Sunday, February 07, 2010

Nostalgia Ain't What It Used To Be

I. Reunion

Last night I attended my 20-year high school reunion. As I've written before, I'm a sucker for nostalgia. Now that we are old -- even though many looked quite young last night, some of us have children in high school (including one with a child in the school we attended) -- I think it's possible to begin evaluating the results of our education. Let me note that I was instructed to be discreet in writing about the event so I will use a loose code and will only intentionally embarrass one person with a carefully inserted falsehood (why? link). Please allow for inside jokes.

Click here to read moreTurnout last night was not so great. For many reasons, a lot of people didn't show up (brief sample of explanations: I live too far away, I live too close (!), I have other commitments, I hated high school). Additionally, due to our remarkable inability to follow simple instructions, we had less time for shmoozing than expected (as I was walking out at the end I learned that there were table assignments). Despite that, I had a great time reconnecting and reminiscing.

II. Reconnections

Picture this: Straight out of yeshiva, I enter the large corporation that inexplicably hired me. Last Thursday I was learning in kollel; this Monday I am reporting to work like a gefilte fish out of water. After going through some corporate paperwork, I am taken to a cubicle and told that E, a woman who seems about my age and looks remarkably familiar, would show me what to do.

Me: Did we go to high school together a bunch of years ago but you had a different last name?
E: Yes, I got married.
Me, sweating profusely: Were you the one I teased incessantly?
E: Yes, that was me.
Me: You're not my boss, right?
E: No but don't worry, it was all in good fun.
It turned out she wasn't kidding about the teasing being in good fun. She and the rest of our frum actuarial ghetto in that company became close friends despite the fact that we almost unanimously hated our jobs (even though the people were great).

I got to see E again, for the first time since I quit that miserable job. We both had the same reaction about the collapse of the building in which we worked -- 7 World Trade Center: Cool! The CIA had an office in that building (link). Although obviously that was not the primary reaction either of us had.

Most of my classmates went to Israel right after high school but I didn't and I roomed with (and learned with) another classmate who went straight to YU (now a rabbi in Australia). That was the year of the First Gulf War. In January, a bunch of students who were in Israel came back as war broke out in the Middle East. My roommate and I decided to take in a refugee even though it meant extremely cramped quarters, and we greatly benefited. Our new roommate Z immediately raised the coolness quotient of the room. I got to see him last night for the second time since college (first time was a random pass-by in Midtown).

III. Observations

I'm not going to go through everyone else I enjoyed seeing, other than noting that I was put in the odd position of signing autographs for the friends and family of a girl on whom I had a crush for all of high school. Suffice it to say that there were a lot of good memories. The school put together a Memory Book, which is basically a revised yearbook, showing the old picture, a new picture, and a revised biography with answers to a few questions. How cool is it that my funniest moment mentioned my favorite plastic surgeon and his funniest moment mentioned me, but they were different moments? He also won the all-time prize for most surprising religious awakening by announcing in the Memory Book: "I am currently Frum: GASP!" Gasp, indeed.

Now, some observations from talking and reading the Memory Book:
  1. People have a lot of kids. The conventional wisdom that yeshiva tuition serves as effective birth control in the Modern Orthodox community seems to have been lost on my classmates. A lot of people have four or more kids (I think the record so far is 8).

  2. We had some real overachievers in our year, some brilliant, creative and hardworking people. A surprisingly large number of them curtailed their careers in order to raise their children.

  3. Some stats (to the best of my knowledge): 93 grads, 2 tragic deaths, 11 olim, 7 Orthodox rabbis, 1 (female) Reform rabbi, 2 rebbetzins, 13 doctors (not all medical), 3 or 4 intermarriages, 1 film screenwriter, 1 Ivy League professor, 6 actuaries
IV. Modern Orthodox Education

Now, to the point: I have heard it said that Modern Orthodox education in general and my high school in particular is like a red heifer -- it makes the non-religious religious but opens the door for the religious to leave the fold. Is that true? From what I can tell based on the anecdotes I've collected from my grade, the better biblical analogy is the Jewish slave. If he enters slavery single then he leaves single (im be-gapo yavo, be-gapo yeitzei). Similarly, if you enter the school with religion then you leave religious.

It seems that a few people became more religious and a few became less religious. Generally, though, those who entered the school non-religious continued that way, sometimes becoming less religious after high school (but not always, one classmate told me that when he got married he insisted on keeping a kosher home even though he never grew up with one). My friend who became a female Reform rabbi was always on that trajectory, pretty much from the first day of high school. And those who entered the school Orthodox continued that way, sometimes becoming more religious after high school. But overall, after eliminating the outliers, people pretty much stayed where they were. Im be-gapo yavo, be-gapo yeitzei.

You can spin this as a success of the education or a failure, depending on your inclination. I was just surprised by the results.

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