JWR Pesach
March 31, 1998 / 4 Nissan, 5758

Seder Plate Even Philistines grow wiser

Revisiting Hebrew school

By Ted Roberts

I TOOK MY granddaughter to Hebrew school the other day. She chattered all the way with observations about Passover and her class project. She was so engrossed in telling me of her mastery of the Four Questions and the symbolism of charoses and shankbone that she even ignored the popular music that was on the car radio.

I like her priorities and can't help but reflect that her generation -- I think -- is a far better one than mine. I thought back fifty years to the Hebrew school of my youth.

When I entered the third grade of public school, my mother announced to me that now that I was semi-civilized, I could start Hebrew school. The term of this imprisonment, as my friends and I saw it, was six years. Five years until Bar Mitzvah, then a year of post graduate studies. It was obligatory. There was no parole, no time off for good behavior, no community service substitutions.

Only the jubilee could save me and it wasn't due for 32 years. Mr. Levine, the warden of this institution, was my favorite teacher. Though no carpenter, he always carried a ruler. The only thing he'd ever measured in his life was the Hebrew vocabulary of his forgetful students. That ruler was for little boys with big mouths and young athletes who were sleeping off -- in his classroom -- the fatigue of the lunchtime baseball game. His sleepy prey didn't get a smack on their head, but two loud cracks on the desk, next to their ears. We innocents loved to watch a kid drowse off, then follow Mr. Levine as he ever so sloooooowly stalked his way from his desk to the victim's chair. Then two crashes of the ruler on the desk and the sleeper awakened to a bad dream that was as real as that crashing ruler.

He was a virtuoso with a ruler. It was his baron that orchestrated a dozen or so hooligans into a functioning class. It was like teaching walruses to play the harmonica. Nothing was farther from our natural instincts than the learning of this 3,000 year old language that had no relationship to Joe Dimaggio, Lou Gehrig, Sid Luckman or the girl next door.

We were a reincarnation of the Philistines. We had no interest in spiritual beauty. Somehow, Mr. Levine -- this drillmaster in a crisp, brown suit with matching vest and tie -- hiked us down the road of learning for the two to three years we were under his authority. His weapon, besides that artful ruler, was his pointed stare and the single epithet he used to perfection, "Dummy".

It had a paralyzing shock value when it was shouted your way and coincided with the flat slap of the ruler on his desk. And he used the term with accuracy. It was not hurled as a degrading insult. It was simply a description.

If you couldn't memorize twelve words in a week, you weren't a slow learner, nor were you under-motivated. You were a dummy.

I forgot to tell you about our female students. Even though it wasn't mandatory for Rachels and Rebeccas, every Hebrew School class had several. We considered this unfair since we boys were draftees and all of us had to attend --- the dull as well as the bright.

But the girls were volunteers, a select group, "a few good women," to paraphrase the Marine Corps' motto. And they weren't distracted by sports. They were deadly students to compete against. Vocabulary words poured from their mouths, today's assignment, tomorrow's and next week's, if you didn't stop then.

It was unfair competition, said one of our gang who was a full-time second baseman, but only a part-time student. What else did they have to do?

Well, my granddaughter has plenty to do because she now attends a Jewish day school. And her teacher, unlike Mr. Levine, wouldn't know what to do with a ruler except measure his den for a new rug.

But spiritually, Mr. Levine and my granddaughter's teacher share a desk. Somehow, whatever spirit he instilled in me has leaped a generation and gently put an invisible hand on Sarah's head. Me, the Canaanite, who knew every detail of Babe Ruth's records, but couldn't tell you whether the Rambam (Maimonides) lived and studied in Prague or Babylon. And what did he do? Contribute to the Talmud? Write piyutim? Or make the freshest bagels in Cairo? Find me a nine-year-old boy in Memphis, Tennessee in the 1940s who knew, and I'll tell you when the Messiah is coming.

But even Philistines grow wiser. After many years of wrestling with the Angel of Life, I realized this was a contest I could not win alone. So I became interested in Judaism. And the Philistine of the 40s has a granddaughter who attends a yeshiva in the 90s. Ah, times, they are a-changing.

JWR contributor, Ted Roberts, is a nationally syndicated humorist based in Huntsville, Alabama.


3/3/98: Shusan Rhapsody
2/15/98: There's nothing new under the sun (especially chicken feet)!
2/3/98: To Bubbe's house we go!

© 1998, Ted Roberts