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Having It Both Ways

When secular and religious worlds collide, which should win?

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(Oliver!: Columbia Pictures. Sleeping bag: iStockphoto.)

As moral dilemmas go, it’s not quite Sophie’s Choice. But when my daughter Josie, 8, was cast in her religious school’s production of Oliver! and it turned out to conflict with her secular school’s 3rd-grade camping trip, I was torn.

She’d committed to Oliver! first. She’d been cast in the chorus; when she expressed disappointment about not getting a bigger part, I launched into the whole song and dance about how being in the chorus is in some ways even harder than having a featured role because you have to create your own backstory for your character. And that it’s only fair that older kids get the bigger parts. And that if you’re cheerful and reliable in a small role now, when you’re one of the youngest kids, you may go on to get a bigger role when you’re older. Yes, I was a high-school theater geek and went on to be Rosh Drama at a Jewish summer camp. Could you tell?

But then we learned that the camping trip would take place on exactly the same days as the play. There was no way Josie could go on the trip for just one night and still do the show. This trip is a huge bonding opportunity for her class and the school’s other 3rd grade—when my daughters were smaller, I’d watch the 3rd-graders gather in the lobby with their sleeping bags and backpacks and marvel at how grown-up they looked. And now my kid was old enough to be one of those sleeping-bag-luggers. I knew that going camping would make the kids feel big and competent. It would help cement their group. Did I really want to tell my kid she couldn’t take part?

Of course, it was hard to tell Josie anything because I didn’t know what I wanted myself. On the one hand, I’m thrilled that she loves Hebrew school and participates enthusiastically. Last week she wrote mitzuyan!, or excellent, in bold letters across the top of her own homework, but still. Her shul friendships are intense. She loves going to family services. She chose the summer camp she did because one of her Hebrew-school friends testified that he loved it. How delighted am I that Jo is getting a sense of Jewish affiliation and identity that doesn’t come from our house? I wanted to encourage it. Besides, she made a commitment to the play. We should honor our commitments. That’s a moral lesson I want to teach. Hadn’t I just delivered the “no small parts, only small actors” speech a few weeks earlier? I’d never have considered letting her quit the play if she had a lead role, right?

I wanted it both ways. Ma nishtanah? Here I was, seeking a perfect ideal of full immersion in both Jewish and secular American life. Which isn’t easy—there’s a reason the numbers of Reform and unaffiliated Jews and the numbers of Orthodox Jews are growing, while the number of Conservative Jews (the branch I identify with) is stagnant or shrinking. Playing both sides is harder than choosing a side and staying there. But just as I smacked up against some hard realities when choosing between Jewish day school (which provides deep learning about our culture and immersion in Hebrew language and Jewish history and literature—all values I cherish) and public school (which provides genuine diversity and American civic participation—all values I also cherish and that are completely antithetical to the first set of values), here was another lesson in the reality that it’s impossible to have it all. Life isn’t an Enjoli ad.

So, I waffled. It’s what I do.

I kept returning to the fact that I didn’t want to send Josie the message that one’s word is one’s bond only if one gets to play The Artful Dodger. Promises matter; she’d promised her director and her company that she’d be there. So, I told her that the camping trip conflicted with the play, and, since she’d signed on to the play first, she’d have to miss the camping trip.

I expected pushback. I thought she’d want to go with her school. Instead, Josie seemed relieved to have me make the decision for her. She was sad she couldn’t do both activities, sure, but unlike me, she’s not a ditherer. She understood she’d made a commitment. Besides, she was loving rehearsals, self-importantly toting around her script and pondering her motivation as Orphan No. 3.

So, I told Josie’s teacher, Grace, that Josie wouldn’t be going on the trip. Grace proceeded to lobby hard for me to change my mind, but since she herself went to Chinese school and American school, she understood the pull of living in two worlds.

Belatedly, I learned that the kids were doing almost all the show in English instead of Hebrew. In my day we learned all of “Kol ha’olam hoo Cabaret” and “He’Abir mi La Mancha” in Hebrew, and we liked it! And I wish Josie’s religious school had taken the pedagogical opportunity to discuss the anti-Semitic aspects of Fagin. (Did you know that late in his life, Dickens revised the book to be less Jew-hate-y? He’d befriended the Jews who bought his London home in 1860, listened to the wife’s criticism of Fagin, made changes, even created a noble Jewish character in Our Mutual Friend, published in 1865. There’s a nice lesson plan about redemption and the value of getting to know The Other in there.) Or, hey, simply talk about Jewish attitudes toward orphans, justice, and mercy.

So, uh, the Jewish content I was hoping for isn’t happening so much. But the lessons Jo’s getting about teamwork and community and hard work and obligation are also important. And in a great act of kindness, Grace let Josie choose which class she could sit in on while her own class is away. Josie chose a 4th grade class, even though she loved her 2nd grade teacher, “because I don’t want things to be too easy.” And that’s a great lesson too.

Most of all, the fact that (unlike her mother) Josie’s not resentful about not being able to do it all is pretty heartening. Sometimes you do get the best of both worlds.

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Thanks for the “did you know” about Dickens. That’s great stuff. Got any other anti-Semitic redo information to share?

JCarpenter says:

“Honor your commitments” usually is the way to go; even then, one’s commitments can overlap and conflict. She played a crucial part in a production that would suffer without her; others’ performance and experiences would be directly affected by her absence. The camping trip would be important to her development, yet would not suffer from her absence, nor would others be directly affected. Faith and life formation isn’t a limited life-time experience, but a full-life, day-to-day experience.

Eileen says:

We had a similar situation when my daughter was young. She is a hockey player and one year half her practices were on Sunday mornings. They conflicted with Hebrew School, which was a prior and frankly, to us, a more important committment. The coaches were very understanding and they did not let it affect the amount she played. We even heard admiring comments from some of the Christian parents. There was another Jewish girl on the team who was giving up Hebrew School for hockey, and the comments about that were not admiring, even though they opted for the team. It made me think about how what we do reflects on us as a people.

Daniel says:

I yield to no one in my love of Lionel Bart’s score and lyrics for Oliver!, and his almost complete reframing of Fagin’s character, worthy of the Artful Dodger himself.

But I have to ask — this is what they are doing in a part-time religous school? Is Is there not enough Torah left that the children have yet to learn?

Iris Koller says:

Kol HaKaovod on the choice you made and Josie’s understanding. You are clearly helping her grow into a mench.

On a tangential note, I must wonder why Josie’s religious school is doing a play in English that is not one of Jewish content, however. I would encourage you to ask the question and encourage that they use the time they have to maximize learning.

Amy says:

I agree with Daniel and Iris, especially if you are going to lump Reform with unaffiliated and hold Conservative to a higher standard.

I am sorry but I tend to disagree with your choice. Your daughter should have gone on the camping trip. The children she would deal with in her daily life far outweighs what she does singing and dancing in hebrew school. In fact, in my town the hebrew school checks with the school district to actually make sure that there is no conflict. The truth is a play is not a religious observation and public school should come first.

Honest Broker says:

Oliver Twist is not about anti-semitism but about who is the “other” who generates fear and is cast as a criminal answering to a different morality. If Dickens had lived today “Fagin” would have be “Ahmed” and cast as a Muslim living in the same part of London where Jews lived a century ago- the shuls there then have all been converted into mosques today.

Joseph says:

Absolutely disgusting, and personifies the weak mindset of the liberal American Jew. Lost people, lost souls. Fortunately, the nation of Israel is strong without you. Go… live your miserable, meaningless life. To Paraphrase Samuel Adams: If ye love “peace” better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsel; we ask neither your company nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that you were ever our countrymen.

“If Dickens had lived today “Fagin” would have be “Ahmed” and cast as a Muslim living in the same part of London where Jews lived a century ago- the shuls there then have all been converted into mosques today.”

Probably not. Dickens based Fagin on a notorious Jewish thief/con man/fence called Ikey Solomon [who had a really incredible life, btw]

I find the choice of play a little odd, rather similar to having a Hebrew school production of “The Merchant of Venice” simply because a major character is a Jew. Fagin, even a singing and dancing Fagin, isn’t what I’d call a “positive role model”.

Emily says:

Blech, having to make the choice! I admire your having Josie stick with the original commitment, and yet. Why on earth was her Hebrew school doing Oliver anyway? (I would have really wanted to bail on the play and send her on the camping trip.)

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Having It Both Ways

When secular and religious worlds collide, which should win?

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