Religion & Beliefs

What We Didn’t Learn In Day School

I am the product of thirteen years of Jewish day schools. I speak Hebrew, and can read and translate a page of Tanach with no problem. I can give you a pretty detailed history of Zionism and the State of … Read More

By / June 15, 2007

I am the product of thirteen years of Jewish day schools. I speak Hebrew, and can read and translate a page of Tanach with no problem. I can give you a pretty detailed history of Zionism and the State of Israel, I can tell you everything you could ever want to know about the Holocaust, and I can speak at great length about the importance of being shomer negiah (thought I won’t). But even with such a solid Jewish educational background, there’s a lot that I now realize I never learned. To some extent this is my fault in not asking the right questions, and requesting the right classes. But sadly, in the world of day schools there are still lots of important issues not being discussed—usually because the curriculum is stuck on a few core issues, and rarely ventures to new or more dynamic subjects. In an informal survey held in my kitchen a week and a half ago, four girls told me they wished they'd learned more about davening, about Israeli politics, about the theologies of all the Jewish movements, and, to quote my little sister, "I wish someone would have told me that not all good Jewish boys are good boys." Later that day I sent out mass e-mails to old friends and dayschool alumni, asking what people wished they’d been taught now that they’d had some time to reflect on their education. Though my friends went to a variety of day schools, ranging from Orthodox to Jewish community schools, their answers generally fell into four categories: 1) Things we weren’t taught about Jews/Jewish history 2) Things we weren’t taught about the rest of the world (Christianity specifically, but the secular world in general) 3) Jewcy pieces of our own tradition that were conveniently skipped over because they involved sex, and 4) Sex/sexuality In the next few weeks I’ll be attacking these issues, showing you some of the things my friends wrote, and giving some tips on how you can make sure that kids in your community, regardless of whether they go to day schools, don’t go to college without knowing the history or culture of non-Ashkenazi Jews, or how to explain sukkot to a Methodist roommate. If you’re a day school grad out there, feel free to leave more ideas in the comments section, or e-mail me directly at In the meantime, I leave you with some highlights from my friends’ responses:

I managed, but i was not provided the tools to convey and articulate to an "outsider" (even Jews sometimes) about Judaism. [Orthodox high school] assumes that everyone is going to live in the Upper West Side of NYC or Skokie Illinois their whole life, and that’s not the case. I needed to know how to talk to my Irish Catholic friend about separating milk and meat. I can not say because it says in the bible "thou shalt not cook thy calf in the thy mother's milk." That is the reason, but that’s not what i'm going to say. I need answers that everyone can understand and not from the Gemorah. We are all going to deal with non-Jews and we will all need to explain why we can't come to work on Simchat Torah.

* the theologies of Jewish movements, yes, but frankly a sense of the flow of Jewish history between the ninth and twentieth centuries outside of ". . .and then there were a lot of pogroms, Goldinah Medina, Holocaust, Israel" would have been nice. A lot of the history we got was in isolation: Now We Shall Study Chasidut. Ok, but what's the context, again? * along the same lines, Jewish intellectual history between the ninth and twentieth centuries–though this is probably more of a college curriculum. The intellectual history of recent Jewish movements would also be useful. I really have no idea where Orthodoxy, as currently practised, comes from, besides, obviously, Moshe m'Sinai by direct transmission of black velvet kippot. * Speaking of history: anything at all about the Eidot Mizrah or European Sephardic Jews. After the Christian reconquista non-Ashkenazic Jewry vanished off the educational radar. I assume some things happened between Saadiah Gaon and Shallah Shabbati (and that can be taken in more ways than one, now that I think about it) (though not that way. Hee.), but I don't know what they are.

healthy sex and spirituality. this could include anything from safe sex to safe emotional sex and spirituality anything from ecstatic hassidish stuff to what does sprituality have to do with ritual.

Of course, there are lots of jewcy bits in the Torah (the Nephilim; Judah and Tamar; Moses's uncircumcized son; seeing God and the saphire brickwork beneath his feet) that I would have liked to have heard about – for one thing, it might have made those classes more interesting.


Something that I am becoming more and more aware of, and wish that I had some prior knowledge of, is the difference between Ashkenazi and Sepharadi Jewish communities and histories. There are obvious and basic differences, like foods and traditions, but I think something more important is the history. Growing up and going to day school, I was surrounded by others that were exactly like me- eastern european with some connection to the Holocaust. My identity as a Jew and my ties with the Jewish community had to do with the Holocaust and my family's experiences during the war. However, it is important to know that the Holocaust is not a good connector as not all Jews were touched by the Holocaust. Jewish communities in Tunisia, Algeria, Iran, etc, all had different horrible experiences that were never talked about. Part of our education should have been a more modern Jewish history which should have included the history of Jewish communities in different parts of the world. There are really interesting stories of Jews in China, India, Burma, the Middle East, Africa, and so many other places.


I agree with the God and theology part too. I think that it was very unfortunate that my school chose to focus more on Jewish Law and ritual and very little on actual religious philosophy. Even if it was going to be heavily biased, I would have preferred a bigger focus on the "why?" instead of the "how to."


im gonna have to agree with the God part. it was as if they avoided the topic as a whole. Also the way we prayed really sucked. it was as if the whole point was to race through the service as fast as you could without understanding what you were saying.


That nice Jewish girls and boys are not born with blinders that make them only meet and fall for other nice Jewish girls and boys. -That there are Reconstructionist, Renewal, Humanist and other denominations of Jews, not just the "big three." And while we're at it, that Reform Jews aren't just "Jews who don't want to do anything." -That Jews can meditate and commune with nature through Judaism, not just Buddhism. -That there are loads of amazing Israeli movies out there that can be watched and analyzed, and not just be a babysitter when the teacher is out sick.