Monday, January 19, 2004

Another brick in the wall

My nephew came to visit today. He is nearly thirteen. He is already learning for his Bar-mitzva. He is going to be a big boy soon. And the poor nebbich is looking forward to it. Getting caught up in all the excitement that is generated around the Bar-Mitzva he has no idea that, unlike in the less haimish circles, his childhood really is about to end.

Nu! Di bist shoin a bucher! (NU! You are a man already). That must be the most hackneyed phrase I remember from my early teens. Having dressed me in a hat and long coat, there I was, a kid, but no longer allowed to do anything that did not involve study. Admittedly not all Chassidic parents are as strict as mine were, but the trend is still disturbingly widespread and common. With a school program that starts with Davening (prayer) at 7am and then continues practically straight through until 9pm it is not easy for the poor kids to find the time to play even if they were allowed.

There are no teaching seminaries for male teachers. Most melamdim (male teachers) become teachers because they are not trained to do anything else. Which, incidentally should not be taken to imply that they are trained to teach. There are no teaching seminaries for men. What these melamdim can do is continue their time-honoured tradition, as handed down from the cheder classroom in central Poland a hundred years ago. Learning is done by rote. A typical day for these pale-faced youngsters will involve a couple of hours hearing a lesson on the Talmud. A couple of hours revising the lesson with a partner followed by half an hour for lunch (on the premises) and then an afternoon roughly the same just a different part of the Talmud. A break is necessary to allow for Minche (afternoon prayers) and then there will be a hour’s lesson on Halacha (laws) then maybe an hour or so for secular classes after which another hour or so study time with a partner again.

The only sport these ‘men’ will get is running home for supper. And run they must for they are expected to come back after to pray again and learn a little before going to bed. The only day in the year that we were allowed to run around and play was Lag Beomer, when we went out on an outing with the class and were encouraged to run around. The problem was that the outing was lead by our melamed who happened to be fascistic, sadist who beat us when we did not get good results at the end-of –the-week tests. He also had mastered the art of the sarcastic comment. So any kid who actually enjoyed himself was sure to hear ‘I see today you are in your element’. You can imagine what a bundle of fun that outing was.

It has never ceased to amaze me that the mothers of these boys, with the innate mother’s instinct, have never risen up and cried ‘enough, these are only little boys!’. Yet they do not, any more than the Arab mothers do when their daughters are circumcised or their sons taken away and taught to blow themselves up.

I know that I will get another flood of emails complaining that I have compared Melamdim to Hamas terrorist recruiters but let me say this. I am a product of such an education and I can say that, for me at least, it was a form of pure torture. I hated getting up in the morning and only did because I feared the consequences if I would not. I do accept that certain attitudes have changed since. The newer generation of melamdim did not suffer in the nazi concentration camps and so they are probably mellower and friendlier than the ones we had. The curriculum has not changed though. The long and repetitive hours have not changed and modern teaching methods have not dared to even peak through the door of most Chassidic boys schools.

Change will come. I am sure of it. The question is only how many more inner lights will have been extinguished by the time it does, and how will today’s melamdim excuse themselves to their grandchildren for not allowing it in earlier.

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