Putting the Jewish Pieces Together


My Hebrew was so bad that my tutor thought I was dyslexic. What I really needed was some context and connection.

by Rachel S. Cohen

Beginning in the spring of sixth grade, my mother insisted on dragging me to a Hebrew tutor on a weekly basis.

“You want the bat mitzvah, the party, the gifts?” she’d ask. “Then you need to get learning and know your stuff!”

As much of a hassle as it was for her to convince me each Wednesday to ride beside her across town to the woman’s house, actually getting me inside was the bigger challenge. Enticing me to sit still in a dining room that unfailingly smelled of boiled corned beef proved exceptionally difficult. It required nothing less than a battle.

One afternoon she succeeded and I had my lesson. Afterwards, though, my mom received a phone call from the tutor. She was convinced that I was dyslexic.

“Dyslexic?” my mother asked, shocked. “To the best of my knowledge, no—considering that she’s been reading English since age four.”

“Well,” the tutor explained, “she can’t read a word of Hebrew… and also, she knows none of her prayers!”

To that, my mom explained to her that no, it was not a result of dyslexia, but rather a lack of interest in Hebrew school. She also mentioned my persistent effort to fit in with the other kids there by ignoring the teachers. That, and my constant bathroom escapades with the other girls.

Eventually, the tutor somehow finagled her way into that thick head of mine. Not only did I lead a bat mitzvah service in which I flawlessly recited my haftarah and Torah portions, but I also managed to grasp a few other pieces of Jewish ritual.

It wasn’t until I stepped foot into a Jewish setting in college, almost five years later, that I actually learned anything else about Jewish history or tradition.

As a result of scheduling difficulties, I found myself stranded in an Introduction to Judaism course at Brandeis. Shocking to my family, the curriculum intrigued me. With a freshman mentality, lacking deep thought or consideration, I subsequently matriculated in a class called American Judaism. Jonathan Sarna, a leading expert of the American Jewry, was to be teaching.

Sarna’s approach to exploring this topic involved tracing Jewish roots in America in the context of American historical events. He lectured on the early influx of the Jews, beginning with the initial experience of the Europeans in North America.

As we progressed through the United States’ historical trajectory, we learned which Jewish milestones paired with seemingly “American” events. Had I ever considered that, in each and every American war, Jews positioned themselves as soldiers, officers, nurses and doctors? Who would have known, for example, that as the automobile gained in popularity in the American suburbs, the Conservative movement approved a measure deeming it religiously acceptable for people to drive to temple on Saturday mornings? What about the presence of organs in Reform temples—did I know this practice stemmed from Jews who wanted to appropriate Christian-American traditions into their own?

It wasn’t until this professor presented me with relevant connections between my Jewish and American lives that my interest in the subject matured. And it all happened years after my family had decided I was a lost cause in terms of learning about anything Jewish at all.

In retrospect, it all makes sense. When I first began to learn Spanish, a language that I now employ daily, I inevitably learned within the confines of a traditional classroom. That said, my true passion wasn’t sparked until I experienced the language in the real world. The same has always held true for the visual arts: I always took art history classes, but my true enthusiasm manifested through visits to art museums, galleries, and studios.

Who was I to think that learning about anything Jewish-based would be different? Maybe it was just the learning environment that affected the amount of knowledge I absorbed and ultimately cared about.

After all, I certainly picked up more Hebrew by spending a few short days in Israel with Israelis than I did as a restless body trapped in a musty classroom for years. And I digested more about Jewish history and thought by spending time with Jewish peers and well-rounded academics than in front of some cranky old teacher who simply wanted the extra cash.

This coming year, as I consider teaching a class of first-graders at a Sunday school, I will keep my experiences in mind. Maybe I can somehow connect Nickelodeon characters to Jewish holidays (Rugrats Passover, anyone?) or Noah’s Ark to what the kids have seen at the local zoo. Regardless, I’ll always recall the ways in which I linked Jewish learning to my own interests to further my education. Meanwhile, I’ll just have to pray that the kids aren’t yet clever enough to pull off any of the shenanigans that my friends and I managed at their age.

About the Author

author_rachel_S_CohenRachel S. Cohen
Rachel S. Cohen, a recent Brandeis graduate, previously worked for Revista Glamour (Glamour magazine) in Spain and wrote for Forbes.com in New York. While writing still remains one of her true passions outside of her day job, she currently works as a bilingual paralegal in downtown Boston.

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