Commentary Magazine


On Jewish Education

To the Editor:

Though I am really not qualified to comment on Midge Decter’s article (“The Fruits of Modern Jewish Education,” October 1951) as an “educator,” I have taught for a few terms in Sabbath schools and for longer in a Hebrew “prep” school—and I do care about the child’s “Jewish heritage.”

It is vitally important, I think, that the individual of Jewish birth should not be allowed to grow up in rootlessness and in ignorance of our people’s great ethical tradition and history. But from memories of my own Jewish education, beginning with a cheder in London, England, it was my father’s stories about the Maccabees and Don Isaac Abarbanel that made me feel cosily and proudly Jewish, rather than the chumash class in which we went over and over, interminably, the same early chapters of the Toldoth Yeshurun and bellowed in concert, mischievously, that the earth was filled with “violets” (Genesis 7:11).

On the other hand, the author’s belief that nothing can take the place of the great Jewish texts is well founded. My four uncomfortable—let’s say “maladjusted”—years in the Teachers Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary were compensated for by the experience of reading the Hebrew Prophets and the Book of Psalms in the original.

It seems to me that, if only from the viewpoint of what is practical, the offering of our heritage must be a matter of degree. No ordinary person with the usual concerns can grasp the entire lavish content of Jewish learning. There is more than the full life-span of a scholar can undertake. With regard to the Jewish child the question is, rather, of showing that the treasure exists and indicating where it can be found. If the present-day curriculum—“Jewish mud-pies” included!—has made the Hebrew school a happy place, that’s all to the good. It is to sources of pleasant experience that one looks for more of the same. Couldn’t our policy-making teachers work out a course for the graduating class—parallel with the Bar Mitzvah—in which passages from Jeremiah and Isaiah, great psalms and pithy proverbs, even a condensed English version of the Book of Job, emphasizing the story—could be read, along with some explanation of the historic background that gave rise to them? . . .

As to the continuance of the Jewish aristocracy of learning, Mrs. Decter is unduly—though admirably—nervous. Scholars there will always be.—Why not?

Judith Ish-Kishor
Brooklyn, New York

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To the Editor:

I read Mrs. Decter’s article with a great deal of interest, and I am in agreement with many of the strictures contained therein. The situation she describes is certainly to be deplored and criticized. . . .

Mrs. Decter is, however, certainly wrong when she asserts that “for these gentlemen [referring to “such men as Scharfstein, Chomsky, and many of their colleagues in Palestine”] just as much as for Hebrew teachers, Hebrew conversation per se seems to have become the compensation for a general failure to get beyond it.” Anyone who has followed my writings in Jewish education for nearly a quarter of a century knows that she misrepresents my position in regard to Hebrew. I have stressed the importance of Hebrew in our curriculum, but only insofar as it serves as the vehicle of Judaism and as the only avenue through which one may gain direct access to the sources and bedrock of Judaism. I have never made a fetish of Hebrew conversation per se, and I have maintained this position in the face of severe criticism by some of my colleagues and workers in the field.

William Chomsky
Graetz College
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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To the Editor:

The education and life of the traditional Jew in the ghetto were prescribed by a culture which grew out of the needs of the time. . . . I have no doubt that if Mrs. Decter had been living in Chelm, she would have considered Yiddish a “tasteless, diluted, patented” product. Rashi, of course, she would have accused of tampering with the traditional Hebrew texts, the Bible and Talmud.

Mrs. Sydney Lewis
Richmond, Virginia

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To the Editor:

To publish Mrs. Decter’s caricature of Jewish education under the high-sounding title “The Fruits of Modern Jewish Education” is not only misleading but in fact a grave crime against all those professionals and laymen who are putting so much effort into modern Jewish education.

Mrs. Decter’s diatribe culminates in the statement: “We have buried the Jewish classroom: with it, the Jewish school. We have erected in their place the Jewish playroom.” This conclusion is so exaggerated that it amounts to a distortion. Of course, the methods of progressive education and “the condition of the entire community” have brought about a deep change in Jewish schools. But teachers, school boards, and the children themselves who do not want to waste their time have worked hard to adapt “Jewish content”—and not merely techniques—to the Diaspora community of 20th-century America. . . .

L. H. Grunebaum
Scarsdale, New York

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