Updated: Dec 22, 2022
I’ve told my children very little about my elementary school experience. They know I went to an Orthodox Jewish school, and the kids were “bratty,” but I’ve never told them how painful my experience was there. It wasn’t just the school, either. I had terrible experiences in the Synagogue and with the community.
I know that I will take most of these tales (which could fill a book that no one would want to read) to my grave. They are depressing stories, and I want my children to be happy. I tell this one by way of explaining the real reason for something I did in their lives. This is why I didn’t send them to the big expensive Synagogue with all the other kids from their public school. Instead, I sent them to Chabad Hebrew School, where the slogan is, “You don’t have to join! You’re already a member.”
One day, when I was six years old and in the first grade, we had an exciting visitor to our class. Rabbi Solomon, bearded and beaming, came over from the big Conservative Synagogue across the street to teach us some songs we would be performing at an upcoming Friday night service. I knew him well. In my home, we celebrated Shabbat on Friday nights in one of two ways. Either we had guests to dinner, or we went to Synagogue. On nights when we went to Synagogue, we ate in the kitchen instead of the dining room, lighting the candles and eating a simple meal before we left.
I loved Friday night services. The sanctuary glowed with warmth. Everyone sang enthusiastically, and during the prayer where we welcomed the Sabbath Queen, the whole congregation stood up and turned around to face the big double doors at the back of the room, raising their voices for this particular verse. I can still remember how I shivered, how the heat rushed to my cheeks.
Rabbi Solomon was a warm and charismatic leader. During certain parts of the service, he invited the children to come up on the bimah (altar) and help lead the congregation in different songs and prayers. I remember the cantor (song leader) had candies in his pocket and handed them to us surreptitiously, the wrappers crinkling between his fingers as he retrieved them from his pocket. As he did this, he continued to sing in a beautiful, operatic voice, his face a mask of pious innocence that made us giggle.
After the service, Mr. Papp—who lived downstairs and worked in the building—pushed open the mahogany room divider at the back of the sanctuary. Three long tables covered with all kinds of baked treats and tea in a silver decanter glistened invitingly. I gobbled down cookies, drank tea with lots of milk and sugar, and then raced around the room, high on sugar and caffeine.
Funnily enough, I never saw any of my classmates at these services. There were other children I recognized; children who went to public school and attended Hebrew School downstairs in the afternoons. The only time I saw my classmates at Synagogue was during the High Holidays when you had to be a member to have a seat. My family couldn’t afford the thousands of dollars for the membership fee, so we used my grandparents’ chairs. Of course, only two of them were there, but my grandfather never came, and the family who sat beside us was often not there. So, we generally had a place to sit.
One Friday night, however, I was surprised to see most of my classmates at Synagogue. I waved at them excitedly and tugged on my mother’s sleeve to show her. But instead of smiling, her face fell. She turned her head towards my father, who was already pulling his fingers down his cheeks and groaning.
“Is it tonight?” He whispered.
My mother flushed and looked down. “I think so.”
The slight confusion I felt was interrupted when Rabbi Solomon called all the children to the bimah. Yay, my favorite part! But my mother pulled me back into my seat.
“You can’t go up,” she said. “It’s only for the children who are members of the synagogue.”
And so I watched, shocked and jealous, as my classmates scrambled up the gold-carpeted steps and spread out hastily along the top two rows. I watched as they performed the songs, their arms going up on the words “Torah Orah,” (Torah of light), and their faces turned up to the ceiling. I watched as, after singing the songs, Cantor Nixon went over to the ark where the Torahs were kept and pulled out a big drawer beneath, gathering something in his arms; small parcels, some of which he handed to the rabbi. I strained to see what it was, my heart already thrumming with envy.
Then he and Rabbi Solomon handed each child a small, gold Torah in a clear plastic box, and I thought, “Those Torahs must be worth a lot of money because only the children whose parents can pay to be members get one.”
I felt a sickening chasm open between them and me as understanding dawned. They were the real Jewish children, the ones who were loved by God and the Vancouver Jewish Community. I was not. I was less than that, less than them.
After the service, the sliding panel opened, and my classmates dashed into the reception area, gobbling up sweets and drinking tea and then racing around the room while I stood alone and separate against the wall under a stained-glass window, my eyes pricking with unshed tears.
My mother came over to me, “I’m sorry, honey. Are you okay?”
I shook my head and sniffled.
“I wish I could have one of those little Torahs,” I admitted.
She went over to the cantor and spoke to him behind her hand. He smiled and nodded, the dome of his bald head flashing squared reflections of the chandelier's light. Then the two of them walked over, and Cantor Nixon bent down to speak to me.
“Come with me,” he said clandestinely, and I thought of his fingers crinkling candy in his pockets.
We walked, the three of us, down the side of the now empty sanctuary, under a row of cracked-open stained-glass windows where cool Autumn air slid in. Unopposed by the cluster of warm bodies from moments ago, it made me shiver. Cantor Nixon mounted the steps of the bimah while I waited at the bottom with my mother. He opened the drawer, and it lit up like a refrigerator. And I saw. The drawer was stuffed with little Torahs. In a stomach-dropping instant, I understood that they weren’t precious or expensive at all. They must have had over a hundred of them in there, not even stacked neatly. He took one out and brought it to me, holding it out in both palms like a priceless treasure.
Smiling, he said, “We were just keeping it warm for you.”
I held it in my hands; its worth diminished in my eyes. But I was suddenly curious nonetheless about what it would look like when I pulled the glittery gold cover off and unrolled the scroll.
Whatever my expression held, the cantor looked pleased, and my mother looked happy and relieved.
That night, after I got ready for bed, I lay on the wooden floor of my bedroom and pulled off the gold cover, the glitter scratchy like sand. Then, I unrolled the scroll—tiny Hebrew letters without vowels. I knew the first sentence, but after that, I couldn’t read it. I still didn’t know how to read Hebrew without the little dots and lines around the letters that tell you how to pronounce the words.
Beside me was a plastic bowl of crayons, the barren bottom to a piece of Tupperware that had lost its lid. I unthinkingly selected a red crayon and drew a long, squiggly line across the text as I continued to unroll it. I knew this was strictly forbidden, but I couldn’t seem to help myself. I unrolled and unrolled. I unrolled it all the way until I got to the end. A tiny staple held the paper to a thin wooden roller. I continued to pull, gently but deliberately. The paper snapped off the stick, and the staple hit the floor with a tiny ping.
Suddenly, horrified by what I’d done, I let go of the scroll, and it snapped together again in a loose roll. I jumped into bed, my heart hammering, and asked God to forgive me.
That night I dreamt of my grandmother’s red-painted nails, which she always filed into points, a fashion statement left over from a time before I was born. In my dream, I was running from the nails, which were sharp and pointy like Dracula’s teeth.