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.