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

by Ken Gordon

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 GalaxyThis 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.

Ken Gordon is the Social Media Manager of PEJE. He cordially invites you to friend their Facebook page and follow them on Twitter.

cross-posted with PEJE blog