"Justice, Justice, shall you pursue."
If I could speak…
If I could speak, I would try to persuade you of the injustice that exists in Judaism today, that hides itself behind the lips of the righteous, and that smiles out of the closed minds of teachers.
I would tell you that so many people suffer, that so many brilliant people are turned away from Judaism, not necessarily because science and religion cannot be fused, or because Judaism itself is wrong, but because the religion disgusts them. Because their earliest association with it has been that of shame and reproach, of a long listing of things they should not and cannot do. There has been no joy in the learning, no love of God, indeed, God was hardly ever described or discussed because he was too large a figure for the human imagination.
Why is it that a child can know God, but an adult cannot?
As a child, I remember believing in a perfect world. I remember innocently skipping, telling my father that I had gotten as far as “V’ahavta” in shul today, because the congregation went too quickly for me. I remember him smiling at me, talking to me at the table. I remember devouring books like The Little Medrish Says, books that fascinated me because of their rich descriptions, the parables and examples, and most of all the magic. Now that I am older I can find flaws in these books, places where they are biased or unkind, but when I was younger, they were the perfect tool for me to learn.
I remember thinking about the next world, which I envisioned as a place filled with light and colors. A dancing place, where the colors would sparkle and shine and all would be beautiful. I wanted to go there, wanted God to take me there. I lay on my bed, replete and happy, and asked him to please let me fall asleep (this is what I thought death was) so I could go there. When my wish was not granted, I reasoned that God understood that my parents would miss me too much, and undisturbed, I stood up and decided to play a boardgame.
I was imaginative, delving into toyboxes, dressing up as various figures, banging on the garbage can and repeating over the pulpit Rabbi’s speeches, always acting, pretending and playing. My parents were very good to me, and they believed in allowing me to learn at my own pace, in understanding and learning through imagination rather than following set rules. I did not know how to spell my name and could not write the alphabet, my motor skills were not very good and I would not sit still at circle time, but I was cheerful, brimming with happiness and curiousity.
I was always inquisitive, but my parents understood my questions. They gave me the answers, or allowed me to search for them.
Nowadays, Judaism is not such a welcoming religion.
I always thought the difference between Judaism and other religions was that Judaism permitted questions, reveled in questions, that the entire Gemara and Talmud was based off of questions from one Rabbi to another. And if they could question, why couldn’t I?
What I was taught in high school was that you have to be old, learned, wear a white beard and dress in a black caftan before you are allowed to question anything.
Needless to say, I did not like this at all.
There are three religious high schools for girls in Chicago. One is coed and Modern Orthodox, but because of the type of people who go there/the reputation of some students, many young girls will not attend this school. Its complete opposite is Bais Yaakov, where women go in order to be told that love, joy, and happiness will save the world, but education, learning, and especially college are to be shunned and scorned. And then there is the middle school, which for the purposes of this dicussion, I will not name.
This school is seen as an in-between place. You are not Modern Orthodox but you are not incredibly religious; you are in the middle. Sure, you’ll have to put up with some hashkafot you do not agree with, with an emphasis on tzniut, knee socks and no slits in skirts. But this should be all right, shouldn’t it? You’ll survive. You’ll get a good education, go on to college, and will be reasonably well-equipped for life beyond the religious world. Right?
May I even amend that to completely, incredibly, absolutely and totally wrong.
But I didn’t know this when I entered the school. I figured I was taking the middle road. I was a bit wary of the coed Modern Orthodox school, especially since the only girls attending from my elementary school were not the people I hung out with. I figured I’d go to the school where some of my friends were going, where I’d be all right. I might have a few unpleasant encounters, but nothing too serious.
The fact that I am now a senior at North Shore Country Day, an independent coed non-sectarian private school in Winnetka, should apprise you of how wrong I was.
My two years at- well, for the purposes of this, I’ll call it Templars- were awful. Templars was not a welcoming place. It operated in order to shut down the mind, to close off avenues of knowledge, to forbid rather than to welcome. To exterminate. To extinguish. To hurt. And most of all, to dispose of loners and dissenters as quickly as possible.
Templars was- and still is, for certain students- a living hell.
But what to do? I cannot speak…and if I do, people will not listen. They will see me as the abberation, the abnormal, the one who does not fit the norm. “If you are as intelligent as Chana…” they will say. These are not the type of things one can ignore. Yes, they are paying me a compliment. But it has nothing to do with intelligence. It has to do with Judaism.
The following passage is from Chaim Potok’s ‘The Promise.’
“You want too much!” Rav Gershenson was shouting. “You want to make them all into saints! You are destroying the Torah!”
“What do you say?” Rav Kalman almost screamed. “I am destroying the Torah? I?” He stood on the tips of his toes, his heald tilted back, his dark beard jutting outward almost level with the floor, and I saw his hands clench into fists. He shook a fist in Rav Gershenson’s face. “It is you who are destroying the Torah!” he shouted. “You!”
“It is a different world here! You cannot-“
“It is a corrupt world! I will not be changed by it!”
“You are destroying people with your religiosity!” He used the Yiddish word “frumkeit,” hurling it at Rav Kalman as though it were an epithet. “Know that you are destroying people!”
Know that you are destroying people.
This is what I want to say, what I want to shout from the rooftops, throw at people. I want them to see. I want them to know that they are destroying people.
That they could have destroyed me.
That I’m only safe because of my parents.
I’m trembling. I tremble as I write this. Not outwardly. I’m not shaking, not even moving. But inwardly. I do not want to lie, but I want to show you what I saw.
I want you to understand.
I could have been dead today. I could have been dead, spiritually dead, walking into a school that I hated and whose inhabitants dreaded me, were frightened of my thoughts. I could in turn have hated the parents who imprisoned me in that school, the religion that held me captive.
I could have simply been hatred.
But I’m not. Thank God I’m not. And to keep my sanity, to keep myself from dying, I had to resort to something looked upon as a sin, as a scandal, as insanity- to moving from my Orthodox Jewish female single-sex school to a non-sectarian coed independent private school.
And I am so much happier there.
And more religious, more spiritual, than I ever could have been at Templars.
Why? Well, this is the story why.
If only I could speak…