Posts tagged “Hebrew”.

Who Wants Extra Credit?

The Bar Mitzvah is an important rite of passage–that most secular Jewish boys in America do not really like. Most secular Jewish boys wind up pressed into religious instruction as an additional commitment after school and on Sundays, possibly to keep us from watching more TV. Most parents have to strike up a deal that you HAVE to go to Hebrew school at least until you are bar mitzvahed.



Bar mitzvah has somehow become a verb when it’s really a noun.

I had a b’nai mitzvah. As a tail end of the baby boom, I had to share my bar mitzvah, because there were a LOT of kids at Temple Israel. There was a Friday night bat mitzvah, my b’nai mitzvah, followed by a kid whose parents opted to use the Temple’s caterers, so his was Saturday afternoon. All they had to do was walk down the hall to the catering hall. We drove to a country club that is now a gated community.

Anyway, our temple had a Hebrew High School. Originally, it was in a former private residence that had fallen to ruin. Behind it, they built, in 1973, the Youth House. It is a testament to the intersection of poured concrete and 1970s colors. I recall a very large gimmel adorning a red or orange door. To make it hip, there was a kitchen with kosher pizza and Coke cans with Hebrew writing, to lure us into Judaism. Or lure us further.

For some reason, I actually went to Hebrew High School, beyond the mandated bar mitzvah. A lot of us did. I enjoyed this more than the horrible two years with Rabbi Mayerfeld, who clearly hated children with a passion (see previous blog post for my vitriol).

Although, for some reason, I also grew weary of it and skipped a year. I was “welcomed back” with the notion that I would somehow make up that year by writing a special paper about Ethiopian Jews. That was a lovely fiction. I never wrote the paper, and I graduated with my classmates anyway. Frankly… they needed me a lot more than I needed them. This was extra credit time. Were they really going to turn away a nerdy kid who took Hebrew AND Yiddish classes?

The t-shirt is from this era. It was sold around Great Neck. The spelling, to me, is more Yiddish than Hebrew, actually. I think they even allowed this as gym wear. It’s a collector’s item nobody wants. Today in Great Neck, it is much more likely that kids would wear this shirt in Farsi, which I now hear every single day. A fascinating and foreign language I shall never learn.

The Hebrew High School was a good experience, though. We had teachers who clearly were too young to teach mixed in with kindlier older teachers, none of whom I wanted to see harmed in any way. Except for the time when one old idiot insisted that my Aunt Mary was really Aunt Miriam. Hello! No one ever calledher thatn. He though Mary was “too Christian.” It turns out her Hebrew name was Marya or MIriam, but she thought that sounded too Jewish. Even her legal English name, Molly, was “too Jewish.”

We had one earnest young woman who taught us about Jewish thought. Another was a no-nukes hippy who taught the class, “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Jesus But Were Afraid to Ask.” Because many Jews never learn anything about Jesus outside of Ben Hur (a great Jewish movie, about a gay Roman, his Jewish boyfriend, and Jesus). We also had a comparative religion class in which we almost brought a Roman Catholic priest to tears. We decided that the Holy Trinity and statures didn’t make sense if you claim to be a monotheistic, non-idolotrous religion.

Over all, it was a good experience. I am still not very observant, but I hvae a lot of Jewish thought in my head because of the place. My brother couldn’t be bothered with anything past bar mitzvah. My mother, of a good orthodox family, was never given any Hebrew education. My father forgot a lot of stuff. I am a nerd who reads, so Dad declared me the “religious authority” because I know that you pray for rain on Shmini Atzertet. I also know which sauces go best on falafel.

Why Seth Cannot Midaber Ivrit: Still VERY Angry About Hebrew School

So, another Yom Hakippurim Hazeh has rolled into town, and I find myself not  atoning for all of my sins, or some of yours, or fasting. Instead, I just had a snack and then plowed through more stuff here at Breezy Blossoms–my ancestral home since 1966.

Most of it is very pleasant: greeting cards from my first birthday, old photos I thought we lost, and then came the Report to Parents from the Religious School of Temple Israel of Great Neck. And it all comes back to me.

Hebrew School: Where adults who know something about Hebrew, Judaism, or Jewish History come to a school and completely don’t relate to the children they are supposed to be teaching. Most of the teachers were simply not good at teaching. Some even seemed to hate the children. Some in particular I think just hated me. The horror of Hebrew School for me was that by fourth grade, I already was the “class faggot” because of my poor performance in gym. But somehow, word of this spread to the other kids in the Hebrew School who were not even in my elementary school. This guaranteed my complete and utter pillorying as a big fag by the time I got to Junior High School, which was certainly inspired by Dante’s Inferno for Teens ™.

I digress. There were clearly two teachers I think were very nice people who loved teaching. There was Mr. Zapinski, who truly seemed to love the children, and was fairly patient with them, and even once let us take turns listening to his pacemaker after one kid heard it ticking during  a test and was convinced this dear old man was going to explode. “You should listen to it–so you know there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

There was also Mrs. Rutner, who was a truly lovely, maternal woman married to one of the most fuckingly sarcastic educators I ever met–he was the principal of the religious school. By the time I reached my fifth year there, I was struggling horribly in Hebrew. Around the time you are 11 and a half, they suddenly get interested in seeing if you are going to make it through your Torah portion at your own Bar Mitzvah. I could barely read a random Hebrew paragraph out loud, and Mr. Rutner (his real name) was so sarcastic, as if it were completely my fault that I was not fluent in Hebrew. I am as mad as he was. I should have become fluent in Hebrew. I should be able to read every Facebook update my cousins in Israel write in Hebrew. Instead, I only understand every fifth spoken word. All I can say in Hebrew with real certainty is “not now” and “I don’t know.” That might come in very handy at the El Al interrogation before you board the plane. I was able to read a word in Hebrew, and they let me board.

What annoys me most about Mr. Rutner–his real name–is that he was so nasty. There was not an ounce of compassion, or any thought to want to help me improve. Five years into the game, he wonders why I am not doing well at Hebrew? And to make matters worse, he shares this deprecating attitude about me with Rabbi Mayerfeld, not a rabbi from our Temple, but someone with the title Rabbi who was our teacher in the fifth and sixth years, who would openly mock me and taunt me, completely on his own initiative–nothing I did–in front of the class, telling them that the principal thinks I am a Hebrew illiterate. So, when the person who is there to teach you is a role model for the other bullies in the class, do they expect me to be running Mosad?

I don’t know if these two men are alive, but I hope they are in hell. Now, Mr. Rutner I hope is in the Jewish Hell where you go to the Second Avenue Deli and they are out of everything except sardines. I hope Rabbi Mayerfeld (his real name) is in Catholic Hell, where he is force to spend his days in an Irish Pub or something equally Goyish. I think Protestant Hell is too good for him–for them, Hell means flying coach, always. I say Catholic Hell because they mean business–those medieval woodcuts make it look pretty bad. Pretty-bad.

The other problem was my parents. First, my mother: She was raised orthodox, so she never sent for any religous instruction because girls didn’t need to know Hebrew or Halachah. If you can light candles on Friday night, keep a kosher kitchen, and put up with no electricity one out of every seven night, you get an A. This resulted in my mother lighting candles on Friday night and then serving us bacon or sausages before I was sent now and then to Junior Congregation on my own. On-my-own. My mother only went on the High Holidays, where she would hector us in whispers to pray louder. “Let’s hear it!” she would hiss between whispers, to which I dangerously replied, “Why aren’t you singing?” Because she didn’t know. And when I first learned Hebrew and was ecstatic to learn about how verbs were conjugated and nouns declined, Mom made it clear she didn’t want to hear about it. Because she couldn’t appreciate it.

I am giving a major pass to my Dad because he worked very hard and had a disability, and while  we never once went to Shabbat services together, he did go every single Sunday we had Hebrew school to go to the weekly breakfast with the rabbi, a wonderful, learned man who made the group read the books during the week and then discuss the Jewish meaning over a bagel.

Also, it was the 1970s. I watched an awful lot of TV, and helicopter parenting was not yet invented.

The really sad thing is that I should have become fluent in Hebrew, and those first six years should have been a lot more nurturing, instead of more of the same. Luckily, I actually continued onto the Hebrew High School, where I liked the remaining students a lot more, and we had younger teachers who actually felt they had a mission, and were encouraging of the students. Except for one older jerk who decided that my Aunt Mary should be called “Aunt Miriam” even though that was not her name. We also had the nonsense earlier on of my teacher telling me my Hebrew name wasn’t possible. This put my mother into Missile Mode, and she made it know LOUD AND CLEAR that she very well knew her father’s name and that I was named for him. They stopped fighing it after that. It was probably part of the cultural imperative to make our Yiddish given names more ivrit chaya–Living Hebrew. In the 1960s and 1970s, emulating modern Israel seemed preferable to Yiddishkeit. That was wrong. Not only was my mother right, but I have seen my grandfather’s ship record and naturalization, and he had a good Hebrew name with a Yiddish pronunciation. How dare the Hebrew School tell me and my mother the name did not exist? This is also the Hebrew School that sent us home telling our parents to vote for NIXON. Believe me, if you want to send my mother’s head into a low orbit around the Earth, talk to her about how great Nixon was.

More on this later: Excerpts from my Hebrew School report cards.