Growing up Jewish: Hebrew Schoolby Patricia Goldblatt April 25, 2018
First there was the inviting environment of Sunday School, a place of acceptance, hugging, loving older women who resembled the bubbies of your dreams: soft, rounded ladies with greyish buns, hands overflowing with delicious goodies to eat, their warmth, their praise and delight at your coming, shaking yourself from your cozy bed on the weekend to come to this place of easy learning.
However, once you turned five or six and had started grade one at public school, you were faced with an entirely new reality, one tacked on to the regular school day, two days a week from 4:30-6:30 and another on Sunday morning. The teachers at Beth Shalom located across the street from my father’s hi fidelity store were a mixed lot. Some were university students, some displaced persons, European refugees or Israeli immigrants attempting to make a new life in Canada.
And instead of the front doors adjacent to the synagogue set out for Sunday School kindergarteners, we entered through the back of the building on the unpaved car park. Up narrow twisting hallways, we climbed, I expecting the same warmth of welcome that I had anticipated and experienced in Sunday School. Tales of Abraham clubbing the idols, dancing Vashti, greggers to push out Haman’s evil name, trees bursting with buds on Tu B’shivat or the hard bark – I, like boker from Israel distributed to us, had set the stage for alluring, magical tales, interesting foods and the promise of rich and interesting experiences.
But on this first day before me was an empty classroom, and we girls, instructed to wait outside in a single line, began slowly and methodically to take up our desks in an orderly fashion. A sober stiff- backed young woman entered, took her place at the front and rapped on her wooden desk, calling us to attention. Rosh Hashanah would soon arrive, so she grimly indicated the large book drawn out filling the entire huge green board behind her. It was ominous. Commandeering a stick, she pointed out that this was the book in which we would be judged, our fates sealed. Although we were silly young things, ponytailed in summer dresses, our expressions of joyful curiosity quickly faded as we feared our futures were being foretold and our behaviors of prayer, charity and repentance set out as the markers that would determine whether we would continue to participate as the daughters of our families; or if we would be erased, struck down dead by G-d, for perhaps not sharing candy hidden in the recesses of our pockets, pinching our siblings, or even coming late to class, having dawdled on the way from our other schools: all transgressions foretelling our doom. He, always watching, knew everything.
Years later, my own son’s first day also terrified him so much that trembling, he refused to return. When we queried why, he tearfully explained, the teacher had taken the children to the sanctuary to see “the bones” of our ancestors. “Not bones,” I explained, “books.” He said he had kept his eyes down, tightly clenched, as his moreh had pulled back the screen from the ark and begun to unwrap something velvet, he, fearful a shaking skeleton who might grab him.
Those early days for me were not conducive to study. The brightest in my class were placed closest to the teacher, but I, preferring to watch the fortunate children free to play outside in the lane, and savoring the sweets I had smuggled into class, was pushed closer and closer to the perimeter of the room where red-haired Yahudit inhabited the space in front of me and gum chewing Shira behind. We were conscious that our class location was prescribed by our inability to memorize and repeat the prayers. In short, we were uneducable, easily ignored if we were beyond the teacher’s sight lines.
In the divided class, there was a profusion of names I’d not heard before, but I enjoyed the sounds of the elision of letters making a musical presence such as Rifka, Shulamed, Seepora, Channah, Miriam… My own name was ugly, I thought, Pessy, possibly meaning lazy as it was related to Pesach/ Passover when we recline at the table. Two bright girls were called Chava, although one’s English name was Honey and the other, Elaine: this was incomprehensible to me. They sat in locations one and two, directly in front of the teacher’s desk. For them, it was beaming smiles of encouragement, and congratulations. For Yahudit, Shira and me, a passing scowl should our teacher turn to acknowledge a breeze from the window. We giggled when the Hebrew word “bum,” a forbidden word, was uttered in the “Sh’ma Israel,” the teacher’s steely eyes burning into our souls. Even the smartest girls could not conceal their embarrassment when they had to murmur the word. But it was the three of us at the window edge that received our teacher’s displeasure as we tried to suppress laughter behind our fingers.
Although all seats were originally filled in first grade, as years passed, fewer girls persevered, and in spite of my lack of progress, I was passed on to the next grade, my seat always at the farthest reaches of the room. Grade three was catastrophic as a young Mr. Urbas, requesting I stand from my position now at the very back of the classroom, read from the board, and we discovered I needed glasses. I felt the hot tears sear my eyes as I was now exposed as not only slow, but also near-sighted. Thick as coke bottles, those glasses did not encourage me on to heed better attention during those hours my mother insisted I attend, explaining she wished she had been able to participate in prayers and would not have her girls suffer the same lack of confidence. I’m not sure if he called on me again, but in my darkest heart, I hated him.
In Grade four, our teacher, an exuberant attractive sabra from Israel, recounted how she as a soldier had almost been blown to bits in a skirmish, her pregnant body losing its precious cargo. I looked with compassion and sorrow at this young woman, not understanding completely the horror story she was conveying of her life in a land that was far from milk and honey. In every class, I seemed unable to go beyond this narrative, her mannerism brisk, perfunctory in spite of the tragic tale she had shared with her wide-eyed students in her heavily accented voice. Throughout the year, I replayed in my mind, the parts of a black truck scattered in the sand, fragments of flesh turning the sand pink.
And from 30 pupils originally, there were maybe six of us left, ready for confirmation. This final year, grade five, it was Mr. Green, warm, affable, understanding Mr. Green, wearing his short sleeved sport shirt who greeted us girls at the door at each class: and as studies have shown, one person can make the difference. Undoing the previous years, my aversion to learning loaded with unpleasant memories, this man taught me how to actually read and write in Hebrew, bringing me close to the others whose learning had been properly scaffolded as they had progressed through homework, attention and absorption of concept, book work and recitation. It was exhilarating to be moved closer to the front of the room, my presence accepted, even acknowledged with kindly nods of approval. In fact, I had improved so much that I was awarded a special certificate for my accomplishments. And, no doubt, were my past teachers still employed at the school and present at graduation, they must have shook their heads in unison that Mr. Green; ordinary, cheerful Mr. Green was able to accomplish so much with that girl whose name they had likely forgotten – the one with curly hair whose head was permanently turned to look out that side window. On that day of graduation before the entire congregation, my heart soared. I wore a white dress with flowers down the front, and at the conclusion of the service, my grandfather whirled me around in a dance.
I learned so much from Mr. Green: that education can be fun; that I was teachable; that attending class could be more than just following my parents’ wishes, that there was even delight in gleaning new information, in connecting and comprehending lessons that might build me as a student, a Jew, able to communicate, participate and ultimately enjoy the tenets of my religion. I remember him teaching me, fondly, and wished that he had been positioned earlier as my instructor, for there are so many deficits in my Hebrew education.
But unfortunately, like my mother, even now I cannot succinctly follow all the prayers in the book, requiring my husband to point out the particular line so I can rejoin the other congregants, and if at Passover, I attempt to read my portion in Hebrew, my words come slowly or my confusion with a dot at the top corner of a letter makes me stumble. No one minds, of course, only me, but I feel the contrast of the rest of the family, their smoothly flowing progressive Haggadah offerings, contrasting to my sounding out words that are unfamiliar, slowing the Seder to almost a standstill. Regrettably.
As a mother myself, I heard my own children’s complaints regarding their Hebrew education about “ Mr. Iraqi from Iran and Mr. Irani from Iraq,” and the teacher who admonished my son that “he did not care that his grandfather had died” ( no doubt a regular student excuse for not doing homework. Although yes, Jordan’s grandfather had passed away), but as in all schools, religious or not, there are those people who forget who their pupils are who are put into their precious care, and for whom it is the lesson, not the child, the need to accomplish so much in so much time, to complete the course of study as prescribed by the syllabus, forgetting or perhaps never comprehending that every child will learn differently: as Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences prescribes.
Still for me, there is a sadness that the spirit of those early days in Sunday School Jewish had not endured, yet I recall Mr. Green as a teacher who had truly impacted on my sense of self as a Jew and can remain hopeful for the Mr. Greens that come into one’s life. Would that be so for all of our children.