Wednesday, January 09, 2013

For Orthodox Jews, Childhood Is for Enculturation 

Orthodox Jews live on a spectrum, from those who seek engagement with mainstream culture (modern Orthodox) to those who choose to remain within an insular enclave and view the outside world as base and fundamentally corrosive of the values of Judaism and its traditions (Haredi, or fervently and anxiously Orthodox).

In general, no matter where one is located on this spectrum, raising children as Orthodox Jews means making certain that they are literate – able to access Jewish sources, from Bible through Talmud in the original language – and that they have a personal knowledge of the Jewish experience. The child is first and foremost someone who must be educated. Childhood is not for fun. It is generally a time for instruction and laying the foundation for a solid core of Jewish identity and knowledge.

For the modern Orthodox, the outside world has much to offer – though never at the expense of their Jewish observance and beliefs. This leads to many of their children feeling pressured from early on to carry a dual curriculum, becoming literate in both Jewish and secular subjects, standing with a foot in two worlds and finding a way to creatively harmonize them even when they seem to be at odds. For such children, the double burdens to succeed and to navigate between various worlds can lead to a childhood and education that is very stressful as well as a feeling that only those who are like you can truly appreciate the life you lead and how you feel. While this fosters a high sense of solidarity with other modern Orthodox Jews, it also promotes separateness and ethnocentrism.

For the Haredi Orthodox, insularity is a desideratum. Secular knowledge is played down, and only what is Jewish is viewed as genuinely valuable. To keep people inside this cultural and voluntary ghetto, a high degree of conformity and a conservative worldview are encouraged, coupled with the outcasting or demonization of outsiders … or even those who dare to be different. It's as if one wants the child to think, "We are lucky to be the kind of Jews we are, and we'd never want to be like the others around us." This leads to an even higher degree of solidarity and ethnocentrism, but also to powerful pressures to hide even a minor deviance from the norm. This can result in a Manichaeistic world for children, who could very well be getting the following message: "Those who are not with or like us are against us."


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