By Aliza Bulow
Harry Potter and the Jews. A true story of what one kid learned from the teenage wizard.
I run a group home for Harry Potter addicts. The house is chock-a-block with Harry Potter books, Harry Potter tapes, Harry Potter computer games, magic wands, chocolate frogs, every flavor jelly beans, Quiddich rule books, spell books, owls and wizard capes. Children read through the night and then spend the day holed up in their rooms listening to the stories on tape. When forced to exit their rooms, they move about like zombies with headphones on as they perform menial tasks while they listen. New books are anxiously awaited and movies are devoured time and again. Conversation centers on which spell is appropriate for which occasion and how Nearly Headless Nick nearly lost his head. With most of the addicts, you could start a paragraph in any one of the five books and they could finish it for you.
Okay, I admit it. Its really my home, and the kids… well, they’re mine too. Maybe we don’t actually have an owl, but they can quote paragraphs at a time.
One day my twelve year old, one of the more serious addicts, came home from his Jewish day school and declared that he had had it. School was not for him. The teachers were “idiots”, the principal was a “jerk”, the Jewish curriculum was “irrelevant” and he was not going back.
It wasn’t the first we had heard of school woes, and he had been struggling with his feelings about being an observant Jew for quite some time. A few years ago, when he was nine, he scolded me for converting to Judaism (before I met my husband). As I tucked him into bed he said, “Why did you have to convert?! I feel like I’m in a prison with bars I can’t bend and can’t break. You should have waited until the children were born so we could all choose for ourselves!” Since then, he basically maintained the trappings of an observant life in school and in public, but he let us know on a regular basis that this was our program, not his.
In the past, when our son needed time away from school, he managed to get suspended for a few days. Since this particular day was the first time he talked about his feelings before we received a phone call from the principal, we decided to give him some preemptive time off.
A week later found him well rested, deeply engrossed in his books, but not more ready to attend school. We talked, we listened, we cajoled, but returning to school was not on his list of possibilities. We gathered in the principal’s office and listened while our son clearly explained why he didn’t want a Jewish education and how we were all wasting our time, our efforts and our tuition money.
The principal suggested that perhaps this was not the environment for him, and we left, not quite sure what to do. We considered a lot of options: home schooling, internet schooling, the local public school (he would have been the only Jew in a failing inner city school), and other private schools. We checked out an Academy that had a program for the motivationally challenged, the non-orthodox Jewish school, and a Montessori school. It was already six weeks since he had been behind a desk and the Montessori method looked promising. A month after we enrolled him, both he and the teacher agreed that it too was not the right environment.
Back to square one. He came with me to work; he stayed home. He became an expert on the municipal bus system and learned how to make pizza from scratch. He spent a lot more time with both his parents and he looked forward to his siblings’ daily return from school. He went to the library regularly and began to expand his reading beyond Harry Potter and comics. We had long conversations about the new ideas he discovered, but he still wasn’t ready to go back to the school his siblings attended, and so far, we hadn’t found another viable alternative.
As we explored schooling options, we talked about the objective of education. We talked about his goals and about how he might achieve them. Our local school, which was willing to handle a motivationally challenged child, also had very strict discipline with a truant officer on staff, in-school suspension and an in-house drug treatment program (for 6-8 graders!). Another grade 6-12 school had very innovative programming, lots of out of the box learning, trips to the wilderness and even to some foreign countries…but they openly acknowledged their drug problem and our son was in fact offered marijuana on the day he shadowed another student. While he was there, he also saw students with extensive body piercing, signs for the gay students’ club and discovered that the school actually provides a time and place for a smoking break.
These experiences allowed him to see first hand some of the contrasts between what was “out there” and what we were trying to provide for him. He recognized that these schools were not the place for him, and yet… a leather chocker with spikes was pretty cool looking. I nixed the choker and told him puca shells were as far as I could stretch. It gave us a chance to talk about how people dress in order to identify with certain groups, and about how people try to feel special by changing something external. It was the perfect opportunity to launch into one of my mini pep talks about how special he is because he is part of a special people with a special mission. He gave me one of those, “That’s what you think” eyeball rolls, but silently I prayed that some of the message would get through.
One day he was in the car with me as I was listening to a tape in preparation for a class I was giving that evening on the Jewish view of Mysticism and the Occult. Usually I didn’t torture him with my lecture tapes, but in this case he was with me on “my time” and I needed to listen. On the tape, Rabbi Mordechai Becher was comparing the world of Harry Potter to that of the Jews. He explained that just as Harry lived in a parallel dimension in this world so do the Jews.
My son’s ears perked up. He listened for a while and then had a few questions. I turned off the tape and we fleshed out the concept together:
We live in the same world as every one else, but we have vastly different lives. We have our own secret world of practices and rituals. We wrap t’fillin, eat special foods, light braided candles, wear distinctive clothes, and study and pray in an ancient mystical language. We spend 1/7 of our lives meticulously refraining from creative influence on the world, and during that time we even get an extra soul.
We look like they do, but we have our own mission that requires special responsibilities. Jews are charged with being the clergy of the world. As full time spiritual professionals, our job is to reveal G-d’s presence on earth by engaging in our daily activities in a spiritually conscious way.
We have been given 613 pathways to help us achieve this mission called mitzvot. They give us access to a spiritual “magic” that a) helps us bring our potential to fruition, (through the positive commandments), and b) prevents us from subverting our energies and diminishing ourselves (by refraining from the prohibitions).
We are consumers as they are, but for the special supplies a Jew needs, we have our own “Diagon Ally”. We talked about Central Avenue in Cedarhurst, where we shopped during a trip to NY. The whole street is full of stores catering to Jews: kosher restaurants, Jewish book stores, kosher grocery stores, clothing stores with shabbos suits for boys and long sleeved, long skirted dresses for girls, yarmulkes, tzitzis, t’fillin, and silver stores with candlesticks, spice boxes and kiddush cups. Most non-Jewish New Yorkers don’t even know the street exists.
He thought for a few minutes and then turned to me with his own insight that was worth every day off from school. “So… it’s like… I’m a wizard kid… being raised by a wizard family… and I might go to a muggle school?” He thought again. “I think I’m ready for a Jewish education.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. He finally got it. With G-d’s help, the patience, love and space that we gave him was bearing fruit. When we got home, he called his teacher to see if he could return to class.
Harry’s magic was his ability to serve as a parable. Harry’s story helped our son realize that he has his own hidden specialness, and an element of that specialness hinged on being part of a unique group with its own distinctive life. All of a sudden, a Jewish education was relevant. He understood that in order to fully embrace one’s uniqueness one has to understand it, and in order to understand his, he needed to attend his own Hogwarts.