During all my years of public school, I never wrote an essay or assignment on a Jewish topic. While it's true that few classroom opportunities came, I lacked confidence. There were several Jews in my grade level, but we were clearly a small minority.
In my senior year of high school, I took a special Honors Humanities, where the topics would be "wide ranging." That and belonging to a Jewish youth group and spending two summers at a Zionist camp helped me decide -- I would write about Jewish topics in this class.
Our first assignment was on theatre and I picked the Yiddish Theatre. I wrote the paper and received an A-. My hand was up for every question and I participated enthusiastically. I couldn't wait for the next topic!
Poetry was the next unit and I wrote down Modern Hebrew poetry for my topic. My teacher, whom I will call Mrs. Hoffman, asked me to see her after class. I walked to the front of the classroom, smiling at the thought of researching this paper.
"Susan," Mrs. Hoffman said gently. My stomach fell. The teacher was not smiling. "I want you to choose the topics you like for your papers." I nodded uncertainly. "But I don't want you to limit your choices to such a narrow topic." I felt my face redden and my hands turn to ice. She meant Jewish topics, didn't she?
My mind flashed back to elementary school, when my 6th grade teacher made me stand in front of the classroom when I didn't recite the Lord's Prayer in our Morning Exercises. "Here is the girl who will not say the Lord's Prayer," she announced to the class. I was too humiliated to even tell my parents.
The 5th grade teacher kept me after school each time I had Hebrew School and the 4th grade teacher didn't pick any Jewish kids for the coveted Crossing Guards.
Christmas caroling each year left me to decide between caroling and feeling uncomfortable or sitting alone in my class, feeling even worse.
I nodded at Mrs. Hoffman and left without another word. I stopped raising my hand in class and wrote my papers on other topics. I graduated high school and spent the summer in Israel, feeling secure there --- I could talk about anything Jewish that I wanted.
In the fall, I began college, led a Young Judaea group, joined an Israeli student group, majored in English, minored in Hebrew and yet still I did not write any papers on Jewish topics.
In the summers, I took classes in education to also receive a teacher's certification. Graduating early, I needed to student teach to complete the requirements and snagged a position in my old high school.
I received a letter from the college with the name of my supervising teacher: Mrs. Hoffman.
I was determined it would work and apparently so was she. She was the perfect supervisor --- welcoming and supportive, she allowed me to teach what I wanted. None of the content I chose was Jewish. Happy during student teaching, I kept a reserve when with her although I figured she had forgotten all about that incident.
By the semester's end, I had fallen in love with teaching and much had to do with Mrs. Hoffman, who truly extended herself. I went to see her that last day, to thank her. She handed me a beautifully wrapped package. I was surprised --- usually the student teacher gave the supervisor the present, not the reverse. I carefully unwrapped what I could feel was a book.
My face must have shown my astonishment when I unwrapped the Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts published by the Encyclopedia Judaica in Jerusalem. It was an expensive book filled with exquisite Medieval and Renaissance illustrations. A little note fell out and I picked it up.
"I hope you enjoy this book and continue your reading on such a rich subject." Patricia Hoffman
Mrs. Hoffman smiled. So she had remembered.
I don't know why she said those words to me that day after class or even what she had meant. I had left the classroom without asking her to clarify and without sharing what I felt. Both of us should have cleared up the matter.
While we never discussed what had happened, her gift was eloquent, cleared the air, and we both embraced it.
Mrs. Hoffman's gift changed me.
In my first teaching position at a large public high school, I explained politely to my department chair that I would not put up a Christmas bulletin board but would be happy to do one on authors we were studying.
In graduate school, I wrote papers on Israel, Jewish writers and my Jewish experiences. And more than that, I learned to explain my feelings when confronted with something that did not feel right Jewishly.
Today, it seems that my student teaching with Mrs. Hoffman was bashert, fated. Life doesn't always give us a second chance and we had a redo, in a sense. When I visited my hometown after that, I stopped by the high school to see her.
Her book remains in our library, a gift that gave me confidence and helped me find my voice.
With subtle and not so subtle pressures, in schools, on social media or in politics, individuals are pressured to think, speak or behave in certain ways, within definite boundaries, often with few facts and limited understanding. Many remain silent, as I did, even when things don't seem right.
This experience eventually taught me something I should have known -- that I didn't need anyone's permission to speak or write about who I was, what was important to me or even what made me feel uncomfortable. I had to discover this for myself --- how to communicate, not with silence or anger, but with the passion that had been inside all along.
I didn't need permission to speak. I already had it.
• The Bashert Effect
• My Dad's Private War Against Murder Inc.
• Up Against The Wall
• Idiot Proof sukkah Building
• Who's Buried in Grant's Tomb? An Unlikely Story of Transformation and Repentance
• Healing and Cooking
• Celebrating denial?