Can I Go Back & Rewrite My Adolescence?

A while ago, I posted about a song from my high school days. I examined the rhetoric of the song, arguing that the use of a first-person “I,” in the context of an inspirational shabbaton, forces the singer to assume the identity of the speaker.

One of the biggest points of critique I got about the post was that the song was, after all, composed and sung by the students, not the teachers or religious leaders.

So how could I argue that the rhetorical effects of the song were being imposed on us students by oppressive leaders? Isn’t this simply an indication that the teenage girls did in fact believe these things?

Well, no. It’s far more complicated than that.

As I continue sifting through the ephemera of my youth (because I am most definitely a masochist), I came across some high school student publications that I was involved in. One of my best friends was in charge of L’chu, the major student publication of Bais Yaakov High School, and I helped with editing, printing, collating, etc. – and I also contributed a fair number of written pieces.

These stories and articles I wrote are at times horrifying. I nearly cried a number of times as I read the words I wrote – the words I wrote! – when I was in twelfth grade.

I wish I could brush it off and say, “well, I was a high school teenager, what could I have known.” But as high school students all around the country today demonstrate, it’s quite possible for teenagers to have stronger moral fiber than adults.

The difference between these teenagers and my fellow BY-students and myself, I think, is that they are fighting against the wider world, but more often than not they have their parents’ and others’ support – their moral standpoints reflect their parents’ (though of course not always).

Us? We would have had to realize that what our parents and teachers were telling us was wrong.

In some ways, I think (or like to think) that I can see some stirrings of misgivings in the content and style of what I wrote.

There’s one story that is so disgustingly racist, but I can see an attempt on my part to be non-racist – I just didn’t know how to do it then. I was stuck in thought patterns that had been ingrained in me, and I hadn’t had a chance to learn how to break free of them yet.

lchu horribly racist

There’s one story that winds up arguing that everything is hashgacha pratis (divine providence) even when there doesn’t seem to be any reason for why things happen. But I can sense (or like to think I can sense) that it’s an attempt to grapple with the beginnings of disenchantment with the idea of god orchestrating everything and everything happening for a reason – I just didn’t know how to get there yet. I was stuck in thought patterns that had been ingrained in me, and I hadn’t had a chance to learn how to break free of them yet.

lchu hasgacha pratis

I’ve been worrying about publishing these on my blog, and I’ve been talking to some friends about the horror I feel when reading my own words (over ten years old by now, and yet still – my words).

Then I found this blog post, by a medievalist who published an excellent article about Beowulf in 2004. In light of recent neo-Nazi / white supremacist appropriations of medieval culture and symbolism, he worried that some of what he wrote could be used as fuel for the neo-Nazis’ fire.

So he wrote a blog post to explain how he went wrong over ten years ago, and pinned the link to it to the top of his Twitter account with the caption “Can you go back & rewrite your own scholarship?”

It’s not quite the same thing as what I’m doing, of course. His article is published, is being widely read, and is archived forever. My pieces exist only in print, and it’s more than likely that I have one of only three or four surviving copies.

But I think there is purpose to making those texts public, and working through them, analyzing them, reading them closely… They are important in showing how the Bais Yaakov / charedi education system works – especially when you consider that the person who wrote those things (me) is now horrified at them, and quite likely was uncomfortable with them even when I wrote them.

My plan is to post detailed critiques of pieces from these publications – coming soon! (That’s why the above images are so tiny – I’ll post better images and transcriptions when I write about each one.)

lchu cheshvan cover

3 thoughts on “Can I Go Back & Rewrite My Adolescence?

  1. I think you’re being too hard on yourself. Expecting your teenage self to recognize the problems with the culture she was in is like expecting a fish to realize it’s wet.

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    1. Oh, absolutely. I’m not judging myself. In fact, I’m kind of giving myself credit for having written something that shows such struggle and tension, even implicitly! I guess I just want to highlight how difficult it is / was – and of course, I’m using myself as a “case study,” kind of, because I think my teenage-self is representative of a lot of other people in the same situation (one of whose stories I will be posting shortly as well), and I think it’s important to really think through the subjectivities of teens in that situation. Maybe someday someone will do a sociological, scientifically-sound study of it. Till then, my personal narrative is a good starting point 😊

      (And also, re: being too hard on myself – that may be the phrase I hear most often about myself 😉)

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  2. Thanks to Stew Sheen on Facebook for linking to this November 2017 piece by Natan Slifkin about grappling with previously-published ideas which no longer match up with the person he is now: http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2017/11/disposing-of-nosson.html

    On why the book he wrote and no longer agrees with is still valuable: “it shows how a post-charedi ideologue condemned as a heretic can have started off as a Kool-Aid drinking anti-rationalist charedi apologist.”

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