When I was a lad, I attended Hebrew School (The Debutante informs me that in her neck of the woods, this is known as cheder - in mine, too, TD, if I was a Better Jew!) thrice weekly for several years. Usually Tuesdays and Thursdays after 'secular school' and then a couple of hours on Saturday when, naturally, I would have rather been asleep. The goal of this regular series of indoctrination was to prepare me to be barmitzvah, and ideally without embarrassing those members of my family who were more-than-just-socially Jewish.
This Hebrew school was part of a very hoitsy New York City synagogue. There were a couple of hundred students enrolled at any given time. I do recall one particular fact which took me about four sessions to figure out and confirm. Of all of them, I was most definitely the only shvartze. (For all you goyim, that means either 'black' or 'non-white' depending on just what sort of Jew you ask.) In fact, there were only four 'people of color' in the entire synagogue complex (temple and school) during my time there - myself, and three of the four custodial staff, all of whom were either Catholic or Southern Baptist.
I don't think I was a very good student. Every class I had, for two years (and I'm not joking, every single class) I was sent to the principal's office. The only variation in this record was how long I would manage to stick it out before sniggering uncontrollably at nothing, managing to fall visibly asleep, or (horrors) finding a logical flaw in the stream of brainwashing and pouncing on it with the avidity of a bored shark. This latter led, as I would invariably point out, to the asking of questions - and wasn't the asking of questions in an effort to understand precisely what the famed rabbis of yore were so revered for?
See, the sad truth was that three of the four teachers I had in those days were Israeli women who approached these subjects with only a little less sense of humor than I imagine the Mossad approaches their daily task sheet. However, all was not lost. The principal, you see, was an older woman. Rachel, her name was; all of five foot nothing tall, with a silver high-piled hairdo that added another foot to her height. I once looked in the cabinet under her desk while waiting for her to arrive and dispense my daily scolding - fourteen (fourteen!) industrial-size cans of Aqua-Net. I think in today's climate fourteen cans of that nasty a hairspray in one place will allow one to apply for Superfund status.
Anyway, Rachel would show up, see me sitting outside her office, and shake her head sadly. I say sadly, because she was clearly putting so very much effort into it. Then she would open the door and wait while I slouched in and parked myself in my favorite chair facing her desk. Finally, she would glide in after me and seat herself behind the desk, and wait.
Rachel always glided. I never saw her bob up and down while walking. You could tell because when she went by your classroom, the door windows were just high enough that if you ignored the lower windows, all you could see was an Alpen silver hairstyle sliding past the door on an ruler-straight path.
At this point, it was my turn. We had a Deal, Rachel and I. It was never negotiated, and never spoken of, but it was ironclad. She would raise one eyebrow, pull over her copy of the schedule and then nod knowingly, presumably having identified which teacher had sent me along this particular 90-minute stretch of the week. Then she would fold her hands on the desk in front of her; a deliberate movement that involved flat planes curling, and look at me.
My job, at this point, was to give her a detailed reason for why I had been thrown out of class. This time. I always did. Always in as matter-of-fact tones as I was able. If I was still suffering giggle fits when she arrived at her office, she would wait until I had settled down before bringing me in.
After I had explained what had happened - and we both knew that this explanation was absolutely honest - she would shake her head and say "Ya'acov. Ya'acov,Ya'acov." This was my Hebrew name, assigned on my arrival much as 'French names' in your junior high French class. That is to say, these names often bore no relation that you could discern to any name you were known by. I would look at her guilelessly, and then she would nod, once, towards the door.
I would leave and go to my next class.
Usually, twenty to fifty minutes later, I would be back. Unless it was time to go home.
As I look back on this from the perspective of twenty-five years, I realize that in fact I was probably providing her with more entertainment than any other part of her job. Looking back, I can quite clearly see her waiting until I left the office, closing the door and then breaking out in whoops of laughter, not emerging until she was absolutely straightfaced and the glide was undisturbed.
I mean, I never got in any other form of trouble. When I was finally barmitzvah, my parents were taken into a room by Rachel for twenty minutes while I was told to wait outside. They emerged looking somewhat suffused, almost like they were choking, and told me that I didn't have to go to Hebrew School any more. But that was all.
* * *
Now, sometimes I had to wait ten or fifteen minutes for Rachel to return to her office. Usually, at least once a day while I was waiting there at her office near the corner, Larry would amble by. Larry was an enormous (six foot, six inches at least, not fat but muscled like a farmhand - which, he told me, he had been) Southern black man. I never learned from precisely where. He was in his sixties, and had short-cut grey hair and wore his custodial uniform well. He was head of Maintenance, and had the biggest ring of keys I'd ever seen in my life.
"I see you out here again."
"How much time you spend in class, boy?"
"Welllll, you ain't gonna learn nothin' important up here anyhow."
"Why'm I here then, Larry?"
He'd snort. "There's eddication 'round you, boy. Always is. Now, if maybe you was to come help me mop the chapel floor, maybe I could teach you a lesson."
"What lesson?" I'd read all about Tom Sawyer by that point, and I was a suspicious little bastard anyway.
"It matter? You wanna sit here on you ass, or you gonna come downstair?"
We'd mop the chapel aisles, together. I'd always try to finish the left aisle before he finished the right aisle, and then we'd clean the middle aisle. "What lesson are you going to teach me, Larry?"
"That spot ovah there don't look too clean."
"I cleaned it!"
"Yeah? Huh. Guess so." Larry sat in a pew and had me bring the cart over to where he was sitting, at the end of the row. He pulled the 'WET FLOOR' sign off the cart, placed it across the handles like a small table.
Then he threw a grubby box down on the makeshift surface. "What're these, boy?"
"Ayup." He'd extract them, shuffle them, cut them, and then make them vanish - and there were three cards lying on the sign, face down, in a line. "Now, you listenin' careful?"
"Yeah, Larry." I stared at the cards, twelve years old and intent on seeing the trick he was about to show me.
"Okay. Lesson is, you evah see a nigger on the street like me with three cards out front him like this, you walk away."
I stared at the cards for a few more seconds in case this was misdirection. Then looked at his face. "What? Why?"
He looked at me, impassive, for a few seconds. Then he sighed. "Got a dollar?"
I dug a dollar out of my pocket, significant chunk of my allowance, and put it on the sign.
"Okay. Goal here is to show me this card," picking up the middle and showing me the Queen hiding there - "and not these two."
"It's right there!"
"It is now." Then there was some form of magic that made my eyes hurt, and the cards were still there.
As you might imagine, it was never there. For about five minutes.
"Larry? Can I have my dollar back? I have to go to class."
He looked at me steadily. Just as he did so, the Rabbi (at that point, around seventy-five, a wise and kind and awe-inspiring man to a small boy) ambled through the chapel. He stopped, looked at me, looked at Larry. Larry and I looked back. Then he reached down below Larry's right cuff and plucked out the queen, hiding behind the fold, and dropped it face up on the table next to the other three cards. "Afternoon, men." Then he walked away about his business.
Larry looked steadily at me. "You ready for the next lesson?"
He packed up the cards. "Now think about why you didn't walk away when I tole you to."
Then he shuffled off, whistling, with my dollar.
I thought about that for a few days after that lesson.
Then the next week, he passed me in the corridor and nodded to me. I waved and ran on, on my way to class. When I got there, there was a grubby pasteboard queen of hearts and a crisp new dollar in my jacket pocket.
I never managed to prove the Rabbi and Larry were tag-teaming me. In fact, I'm still not sure. But I never forgot that lesson.
Hebrew school was not a total loss.