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Growing Grown Up Jews

Clive LawtonFilmed at JW3 2013

The Jewish world has got itself into an alarming position. Despite its reputation as a community that cares about learning and Jewish education, it seems to have consigned many of its most important features into the bag marked ‘kids’ stuff’. This is not only a terrible piece of misselling, it’s also a woefully poor strategy for the future. Time to grow up! My talk explores how we got here and what we should do about it.

A world renowned educator, motivator and lecturer, Clive is co-founder of Limmud (where he continues to support its international expansion) and Chief Executive of the Commonwealth Jewish Council.

Clive holds degrees in Literature, Theatre and Film, Hinduism and Islam, and Management Science. He has been a high school Headmaster and on the faculties of SOAS, the LSJS and Southampton and Surrey Universities. He was Deputy Director of Liverpool LEA, Chair of North Middlesex NHS University Hospital Trust, a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, advisor to the Home Office on Race Equality matters and is currently a magistrate on the North London Bench. He broadcasts frequently on BBC radio, was lead columnist for the London Jewish News for over a decade and has published over a dozen books. He was the first to develop school-based Holocaust education in the UK in the 1980s and ‘The Story of the Holocaust’ has been translated into six languages. ‘The Ethics of Six Religious Traditions’ is the definitive text covering the field. For 10 years he was Vice-Chair of the Anne Frank Educational Trust in the UK and was the first Chair of the development charity Tzedek. He was a founding board member of JW3, the Jewish Community Centre for London.

Clive received an OBE in January 2016 for services to education and the Jewish community.

Imagine a shul, not your shul, of course, which is scintillating and exciting. Imagine another shul. Imagine that shul on Simchat Torah, this strange festival left over at the end of that whole bank of festivals, indicating that whatever else Judaism can do, organising a calendar is not one of them. And on Simchat Torah, if you went to shul, probably in most shuls, you would find this: you’d find a number of adults and a number of children. And the adults would be pushing the children forward into the circuits, as the people carry the Sifrei Torah around the synagogue. And the parents would be saying to their children, “go on, go on.” And the children would be given flags, paper flags, so they don’t wave. And on these flags will be pictures of children, the like of which have not been seen since the 1950s. And demonstrating our deep commitment to the State of Israel, these flags will have been printed in China. And those children are carrying these flags, they’ve got no idea why, and their parents are saying to them, “go on, wave the flag.” And the kid’s dragging its way disconsolately around behind a bunch of people carrying Sifrei Torah.

And you know what that child is thinking? They’re thinking, “When I get to be 12, I can pack this in.” Because they can see all the adults, the adults don’t do this, the adults watch. Because Judaism’s nice for kids, we do it for kids, it’s lovely for kids, we have seder for kids, we have doughnuts for kids, we light candles for kids, we have festivals for kids, it’s all for kids.

You know, the seder in many families never gets to the end really, because the children need to get to bed and, of course, old Auntie Sadie needs to get home early; neither of them have said that they want this, the adults just want to find an excuse to cut things short. But it’s all for the children, and the children are learning that subliminal message from the beginning of their Jewish lives: that Judaism is for children.

So it’s not surprising, of course, that it’s something they grow out of.

I was struck by this when I was headmaster of a Jewish school. We had a school uniform and the boys had a kippah and if you make the kippah part of the school uniform, then you will guarantee that those children will stop wanting to wear a kippah as soon as they can stop wearing their school uniform. If you don’t separate the two things, then you have made this also something you can grow out of.

How did we get to this strange place? How did we create this business of an infantile Judaism? Well, first of all, it’s partly because our parents, in the main – not you, of course, I’m talking about everybody else – our parents in the main have an infantile Judaism themselves. Their knowledge of Jewish stuff is so restricted that they would be embarrassed to reveal such a level of knowledge in just about any other subject that they’re supposed to know about.

“Explain something to me about politics,” and they give you some primary school level understanding about of the way things work, they’d be ashamed, they’d keep quiet. But in Jewish matters, they proudly say, “well I’ve got my opinions, you know, I know all about this because I’ve never read anything, and the last I heard about it was when I was 9 and I thought about those questions and I decided I’d dealt with that so I don’t have to think about it again. Except to argue with you, of course.”

This is a very strange place for apparently intelligent people, and yet we seem satisfied with this. And so much so, actually, that we’ve found ourselves in a situation where most Jews are satisfied not knowing what they are doing at all and yet continuing to do it. They do this time and again and, in fact, they also have built in systems for confirming that they were right to think that it was all useless.

Have you ever noticed that Jews turn up in vast numbers on Yom Kippur? Now this is because Yom Kippur is the most boring service of the entire year, right, if they were to turn up on Shabbat afternoon which is really sweet as a nut, and an absolutely lovely little service, then they might actually find it quite enjoyable, but what they do instead is they come on Yom Kippur, so that they can say this really is grim, I’m not coming to this again and it takes about a whole year for that to wear off. They think, surely it can’t have been that bad, I’ll go back and have another look and it really is that bad so they stay away for another year.

But the children, you see, this is an adult experience this Yom Kippur thing. Children, what do they get out of Yom Kippur? They just watch their parents hate it while the children are given doughnuts and stuff in order to get their deep understanding of this ancient culture that we are all heir to.

Now, part of this is that we are extremely good at starting stuff and never finishing it. I mean we start our Jewish lives very dramatically and never really quite get around to growing them up and making them adult. Pesach, so many families go passionate about changing things over and buying stuff, and getting seder together. By the second day of Pesach it’s all fallen to pieces, hardly anybody makes it through to the end of the week. Shabbat, got to light the candles, somebody’s got to make it, its like the charge of the light brigade! By the time you get to Shabbat afternoon, there’s only about four people left on their horses, hardly anybody ever makes it through to Havdalah. And yet anybody who has kept a whole Shabbat knows that the best bit of Shabbat is Shabbat afternoon. Hardly anybody ever gets to it.

We keep beginning stuff; we never finish it. Pesach, by the way, is the run up to Shavuot which, in the vast majority of the Jewish world, is called Shavu-what? Haven’t got an idea, never even know that it’s there. How do you ever… start stuff and never finish it. Do all that Chuppah business; Jewish family, life, marriage. Brit…. Bar Mitzvah…. We keep starting stuff, we never finish it, we never make any sense of any of this. It’s the most bizarre thing and that’s how we bring our children up.

And if that’s not bad enough, not only do we bring them up to know that Jewish stuff has no proper consequence, or any proper meaning, we also bring them up to think that Jewish stuff is backward-looking. We tell our children that they have to be Jewish because of their grandparents and their great-grandparents. “Why should I be Jewish?” says a child. We go, well, your great-grandparents, they came out of …, they schlepped across the steppes, with their candlesticks wrapped in a blanket, and they struggled across Europe and they fought their way over here, and they got done by the ship’s captain and so they ended up in London even though they were trying to get to New York. And here we are and you owe it to them. They did all this so you could be here.

Well that’s tosh, isn’t it?

I mean they weren’t sitting there in Russia going, well I’m living the life of riley, and I’m really enjoying it, but you know I think I’d better move because my great grandchild will be really really pleased if I go somewhere else.

They moved because they didn’t like it there. And that’s what we have to get our children to understand. That things happen because you must make them better now, not because of some imagined betterness in some later generation. We have to make our young people activists for their own adulthood. We have to make them passionate about the world that they wish to live in themselves.

You know, the contrast is this for parents: it’s between funfairs and theatres. You know, you take a child to a funfair, your child gets what a funfair is about, it’s a thing for children, isn’t it? Hardly any adults go to funfairs just on their own, they go to take children and they might be quite prepared to join in with their children, and sit on the roundabout, or go on the slide or do the trip or whatever it may be, because it’s nice to do that with your children, you lay down family memories, and it’s enjoyable, but no adult would go and do that by themselves. And every child knows, therefore, they soak it up, that funfairs are something you grow out of and you’ll come back to it when you have children yourself, in order to give children the same experience that you had when you were a child. They are essentially childish places.

Now contrast that with the theatre. You go to the theatre because you like to go to the theatre and your children, frankly, are an encumbrance when it comes to going to the theatre. So you get in a babysitter, and you leave your children at home and they stand there sobbing at the top of the stairs, saying, “please don’t go.” You go, sorry, no Sally’s going to look after you and put you to bed, but mummy and daddy are going now to the theatre, and the child is just going to have to put up with it, because this is too important and you’re not going to miss it.

As they get a little older, when they’re five, six, seven, or eight, you find some suitable theatrical experience for them that gives them some encounter of the foothills of this adult experience that you are eventually hoping to induct them into. You take them to pantomime, or some children’s theatre or whatever. But they grow up knowing that theatre is something you grow into, not something you grow out of.

Jewish life ideally should be like that. You know, if you go to a Charedi community on Simchat Torah, what do you see there? You see a bunch of 80 year-old men with the sifrei torah, dancing passionately in a circle and around the outside are 50 year-old men desperately trying to get into the circle, and the 80 year-old men batting them out going you’re too young yet, just get out. And where are the kids? They’re out in the yard somewhere, just messing about, waiting to grow up into being able to take this seriously.

I mean after all, what’s the central metaphor of Simchat Torah? It’s marriage. Marriage! How is any child supposed to get their heads around the absurd stupidity of trying to construct a permanent monogamous relationship with a scroll? That’s serious grown-up business.

How do we get ourselves, adults, to understand how grown-up being Jewish is? Well, we’ve managed to get a Jewish advert on every single aeroplane in the world. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, it’s got to be a bit subliminal, because if it’s too obvious then they won’t really want to run it on Emirates and stuff. But it’s basically a Jewish grown-up advert. It’s at that point when they tell you that oxygen masks will drop from the panel above. I don’t know if you’ve looked at the panel – no sign of oxygen masks – but you have to trust them that there are apparently some there. And they will drop from the panel above and you’re supposed to fix this on your face.

“If you have dependants with you, fix your own mask first,” it says. This is the message to Jews today, all over the world. If you have dependants with you, fix you own mask first. We spend inordinate amounts of time trying to make our children care about Jewish stuff, inordinate amounts of money trying to provide institutions and educations for our children, so that it matters to them. And actually, we have to do it for ourselves first. If we want to secure the future for the Jews, there’s no point in making them curators of the Jewish museum. We have to make them creators of the Jewish future.

Thank you.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License

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