A Serious Ennui

If the 1960s Hebrew school is really a thing of the past, then 1960s textbooks need to be a thing of the past, too.

by Josh Mason-Barkin

My wife and I went to see the Coen brothers’ latest film this weekend, A Serious Man. For me, it was a double-whammy must-see. First, I’m a huge fan of their movies. (“We’re talking about unchecked aggression here, Dude.”) Second, the movie purports to be about rabbis, Jews, and Judaism, and well, I’m a Jewish educator and my wife is a Jewish educator and soon-to-be rabbi. So suffice it to say that we were excited.

The film lived up to expectations, and then some. It’s a deep and fascinating look at Jewish life in 1960s middle American suburbia, complete with a Job-esque examination of a father’s quest to find meaning in his life. It’s rich with cultural and religious allusions, and has a lot to say about the relationship between Jews and Jewish leadership (especially rabbis).

But I have to admit I paid extra attention to the Hebrew school scenes.

Twice in the movie we visit Danny Gopnick sitting bored in his Talmud Torah class. It’s as old-fashioned a classroom as you can imagine. The teacher is trying to show the students how to properly conjugate the Hebrew word for “to go,” droning on “Hu holekh habayta, hi holekhet habayta, anahnu holkhim habayta…” The students are totally unengaged, they have no idea what’s going on, and their answers to the teacher’s questions suggest that they don’t understand anything he’s been trying to teach them. They each sit staring at their books, totally confused at the meaningless foreign language printed in front of them.

(As for me, I sat there during that scene praying. “Please don’t let it be a Torah Aura book…” Thankfully, the prop folks went with books from a different publisher. Whew.)

In a second school scene, the teacher tries to teach the students to say, in Hebrew, that they want to plant a tree in Israel. Not only are they all bored, but it’s clear that they have no idea what’s going on, they don’t care, and there’s virtually nothing meaningful, worthwhile, or redeemable about the entire enterprise. The non-Hebrew-speaking audience has no idea what’s going on either, which seems to be a very intentional choice by the filmmakers. As Naomi Pfefferman points out in the Jewish Journal:

The Coens chose not to subtitle the Hebrew lesson scenes in “A Serious Man” to help enhance the fictional classroom’s droning sense of ennui.

Pfefferman is a gifted writer, and her choice of the word “ennui” is perfect.

Ennui is “a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement” (thanks, New Oxford American Dictionary).

Jewish education has come a long way since 1967, when the film takes place, and I’m proud to say that I’ve worked with and in many schools whose students, I can confidently say, never feel a “droning sense of ennui.”

Schools are doing some amazing things to make Jewish learning exciting, engaging, and meaningful: experiential learning, family education, flexible scheduling, and rethought curricula. The entire idea of a supplementary (ahem, “complementary”) education has undergone a complete re-imagination (for the better!) in the past decade.

So if few of today’s classrooms look like the one in A Serious Man, why are too many textbooks designed for educational settings where children sit stoically at their desks as teachers attempt to mindlessly drill facts and Hebrew reading skills into their heads? (And lets be clear: Computer games that mindlessly drill facts and skills are just as bad. Being computerized doesn’t remove the ennui.) We’re not sure why these sort of textbooks still exist, but we know that we want to be part of the solution.

Here are four suggestions for improving the quality of Jewish educational publishing:

1. Jewish educational materials need to be designed to serve the needs of the experiential classroom. Good textbooks aren’t collections of facts and drill pages. They are tools that serve as the foundation for exciting learning. The textbook provides some core content and “sets the stage” for imaginative and engaging outside-of-the-book learning activities. Good textbooks also need to provide a myriad of opportunities for discussion, debate, exploration, ritual- and biblio-drama, and artistic expression.

In other words, a good textbook is a series of discussions that have impact, that allow for self-clarification and self-actualization, that build connection, friendship, and community. The needs of Jewish learning are very different that those of secular learning. We don’t care about the ability to review a chapter and prepare for a test, but we do we care about moments of introspection and being the next step in a student’s becoming an empowered and involved Jewish adult.

[As a side note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this has become a major thrust of our work here at Torah Aura. All of our student texts published in the last three years (especially The Circle of Jewish Life, Artzeinu, and Eizehu Gibor) were designed to be used as foundations for true experiential learning. They feature tools for imaginative classroom programs, “core” material designed to provide important background content, and teacher’s guides that are really collections of programs and activities, not just guides to using each page in the text. To find ideas for using textbooks to enable programmatic experiences, click here.]

2. Jewish schools need to strategically and thoughtfully integrate technological tools into their classrooms, and publishers need to create materials that are congruent with these efforts. For the past several years, Jewish educational publishers (ourselves at Torah Aura included) have been trying to offer computerized tools that are basically digitized (or computer-gameified) versions of textbooks. Furthermore, publishers have seen educational technology as the next frontier in publishing, a new way to make a buck by selling software that claims to make Jewish learning “exciting.” That’s the wrong attitude. Instead of trying to use software to answer the same old questions (“How do I get kids to properly decode Hebrew?”), we need to be asking a new set of questions.

How can we utilize new technologies like Google Wave, twitter, and YouTube to allow for collaborative (hevruta for the new generation!) learning? How can computers help us to maximize our financial resources? How can the internet help us engage (and empower!) parents and families in new ways? How can we use technology to open up the world of Jewish education to better integrate the arts, science, and communication?

Lots of smart people are thinking about these issues, and we (both publishers and our customers, Jewish schools) need to listen. A bureau executive told me recently that Jewish education is miles behind secular education in these fields. That must change, and we as publishers must be leaders, not followers. We need to help teachers and students think about using tomorrow’s technologies, not provide them with hokey and simplistic “educational” games or digitized flashcards for iPhones.

3. Jewish publishers need to re-examine how content is being used (and ought to be used) in re-imagined schools. I learned recently about a concept called “functional fixedness,” which is about how humans react to the world (and fail to “think outside the box”) based on preconceived notions derived from our previous experience. Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that limits a person to using an object only in the way it is traditionally used.

As publishers, we have a functional fixedness when it comes to Jewish schools. And, despite our efforts to create whole new kinds of curricular materials, many people have a functional fixedness when it comes to textbooks. We need to overcome these fixednesses.

In order to create new types of curricular materials that might be useful (or even transformative) in new types of schools, publishers need to do a better job of recognizing the way in which schools are changing. Then we need to react.

That’s why, in the next several months, we’re convening a series of “think tanks” to discuss with Jewish educators the ways in which they’ve transformed their schools and the ways in which we might develop materials to fit their needs. (If you’re interested in helping us to host a think tank in your community, drop me a line.) I look forward to sharing everything we’ve learned from these experiences on our blog and in the TAPBB.

4. The Jewish educational establishment — of which publishers are a part — must do a better job of changing public perception. A Serious Man takes cheap shots when it comes to Jewish education. It’s not that hard to find an American Jew who can talk about how bored they were in Hebrew school. As blogger Danielle Berrin writes,

The film is funniest when mocking many of the cultural norms experience by American Jews: boredom at services, ineffectual Hebrew schools and a near crippling fear of ascending the bimah for a B’nai Mitzvah.

The ineffectuality of our schools has surpassed the point of being a problem. It’s a “cultural norm.” Jewish education has changed a lot since the 1960s, but lots of Jews don’t know it. (At least the ones I observed in the theater laughing and nodding knowingly at the Hebrew school scenes don’t know it.)

The renaissance of complementary Jewish education — the fact that so many synagogue schools are doing so much more than boring b’nai mitzvah training — needs a better PR firm. We need to do a better job of showing the world that today’s Danny Gopnick’s aren’t always bored in services (because they learned how to meaningfully participate), their schools aren’t ineffective (because we worked hard to create vision-driven schools that accomplish more than rote learning), and they are certainly not terrified of the bimah (because our synagogues are warm and welcoming places).

As a premiere publisher of Jewish educational materials, we’re dedicated to reshaping the publishing industry and the field of Jewish education. As schools continue to improve so they don’t look like the one in the Coen’s movie, Jewish publishing needs to change too. Unlike the protagonist in the movie, a suburban dad who finds little meaning in his work (or his life in general), I love my job because I get to work on serious issues like these.

Josh Mason-Barkin is director of school services at Torah Aura Productions.