By Ted Roberts
The phone rang while I was reading the sports section, just as I was reading the football scores announcing my loss of three out of five bets.
My mood changed as soon as I heard the voice greeting me: the father of a former bar mitzvah student. In fact, this fertile friend had fathered four of my former students.
Four! And all boys.
Boys are tougher to tutor than girls — too much sports distraction. I had weathered 40 years of teaching, and my caller supplied four sterling students in my collection of memories. Smart, obedient, disciplined.
Remember, the bar mitzvah candidate had to read Hebrew and sing Torah and haftorah — no small load. And these four were the kind I sought, the kind for whom you didn’t have to slam the Chumash on the table, punishable by a week of fasting, to get their attention.
There’s nothing quite so satisfying as teaching bar and bat mitzvah kids. Considering all the Jewish career fields — father, son, husband, wage earner, bookie — it took the prize.
Not that it demanded Judaic knowledge. I was surely not the Vilna Gaon. But the job required the arcane skill of dealing with clever kids who were obsessed with sports, the opposite sex and dodging their parents’ commandments, as well as kids who could barely read Hebrew.
Some had the voice of a fire alarm and were extremely skilled at losing the practice tapes I assigned.
Their explanations usually began: “Oh, I did it as you said, but the dog grabbed it and ran off and buried it somewhere. I dug up the back yard, but no luck.”
Or: “Yes, I did it, but I forgot and recorded The Beatles over it.”
The explanations of lazy bar mitzvah scholars are endless.
But these kids of the fertile father, my friend on the phone, scoffed at excuses. Angels everyone: smart, truthful, imaginative. They’d never hit me with that dog story.
The first hurdle of bar mitzvah tutoring is forging a liaison with the object of your instruction. The child must not think you have a hot line to his parents every time he mispronounces a word of his haftorah.
Second: You are in this together. If he or she flops, it announces to the congregation that so did you.
And then there’s the loot, the gifts. Don’t think the congregation doesn’t up the ante if you do a perfect haftorah.
How about that time the audience walked out with their presents when the kid quacked the haftorah like a duck? A mythical story I often used. A very effective incentive.
“Quality is rewarded” was my slogan.
But back to the phone call.
“I have something for you,” my caller said. Magic words.
A wad of $20 bills? A Jewish paper that would print an all-Ted Roberts edition (my favorite), or a pot full of chicken soup and light, fluffy kneidlach?
Mr. X, as we’ll call him, had always been generous with me. What could this be?
Just like the old days when the teacher was offered the family daughter in marriage? Or a week of blue-plate kosher suppers?
Well, it turned out to be warm apple pie garnished with a quart of vanilla ice cream (from the fertile mama of those long-ago students). They still remembered, evidently with warm gratitude, their old bar mitzvah teacher.
“Give of yourself,” it should say somewhere in Proverbs, “and the return is golden.”
Wonder if the parents could make just one more bar mitzvah candidate?
Ted Roberts is a syndicated writer based in Huntsville, Ala.