The devaluation of minority experiences at Jewish day schools

Jewish day school

One Friday evening while I was reciting kiddush, my then five year old son made the following untimely proclamation: "Abba," he pointed out, "you should say kiddush the normal way." 

Throughout the rest of the Moroccan-style recitation, which I had been performing in his presence since his birth, I tried to imagine what external influences were shaping my son’s conception of normal vis-a-vis this Jewish ritual. Wanting to nurture critical thinking, I challenged him to a question: “Who decides what is normal?” 

My son gave me a long gaze and then responded with great conviction, “My [Jewish day] school.”

Jewish day schools have the difficult task of being agents of Jewish cultural and religious reproduction that serve a community whose majority is, according to common anecdotal knowledge, Ashkenazi, and whose minority is not. The majority–minority dichotomy exists in most Jewish day schools, which simply are not monocultural environments. Instead, they are places with a vast array of Jewish ethnic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Today, the average Jewish day school caters to students whose parents or grandparents came to Canada not only from Europe, but also from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The former group is commonly classified as Ashkenazi, while the latter is often lumped together in a single overarching category called Sephardi.

The demographic composition of the Jewish community in Canada has undergone extensive changes in the last half-century. Jewish immigration to Canada by non-Ashkenazi families has changed the Ashkenazi foundation of most Jewish day schools. How each Jewish day school responds to the challenges and opportunities presented by an increasingly diverse student population will play into its success and the cohesiveness of the Jewish community. 

It seems that in an admirable effort to homogenize the students of diverse backgrounds and to create a monolithic school ethos, some Jewish day schools have adopted a model in which the “majority” Ashkenazi culture is dominant. In most schools, prayer melodies, prayer books, ritual practices such as the laying of tfillin, verbalizations and pronunciation of Hebrew letters all lean toward Ashkenazi models. This model places “minority students” in a kind of contra-culture learning environment where their particular Jewish heritage is being devalued, and even substituted for someone else’s, at the very place where they should expect it would be validated. 

When the “minority experience” is not given the attention it deserves at school, “minority students” are likely to exhibit identity confusion such as withdrawal, and even negative behaviour. In this atmosphere, “minority students” may reject their culture of origin and, in some cases, come to reject the “majority culture.” Devaluation of one’s history and culture would also be expected to have negative effects on the general well-being of “minority students.” Also, the marginalization of “minority students” at the curricular level would likely negatively impact the informal relations between students. 

Not only is cultural marginalization a “minority” problem, it is a “majority” problem as well. There is a risk that Ashkenazi students may come to uphold one perspective and experience as a universally Jewish norm against which others look not normal. This outlook makes it difficult to cultivate mutual understanding, tolerance, empathy and respect for differences. In addition, to overlook the heritage of non-Ashkenazi Jews is to not give Ashkenazi students a well-rounded Jewish education. 

Each Jewish day school must ultimately determine how to create religious and cultural opportunities of expression for all its students. It is important that in doing so, non-Ashkenazi culture not be idealized and romanticized as being exotic, trendy and mysterious. Stereotyped representations such as belly dancing, spicy foods and elaborate clothing only exoticizes “minority cultures” and further perpetuates the notion of otherness. 

In addition, it is important to avoid lumping together all non-Ashkenazi heritages into one imagined homogeneous “Sephardi community.” To think of all non-Ashkenazi Jews as being the same is as inaccurate as it is culturally insensitive. In one of several cases of cultural insensitivity, a Jewish day school showcased Sephardi culture with the Spanish hit Macarena, a song with no Jewish connection whatsoever. One can imagine the justifiable disappointment if an Ontario public school tried to showcase Japanese culture by serving dim sum, a distinctly Cantonese cuisine.

The aim of each school should be to present “minority culture” as part and parcel of the overall Jewish experience. In order to understand the cultural heritages of fellow Jews, it is essential to understand their complex interconnection with history. Jewish culture is born out of a broad historical and intellectual context. Students should come to appreciate the context that helped to cultivate the distinct cultures that today make the Jewish community so rich and diverse. A more culturally inclusive Jewish day school will help lay the groundwork for greater understanding and respect within our community.