DROP-OUT

It is neither a source of pride nor shame, but I was a Hebrew school drop-out.  Well, okay, I admit, it’s mostly a source of pride.

Born ten years after my closest sibling, I missed the comparatively devout stage of my family’s life, when they “belonged” to Har Zion Temple in our West Philadelphia neighborhood of Wynnefield.  It is my understanding that membership did not require religious devotion but did require enrollment and sporadic attendance by my brothers at classes.  It also required appearances at services by the entire family on “High Holy Days,” the annual weeklong paroxysm of piety, when even the least observant  self-consciously communed with the righteous.

By the time I was old enough to commence Hebrew school, which is essentially a five year training program leading to a Bar Mitzvah at thirteen, Har Zion was already reincarnated as a Baptist Church.  Hence, I was enrolled in the “Suburban Jewish School,” a casual institution based in an old house on the other side of City Line Avenue from West Philadelphia.   The teachers were from a branch of Judaism so reformed that it may have approached Presbyterianism.

The faculty was among the first adults in my experience who insisted on being called by their first names.  Instruction focused on culture, food and folk singing more than on theology.  In language class, much was made of the fact that they taught Yiddish instead of formal Hebrew.  The emphasis on learning the spoken language of Eastern Europe did not bother me, determined as I was to learn as little as possible of either language; however, it did occur to my nine-year-old self that Yiddish would not prepare me for my Bar Mitzvah which was, I thought, the raison d’etre of this entire project.

I could not express my perceived need for Hebrew instruction explicitly, I realized, without possibly causing my parents to remove me from the School and place me, instead, into a “real” Hebrew school.  In terms of torture, that would be leaving the frying pan for the fire.  Instead, I chose a course of civil disobedience.  I was supposed to walk straight from elementary school to the School one afternoon a week, for instance, but I was not required to go if it was raining.  (No Abraham Lincoln was I).  Several times, I walked through lawn sprinklers in order to present myself at home, soaked, on perfectly sunny days.   Sunday mornings, predictably, saw more than their share of exceedingly sore throats of sudden provenance.   I am certain my mother was neither convinced nor amused.

My classmates struck me as inexplicably complicit in the cause of the School.  They sang songs with gusto.  They decorated flags and played games; they competed to parse the meaning of bible stories, as though they were already the lawyers that many would doubtless become.  “Doesn’t anyone just want to go out and play ball?” I marveled to myself.

There are certainly studies analyzing whether a later child can get away with more than earlier siblings might have.  My personal experience as a fourth child argues this theory is true, because it did not take long before my mother (I do not recall my father having a role in this arena) gave in to my obstinacy.  At age eleven, I was offered terms for parole, namely:  if I would prepare for my Bar Mitzvah privately, I could cease attending religious school.  I agreed readily.  After all, how could one hour a week with a tutor be worse than three hours a week in class?  Plus, from a pragmatic standpoint, the School’s focus on Yiddish instruction would have required the addition of a Hebrew tutor anyway.  I was ahead of the game!

Enter Mr. Schichtman, my instructor.   Mr. Schictman appeared to have come directly from the set of Yentl.  He wore a full-length black coat, a grey beard, ear-locks and a fur hat.  He spoke English as though he had arrived from Poland that morning, though I suspect he had been in Philadelphia since shortly after World War II.

With the benefit of four decades of hindsight, I can only picture with horror the depredations Mr. Schictman experienced in Europe.  How awful to add the burden of trying to press his centuries-old knowledge and wisdom into a vessel as leaky as myself.   Yet, he presented himself with patience and good cheer.  In describing his bearing and dignity now, it is clear that Mr. Schictman was, in a word, a “mensch.”

At the time, however, I was twelve, and the word that describes what I thought of Mr. Schictman then, is “halitosis.”  Mr. Schichtman’s breath smelled like milk that had been left out for two weeks.  A Bar Mitzvah involves speaking (mortification) and singing (mortification multiplied exponentially) in a foreign language, solo, in front of one’s closest friends and relatives.  Since I could not read or understand Hebrew, Mr. Schictman had to help me memorize my hour-long presentation.

It was challenging to remember so much material, particularly when I tried to do so without breathing.  He leaned in close so that I could hear the nuances of pronunciation.  He insisted that I watch his mouth carefully so that I could mimic his words.  Oy vey.

The morning of the event, I rode with my brother to pick up Mr. Schictman.  I sat in the back seat on the way to the Community Center stifling laughter as Barry’s expression turned to horror when Mr. Schictman sat beside him.  He opened his window several times even though it was a frigid January day, each time saying something about “how nice and fresh the winter air was.”  Mr. Schictman did not seem to notice.

Once we arrived and I took the podium, the Bar Mitzvah seemed anti-climactic.  After the ordeal of preparation, it was easy.  Collecting cash-filled envelopes from the guests was also easy.  At the reception, everyone focused on eating and drinking and my performance, the culmination of so much stress, was instantly forgotten.  I never saw Mr. Schictman again, but I hope he had students more satisfying than I.

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