(Go Back to Cheder)
I really was a Hebrew School dropout. I never had a bat mitzvah, never finished the formal Jewish education I was “supposed” to have as a kid.
Like a lot of Jewish kids, I hated going–it sucked to spend the entire day at regular school only to have to put in two more hours, twice a week, after school. I didn’t mind being Jewish, most of the time (Christmas was tricky), but I didn’t feel anything about it. It didn’t matter to me as a religious feeling, or a culture and set of traditions. I wasn’t ashamed of it, and I may even have been proud, but I didn’t care a whole lot.
Since I lived in New York, I didn’t have much trouble with my identity as a Jew, except Monday through Friday, 8:00-3:00. People think of the city as a Jewish place, and of course, compared to the rest of the U.S., it is. When I was going to school in the 1970s, though, on the edge of Spanish Harlem, I spent my days in a school where the only other Jews were my older brother and most of the teachers. My friends and classmates were black, Dominican, Puerto Rican. With the exception of one Muslim kid (I’ll never forget you, Abdul), everyone was Catholic or AME.
At home, our building was one of the last before the entrance to the FDR Drive, the road that people took to get on bridges out of the city. Between us and the highway were a few brownstones, a vocational school, and a gas station. The presence of the gas station shows how “on the edge” of the city we lived. We were in the heart of it, sure, but it was a short walk to the East River. It was also a short walk to the place where the subway comes up out of the ground, where the rents are lower because the train may rush past your window. It was an even shorter walk to the projects many of my friends lived in. It was its own kind of edge.
I played outside all the time (as we did back then), with kids from my building or block. We played with Matchbox cars; we played red light, green light; red rover; tag; hide and seek. After I read Harriet the Spy, I used to sit with a small spiral notepad and pencil under the windows of first-floor apartments, hoping to overhear some morsel worth recording. We rode bikes and got in fights, and ran across 96th Street to play in Whitey’s Park, where Mr. White would unlock balls and other playthings from a small building that also housed bathrooms. And if we fell down, Whitey put mercurochrome on our raggedy knees and let us blow the bright liquid into patterns before it dried. He must have been a city employee; such a full-service playground is unimaginable to me now.
I had a mouth on me–it came from defending myself regularly, not just against taunts, but fists, too. I threw around the f-bomb expertly by the time I was in 4th grade. I kinda had to. I was a “honky Jew,” who “hated Christmas,” and didn’t look like everyone in my class. My first boyfriend (the dimples he had! That afro!) was influenced to dump me after a week by classmates who felt he needed to be reminded I was white. And I didn’t think of myself as white. Not the way they meant it. They meant people who had lots of money and ate mayonnaise on their sandwiches and had blue eyes, and went skiing. People who weren’t ethnic or lower middle class.
And I was so envious of the black girls’ hair, and their braids and exotic hairdos their moms gave them. I had thin, fine hair, and it didn’t do anything good. I was envious of the clothes the other girls wore. My parents never let me have shoes with heels, or coats with fake fur trim. The year those coats were “the thing,” Mom and Dad got me a red plaid wool coat, double-breasted, with two rows of gold-colored buttons. I could feel the punches I was going to get long before they landed.
When it was time for Hebrew School, my brother and I would walk out of Harlem and up the hill to Park and Madison Avenues, then downtown a little way to our synagogue. The change in scenery helped prepare me for the change in culture I was expected to make on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. Usually, there was a bit of time to play outside, so we did, but then off to classes to learn the Hebrew language, prayer, history, Torah. My classmates all went to school at places quite different from mine–either P.S. 6, which was in the kind of neighborhood where all the kids were white and middle class, or any of a number of private schools. They were nothing like my friends. I did not get along with most of them, and most of them did not know what to make of me. They tormented me in different ways, especially after I was forced to return to class after weeks of playing hooky.
I didn’t like the kids, but after a while I didn’t care much for the God the teachers taught, either. It turns out children can have crises of faith, and mine came when we learned about Cain and Abel. I got stuck on the part of the story in which they give offerings to God, and Cain gives God fruit which he finds on the ground, and is therefore overripe, maybe bruised, whatever. These days, of course, I’d have argued that he was a fruitarian, but at the time I was sensitive to the plight of those who have less, surrounded as I was by rich white kids. I asked the teacher, “But what if that was all Cain had to give?” My anger at this terrible God, this insensitive unseen, was boiling up in me. I was outraged, but I asked the question as politely as I could.
“That’s not the point of the story,” the teacher said. I’m pretty sure that was the last time I went. So, no bat mitzvah.
My daughter’s bat mitzvah is in January. She hated Hebrew School and felt different from a lot of the kids there. She thought they were snooty. I wish she liked it. But that’s how it is. Is anything different for her, though? She never would have been able to drop out as I did; we live in a car-centered city. She was picked up and driven to Hebrew School. She is going to finish what she started. She feels at home in our synagogue, even if she doesn’t want to be there.
But she believes in God, and I don’t.