I hated Hebrew school. It was the only place in my life I ever got in trouble. My best friend and I–usually steadfast rule followers–always found ourselves holding back snorts in the back of the classroom, the seriousness of the room taunting us into the kind of giggles only two hours of after-school Hebrew and bible study can beckon. Deep, Hebrew-school-hating giggles.
The teachers were well-intentioned, I know. They would have to be–taking on an irreverent group of non-believers three days a week, kids who would rather have been anywhere else in the world than inside a musty old synagogue classroom learning ancient Hebrew from Dina and Gadi–who, from what I can tell, were the biblical equivalent of Dick and Jane, but if it’s possible, even more humorless. Dina and Gadi had all these trials and tribulations having to do with the Philistines and it was all so alienating, having nothing whatsoever to do with our actual daily lives as secular Jewish children in 1980’s suburbia. (Honestly, I’m sure I am misremembering those details–that textbook! Such strange and specific things, I know.)
I also remember, though, that after many afternoons spent in what I thought of as the luxurious little junior congregation room–complete with its own bimah, its own thick siddurim stocking the shelves, its own red velvet flip up seats (seats that thwacked back up if you stood for even a second to get the attention of said best friend, giving you away to a disappointed cantor)–I learned all the prayers I say to this day. By heart.
So here I am with my own kids, and ahem–I’ve passed down the hating of Hebrew school to them, hoping that somewhere along the way they would pick up some of the good stuff, too. They only have to go two days a week–serious progress right there! But it’s not enough. I drive them there after school on Tuesdays and they and their snarky compadres in the carpool lament their fate as I did–making up songs and “would you rather” type exercises to determine which of them hates Hebrew school the most. (I’ll spare you the horrifying things they would rather do.)
But, I just smile to myself and turn up the radio, because the whole thing is a rite of passage and I’m down with that. I really am. I tell my friends who consider taking their kids out because they’re not getting anything out of it and who really cares anymore and they have tutors nowadays and all that, to just sit tight. Stop indulging. They shall suffer as we did, I proclaim. But secretly I have wondered the same. Are they getting anything out of it besides a rite of passage? I ask them every week and every week they say the same thing. No. We don’t learn anything. It’s just boring. Boring, boring, boring.
Both of my children are liars.
I know this because, like the Jews who fled Egypt before us, my children were tested. At the seder earlier this month, in their grandparents home, they were tested–called upon to fill in blanks, ask questions, and sing songs, and, get this, they passed, with flying (coats of many) colors. They raised their grubby little hands (having eaten Grandpa’s signature chocolate seder plate–a delicious lesson in why this night is different), called out with gusto and at the top of their lungs, all the answers. They knew the story. They knew the Hebrew. Their Hebrew accents were guttural and just off of perfect, like little sabras. And they got up and acted out with flair and angst the plight of the wandering Jews. Yeah, they were cute. (Cute little liars.)
But I’m not mad at them for lying. I’m grateful that, somehow, they have become children with an enthusiasm for and understanding of our story, our history, our language, and our prayers. I’m grateful that somehow, my daughter’s favorite part of her goodnight routine has become reciting the V’ahavta and the Sh’ma with her dad when the lights go out. By heart.
So really, this whole matter is a heads up to my fellow parents who have also let themselves believe the content of the ongoing Hebrew school smear campaign launched by our (in fairness) over-scheduled children. To you, who have suffered through pleading after-school carpools, or maybe had to yank a pretending-to-be-sick child out of bed on a Sunday morning by their toes. To you, who has to endure endless and unwinnable why do I have to conversations that seem like existential conversations, but really they’re just regular conversations: I have seen the truth. I know what they’re up to. And now you do, too.
Just don’t let the kids know you know. Smile sympathetically and turn up the radio.