The Dramas of Jewish Education
By Adiel Cohney:
“In every generation, Man must view himself as if he came out of Egypt”: Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 116b
Jewish people have always relied on narrative as a foundational element of our civilization. More than that, it has relied on collective memory. Yet there is an epidemic of memory loss, which is too apparent among our youth. Judaism is a culture and a history they recognize but not their native one. They know it but they do not feel it. Of young Jews whose affiliation is not primarily religious, even those who possess a solid intellectual understanding of Judaism, many do not profess it to be their own in a visceral sense. As an informal educator, one effective way of combatting this is the use of theatrical or dramatic activities.
There are times when I am faced with terrible conflict between my pintele yid (Jewish spark) and my inner performer. My Jewish side is particularistic and parochial, a product of Egypt and the Shtetl, of Babylon and Eretz Yisrael. My Actor side is universalistic and post-modern, more Brecht than Baal Shem Tov, closer to Stanislavsky than Soloveitchik. While Jewish me craves complete immersion in his own narrow but incredibly deep world, the other me yearns to be part of the global revolution of youth striving towards an unattainable utopia. As both an educator and an artist, I have a vested interest in finding conciliation between the two.
To an extent, this is the fundamental conflict of Jewish history, albeit seen through decidedly 21st century eyes. To me, this conflict is an essential part of the Jewish experience. It is not a struggle to be resolved but one to be endlessly suffered and savoured. This too, is part of the inheritance of a Jewish youngster. So it follows that an educational approach that endorses this conflict must also embrace tools that emphasize it. These tools are, on the one hand, the specificity of the Jewish story, and on the other, the utter subjectivity of the creative process.
In the informal education lexicon there are two key concepts: Hitnasut (experiential learning) and Lemida (theoretical learning). When it comes to Jewish Education, where the goal is not strictly imparting knowledge but transmitting culture and values, Hitnasut is by far the more powerful framework.
Many Jewish experiences can’t be provided within educational institutions and in those instances it is creative drama that is ideal for three reasons. The first is that it places the individual in the centre of an experience of his or her own creation; it allows them to be within a story, be it the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising or the compilation of the Talmud. Participation in theatrical performances allows people to view historical figures or events, not as something inaccessible and external but as a facet of themselves, a feature in their own personal narrative.
The second reason is that art is a tool in creating empowerment. Informal education is all about empowering the youth, and creation of art is not only an easy way to support self-expression but also to support self-awareness. It builds the individual’s confidence as well as their ability to think critically and broadly. It also breeds teamwork and collective decision-making. In this sense, the practice of dramatic creation fosters not only values or knowledge but also skills.
The third reason is that drama places at the centre another key idea of Informal education: Sicha (conversation). Rather than receiving some body of knowledge from above, Informal education emphasizes an ongoing dialogue between teacher and student. Similarly creative drama emphasizes the process involved over the final product. Exploration of values and stories through dramatic means encourages students to create discussion with each other and with teachers as well as fostering internal dialogue. In our context it also allows the student to physically participate in the ongoing discourse of the Jewish people, which is uninhibited by geography or by time.
This brings us back to memory loss. Memory is simply the representation of an experience, which through a different frame, is the exact function of theatre. The creation of theatre involves the creation of a world that is simultaneously true and untrue, personal and universal, sacred and irreverent.
Judaism begins with memory and if we teach through experiences, maybe we can give kids the basis for a Jewish memory.
Of course, there is one more reason for the strength that drama holds in education.
In the book of proverbs it says “דרכו פי על לנוער חנוך”–teach the youth according to his ways. And undoubtedly the way of the child must involve fun.