When I was 7, my dad sat me down on my bed to have a talk. I was too young and painfully well behaved to have had experience with you’re-in-trouble talks, and I had not suffered any family tragedies that would have warranted any kind of heart-to-hearts. Also, I come from a long line of simple-minded folk who just don’t think too hard about much at the age of 7 or for many years after that. I suspected nothing, and I sat with him without feelings of guilt or impending doom or anxiety.
These days, after many a serious talk since, if someone says they need to speak with me and they do not provide me with some sort of caption or theme to prepare me for said talk, I instantly wonder what I’ve done wrong, filing through past conversations, actions and possible embarrassing butt calls where I might have been talking shit about crap.
On that day when I was 7, I sat with my father with open eyes and innocent curiosity.
He fidgeted a bit and finally composed himself as he perched himself awkwardly on the end of my bed and said, “Deborah, it’s time that you went to Hebrew school.”
I stared at him while I tried to make sense of the words and what they meant to me.
He carried on. “You will be going on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays beginning next week for 2 hours each day.”
I didn’t know what to feel. I didn’t know anyone in Hebrew school. Most of my friends were Reform Jews who did not start going to religious school until the next year or the year after that, and they certainly didn’t go for 6 Hebe-tastic hours per week. I had no concept of this thing my father called “Hebrew school.” Whatever it was, though, required my father to wear a serious face and launch a surprise attack, and that didn’t seem like a good thing.
His tone was sullen and grim. I imagined this was some sort of punishment. It was one of those, this hurts me more than it hurts you kind of tones as if he was saying, “Pediatrics has not been as lucrative as your mother and I anticipated, so we’ll be selling you into slavery.” What was worse was that he was giving me no time to prepare. I am not someone who embraces change gracefully. I need time. I had no time. No time to wrap my head around this new schedule. No time to consider how all other extra-curricular activities would take a back seat in my new, wood-grained paneled Jew-wagon. No time to buy supplies. No time to say farewell to my gentile friends I would most likely never see again. No time to choose a slave name. Shmucha? Nebishah?
“Do you have any questions?” he asked.
I didn’t being the simple son. “I don’t have a choice then?” was all I could manage. “Right. It’s time,” was all he could say back. I don’t remember much else. I don’t think I pitched a fit or slammed my door or said much else, but I remember feeling that my childhood had ended exactly then.
I learned to read Hebrew, but I never knew what I was reading. I learned some Torah stories, but when I hear them now, it’s like I’m hearing them for the first time. I got along with the kids in my class but only because none of them knew how much of a loser I was in public school. Hebrew school was the great equalizer we all suffered. Mostly, it was 6 hours of torture per week until our bar mitzvahs when we would be released from our sentences.
Now I’m teaching Hebrew school. Not because I’m so religious or observant or God-loving that I feel the need to evangelize my faith. Definitely not because I’m so learned that I must share my knowledge with young disciples. I’m Morah Devorah because I don’t want kids to have the same awful experience I had. Also because Hebrew school pays pretty well.
On the first day of class, one of my students was terrified and tearful. This was his first year at Hebrew school, and he was not excited to be there. I spoke with his mom the next day who happens to be a friend of mine. “He had a good time, Deborah. He’ll be ok. It’s just that we had been putting off Hebrew school so that he could participate in other things. And then, we finally had to register him this year before he was too far behind. I said to him, ‘I know it’s going to suck, but you have to go’.” And that, my friends, is what many of the parents I know think and apparently say about Hebrew school. I can’t blame them. It did suck.
Well, so far, I think we’re having a good time, my Hebrew school class and I. Yes, I have to teach them stuff, and it’s not all fun and games. I lose sleep over lesson plans feeling responsible for their early Jewish experience, and I envy those other teachers who have so much training and experience that they shvitz Judaic knowledge out of every pore. But if I’m going to be honest, I’ll admit that I like what I’m doing, and I think there is actually learning going on. I may not survive the year, but I know that I’m putting my foot in between this dor v’dor so that hopefully the door stays open for these fantastic young scholars of mine. At least they should learn how to make a good pun, nu? Wish me luck!