Saturday, July 21, 2007

High School Bashing

Noah Feldman, in his New York Times Magazine article Orthodox Paradox (7/22/07), laces into his Jewish high school experience, and uses the opportunity to rile against Modern Orthodoxy in general. Before I address some of his specific points, I want to point out several facts about the author and Maimonides High School, which I also attended and from which I graduated several years before Mr. Feldman.

Regardless of his many accomplishments as an adult, Mr. Feldman was one of those arrogant teenagers who felt himself above the pack, who got bullied and beaten up on a regular basis in high school. He dated the sister of my best friend, they were the golden couple, both intelligent and attractive, and from wealthy families who invested heavily in the school and served on various executive committees. Indeed, he married a non-Jewish Korean American, and he can hardly be surprised that a Jewish school - whose sole purpose is to imbue generations of Jewish children with Orthodox values - would not trumpet the triumph of intermarriage. Even if Mr. Feldman is close personal friends with President Bush and has a heavy hand as co-architect in America's policy vis a vis the incredibly unpopular war in Iraq.

Frankly, given the multi-cultural atmosphere and population in Israel, if I saw a Jewish man with a Korean woman, my first assumption would be that she had converted, or was adopted by a Jewish family at a young age. Living in this country, you learn that Jews come in different shapes, sizes and colors. Turns out, Mr. Feldman's wife has no intention of converting.

I hated Maimonides, I was one of those kids who operated outside the box, got good grades because I worked at studying, and not because I could goof off until the last minute. When I was in the tenth grade, I took an art course outside the school, at a prestigious program in the Boston area. When they found out that I might be drawing nudes, they ordered me to cease the class immediately, because "good Jewish girls" don't draw nudes. When I applied to college, the college advisor - who resented every moment as a high school administrator and later had a nervous breakdown from the stress - told me that he had sabotaged some of my college applications, because he didn't like me and felt that I didn't deserve to have a choice.

You could not pay me enough money to redo high school, I am far too happy with the person I have become to repeat that suffering.

That being said, I wish to address certain points that Mr. Feldman raises in his article.

"Some part of me still expects - against the judgment of experience - that the individual human beings who make up the institution and community where I spent so many years of my life will put our longstanding friendships ahead of the imperative to define boundaries."

With all respect to his genius, the high school as an institution is made up of individuals who represent the party line. They will support the goals and directives of the institution, in order to maintain consistency of message, in this case the message of Modern Orthodoxy, which admittedly, exists in a gray area relative to other sects of Judaism.

"Senator Joe Lieberman...his run for the vice presidency in 200o put the 'modern' in modern Orthodox, demonstrating that an Orthodox Jewish candidate could be accepted by America at large as essentially a regular guy."

I fear Senator Lieberman as a candidate, not because of his political background and qualifications, but especially because he is a modern Orthodox Jewish candidate; he would then feel the need to bend over backwards to show a distinct lack of favoritism to Jewish and Israeli causes, both local and abroad. Bad for the Jews, bad for Israel and bad for America when someone in a position of power must be reactionary to prove a point.

"One of the best taught me eighth grade English when he was barely out of college himself, before he became a poet, a professor and an important queer theorist."

That would be a reference to my most excellent English teacher, Mr. Wayne Koestenbaum, who wrote a highly acclaimed book about the role of homosexuality in theatre, opera and entertainment. We girls had a crush on him, he had that well-dressed preppy look and opened us up to a world we had never encountered before; we had no idea that he was gay, and frankly, I wouldn't have cared. His book was reviewed by Time and Newsweek and the New York Times, and I have no doubt that the school would disavow knowledge of his sexual preferences.

My brother's best friend from high school - a tall, handsome, and bright person whom I watched grow up - recently came out of the closet, married his non Jewish Spanish partner, and has love and success in his life. I could not be happier for him (at least he managed to find a partner in marriage, good for him!) and again, I have no doubt that when he wins the Nobel Prize, the school would ignore his accomplishments because of his sexual preferences.

As a heterosexual and as a Doctor of Chiropractic, I would like to see any public institution acknowledge that homosexuality is also a genetically encoded trait which manifests itself at birth. I look forward to the day when the gay community does not have to have parades in order to make a statement of acceptability; call me a prude, but I believe that bedroom activities should remain private for everyone. Our planet has not arrived in that place yet, not among the Jews and not among other religions.

"Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzchak Rabin, was a modern Orthodox Jew...In 1994, Baruch Goldsten massacred 29 worshipers in the mosque atop the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. An American born physician, Goldstein attended a prominent modern Orthodox Jewish day school in Brooklyn..."

Noah Feldman is no better than the anti-Semites in the movie "Borat" or the anti-Israel groups that proliferate the planet. Not every modern Orthodox Jew is an assassin or a murderer, the same is true for Muslims and Christians and aliens from space. True, it is easier to call upon known examples and generalize to a larger group, but I would expect better from a "scholar" such as Mr. Feldman claims to be.

"Our life choices are constitutive of who we are, and so different life choices would have made us into different people - not unrecognizably different, but palpably, measurably so."

Feldman states that he loves his wife, his children and the professional choices he has made; apparently he still needs that high school stamp of approval to assuage his insecurities. If Noah can accept that life derives from our choices, and claims that he is happy, then he must accept that his choices make it unacceptable to publicly laud his behaviour in an academic institution that seeks to preserve a particular and religious way of life.


Harold Feld said...

Couldn't help but wonder who you are. We should know each other.

My own response to Noah is here:

Harold Feld, Maimo '85

Jeff said...

I know this is beside the point, but I'm more than a little disturbed by the thought of Maimo kids beating someone up, especially "on a regular basis".

Leora said...

I also took classes at a prestigious art school (Museum School) while at a student at Maimonides. The difference is, I didn't tell anyone at the school. It did not even occur to me to tell anyone.

I also took classes after graduating Maimo at another prestigious Boston art school (BU). Guess who was in my drawing class but a rabbi (of blessed memory) who once had an important position at Maimonides School. On the days we had a female nude he stayed home. But he did come when we had a male nude. I greatly enjoyed his company in the class. It was better than my memories of his telling my friend and I to stop picking dandelions on the "holy lawn" (the lawn no longer exists).

One is still hard-pressed to find a Jewish day school that accepts creativity. But in Israel there are some.

Leora, Maimo '80