Slow learner now gets being Jewish
Slow learner now gets being Jewish
By Ben A. Shaberman
March 30, 2007
On Labor Day in 1969, at the age of 8, I broke into Taylor Road Elementary School in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, with six other kids and vandalized the school’s library, restrooms and teachers lounges. The opening of school was delayed for three days because we did such a good job of tearing the place apart.
Ironically, the chief mastermind of the destruction, an older boy and well-established neighborhood troublemaker, lived across the street from Taylor, and his mother called the police when she spotted some kids hanging out of the school’s windows. Without realizing it, she busted her own son along with the rest of us.
As the youngest and smallest of the proclaimed juvenile delinquents — and the only one who bawled hysterically throughout the court hearing — the judge went easy on me. I got off with trespassing, probation and a $25 fine.
However, my divorced parents, in a rare collaborative moment, were not so lenient. They sentenced me to Hebrew school. What better way to keep little Benny off the streets and get him in touch with his Jewish heritage?
And so began what was supposed to be my path to Judaic enlightenment.
For the next three years, I attended afternoon Hebrew school four days a week. While most of my friends, even the Jewish ones, were playing baseball, going to the candy store or watching “The Three Stooges” on TV when they got home from school, I was getting on a bus to go learn a language that moves across the page in the wrong direction and uses vowels optionally.
Why couldn’t I have been just a neglected latch-key kid?
At my Hebrew school, there was no show and tell, no games, no movies — just the rote memorization of the Hebrew language and Torah study. We also learned about the ancient characters in Jewish history: Abraham, Isaac, Judah and the Maccabees, King Solomon and Queen Esther. And though “The Three Stooges” all were Jewish, they unfortunately weren’t part of our stimulating curriculum.
Neither of my parents ever did much to reinforce our Jewish heritage at home, though my family did celebrate Passover. The highlight of our Passovers was the ceremonial meal called the seder. For many hours, my family would discuss and taste each symbolic, mouthwatering item on the seder plate, which included parsley, horseradish, a bone and a boiled egg. With a few strips of bacon, the seder plate would have made the perfect meal for the Atkins diet.
During our seders, there also was discussion of the 10 plagues believed to be a punishment from God that befell the Egyptians for their enslavement of the Jewish people. These plagues ranged from frogs to boils to slaying of the firstborn. My innovative family developed its own plague for the seder: chain-smoking. We took the “slaying of the firstborn” concept to a new level: “Slaying of anyone breathing.”
My relatives spent the rest of the evening kibitzing — mostly complaining about the hippies and President Nixon. “They’re all meshugeh,” my grandfather would groan as he tapped his cigarette on the side of an overflowing ashtray.
The final stage of my formal Jewish education took place in beautiful Pompano Beach, Fla. I moved there in 1972. Though there was a local synagogue, there was no Hebrew school, per se — only Sunday school. So my sentence was immediately cut by 75 percent — just one day a week instead of four!
My parents’ plan at that point was to get me to learn just enough Torah so I could have a bar mitzvah and officially become a Jewish man. I had a different plan.
As they say in real estate, it comes down to location, location, location. Our apartment complex in Pompano happened to be just a few blocks away from a canal teeming with fish. And our unit happened to be next to the home of Rick, a nice gentile boy who loved to fish as much as I did.
After my many months of Sunday morning angling expeditions with Rick, my mother was notified that I rarely showed up for class. At that point, she and my dad threw in the towel — they gave up on the bar mitzvah plan. I was freed from bondage! It was like my own personal Passover.
For the next 30-plus years, I never looked back. I occasionally got dragged to synagogue by a girlfriend, but the operative word there is dragged. I even played in a Jewish softball league for a few years, but the operative word there is softball.
However, a recent chance encounter with a charming woman named Bluma Shapiro gave me a new perspective on being Jewish. I never actually met Bluma; I only heard her briefly on a radio program during my lunch hour.
Bluma described her miraculous story of survival during the Holocaust. She talked about how the Nazis occupied her hometown of Bialystok, Poland; how she unsuccessfully tried to hide from them in an underground system of bunkers; how she regularly saw Jews shot at point-blank range for the most arbitrary reasons; how she ended up being a prisoner in five concentration camps, including the infamous Auschwitz; and how after liberation, she returned to Bialystok to learn that every single member of her immediate family had been killed.
While I was listening to Bluma, it occurred to me for the first time that the Holocaust was never discussed during my Hebrew school career. For that matter, no one in my immediate family — parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles — ever talked about it either. Did they think the story was too shocking for a growing boy — at a time when that boy was watching graphic footage of the Vietnam War and civil rights movement every day on prime-time television?
It also occurred to me that the Holocaust ended just 16 years before I was born. When I was a kid, 16 years seemed like an eternity. World War II was ancient history to me. But now, at 46, it gives me chills to think that the Holocaust ended just 16 years before my arrival on this planet.
I was incredulous to realize that my Jewish elders chose not to educate me about a period in our history that was so incredibly horrifying on such a grand scale. Furthermore, unlike those familiar stories from the Old Testament — those greatest hits from Hebrew school — the Holocaust is very recent history. There are even eyewitnesses like Bluma Shapiro still alive to tell the gruesome tale.
Bluma is in her mid-80s, but still spends a lot of time talking to school groups about her experiences.
“Though it takes a lot out of me, I believe the reason for my survival is I have to talk about it,” she says. “People say it didn’t happen. I lost my whole family — my parents, five siblings, aunts, uncles. No one survived. This is why I have to talk about it — no matter how much it costs me emotionally and psychologically.”
Despite my parents’ best intentions, I never developed much of an appreciation for my Jewish heritage. I doubt I’ll ever have the urge to attend Sabbath services, buy a yarmulke or lead a Passover seder. I have no regrets about balking at that sacred rite of passage, the bar mitzvah.
But thanks to Bluma Shapiro’s remarkable story of survival and courage, and her tireless conviction to keep on telling it, I am beginning to understand what it means to be a Jewish man.
Ben A. Shaberman is a writer living in Baltimore.
Posted in Chicago Tribune