The Perils Of ‘Potch Culture’
Special To The Jewish Week
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About a month ago, I ran into my son’s former kindergarten teacher in the streets of Jerusalem, where we live. “Pinchas misses you,” I told Rebbe Shlomo. He really does. Rebbe Shlomo taught Pinchas to make about seven different kinds of paper airplanes.  

As the exchange on the street corner was ending, the rebbe took hold of my arm: “It is a shame that Pinchas did not have the full benefit of my pedagogy; he really missed out.” I smiled courteously, not responding, but answering instead an earlier question about where Pinchas is now enrolled for first grade: “We decided on another direction.”

The pedagogical benefit to which the rebbe was referring and which Pinchas had “missed” was corporal punishment — the potches, hits or smacks — which teachers in this school regularly mete out, even to their 5- and 6-year-old students. After first hearing about it one day in a conversation with my son, I went to the school to have a talk with Rebbe Shlomo. Although he and the other teachers behaved as if the “educational practice” had a provenance going to back to Mount Sinai — with me cast in the drama as the naïve newcomer to Judaism — they acceded, their eyes on the school’s diminishing enrollment, to my demand to exclude Pinchas from that form of discipline. I was tempted to say to Rebbe Shlomo, “On days when you are not angry at your wife; not upset with your kids; not frustrated by your work; not with a bank overdraft, please feel free to potch away, but otherwise: keep your hands off my son.” We changed schools instead.

Almost as bad: the other day I saw a father in the park, threatening one of his misbehaving kids — they can be so irritating, I know; I have seven of them —with a potch. This father (or any number of parents like him), may be an Ivy League graduate, rediscovers his heritage, moves to an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, maybe first to Flatbush or Borough Park in Brooklyn, and then to a religious neighborhood in Jerusalem, and finally has a permissible outlet for the feelings of anger and violence that he had once been taught and knew — better — through common sense, not to express. But in a culture where every one else is doing it, bearing, in their practice, the presumption of piety, there is the sense that it must be alright. Not only that, but potching becomes a form of cultural identification, a practice allowing for the newly religious to feel part of a culture in which they so much want to be included. But, unfortunately, at the expense of their own children.

“Come down the slide this second! Or, do you want a potch?”

When the child in the park playfully refused, the father let loose. This was more than the detached theatrical anger that the sages of the Talmud advocated in some circumstances so many centuries ago. If, once upon a time, such detachment from anger was possible, and that parents were not then Freudian animals, acting out all kinds of agendas in relationship to their kids, nowadays the parents I see hitting seem to be expressing, on some level — conscious or unconscious — real anger.

For me, disciplining children means getting them to pay attention — nurturing awareness about what kinds of behavior are acceptable in different places. So I am always giving geography lessons: “That’s the way you act with your friends in school”; “that’s not the way we talk at the Shabbos table”; “that’s bathroom behavior” — the last one a common one for my 6-year-old. 

I don not see myself as the kind of person who can hit without channeling other frustrations, and it seems to me the potch — like any trauma — makes it more difficult for kids to pay attention. The world, instead of a promising place for experimentation and play, a place to get a handle on what words and communication mean, becomes a dangerous and irrational place where violence prevails.

In John Milton’s great epic “Paradise Lost,” an angel in conversation with Adam says that “discourse” — language — is not just the special province of man, but what makes him, among the animals, closest to the image of God. And so, in the Jewish tradition, the medieval commentator Rashi reads the biblical expression “he took” — as when, at the end of the Book of Numbers “Moses took Joshua” — as “with word.” Moses does not accost Joshua physically, but, wanting him to be the next leader of the people of Israel, he prevails upon him through speech.

We are most effective with our friends, our co-workers, but especially with our children when “taking” them with our words, convincing them through language, and cultivating their ability to be in conversation. Potch culture — today — is the absence of reason. It erases the meaningfulness of language and leaves a child, bewildered and inarticulate, in a no-place of pain.

William Kolbrener is a professor of English at Bar-Ilan University.


Last Update:

02/21/2013 - 11:11

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I agree with "joshk". Although there is far too much physical contact in our yeshivos and in our homes, I am uncomfortable with the author's attempt to blame this violence on frum culture and the Baal Teshuva's desire to assimilate into his perception of frum culture. Our sages never advocated violence and no right-minded rebbe would ever hide behind chazal in meting out a potch. Abusive teachers and parents will more often either point to tradition or their own shortcomings. What a sad indictment of so many yeshivos is made when we believe that the general attitude of the rebbeim is that potching is just another part of their job

As a member of the charedi world, I can categorically reject the accusations the author makes here. There is no corporal punishment in the frum world. There is limud torah through all means, including the body. Kol azmosay tomarna. The body and mind both must be taught yiras shamayim, especially in the earliest years of childhood. No melamed would ever beat a child out of anger or frustration, chas v'shalom. Instead, the light potches and occsional flicks typically meted out in a cheder or yeshiva are meant to instill greater respect for the torah, and it usually works. The gayva displayed by the author here is breathtaking, but very typical of the liberal orthodox.

Dr. Kolbrener,
Thank you for sharing the Torah's approach to parenting in such an eloquent and clear fashion. Discipline, by its very nature as a reactive response to some violation of parental will, contains dangerous pitfalls for a parent. We would all be well served to prioritize character refinement in our busy lives, if for no other reason than to ensure that what comes out of our mouths (or hands, as the case may be) is appropriate to the situation, and in the child's best interest.

That said, I wonder why, of the many aspects of this father's persona you could have associated with his misbehavior, you chose to pick his religious observance. Are you so clear that it was his level of religiosity (whatever that actually means) , or his new-found commitment to religion, that motivated this lack of self control? Have you found that your colleagues at Bar Ilan, or your former classmates at Columbia and Oxford, were significantly better schooled in self-control and character refinement, than the scholars and students of Torah you have come to know in Jerusalem?

Why not put away the self-righteous orthodox bashing and place blame where it is deserved. Humans come into the world as selfish, unrefined beings. The monumental and often-times heroic task of life is to free ourselves from the slavery of our youthful narcissism, and strive towards the Godliness of faithfulness, patience, kindness, and other, similarly lofty aspirations. These changes come neither naturally nor easily, and the missteps of self-deception are many.

But, one thing is clear, someone who does not focus on this development will remain forever a child. They might have a long beard, or a fanciful degree, or wear a turban or a collar - but without the sweat-producing, painful, life-long work of character development, they remain no "bigger" than my crying 3-year-old who needs YET ANOTHER (this is number 5) drink of water before going to sleep. Who can think of nothing else beyond the unbridled self-centered emotions she's feeling right now.

If you are really Open Minded, then consider this:

The best behaved kids almost always come from
families where the parents smack the most.

The wildest, nastiest, wickedest kids usually come from families
where the parents are LIBERALS, who do not believe in smacking.

Even within the same family, kids who received more smacks
are much better behaved than their brothers and sisters
who received fewer smacks.

This is what happens when an outsider joins a traditional culture. He or she is attracted to some aspects of it but does not share all of the normal thoughts and feelings of the members.

In the end, he is like a wolf in sheep's clothing, professing love for the tradition as it exists on paper but having limited common ground with the real life attitudes of the alleged members of his group.

I agree with your stance and your unwillingness to give into the mores of the group in which you might forever be a newcomer.

I will mention one thing, however. I used to have a friend who was quite a bit older than me. He was from England and had gone to a boarding school.

He told us that the teacher would hit a kid on the top of the head with a book but that it didn't hurt their feelings because it didn't mean anything about the person's status. It was just a way of herding them, physically, into the proper behaviour.

I dont think a 5 year old can make the distinction between "You don't like me" and "You just want me to get off the slide". There is always the problem, as well, that physical management easily becomes an avenue for abuse.

Still, this guy's offhand remark stayed with me as the clearest defence I'd ever heard for corporal punishment in education.

PS: I have read accounts online of young men who left orthodoxy claiming that they were regularly beat up in a ferocious manner by the teachers in their schools. It didn't seem to be very high minded.

Back in the 60's, when daily beatings with a heavy stick were the preferred form of discipline at the Brooklyn yeshiva I attended, a 'potch' would be something I could only dream about.

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