Burn, baby, burn as opposed to Learn, baby, learn

            October/November 2012    
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Learning for Life is the Jewish Way of Life

By N. Shuldig

I came to Los Angeles in 1965. It was shortly before the Watts riots that took place for six long days in August of that year. I had taken a job working for a service company at that time. When the riots broke out we sat in the office of the dispatcher who was frantically radioing to the mobile service units that he knew and suspected of being in the Watts area to warn them to get out. I can still recall the tension in the office as one of the drivers spoke with such fear of his life; fortunately he got out unharmed.

For the duration of the riots, I, like so many people, followed on the television the senseless destruction and pillage that continued. At that time I remember the chant that the blacks would say, over and over again: ‘Burn, baby, burn’. To me, it was a senseless, insane manner to resolve perceived inequalities.

I grew up in a traditional but liberal Jewish home. I never heard any negative words about blacks or anyone else. My parents worked hard to pay for a modest home, food and clothing for their children; they were certainly not rich. But my parents encouraged us kids to get ahead in life via hard work and education. For me to hear the blacks chant, ‘burn, baby, burn’ seemed exactly the opposite of what they needed to get ahead (or just to maintain a decent life style). To me, it seemed the phrase should have been, as my Jewish friends at that time were wont to say, ‘learn, baby, learn’. It was not just me, but many of my friends that used that phrase, ‘learn, baby, learn’.

From that time onwards, I noticed that myself and most of my Jewish friends continued in furthering their job skills: some took advanced college courses, others took what were called ‘extension’ courses and in general I, together with my Jewish friends, slowly climbed up the ladder of success. Success here does not mean being the top of the field in one’s profession. By success, I mean living and enjoying a good, clean, healthy and happy life, which includes marrying and settling down and raising a family with out major disasters, divorces or catastrophes that bring sorrow.

I have also noticed that people who stay in learning, and by learning I do not mean necessarily college and job advancement type skills, but learning in the broad sense of expanding one’s mental horizons have greater life success and happiness than those who pursue the perceived route of happiness as inspired by the cultural norms.

As a matter of fact, those who invest some time each week into Jewish learning are in my opinion much happier than those who spend their time seeking entertainment and happiness from the movies and television, going to restaurants and other forms of cultural events. People who use the movie stars as a basis of selecting a life style are often like their mentors: the most depressed and unhappy people in society.

I have been personally involved in Jewish adult education now for over forty years. Each person that I met that comes in to renew his/her Jewish connection, to learn more about being Jewish has always left being more satisfied with life. Why is this? I believe that Judaism is not a religion like the other religions. Christianity, Islam and the others are not connected to family; Judaism is really an expanded family. It is the family of the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and we are their descendents.

It is the way of life that is based on the Torah, He who created the world gave us an instruction book of how to live our life. Although much of the Torah is not related to the family, still, Judaism is related to family. Every holiday, every celebration of the Shabbat is turned into a family affair. Every wedding, every bar/bar mitzvah, every brit is a family affair. Judaism is living with people; it is being happy together with people; the religious aspect is only how the non Jews view us.

Every holiday, every event comes to teach us something new in living and enjoying life. There is no end to what we can learn from our Jewish heritage. If there were an end to what there is to learn from Jewish holidays, there would be no need to repeat them. Each time Passover comes, each time Chanukah comes, each time Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot come, we learn more about life. It is from this that we derive our individual and communal happiness.

Although I have retired from my professional work and from my Jewish adult education work, I still see the difference in people who spend time learning about their Jewishness. Those people who look towards the latest gadgets to bring them happiness have a fleeting happiness that disappears in time with the thrill of having their gadget. Those people who enjoy entertainment, also, when they leave the entertainment, their internal happiness level sinks to near zero and they are back to their normal unhappy mode. But I have seen that those people who enroll in Jewish education when they finish their learning and leave, take with them a richer understanding of themselves and life. They take an enjoyment of life with them.

If someone is not busying learning, he is busy dying. Learning is like building a home, not learning is like letting the house deteriorate. There is no doubt that the blacks in Watts in the long run accomplished little with ‘burn, baby, burn’ compared with what the Jews accomplished with ‘learn, baby, learn’.


from the October/November 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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