A forward-thinking and creative Jewish professional, Andrea Rose Cheatham Kasper, is engaged in a project to help create a new kind of Jewish high school, one that could be considered, in the old parlance, vocational, in orientation. The project, a winning entry in the 2011 Jewish Futures Competition, is called "Yadaim, the Academy of Applied Academics."
In the project description, she wrote:
The North American Jewish community has, perhaps, an especially challenging time accepting the shift from consumer to producers and creators, because it requires that we let go of long held stereotypes of who we are and what is valued within our community. We are proud of our academic and intellectual achievements but to the point of dismissing other ways of engaging in the world. It is high time that we challenge the implicit classism within our Jewish community, which values intellectual activity and demeans other forms of creativity. In claiming this shift, we will finally allow all members of the Jewish community to be productive and essential, and not only those with intellectual prowess.
These words ring so true to me, and describe my own experience. (To give credit where it is due, my parents were always supportive of my career choices, even when I decided to be a musician, then a technical theater/theater production generalist, and eventually, a Jewish educator.) Vocational education has gotten a bad rap. It has also become a pawn in the crisis of socio-economic economic disparity that pervades this country. It is often viewed as education for those who just aren't good enough or smart enough for college. When did plying a skilled trade become something we value less in our society? When did it become something less valued in the Jewish community?
This project, and all the attendant questions, attitudes, etc. attached to it brought to mind words I had written on this in 1998 and updated in 2001 in a musing for parashat Vayakhel/Pekude entitled "Craftsman. Artisan. Artist." This seems the perfect opportunity to again reflect on those words, and add some new thoughts.
Random Musings Before Shabbat - Vayekhel/Pekude 5758
Craftsman. Artisan. Artist. In our modern American society, we seek to very carefully define lines between what we perceive as "true creativity" and simply "skills." I find this a sad state of affairs.
We have become a nation of specialists (and I, and my fellow generalists have become the "odd man out" as a result.) Artists create, artisans and craftsman do. Teachers teach. Designers imagine, engineers make real. And work is just work.
[2001 addition] Since I first wrote this musing in 1998 I have also become a full-time teacher in a Jewish Day School. Every day and in every way at school I realize that teaching, no matter how people to try classify it and specialize it, is a truly generalistic profession in many ways. Still, even in education, specialists are generally preferred over generalists. (Of course, the fact that I am teaching Hebrew, Judaica and general music contributes to my overall feeling of "generalism.") [End 2001 Addition]
[2012 addition] And here I am back again teaching in a day school, though only music this time, after spending most of the intervening decade working as a synagogue supplemental school director. Anyone who has ever worked as a religious school director knows that the work requires one to be a bit of a generalist, a factotum. There' s no avoiding being hands on.
Is it not the intent with which we do the work we do that truly defines the artistry of our work? As it says in Ex 36:2 "everyone whose heart was stirred to do the work." The worker at the Saturn plant who can point with pride to a new car and say "I helped make that" has created what was, for him, a work of art. Can not the manager proudly point to the fruit of his efforts to increase productivity while still keeping employee satisfaction high and think of it as a work of art? For art is the work of the soul. Is that work any less an expression of the human soul than a sculpture, painting, musical composition? [2012: Might not thinking of all that we labor to do as a form of art change how we approach our work and our attitude about it - for the better? ] And what of the teacher? Their works of art are no less than human beings themselves! Is teaching technique or artistry? I know that in my own classroom, it's a little of both.
We are human, and our values, our emotions, our desires, hopes and dreams manifest themselves in all that we do. Even the most seemingly mundane things. Because when they are done or created, ultimately, for the greater glory of G"d, they are indeed true works of art.
And so it is that I wonder what the Torah means when it repeatedly uses verb forms that say "he did this" "he did that" (Ex. 36:10-39:26) in this parasha. Over 40 times. (And interspersed only a few times, a "they" and only once, Betzalel." Then, oddly, the last five p'sukim describing the labors (ex 39:27-31) all use "they.")
While the implication seems to be that "he" refers to Betzalel, I wonder if another interpretation is possible. That the "he" being referred to is Gd (we'll just avoid the whole gender issue here, ok?) That all those who labored, who did so because there hearts were stirred, were just channeling creative energy from a higher source.
I have said many time in these musings, that when I play music at services, what comes through my fingers and from the keyboard is t'fila, and it often seems as though the inspiration comes from outside me. Need it be any different if I am teaching a class, typing a memo, someone is repairing a car engine, or cleaning floors, etc.?
The highbrows of this world want to create a separation between art and craft, between art and simple labor. If, indeed, only "high art" were sacred and everyday work profane would their argument might have merit. But so many of the little things we do, every day, are holy, because we are G"d's creations. The way Subway calls their employees "sandwich artists" might be a gimmick, but there's more truth to that than may be obvious. [2012 addition: Throughout my life I have seen people perform the most seemingly mundane of tasks with incredible artistry. Perhaps it is even wrong of me to think of it as mundane. A plumber can wield his/her craft as artistically as any pianist. Industry has, to some extent, realized this. Working on an assembly line might, for some, be difficult to conceive of as being approached by the laborer with artistry. Some companies have learned how to structure their manufacturing processes to provide equal opportunity for both efficiency and pride of work. Those GE commercials in which the cancer survivors and the workers who created the medical machines that helped save them were brought together may be gimmicky. Their purpose may be more about making GE look good, but there's no denying that they hint at the concepts of respect for the works of others of which I am writing here.
 The proposal for Yadaim speaks of how our society is being changed into one where people are not just consumers, but prosumers, people who actively participate in the creation of the world they experience. Technology, in large part, has made this more possible than ever. There is truth in the notion that technology, at least in the form of industry, has isolated us from the laboring, creative, and manufacturing of that which we consume. What a different world it might be, they suggest, if we only we each had to raise/plant, slaughter/harvest, and prepare the food we eat ourselves. While our latest technologies won't do very much to address this reality, they are once again giving us the power to be more than just consumers. Perhaps being prosumers in this way will also help us get back in touch with our roots, and, while we may not have to all grow our own food, we will have a stronger understanding of, connection to, and appreciation of such processes. It's a funny notion that using computers and the internet might actually bring us closer to our planet, but I, for one, am willing to consider it possible, perhaps even likely. [end 2102]
As G"d is joyous in all works. let us to be joyous in all our own works. And joyous in our appreciation of the creative work of others. Let each thing we labor to do be to us as a work of art, and may we see the same in all the works of others. Let us take the meaning of the word "art" away from the snobs, highbrows and effete of this world.  Let us re-appropriate and rehabilitate the idea of vocational education, and remove from it the stigma it now carries. Let us embrace learning how to do work with the hands as much as we do work with the mind. That's something our ancestors would certainly understand. [end 2012]
[2012 addition;] Take the time to watch people at work, and seek to find their artistry. Watch the chef, the cook, the clerk, the cashier, the farmer, the civil servant, teacher, sanitation engineer, plumber, soldier, accountant, construction worker, the secretary, the athlete, the teacher, etc. Yes even the doctor, lawyer, banker, trader, professor, astronaut, CEO, politician. It isn't hard to notice those who do their work motivated by seeking to add to the greater glory of the G"d of their understanding if you look for it. When you see it, encourage it, recognize it, and thank people for their artistry and their craftsmanship. Get on the bandwagon yourself, and learn to use the technology to be not just a consumer, but a producer and creator of what you experience. Encourage children and students to do the same, and help to create educational systems that make that possible - both in the secular and Jewish worlds. Let us all be, like Betzalel, craftsman, artisan, and artist. [end 2012]
And let us not forget that there is a time when the work, when our daily creation of art, must cease, as we heed the word of Ex. 35:2
"Six days of the week you may work, but on the seventh day you must keep a holy Shabbat of Shabbats to G"d."
(Some might argue that this means I should not be playing the keyboard at services on Shabbat. It's not m'lacha to me. It's t'fila.)
May your Shabbat be filled with light and joy. And your life with your works of art, and enjoyment and appreciation for the works of art and the craftsmanship of all others.
© 2012, 2001, and 1998 by Adrian A. Durlester
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