Back to School – Hebrew School, That Is

Back to School – Hebrew School, That Is

A long, long time ago, before the invention of matzoh ball mix, Jewish mothers – instead of running a limo service for their kids – were happy in their kitchen. You could say they were into food processing, not transportation.

They made a hot breakfast every morning, tuna salad with just the right amount of eggs and relish for lunch and stewed chickens at night.

And Jewish merchants – at least most of them – lived in apartments above their stores.

And everybody’s grandparents spoke Yiddish.

In this bygone day, young Jewish boys went to “Hebrew school.” They also called it cheder, which translates to “room” (or “jail cell,” as some of my classmates said).

From the playgrounds of summer to the cheder of fall was torturous to an 8-year-old. After all, if a vote was held to determine the most signifcant Jewish figure of the milennium, my pals and I would have voted for Hank Greenberg over the Baal Shem Tov (who, coincidentally, would probably have been a lousy first baseman). Our dreams of identity centered on Yankee pin stripes, not double-breasted suits and wide-brimmed black hats.

Attitudes toward children in these backwards times were shocking. Children were considered apprentices to adulthood; they were looked upon as deficient to adults in experience, wisdom, and intelligence. A project-in-work, so to speak.

Therefore, they were legally and traditionally under the command of the twin skippers of the family ship: Mother and Father. Such a social environment is as mysterious to modern minds as the social dynamics of 10th-century BCE Babylonian courtship, but believe me, that’s the way it was.

When Mama said, “go to sleep,” you closed your eyes and dreamed, and when Mama said, “go to Hebrew school,” you said, “yes ma’am” in Hebrew and looked around for a Hebrew-English dictionary.

The baseball boys of summer became the cheder hochems of fall. It was a shocking transition, as our little minds perceived it, from freedom to tyranny.

First of all, the teacher wore a double-breasted suit, which meant he was of the male gender; a social group familiar with paddles and other blunt instruments of persuasion.

Secondly, he radiated an authoritative manner. How else to pound sense into an 8-year-old mind more interested in Yankee Stadium of 1940 than Solomon’s Temple of 1000 BCE?

Had we been wiser – had we ever even slightly skimmed a book of Eastern European history – we would have realized that we had stepped into a Yiddish dimensional space shuttle (a time machine especially designed to persecute pre-teen Jewish American kids) and had been carried back to 19th-century Poland.

It was clearly a time warp. Our cheder, or Talmud Torah as they called it, was exactly like hundreds of such classrooms sprinkled a couple centuries ago through the Pale of Settlement.

More Jews at that time were confined to the Pale than lived in America, Israel and Western Europe combined. And every shtetl had its cheder, its room of learning; it was the Eastern European equivalent of the American one-room schoolhouse, with the exception that in the European version the students were hungry, dressed in rags, slept on straw pallets instead of beds, and the teacher’s paycheck was a pot-luck supper from his student’s mama.

We understood none of these differences. But we did catch on to the fact that the czar of our classroom worshipped two educational icons: discipline and repetition. Pedagogically speaking, we were in Vilna – not Memphis, Tennessee.

Our teacher (or “warden,” as some of the bolder kids called him) did not hesitate to use physical punishment. He was as politically incorrect as Captain Ahab at the Save the Whales Convention.

He did not watch his words. His favorite adjective was “dummy” which he used often, though not without accuracy.

But in the real sense of the word, he was a caring man. He cared for us enough to deliver a quick punishment with his ruler if it incentivized our mastery of Hebrew grammar or vocabulary; brief physical discomfort to the young body in return for life-long enrichment of the young mind.

Not a bad tradeoff. We were lucky to be prisoners of such an educational system, but what 8-year-old under the shadow of that ruler could understand? Or much less, say, “Thank you?”

It was an educational timed-release capsule.  It took us several decades to experience the benefits.

By Ted Roberts
“The Scribbler on the Roof”

Editor’s note: Ted Roberts is author of “The Scribbler on the Roof,” which is available through and Website: Blog:

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