Cobblers and Rabbis

by Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen

To look at me now, sitting in my book lined study, you would never know that once upon a time, not all that long ago, I hated school. School, I was convinced, was not designed for little boys like me who wrote smudgy papers, didn't pay attention to the teacher, talked in class (and everywhere else), and forgot to do their homework. I was jealous of the little girls (and they were always little girls) who always did everything right, were the teacher's pet, and who got a star on every paper.

Somehow, I survived first grade. Barely. They passed me on to the second grade. And then the third. Eventually I went on to earn several degrees, write a few books, and married one of those little girls who got all the "A"s (she went to Harvard, of course). I suppose that these days they would have said that I had this or that learning disability. My parents told me that I wasn't trying hard enough (but I was trying so VERY hard!). I thought that I was being bad. (I must have been bad, I thought, after all, I was always getting into trouble.) Now I am a rabbi and make my living reading, writing, teaching, and trying to be good. I eventually became a public speaker and a broadcaster with the BBC (both media ideally suited for those who can't spell.) My wife, Joanne, balances our checkbook (I don't do well with double digits.)

With this sort of baggage, it is no wonder that I am unimpressed when Jewish schools try to convince me with how elitist they are. "We have an excellent reputation" admissions officers will tell me, as if quality is directly proportional to the number of students refused entry. (Perhaps the ideal school is so selective that nobody gets in?) At times I think I am living in a Jewish Lake Woebegone, where all the women are strong, all the men good looking, and all the children above average. My idea of excellence is different. I don't worry too much about the "gifted and talented" who would make it in any event, but about the messy students who fidget, who have their own rich potential and talent, the precious little souls which need to be cherished, not crushed. My favorite principal, Mrs. Susan Koss of the Jewish Primary Day School in Washington says, "we don't teach programs, we teach children." We achieve not excellence, but mediocrity or worse, when we aim for the stars but trod on little spirits in the process. We can do better.

I am a proud Jew and rejoice at our people's devotion to learning. We are, after all, the People of the Book. But sometimes that can have its drawbacks. I envy much in the Christian tradition. They have saints who can be role models for all sorts of people. If you are simple and unlearned, there are scores of illiterate peasant girls who became canonized. Are you a scholar? You might aspire to be like an Aquinas or a Saint Jerome or a Thomas Moore. Of course we Jews also have saints, but they always seem to be old men with beards who wrote books (or their somewhat masochistic wives who sacrificed themselves so that their scholar husbands could write books). But what do we have to offer the average person (and most of us are, after all, average)? A great deal, I think.

The early Chasidic movement bequeathed to us a treasury of tales of simple, unlettered folk who proved though their innate goodness that one need not be a scholar to be beloved by God. "Nine rabbis don't make a minyan, but ten cobblers do."

All of us have a mix of talents. Most of us are good, or even excellent, at something but even the rare renaissance men and women among us are not uniformly good at everything. We should rejoice at our talents and be humbled by our weaknesses, and always be mindful that we, and everyone else, are unique and precious children of God.

Susan Koss tells a story. Once she left her house for an early morning minyan at the synagogue. Due to the hour the earth was covered with a beautiful blanket of largely undisturbed snow. As she approached the synagogue, there were more and more footprints. She observed that the footprints differed. "Some were concise and measured, others sort of slid together vertically as if the person wanted to make sure that his prints stood out." Some were made by children and some by adults. "Some were large and some were small." She wrote "I was struck by the thought that there were so many clear and varied prints but yet they were all leading to the same destination. It didn't matter how the person walked, just that he or she arrived in shul."

Ms. Koss concludes, "That is exactly how children learn! So many people were and are brought up to believe that learning is accomplished in one way, sitting at our desks, listening to the teacher talk, following directions&emdash;followed by success! What happens when we simply can't sit? What happens when two seconds after the teacher is finished talking, we can't remember what s/he said and certainly not what the directions were!"

But, to borrow Ms. Koss's imagery, we all eventually make it to the synagogue door. We follow different routes, and some get there before others. Some shuffle and some plow and some may meander a bit, but whether we are rabbis or cobblers, we are all needed there for the minyan. And all of us count.

Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen is the Hillel Director of American University, Washington, DC.