School's Out

Is a liberal Zionist education, as typified by the Bialik Hebrew Day School in Toronto, possible?

Bialik school 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Bialik school 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
Gone are the once dark, stuffy halls of the Labor Zionist Bialik Hebrew Day School; today the Toronto school boasts an open lobby and administrative area, a fully equipped gymnasium, and classrooms outfitted with state-of-the-art smart boards.
Opened in 1961 with an enrollment of just 43 pupils and three teachers, the Bialik school, named for renowned Hebrew poet H.N. Bialik, was the successor of the Farband Folk Shule and the Borochov Folk Shule. Both were five-days-a-week, afterschool Labor Zionist educational programs that had operated in the original downtown Toronto Jewish neighborhood near Kensington Market since the early 1930s.
Lay leaders and educators from both schools agreed to put aside their differences (Farband emphasized Hebrew; Borochov taught more Yiddish), to establish a Labor Zionist day school championing both Hebrew and Yiddish language and culture.
The school was academically, ideologically and socially rigorous and only a small percentage of those who began kindergarten graduated in ninth grade (later eighth grade when provincial educational guidelines changed). Those who managed to make it through to the end thought of themselves as the proud few – nonreligious, nationalist, highly committed Jews. This was especially true in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the school rode the wave of post-1967 pro-Israel exuberance.
But recent works by three prominent graduates raise provocative questions about the meaning and efficacy of this type of liberal Zionist education. All three – authors Jonathan Garfinkel, Gregory Levey and David Rakoff – now contend that the school gave students a simplistic view of Israel and the Israel- Palestinian conflict and left them unprepared to face political and social realities.
When it opened, the Bialik school was part of the then-new trend of Jewish day schools, providing an educational alternative to families seeking a nonreligious Jewish education.Pupils were taught in English for half a day and then in Hebrew for the other half, with Yiddish lessons introduced in second grade and government-mandated French lessons in the third grade. The school’s motto was “Here the soul of the people is forged” (a line from Bialik’s poem “Hamatmid.”) “Ahavat Yisrael” (the love of Israel) was, and remains, a central pillar of the school’s educational mission, immersing students in Zionist ideology and iconography through classic literature and holiday celebrations.
But now, that education raises painful questions.
Garfinkel, who graduated in 1987, recalls his days at Bialik as the best educational experience of his life and then quickly adds, “But I’ve rejected the Zionist idea.” For Levey, who graduated in 1992 and wrote a satirical book about his experiences working in the Israeli government and another about how North Americans view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the school provided a solid academic basis, but, he says, he “didn’t pick up on the Zionist and Jewish education.”And for Rakoff, a celebrated humorist who has published three books of essays, Bialik was one facet of his left-leaning Zionist upbringing – but not one that he remembers fondly.
Educators cannot assume, these authors say collectively, that what they teach is what their students actually learn. And in their writings, Garfinkel, Rakoff and Levey focus on the ever-widening gap between the romanticized Israel of a Diaspora Zionist education and the complexity of Jewish identity.
Garfinkel, 37, tall with longish hair, tells The Jerusalem Report that attending the Bialik school was a “foundational experience.”However, by the time he was a young adult, that Zionist foundation had began to crumble.“I overdosed on the Zionist dream and mythology at Bialik,” he reflects.
“Bialik had not been a great sell,” he says now. “My impression of Israelis was intimidating teachers who came over to Canada to teach us, and I equated Hebrew with screaming. Besides, going to Israel was the kind of thing that people said you had to do, and I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to do something just because I’m told to do it.”
Garfinkel was 30 when he first visited Israel and had already published two plays in Canada, “Walking to Russia” (2002) and “The Trials of John Demjanjuk” (2004). But he was struggling with his changing Jewish identity. His parents were in the midst of a divorce, he was increasingly disenchanted with his old, decaying little Orthodox synagogue in Toronto’s downtown Kensington Market, and he was ambivalent about his relationship with his long-term girlfriend.
He had heard about a house in Jerusalem shared by a Jewish family and a Palestinian family. His playwright instincts told him this might make for a good story, but he also had more personal goals in mind. “I decided I needed to see this house. I thought… I might discover something about the possibilities for peace in the region. Maybe I’d even come to a peace with myself,” he recalls.
The house did not exist, at least not in the way that Garfinkel had imagined it. After protracted legal battles, Israeli courts had decided that the Arab family owned the property, but the Jewish family could rent it for life. The result of Garfinkel’s efforts to understand the personal and legal relationships was “A House Divided,” an article published in the Canadian literary magazine “The Walrus,” which was the precursor to “Ambivalence: Adventures in Israel and Palestine,” published in 2007.
As he had done on his many other extended trips, primarily in North America and in Central and Eastern Europe, Garfinkel continued to travel around Israel and the Palestinian territories, investigating how politics affects individuals in personal ways. In his writings about these travels, Garfinkel is accompanied by the fictional, formidable Mrs. Blintzkrieg, a composite of his Israeli teachers during his years at the Bialik school. Mrs. Blintzkreig is his Zionist conscience constantly whispering in his ear, fighting to hold on to his allegiance every time he learns a new piece of the Palestinian narrative.Although he constantly spars with her, he writes in “Ambivalence” that “Mrs.Blintzkrieg’s words comforted me. I missed Bialik, and her voice brought me back to those dark and stuffy halls. It evoked the Israel I wanted to remember, the Israel of adolescence: a country of heroes, of fearless Blintzkriegs, Arnons, Dayans and Ben-Gurions.”
Garfinkel even wrote in an article for a leading Canadian national newspaper, “The Globe and Mail,” about how he nervously called the Bialik school after writing his memoir. He managed a tense telephone conversation with the vice principal, but has never actually made a return visit to the school as he had intended. “There I was, a 33-year-old man, still afraid of his teachers,” he writes in the article as he recounted asking the administrator if Palestinian history was now taught there. “It’s not that I was taught that Palestinians were bad when I was a child. It’s that I wasn’t taught anything at all. I grew up curious, albeit terrified, of what lingered on the other side of the checkpoints. I was certain they were all murderers and terrorists… In the end, that’s why I travelled to Palestinian towns and refugee camps in the West Bank: to strip away the myth, and confront the real.”
Like Garfinkel, Gregory Levey recounts in his two books, “Shut Up, I’m Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government” (2008) and “How to Make Peace in the Middle East in Six Months or Less Without Leaving Your Apartment” (2010), scenes from his days at the school. However, while Garfinkel employs a sense of magical realism as he describes his childhood, Levey plays his for biting laughs.
“My parents and the parents of my friends would sometimes tell us that in the future we would look back fondly at these Israeli teachers and the way they treated us, grateful to them for making us tougher and more studious.It’s now been over twenty years, and I’m still waiting for those warm feelings to set in,” Levey writes in “Shut Up, I’m Talking.”
Like Garfinkel, Levey first visited Israel as a young adult. In 2002, at the age of 24, the slightly built, curly-haired Levey became a speechwriter for the Israeli delegation to the UN in New York and then for prime minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem, after having innocently applied for an internship at the Israeli Consulate in New York. Today, he’s a 32-year-old professor of communications at Ryerson University in Toronto, and a PhD candidate in creative writing from Scotland’s University of St. Andrews.
In an interview in a café in Toronto, Levey acknowledges that followers of Middle East politics will likely not learn anything groundbreaking from his latest book. “I was just trying to entertain,” he explains. But he adds that he also did want to make a political point: “The North American establishment can’t understand the Middle East conflict in anything but black and white terms.” Living in Israel, he says, brought him to a more complex understanding.
Also like Garfinkel, Levey has not actually set foot back in his old school. In the new book, however, he does describe how he recently lurked outside the schoolyard, watching the children play and reminiscing about being required to participate in an elaborate musical graduation play about Israel’s Ingathering of the Exiles.
He recalls being assigned to the Yemeni group and being kicked out of the play for refusing to sing the songs and only mouthing the words. “Even to this day,” he writes, “that was one of the happiest moments of my life. I was thrilled that I wouldn’t have to be onstage with the rest of my classmates as they were forced through a public humiliation that was sure to leave psychological scars on everyone involved. In fact, I remember a few of them being envious of me, not because they felt any misgivings about the odd ethnic stereotyping… but because… the whole thing felt more than a little off… We’re Canadian kids who like to play hockey. What does any of this have to do with us?” he remembers himself thinking.
He then switches gears and quite seriously wonders what today’s pupils learn about the Middle East. “It wasn’t as if I expected it to be any more nuanced than what my classmates and I had learned – after all, the oldest among them is just thirteen years old – but [today] there is far more recognition about the need for a Palestinian state, but there has also been so much blood spilled in failing to reach that goal. We had learned about the conflict in stark, easily understood terms of good and evil. Are these kids learning about it with any more complexity?”
David Rakoff, 46, a leading humorist in the United States who has written three popular and critically acclaimed books of essays and contributes to National Public Radio’s “This American Life,” graduated from Bialik in 1979. He tells The Report he does not like to revisit his childhood. In fact, his essay entitled “Shrimp,” in his newly published book, “Half Empty,” (2010) is all about why he hated being a kid.
He contends he is grateful for the “very good linguistic education” he received at Bialik. “I did speak a beautiful Hebrew,” he says in a telephone interview from his home in New York. His Yiddish came in handy when trying to make his way around Berlin on a book tour, as he recounts in the essay “Dark Meat” in his new book, and he tells The Report that he feels “intensely connected to the leftist, secular Jewish European culture, and I thank Bialik for that.”
Yet, in contrast to Garfinkel, who credits the school with inspiring him to learn and giving him a start as a writer, and Levey, who remembers several excellent teachers (including even some Israeli ones), Rakoff describes his education there as “deeply uncurious.” And he says that he worries about what he perceives as Jewish and Zionist educations’ overall shift to the Right in the last decades. He is alarmed by the power of the religious parties in Israel, and dismayed by the growing conservative, nationalistic tendencies of the government. In turn, he sees this trend as having influenced Zionist education. “The kind of Jews we were – liberal Zionists – is somewhat endangered now.”
That is precisely why the nonreligious, culturally affiliated Rakoff’s relationship to current-day Israel is now ambivalent, although he is reluctant to say more. Rakoff has not returned to Israel for three decades, since one visit as a teenager and another during college. Although he has never written specifically about his time at Bialik, he has written about his Zionist education and upbringing. In an essay in his first book, “Fraud” (2001), Rakoff tells of the moment when he realized that he was not meant to live according the socialist Zionist ideals that he had held so dear up to that point.
It was the same moment that he became fully aware of his gay identity. While on a volunteer stint on a kibbutz as part of a teen tour, a kibbutznik referred to Rakoff as a “she” when he refused to shove live chickens into crates. He writes: “At that very moment I saw that I would never live on a kibbutz. I would not lose my virginity that summer to any of the girls from the group. Indeed, I would not care to do so. I am grateful to that macho blowhard. He made me consciously realize what I had always known but been somehow unable to say to myself: I don’t like chickens… I like men.”
From an enrollment of 600 in 1987, Bialik has grown to a student body of 829 in preschool to eighth grade. With its expanded and renovated building bursting at the seams, the board has approved the opening in 2013 of a second branch of the school at a new Jewish community campus being built in a northern suburb of the city. Tuition (C$12,385 per year) remains lower than that of other Toronto day schools and scholarships are available.
Hebrew remains the language of instruction for half of each day and is still central to the life of the school. Bialik has maintained its five-decades-long practice of employing only Israeli teachers to teach Hebrew and Jewish studies. “We want that direct connection to Israel,” says Simona Dayan, principal of Jewish Studies. Yiddish is also still taught in order, says Dayan, to provide the pupils with “a love of Yiddish culture through music, performance, creativity and learning technologies.”In recent years, the once staunchly secular Bialik has introduced prayer into the curriculum.There are still no religious services but pupils are taught some basic prayers and are familiar with the siddur (prayer book).
Head of School Shana Harris says she is “surprised and a little disappointed” by Garfinkel’s and Levey’s books. “I just wonder whether there is something we didn’t do, that we didn’t give them,” she muses.
Yet Harris contends that the liberal, nonreligious brand of Zionism that Bialik espouses is still very much relevant. “We support Israel unequivocally. It doesn’t matter what government is in power.” However, she says, since kids are now exposed to different opinions through the media, the school focuses on helping them develop and apply analytical skills to what they read and hear. “We owe them information and understanding so they can think on their feet,” she says, citing a rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activism.
This year, for the first time, Bialik’s seventh and eighth graders are
participating in a Jerusalem-based videoconference series called “Understanding the Complexity of the Arab-Israeli Conflict: The Israel Narrative and the Arab Narrative,” in which they interact with peers who attend a mixed Jewish- Israeli/Palestinian-Israeli school.
Rachel Cohen, a recent graduate who is now in 12th grade at a public high school, is happy to hear about the newest changes to Bialik’s Israel education curriculum, because she recalls that things were very different only just a few years ago. “I am proud to be Jewish, but it was not helpful not to have been told the other side,” she tells The Report. An active member of the left-wing Hashomer Hatza’ir youth movement, she says, “I am very invested in trying to build a better solution. But you can’t do that unless you have been exposed to the complexity and be given the space to not totally agree with everything the Israeli government is doing.”
“Jews in the Diaspora are shocked by the multiple voices in Israel, but they shouldn’t be,” Michal Morris Camille, director of BASIS, an innovative Israel education project in the San Francisco Bay Area day schools, exclaims. “We now know that kids don’t need to be protected from multiple narratives. In fact, exposing children to different perspectives gives them tools to deal and cope with diversity as they grow up.
“There’s a difference between being critical and offering a critique,” Camille continues.“You can only offer a critique if you are assuming an involved stance, if you are looking at it from the inside. In fact, the Hebrew word for critique, ‘bikoret,’ shares the same root as the word ‘bikur’ or visit. If you visit something, you bring to it a personal stake, a perspective that you can offer by virtue of your connection to it.”
Yet Levey wonders if liberal Jewry even truly exists in Canada, where the Jewish community is known for being more conservative than the one on the other side of the border.Indeed, the largest Jewish bookstore in Toronto initially refused to carry Garfinkel’s portrayal of his attempts to expose himself to Palestinian history and the Palestinian perspective on the Middle East conflict. Hate emails calling Garfinkel “a self-hating Jew” came into the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation studios as he was being interviewed for the popular “Here and Now” program, and at the Toronto theater where a play he wrote about the house in Jerusalem, “House of Many Tongues,” was performed.
Perhaps Levey would be at least relieved to know that the school did away with the graduation play that he so detested about 10 years ago. “It took up too much effort and time, and it didn’t work for some students. It was no longer the right thing to do,” Dayan explains.