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ARTICLE| Little School, Big-Time Writers

Julie Weiner

Nov 9, 2010

With only 77 students in nursery through fourth grade, Beit Rabban is one of New York’s tiniest Jewish day schools.

Nonetheless, the nondenominational Upper West Side school is hosting three big names of Jewish publishing — novelists Tova Mirvis, Joshua Halberstam and Joshua Henkin — on Monday night (8 p.m., Shearith Israel, 8 W. 70th St. Suggested donation $10;

In an event titled “The Golem Ate My Homework,” the authors, all Jewish day school grads, will have a “candid conversation” on how Jewish education “informed — or perhaps hindered — their work.”

Jewish schools themselves have been depicted, not always in the most flattering light, in fiction such as “The Ladies Auxilary,” Mirvis’ debut novel about a new teacher’s struggle for acceptance at a small Orthodox girls’ school in Memphis, Tenn.

But Mirvis told The Jewish Week her years at a tiny Jewish day school offered her more than “good material.”

“So much of my writing is informed by my knowledge of Jewish texts, of being steeped in that world,” she said.

However, “at the same time, the social norms that come with [many Jewish schools] are challenging to artists of all kinds,” she said. “Artists traffic in the uncomfortable, the things that can’t be said, and in a lot of day schools there’s a deep discomfort with and a deep distrust of that.”

Mirvis, who now lives in Newton, Mass., sends her children to Boston’s Jewish Community Day School, a nondenominational school that she says is “in many ways similar” to Beit Rabban, in that both put fostering creativity and independent thinking toward the top of their stated goals.

So how did little Beit Rabban manage to attract such a lineup of speakers? Lauren Wein, the kindergarten parent/PR committee member/ book editor who helped set the event in motion, said inspiration hit “while I was looking at my bookshelves.”

Wein, a graduate of Modern Orthodox day schools, said that in her work as a book editor, whenever she received a manuscript from an author who’d gone to Jewish day school, she’d catch herself thinking, “That’s interesting: they wrote a novel even though they went to yeshiva.”

Explaining her gut reaction, Wein said that while Jewish schools teach “literary rigor,” they do not “always encourage creativity.”

While Wein’s connections in the literary world helped, the three authors were all “really interested in talking” when approached about the project. “They have children and have thought about these things,” she noted.

Halberstam, who lives on the Upper West Side, is the author of “A Seat at the Table.” Henkin, now lives in Brooklyn, is the author of “Matrimony.”

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