Hebrew School–I Hated It, You’re Going

By Davida Steinberg

August 11, 2010


My Baha’i husband sat next to me. Coming from Northwest Arkansas, it was the second bar mitzvah he had ever attended, or even been invited to. This time, he got a special mention from the guest of honor: she thanked her son-in-law. He joined the rest of us in supporting my mother to learn Hebrew.

URJ women's commentary coverMy mom called our afternoon Hebrew school the Temple of Doom. We complained so much she was convinced we were being tortured in the classrooms in the basement below the sanctuary.

She nagged us to do our homework. We kvetched about Hebrew school at the dinner table. I actually sat through hours of Conservative High Holiday adult services in order to avoid the children’s services. One sibling, in mid-elementary school, went through a phase where every afternoon of Hebrew school coincided with a panic attack.

Once, the synagogue sent us a letter to remind us to pay the bill or we wouldn’t be allowed to go to Hebrew school. We all cheered and begged my parents not to pay the bill. Somehow, all four of my parents’ children, some with learning disabilities, made it through to bar and bat mitzvah.

When I look back on what we struggled through, one thing seems clear: we didn’t seem to fit in with the other kids at Hebrew school and felt like outsiders. Maybe because we went to a smaller elementary school, so we didn’t know many others at the synagogue through school. My introverted father worked in public service, so we had less money available, and fewer connections, but more kids than the average family.

Some of the problem was the learning disabilities. If you read English below grade level, learning to read Hebrew at the same time is like going from the hokey-pokey to learning to dance like Ginger Rogers–backwards and in high heels. We were also on the “reform” spectrum of our Conservative synagogue, and then later found ourselves at the “conservative” end of the Reform synagogue we joined.

I think the biggest difference, though, was the holistic attitude of our parents. When conflicts arose between extra-curricular activities like sports and Hebrew school, my mom had no problem taking us to the ball field or court for a game, reasoning, “We would do more praying on the field than in the classroom.” So maybe my family thought Hebrew school was some kind of a joke?

But another time that week, we would be watching the news during dinner and end up discussing the plight of Soviet Jewry, or why we were planning to Walk for Israel with the JCC, or the history of our Jewish names and genealogy. We mentioned Jewish history any time it was even remotely relevant. By elementary school we knew that the Spanish inquisition against Jews began when Columbus set sail for the Indies, because my mom reminded us of it every October 12.

It’s not that my family took Hebrew school as a joke. (Who would joke about the Spanish Inquisition?) But through our persistent awareness of Jewish issues, my family actually took Jewish education very seriously. We couldn’t relate to the class clowns who freely misbehaved, or to the teachers in over their heads who focused on the lowest common denominator and brought little creativity or relevance to the classroom.

My mother, although born Jewish, hadn’t practiced many rituals in a military family that lived from Iran to Peru, but she chose to marry a man who was more traditional. Together they functioned as a balance in our Jewish-American home, encouraging us to find parts of Judaism that appealed to us through holidays, stories, pop culture, ancient and modern history, foods and friends.

After our bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, ostensibly now adults free to choose our Jewish education, my siblings and I chose to continue to learn through formal means. Perhaps by then we were motivated by our Jewish connections outside of Hebrew school, to our camp and youth group friends and the promise of travel to Israel. But all four of us became confirmands, even though our family changed our synagogue affiliation from Conservative to Reform.

As we went to college around the country, each of us chose to stay active in the Jewish community on campus, through prayer services, social activities, and social and political action. So when my mom announced that she was considering joining the adult education classes at our synagogue, we were thrilled that she was following in our footsteps.

We all encouraged her strongly to attend her classes, the monthly study sessions, and the weekly Hebrew lessons. She mentioned how hard it would be to keep to the schedule with conflicts that would come up with her other activities, both Jewish and of other faiths.

Sometimes I gave my mom an out and told her, “You don’t have to go this week.” To which she would say, “Well, I think I should, because we’re covering this material.” And she would go to class. I know for a fact that she would go to class because she would call me afterwards, to complain!

My mom complained about how often the classes she didn’t like met, and how rarely the classes she did like met. She complained about her assignments, about her clergy teachers and about her other classmates. She complained that the reading material was too much for her, or that she was smarter than the material and everyone else misinterpreted it. Finally, she had a revelation:

“I think you and your sister and brothers just encouraged me to go to Hebrew School because you hated it so much and I made you go! You just wanted revenge on me!” My siblings and I laughed and agreed in part, but also gave other reasons for my mom to attend–to make her Judaic knowledge, so evident and inspirational to us, officially recognized by the community, and by herself. And my mom continued.

Over the course of two years, through the birth of her first grandchildren–twin boys–and the transition of her aging parents from independence 10 hours away to assisted living 30 minutes away, my mom studied and became first a Jewish confirmand and then a bat mitzvah. Perhaps this was not in the traditional order, but my mother had never been a traditionalist, despite always being Jewish.

Although my sister and I joked about giving her “traditional” bat mitzvah gifts like fountain pens or saving bonds, one of the proudest moments of my life was giving my mom the new URJ Women’s Commentary on the Torah as a bat mitzvah gift. She used it as a resource for the speech she gave in front of the congregation, and I was so proud to be there for that moment, along with two other siblings, my husband, my dad and his brother. As my mom finished her Torah portion and her speech, one could easily hear the whispers coming from our row: “She did really well.”

My mom, who has always embarrassed my husband by whispering through services, was proud of us, too.


About Davida Steinberg

Davida Steinberg currently lives in suburban Washington, D.C. Her career focuses on helping companies integrate sustainability into their operations, management and strategy. She enjoys bringing Shabbat into her home with her Baha'i husband and their son.