by Jan Booker (Malibu, CA)
School meant public school. Private school was for rich kids and we didn’t know any. For South Philadelphia Jewish families, Hebrew School equaled in importance our secular education.
We didn’t go to Sunday School or religious school once or twice a week. Hebrew school was serious business: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoon, after regular school, for two and one half hours, plus the same amount of time on Sunday mornings. If you subtract recess, assemblies, art, gym and music, the time spent in Hebrew School equaled our daily secular school time.
We had several subjects: Hebrew, of course, where we learned to read and write using the first five books of the Bible as our text. But this was before the establishment of the State of Israel when Hebrew was rarely used as a conversational language, so to this day I can read Hebrew, but my conversational skills are limited to about thirty unconnected words. Then there was literature, where we studied the literature of the Jews, concentrating on writers like Sholom Aleichem and Peretz. History was as expected, a history of the Jewish people, from Biblical times through the Diaspora, up to what was the present for us. In the days before and during World War11, we studied shtetl life and European migrations of the Jews. For those who went to Hebrew school after the war, studies must have had a very different focus. We had written tests and oral exams and homework. Probably our classes in Hebrew school plus our secular school education equaled what is taught in any Jewish day school, except we spent double the time in classrooms combining public school and Hebrew school.
I attended JEC2, which meant Jewish Educational Center #2, part of a network of independent schools called, usually, a “Talmud Torah” or referred to in Yiddish as “Cheder.” This institution was not synagogue- affiliated but part of a central education system. Classes and offices were housed in a building at Marshall and Porter Streets, a typical school building with three floors and a wonderful auditorium. The building was a kind of art deco- style. Wide front steps led to a center hall and then to the large auditorium, where typical school-wide events were held: plays and holiday celebrations, religious observances and special events. Many years later, the building was utilized as a senior center operated by Philadelphia Jewish Community Centers.
Attendance at this Hebrew school almost mitigated the necessity of belonging to a synagogue. There was no need for additional opportunity for worship. We celebrated all holidays through the school, and the entire family was welcome to join any event. The children were involved in all aspects of presentation or observance.
When I was about eight, studying Bible stories, I asked my teacher a question: “Why,” I said, “if God knows everything, did He permit Eve to eat the apple.” A curious look passed over the teacher’s face. “Ask your mother,” was her answer. It took quite a few years for me to understand why she didn’t want to deal with a reply.
We celebrated every holiday with a play to which parents and grandparents proudly lent their presence. In my first year of Hebrew school I was in a Chanukah play. Because so many of the parents, and all the grandparents, were immigrants whose English language skills were modest, plays were presented in English and Yiddish. My part was to run across the stage, stopping front and center, to announce in Yiddish, “Hannah is dead, Hannah has died, threw herself over the wharf and lies there with her seven children.”
When I think back to my seven years of Hebrew School, I am full of wonder at the quality of the teachers. Mr. Blank taught Hebrew, a brilliant man who wrote fourteen novels in a language not yet used other than for worship. Mr. Sankowsky taught us history. I learned years later that he was an accomplished artist whose work was exhibited throughout the city. Dr. Levitsky, the principal, had a PhD, an impressive accomplishment in those days. His wife, a striking exotic- looking brunette, taught us music and directed our dramatic productions.
We had no confirmation, no bat-mitzvah. Those ceremonies were for more upscale neighborhoods. Our parents thought them frivolous; it was the learning that mattered. In our South Philadelphia culture, boys were bar-mitzvahed but girls were also educated in Hebrew school in coed classes.
My memory is that there were no bar-mitzvah classes for the boys, who had to study with a Rabbi or Melamed (teacher.) My brother was tutored by a special bar-mitzvah teacher who came to our house several days a week for a year. My father, who lost no opportunity to increase the educational opportunities of his children, had Mr. Shafritz stay a little longer each session to teach me to read and write Yiddish. So long as I knew the basic Hebrew alphabet (Yiddish uses the same alphabet but substitutes letter vowels for the symbols used as vowels in Hebrew) he argued, it would be a simple matter. It wasn’t, yet I can still work my way around large print in a Yiddish newspaper. Book texts are somewhat harder and I give up easily.
Some families, eager to pass on their Socialist political leanings to their children, sent them to Jewish schools that de-emphasized the religious aspects of Judaism and focused on political and cultural issues. I met many graduates of these schools several years later when I joined the Zionist youth group.
Janice L. Booker is the author of The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, Philly Firsts, and Across from the Alley Next Door to the Pool Room, from which this reminiscence is excerpted with permission of the author. For more information about her work, visit: http://www.amazon.com/Janice-L.-Booker/e/B001KCCS8E