I have often heard it said that the reason we cannot read secular books, watch secular movies, or have close friends who are gentiles is because we will be corrupted, our Judaism will fail, we will suddenly see the lure of forbidden fruit, and lusting for it, we will no longer be believers or adherents to our religion. Can this be proven? Possibly. But why does it happen? That is what I will attempt to answer.
I would warrant that one of the main reasons this happens is because through sheltering your children, you raise them to be completely inept and incompetent when it comes to society and the "outside world." They cannot work in offices unless they are run by Orthodox Jews. They cannot survive college because there are members of the opposite sex there, and many times campuses run high with anti-Zionistic fervor. They can only speak in a dialectic that is curiously strewn with Yiddish and Hebrew phrases; these people who are born in this country cannot even articulate their thoughts in English. They do not know how to defend or discuss their own religion, and they are raised with certain prejudices that they have never concerned. In short, by refusing to allow children access to the world, you limit them immensely. But it is more than limitation. Sometimes, you utterly destroy them.
As an adult, you are given a task- to raise your children in the way you think best, and that conforms to state laws. My parents spent a lot of time simply learning how to raise children: what impacts a child, a child's emotional feelings, a child's self-expression, and a child's method of learning. They read stacks of books, took certain families as their role models, observed different people's parenting styles, and truly thought through their actions. I am amazed by the responsibility they felt, and the fact that they invested so much effort in figuring out what approach to take with each of us, which way to treat us, how to punish and reward us, and how to explain different ideas to us. Each of the four children in my family is different, and we all value different things and different concepts. I am more introverted, enjoy reading and writing over social activities. But I can also be spontaneous, happy and free, running through the snow and looking up at the twinkling lights. My everyday conversation focuses more on books I've read that have made an impression on me, or on ideas I've thought of, or opinions that I have than on what happened at school that day. I'm more analytical and creative than I am mathematical and scientific. I don't like to deconstruct everything, but I am detail-oriented. Hence, I am a mixture~ I like details but find it important to regard ideas in a holistic fashion, I adore fairytales and fantasies, fiction being my favorite genre, and dislike being limited by my surroundings or personal failings (whether these be classmates who do not understand me or my inability to understand math.)
My sister is different from me. Younger than I am, she is intelligent, clever and happy. She would prefer to spend the day with her friends (of whom she has many; she is constantly on the phone) at the mall, while I am perfectly happy sitting at Barnes and Noble reading an interesting book. Extremely extroverted, she is also more of a "doer" than I am, taking charge of different situations, organizing get-togethers and sleepovers, one of the popular children within her own set of friends. She likes animals (especially horses) and although she likes books, she is not as interested in classics or philosophy, opting to read a fun book over a difficult one. Her personality is grounded more in emotions than in ideas, unlike mine, and her fiery spirit contrasts with the water or earth that would describe me. She's also more skilled in actual upkeep and housekeeping abilities- she cooks dinner sometimes, she washes the dishes frequently, cleans the whole house, does the whole laundry, and instills the fear of God into anyone who has not done their part. She is more tempestous and headstrong than I am, her wavy auburn hair accentuates her personality. I am her opposite, but in my own way I am just as, if not more stubborn.
My parents raised us to be curious, to desire to learn about the world around us. One of the reasons I refer to myself as 'The Curious Jew,' is because I, the oldest child, was raised in exactly that fashion. My father decided not to teach me the alphabet or how to read; he didn't value accomplishments like that so much as a child's natural intelligence, curiousity and wonder. What most characterized my chidhood was my imagination. I was extremely imaginative; I made stories for myself and told them to both my parents, acted out plays in which I was a character picking blueberries in the woods, danced and sang frequently, would repeat over the Rabbi's derasha after pounding the lid of my garbage can (which was sloped like a shtender), and could not spell or write my own name. When I first went to kindergarten my teachers were horrified by this fact, thinking that I was "behind" when in truth I had just been raised in a creative fashion. I think that the fact that I was raised this way has really helped me, and is reflected by my talent for English, Chumash and literature, all of which involve both analytical and imaginative thinking.
I was never limited. My parents read me fairytales, especially Russian ones. I was raised on Baba Yaga, and my love for clever villains was instilled by her and her flying mortar and pestle. My favorite story was that of Vassilisa the Beautiful, specifically because of the brilliant dark images. I had my share of happy, colorful children's books, but I always the Russian illustrations, specifically this drawing:
Because I was raised with so much variety in my life, and because my education took the form of everything from The Little Midrash Says to Baba Yaga to Corduroy Bear, because I was raised to be imaginative, I think that I am able to say that I am the one person (or one of the very few) at Templars who could have made the switch I did.
I don't say that to boast, but simply to state the obvious. How many other girls from Templars could have switched to a non-Jewish school and not gone dizzy because of the freedom that afforded them? Or have survived religiously? Or have continued to dress as they had always dressed, with the same standard of modesty? How many Jewish teenagers know who they truly are, and once being self-aware, know what they stand for? How many of them are curious, as opposed to being zombies, robots, programmed by their parents and schools to believe in certain things without ever hearing of the alternatives?
My parents raised me in a very open house (although there were some limitations, and in some ways they were very strict) but the synthesis allowed me a knowledge and freedom that allowed me to discover myself as I am as opposed to who I was forced to be.
Therefore, I want to make the following statement.
If your Judaism is strong enough and you live in America (or any country that permits freedom of religion) there is no way your Judaism can be destroyed by "exposure" to outside influences unless you yourself choose to destroy it. You are in charge. The influences cannot rule you, but you can rule them. And many times, they are not even evil- rather, they are good, and helpful, and what is more, they demonstrate Judaism.
This is actually one of the most fascinating things about our world- as far as I'm concerned. When I read, I cannot help but see God and Judaism in the subject matter. It isn't a conscious thought, it's not that I'm reading and thinking, "How can I make this Jewish?" but rather it's simply there. You can never be alone in the outside world, alienated and different...because the outside world oftentimes is not outside, but is simply an extension of the Bible that we learn.
Here we go!
From Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell:
- "We need more gold and I am asking you for it," the doctor continued. "I am asking a sacrifice but a sacrifice so small compared with the sacrifices our gallant men in gray are making that it will seem laughably small. Ladies, I want your jewelry. I want your jewelry? No, the Confederacy wants your jewelry, the Confederacy calls for it and I know no one will hold back. How fair a gem gleams on a lovely wrist! How beautifully gold brooches glitter on the bosoms of our patriotic women! But how much more beautiful is sacrifice than all the gold and gems of the Ind. The gold will be melted and the stones sold and the money used to buy drugs and other medical supplies. Ladies, there will pass among you two of our gallant wounded, with baskets and-" But the rest of his speech was lost in the storm and tumult of clapping hands and cheering voices.
Scarlett's first thought was one of deep thankfulness that mourning forbade her wearing her precious earbobs and the heavy gold chain that had been Grandma Robilard's and the gold and black enameled bracelets and the garnet brooch. She saw the little Zouave, a split-oak basket over his unwounded arm, making the rounds of the crowd on her side of the hall and saw women, old and young, laughing, eager, tugging at bracelets, squealing in pretended pain as earrings came from pierced flesh, helping each other undo stiff necklace clasps, unpinning brooches from bosoms. There was a steady little clink-clink of metal on metal and cries of "Wait-wait! I've got it unfastened now. There!" Maybelle Merriwether was pulling off her lovely twin bracelets from above and below her elbows. Fanny Elsing, crying, "Mamma, may I?" was tearing from her curls the seed-pearl ornmanet set in heavy gold which had been in the family for generations. As each offering went into the basket, there was applause and cheering..."
Does this remind you of anything? I was in the middle of the book, and as soon as I came upon this passage, I was struck by its resemblance to:
Secular books and the outside world are not always bad. And this is certainly a quasi-classic secular book, at that. It is one's outlook that influences the way you see something rather than the work itself. You could think of Gone With the Wind and worry about immoral love stories. Or you could think of Gone with the Wind, appreciate the romance...and also learn something that is found in the Torah and Bible.
One's outlook, and being raised with options. Not behind a veil, but free and dancing, coveting knowledge in all its various forms.