Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Legitimate Vice?

Typical sight in Charedi neighborhoods in Israel - photo credit: VIN
I have often complained here bitterly about the lack of secular studies being taught in Charedi schools (both elementary and high school). At least as far as boys are concerned. (Charedi girls do get a secular education in their schools.) Hopefully this situation will be corrected now that continued government funding of these schools (at past levels) will depend on some sort of core secular curriculum.

But there is another thing that bothers me. The lack of suitable leisure time activities for these young people. Almost everyone needs some time to relax. You can’t be ‘on’ 24/7. You need to give your brain a rest.  At least most normal people do.

Modern Orthodox young people have plenty of such distractions. Probably too many. Between computers, laptops, smart-phones, TV, movies, video games, sporting events (both playing and observing), books and music of all kinds, there are plenty of things to do when trying to relax. In fact many of these things need to be better controlled by parents. Too often parents have no clue what their children are downloading… or watching on TV… or what kind of movie they rented or downloaded.  

Not so in the Charedi world. Many of the above items are either banned or strongly discouraged. In Israel this is doubly so. The Charedi youngster has very little to spend his leisure time on. Of the above mentioned items, none of them are permitted in Israel except  religious themed books and music.

Israeli Chinuch frowns on all of the above as detrimental to a child’s spiritual health.  Now I can understand (although do not agree with) bans on the internet and other such devices, I can also understand  (but do not agree with) bans on all TV, movies, and non religiously based books. I can even understand (but strongly do not agree with) banning sports – whether participatory or spectator.

Well… actually I can’t fully understand it. At least not the ban on participatory sports. I guess what I mean is that I understand their reason for banning sports. They do not want their young people to idolize sports figures. Sports figures are not the role models that Charedi Mechanchim want for their students. Spectator sports are out for that reason. But what about participatory sports? Well that too - the argument is made – causes worship of sports figures. If one plays a sport – it isn’t too difficult to imagine that one might be interested in how professionals play the sport – which of course can lead to worshiping sports figures.

While I understand their reasons… and even agree that sports figures are generally not good role models for Charedi Jews; or any Jews; or even non Jews for that matter -  I think it is a huge mistake to not let these kids play at some sports in their spare time. One can read just so many religiously based books… or listen to just so many religious songs on your i-pod before you go bonkers.

Limiting your leisure time activities so severely may accomplish the goal insulating children from outside influences and not following the bad role models of that outside world. But it also accomplishes boredom… and looking for activities that may not be so kosher - even if they are not specifically banned. Kids need distractions. If they can’t get them openly some of them will find ways to get them clandestinely. And we all know what can happen then. You really don’t want your kids secretly surfing the internet without any supervision.

Or they will find vices that aren’t specifically banned. Which leads me to an article in Ynet a couple of weeks ago. Here is an excerpt:
(B)ecoming addicted to cigarettes is very easy in the haredi society. "Haredi women don't smoke at all, but with men it's a different story. A haredi child won't smoke at the Talmud Torah (elementary school age) of course, except maybe on Purim. Also in the ages of the small yeshiva (the equivalent of high school), smoking cases are rare. There is very tight supervision, and it's not seen favorably. But the moment one moves on to a big yeshiva – it's a different story.
"In general, haredi adolescents don’t have many rebellion options. The clothes are black and white, mitzvot are mitzvot, offenses are offenses. Cigarettes are still in the gray area in which youth can go against the flow, without violating religious and social rules. It's a small expression of independence that is still available to them…
Every year, an increasing number of young haredim join the circle of smokers, while the older generation finds it difficult to quit. 
Smoking is a very common habit in Charedi circles in Israel. I see it all over. Especially in and around Yeshivos. Not in the Beis HaMedrash. But in the halls and in the streets near any given Yeshiva building.

I personally cannot stand cigarette smoke. I never tried smoking because the smell of smoke was such a turn off to me. I never thought it was ‘cool’ – like some of my friends did. Whenever I  get near a smoker today, I want to get away as fast as I can. Thankfully in the United States, smoking has all but vanished in the public square these days. I’m very happy about that.

And for good reason. People die from doing that. I knew people who died from it.

But it wasn’t always that way. My father used to smoke until the first surgeon general report connecting it to lung cancer in the 50s. He quit - cold turkey. But many people didn’t care and kept up this bad habit. I recall many school board meetings in the 70s where the meeting rooms were so smoke filled, that my clothes reeked with the smell of cigarette smoke when I came home. I couldn’t stand it. But by the time I attended my last school meeting somewhere in the 90s no one in the room smoked anymore. If anyone had a craving, they left the room.

That attitude hasn’t caught on yet in Israel.  Many people there are still addicted to smoking and don’t seem to care too much about it. Including – and perhaps especially in Charedi circles. It is not that uncommon for a Charedi elementary school Rebbe to smoke – making for a very bad role model for his students.  And  although smoking is discouraged in Charedi and elementary and high schools, as the Ynet article points out, it catches up with them post high school. And that is not a good thing.

I don’t know if allowing kids to play sports would solve the problem. It seems unconnected. But I can’t help but think that there might somehow  be a connection to the boredom that the lack of leisure time activities produces and the desire to rebel in this way. After all, why not? …they might think. They might say, ‘I saw my Rebbe smoking and he looked cool.’ ‘I want to look cool too.’ ‘My elementary school Rebbe did it… and he survived’ ‘What are the odds that I will get sick from it?’ 

And so it goes.  I don’t know how normal Charedi kids in Israel blow off steam. I know how the abnormal ones do it. They throw rocks at cars displaying an Israeli flag on Yom Ha’atzmaut – and other such things. And when they get older - nothing relaxes like a good smoke. 

My guess is that if the Charedi leadership would lighten up just a bit about what their young people are allowed to do in their spare time, we would all be a lot better off in so many different ways.