My first introduction to Hebrew school came during my junior year of college. It was my first day of Hebrew 101 and I was feeling pretty sure of myself. While I’d never had any formal schooling in Hebrew, I was certain that having an Israeli mother was going to give me a big advantage. I’d been to Israel several times as a child. I knew songs and words, prayers and curses. Rolled r’s and hard c’s had been the music of my youth.
What I didn’t know was that while I’d been casually absorbing the language of my family, other Jewish kids had been studying it. Seriously. With intent and purpose.
Growing up as the only Jewish family for miles around, the concept of Hebrew school had been as foreign to me as gefilte fish or lox. Of course, I knew about bar and bat mitzvahs, but I never really thought about the work that went into them, the community that it took to prepare a young person for that moment. A moment that I never had.
Because really, even if I’d learned to read the letters and sing the blessings, what Jewish community would have come to celebrate my bat mitzvah with me? My mom, my brother, my sister, the motley crew of Israeli cousins that drifted in and out of our home? That was the only Jewish community I’d ever known, and none of them were terribly concerned with my formal Jewish education.
And so, that first day of Hebrew 101, when I heard all these very American looking kids sounding out words and letters that were nothing more than a mysterious set of symbols I used to see on our Bamba packages, I was shocked.
It took me a few weeks to catch up, but, when I finally memorized the shapes of the letters, the way they fit together without any vowels to link the hard consonants, the way they transformed from a series of disconnected sounds to words,, it all began to flow together. The Hebrew words began to fly out of me, through my lips, my pen, my computer. I was speaking and reading and writing and understanding and flying ahead of my classmates.
And yet, I was still behind. Because while I was reveling in my language acquisition, they were commiserating about the difficulties of learning vocabulary; they were waxing nostalgic about their summer camp experiences and bar mitzvah parties; they were creating a community based on a shared childhood experience that I never had.
I have my own kids now. I’m doing my best to give them the best childhood possible. Perhaps it was some lingering bitterness about being excluded, or the secular world that I spend most of my time in, or just the lack of Jewish education in my own childhood, but I never gave serious thought to sending them to Hebrew school.
And then my middle son came along and started asking questions about faith and God and Judaism that I couldn’t answer on my own. Still, I was reluctant. Would Hebrew school separate him from our non-religious family? Would it be too much additional work for him? Would it make him look at the world as a place where things are black and white, good vs. evil, instead of seeing all the beautiful shades in between?
I don’t know if I would have sent him at all if it hadn’t been for the teacher. Our local Chabad rabbi’s wife is the kindest, sweetest, most sparkling soul you could meet. The minute we spoke I knew that I could trust my dreamy boy with her.
So, I put aside my hesitations and enrolled him in Hebrew school.
My son is a quiet boy, often reluctant to enter new situations, especially without his big brother. But, that first day when I took him into the classroom and he saw the shofars around the room and smelled the challah and heard all the kids chatting and laughing, he let go of my hand and plunged in with his whole heart.
When he talks about Hebrew school his eyes light up, his cheeks flush, and joy bubbles up into his voice. This boy, the one who struggles to memorize his multiplication tables and needs constant reminders to read, is spending hours learning the Hebrew letters and blessings. He’s finding friends that he connects with. He’s getting answers to those questions that no one else seemed to be able to answer for him.
I still have my reservations. There are pieces of Judaism that I sometimes struggle with: the separation from people of other religions, the idea that God gets angry with us for making “bad” choices, and all those many, many rules. When he comes home telling me that God punished the Jewish people for asking for more than one piece of manna, or when he confesses that he feels closer to his Hebrew school classmates than other kids because they’re Jewish, I cringe a little. I feel like I’m back in college again, speaking the same language but inevitably isolated from those other kids in Hebrew class.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever get over my doubts completely. But, what I’ve realized is that it doesn’t matter. My job is not to tell him where to go in this world, only to show him the many different paths he can take, and to cheer him along on his journey.
And so, with a pocket full of tzedakah coins and an enormous smile on his face, I send my son off to Hebrew school every week.
He’s a different boy when he comes home. He’s awake, alive, sparkling with an energy that secular school seems to sap from him. It’s as if some internal Jewish candle has been lit inside of him.
I feel it myself, this light. But it isn’t as pure as his, not nearly as steady.
On that ride home, though, when it’s just the two of us in the car and he’s smiling and laughing and glowing, glowing, glowing, I feel that light inside me grow and swell until I’m glowing, too.