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Having It Both Ways

When secular and religious worlds collide, which should win?

Marjorie Ingall
May 17, 2010
(Oliver!: Columbia Pictures. Sleeping bag: iStockphoto.)
(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.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.