My Father's Quest
Copyright 2003 © Phyllis B. Grodsky, Ph.D.
In the late 1940's, the custodian of an Orthodox synagogue in the South
Bronx led me down rickety stairs and along a dark, musty hallway. We
reached a classroom in a remote corner of the basement, and paused. I was
about to enter a domain usually reserved for boys. But boys studied
Hebrew to be a Bar Mitzvah, and that ceremony was not open to me (a Bat
Mitzvah for girls is not held in Orthodox synagogues). Even so, my father
wanted me to go to Hebrew school. I didn't understand why he wanted me
to master a language he hardly remembered. But at the age of nine there
were many things about adults I couldn't understand.
On the High Holy Days, the only time we went to synagogue, I squirmed in
my seat. Whenever I looked down from the balcony where the women sat, my
father looked lost; another man, someone else's father, was always
showing him the correct place in the prayer book.
My father seemed to have few wants, but he was adamant about sending me to
Hebrew school, and said he would speak with the rabbi. One day he came
home early, took off his faded workman's clothes, and changed into the
good suit and tie he only wore on special occasions. He seemed to develop
an air of bravado, layer by layer, with each item he donned. Then, he
left the house as if on a mission. When he returned, he looked relieved:
the rabbi had agreed to his request. He said nothing about how he pulled
off this feat. Instead, he shed his suit and tie so quickly that it
looked as if he was ridding himself of something too heavy to bear.
I wasn't interested in learning prayers I didn't understand for a
coming-of-age ceremony I couldn't have. Still, I wanted to please my
father, who only seemed to notice me when I did well in school. Every
time I showed him my
report card, he rubbed his hands with glee and said that I had a good
head, which he called a "noodle."
The custodian opened the door to the classroom. He did an abrupt
about-face, and left. Inside, the teacher was pacing back and forth in
front of a chalkboard. He wore a long black suit that looked as if it
could slide off his small, pinched frame. Without looking at me directly,
he motioned to an empty chair in the back of the room. I dutifully sat
down and saw the other students fidgeting and looking everywhere but at
The teacher pointed a long wooden ruler at Hebrew letters that seemed to
be written with a shaky hand. He was excitedly reciting Hebrew words in a
sing-song voice when someone threw a pencil and the jeering started. As
the squabbling grew louder, he tapped the ruler and cried: "Sha! Sha!"
("Quiet! Quiet!"). Suddenly, he began swinging the ruler wildly,
looking half crazed. He struck one boy and then another, but still
didn't get their attention. They shuffled in their seats and seemed to
be waiting for the class to end so they could race out of the synagogue
and play stickball on the not yet mean streets of the South Bronx. To
block out the din, I silently rehearsed my part in the upcoming school
Today, I would guess the teacher was a survivor, only two or three years
out of the camps. But at the time, I could only see him as a scary
figure. I told my father that he beat the boys with a stick, and besides,
I didn't learn anything anyway. I said I wasn't going back. He
didn't argue with me; instead, he gave me a student's pamphlet so I
could learn Hebrew on my own.
Sometimes my father would come home from work on Sunday and open a large
book called "The Guide for the Perplexed." It had a heavy leather cover
embossed with a mysterious pattern. My father said it was written by an
ancient philosopher named Maimonides -- known as the Rambam -- and all the
secrets to life were in that volume. He said there was another book,
"The Kabbala," but he heard that reading it could drive you mad if you
were under forty, and he was thirty-five.
The Rambam's tome collected a thick layer of dust from sitting on his
desk untouched for long periods of time. Whenever I saw fingerprints in
the dust, I wondered if my father felt confused and consulted the age-old
text for guidance. After all, wasn't that what the title promised?
On that long ago day, perhaps my father hoped Hebrew school would put me
on a path to finding answers that eluded him. Did he want the young
student to become the teacher -- his teacher? But I was no Yentl, the
Isaac Bashevis Singer character who dressed like a boy in order to study
Talmud. Far from it. I never did learn the prayers or even any Hebrew.
If my father was disappointed, he didn't show it.
The ancient scholar's text remained on his desk, surrounded by an ever-
growing collection of papers and ledger books. I always noticed when new
fingerprints appeared on its dusty cover.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PHYLLIS B. GRODSKY has a Ph.D. in Social/ Personality psychology,
and has previously been published in The Jewish Magazine.
"An Accidental Lunch: When Chinese Worry Met Jewish Angst",
"On Chametz and Haggadahs: A Passover Story,
"In the Presence of the Rebbe",
and "Making Amends"
from the July 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine