Debates over Religion in Secular Yiddish Education

This past week an article appeared in the Forverts featuring my grandfather and his colleagues. The article is based in large part on the minutes of administration meetings of the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute. This was the umbrella organization for a group of Yiddish schools (the Sholem-Aleichem Folk Schools), and their affiliated summer camp, Boiberik. The historical materials have been brought together in an archive at Stanford University.

In her description of the minutes, Forverts writer Sarah-Rukhl Schaechter zeros in on a debate during the 1940s, about how much religious content to include in the curriculum of these secular Yiddish schools. The debate occurred against the twin backdrops of financial and enrollment problems at home, and the Nazi horror abroad. The minutes paint a picture of a small minority group among American Jews, who were not religious (or at least not traditional) and were satisfied with neither Zionism nor leftist politics as substitutes. They wanted a different answer to the problems of Jewish community and continuity. Their preferred answer placed Yiddish language, literature, and culture at the center of Jewish education. But how was this ‘culture’ part, the only part that could give meaning and practical relevance to the other two, to be conceptualized in a secular context?

Schaechter’s thesis is twofold. First, the holocaust, she claims, made the inclusion of religion more compelling and urgent, bringing that debate to the foreground for the leadership, and for the parents of the Folkshul children. Second, she argues that adding more religion would have aided the survival of these Yiddish schools. Based partly on a speech of his, made standing in the first Sukkah built at a Sholem Aleichem Folk School, she casts my grandfather as one of the unheeded proponents of more religion, who saw the nature of the problem more clearly than their colleagues did. This thesis has been made more explicit in the revised version of the article, which was re-posted on the Forverts webpage today.

The article has given me a great deal of pleasure. I was first glad just to discover I am able to read it, and to share its contents with my family. This led to a family email conversation. Interestingly, perhaps typically, there is not agreement even within my family on what the article got right or wrong about my grandfather. I’m also happy that someone is interested in the folk schools and the camp, both of which I briefly attended as a child. But there is also a bittersweet feeling to reading her take on these old discussions, and not only because the secular Yiddishist schools failed in their effort to develop a new kind of Jewish community.

History is written by the winners. As it stands now, the history of America’s secular Yiddishist movement will largely be written, to the extent that anyone is interested in writing it at all, by religious people. They are the ones who speak and can read Yiddish. When my mother read this article, she felt that her father’s beliefs and views had been mischaracterized. Did the religious worldview of the writer affect the conclusions she drew regarding what these Yiddishists of seventy years ago wanted? Does it matter?

Schaechter’s article describes a large number of discussions and debates— about whether to include the TaNaKh (in Yiddish) in the curriculum, whether to teach the children to say the Shema, or to lay t’fillin, whether to have a Sukkah at the schools, whether to light candles and read the weekly Torah portion at an Oneg Shabbat (or to just have that Friday evening gathering an occasion to sing songs and talk about Jewish topics), and whether to guide their students in a Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah ceremony. This could either entail actually teaching the students enough Hebrew to read their portion, or it could be an equivalent Yiddish achievement and marker of progress, similar to what would now be called a ‘capstone project’.

In the article, these issues are all lumped together as though they were part of a unitary and ongoing struggle over how religious the education would be. It seems to me, though, that there are important distinctions missed by simplifying matters in this way, along one linear continuum of religiosity. First, there is a distinction between religious content and religious practice. Second, there is a distinction between learning religion, and learning about religion. Finally, combining these two, it is possible to advocate for a religious practice without having a ‘religious’ motive.

My grandfather’s generation of American secular Yiddishists, generally, but not always, immigrants, had been raised in a religious tradition. They felt that they had thrown off the yoke of religious superstition. At the same time, they loved the culture in which they had been raised and educated. They loved the ethical values and debates, the storytelling, and also in many cases, the depth of symbolism that had been attached to rituals, even if they eschewed the rituals themselves. The debate needs to be seen in that context.

Today, liberal Jews (this can range from Reconstructionist, to Reform, to open-minded Conservative Jews, to secular Jews who enjoy their Seders or the occasional candle lighting, or who feel a need to sit Shiva when a loved one dies) now take for granted that a traditional ritual can be performed not out of devotion to God, and not because it is required, but as a way of honoring our past, or enacting our identity, or as beautiful in itself, or as pointing to some closely-held value in a metaphorical way. In the first half of the twentieth century, this was not really an option for most Jews, who saw their choice as either observing the commandments, or not.

These educators were groping towards a different relationship to religious study and ritual practice. Some of them arrived at an answer similar to the thinking of their contemporary, Mordechai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, who defined Judaism as the religious civilization of the Jewish people. In other words, Yiddishkeit can only be understood through its religious origins. Jews do religious things, and they do them in a way that is meaningful in cultural context. We can still do religious things now, not as commandments that were given to us, but as practices we once invented, and therefore, can reinvent.

Schaechter, by contrast, paints my grandfather’s ostensibly ‘religious’ approach and another director, Leybush Lehrer’s more ‘symbolic’ approach (without clearly defining what Lehrer was about) as opposites. You can either do a ritual because you believe in it, she seems to imply, or else as an empty metaphor.

She quotes a speech of my grandfather’s, delivered in a Sukkah at the Folkshul 15 in 1947, in which he says that his goal was to make the Yiddish school into a Beys Midrash. A synagogue. I think that what he meant was that he wanted it to be a house of study, and also the center of communal Jewish life. She seems to think he wanted to restore it as a house of worship.

In his speech in the Sukkah, he points out that Sukkos was originally a harvest festival which in the book of Leviticus was transformed, and symbolically connected to the Exodus from Egypt. Might he not have been implying that we, too, can use the holiday, and re-envision and transform it in our secular context? In fact, it seems to me he not only implied this, but said it outright.

“We could not accept the old, and we ourselves have not created anything new. It’s hard to accept that the slogan ‘back to the tradition’ is more rebellious, more revolutionary, than is the flight from it. It requires courage and creativity to take traditions and transform them, make our lives whole, bring back our children…”

My reading of these words is that he is simultaneously arguing for more traditional ritual at the folk schools, and for doing these acts in a new context, for new reasons, and in new ways. Another way to read it would be to see him as deeply conflicted.

The speech itself, like the meeting minutes, is the raw material of history. It is handwritten and, so, difficult for me to decipher. Those, such as Sarah-Rukhl Schaechter, who posses an easy literacy, do us a great service when they bring the material out for public conversation. Even just taking the handwriting and printing it in the Forverts makes it accessible to me. But it is also telling, that I, the only one of Shloime Simon’s grandchildren who can read the article in Yiddish, can’t yet write even a simple Yiddish response.

Still, as someone who is fascinated by this story, I would love it if these materials could be simply described, translated and shared with a broader audience first, before such a distinct interpretive frame is put on them. Then people might draw their own conclusions about the motives of the players in this series of debates.

Cover of a book, "In the Spirit of Tradition," by Leybush Lehrer, an administrator of the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute, and head of Camp Boiberik in the time covered by the Forverts article.

Cover of a book, “In the Spirit of Tradition,” by Leybush Lehrer, an administrator of the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute, and head of Camp Boiberik, in the time covered by the Forverts article.

4 thoughts on “Debates over Religion in Secular Yiddish Education

  1. So well elucidated, and such a complex issue. I doubt that deep Jewish connection is possible without knowing (or rediscovering) the stories, the rituals, the symbolism, and the feeling of a sense of community. Faith may be another and possibly separate matter. No easy conclusions here! Thank you.



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