Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

7 Nisan 5766 - April 4, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Home and Family

First Day at School
by Esther Leah Avner

I always wanted to be a teacher.

I actually began teaching even before attending school. When I was three years old, my elder brother informed me that his teacher used a cane to chastise her students. That was in Belfast, Ireland, over sixty years ago. How it is today, I do not know.

At any rate, the idea appealed to me. If this was all it took to realize my ardent ambition to become a teacher, then I, too, would acquire a cane.

I promptly found a ruler, lined up the few dilapidated wooden chairs strewn about our red-tiled kitchen, and proceeded to teach them enthusiastically, by means of vigorously whacking them. I must have found the experience enthralling, for playing teacher became my favorite game, with the poor unresisting chairs my long suffering pupils. I named myself "Miss Paddywhack," an eminently apt choice for so violent a teacher.

Sometimes today, when I am delivering a lecture and the first comers of the audience are reluctant to occupy the front rows, I relate this anecdote adding: "So please do move up front. I don't want to return to teaching the empty chairs!"

Both my parents were natural teachers, so I suppose it is in my blood. My mother had been trained as a teacher for small children. Lovingly and gently, she taught me to read both Hebrew and English long before my schooldays.

With all this preparation, it is not surprising that I could hardly wait to commence school proper, and enjoy the status of a real school-girl. Unfortunately, this meant public school, for in those days there were no Jewish day schools in the British provinces. Religious Jews arranged that their children skip school prayers and scripture lessons. Instead they received their own religious education in evening classes provided by the Talmud Torah.

At last the great day arrived. I could hardly contain my excitement. Dressed in my new navy gym dress and blazer, my satchel proudly slung over my shoulders, I set off for the tramcar, clutching my elder brother's hand.

We arrived at the school playground good and early. I was amazed. I had never seen so many children all at once, and was not a little awestruck by the wildly dashing boys uttering bloodcurdling yells as they flung themselves upon one another in fearsome play.

At the clang of the bell, I was ushered into my classroom — for girls only — I noted with relief. I sat in the place assigned to me, a double desk, and began to take stock of my surroundings. Everything my brother Menachem had said was correct. There was the blackboard. There was the teacher, complete with cane. There were the monitors busy distributing the primers. And there were my new classmates regarding me curiously.

A little intimidated, I stared back. They all seemed so much older than I, ( they were in fact seven to my five), and so — what my mother would label —- unrefined.

The girl beside me was the first to address me. "Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?" she inquired suspiciously.

The city of Belfast seethed with religious hatred and prejudice then as now. Perhaps I had aroused her suspicions by looking somewhat different from the others, with my olive complexion, black curls and youthful appearance.

"No. I'm Jewish," I replied proudly, pleased to have such a satisfactory rejoinder. My parents had often assured me of the superiority of the Jewish people. Hadn't my mother read to me just that Shabbos how Hashem had delivered us from the cruel Egyptians and chosen us from among all the nations to give us His precious Torah? This reply, I felt, was a real winner, sure to provide me with status, prestige and honor. I glanced at my neighbor expectantly and ventured a tentative smile.

But what was this? My deskmate was gaping at me in absolute horror. "A Jew!" she said excitedly. "A real Jew!" She pointed. "Then it was you who killed C————! We learned it in Sunday school." Hastily she passed on the information to the desks in front and behind. The news spread like wildfire. The class was inflamed. There was a real live god-killer in the fold right in their very midst.

The teacher, unaware of the cause of the tumult, rapped sharply on her desk for order, threatening disciplinary action with the cane. An ominous silence prevailed until recess.

At eleven, the class was ordered to the bathroom, and lines formed in front of each stall. It was then that my troubles began in earnest. No one would let me in to use the facilities. All these years later I can still see the image of that dark bathroom, the six stalls at one end, and the one rusty sink at the other. I can still hear the clang of the doors being shut in my face, as two strong girls, probably from a senior class, held the door closed so that I should not wrest it open.

I tried another line — the same thing. And so with each of the lines. The girls were adamant in their resolve. No Jew would desecrate the holy portals of the gentile bathroom stalls.

"You killed C———. You killed C————-." they chanted. "We won't let you in. We won't let you in. You're a Jew. You're a Jew."

I recall my chagrin and confusion, my stomach cramping in dread. How would I last the day without using the bathroom? I looked around in bewilderment — I hadn't killed anyone. What did they mean? My parents wouldn't let us even hit each other, so how could I have killed anyone?

And who was this C——-? I had never heard of this gentleman whom everyone but me seemed to know so well.

In the end, it was my father who explained it to me, after I had arrived home sobbing . "That's how the gentiles are. Hashem made it as a test for us while we are in golus We know that the Yidden are Hashem's special children whom He loves with all His heart because we alone accepted His Torah, just as we have always told you. But many gentiles are jealous, and because of that, they hate Jews just because they have kedushoh.

As an excuse for their hatred, they say it's because Jews were responsible for the death of a man whom they worshiped as an avodoh zoroh."

"And did the Yidden really kill him?" I wanted to know, my tears forgotten, as I became engrossed both in the story and my father's simplified hashkofoh lesson.

"No," replied my father. "He was, in fact, liable for the death penalty. But beis din never killed in the cruel manner which they describe. It was the Romans who killed him, and unfortunately many innocent Jews, too, in the torturing way they were accustomed to."

"But I wasn't there!

"No, but that's just one of the irrational ways some gentiles use to torment Jews. And the children repeat the words and attitudes of their parents. That's what we mean by the word "antisemite."

Well, it was a lot for a five-year-old to absorb in one short day. But I think I did. Never again would I expect a gentile to understand the greatness of the Jewish people. More importantly, I learned to become even more proud of our unique status and heritage.

That lesson was instilled in my subconscious that day at my father's knee. Thus were my parents granted siyata diShmaya to raise their family, loyal to Hashem, Torah and mitzvos whilst surrounded by gentiles. We simply never considered them as being on the same spiritual plane as we were. We were "goy mikerev goy", encompassed by an invisible barrier of immunization against gentile values.


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