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.