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Hebrew School

February 2, 2018

 

We should be able to learn something important, something useful every day. It took me only a few days in 1965 to learn I hated Hebrew School.

When I was eight, starting 3rd Grade in Mrs. Schweigart’s class in Botsford Elementary School in Livonia, Michigan, I realized my parents needed to prepare me for my Bar Mitzvah. Even though my family was “Reformed” (translation: we rarely did anything remotely Jewish,) I still had to go to Hebrew School on Tuesdays and Thursdays right after school as well as every Sunday morning. I had to plow through the rituals of learning Hebrew, studying my Jewish roots, as well as Torah, because in five years for one morning, I would get up in front of hundreds of others on a Saturday morning and chant a haftorah which entitled me to be a man which led to a party with lots of food and hopefully a bushel of money which might be used someday for college.

Twice a week, after suffering through the rituals of Mrs. Schweigart during the day, the yelling and punishments from a woman who might have been happier in her heritage homeland, Rhineland Germany, blurting, “Sieg, heil” to another group of kids, I was privileged to come home and before starting my homework, I would walk to the corner of Rensellor and Vassar to take the bus to Hebrew School. I vaguely recall calling it “the ride to hell.”

The Hebrew bus was what I now imagine Henry Ford used to cart the Jewish employees he despised to the Ford Motor factory in 1913. The bus was old, had a dirt-covered floor, and smelled of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and a variety of other oxides that could make a grown man puke.

We brought our school books and sat on them, sticking our heads out the windows, so the smell became tolerable. It didn’t matter how cold it was; the air outside was livable, the air inside foul and rancid. Before we stuck our heads out the windows, we had to prepare. A cardboard box called “The Puke Box” was passed from aisle to aisle so anyone who needed it could relieve himself instead of retching on the floor. The smell of passed puke made me feel like vomiting every time.

The bus ride stopped to pick up each kid for nearly an hour before it arrived at its final destination. But before that ending, we faced something almost as bad as the smell, which was simply the fine art of rock throwing.

We couldn’t keep our heads out windows the entire ride. When we entered each subdivision, we kept our eyes focused on kids outside the bus: goyim, Jews, anyone who turned or bent over with his hands behind his back. Each ride was a target contest. Kids all over Livonia collected their assortments of rocks and let them fly at the nearest Hebrew bus. Every kid’s goal was for their own rock to crack a window. This was preparation for the throwing of snowballs. What must have been their exhilaration was our misery.

Some kids were advanced, using bebe guns like the Red Ryder seen every December 25th on A Christmas Story. I remember the day Debbie Majorovich yelled she’d been shot. Blood trickled down her face. Keith, the brave, black bus driver, finally stopped the bus. He could accept a rock but bebe guns were a different story. He slammed on the brakes and we all got out, following him to the house he thought the shotgun-boy lived at, the one who scampered after firing. We were happy to be off the bus, out of the smell, and waited as he pushed the door bell and knocked. We continued to wait but finally left and were ten minutes late for the United Hebrew School at the Livonia Congregation on Seven Mile Road. Rabbi Zentman, the principal, wasn’t happy.

Hebrew School was two hours of intense boredom, three days a week. My first teacher was Mrs. Adler with the thick Israeli accent. I can’t remember anything I learned but I remember the class bully, the crazed Jewish kid, Arnie Sam. I was excited that someone else named Arnie could be so funny, fearless, and rotten. All the rest of us eight-year-old Jews sat in awe.

Arnie Sam never listened to a word from Mrs. Adler. He said anything that popped into his head, came in when he wanted, and tormented all of the teachers as well. We watched, mesmerized when we stood behind him as he splattered Mrs. Adler with a burst of water from a water gun directed at her face, hair, and shirt. Rabbi Zentman never fazed Arnie when he brought him to his office for punishment. Arnie was just glad to get out of class again.

Over the next few years, I got to witness some of the proud accomplishments of my fellow Hebrew School inmates. My cousin, Lenny, a nice, respectful kid at home, became a master of the spitball from the back of the room. David Lipschitz became the Honor roll leader, as a torrent of laughter erupted every time his name was called. Elliot Ring, a math whiz at Botsford (and future CPA) took a vow of silence after his second year of Hebrew School, refusing to speak when called upon. And Arnie Sam passed to the status of Hebrew School legend.

Arnie taunted the third year teacher, Rabbi Rosenzvieg, more than anyone. He pounded the Rabbi with bruising body checks in the floor hockey game at the break. Once, he turned off the lights in the bathroom and urinated on the Rabbi’s pants. Another time, before class, he locked Rosenzvieg in the classroom closet while his classmates quietly celebrated a few extra minutes of time without learning. Rabbi Rosenzvieg often talked to himself during class and walked outside the classroom, still talking. Then, he wandered back into the classroom, still talking to himself. (Today, he is the founder and director of the Detroit Area Holocaust Memorial Center.)

I forgot almost every thing I learned at Hebrew School but learned enough Hebrew to chant the haftorah at my Bar Mitzvah. I remember so little of that day except what was photographed for future viewing. For the Sunday party at King’s Restaurant in Southfield, Michigan, I was allowed to invite up to five boys and five girls. I invited my best friend, Larry Pollack, who later became a devout Jew for Jesus, as well as Steve Schick, who was later sent to the Yeshiva and hated it. Eventually, he married a Catholic girl and settled down in Taylor, Michigan, which could be called the “home of no Jews.”

My good friend, Jeff Lebowitz, failed to make the five-boy cut. He was the sixth boy then but is now within the top five of my friends. Two of my other invited friends when I was thirteen were Rick Sherman and Linda Greenberg, now married to each other for over twenty-five years and still good friends to my wife and me.

After my Bar Mitzvah, my parents allowed me to decide whether I should conclude the last four months of Hebrew School so I could graduate and get a diploma. I think my answer then was something like “Hell No,” though I doubt if I swore to my father then.

I remember that everything was okay after the decision. My parents saved a few months of Hebrew School tuition and I saved at least ten hours a week of dread, sick stomachs, broken windows, and unbearable boredom. Instead, I was able to practice my cornet, do some extra homework, watch more TV, eat more snacks, and play a lot more with Larry, Steve, and Jeff.

Seven years later, in 1977, my parents had to decide where to send my little brother, Kenny, for Bar Mitzvah preparation. I came clean and told them about my adventures in Hebrew School, stories I had never shared with them before. I was able to convince them to find another option to prepare Kenny for his Bar Mitzvah. They were able to find a tutor, Mr. Murmelstein, who would drive to their house once a week to teach Kenny Hebrew, Torah, and eventually his haftorah. Murmelstein was a terrible driver and often parked his Oldsmobile Gas Guzzler on the grass or on the sidewalk. He was filled with enthusiasm and quirks, including asking my parents every week for something different to eat. Yet, at least there was no bus and it was only an hour a week anyway.

When the lessons started, Kenny didn’t seem to care as he just went through the motions, listening and doing the least homework he could. But as the weeks and years continued, Kenny started to learn Hebrew, listened to some fascinating stories from the Torah, and began to care about Jewish studies. It wasn’t as exciting as baseball, basketball, or the latest record albums but it became intriguing to him, a challenge. He became fond of Murmelstein and Murmelstein liked him.

When Kenny eventually rose to the bimah at Congregation Beth Abraham Hillel Moses, he read fluently with a beautiful voice that still hadn’t crossed over to puberty.

I think now of the number of hours Kenny was able to not spend in Hebrew School but instead with his friends, playing basketball, trading baseball cards, riding bikes. When I came over my parents’ house, instead of watching Kenny jump on a bus, we played ping pong together, threw balls in a game of catch in the backyard, or sat on the lawn or in the basement, playing checkers.

I realize now that when I came out of my self-centered world and told my parents not to send Kenny to Hebrew School, I actually performed a good deed.

When a child lives until he’s only thirteen and a half, every hour, every minute takes on more meaning. It becomes precious.

When I now review the years I’ve lived, I can reflect with some deeper satisfaction. I realize that giving Kenny those few extra hours may have been the greatest gift of my entire life, my most sacred mitzvah.

 

From Five Fathers

Copyright 2006

By Arnie Goldman

BookSurge, LLC

 

Congregation Beit Kodesh

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