As someone who is not blessed with great quantities of patience for anything that smacks of "officialdom-ness" -- especially lots of detailed rules laden with unrealistic expectations -- well, I couldn't bring myself to spend the same amount of time trying to write a sales pitch as I'd spent trying to write the essay in the first place. (A sales pitch? That's part of why I LEFT retail, for heaven's sake.) I just couldn't do it. Sorry. My shpilkes kicked in and I just sort of rebelled. (Admittedly, my shpilkes and my rebellious streak tend to feed each other regularly, sometimes to my peril. I own it and am willing to accept the consequences of living with such a heady mix.)
So instead, I'm posting it here. Here is what I would want to say -- today, at least -- about the intersections between Jewishness, learning, work, following one's curiosity, pursuing one's passions and the often burdensome expectations we Jews heap upon our children. Maybe it's about other stuff, too, but maybe not.
It's time for me to make a confession.
I'm not much of a reader.
That's right. Other than newspapers and magazines, which I read fairly regularly, the occasional non-fiction book, which I read when i need specific information, and a near-weekly dip into Torah, which I do less regularly right now for reasons too numerous to mention here, I just don't read much. Novels, self-help books and anything else over about fifty pages is just too long. (I will hang in there with a big book if it has a good photo essay or two in the middle, and then I will spend time -- sometimes a lot of time -- poring over the pictures.)
I have been this way since I was a child. Of course, back in the day, no one knew what ADD or ADHD was. In my family, as in many Jewish families, we called it shpilkes; in my classroom, my teacher called it ants-in-your-pants. The cure, in any case, was to be sent outside to play whenever you got on some adult's nerves.
I spent a lot of time outdoors when I was a kid.
If my parents worried that my shpilkes would adversely affect my studies, it was never openly discussed. I brought home average-to-merely-decent grades, nothing spectacular and certainly nothing that would get me into an Ivy League school, but decent enough that no one ever really rode my case about it. In high school, I loaded up on music electives and excelled at them; by age fourteen I was playing drums and percussion in pit orchestras (I never babysat again after my first paycheck from a theatre company) and by sixteen I was sitting in at local jazz club jam sessions with my musician parents. It was understood by the adults in my life that if (that's right, IF, rather than WHEN; college was not a slam-dunk expectation in my family since neither of my parents had college degrees) I went to college I would probably major in music. So no one worried much.
My parents were the polar opposite of today's "helicopter" parents: I was left to my own devices early and often, and given a tremendous amount of personal and emotional freedom. No one told me what they thought I should believe; instead I was guided by my natural curiosity. Discussions on "deep" subjects with my parents, when they happened, were usually open-ended and without clear resolution; I was allowed to draw my own conclusions about the way things were in the world. (On days I found the world to be especially cruel, my folks were there to comfort me and dry my tears; but it was understood that if tomorrow the world was still cruel, I would still have to get up and go to school.)
I could ride the bus downtown with my older sister when I was 10, and by myself at age 12. As a teen I rode my bicycle for miles out in the country, alone, on trips ranging from ten to twenty miles a pop. Sometimes, if my mom knew I had an all-day ride planned, she'd leave a few bucks on the kitchen counter for me with a note asking me to stop at the local berry stand and pick something up for that evening's dessert; the only rule was that I had to be home in time for dinner. My parents were there to patch up my skinned knee, read me bedtime stories, snuggle close to give me a reassuring hug, and when I got older, to warn me against the dangers of walking home alone at night; but unless it looked like I might do something really dangerous they seldom stuck their noses deeply into my business. By today's standards, I had an inordinate amount of personal privacy and freedom.
If I was raised that way in today's society, I imagine someone might prosecute my folks for child neglect.
When I went out, I almost NEVER took a book along, nor did I go to the library unless I needed to for school. It wasn't that I couldn't read; I read quite easily, and several grade levels above my class. I just couldn't sit still long enough to finish a chapter in a book, especially on a sunny day when there were so many, much more interesting things to do outside. In my fifth and final childhood hometown of Gresham Oregon, there were tree forts to be built (and torn down, and built again with better materials scavenged from behind the lumber yard), creeks to wade in, crawdads to catch, and apple orchards to sneak sour crabapples from. The one thing there weren't many of was other Jews. My sister and I were the only Jewish kids I knew of in our high school. (However, I strongly mantain that a lack of Jewish communal connection did not contribute to my lack of extreme bookishness. My shpilkes gave me a sizable head start.)
In ninth grade, one of the required segments of Freshman English was a four-week course on speed-reading, designed to help students study more effectively for exams, read faster and still comprehend everything. One of the key elements was learning how to take in long phrases of words -- a skill not unlike learning to sight-read by scanning three to four measures of music ahead at a time, something I already knew how to do. I excelled at this course, probably to a fault; to this day, I cannot slow down my reading enough to really taste language or to delve deeply into graphic description, without making a super-human effort to do so. If I'm given a book to read, I usually still scan it using the same tools I learned in ninth grade.
That's probably not ideal.
But it saves me a lot of time when I read for information, and lets me get back to the interestingness of life, which I mostly do not find in books.
My parents (z-l) were both avid readers. Throughout his life, my father could keep track of six or seven books at a time, all piled neatly on his nightstand with a bookmark holding the place in each one. My mother loved to read murder mysteries, crime dramas and espionage novels; my father, whom I think was the more curious of my parents, would read pretty much anything that interested him, and he was interested in everything from political history to seismography to opera. Our home was filled with books, most of which I never cracked except for daily readings of the encyclopedia over breakfast. I liked the short articles, crammed with bite-sized nuggets of useful and interesting information. I'd grab a volume at random, read a few articles, finish my cereal and then hop on my bike and ride to school.
I am married to someone who lives for books. If her work did not make as many demands on her time as a freelance writer and researcher, I believe she'd spend more of her time with her nose in a book, and be perfectly happy there. She loves the written word. She reads for a deep love of language, not just for plot. She keeps a stack of books by her side of the bed, just like my father did; and if our excellent local library awarded frequent flier points we could travel around the world several times by now. She does not worry about my reading habits; she figures that if I read magazines and newspapers I'm still reading, and she knows she did not marry an idiot.
Still, being Jewish and NOT a bookworm must make me a bit of an oddity in the Jewish world. Everywhere I turn there's another book review on something by Philip Roth, or Etgar Keret, or Amos Oz, or one of a dozen other Jewish authors I guess I'm supposed to have read or at least heard of. In the Jewish magazines I generally skip the back pages filled with book reviews, and stick to the articles up front that are short, engaging and informative. If there are especially good photographs I might spend more time staring at them. I get a lot of information from visuals. Right now, as I type, I let my eyes wander across the scene outside our window, where the sun is slanting low, all golden along the naked treetops and lighting up our street in sharp winter light. If I didn't have somewhere to be soon, I could pull up a chair and just stare at the morning unfolding before me. At least until I had to go practice music, or fix a bicycle, or make some art, or ride somewhere to meet a friend. All of which I may end up doing today. Because, as my partner likes to say, my hands know things. And I do a lot with my hands. In an odd way, I think I do as much with my hands as some people do with books.
I worry about the intense emphasis on written and verbal communication that continues in our schools today, in both secular and Jewish settings. I struggled to sit still long enough to plow through a big tome, Writing test essays about what I'd read was sometimes a near-death experience. I was an ansty, creative, visual/kinesthetic learner in an educational system that didn't know what to do with me. I kept a journal while growing up, which helped me to become a more comfortable writer while I dealt with my adolescent angst; but that did not translate to my wanting to become a writer professionally. While I was very smart, and quite capable of writing a fine paragraph, my grades and test scores never really reflected my intelligence. Today, I watch in horror as the same mistakes are being made again in a testing-obsessed system where students with more visceral modes of expression are being short-changed, first in school and again when society steers them towards a knowledge-based career path that sometimes amounts to little more than pushing someone else's data around in a cubicle.
I'll go out on a limb here and suggest that a traditional college education is not for every student. I say that as someone who is the first university graduate in her family, and also as someone who spent twenty years making a living with her hands, in a skilled trade. I did most of the latter with only a high school diploma to my name.
Just as educators bend over backwards (or should, anyway) to identify and mentor kids with a high level of traditional book-smarts, we should be doing the same for kids with deep knowledge in their hands. It's okay if some kids -- even Jewish ones, if I may gently poke at a stereotype -- grow up to be mechanics and bakers instead of white-collar professionals. (In the end, they may enjoy greater job security than the data-pushers. You can't outsource a carburetor overhaul.)
It's sort of lonely sometimes, being a non-literary Jew. I finally completed a bachelor's degree at a state university, twenty years after finishing high school. I completed a semester of graduate school, then thought better of it and dropped out. I doubt I will go back. And that's okay. I'm not stupid, just a little less lettered than most of my tribe. Intelligence comes in all shapes and sizes. And that's more than just okay. It's a reality worth celebrating, in our classrooms and out in the world.
And since no magazine essay or article is complete without some "about the author" paragraph, here's mine:
Based in Portland, Oregon, Beth Hamon worked in the bicycle industry for nearly two decades as a mechanic and bike shop owner before pursuing a second career as a synagogue musician, songleader and Jewish music educator. Today she travels throughout North America, performing and teaching at synagogues and Jewish camps. She has two albums of original Jewish folk/roots music to her credit and is currently writing music for a third release. She is also a visual artist making ritual Judaica from recycled bicycle parts; some of her pieces are part of the permanent Contemporary Collection at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York.
She can be reached at http://www.beth-hamon-music.com.