The Unconscious Conflict:
The Collision of the Values of Popular Culture and Judaism in the Lives of the Contemporary Orthodox Teenager

Yael Ziegler

This project examines the attitudes and values held by American Modern Orthodox female high school graduates who come to Israel to learn in yeshiva for one year. The author's initial assumption was that there has been a marked shift in the value system of this type of student over the past decade. This shift seemed to involve a marked behavioral degeneration and increased intellectual slothfulness. This assumption, unprovable though it may be without long term research, has been shared by many administrators and educators who work in these institutions, who support it with anecdotal evidence. In lieu of a long term research project, this paper provides a snapshot of these student's attitudes in the year 2000.

The impact on the students of this year of study in Israel is profound. Shalom Berger,in a recent doctoral dissertation, examined this issue and concluded that during this year there is a significant change in the students' attitudes towards Jewish learning, ritual practice and Israel. Taking into account the significance of this year in the students' lives, the author felt that it was imperative to examine the nature of the changes both in terms of how they affect the students and how they might be confronted by the institutions involved. In this way, these institutions might offer better responses to the current intellectual and spiritual needs of their students.

After proposing several hypotheses as to the ostensible changes and their underlying causes, the author composed a questionnaire designed to ascertain the truth of these hypotheses. Questions were asked with respect to the students' commitment to halacha and behavioral norms. The students were examined as to the extent of their contact with and their attitude towards popular Western culture. The questionnaire included questions which endeavored to ascertain the manner in which they utilize their spare time. The family values of the students were probed as well as the scope of their financial expenditure and the source of their funds. Finally, the students were asked questions about their attitude to their year of study in Israel. Twenty questionnaires each were distributed in four mainstream girls' yeshivot in March of this year.

The questionnaires produced significant results, some of which confirmed the suspicions of the educators, others of which revealed entirely new and unexpected components. First of all, the commitment of the young women to normative Judaism is overwhelming. A case in point is their response to the question as to whether they plan to cover their hair after marriage. Due to the highly personal nature of this particular Jewish law and the fact that many of the mothers of these students who I personally met do not cover their hair, this was an area in which I suspected observance would be deficient. Nonetheless, 77% of the respondents assert that they will cover their hair after they get married. 16% are still undecided. A mere 6% maintain that they are not planning to cover their hair.

The results of the questionnaires also indicate a strong commitment to Israel and overall identification with Orthodox behavioral norms. For example, 73% of the young women assert that they would be uncomfortable holding hands with their boyfriend, while 18% feel comfortable with that behavior. The remaining 9% are undecided.

Despite their overwhelming commitment to Judaism, the students appeared to be entirely immersed in popular American culture. They are familiar with all of the contemporary television shows, movies and music groups they were asked about. At the same time, most of them appear to be unfamiliar with popular books, modern or classic. These results led me to the conclusion that the students were undoubtedly exposed to popular Western culture, but generally not through the medium of books. Other responses corroborated this deduction by establishing that most of these students do not engage in voluntary reading.

The results of the questionnaires indicate that young Orthodox teenagers are growing up with two powerful, but antithetical cultural influences. On the one hand, they are deeply immersed in the popular American culture. On the other hand they recognize that Judaism is, and must be, more meaningful than the popular culture. They intensely desire to adhere to the norms of Orthodox Judaism, but do not always have the tools to do so. This may account for their reliance upon their year in Israel for spiritual growth. In any case, it seems incumbent upon the yeshiva institutions to respond somehow to this pressing phenomenon.

Another striking conclusion is the evidence that despite their devotion to Judaism, the students do not dedicate their free time to voluntary Torah study. Perhaps this also relates to the expressed lack of interest in voluntary reading. These two factors may touch upon the observation, made by various educators today, that students who watch television are accustomed to being entertained, receiving instant gratification and information without having to strive to achieve it. This, too, seemed to the author to be an area in which a curricular response was critical.

Although by no means did the author of this project exhaust the possibilities for confronting the shift in attitudes and values suggested by the results of the questionnaires, she does venture some possible curricular responses to the above-mentioned situation. Combatting the values of popular Western culture and replacing them with an ethic of laboring to achieve an Orthodox Jewish way of life is a daunting task. One cannot underestimate the value of providing role models for the students to observe and emulate. In addition, an informal discussion group setting for directly confronting the sensitive subjects which may arise seems to be the most appropriate way to resist the potent and detrimental values offered by the popular Western culture without offending the students' sensibilities and engendering defiant resistance.

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