persevere on anything, to stick to that recorder another year, and this time actually taking five minutes a day to practice. Of course, no child can be left behind, but should we really stand still or barely move forward out of fear of challenging kids too much? Yes, the education we received was too dry, but perhaps –only perhaps– today we are expected to teach in a way that it’s all games an glitter, no effort and no challenges. Trophies for all, just for showing up, are great for the students’ self-esteem, but are they good for their preparation and maturity?

Almost at the same time this was happening, there was an uproar in my area because the shul where I work –otherwise out of the way, invisible, even ostracized by the bigger congregations in the area– dared to reduce its Hebrew school from twice a week to only once, even if doubling the learning time on that one day. It was a democratic decision based on demographic changes, availability of volunteer teachers, etc. The accusation from the big shuls in town is that this policy is watering down Jewish education and giving unfair advantage to our synagogue, because apparently everybody will flock to the “easy shul.”

In my opinion this statement reveals two big dilemmas. Firstly, people do not seem aware or concerned that Jewish education is already watered down to a rather clear little soup. Concentrating education in a single day will most probably not change a thing. After seven years of twice-a-week Hebrew instruction, an alarmingly high number of children end up learning by heart a haftarah from some transliteration, without understanding a word of what they’re saying. We just seem to love to pretend in front of our friends that the kid is proficient. Secondly, we not only acknowledge but even sanction the fact that many parents have one main goal: the fastest and easiest path to their kids bar/bat mitzvah. Once children are “barmitzvaed” (since, whoever invented this verb, set it in the passive form), they can graduate from Jewish life altogether, maybe to reappear, if lucky enough, for their wedding. As a result, adults go around with a mere varnish of Jewish culture and the concept of G-d of a 13 years-old.

Have we made Jewish education (or music education for that matter) so “nice and friendly” that it just lost its purpose? Have we decided that the best way to avoid boredom and desertion is simply to demand very little effort? These are questions that cannot be solved in a day but require a deep revision of our education systems. Among other things, I think it’s time to de-emphasize the centrality of benei mitzvah rituals, and even to delay them until age 16 or more, so that little Sarah doesn’t just “get barmitsvaed” by some rabbi but consciously chooses to accept on her shoulders the responsibilities, privileges and blessings of an adult member of our people.

Comments on: "Trophies for showing up: on the educational value of effort." (6)

  1. So thoughtful, Manel. And so disheartening and so true. As educators to all ages, we just live for that spark in someone’s eye that tells us a kernel of knowledge has been internalized. It’s so very hard when, as you spelled out, the goal of parents who themselves have a stunted Jewish education, is only the day of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and then their kids will be exactly where they are: Presented to the grown-ups and tragically empty of honest knowledge. One of the big issues is that so many of these young people have nothing of Jewish Identity substance to carry with them into their encounters with peers in college and beyond. The connection to peoplehood becomes thinner and thinner. Sigh…..

    • Thanks for your comment. I really hope for a mentality switch in this matter. I am afraid that right now the only thing we can do is to transmit a very vibrant Jewish life during the few years these families stay in our shuls. And then, hope for the best! Gut Shabbes, and careful with that flood!

  2. I am inspired by your questions Manel. I believe that as long as we are thinking, questioning and exploring; and teaching our children to do the same; we nurture a vibrant Jewish approach to life and to Jewish life.Liberal Jewish communities do this really well. We have the tools to be creative and inovative inour approach to Jewish observance but, we do have to continue to value our clergy and the tremendous asset they are to our communities. The challenge in this is how to support them with our ever shrinking congregations, THIS, as much as anything is where we need to inovate and think out of the box if we are to survive.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. We are living very interesting and challenging times for the Jewish community. I agree that questioning and exploring is our only way, as it has been for centuries. Whenever we just accept our fate, or whenever we are too comfortable with our way of doing things, we not only don’t go forward, but begin to recede.

  3. Interesting that you juxtaposed your thoughts about how watered down Jewish education has become with the story of the children and their different responses to instrumental instruction.
    As I read, I began feeling righteous (or validated) in my insistence on my son’s practicing viola regularly and properly, despite protestation, feeling the discipline is valuable even if he doesn’t keep it up in adulthood. Likewise, I have struggled to give him a Jewish day school education so that he would be fluent in Hebrew and Jewish thought. Am I an aberration in America. I had neither of those influences in my young life, but found a passion for both music and Judaism (after a long journey through other religious forms) on my own.

    The way I experience the connection between these two issues, both having to do with education, is in how they reflect our values.

    We live in a society, and to a large extent a world, which seems to value little more than material wealth and ease. Toys really. Stuff. If one expends all one’s energy, physical and mental, in constantly striving to get things; money, toys, houses, sex, fame, power, what room is left for the soul to inhabit? I am afraid that there are far too few prophets left to warn us of our straying from our soul-path, and too many false prophets calling us to seek false enlightenment through selfish pursuits, pseudo-spiritual as well as material.

    Where this will lead us, by that I mean not only the Jews but the entire humanity, is not hard to predict, but this is not the place for such things.

    Shana tova, a real wish from my heart. May the coming year bring awakenings to all.

    • Shanah tovah to you too! Thanks for your comment. You are right that over-abundance of material things marks this generation. Maybe it is because I grew up in a poorer country, but I feel that since people have so many more choices, they don’t value what they have so much.

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