September 2, 2004
Tale of Two Schools
Miss Smith, my third-grade teacher at Vollentine Grammar School, stood facing the class with her arm around my shoulders. She was a large woman the size of two or three of today's fashion models, with gray hair pulled back from a ruddy, round face. All I knew of her personal life was that she was unwed, but mothered 25 third-grade kids. She lived in a small, neighboring town famous for its horse farms.
She looked out to her students, her eyes focused above them. I looked down.
I had just finished reciting a poem to the class and before I could return to my desk, Miss Smith was at my side.
"Children, Teddy is Jewish. And I like Jewish kids. Teddy's people have made some major contributions to the South. How many of you know of Dr. Joseph Goldberger who cured pellagra? How many of you know about pellagra?"
Not one kid knew of Goldberger or pellagra, whereupon Miss Smith went on to tell her class how the Jewish doctor had deduced that this scourge of rural America was caused by a dietary deficiency.
She was a good storyteller and told the tale of Goldberger's medical sleuthing with gusto.
"But his people [meaning mine and Dr. Goldberger's] are having a bad time, 'specially in Germany, because of an evil man named Hitler -- a fiend in human form. Let's show Teddy that we're proud to live in America, where we'd just send the dog catcher to pick up a fleahound like Hitler."
The antichrist had come to destroy the faithful, she told the class, and naturally, he had started with the Lord's people, the Jews. It was Armageddon time.
This kind of talk made me nervous. I'd never heard of Joseph Goldberger, either. I was only Teddy Roberts, third-grader in Vollentine Grammar School; not the visible representative of the Lord's people or the Jewish race or even one of the major contestants in the battle of Armageddon.
"I like Jewish kids," she repeated. "It's a shame we don't have more of them in our class." The classroom was full of giggles because of Hitler and his fleas, I hoped, and not at me and the fact that in Tennessee Jews like me were as rare as polar bears. Miss Smith's speeches made me uncomfortable -- like singing Christmas carols. Why couldn't she just take me into the cloakroom and explain my uniqueness?
But I did like the feel of her big hand on my shoulder. And maybe Miss Smith's praises helped me with Betty Lou McKintosh, the prettiest girl in the third grade, whose blue eyes opened wide as she looked at me and Miss Smith at the head of the class. Afterward, we sang "America the Beautiful" and took the "Pledge of Allegiance." I wasn't uncomfortable at all.
We Jewish kids of the '30s and '40s occupied a narrow niche in Southern juvenile society. We attended the same public schools as our Christian playmates, since Hebrew day schools were several decades in the future. In our double life, we went to their parties and we played neighborhood games with them -- the kids in our grammar school classes. But we spent our Sunday mornings and three afternoons a week at Hebrew school with a different social set.
The Hebrew school term of imprisonment, as my friends and I saw it, was six years. Five years until bar mitzvah, then a year of postgraduate studies; it was obligatory. There was no parole, no time off for good behavior, no community service substitutions.
Mr. Levine, the warden of this institution, was my favorite teacher. He was also the synagogue cantor. Hebrew School teacher and cantor -- it took two hats to make a living in those days. He always carried a ruler, though the only thing he'd ever measure in his life was the Hebrew vocabulary of his forgetful students. That ruler was for little boys with big mouths, and young athletes who were sleeping off -- in his classroom -- the fatigue of the lunchtime baseball game.
He was a virtuoso with a ruler. It was his baton that orchestrated a dozen or so hooligans into a functioning class. We learned. It was like teaching walruses to play a harmonica. Nothing was farther from our natural instincts than this 3,000-year-old language that had no relationship to Joe Dimaggio, Hank Greenberg, Sid Luckman or the girl next door, who, due to some enchantment in our brain and body, we just noticed was more than a substitute second baseman.
We were a reincarnation of the Philistines. We had no cultural interests, whatsoever. Somehow, Mr. Levine -- a drillmaster in a crisp, brown suit with matching vest and tie -- hiked us down the road of learning for the two to three years we were under his authority. His weapon -- besides that artful ruler -- was his pointed stare and the single epithet he used to perfection, "Dummy." It was not hurled as a degrading insult. It was simply a descriptor. If you couldn't memorize 12 words in a week, you weren't a slow learner, nor were you under-motivated. You were a dummy.
I was not a model student. I was a Philistine -- a Canaanite who knew every detail of Babe Ruth's records, but couldn't tell you whether the Rambam had lived and studied in Memphis or Babylon. And what did he do? Contribute to the Talmud? Sell dry goods? Or make the freshest bagels in New York City? Find me a 9-year-old boy in Memphis, Tenn., in the 1940s who knew, and I'll tell you when the Mashiach is coming.
Nobody liked Hebrew school. What was to like? Your Christian friends were on the playground kicking up dust and you were learning to say "David sees the tree" in Hebrew.
But I'll never forget Cantor Levine -- or Miss Smith, either.
Ted Roberts is a Jewish humorist and commentator whose work appears several Jewish papers, Disney Magazine, Hadassah, the Wall Street Journal and others. He lives in Huntsville, Ala.