What Are We Teaching Our Children?
- Written by:
- Joseph Opatoshu
- Translated by:
- Shulamith Berger
- Spring 2020
- Part of issue number:
- Translation 2020
Joseph Opatoshu (originally Opatovsky) was born near Mlave, Poland, in 1886 and died in New York City in 1954. He immigrated to the United States in 1907. He studied engineering at Cooper Union at night; one of the ways he supported himself was by teaching in Hebrew schools. He graduated in 1914 with a degree in civil engineering; that same year the New York Yiddish newspaper The Tog was founded, and Opatoshu joined its staff and wrote for the newspaper for the next forty years. Opatoshu described the American Jewish experience in his early works; Sholem Aleichem praised his writing on the subject and urged him to continue. Opatoshu’s novel Hibru was written in this spirit. It was published in New York in 1920.
Hibru portrays the professional and personal lives of a group of teachers, young immigrant men from Eastern Europe. It is set on the Lower East Side of New York in the 1910s. The title refers to Hebrew schools, supplementary schools boys attended on Sundays and on weekday afternoons after public school was finished for the day. The Hebrew schools provided students with a Jewish education and prepared them for their bar mitzvahs. This chapter focuses on the differing pedagogical methods for Jewish education in vogue at the time, in the context of a discussion during a meeting between the teachers and the school’s board of education. Each speaker is a proponent of one of the different philosophical, religious, or political streams of Yiddishkeit and Judaism, vying to be seen as the best method to ensure Jewish continuity in the New World of America.
This selection is Chapter 8, with a title provided by the translator.
Thanks to Dan Opatoshu for permission to translate and publish.
When Friedkin arrived at the meeting, the members of the board of education and the teachers were already assembled in the shul. The synagogue was dimly lit. Only two gas sconces burned on the eastern wall, where the men sat waiting for Friedkin. The small, silent sanctuary, with its brightly sparkling whitewashed floor and empty benches, made an awe-inspiring impression on anyone who entered. Every person who came in instinctively slowed his pace and spoke softly, and even his own voice sounded foreign to him when he talked.
Friedkin was flustered. He nodded at the president in an attempt to greet him and sat in the first empty place he could find.
“Gentlemen, what are we waiting for?” Tursh smiled and stroked his long beard.
“Really, for what?” echoed Ganz, an elegant man who continually twisted his diamond ring, which glinted with blue-green and red hues. “We can start!”
The president looked around as if he wanted to be sure everyone was present. He was uncomfortable and pale, like someone about to speak in public for the first time. He wiped his mouth with a handkerchief and cleared his throat. “I mean . . . everyone knows why we got together. We, the board of education”—he gestured to indicate Tursh and Ganz—“recognize that our school is not functioning as it should. I don’t want to accuse anyone, heaven forbid. I think we need to discuss it and ask the teachers—they understand education better than we do—and then let’s figure out a new system together which will be an improvement.”
The president wiped his forehead as though he’d worked very hard and waited for someone to speak. It was silent. The teachers sat, seriously contemplating what to say. The only sound was the ticking of the clock on the wall. The gilded inscription on the glass peered down on them in large letters; it read: “Mrs. Haya Schultz, may her soul rest in Eden, donated by the President in memory of his deceased mother.”
“Nu, Mr. Friedkin,” Tursh turned to the principal, “why aren’t you saying anything?”
“Mr. Friedkin has been here longer than anyone else,” Green remarked. “It would be interesting to hear his opinion!”
“I,” Friedkin stammered and his cheeks swelled like he was chewing something, “I don’t know why you’re all suddenly taking a dislike to our school . . .”
“That means Mr. Friedkin is satisfied with our school the way it is.” The president turned to Wachsman. “What do you say?”
Wachsman had been standing throughout the entire meeting, as though he was primed and ready to shoot. His stiff hat was turned up and his short hair stood on end as though it were electrified. As soon as he heard his name, he adjusted his hat, stretched his thin neck that resembled a plucked chicken, avoided everyone’s gaze, and addressed the paroykhes, the velvet curtain covering the ark containing the Torah scrolls.
“The way the school runs now is a failure, just as much of a failure as hundreds of other schools across the country! Our school is a poor imitation of the assimilationist schools. There they teach catechism. Here we teach blessings, a bit of Bible, and that’s the be-all and end-all of Judaism!”
He choked as though all his thoughts had suddenly gotten stuck in his throat and wouldn’t let him speak. He blinked and continued, “What more do you need? Our school is over twenty years old, and I’ll donate five dollars to the Jewish National Fund if you can find a boy who knows a single chapter of Bible a year after finishing the school, let alone anything more! You won’t be able to find even one! So why, I ask, do we need a Hebrew school?” Wachsman pointed at the members of the board of education. “You’re throwing out your time, your effort; it’s a waste of the Jewish community’s money, and the most important thing is”—he pounded his hand with his fist as he wrinkled his brow searching for a fitting word—“you’ll always have on your conscience that you turned Jewish children into goyim!”
Wachsman looked drained, as though he had poured out all his energy; it seemed he wasn’t pleased that his thoughts had escaped so quickly, and he should look for a way to take them back.
While Wachsman was making his fiery speech, Tursh stroked his beard with all five fingers of his left hand and smiled. “So what do you suggest?”
“My suggestion,” Wachsman repeated those two words a few times, “yes, we have to abandon the old program and start to teach Ivrit be-Ivrit—teaching Hebrew texts with the explanations in Hebrew. It’s the natural method of instruction, like the Berlitz method, the way toddlers learn to speak by listening to their parents. When a boy understands what he’s saying, of course he’ll be able to read Hebrew correctly. He’ll acquire a love of his language, know what it means to be a Jew, and when he finishes school he won’t forget everything he learned a month later. Again, my plan is to conduct all classes, from the first to the last, in Hebrew, Ivrit be-Ivrit.”
He fell silent. He felt he hadn’t expressed a fraction of what he meant, his thoughts were jumbled, and he had omitted the most important points. He sat down, all worn out. He looked at his two friends, Rosen and Miller, realized they were happy with him, and he gradually calmed down. While Wachsman was speaking, Rosen and Miller beamed and looked at each other to judge the impression their friend’s lucid, intelligent words were making. Occasionally they jabbed each other with their elbows and exchanged glances. The two young men were so pleased with Wachsman’s speech that they were visibly ecstatic. And when he said “Ivrit be-Ivrit—Hebrew studies and texts taught in Hebrew,” they practically jumped up.
“Yes, yes, Wachsman is right!”
“In that case,” the president summarized Wachsman’s speech, “you are in favor of teaching Ivrit be-Ivrit.” He turned to the secretary, who was astonished that in America a young man like Wachsman should be such a fanatic and want to speak the Holy Tongue. “Mr. Klein, write down what Wachsman said.”
“It seems to me,” Ganz said impatiently, “that Miller and Rosen see eye to eye with Wachsman.”
“That is to say,” they both stood up suddenly, attempting to speak at the same time, “we don’t agree with every detail, but it doesn’t matter; you may write that we go along with him.”
“And you, Mr. Green,” the president said amiably, with a smile, “do you support Mr. Wachsman’s plan?”
Green bit his nails and scarcely paid attention to what his colleagues were saying. He knew all their arguments by heart and wondered what was worse for the Talmud Torah schools, the Friedkins or the Wachsmans? He looked at the president and answered, “I don’t agree with Wachsman!”
“So what’s your plan?” Ganz interrupted.
“I’m sure you won’t adopt my plan,” Green began calmly, crossing his legs. “Nonetheless, I ask you to hear me out.”
“With the greatest respect, please speak!” a few people called out.
Green bit his upper lip a few times as though he thought it would help him clarify the issue and proceeded. “The issue here isn’t whether or not to teach Ivrit be-Ivrit or Ivrit be-Anglit, Hebrew texts with Hebrew as the language of instruction or Hebrew texts translated and taught in English; the trouble lies much deeper! The children hate Hebrew school! It’s torture for them. They go because they’re afraid of their parents. The streets, the public school, everything in their surroundings is against Yiddishkeit, counter to Judaism and being Jewish. Ask yourselves, what have the Hebrew schools done to compete with the noisy American streets, with the great American public school? I see you’re smiling; it’s true, it’s hard to imagine the Hebrew schools rivaling the mighty public schools or vying with the bustling, dazzling streets that swallow hundreds of people up every day, right in front of our eyes—it scrapes them clean, changes their clothes, gives each person a piece of gum to chew, and then spits them out, thoroughly American. But that’s not so. When you look a little deeper, you’ll notice that the street has misled all of us. It’s impossible to molt and lose your own skin overnight. Even someone who was born here and completed public school still isn’t an American! It will take generations for a Jew to become truly Americanized! That’s because the streets and the public school both work on externals, on outward appearances that can easily be changed. And the only thing the Hebrew schools must do is to plant love for everything Jewish in the children! What am I saying—instill love? The mothers have already done that! We must develop their love for Judaism and ensure that it doesn’t wither. The Hebrew schools should be the link that binds parents and children, but the school distances children from their parents instead. In all the Hebrew schools, with hardly any exceptions, the children are embarrassed by a Yiddish or a Jewish name; if the students hear the name ‘Moshe’ they all laugh up their sleeves and make faces like Poles do when they hear the word ‘Moshek.’ Ask yourself, what have the Hebrew schools done to bridge gaps, remove obstacles, and bring children closer to their parents? Not a thing! With their poor English instruction they’ve ripped the last thread, destroyed the respect children should have for their parents who don’t speak English—and that’s almost all the fathers who send their children to the Hebrew schools—and the end result is that the children don’t grow up to be goyim either. The Jewish body is turning into a hunchback covered with a foreign growth we’ve never encountered before.”
Green wiped moisture from his lips and continued. “I’m going to give you an example, and you’ll find cases like this every day in every Hebrew school; you’ll see that our schools are against Yiddishkeit, counter to Judaism. I witnessed it myself. Before Pesach, when we teach the English translation of the Hebrew four questions traditionally recited at the Seder, a boy went to the teacher and asked him to teach him the four questions in Yiddish. His father, so he said, doesn’t understand English. The teacher didn’t answer. The boy was insulted, and when it was his turn to recite the four questions he refused to say them. He said he doesn’t want to ask them in English; he wants to ask them in Yiddish. The teacher and the principal both gave him a sound beating. And what do you think happened in the end? The boy still wouldn’t say the questions; he was very stubborn. And you must ask yourself, what does a boy like him think when his anger cools down? He thinks his father is some sort of savage man who speaks a language everyone is ashamed of. And it probably ruined his holiday too. Of course at the Seder he remembered the beating he got and he didn’t understand why he was punished; nothing but hatred for the Hebrew school could possibly remain with him. Something like this,” lamented Green, “could only happen in Posen, where the Germans don’t allow the Polish children to study the catechism in Polish!”
Green stopped speaking. Everyone thought he was finished. Wachsman shrugged his shoulders, looked at his friends, and asked, “And what about Hebrew?”
“I’m against Ivrit be-Ivrit,” Green answered, “because Jewish life here is against it. In the land of Israel there may be a place for it, but here in America it’s a failure. The best proof is this: in the few schools in New York that instruct using the Ivrit be-Ivrit method, only five students graduate annually, and they’re almost all children of religious functionaries who would learn Hebrew even without the schools. When a school doesn’t teach in Yiddish, by default it ceases to teach Hebrew, and in a school that exchanges Yiddish for the English vernacular, there’s no remnant of Hebrew or of Judaism left. We must teach the children Yiddish. Every boy who goes to Hebrew school knows Yiddish and understands what’s said to him. His mother rocked him to sleep in Yiddish, she kissed him and slapped him in Yiddish, and she told him about his grandfather and great-grandfather in Yiddish . . . It’s odd, almost every Jewish child who comes to Hebrew school is already saturated with folklore; as soon as he hears the name ‘Shlomo,’ he already knows all the stories his mother read to him about King Solomon from her Yiddish Bible. But here in Hebrew school he forgets them. If the teachers would study with the children in Yiddish, love for Yiddishkeit would flow to the students naturally; after all, it’s in their blood, and they wouldn’t be embarrassed by their parents, rather . . .”
Green stopped. It looked as though he didn’t know how to conclude. He thought a bit and waved his hand. “In short, I think we should teach davening, brokhes, and kaddish—prayers, blessings, and the mourner’s prayer—in Hebrew. And even if a child doesn’t understand them, it doesn’t matter. It’s a cult for us, like the sacrifices, precisely like the sacrifices Jews did once upon a time. People didn’t understand why they brought sacrifices, the reason was obscure, but it made Jewish life whole and gave it content. The rest of the time will be devoted to other subjects, and they will all be taught in Yiddish.”
Green sat down. Tursh and Ganz didn’t take their eyes off him, and it was hard to tell if they concurred with him or if they thought he was crazy. Wachsman raised his hand. He asked if he could say something. When the secretary finished writing down Green’s suggestion, the president called out, “Mr. Wachsman has the floor!”
Wachsman got up and smiled peculiarly, as if he wanted to dismiss Green’s arguments with his smile alone. He looked at Green, coughed a few times, and began. “I’m surprised Mr. Green could make such a suggestion! Our pedigree is older than the Yiddish Bible translation. Why should we start with Tsene-rene, the women’s Yiddish Bible, when we can start with Avraham Avinu, Abraham our Patriarch, and the Hebrew Bible?
“Good, good.” Miller and Rosen jumped up, very satisfied with Wachsman’s comparison, and they were pleased to see the members of the board of education smile.
“Mr. Green claims,” continued Wachsman with satisfaction, “that Yiddish jargon will bring the child closer to his father. If that’s so, there’s no end to it! Spanish will bring the Spanish child closer to his parents, English to the English, and so on. So the question remains, why should Yiddish jargon have the birthright and take precedence? Mr. Green knows exactly as well as I do that in the long time Jews have been in exile, we’ve spoken many languages, and they’ve all been forgotten, the same way Yiddish jargon will also be forgotten as time passes! What am I saying? In America it’s already dead! The young people don’t speak Yiddish jargon; they’re embarrassed by it.”
“That’s just what I’m saying,” Green responded.
“Moreover, you see,” Wachsman didn’t pause, “all the treasures Jews created in foreign languages were then translated in Hebrew . . . That may be the case with Yiddish jargon as well, though I don’t see what there is to carry over,” he smiled, “but taking Yiddish jargon as our national language, that’s absurd! And as to Mr. Green’s suggestion to teach davening and brokhes, prayers and blessings, in Hebrew, I don’t understand what he means by it.”
When Wachsman sat down everyone looked at Green. They were sure he’d answer him. Green sat with his hands crossed, arms resting on his knees, barely listening to anything Wachsman was saying. Green thought, it’s not even worth answering Wachsman. His words would be wasted on a man who doesn’t see what’s happening right under his very nose, a man who dreams about the ancient Hebrews who captured Jericho with rams’ horns. It’s not just us, Green thought; even the sages of the Talmud didn’t have a connection with the ancient Hebrews. He suddenly became intensely sad. He wondered how he could have spoken with such certainty about Yiddish just a moment earlier. He had as much disdain for Yiddishists as he had for Hebraists. He knew that in America it was all a business. Both the Yiddishists and the Hebraists had no love for their cause; they bargained with their ideals as if they were stale bananas. In America, the individual doesn’t play a role. So ten people get together, they found a society, a union, a party, and then they represent something. Exactly the same sort of business was going on here with Hebrew and Yiddish, and especially with Hebrew. In the name of Judaism, they compete with each other, and there are no limits. Everything is kosher; Judaism can collapse as long as a few community workers are able to parade around as public figures. He looked at the men of the board of education. The president was a former maskil, an intellectual; he used to write Hebrew poetry. Now he was a businessman, his business was going well, his friends were Zionists and devoted themselves to Jewish education, so he thought he should be involved too. Ganz was Americanized and spoke primarily English; he knew Judaism ought to be reformed. Yiddish was something of a foreign plague we brought with us from the old country, and almost all the baggage we brought with us is worthless, so we must switch from Yiddish to English. Green looked at Ganz and noticed how impatient he was; he kept twisting his diamond ring as he looked at the teachers disdainfully. Green thought some people were probably waiting for him at home to play poker. The only one Green liked was the elderly Tursh, a plain, straightforward Jew. Tursh was angry when Jews changed their names, and he couldn’t comprehend how Yiddish could be a foreign language. How could anyone possibly be opposed to Yiddish? It was true that Tursh believed Hebrew was holy, but he didn’t give much thought to Yiddish; Yiddish was part and parcel of his very being, just like his healthy belly. Green had sympathy for the gray-haired Jew who’d been sitting through the entire discussion, who didn’t comprehend his contentions and understood what Wachsman was saying even less.
“Would you like to say something?” The president turned to Friedkin, who was holding his finger in the air.
“I’d like to note,” Friedkin said, confused, “that even if Mr. Green’s plan is a good one, and I’m not sure that it is . . .”
“So, what are you sure of?” Green interrupted him and immediately regretted it. He glanced at Friedkin’s stupid-looking face and was annoyed for making a fool of himself and mixing his plan into this muddle.
Friedkin didn’t know how to respond, looked at him, and started to stammer, “What did I want to say? Someone interrupted me! Yes, in my opinion the plan can’t be applied in practice. The children will drive the teachers crazy when they hear they’ll study Humesh, the Bible, in Yiddish jargon. It’s hard enough to control a class as it is; how much worse will it be when we translate the Bible into Yiddish jargon?”
“Whose fault is it if you can’t control a class?” Tursh interrupted. “When we went to school, we were also taught by teachers who translated the Humesh into Yiddish, nu, so? I assure you we had more respect for the old-fashioned teachers than the children here have respect for your English.”
Friedkin was embarrassed and sat down. Everyone smiled.
Mr. Ganz took out his gold pocket watch, shook his head, and showed the watch to the president.
“It’s really late!” The president automatically looked at his own watch and turned to Green. “I’ll tell you, you may have convinced me, Mr. Green. Your concept is not bad. I understand that teaching Yiddish would bring a child closer to his parents, I mean the idea of translating the Bible into Yiddish. But you must know we aren’t the only people involved; there are other directors who support the school, and when they hear it, there will be an uproar. I’m sure many of them will resign from the school board. We have to consider everything. We mustn’t rush things.” The president drew out his words and turned to Ganz. “What do you say, Mr. Ganz?”
Ganz got up as though he were about to leave, adjusted his long tie, buttoned and then immediately unbuttoned the bottom button of his jacket, and said in a forthright manner, “I’m against Yiddish jargon. Wachsman’s suggestion shouldn’t be brushed off lightly, you see; it has to be considered. At the next meeting, Sunday night, that’s when the second meeting is?” He turned to the secretary, waited until he nodded in agreement, and continued speaking. “We’ll review the question thoroughly and decide what we ought to do, isn’t that the plan?”
“You shouldn’t start up with Mr. Green,” the president smiled. “Tomorrow he might describe our meeting in the newspapers.”
“What do you mean?” Ganz asked him.
“Don’t you know?” the president said. “Mr. Green is a writer; yesterday he had an article in the paper, and it was a good piece too!” he said as he turned to face Green.
Ganz examined Green from head to toe. It was hard to tell if his look was one of disdain or respect for the fact that Green wrote for newspapers.
Green was flustered, felt insulted, and detected in Ganz’s hint of a smile that he didn’t think much of Yiddish writers. Ganz probably thought that if he had the opportunity he could write too—as though it were simply some sort of trick to write in Yiddish! He couldn’t bear Ganz’s self-satisfied face. He bowed and said, “Good night!”
“We’re leaving too,” Wachsman called after him. “Why are you in such a rush?”
The teachers left the shul. They breathed more easily and stood for a while.
“Is anyone going to the café?” asked Green.
They sauntered side by side down the middle of the street and no one said a thing.
Wachsman put his hand on Green as they walked, “Nu, is it worth writing for the Yiddish papers? Ganz seems to be a cultured Jew, and he didn’t even know that Green is a Yiddish writer! Listen to me and write in Hebrew; then you’ll have true admirers and you’ll have a place in posterity too!”
“Of course, of course!” Miller and Rosen chimed in. “With your talent, you’d be a hit in Hebrew!”
Green felt that someone ought to take them down a peg; it would be so easy! But he didn’t want to. It troubled him that the Jewish people had no need for writers. The old-fashioned author, the type who carried a pack of his writings under his arm, had disappeared from the Jewish world. He wasn’t missed. Nowadays, people regarded an author as a free spirit, a lightheaded prankster who described every silly little nothing. Many of his acquaintances came to mind. Almost all of them repeated the same banal words when they spoke to him: “Hey, Mr. Green, it’s a shame you weren’t there, you would have had something to write about!” Those words always got on his nerves, as though his goal in life was to describe quarrels and repeat slander.
Rosen and Miller called to Friedkin. “You’re coming with us, aren’t you?” Miller asked.
“People say there are pretty girls there,” Friedkin said as he laughed coarsely.
“You’ve never been to Wechsler’s café?” Rosen asked.
“Good, Mr. Friedkin, we’ll introduce you to the prettiest girls.” Rosen took his arm and tickled him.
“What do you mean?” Friedkin said good-naturedly. “Do you think I don’t have any girls? The secretary has been after me for the past few weeks; he wants me for his daughter.”
“Nu, so what’s the problem?”
“Not an ugly girl,” Friedkin replied seriously. “With such color in her cheeks, you’d think she just came from Europe, but the problem is, she is a Galitsyaner, and my heart won’t let me.”
“If you like her,” Miller responded, “what does it say in the Gemara? ‘All mouths are the same.’ So take her and get married; Galitsyaner girls are better than Litvaks, as I live and breathe,” and he whispered something into Friedkin’s ear.
Friedkin doubled over with laughter. He grabbed Rosen, repeated it to him, then he pointed at Miller, and screamed, “Oh, is he a pig!”
Friedkin was in a good mood since Green’s proposal hadn’t been accepted. He felt light-hearted; he would have gone anywhere the teachers invited him.
Green didn’t pay any attention to them; the people around him might as well have been strangers. He strode with his fists clenched, bumped into passersby, didn’t bother to say “Excuse me,” and he kept right on going. They reached Canal Street. It was already quite dark. Two gray beams of light sliced through the darkness, sculpting two floating streaks rising one over the other. A pale disk of light shone like a dim moon from the giant Woolworth Building; the luminous sphere glimmered through a dark veil and carved out streaks of silvery dust in the night. The beams crossed to form a triangle and lit up the steel cables of the suspension bridge; they towered like huge harps in the distance. The sight tugged at their heartstrings. They stopped, gazed at the gray beacons of light, at the giant harps tinged with violet, at the chunk of pale fire that hung over Canal Street like a hidden eye of the God of steel and iron, and suddenly exchanged looks. They all let out an awestruck “Ahh,” and, speechless, they traipsed into the café.
Shulamith Z. Berger is the curator of Special Collections and Hebraica-Judaica at the Yeshiva University Library. She blogs at https://blogs.yu.edu/library/. Her English translation of Joseph Opatoshu’s Yiddish novel Hibru will be published by Ben-Yehuda Press in late 2020. Her translation was supported by the Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellowship.