Where We Should be Talking about Eliot Spitzer

Thursday, March 13, 2008
Special to the Jewish Week

“Spitzer-fatigue” has set in. For an eclectic variety of reasons, not least of which is the tawdriness and blatant hypocrisy of what Governor Spitzer was engaged in, most people appear to have had enough. It’s time to move on, they say, and to let him and his family deal with the detritus of his epic fall from grace.

By and large, I agree. There is little to be gained by rehashing what is known, and speculating about what is not. True enough. But personally, I don’t think that there’s been enough discussion about it with our children.

I did a decidedly unscientific sampling the other day of some of the teenagers who are in my orbit. I teach a Hebrew High School class made up mostly of girls from some of the best public and private schools in New York City. When I suggested to them that, in lieu of our regularly scheduled subject for that day, we spend some time talking about the Spitzer story, there was a bit of an awkward silence. I asked them whether or not they had discussed it in any of their classes, the answer was an almost unanimous no. One or two teachers had made a passing reference to it, but that was all.

When I pushed them a bit about it, they expressed some considerable surprise that it was such a big deal. “In Europe this wouldn’t be such a big story,” they said.

Then I asked my own two younger children, who attend Ramaz and Heschel High Schools, and they, too, answered no.

Why is this, I asked myself?

You might be thinking, “too risqué for schools. Parents should handle it. It’s not the appropriate subject for teachers or rabbis (also teachers) to be addressing.”

Well, in a perfect world, where parents have the kind of open lines of communication with their children that make all subjects approachable and discussable, maybe. But my experience has shown me that those kinds of homes are few and far between. Most parents shy away from talking about the kinds of issues raised by the Spitzer affair, and leave their children to process them for themselves.

I think that’s a terrible mistake.

Learning that people in important positions are human beings with clay feet is one of the most important life lessons a child (of any age) can learn. Among the people who fall into that category are, potentially, parents themselves, rabbis, teachers, friends, and just about everyone they know.

The devastating results of a serious betrayal of trust are difficult enough to deal with, even when one knows and understands human frailties. When a child is left to figure all this out on his/her own, it’s exponentially harder, and more damaging. Schools and synagogue classrooms are exactly where our children should be talking about what happened, not out of prurient interest, but as a cautionary tale. Well-prepared teachers and rabbis are precisely the right people to be bringing a little healthy skepticism into the mix, since they are powerful authority figures in the lives of the children they teach and mentor.

I did talk about the governor with my Hebrew High School students, and my own children. I hope the message got through.

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