20 Things I Didn’t Learn In Jewish Day School

In eight years of modern orthodox elementary and middle school and four years of trans-denominational high school, I never learned:

1. The flag of each tribe. (Each of the twelve Hebrew tribes marched in the desert under its own flag, with unique colors etc. Despite the Hebrews being very cool and interesting, by eighth grade I would’ve been better-versed in the seven forms of lightsaber combat than the twelve tribes if left to my schooling alone. But, praise to the G-d almighty who cares for all His creatures, my grandmother of blessed memory bought me a set of books called The Little Midrash Says, the greatest influence on my life as a Jew.)

2. Why there is no good kosher pizza. (If you pull your kids out of public school you’re a bad person because you’re leaving the less-fortunate kids to suffer, but if you pull your kids out of Pizza Time and put them in Di Fara you’re just being practical and wanting what’s best for little Liam.)

3. That Jews died to keep their yarmulkes on. (Despite a minor obsession on the part of teachers with the origins in custom of a fully-codified and binding law concerning male Jews covering their heads, in school I never really ran into the stories of how far Jews would go defending the “custom.” Nazis would throw yarmulkes on the ground and make their owners stomp on them, and G-d help you if you resisted. These are not things to be cast aside if you’re on the school soccer team. Oh well. Good thing I hated sports.)

4. Why Gush Katif was, regardless of one’s politics, a tragedy. (I learned all my empathy from the way Jews spoke about fellow Jews when I was in high school. I’m famous for it.)

5. Does G-d exist? (I would’ve loved to see certain teachers fight over this. Preferably to the death.)

6. Why to care about Zionism. (Everything was HaTikvah this and Yom HaAtzmaut that, but it was weird talking about a country when the United States itself was basically a non-starter, even in modern orthodox school. It would’ve been cool to examine the various reasons for and against Zionism prior to the founding of the state of Israel. It would’ve perhaps kept my friends in high school from calling Jewish History class propaganda.)

7. What the federation is, and why it’s important. (Accepted as axiomatic; a sort of First Cause, as it were. I immigrated from South Africa; what did I know why my parents never read the Atlanta Jewish Times or went to play basketball at the JCC?)

8. Why do we all watch Saturday Night Live? (Another confusion stemming from the immigrant experience; another axiom.)

9. About gefilte fish and cholent. (I don’t need a full class on Jewish cuisine (although why not?) but I’ve never forgotten when in that same Jewish History class those foods of the shtetl were explained socio-economically without any reference to the benighted and backward pre-enlightenment Jewish Law that gave their impoverished lives rich meaning (that today we can barely comprehend) and prohibited removing the bones from fish on Shabbos.)

10. Why anyone would fall for a false messiah. (Messiah shmessiah, when are we getting Hamilton tickets?)

11. Why Jews didn’t and don’t accept Jesus. (Easier to avoid; more educational – and perhaps threatening to certain denominations – to confront.)

12. How there are world-historical intelligences among Jewish religious thinkers, and we should be proud of them. (Einstein, yes; even Freud, in high school, got a nod or two. But Rashi we never learned with a sense of awe or adulation; I can’t recall ever studying a mind-boggling Ramban until adulthood. We were never given a sense that Maimonides and his interlocutors are among the all-time big hitters of philosophy generally. The extent to which his genius in particular is a blazing beacon illuminating the sky of Judaism that falls to earth as the precious-beyond-measure living heritage of every single boy and girl making out on the soccer field…was not emphasized.)

13. That Jews are represented in cults far beyond their percentage of the population. (Is something wrong with us? Are we all here or all there? Perhaps in the odd yearnings and impulse to rebellion we find some hint of the fundamental Jewish spirit that might help to define what it means to be uniquely Jewish in America in the 21st century. Perhaps you should’ve told us to be afraid of cults. I got my revenge now. I went to Yeshiva and joined the group that my 9th grade history teacher told me ‘could keep their messiah.’ I have yet to achieve her level of understanding; I don’t drink enough Kool Aid.)

14. How the Maccabees were religious fundamentalist zealots and they ought to be honored anyway. (What I did learn in high school, hilariously, was that Jews should be embarrassed for killing all those non-Jews at the end of the book of Esther. Calling our Jewish homage to the (Hellenistic, Antiochus-providing, naked wrestling, pig-sacrificing, Zeus-statue-erecting) Greek Olympics the “Maccabi Games” is the equivalent of calling the WWII Memorial “A Testament to Aryan Resolve” but killing all those Persians before they killed us is the challenging part of our history. School, man.)

15. About the struggle for modern Hebrew. (Someone did a book report on Ben Yehuda once, but the full topic, his isolation, what he put his family through, the opposition of many Jews to the return of Hebrew, and ultimate triumph for better or worse of a uniquely revived ancient language was glossed over. Would’ve helped me focus in what felt like twenty years of Hebrew class.)

16. Why Judaism is not a misogynistic religion. (I was almost too lazy to Google just to get the devil’s advocate position, though I did, and it was very interesting.)

17. Whether anyone was opposed to Reform Judaism, and why. (Implied would be that there was a time before Reform existed, or perhaps Judaism was always in some way Reform, and this could now be explained. If Reform is a new thing, the case would have to be made for why this new thing is now Judaism; that would lead to a conversation about the Rabbinic process, whereupon I could at least share the things I had to Google so maybe in Twitter arguments nowadays my classmates couldn’t say they never heard any sort of defense of ‘Orthodoxy.’)

18. Why so many of our great grandparents cared about or respected the Talmud. (“Rabbinic Literature” implies that you have to care about this as much as you have to care about Hamlet, and no one cares about that anymore. (I do! Thank you Mr. Robson.))

19. Why anyone could possibly object to playing basketball on a Shabbos afternoon inside an Eruv. (This was, for me, the last straw. I thought I was crazy, because I went to your schools, I went to your churches, I went to your institutional learning facilities. I wasn’t the one that was crazy. All I wanted was a Pepsi.)

20. Why Jewish day school was invented, when it was invented, what came before it, and whether it’s a good idea. (I don’t actually expect them to teach this. It’d be like discussing prison reform with the inmates. But I certainly didn’t learn it, and for that, it rounds out this Stupid Buzzfeed-style List.)