Geoffrey Canada is an inspir­ing edu­ca­tor and activist. If you watch 60 Minutes, lis­ten to This American Life on the radio, or pay atten­tion to American Express com­mer­cials, you’ve heard of Canada’s brain­child, the Harlem Children’s Zone, which seeks to use the edu­ca­tional sys­tem to “break the cycle of gen­er­a­tional poverty” in a small neigh­bor­hood in New York. What makes Geoffrey Canada’s vision unique and rev­o­lu­tion­ary is that he doesn’t focus on help­ing fam­i­lies break out of poverty. Rather, he accepts that it is almost impos­si­ble to pull young and poor par­ents out of the cycle, but that the chain of poverty can be bro­ken if resources are poured into chil­dren. The Harlem Children’s Zone is a cradle-to-college pro­gram that starts work­ing with moth­ers before their chil­dren are even born, and works with chil­dren from birth through pre-school, ele­men­tary school, mid­dle school, high school, and col­lege. Geoffrey Canada believes that the key to a neighborhood’s redemp­tion is its chil­dren.

This week is a spe­cial Shabbat, called Shabbat HaGadol, a spe­cial day that always falls on the Shabbat imme­di­ately pre­ced­ing Pesach. To mark the occa­sion we read a spe­cial haf­tarah, an excerpt from the book of Malachi. The haf­tarah par­al­lels the story of redemp­tion from Egypt with a nar­ra­tive about Messianic redemp­tion, but it’s the final verses that really reminded me of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone.

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

Cross-posted to TAPBB.

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:

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