Yehuda Kurtzer’s first book, Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past, is now available
Do the Jewish People need more books? And are books the key to Jewish innovation? In the 1920s Franz Rosenzweig wrote that “It could hardly be asserted that the great urgency of the present moment is to organize the science of Judaism or to prompt both Jews and non-Jews to the endless writings of books on Jewish subjects. Books are not now the prime need of the day. But what we need more than ever, or at least as much as ever, are human beings—Jewish human beings, to use a catchword that should be cleansed of the partisan associations still clinging to it.”
Rosenzweig then, and we in the business of Jewish education now, sense that the conditions in which modern Judaism is struggling for a continuous foothold require something more than the perpetuation of Jewish knowledge for knowledge’s sake; that our seeking, studying, teaching and learning needs to focus on human outcomes. Accordingly, the trend in the so-called innovation sector focuses heavily on just the “Jewish human beings” that Rosenzweig calls for: on innovators themselves, on people with ideas who fall between the margins of the institutions.
And yet it has always seemed ironic to me that with all the advances in our knowledge of Jewish history, and the successes of Jewish Studies in the academy, that we know now more about the Jewish past than we have ever known before; but as a community, we tend to care about the past less than ever. To paraphrase Leon Wieseltier, our collective ignorance of the classical Jewish past may be the scandal of contemporaryAmerican Jewry. I am concerned that the fixation on new programs – even in the embodiment of new individuals to lead the Jewish community – is alone insufficient to make a credible claim for the legacy of what this generation of Jewish life is going to leave behind, that we are substituting program leadership for the thought-leadership that ultimately has kept intellectual history in productive parallel with actual Jewish history.
I see the classical rabbis as the paradigmatic bridge-builders between the perpetuation of ideas and the programmatic work of innovation: they were architects not only of an extraordinary literature – one that they tied to the authenticity of the Bible through an ideology of calling it a second Torah, the oral Torah – but also of systems for Jewish life to enable Judaism to change productively through a period of existential challenge.
So I am not sure that a book – even if it is not the book that Rosenzweig derides – turns the tide for the innovation sector (which is not to say I was not grateful for the philanthropic experimentation that brought it about!). But it does make me hopeful that we are remembering the legacy of the transmission of ideas that has helped define Jewish life in the past as we do the work of redefining Jewish life in the present.
When my son Noah was about 3 or 4, he came home from school one day and asked me, “Abba, who are the Jewish people?” Thrilled by this opportunity to really begin in earnest my son’s Jewish education, and by the depth of this question coming at such a young age, I replied, “Why, Noah – we are the Jewish people!” Whereupon he burst into tears, inconsolable. When I finally calmed him down, I asked him why he was so upset. “Because I don’t want Pharaoh to hurt me!”
I was conflicted about how to answer him. My parenting instincts inclined me to disabuse him of the myth altogether: to tell him that it was just a story from a long time ago, that he was safe, that maybe the story wasn’t even true. Goodness knows a toddler does not need to be terrified by Judaism in general, much less as a catalyst for his sense of belonging to a story he is just learning about for the first time.
At the same time, I was proud to see that he had unwittingly internalized the mandate of the Passover Haggadah: that in every generation a person is obligated to see themselves as though they left Egypt. Pharaoh was alive for him, a source of genuine terror. The non-parental, Jewish educator side of me wanted to shrug my shoulders and tell him, “Shver tsu zayn a yid.”
This is a defining question in Jewish education, as it goes to the heart of what it means to create, cultivate and transmit memory. Not facts, not history, and not just values and ideas that are critically important as part of the texture of an intellectually credible Jewish education, but memory – that sense of belonging to a narrative that precedes you and will outlast you, and a set of stories and visceral experiences in which you may not have physically participated but are part of defining the identity to which you belong. But is there a workable way to transmit the power of traumatic memory, without creating post-traumatic stress?
One of the greatest dilemmas I faced while writing The Benderly Boys & American Jewish Education was how to refer to the group of Jewish educators who were mentored by New York Bureau of Jewish Education director Samson Benderly. At first glance the answer seemed deceptively simple. Benderly referred to his protégés as my “boys,” and the moniker “Benderly boys” was widely used both by members of the group and their colleagues in the field.
And yet, the appellation is problematic. For one thing, in today’s world the term “boy” or “girl” when used in reference to a grownup has taken on a pejorative, or at the very least, a paternalistic connotation. This usage has largely become anachronistic, a relic of the “Mad Men” and “Driving Miss Daisy” era.
More fundamentally, the term “Benderly boys” is misleading. Although the majority of Benderly’s disciples were men, the group also included a number of women. A few attained leadership positions in schools, community centers, camps and other organizations. And while most voluntarily “retired” after marriage or the birth of their children, a few became career women long before the feminist revolution. Libbie Suchoff Berkson, for example, directed Camp Modin, in Canaan, Maine, while Elsie Simonofsky Chomsky served for many years as the principal of Gratz College‘s well regarded Hebrew teacher’s program, the School of Observation and Practice. Still other women gave up leadership positions but continued to wield influence in the field. Rebecca Aaronson Brickner, who served as Benderly’s veritable right hand during his early years at the New York Bureau, officially left education in 1919 when she married Rabbi Barnett Brickner. But her influence continued to be felt in the religious school of Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue Temple (later called the Fairmount Temple), where her husband spent much of his rabbinical career. Likewise, Mamie Goldsmith Gamoran and Elma Ehrlich Levinger published dozens of religious school textbooks, storybooks and other educational materials years after they supposedly embraced domestic life.
Benderly, apparently, did not hesitate to apply the ‘Benderly boy’ appellation to his female disciples. In my book, I discuss the implications of this curious usage. Benderly reflexively used gender as a marker for his closest disciples. If you fulfilled his criteria, which included studying at Columbia Teachers College, assuming administrative responsibilities at the Bureau or one of its affiliated schools, and attending his daily, early morning schmooze sessions, you were considered one of the boys, regardless of your anatomical make-up. Contemporary scholars, however, have been less sanguine about using the term “Benderly boys,” with some preferring gender neutral terms like “group” or “bunch.”
The term “Bureau bunch” was adopted in the 1910s by the larger team of workers at the New York Bureau, while the inner circle of disciples referred to themselves as Chayil , an acronym for the Hebrew phrase “education is our national foundation,” and a word meaning valor or virtue. While I intersperse the term “Benderly group” throughout the book for the sake of variety, I will admit to finding neither “Bureau bunch” nor Chayil compelling. The latter seemed obscure and, in any event, was confined in the day to an exclusive group of insiders. I wished to cast a wider net. The latter, meanwhile, was irredeemably hokey-sounding, particularly in the ear of one who was raised on a seemingly continuous loop of Brady Bunch reruns.
In the end, I decided to stick with “Benderly boys,” despite its drawbacks, and not merely due to its alliterative appeal. For me, the use of the appellation by Samson Benderly and its embrace by his disciples was decisive. By retaining the term “Benderly boys” I felt that I was at once remaining true to history while also honoring the memories of these men and women. But I did not entirely give up on the desire to problematize the designation. That is why I was thrilled to come across a crisp photograph of Benderly walking arm in arm with three of his closest disciples, including Libbie Berkson, while working at theAmerican Jewish Archives. I knew immediately that it needed to adorn the book’s cover. This photo of Libbie, surrounded by men, but clearly accepted as a full member of the Benderly team, juxtaposed with the book’s title, is purposely discordant and meant to induce perplexity. Here was a case where a picture could truly speak louder than words.
Here is hoping that the publication of The Benderly Boys (along with Carol Ingall’s 2010 volume, The Women Who Reconstructed American Jewish Education) helps to encourage a rediscovery of Benderly’s “girls.”