Sunday, July 26, 2009

Conversations and Reunions

Twenty three years ago, I went to Washington. Or so the people at my Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County eighth grade class of 1986 reunion today told me; but I have no recollection of the class trip (my mother later showed me pictures I took, so I guess it really happened). For many of the people there, it was the first time we had seen each other since 1986 or 1987.

(Note that the above picture is blurry on purpose. I don't want to post clear pictures of other people without their permission. Also note that two classmates are missing from the picture. I'm in the first row, second from the left.)

As always, nostalgia makes for good times.

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As always, nostalgia makes for good times. I got to catch up with some people whose lives were closely intertwined with mine for nine years -- most of us were together from kindergarten through eighth grade -- and then abruptly disconnected as we went our separate ways for the turbulent high school years. I've been amazed about how I could not have predicted where my friends from high school would end up. Multiply that a number of times for my friends from elementary school.

I have a lot of thoughts about my educational experience in the small school we attended -- some of which took me years to arrive at. It was long in coming but I eventually recognized that when they told us in school that we were receiving a unique education, they really meant it. One classmate expressed it well today when he said that all of our teachers were a bunch of hippies. Maybe not all, but pretty close. I listened to and watched Free to Be You and Me so many times in school that I thought it was a cornerstone of education. All schoolchildren in the country knew the songs and stories by heart, right? I was taught biblical criticism as a given from the day I started learning Torah. Simon and Garfunkle's tunes were religious songs, as was the theme to The Muppet Movie. And it was normal for girls to do everything that boys do, including leading prayers and wearing tefillin. (I've obviously moved on from much of my early education, but I still cherish the Muppets.)

One thing a few of us agreed on was that while our textual education did not compare well with that of our high school classmates who attended Orthodox elementary schools, the Hebrew language skills we learned were so strong that we easily caught up with -- and often surpassed -- those classmates. I never liked that Hebrew teacher who drilled the "binyanim" and other grammatical constructs into our heads through constant repetition, but I have to admit that her crude methods worked.

I was also not the only one to notice that going to such a small school (in sixth grade there were only two boys in our class of eight!) left many of us with limited social skills. So now I have an excuse for consistently saying the wrong things and being generally anti-social.

What I also found interesting was that there was a pretty good representation of a religious spectrum in the room, ranging from secular through, well, I guess me on the far right. When conversations got serious, meaning when we moved beyond nostalgia to just talking about the world, there was a very respectful exchange of thoughts. This got me thinking, partly because I am in the middle of reading the new book, Future Tense, by R. Jonathan Sacks. Chapter Nine is titled "The Jewish Conversation" and consists of R. Sacks lamenting the death of polite Jewish conversation. He offers his "Ten Judaic Principles" of conversation and adds (pp. 203-205):

The inability of Jews to contain their conflicts is a recurring tragedy, one that continues unabated to this day... Listening is a form of conflict resolution....

Jews have repeatedly brought disaster on themselves because, riven by conflict, they split apart. I began by noting that Hebrew lacked words for 'civility', 'tact', 'understatement' and 'diplomacy'. That is the mark of a people unused to power. It is very dangerous...

The irony, I have argued, is that Judaism contains a unique set of ideas that speak directly to this problem: language as holy, conversation as a kind of prayer, listening as a supreme religious act, justice as the willingness to hear both sides, and argument for the sake of heaven as a way of orchestrating conflicting perspectives into complex harmonies. These ideas, essential to Judaism, are the only way a highly individualistic people with strong beliefs and deep disagreements can stay together in a state of collective grace.
The main reason we could all get together and talk politely is that we have shared so many experiences together. That is clearly not something you can replicate on a larger scale. Not everyone in the world can go to school together. While that is true, it leads me to the conclusion that there is value in interdenominational (and interfaith) discussion. It doesn't really matter about what, but we need to meet each other and share experiences.

When you personally know people who are gay, your perspective on issues like gay marriage is based on the real people it affects. When you know women rabbis or learned Orthodox women who want to serve the Jewish community, your views on the matter are also shaped by the real lives involved. When you know Charedim and Chilonim, you think of the real people involved in whatever conflicts arise and your responses incorporate the recognition of the humanity of the "other".

Your views might not be any different. However, they are shaped by a sympathy and a respect for the people affected. Conversely, they recognize that you value their humanity and do not take your positions lightly or with personal animosity. The process of dialogue itself becomes the main point and whatever is said is much less important. It is the meeting together, getting to know each other personally, that is the key to civility, conversation and respect.

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