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Day School People MUST Read this Lost Classic by Cynthia Ozick. Now.

You—that is, you Board Members, teachers, Heads of School, parents, prospective parents, development professionals, grandparents, communications people, volunteers, admission officers, marketers, literary high school students, funders, would-be funders, alumni, and curious federation heads—must read Cynthia Ozick’s underappreciated 1983 novel, The Cannibal Galaxy. This slim volume of fiction is perhaps the only work by a major American writer to be set in a Jewish day school. Reading it is a great way for the day school field to celebrate the outspoken Ozick’s recent birthday on April 17.

Dive into the 161 pages of Ozickian prose and you won’t want to climb out until your fingers are good and pruney. The fact that this great writer devoted a whole book to our world is a point of pride. And while The Cannibal Galaxy isn’t directly about, say, helping you write a great annual campaign plan or building your endowment-and-legacy program, Ozick has useful things to say about the business of day school. For instance:

The Cannibal Galaxy raises great questions. Consider the following passage. In it, Joseph Brill, Ozick’s fictional Head of School, contemplates the difficulties in translating the Dual Curriculum from his ideal to the classroom:

Two worlds split him. A school that teaches Chumash and Rashi and Gemara is called a yeshiva; its head is called the Rosh Yeshiva. Whereas he, in his mock-Sorbonne, was a Principal and ran a Dual Curriculum. It could be done… and yet it could not be done. Rather, it could be done only in imagination; in reality, it was all America, the children America, the teachers America, the very walls of the chair factory [the school is housed in a converted factory] America. Egalitarianism—the lowest in the lead.

The paragraph above hoists up all kinds of questions for the self-aware day school person, such as:

  • How well do your students excel on both sides of the Dual Curriculum? Which metrics to you use and how often—and how rigorously—do you scrutinize these pedagogical methods? How well do you explain your evaluation methods your community? Does your school engage in public displays of excellence?

—and—

  • How does “egalitarianism” function in your school’s philosophy and day-to-day practice? We’re constantly trying to ensure that day school is an option for all kinds of Jews, but with the ever-present danger of schools treating students as consumers rather than students, egalitarianism is a real issue today.

The book contains numerous JDS case studies. You’ll find some pointed mini-narratives in The Cannibal Galaxy about important JDS issues such as leadership succession, school name changes, hiring and assessing teachers, and how to—or not to—invite illustrious parents to address the day school community. One could easily excerpt appropriate passages, add a few pointed questions, pass them out to your day school Board, and create a profitable seminar on important day school issues. In fact, more than once, while reading about Joseph Brill, I was reminded of PEJE’s case studies and how we got 1,000 people working on these cases at the 2010 PEJE Assembly.

The Cannibal Galaxy is packed with literary history and will put the intellectual heritage of day school into historical context for you. Read it, and you’ll learn about how the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, influenced—and influences—the way we teach. Ozick brings so much to our attention: the interesting character of Edmon Fleg, bits of astronomy and Talmud, even E.M. Forster. Consider all this a kind of professional development: a cost-free way for JDS people to improve their own understanding of the Dual Curriculum.

The book will improve your JDS communications. The Cannibal Galaxy despises lazy, clichéd, and/or jargon-stuffed language, and it admonishes us to great take care with the words. Ozick shoots down both academic nonsense and absurd psychological profiles. And watch what she does to the fictional school’s P.T.A. Bulletin, “compiled by Mrs. Sheila Frucht, a fifth-grade mother well known… for her fine writing talent”:

Mrs. Rebecca Gould Korngelb, one of our school’s most distinguished alumna, mother of three, and the eight grade’s most lively and popular teacher, not to mention being an attractive brunette in her own right, now moves to the other side of the Dual Curriculum as well; she is the first teacher in our school’s history to teach on both sides of the Dual. What a brain! In addition to Social Studies, she will take over Principal Ephraim Gorchak’s Bible History class. Principal Gorchak has his hands full just running the school! Congratulations on super achievement, Mrs. Korngelb!

The humor will give you perspective. You’ll laugh at the way Ozick describes Brill’s funder (“The rich benefactress,” as the author dubs her, “had a billboard streak; she liked slogans”) and the school mothers (“The mothers came to him in committees, in troops, in adversary eddyings; they came to quarrel. The old dismal combat crackled on”). The fathers—the majority of whom are doctors—don’t fare much better: “he thought them stingy. Their philanthropies were rare and grudging. The biology lab had never even so much as a microscope from any of them. Instead, they owned sailboats, and at the annual fall picnic, stepped right onto the school beats, their belts cheeping over denim shorts and virile calves.” It’s impossible for Ozick not to smile at human nature of the day school enterprise. You’ll smile as well—and perhaps be a little more tolerant of quirky parents when you next encounter them on campus.

23 thoughts on “Day School People MUST Read this Lost Classic by Cynthia Ozick. Now.

  1. MiriamJayne

    Fantastic idea! I’m all for it. I love Ozick’s writing, and this sounds like a perfect novel to revisit for all the reasons you’ve enumerated and more. Book club, anyone?

    Reply
  2. Ken Gordon Post author

    A Book Club sounds great to me, Miriam. What sort of titles do you have in mind?

    A smart JDS teacher I know recommends, “So Punk Rock (and Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother),” a young adult graphic novel. He says that it’s ”
    a good ‘B-side’ to Cannibal Galaxy.” I haven’t read it but here’s a link: http://www.amazon.com/So-Punk-Rock-Disappoint-Mother/dp/0738714712.

    Of course, we might also read books on, say, social media. Do you have any favorites? Anything that might be particularly useful for JDS people? If so, let us know.

    Shabbat Shalom (and Happy Reading!),

    K.

    Reply
  3. Susanne Shavelson

    What a great suggestion. Ozick’s pointed critiques of American Jewish culture and dilemmas are always spot on and your commentary highlights how incisively she analyzes the JDS world in this work. Looking forward to reading it and hope that school leaders will do so as well.

    Reply
  4. Andrea Kasper

    Ozick is great and I am always for bringing up good literature to take a good hard look at ourselves! Thank you for reminding us all.

    I want to speak to the beginning of the article dealing with the issue of the dual curriculum and challenge the day school community. Trends in education are moving away from compartmentalized subjects. Integration across all disciplines not only lends itself to better learning but is also reflective of how we live our lives. Let’s stop talking about a dual curriculum and let’s stop dealing in dual curricula. The day school is meant to bridge Jewish life and learning with academic and current social issues, it can do better by creating one united curriculum modeling for our students how to actively be Jewish in North America.

    Reply
  5. Ken Gordon Post author

    Susanne: Let me know what you think of the book–I am very curious to hear how various people in Jewish education will react. I thought it was fascinating. Really made me look at JDS in a new way. Until you get your hands on the volume, here (thanks to the good folks at The Paris Review) is Ozick’s amazing Paris Reivew Interivew: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2693/the-art-of-fiction-no-95-cynthia-ozick

    Shabbat Shalom! –K.

    Reply
  6. Ken Gordon Post author

    Andrea:

    I’m interested to hear more from you on the subject of integration. Chiefly because integration is the theme of this post, by Micah Lapidus, which drew me to “The Cannibal Galaxy” in the first place:

    http://rabbispen.blogspot.com/2011/07/proust-and-talmud.html.

    When you get a moment, take a gander at Micah’s fine essay. Later on, let’s talk about HOW to unify things–at day school and elsewhere.

    Happy Reading,

    Ken

    Reply
  7. francine shron

    Who knew that an award winning author wrote about the JDS world… Your tie-in to Jewish day schools talking about their dual curriculum relates back to Ross Bloom’s blog on SAT scores and how our schools frame their integrated curriculum. Sounds like there is much to learn about, talk about – and laugh about – here. Thanks for the recommendation, Ken!

    Reply
  8. Ross Bloom

    I agree, Francine! I think it’s also interesting to note the differences between the time Ozick wrote this novel–1983–and today. I think that in the postmodern age many of us don’t compartmentalize our faith from other value systems or identities (in the way that “Two worlds split” the head of school in Ozick’s book) but rather find ways to incorporate them all in ourselves, and in our schools. We also have a sense of how skills such as critical thinking and intellectual debate weave through our “Jewish” and “secular” curricula, and how, as I discussed in the post Francine mentioned, our schools respond to a plethora of value systems beyond “Jewish” and “secular” ones.

    Reply
  9. Ken Gordon Post author

    RB: You MUST read Micah Lapidus’ great post “Proust and Talmud,” (the link is in an earlier comment to Andrea Kasper) in which he writes: “integration is a paradigmatic human experience. It’s a process that promotes spiritual and emotional health as well as intellectual creativity. The more accustomed we are to integrating different ideas, experiences, and other forms of input,’ the more likely we are to figure out how the pieces of our or world fit together to form a ‘true map of life.'” I think a major part of JDS education involves charting that map–a very serious and difficult task–and encouraging kids to follow it, carefully, for the rest of their lives. Best, –KG

    Reply
  10. Micah Lapidus

    Ken,

    I’m grateful to Rabbi Danny Lehman of Hebrew College for mentioning this book during my summer residency in the EdD program last year. I’m also grateful to the fabulous bookstore in Brookline that had a used copy (don’t go there, it’s MY bookstore!). I’ll simply attest to the fact that it’s readable and impactful. It burned itself onto my brain as you mention in an earlier comment. It also makes an appearance in my ELI talk (www.elitalks.org), so clearly I’m “the choir.”

    Just another thought on the value of integration– we might find a solution to a problem or challenge in one area of our lives (curricula etc…) in a totally different and seemingly disparate area. The more accustomed we are to integrating, the greater the likelihood that we’ll make PROGRESS (and what’s more American than that?!).

    Thanks for the great post!

    Micah

    Reply
  11. Ken Gordon Post author

    Thanks, Micah–for your good comment.

    1. I was happy to see your citation of Rabbi Lehman as the person who made the shidduch between you and “The Cannibal Galaxy.” This sort of sourcing is important in education (Jewish and otherwise). The context of a reading is–to my mind–essential to understanding.

    2. For those of you who missed Micah’s fine ELI talk, at the North American Jewish Day School Conference, here’s the link: http://elitalks.org/video/micah-lapidus/. In the clip, he talks about “The Unbearable Lightness of Judaism” (and the Ozick book as well).

    3. All this talk of integration calls to mind a just-published article by Dan Schifrin called “Riding the Hyphen”:

    http://www.thejewishweek.com/features/culture_view/riding_hyphen

    Have you seen thi? Schfrin seems to suggest that our identity, as Jewish Americans, is vastly complex. Something far beyond the either-or. And yet he sees the value in formulating some sort of binary forumulation of Jewish identity. “Existentially speaking, of course, the hyphen is not sufficiently robust to capture the complexity of the human experience,” he writes. “Our multiple voices can’t be constrained on one line, connecting only two identities. Whitman got both America and the human condition right when he said ‘I contain multitudes.’) But the appearance, in black and white, of a metaphor that flexibly communicates between two branches of our identity is still a gift.”

    What do you think about this, Micah? Anyone else? It’s quite an interesting essay.

    4. This has been a very stimulating day on the PEJE blog. Todah Rabah, Friends. Let’s keep talking.

    Shabbat Shalom,

    K.

    Reply
  12. Chaye Kohl

    Thank you for wrting about Cynthia Ozick’s book The Cannibal Galaxy.
    I have not read the book – yet. What struck me from the first is the title. How often do I hear comments by administrative colleagues in the Jewish Day School world which reflect this sentiment; sometimes they feel like they are being devoured by some of their constituents.
    Shavua Tov!
    Chaye

    Reply
  13. Deborah Grayson Riegel

    Great article (once again), Ken. What strikes me about your post is how surprised and appreciative many of us are when something Jewish — and positive — appears in mainstream literature, television, cinema, news, etc. Whether it’s Rachel and Puck on ‘Glee” or singer Drake talking about his bar mitzvah or even Oprah visiting a Hasidic family, we are hungry for seeing more of our world reflected mainstream. So my challenge for the JDS world is: how do we get our events, fundraising, board cultivation, news, alumni successes, etc. to get general (secular) press and attention in addition to that we seek from the Jewish media?

    Deb

    Reply
  14. Ken Gordon Post author

    You bring up a good question, Deb. How *can* day schools get the attention of the secular media? Part of it is recognizing a big story. (See, for instance, the saga of the Beren Stars: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/02/sports/orthodox-jewish-schools-game-expected-to-be-rescheduled.html.) But another part is learning to FRAME you story in a way that makes sense to editors and readers. (You’ll find some tips on this here: http://www.peje.org/blog/?p=1268.) In any case, it’s smart to consider how our JDS narratives fit into the larger communal narratives–and then to work on getting our stories out there.

    Shavuah Tov,

    –K.

    Reply
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  17. Renee Rubin Ross

    Hi Ken,

    I’m fascinated by the fact that you’ve suggested The Cannibal Galaxy as a must-read. I read it about 10 years ago as part of my research on parent participation in Jewish day schools; my teacher Barry Chazan recommended it.

    I feel ambivalent about the book itself. On one hand, it’s true, it is a portrait of the community of a Jewish school. On the other hand, the book was fairly condemning towards the parents. It may have been accurate, but I found it painful to read. I also felt that the character of the headmaster was a certain type that very much looked back to the past.

    What I’m saying is that overall I did not find the book too hopeful. Does literature need to be hopeful? Not necessarily…but the “warts and all” portrayal of Jewish day schools left me less excited about the book than I had hoped.

    Anyway sign me up for the Jewish book club….

    Reply
  18. Ken Gordon Post author

    Hi, Renee:

    Thanks for your smart and honest response. I’m thrilled to talk to someone else who has read “The Cannibal Galaxy.”

    Yes, you’re right: Ozick can be condescending. But there is something in her tone, in her portraiture, that might be useful for day school people. I sometimes think that schools treat parents as consumers–working very hard to cater to their wants and needs–and that Ozick gives us an alternate way of considering the parent body. (Note: I’m a day school parent myself.)

    So I hear what you say about the pain of “The Cannibal Galaxy”… but I think it’s an *instructive* pain. As Andrea Kasper says in her comment above, “Ozick is great and I am always for bringing up good literature to take a good hard look at ourselves.”

    To my mind, hope resides in the possibility that we can properly evaluate and then improve our schools. The demanding Ozick has extremely high standards, of Jewish and secular literacy and moral behavior. Perhaps, by reading her day school novel and then comparing it to our own experience, we can raise our own standards–and even those of our school community.

    Cheers,

    Ken

    p.s. Let me know what you’d like to read for our next installment of the JDS Book Club…

    Reply
  19. Jane Ravid

    I read this book many years ago and lent it out, so I unfortunately I can’t revisit it.

    As I recall, some of the incidents were quite painful and echoed even more painful experiences of mine and other parents who trustingly enrolled our children in JDSs. Your hair would stand on end to hear some of these outrageous events that plagued both parents and children.

    Reply
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