This week, Lau­ren Grod­stein, the author of The Expla­na­tion for Every­thing, A Friend of the Fam­i­ly, and Repro­duc­tion is the Flaw of Love and the sto­ry col­lec­tion The Best of Ani­mals blogs for The Post­script. Her lat­est book, The Expla­na­tion for Every­thing explores the com­pli­cat­ed ques­tion of the exis­tence of God and the role of reli­gion. Here, she shares a lit­tle about her own expe­ri­ence with Hebrew school. 

The Post­script series is a spe­cial peek behind the scenes” of a book. It’s a juicy lit­tle extra some­thing to add to a book clubs dis­cus­sion and a read­er’s under­stand­ing of how the book came togeth­er. 

Because I was sen­tient as a child, I loathed Hebrew school. I don’t know what yours was like, but mine amount­ed to four week­ly hours of soporif­ic instruc­tion by teach­ers who clear­ly longed to be else­where. Our class­room walls were mint-green cin­derblock, our class­room win­dows looked out onto a con­crete plaza, and even after I learned to pro­nounce Hebrew let­ters I nev­er found out what any actu­al Hebrew words meant. Mean­while, in the cor­ri­dors, the same mean girls who bul­lied me all day dou­bled down in Hebrew school, bul­ly­ing me just a lit­tle extra before pick up, home­work, and bed. 

So you’d think, con­sid­er­ing how mis­er­able the expe­ri­ence was, I wouldn’t inflict it on my own pre­cious son, for whose plea­sure I would glad­ly swal­low nails. But you’d be wrong. I love Hebrew school now, and I espe­cial­ly love his Hebrew school, and I’ve come to believe that, done right, there’s no bet­ter way to cre­ate a Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty for kids and their par­ents than to par­tic­i­pate in a wel­com­ing and joy­ful Hebrew school. 

But it’s not an easy thing to put togeth­er, espe­cial­ly in an age of dimin­ished resources and busy fam­i­lies. This kind of Hebrew school has class­es taught by knowl­edge­able, informed, and friend­ly teach­ers, who under­stand that kids (espe­cial­ly sec­u­lar ones) don’t always want extra school at the end of the week, but who will go if the expe­ri­ence is reward­ing. This sort of school looks for ways to inte­grate Jew­ish learn­ing into every­day expe­ri­ences instead of sep­a­rat­ing it into some­thing we only think about dur­ing des­ig­nat­ed hours. And this sort of school remem­bers that Judaism is often as much about com­mu­ni­ty as it is about faith. My son’s school, housed in a mul­ti-use art space in Philadel­phia, doesn’t have much in the way of facil­i­ties or even chairs, but it does have enthu­si­as­tic teach­ers who love kids, love Judaism, and are will­ing to have fun with both. 

A good Hebrew school also requires involve­ment from par­ents. The one I attend­ed as a kid, at least from my per­spec­tive, was a place where stu­dents were dropped off twice a week and picked up again two hours lat­er. The par­ents’ par­tic­i­pa­tion seemed to amount to writ­ing checks and book­ing Bar Mitz­vah dates. There­fore, not only was Hebrew school bor­ing, but it was total­ly sep­a­rate from the rest of our lives, even from our fam­i­ly life. My family’s Jew­ish rit­u­als only inci­den­tal­ly incor­po­rat­ed Hebrew school lessons – I might know a few extra things about Chanukah come win­ter – but it was nev­er ful­ly a part of our family’s dis­cus­sions or reli­gious practice. 

My son’s Hebrew school, on the oth­er hand, is coor­di­nat­ed by a group of loud, smart and fun­ny par­ents who are active­ly com­mit­ted to their sense of Jew­ish belong­ing. For the first time in my life, I am part of a faith com­mu­ni­ty big­ger than my own small fam­i­ly. So many of my own reli­gious expe­ri­ences have left me feel­ing embar­rassed (for not know­ing more) or left out (since every­one else seemed to know each oth­er before they walked in the door). I take respon­si­bil­i­ty, of course, for not hav­ing bet­ter edu­cat­ed myself, and for not hav­ing bet­ter social­ized myself – but still, I’ll nev­er for­get going to Shab­bat ser­vices dur­ing my first week as an under­grad­u­ate and slink­ing out in shame after hav­ing been giv­en the stink-eye for singing some­thing wrong. 

This Hebrew school sings a dif­fer­ent tune. Peo­ple are wel­comed no mat­ter how much or how lit­tle they know about Judaism, no mat­ter their social cir­cles or lack there­of. The kids there rep­re­sent diverse eth­nic and socioe­co­nom­ic back­grounds, attend fan­cy pri­vate schools or over­crowd­ed urban ones, come from inter­faith house­holds and LGBT house­holds and old-school het­ero­nor­ma­tive Jew­ish house­holds too. None of which mat­ters. Every­one is wel­comed in with a spir­it of kind­ness, and a ded­i­ca­tion to a larg­er cause. 

But here’s what’s weird: despite how much fun it is, and how kind the teach­ers are, my son is not near­ly as into his Hebrew school as I am. What can I say? He’s five, and he’d rather be out­side play­ing soc­cer or inside draw­ing on the fur­ni­ture than going to Philadel­phia on Sun­day after­noons. I, on the oth­er hand, clear­ly adore his Hebrew school, and hope that one day he knows how lucky he is to be part of it . And if that doesn’t hap­pen, then I hope one day his own chil­dren intro­duce him into a com­mu­ni­ty that he can make his own.

Relat­ed Content: 

Lau­ren Grod­stein is the author of Our Short His­to­ry, The Wash­ing­ton Post Book of the Year The Expla­na­tion for Every­thing, and The New York Times best­selling A Friend of the Fam­i­ly, among oth­er works. Her sto­ries, essays, and arti­cles have appeared in var­i­ous lit­er­ary mag­a­zines and antholo­gies, and have been trans­lat­ed into French, Ger­man, Chi­nese, and Ital­ian, among oth­er lan­guages. Her work has also appeared in Elle, The New York Times, Refinery29, Salon​.com, Bar­rel­house, Post Road, and The Wash­ing­ton Post. She is a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty-Cam­den, where she teach­es in the MFA pro­gram in cre­ative writing.