Hebrew School

Raymond P. Scheindlin




My maternal grandfather taught me my first Hebrew letters, the six that made up the masthead of the Yiddish daily Der Tog, as I sat on his knee. Although all four of my grandparents were most comfortable speaking Yiddish (my paternal grandparents barely learned English) and though my father was a native Yiddish speaker and all the relatives of my parents’ generation could speak Yiddish readily, I did not learn to speak the language as a child. Yet I absorbed a lot of Yiddish in a passive way, for Yiddish expressions that I didn’t even know that I knew often surprise me by popping out of my mouth. Yiddish was all around, in the air and taken for granted, until the native speakers in my family died, and then it was gone. I had no incentive to master it, for my Jewish world was in Hebrew. I only became nostalgic about Yiddish in my sixties.


My father also taught me some of the Hebrew letters, including how to write my name in Hebrew. Once, when the windows were steamed up, he made five dots on a pane with his finger, then showed me that by extending the dots into lines, you could produce the Hebrew letters for Zion. But my systematic education in Hebrew began when I started attending Hebrew school at about age eight. Before that, there had been Sunday school, a weekly tedium in which restless children, all dressed up and hair slicked down, were herded to the synagogue’s classroom for a lesson and into the synagogue’s social hall for an assembly. Part of the assembly consisted of a service, mostly in English, printed on a large white card. All that has remained with me from that experience is an English hymn for the Sabbath that I realized, even as a child, was embarrassingly corny.


Hebrew school consisted of classes at the synagogue (a converted three-story brick school building that I described in my earlier piece, “High Holiday Memoir”), two afternoons a week and Sunday mornings. In Hebrew school, we first learned the entire alphabet—beginning, for some reason with the next-to-last letter, the three-toothed letter shin—from a blue booklet called “Hasefer,” and we printed rows and rows of Hebrew letters in specially ruled notebooks adorned with a picture of a turbaned Maimonides on the cover.


Eventually, we received a reader, whose immortal first page depicted a boy wearing a coat and tie and a girl in a dress, and under them the words, in Hebrew: “This is David. David is a boy. David is a little boy. This is Rachel. Rachel is a girl. Rachel is a big girl.” These Hebrew sentences are not as simple for an English-speaking child as might appear because they introduce, right from the start, a grammatical principle that does not exist in English: that adjectives must agree with nouns in gender. Learning the letters was fun, but that was interesting. I would recite the page to myself over and over again, savoring the shift from masculine to feminine.


But the purpose of Hebrew school was to teach us synagogue skills rather than Hebrew as a language, so we did a lot of memorizing and chanting. Both these activities came to me easily, since I was also a shul boy, as I have explained in an earlier sketch. From all the memorizing and chanting in Hebrew school, I gained a better idea of what the old men were mumbling during the long Saturday morning services; and by attending services, I was drilling what we were learning in Hebrew school. Hebrew school gave me the dream that someday I would be able to mumble the service easily, the way the old men did. The outcome of these complementary experiences is that I am at home in a traditional synagogue today in a way that most nonorthodox American Jews are not. But throughout my childhood, reading Hebrew was so laborious that it was a mystery to me how the old men could read so quickly as to finish each paragraph before the leader chanted its last line.


Though not designed to teach Hebrew as a language, my early Hebrew school education laid a solid foundation for learning it. It was the kind of foundation that had permitted the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language under the impact of nationalism in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. This feat, so far unparalleled in the history of language, was possible only because rote knowledge of enormous quantities of Hebrew texts was nearly universal among the barely modernized Jews in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East. Millions of Jewish men (and many women) had virtually memorized the prayer book and the Pentateuch in Hebrew so that the morphology and syntax of Hebrew were burned into their minds and only needed to be activated by will power and a common cause.


I witnessed a small but inspiring example of this process as a child. One day, the rabbi entered the classroom and told the teacher something that he didn’t want us to know, using Hebrew; I could tell even then that he was communicating by improvising a pastiche of Hebrew phrases rather than speaking fluently, the way my elders spoke Yiddish or the way Hebrew is spoken today.


Eventually, we progressed to Humash, the five books of the Torah. For this purpose, there was a thin book, not much more than a pamphlet with a hard cover, edited by a man named Pollack, containing an abridged version of Genesis. Each chapter of the text was followed by memory exercises of the type “Who said to whom?” and “Fill in the blanks.” I remember standing in the yard of my elementary school trying to recite to myself in order the Hebrew names of the twelve liturgical divisions of Genesis, which I learned from that book.


Now in my sixties, I like to amuse friends of my generation by saying that I was the only one who enjoyed Hebrew school. The line always gets a laugh, because nearly everyone I know looks back at Hebrew school as torture. I don’t actually remember whether I liked it or not. Of course, I was bored much of the time, but being bored was how I spent most of my childhood. I hated to sit still through the long hours of public school, too, and my mind was always wandering, as it still does, so I had no reason to single out Hebrew school for special rancor.


I liked the oddly ruled blue notebooks, liked filling them with rows of Hebrew consonants dotted above and below with vowel marks. I amused myself by reading the Hebrew texts printed on the inside cover: “Hatikva” (the national anthem of Israel and still, for many, the national anthem of the Jewish people) and various prayers. I enjoyed learning the skills that Hebrew school offered to teach me and that brought me into contact with the previous generation. I also loved World Over, a magazine designed for Hebrew school kids that was occasionally distributed to us; I followed avidly its thrilling serial adventure story called “Dead Sea Secrets,” after first polishing off its cartoons. I remember fondly watching the autumn evenings as they came on outside the window of the cozy Hebrew school classroom and the black winter evenings, when the windows reflected the overhead light fixture like a midnight sun, and I could hardly wait to get home to dinner. It was a benevolent atmosphere.


When we moved to the suburbs, in 1952, I was nearing bar mitzvah age. My teacher in the new synagogue’s Hebrew school impressed me as an idiot because he expected us to learn how to chant only our own particular haftarah, whereas I expected to learn the cantillation system so that I would be able to chant any haftarah, like the men in my old shul, like my own father. (He didn’t remember which was his bar mitzvah portion because, like other children in the Old Country, he had been taught to read any portion at sight.) Disdaining to learn my own haftarah from recordings, as was already the norm by that time, I found in a book the music notes corresponding to the cantillation symbols that speckle the page of the Hebrew Bible and worked them out on the piano until I knew them and could, at least theoretically, read any haftarah at all.


Virtually no one in our suburb continued Hebrew school after bar mitzvah age, so I found my way to Har Zion Temple, the great Conservative synagogue in Philadelphia’s Wynnefield neighborhood. Wynnefield in the early 1950s was a distinctly Jewish neighborhood (one of the bus drivers on the 54th St. line was wont to call out “Wynnefield Ave.—Tel Aviv” when reaching the intersection where Har Zion stood), and Har Zion was a major and long-established institution of Philadelphia Jewry. With more old people and a Jewishly better-educated membership than our fashionable suburban synagogue, Har Zion also provided a more serious Jewish environment. But it also did not lack the nouveau riche social-climbing element typical of the 1950s, already an object of mockery for nerdy teenagers like myself.


Har Zion’s Hebrew school continued past bar-mitzvah age right through high school, and in it I continued my own march through Mr. Pollack’s little abridged versions of the biblical books. We studied his versions of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, grappling with the eternal questions “Who said to whom?” and “Fill in the blanks.” Eventually, we progressed to a series of little yellow-bound books called Miqra meforash (The Bible Explained), each containing a book of the Bible with brief explanatory notes in Hebrew. The commentary was almost as difficult as the text, but how else can you learn a language except by using it? We also studied the basics of grammar, though I never really “got” Hebrew grammar until I studied it systematically on my own at a much later stage. I think that some of the teachers uttered sentences in Hebrew from time to time, but there was still no effort to teach spoken Hebrew.


Through all those years, Jewish history was accorded only lip service—and religious thought not even that. During my childhood and Hebrew school years, the Jewish State came into being and the Israeli War of Independence was fought, millions of Jews were miserably trapped in the Soviet Union, and Holocaust refugees were in plain sight, but I don’t remember Israel ever being mentioned; and I don’t remember any discussion of the Holocaust. Hebrew school had nothing to do with the present. The curriculum was designed to teach, in a watered-down way, what my father and his contemporaries had learned in the heders of Eastern Europe. That was its charm.




Most of my days, of course, were spent in public school. Since this is a Hebrew school memoir, I won’t go into detail about my adventures there—how I learned to take pleasure in finishing an assigned chore, how I adored some teachers and hated others; how I was good at language and poor at math; how my absentmindedness that revealed itself already in nursery school plagued me all through my school years, as it does to this day; how, as a bourgeois Jewish child, I did not mix well with children of the Italian and Irish factory workers who made up most of the school’s population; how I developed into a nerdy fat kid with glasses and got beaten up, sometimes supposedly on grounds of being a Christ-killer but really because of being easily intimidated. Nor will I speak of my non-Jewish friend Robert or my Jewish friends Morrie and Philip. Precisely because this is a Hebrew school memoir, I want to recall the Christian part of my education.


I grew up in what was then an openly Christian country, the United States of America—specifically, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where it was the law that every school day should open with the reading of no less than ten verses of the Bible, rounded off by the Lord’s Prayer. Assemblies involving the whole school included hymns, invocations, and benedictions, as in church services. All this was normal for the other children, almost all of whom were Christian. Most were Catholic and could speak knowingly of mortal and venial sins and of purgatory; some would cross themselves at suitable moments in our school exercises.


The Lord’s Prayer was alien to me and creepy, and I never recited it with the others, though I felt awfully awkward standing in silence, unsure whether to bow my head as did the teachers and the other kids. But on assembly days, I couldn’t resist such beautiful and innocent hymns as “God of Our Fathers, Whose Almighty Hand” or “For the Beauty of the Earth,” or “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,” which ended with a tribute to the Holy Trinity. Of course, I would skip the words “Jesus” and “Christ” when they occurred, as so many American Jewish kids have done for generations; long before I knew what “Trinity” meant, I instinctively knew that it was another word that shouldn’t cross my lips in a devotional way.


Yet the words and rhythms of the Lord’s Prayer were burned into my brain through the daily ritual just as was the Pledge of Allegiance (which did not yet include the controversial phrase “under God”) and just as were the Hebrew prayers that I learned in Hebrew school and synagogue. These daily and weekly exercises made the Christian texts as much a part of me as anything else; they were in the blood, yet at the same time, alien. It was similar with Christmas. For a couple of years, I nagged my parents to put up a Christmas stocking, but that phase soon passed, as Christmas was simply inassimilable to the family and our way of life. But Christmas was inside me, mainly on account of the songs. During the days before Christmas vacation, we would sing them over and over again in school. The newspapers would print the words of the favorite carols, and some kids would cut them out and bring them to school—these were religious Christmas carols, not the junky commercial jingles that would come later. “Our” Christmas carols spoke of holy babies in cradles, of tender young mothers, of fields where shepherds lay bathed in celestial light, of wise men traveling from afar to pay homage to the infant king. The question of belief never arose for me in school, any more than it did in the synagogue. I loved the carols and sang them with both pleasure and reverence—always, of course, skipping the taboo words.


These Christian observances certainly didn’t undermine my Jewish identity; if anything, they sharpened it, by giving me something to contrast myself with. But they did make my identity more complex than that of a child brought up in an all-Jewish environment would have been. By watching, I absorbed the different modality of reverence cultivated by Christians. I could also see that the Christian scripture overlapped to a great extent with ours, for the readings in school from the King James translation were often from the stories of Genesis or from the Psalms, which I knew in the Jewish Publication Society translation. (I was fascinated with the differences in wording between the JPS and the King James translation, perhaps a spur to my later love of translating.) I came very early to observe the commonalities shared by the two religions: reverence for a benevolent force beyond man’s grasp and love of ritual meant more to me than even the huge theological difference represented by Jesus.


Exposure to the New Testament, outlawed along with the rest of the Bible and the Lord’s Prayer by Supreme Court decisions taken during my later school years, was one of the best things that happened to me in elementary school. The readings were mostly chosen from the Gospels, with the tender story of the nativity, the beautiful (yet often paradoxical) parables, and the tragedy of the crucifixion; I must have heard the Sermon on the Mount a hundred times in childhood. Occasionally, the selection would be from the famous chapter on love in Corinthians and, rarely, from a chilling chapter of Revelations.


I don’t know how I would have learned these things if it hadn’t been for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, because I would never have encountered a New Testament anywhere else, and religion wasn’t taught as a subject. But what kind of an education does a person have who is not familiar with this fundamental part of Western civilization? I don’t know it all equally well, but the parts I learned as a child are part of my girsa deyanquta—the Aramaic term coined by the ancient rabbis for the things learned as a child that one never forgets. Much later, when I was studying to become a Judaica scholar, the Talmud and midrash illumined the parts of the New Testament that were already inside me, I could easily see them as Jewish texts and could easily understand how they would have appealed to a first-or-second century Judean.


I think that the Bible readings, the Lord’s Prayer, and the hymns had a more profound effect on me than on the Christian children, for they knew them already and probably never gave them much thought. But I was a student of the Jewish scriptures by virtue of the thrice-weekly trudge to the Brith Sholem Community Center Hebrew School and my once-a-week attendance at Saturday morning services. The public school readings gave me something with which to compare the material I was learning in Hebrew school and added a dimension to my life without diminishing my Jewish identity or competing theologically with my Jewish heritage. Remember, I was not religious in any inner sense. The synagogue was my second home, not a system of belief.


But I did know the religious experience instilled by the mysterious language and beloved chants of the synagogue services. Public school gave me a sympathetic understanding of other peoples’ religious experiences that I do not often find in the social and intellectual circles I frequent as an adult, for my Jewish circle is too narrowly Jewish and my non-Jewish circle is too rigidly secular for any such sympathy. I suspect that my public school experience of crossing over religious boundaries partly explains why I have devoted so much of my career to translating (etymologically, “carrying across”) Hebrew texts into English.


Listening to the English of the King James translation of the Bible every single day of the school year over a period of eight years saturated my brain with the solemnity, the rhythm, and the utter seriousness of this English masterpiece. It determined some signal aspects of my adult literary taste: my love of the lofty and sublime, my delight in the archaic, my impatience with the jokey, and my disgust with the meaningless.




In the summer after I turned fifteen, I went to Camp Ramah in the Poconos, one of the summer camps sponsored by the Teachers Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary. This turned out to be the first link in my connection with the Seminary, a connection that has lasted for over fifty years. Although JTS is a religious institution that styles itself as the fountainhead of Conservative Judaism, the people who actually ran the Poconos camp in those days were more oriented toward Zionism and Hebraism than toward religion and were less ideologically driven than their successors would be a decade later. Morning prayers were held daily, the Sabbath was observed, and the fast of Tishah b’Av was the high point of the summer, but our counselors were mostly religiously neutral or anticlerical Israelis who had been hired not as religious role models (this was the innocent time before such cant as “role model” came into wide use) but because they could speak Hebrew.


Hebrew was the dominant language in the camp: it was used for all public announcements and was spoken among the members of the staff, who in turn always addressed campers in Hebrew; we were expected to reply in the same language. When a staff member used English, it could be memorable: one of my fellow campers accidentally stepped into a large pat of cow dung and whined about it; the counselor rebuked him by picking up a handful, putting it up to his nose like a connoisseur, and saying, “Een my kibbutz, zees ees gold!” We campers were subjected to constant harangues about how important it was to speak Hebrew among ourselves; these harangues certainly didn’t bring about compliance, but Hebrew speech (as opposed to the use of individual words and stereotyped expressions) was actually quite normal in camp. Many of the campers, products of day schools in New York where spoken Hebrew was cultivated, had skills that were far superior to mine, so I spent much of that first summer feeling like a Hebrew failure.


Though I felt like a Hebrew failure at camp, the moment I got back to the city and returned to Hebrew school at Har Zion, I was a Hebrew star. The exposure, however discouraging, had helped me cross a barrier, and from that time forward, everything about Hebrew was easy. Camp also socialized me into a crowd oriented toward Jewish education and Hebrew language.


I soon joined LTF, one of the youth groups sponsored by JTS for kids like me who had been bitten by the culture of the Ramah camps, and continued my Jewish education partly through the weekly meetings of the branch and through semiannual conventions that brought together kids of this type from other communities. We were lectured to and engaged in discussion by young academically oriented rabbis and by junior members of the JTS faculty—partly about religious observance but, significantly for me, also about ancient texts written in Hebrew. I remember a famous Israeli professor leading a study session for us teenagers on the book of Jonah in Hebrew (it would never have occurred to any of us to read it in English!); and I remember a professor from Dropsie College (now defunct, it was devoted to “Hebrew and cognate studies”) giving a series of sessions on Avot derabi natan, an ancient rabbinic homiletic text. Through this part of my education, I was imbued with an ideology of book-learned classicism.


Hebrew school became more sophisticated. The small number of students still sticking with it were all Ramah kids and LTF members. Har Zion’s farsighted rabbi, David A. Goldstein, provided for us by getting one of his donors to sponsor an advanced program known as the A. M. Ellis Midrasha, which opened around this time. Most of our teachers were young rabbis of an academic bent: Nahum Sarna, who had recently arrived from England, received his Ph.D. from Dropsie and later became a distinguished professor at Brandeis University; Fritz Rothschild, a German refugee who later became a professor of philosophy at JTS; and Chaim Potok, a young rabbi who later became a famous novelist. I didn’t get to study with Potok, who came on after I graduated, instead, I studied with Dr. Pitlick, a professor of literature from Gratz College.


Dr. Pitlick was not a young academic rabbi but an ancient maskil of Eastern European origin whose classes generally went badly and who would console himself with milk of magnesia tablets that he extracted from a little tin that he always kept about him. He told us that his name in the Old Country had been Pitman but that when he arrived in America, he was advised to change it to Pitlick so that it would sound more American. We teenagers played similar pranks on him and misbehaved. To this day, I call him to mind on Yom Kippur when reaching the line in the liturgy asking forgiveness “for the sin that we have sinned before thee by disrespect to parents and teachers.”


The curriculum of the A. M. Ellis Midrasha consisted of Bible (Jeremiah and Isaiah with a modern Hebrew commentary, Rashi’s eleventh-century commentary on Genesis and Deuteronomy); Mishnah (selections of a mostly homiletic nature from a textbook with footnotes in Hebrew); literature (stories by such classical modern authors as Y. L. Peretz and the living writer S. Y. Agnon); and, at last, history, for which we used Solomon Grayzel’s textbook, the only book in English used in the Midrasha.


Rabbi Goldstein and Har Zion provided for us in other ways, too. One day, it was announced that optional Talmud lessons would be made available on Saturday afternoons. A few of us Midrasha students came to the afternoon service, and when it was over and the old men had left, a chubby, kindly shohet who lived in the neighborhood and who had been hired for this purpose handed out copies of the tractate Bava Metzia (for centuries, the entry point to Talmud study for Eastern European adolescents) and patiently taught us for an hour or so. It was painfully slow going—we did only a few lines a week—but my first page of Talmud is etched verbatim in my memory. Our parents were never billed. When there were no Talmud lessons, one of the assistant rabbis took over the slot and taught selections from Bialik and Rawnitzki’s famous anthology of rabbinic lore, Sefer Ha-aggadah.


Those Saturday afternoons were a delicious weave of prayer, study, and the gradual onset of twilight. As the chapel in which we prayed and studied darkened, the old men would drift back to await the evening service. After the service, young and old gathered in the front pews for Havdalah, the lighting of the twisted candle that marks the magical breaking of the Sabbath spell. One of the older men would add his personal contribution to this moment, a rendition of the Yiddish chant “Got fun Avrohom” associated with the end of the Sabbath; though his singsong was nearly tuneless, he performed it with a naïve enthusiasm that made everyone feel good. On those Saturday afternoons, piety and study were inextricably joined in an emotional combination more powerful than any other experience available to me at the time; certainly more than the inanities of my suburban high school with its football rallies led by our dunce-like assistant principal.


The chapel that was the site of these intense Sabbath afternoons had another attraction: a row of tall bookcases filled with old books that lined its back wall. The bookcases were an object of intense and constant fascination for me. It was not an organized library; the books had merely accumulated, along with dried-up etrogim from Sukkot festivals long past and yellowed scraps of Yiddish newspaper. Some of the books were over a hundred years old and had been printed in exotic places like Vilna, Zhitomir, and Vienna. Many were broken and tattered and had handwritten notations on their flyleaves with names of owners and their family members with birth and yahrzeit dates, in old-fashioned Hebrew script. Besides the many worn-out but perfectly ordinary prayer books, there were several sets of the Talmud and its commentaries, the Mishnah with its commentaries, codes, Bible commentaries, midrashim, and prayer books with translation into Yiddish.


There were also many volumes of sermons and halakhic treatises in Hebrew. These were self-published works by shabby immigrant rabbis who were too pious to attend services at a conservative synagogue like Har Zion but who would visit Rabbi Goldstein in his sleek office, carrying tattered briefcases stuffed with copies of their own books. He would charitably buy a few copies out of his discretionary fund, and the books would end up in the back of the chapel, never to be opened except by the curious hands of us Midrasha students. In the bookcases was also something that I now know was a true rarity: a complete set of the khaki-bound reprint of the Vilna Talmud published by the American army in Europe after World War II.


That was on Saturdays. In real life, I was in high school, where nearly everything apart from German and band (I played the clarinet) seemed boring. Even interesting high school subjects like English, history, and biology seemed emotionally unaffiliated—pleasant duties, at best. I was getting my real education in Hebrew school, where I was mastering a language and a set of classical texts and developing the fantasy of becoming a master of a great corpus of ancient books and a part of the continuum of Jewish scholarship going back to before Western civilization existed. What I was learning in the Midrasha, the youth group, summer camp, and LTF seemed vitally connected to my life in a way that high school studies didn’t, for only in Hebrew school was I immersed in a subject with which I had a lifelong personal experience and an emotional relationship. Studying Hebrew books came naturally, and mastery came easily. I expected to go on and on studying such books, and that is exactly what I have done right down to the present day.