Ear­li­er this week, Leah Lax wrote about Glo­ria Steinem named her book. The author of Uncov­ered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Final­ly Came Home, she has been blog­ging here all week as a Vis­it­ing Scribe on The Pros­en­Peo­ple.

I used to teach young chil­dren in a Hasidic school. I wasn’t trained for it — I was recruit­ed, but it was one of the only pro­fes­sion­al avenues open to me. I was a Hasidic woman back then, mar­ried, with a wig on my head, and chil­dren of my own. I learned to teach on the job, and poured every ounce of per­cep­tion, cre­ativ­i­ty, plan­ning, struc­ture, and love that I could into my students. 

I found the teach­ing process won­drous. My class­room was a mag­i­cal place that kept the chaot­ic world away from my charges, a reli­able, stim­u­lat­ing, safe place where con­fu­sion or doubt nev­er entered, where God was always a source of clar­i­ty. In my class­room, it was per­fect­ly con­ceiv­able that a snake could stand on hind legs and mis­lead Eve, that Moses could lift his rod to split a sea and birth our nation, that God’s voice could thun­der from a moun­tain­top and form a peo­ple so awed they remained for­ev­er loy­al. We trans­lat­ed Gen­e­sis togeth­er from the Hebrew, let­ter by let­ter, word by word, using songs and illus­tra­tions and patient teas­ing apart of the log­ic of that ancient lan­guage until I saw the light go on in a child’s eyes. Think!” I would say. Think!”

Then I hand­ed out prizes for cor­rect answers. Not once dur­ing those years did I imag­ine there might be more than one cor­rect response. Nev­er did I think to reward the cre­ative think­ing and intel­lec­tu­al inde­pen­dence that might have led to a wrong” answer. Not once did I ever tell my stu­dents, Ask!” or Ques­tion!” or Won­der!”

It’s not that I didn’t under­stand the dif­fer­ence between edu­ca­tion and indoc­tri­na­tion. I did. But I was proud of my role as indoc­tri­na­tor, mold­ing minds in just the right way, form­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of staunch lit­tle Hasidim, sol­diers in the Rebbe’s Army of God.

We sang a lot. Song was a per­fect mnemon­ic for the great deal of mem­o­riza­tion I expect­ed of them. I put prayers, vocab­u­lary, rules, and Hebrew lists — such as Hebrew names of days, and months, the parsh­iot (week­ly por­tions) in each book of the Torah, the steps in the Passover seder — to song. I knew that when the kids went home, they would sing these songs to them­selves as they played, and I want­ed the par­ents to hear and feel proud of how their chil­dren were being filled with the knowl­edge and struc­ture of our com­pli­cat­ed, pre­scribed lives.

There are sins, the Tal­mud tells us, for which one can­not atone, for exam­ple, lead­ing oth­ers to sin. I have trained hun­dreds to squelch their bud­ding ques­tions, to believe that edu­ca­tion is indoc­tri­na­tion, to sus­pend dis­be­lief and devote them­selves to rote. I have taught that get­ting an edu­ca­tion means learn­ing to obey and think the right thoughts. I nev­er once asked my stu­dents to con­sid­er study­ing any­thing that expressed dis­sent or a world­view oth­er than our own.

I thought a lot about those long ago teach­ing years while read­ing fel­low JBC author Lin­da K. Wertheimer’s Faith Ed. I thought about them even more when Lin­da recent­ly sent me an arti­cle from Duke University’s Chron­i­cle quot­ing sev­er­al incom­ing stu­dents who had refused to read Ali­son Bechdel’s Fun Home, the assigned sum­mer read­ing for Duke’s incom­ing class, say­ing that engag­ing with a les­bian mem­oir so would com­pro­mise their reli­gious beliefs. I hear these stu­dents’ high-mind­ed sen­ti­ments as a lit­tle forced, like they’re try­ing to be good. After all, they’re young, not even fresh­men yet, haven’t yet got­ten away from their par­ents or even begun to immerse them­selves in uni­ver­si­ty stud­ies. They are full of their fam­i­lies’ reli­gious teach­ings. But, lucky them, unlike my lit­tle Hasidic charges, their par­ents sent them away from home to a sec­u­lar university. 

In Amber Humphrey’s response to the Fun Home phe­nom­e­non, she seemed to be talk­ing direct­ly to those stu­dents: Learn­ing means we attempt to under­stand — it doesn’t mean we have to like every­thing we’re exposed to.” She goes on to sketch out her ide­al lib­er­al arts edu­ca­tion, one that imparts through study the vic­ar­i­ous expe­ri­ence of a broad range of philoso­phies, soci­eties, and indi­vid­ual sto­ries in order to under­stand and come to respect all of human­i­ty, stretch­ing minds in the process. But her arti­cle was enti­tled, Col­lege Stu­dents Refus­ing to Read a Les­bian Mem­oir Don’t Deserve Col­lege. Wait a minute, I thought. Those are the very stu­dents that need college.

I imag­ined get­ting to assem­ble my stu­dents of long ago and talk to them as she seemed to be doing, and re-set the course of their stud­ies, a glo­ri­ous sec­ond chance. I would cau­tion them to be wary of any­thing called edu­ca­tion” that attempts to close their minds. Giv­en how I once caught their hearts with songs, I would tell them to lis­ten to all kinds of music, espe­cial­ly music with­out words. I would say, Ask!” and Ques­tion!” and Won­der!”

So here’s the ques­tion that I want to put out on this Jew­ish forum: in our day schools and reli­gious schools where there is not even a ves­tige of sep­a­ra­tion of Church and State, how can we con­vey beliefs, rit­u­al, com­mu­nal stan­dards, yet edu­cate and not indoc­tri­nate? How do you bal­ance the dic­tates of reli­gion with the educator’s job of open­ing minds — espe­cial­ly in the guise of reli­gion, the kind­est of peo­ple can teeter toward dictatorship?

These days, I wake every morn­ing amazed to find myself with a great home, a fun­ny dog, and a lov­ing wife, ever grate­ful for sec­ond chances. Like my old class­room, our home togeth­er is also a mag­i­cal place that nur­tures our beliefs, also a hedge against a chaot­ic world. But this is true in spite of our porous walls that admit world events and all kinds of peo­ple and beliefs, and in spite of the acknowl­edge­ment with­in those walls that we live unan­swer­able ques­tions, and then we die. I believe the best-lived lives belong to peo­ple who learned to embrace those ques­tions ear­ly on.

Leah Lax is the author of Uncov­ered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Final­ly Came Home, now avail­able for purchase.

Relat­ed Content:

Leah Lax’s work has been pub­lished in Dame, Lilith, Moment, and Salon. Lax’s work for stage has been reviewed with acclaim in The New York Times and broad­cast on NPR. She holds an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Houston.