This was Beth Tfiloh's ethos. They didn't give everybody awards because they cared about people's self-esteem (after all, any Jew with any self-respect is self-loathing), they gave everybody awards because they wanted the awards on students' transcripts. The more puffed up their transcripts seemed, the easier it would be to get the kid into a good school.
To the end of time, Beth Tfiloh's lower and middle school will still be known as the definition of mediocre. But on the high school level, they appear to the wider Jewish community to get it absolutely right. It was precisely the sort of great high school on paper that Krieger Schechter was. Neither place was ever designed to give students a decent education (though, honestly, what school is?...), it was designed as a training school so that straight and narrow kids could get the education they need to become a doctor or lawyer, send their children to the same school, and give enough money to get a classroom named after them.
On the high school level, and I suspect this is true for Jewish High Schools throughout the country, if you were a Jewish Day School kid who excelled in math or science, you were treated practically like an illui (a Talmudic prodigy). If you excelled in literature or history, you were looked at a bit suspect, as though something in the programming had gone wrong, but you were still feted as an academic star. If you excelled in sports, the adults would kneel down in thanks and praise to Hashem that at least one Jew out there was born with hand-eye coordination, and even if you were a bit dense in the classroom, they would make allowances for you to make sure you got what you needed for a bright future. But if you excelled in art, or music, or theater, or dance... what the hell were you doing at a Jewish Day School?
After all these years, there is one thing which I'm positive would have saved me and given me a completely different youth. A Jewish Day School which took the arts seriously, but you can search far and wide and you'll never ever find it. A few years after I left, Beth Tfiloh got itself an amazingly plush school theater. I sometimes wonder if Zippy Schor, the smartest person in any room, didn't read the Ballad of Evan Tucker and decide that the next time some smarkatiner yingle dangerous enough to be 'artistic' comes through Beth Tfiloh's doors, we'll be ready for him so he doesn't completely wreck the Beth Tfiloh show again. I know that BT graduated at least one actor from Ethan's class who seems to be doing very well in New York. Progress is progress, and they're to be congratulated for it, but it came much too late to do anything for me.
Schechter's arts came much too late for me too. Somehow, I've gone more than four years on this blog and never truly told the story of West Side Story. It wasn't much of a story: I was fourteen years old, nearly psychotic by then, and impossible to teach, let alone manage in a stage show... Schechter's new sensation was to take Broadway Musicals and mount a Hebrew version. The year before me they'd done Fiddler on the Roof, the year before they'd done Oliver. One of the Hebrew teachers was an extremely talented and struggling actress, and whether the struggle made her volatile or whether her volatility made her career a struggle, nobody will know, but either way she was an extremely talented artist of the theater, and due to the inevitable unfairness of life, stuck teaching Hebrew and Spanish at Krieger Schechter when she should have been playing Hedda Gabbler at the Public Theater in New York.
Insofar as anybody gave it any thought, it was generally assumed I'd get the male lead. We all talked about it quite a bit, because it was a month of our lives in which we didn't have to go to class. But ultimately, the only person to whom it really mattered was me, because it was my final shot to show the people I'd grown up with that I was not a complete screwup and could do something that I was not a complete washout. But there lay the Catch-22 - if you're the level of screwup which I seemed to be at that point in my life, you'd never be entrusted with such a level of responsibility. I'd routinely sit in class silently, having never completed the homework assignments, while the class went on its merry way discussing whatever our extremely bejeweled and spray-tanned teachers decided we should be learning that day. How was I ever going to be entrusted with memorizing a script? Perhaps more pertinently, how was a kid known for screaming at the top of his lungs and throwing heavy objects across the room going to be entrusted to work extensively with the most volatile teacher at Krieger Schechter?
There were no words for how devastated I was when I realized that I was not only not going to be Tony, not only not going to be Riff or Bernardo, but Doc - the adult who's not even onstage when most of the other cast is doing everything. It was as though every fear about how life was punishing me endlessly was finally confirmed, and the final chance my childhood would get for a happy ending was snapped shut. But, in retrospect, even if I'm still mad at having to spend so long in place so horribly suited for people like me, I have to admire the artfulness of our director/teacher's eventual solution. Of course, prematurely aged, depressed kid who's faced more demons than any fourteen year old ever should should be the one to play Doc, because who's going to believe that he's just another teenager? Granted, the douchebag who got Tony (at least he was a d-bag when he was 14... I've barely seen him since) could barely carry a tune, and I could. But she not only made me Doc, but Glad Hand (the guy who supervises the Dance at the Gym), and at the end of the show, it was I, not Maria, who led the cast in Somewhere. I still can't forget the deafening applause I got at the end, which felt at least somewhat vindicating against so many things which had gone wrong before. It was the best ending to that which I could have hoped for in the circumstances. But sadly, there was nothing better coming up in the near future either.
Except for my violin teacher, her husband, and a very few people I met at Summer Camp, there was not a single non-Jew whom I knew in any meaningful way until I was in boarding school. Jewish people were my whole childhood, Judaism in its various shapes and sizes my whole life.
I was a little kid with an overwhelming interest in music and the arts. I knew, all too well, how ridiculous I must have seemed to other kids. But I also knew that so many Jews had done exactly what I wanted to do without much problem. I memorized their names and tried to learn as much about them as I ever could. People like Leonard Bernstein and Mel Brooks were heroes to me who showed that if poor Jewish kids from families just off the boat could make it, then how much easier should it then be for spoiled suburb kids like us? We were right to dream of trading our extremely affluent shuls for extremely affluent concert halls. But even not counting the fact that I'm from Baltimore, the city where all hope comes to naught, there were a few small details which I only realized when I was older and not in a position to do anything about it.
1. Assimilation, perhaps even assimilation that begins in childhood, is the ante you have to pay to even consider going into the arts in America. While their achievements were celebrated by Jews, virtually all these great musicians and artists and writers and directors had families who'd moved into mixed neighborhoods and gave their children a chance to indulge in everything American without feeling as though you've turned your back on anything - many of them didn't even grow up with any Jewish observance at all.
2. Nobody has more reason to assimilate faster from a provincial environment than someone with talent in the arts. Within the very definition of provincialism is an intolerance for anyone so louche and cosmopolitan as an 'artist.'
3. Assimilation was an incredible brain drain on the Jewish community. Creative types had no reason to stay within the Ten Commandments' nine dots. The only people left were left-brain Type-A's who not only had no understanding of creative people, but saw within the creative types all the choices made by the family members who rejected everything for which they stood and sacrificed.
4. If you're not from an artistic family, you'd better damn well be a hundred times better organized and better with people than I ever was so you can navigate the ropes yourself because you're not going to get proper guidance from anybody in a position to make your path easier.
I suppose it's worth pausing a moment to make a definition for anybody who's confused as to what 'assimilation is' in this peculiarly Jewish context. To anyone who didn't grow up in a segregatedly Jewish environment all this talk about assimilation runs the danger of seeming like jargon. Assimilation in the Jewish context is not unlike the general context of immigrants around America. But it has a special ring among Jews because of its additional religious connotation.
When you're Jewish, it's generally to be assumed that your family history involves a great deal of upward mobility. In higher demographics, assimilation means that you can culturally hold onto your Jewish label without needing to rely on your religious worship as a source of strength, purpose, and social life because you have the leisure, comfort, and means to derive such strength from less demanding places. Judaism becomes a social club membership to be tossed aside and reclaimed at will. If it's inconvenient to hold onto the Jewish label as often when you fall in love with a non-Jewish person, it can be tossed aside forever if you like, and your children will grow up with very little contact within the Jewish world.
This is the entropy which all committed Jews fear like death itself, because for their Jewish identities, it might as well be death. My family, conservative as they can sometimes be on foreign policy and economic matters, is unassailably liberal on most social issues. But when it came to the social issue of intermarriage, they turn into fascists. Were I or some other young family member to marry a non-Jew, I sometimes honestly wonder if the my family's older members would turn their backs on us.