| Personal Accounts |

Lessons for Life

Though you’ve long forgotten why the Wars of the Roses began, there are some lessons that linger, some teachers who will never be forgotten.

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Thinking Outside the Parallelogram

Esther Kurtz

“Y

ou guys are making so much noise — even Esther can’t sleep!” I quote my 11th-grade math teacher all the time when I try to explain the type of student I was in high school. She said this on a day that I actually happened to be awake in her class… hmmm maybe because everyone was talking so much? The whole class laughed myself included.

I was a terrible student but I saved most of my antipathy for math. I was not a “math person ” and I’d proclaim it with pride. This went back years from the first time I expressed frustration with math (I think every kid does — even those who love math) and my mother responded with “It’s okay Esther we’re not a math family. Just do your best.” I know my mother meant well but that just got me off the hook mentally.

When we took the Iowa achievement tests in elementary school I’d fastidiously fill in the black circles making sure they were dark and complete so my answers would be recorded correctly. When it came to the math section though I’d make a pattern with each successive answer so there’d be a zigzag flowing though the answer sheet. If the answers weren’t going to be correct at least the paper would be pretty right?

In ninth grade, my math teacher tried to argue sense into me: “You’re smart, Esther. You can understand math; you just don’t want to.”

I shrugged and said simply, “I don’t do math.” There was no convincing me otherwise.

My tenth-grade math teacher told my mother that I was going to fail the Math A Regent, so my mother had her old friend, a math teacher, tutor me for a few sessions. My tutor said I was very capable. I just snorted, and eked out a 68 on the Regent.

Math B was a lost cause. I had no concept of logs or imaginary numbers. Graphing calculators had just been introduced to the education system, and I was too busy figuring out how to write messages than graph a parabola. Came the regent at the end of 11th grade, and I once again made pretty designs in the multiple choice section. In the long answers section, I wrote down random formulas hoping one of them would stick, and I’d get some credit. My grade: 32 scaled score. I did not care.

I graduated and entered the “real world” of college and consequences. The program I attended required me to take CLEP examinations in core subjects not relevant to my degree — like science and history and, of course, math.

Methodically I took all the CLEPs but got stuck with math. It was general math, nothing too complicated, supposedly just a slightly higher level than high school — but I hadn’t even been able to do high school math. I didn’t have much choice; I wanted my degree more than I hated math, so once again my mother found me a tutor, a college math professor she befriended at the gym. I learned again about logs and imaginary numbers and how parabolas worked. I didn’t enjoy it, not even after my tutor mentioned to my mother what a fast learner I was.

My old high school is a CLEP testing site, so with great anxiety I went back to take the math CLEP. I’ll cut the suspense — I did well. Very well, much higher than the necessary 50 to pass. Lightheaded, overjoyed, and shocked, I floated out of the computer room and bumped into my old high school principal.

“I passed the Math CLEP!” I crowed. She smiled politely but didn’t seem half as impressed as I expected her to be. “Aren’t you surprised?” I asked.

“No.” she said simply. “You convinced yourself you couldn’t do math, that your family doesn’t do math. You could’ve always done it if you wanted to.”

Oh. It’s been a few years since I took my math CLEP. I have no clue what a log is anymore, and the only place I deal with imaginary numbers is in my budget sometimes, but: I didn’t do patchekening, I didn’t do small talk. I didn’t do kids.

I do now.

It’s so nice to be able to get over myself.


The Callback

Rachelli Saffir

I

t was an “Ask the Expert” moment in my teaching career and I’d run out of experts who weren’t personally involved with me the class I was struggling to teach or the school. So in desperation I yanked off the Totally Coping Teacher mask and phoned a mechanech in another city I knew from my seminary years.

Rabbi Cohen was warm and encouraging and to my surprise didn’t seem to write me off as a failure for finding myself in such a difficult situation. He didn’t even seem fazed that such a situation existed which maybe meant that someone somewhere out there also struggled with a challenging class — who would’ve thought?!

We discussed options: what could work what probably wouldn’t. How to bring up the subject within the class without allowing them to run the discussion. Whom to speak to when and where and how. When to look closer when to look away.

I hung up the phone with a plan — and a flutter of nerves. It could work it might work but would it work?

I replayed the scenario in my mind: coming into school, calling over the ringleaders of the rebellion, opening a discussion under strict conditions, responding without reacting, rising above the almost snobbish, touch-me-not vibes and focusing on the people underneath.

Could I pull it off? Rabbi Cohen seemed to think so.

Certainly, it was better than the dismal broken record we were going through now: every class ending on the same sour notes of discord. I went to sleep uneasy, hopeful, wondering.

Early the next morning, I peered through the drizzle, awaiting my ride to school. My cell phone rang and I snatched it up, expecting the taxi driver.

“Hello, this is Rabbi Cohen.”

I gasped. My taxi pulled up and I climbed in, phone glued to my ear as I croaked out a hello.

His voice was reassuring. “I’m just calling to run through the plan with you again,” he said. “And to wish you hatzlachah rabbah.”

When I hung up the phone a few minutes later, the uneasiness had slipped away.

I know that I followed his advice that day. Did it work? Either it did, or eventually, the class moved on of their own accord. The year passed, another followed, and the next lot of urgent questions arose and pushed the one I’d asked Rabbi Cohen to the dusty back of my mind.

But the memory of that morning’s phone call remained.

I no longer remember what he told me to say.

But I’ll never forget what he taught me to be.


The Substitute

As told to Miriam Klein Adelman

M

iss Smith took over our ninth-grade English class in the beginning of the term subbing for a teacher out on maternity leave. Before we were even seated the first day she marched over to the right side of the blackboard picked up a piece of chalk and wrote in large letters: “Experience Makes a Person Bitter or Better.”

“Every day I will write a saying on the board ” she announced “and by the end of the six weeks you’ll have a list of aphorisms that will enrich your life.”

But from that day our class made her life miserable. We never behaved with substitutes but Miss Smith seemed particularly vulnerable. She’d walk into the room write her saying on the board (we always seemed to let her do that) and then one girl would start “Chop ” the next would follow “Chop ” and so on around the room until the final student would call out loudly: “Timberrr!”

Miss Smith brought a cup of hot coffee into class one day and when she wasn’t looking Sarah dropped a plastic cockroach in it. Every five minutes another student would request permission to go to the bathroom. One time we hoisted a pail of water over the door that was supposed to pour onto the next person who walked in. We planned it perfectly because Miss Smith walked into the room at precisely the same time every day.

Unfortunately, Shana came zooming in at that moment because she didn’t want to be late so the pail of water emptied on her instead. Shortly after, Miss Smith walked in and saw a dripping Shana, realizing immediately that the water was meant for her.

Miss Smith tried. She tried to be nice. She tried to ignore our obnoxious behavior. We, on the other hand, did not try to behave at all. Whether any of us had pangs of conscience, I do not know, because to this day we have not spoken about it to each other. When she told us to do questions 1 through 10 in our grammar books, we did them—the questions, I mean, not the answers. She tried to laugh it off, but if you were discerning (and even if you weren’t), you could see we were making her crack.

And crack she did, about three weeks into the term. After we had chanted her down for the umpteenth time, singing “Siman tov u’mazel tov!” when she began to teach, she started to cry. “You are the worst class I ever taught,” she sobbed and ran out of the room.

I don’t think we, as ninth-graders, had quite realized that Miss Smith was a human being. Certainly not one with feelings.

She did not return after that day.

We got a talking to from our principal and a much stricter substitute until our regular teacher returned, and life went on. Though I too never spoke about it to anyone, I could never get out of my mind the first saying that Miss Smith had put on the blackboard. “Experience Makes a Person Bitter or Better.” It seemed clear to me at the time that this experience had made her bitter. And it certainly had not made me better. My conscience hurt, and I suspect many of my classmates felt bad as well.

Years later I took a class on the laws of asking forgiveness from anybody we had hurt. The instructor informed us that even pranks done as children needed to be repaired. Although it happened so many years before, I knew immediately that I had to track down Miss Smith (who had long married by then) and ask her forgiveness.

I’m not sure how I got her address, but eventually I did, and I wrote her a detailed letter asking for forgiveness. Happily, she fully forgave me, not that she specifically remembered me. She probably saw us as a nameless, faceless mob. But I now think, or perhaps hope is more accurate, that maybe by penning that letter, I’ve made that long-ago experience a little less bitter for her. I know it has certainly made me feel a lot better.


Gleaning Wisdom

Esther Stauber

O

ne year I went to the eighth grade graduation of the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach (HALB) accompanying my good friend who was then the main eighth-grade Hebrew teacher Morah Shoshana Hayman Hy”d.

As the commencement exercises concluded Shoshana and I inched our way to the exit against the tide of throngs of celebrating family members laughing and teary-eyed students and numerous staff members. Slow as it was it took even longer to exit the auditorium as we were stopped every few feet by girls waving autograph books. “Wait! Morah Hayman! You haven’t signed mine yet…”

As each of her students came by in turn I watched as Shoshana fondly and thoughtfully looked at every girl presenting an autograph book and leaning on the nearest wall scrawled her note.

Finally greeted by a cool blast of fresh air as we made it out of the packed auditorium I asked Shoshana if she had some standard message to her students or if she wrote something different to everyone.

Shoshana explained that she wrote the same opening line to each of her eighth-grade talmidos: “U’mitalmidai yoser mikulam I have learned most from my students.”

But then came the Dear Rachel… Shira… Ayelet… Sara…

Thank you for teaching me…

And she proceeded to thank each girl for a specific lesson she learned from that student. Over and over and over again.

I was floored! “Can you give me one example?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said easily. And this is the story she told: On her way to class one day, Morah Hayman came upstairs to the eighth-grade hallway and saw one of her students standing solitarily in the otherwise empty corridor. The girl stood statue still, so Shoshana went over to ask if she was okay or needed any help. The student smiled shyly and responded, “I’m okay, thanks. I was just finishing up saying asher yatzar.” Shoshana smiled her megawatt smile at me and finished the anecdote. “From her I learned just how it looks to say asher yatzar properly. Since that encounter, I stand still and straight, never on the run,and concentrate on the brachah I am saying.”

Is it any wonder that a teacher so open to grow, so willing to learn from every person and interaction, had such an incredible impact on those hundreds and hundreds of students she loved and learned from in her lifetime?

Yehudis Shoshana (Hayman) Greenbaum a”h, was murdered in the Sbarro suicide bombing, 20 Menachem Av 5761. Yehi zichrah baruch.


Go Green

As told to Faigy Peritzman

“I

t’s not easy being green.”

Kermit the Frog’s motto took up a large spot on my locker door alongside a poster of a basket of apples. There were ten red apples and one green one. The caption: “Be Different.”

That summed up my personal perspective during my teenage years.

I considered myself deep philosophical and unique. Not the best combination for my teachers or the administration. But they took me in stride.

When I sat there arguing about the meaning of life wondering if a tree that falls in an empty forest makes a sound they’d humor me and respond gently guiding me off my soapbox to a more grounded approach.

Sleepover Shabbos was the highlight of the year. The whole middle and high school grades seven through twelve would pile into the school building each class sleeping in a different room. Meals were shared in the auditorium. We’d spend the whole night racing down the halls or huddled in DMCs with the day devoted to singing zemiros and attending workshops.

I must have been in ninth grade when my principal Rabbi Binyamin Steinberg z”l passed me in the hall on Shabbos morning and asked me how I was enjoying Shabbos. On a sleepless high from an incredible Friday night I responded animatedly and then I started telling him about the major philosophical debate we’d discussed the night before.

“What defines reality? Is reality what we see and how we perceive it, or is there a definitive reality that’s unshakable? For example”—we were standing right outside the office, and I gestured to the pale-green cinderblock walls that lined the hallway—“these halls are green. I may call it green and you may call it green, but it’s possible that we’re defining green differently. We both may be referring to the color of grass, but is my green the same as your green? And if it’s not, how would we even know that?”

The entire time, Rabbi Steinberg let me pontificate, a little smile on his face. When I ran out of steam, he responded, incorporating into a deep philosophical discussion about the shades of green the concept of emes. Whether or not we see same green, there is a common defining denominator, and that’s Torah. For every grandiose point I wanted to make, he replied on my terms with pointed proofs.

I walked away from the hourlong conversation (yes, he spent an hour schmoozing with me!) with a lot of food for thought. I still didn’t know if we both saw the same color green, but I’d absorbed the concept of Toras Emes right down to my core.

And there was a smile on my face the rest of the Shabbos. Because I knew that despite my adolescent absurdity, Rabbi Steinberg had taken me seriously. He realized that behind the green apple peel, there was a seed waiting to sprout. And he respected the inner me enough to spend an hour investing in that future fruit.

It’s a lesson I’ve taken with me. Whether with my students, my children, or even my neighbors, I recognize that there’s true value within each of us. On the surface, all you may see are silly antics or ridiculous behavior. But there’s a solid core within, the tzelem Elokim that’s always worth recognition and respect.

I don’t know if the green you see is the same as mine. But I do know that if I take the time to try to understand your perspective, we’ll be able to see eye to eye.


All in a Name

As told to Avigail Rabinowitz

I

t was the disheartenment of a tenth-grader. That’s a very specific type of melodramatic despair. Growing up I attended an out-of-town elementary school with one class per grade. My classmates and I shared the first ten years or so of our schooling (nursery through eighth grade) as a family of sorts. I was the elementary school G.O. president and proud color war captain. I knew every student in school through the twelfth grade — if not by name then surely by face — as well as the teachers administrators and even the janitor.

When I started high school in a large Brooklyn Bais Yaakov the shift to my new non-identity as one more fish in the vast sea was quite the adjustment. Ninth grade saw the beginning of my acclimation as I tried gaining a footing in my new schedule commute school and social angst. I schmoozed with many but clicked with none. Until that point in my experience friends weren’t made; they were a birthright.

In tenth grade, the feeling of being a nameless, faceless apparition floating through school hit me hardest, and I was at the lowest point of my shriveled sense of teenage self. Descending the staircase between periods one day, I passed the ninth-grade math and science teacher, Mrs. Lisa Ackerman, who was coming upstairs. As she passed, she looked me straight in the eyes, smiled, and said, “Hi, Rivkie!” while continuing on her way.

That was it; the entire encounter was an offhand, friendly, easy greeting. An absolute surge of pleasant surprise spread through me like a shock of cool water reviving my parched confidence. She knows me? I was seriously astounded! By name?! I practically bounced my way down the rest of the flight of stairs, and will always remember that encounter as a turning point.

To this day I make a point to look every student in the eyes and call each and every one by name, every chance I get. Thanks for noticing me, Mrs. Ackerman.


Delivered to the Door

Ahava Ehrenpreis

I

rarely look back on my high school years. But I know that certain responses and patterns of behavior still a part of me now all these years later were instilled in me then by one particular rebbi.

I attended a Bais Yaakov just as my daughters did but there were some interesting differences. Mine was located in the Midwest theirs on the Eastern Seaboard. Our entire student body numbered under a hundred significantly fewer than the numbers in my daughters’ grade levels. The common denominator among the students was that we were Jewish and our parents knew that a public-school education — even with additional Jewish learning — would not be sufficient to build future homes based on Torah and mitzvos.

Family lore has it that when my mother came to take my brother out of public school the teacher was aghast that such a bright boy was going to attend a fledgling institution. My class of 12 girls had varied backgrounds with parents with a potpourri of occupations: a rabbi a businessman a plumber a doctor a bus driver a Lubavitcher shaliach. It didn’t matter to us. Like my daughters and their classmates we kvetched about too much homework too many tests.

We had star-studded rebbeim and teachers who came to build on the foundation laid by our grandparents and parents. At the time, our teachers seemed old and frightening. Our principal was the legendary educator, Rabbi Joseph Elias, and I was overwhelmed by this imposing, intimidating gentleman with the British accent. I recently saw a picture from that period, and I wondered who that young man standing in front of the school assembly was. I believe this may have been Rabbi Elias’s first position, long before Washington Heights and the prestigious place he would hold in the world of Jewish education.

Our teachers would enter the classroom, a den of chattering adolescent girls doing our best to ignore the teachers’ presence. One particular rebbi would proceed to the front of the room and in a quiet, controlled undertone state, “I am here.” Though I remember no fire and brimstone, in his soft-spoken way he changed the way I view doing mitzvos.

I can’t say that I remember the mefarshim he taught us (more’s the pity), but I learned something that reverberates in my subconscious all these years later. He said, “If you are going to do a mitzvah, do it the whole way.” He gave an example: If you are going to give someone a ride home, take them to their door. Finish the mitzvah completely.

To this day, when I give people a ride, they’re always taken aback when I won’t just drop them off on the corner near their destination. In New York, this can mean two additional avenues, four turns, and as many traffic lights. Yet I assure them that it is no problem. Because I see my rebbi in my mind’s eye, and he made it part of the way I operate. Can I say it turned me into a perfect “mitzvah-doer”? I wish. But if you get a ride with me, you’ll get delivered to your door, rain or shine.

I haven’t seen this teacher since I left high school, but I do hope that he will read this and know that a few decades ago, he made one student into a better person.


Sunny with a Chance of Eternity

Penina Goldschmidt

Anyone who was in Camp Sternberg Anna Heller that summer will remember it forever.

That summer spawned a search that altered my entire experience of life from then on. Because camp is a magical place to begin with where anything can happen. School is rigid with schedules and requirements and responsibilities and skills that need to be mastered and knowledge to be learned and boxes to check off. But in camp we were free — even free to learn if we wanted to.

And we wanted to because we were learning something we’d never been taught before.

In camp you don’t really care where people come from. Sure you ask (Brooklyn South Bend Miami) but it matters so little that you forget the location as the words die in the breeze that rolls off the lake and up the hill. As far as we knew the new shiur counselor fell from the sky or maybe she materialized into existence in camp itself. All we knew for sure was that she was teaching us something essential taking us down a path no one ever had before.

How do you know there is a G-d? I mean how do you know for sure?

What am I doing here anyway?

Why does stuff happen?

I guess you could say she taught us about emunah, or bitachon, or the 13 ani maamins. But really she taught us about Hashem — the truths that we knew since we were kids, and life was simple, but that somehow became more complicated as we grew up.

She taught us Who Hashem is (“G-d is, is!”) and who we were (“a soul becoming whole”). By proving the existence of G-d, she transmitted a security that would stay with us forever. By teaching us the purpose of pain, she gave us a strength that would serve us in every test. And with the message that as individuals we have a unique purpose, she gifted us a lifelong sense of mission.

I was a good kid. I wasn’t at risk. I didn’t have major issues. I grew up frum, in a beautiful community. I grew up in a whole and wholesome family, with Torahdig values. I was lucky: I attended excellent schools where passionate Yiddishkeit was modeled and questions were welcomed and every Jew was valued. Yet with all that, I still got something that summer that I didn’t get anywhere else.

That experience of such organized, candid, comprehensive, and personal explanation of the truths of life was never duplicated for me. But that summer established the foundation for our courage to ask the questions, and the belief in our ability to find the answers in other, less magical places, wherever we found ourselves, for the rest of our lives.


My First Student

Riki Goldstein

I

deliberated between two favorite Friday night outfits: the gray sweater I’d picked out at the mall or the long black-and-white houndstooth skirt that looked so elegant and grown-up. My hair was blow-dried; I hoped the air outside was not too damp. It was my favorite time of the week.

And we had guests. I had my favorites among my parents’ regulars but this week promised to be especially intriguing: a guy from New York and a lady from Basel were with us for the whole Shabbos. “Are they on a shidduch?” I asked my parents.

“Uh kind of ” was the reply. “They ‘met’ online and now they’re meeting face to face.”

Thirteen-year-old me found this absolutely fascinating. Especially as he Joel from New York wore a yarmulke and she Ledicia from Basel seemed to know absolutely zilch about Jewish tradition. She told us that she identified as Jewish and was a member of a Reform synagogue. Now this was cool.

I checked the mirror, and then, smoothing my brown hair yet again, I walked downstairs. The house was all ready, as even the shortest Fridays could not catch my mother unprepared. Tea and rugelach were served; the men left to shul in the car. My mother and grandmother lit the candles on the white-dressed table, their eyes covered in the weekly tableau of serene prayer, and we all wished each other “Good Shabbos.”

My mother suggested I take Ledicia to shul with me. When she accepted my invitation, we put on our coats and stepped from the lighted house into a cold, crisp evening. It was a ritual I loved: welcoming Shabbos in the warmth of the big, old shul, then walking home with my father. Today, as I crossed the footbridge in my Shabbos shoes and black opaque tights, an almost-stranger in a pair of tan leather boots stepped alongside. The little river was in full winter flow, and as we crossed it, Ledicia’s barrage of questions began.

They flowed and flowed and did not stop as we waited by the pedestrian crossing, arrived in shul, ascended to the ladies’ gallery, and found our seats. Even as the notes of Lecha Dodi rose from the sanctuary below, Ledicia continued to ask. Why do Orthodox women wear tights? Why couldn’t I carry a purse? What did we do the whole Shabbos, and why was even my mother at home dressed so formally? Why were there so many men but only a handful of ladies in the shul for Kabbalas Shabbos? How did I feel about sitting upstairs? Did I understand the liturgy? Did I like Shabbos? Did I like my shul? Why?

What did little me know?

But when put on the spot, I did. I was sincerely friendly to Ledicia, and my words tripped over themselves as I tried to explain everything at once, using every idea I knew. I talked and talked, and my new pupil nodded and asked some more. She looked out of place in shul, and her questions plunged me deeper and deeper into explanations and examples.

I don’t know how much sunk in, if Ledicia ever became frum, if she and Joel ended up married. Perhaps, when the beis din looked into it, they discovered she wasn’t even Jewish. The books we lent her were returned with a little note months later, and we never heard from her again. Even her last name slips my mind.

But on that winter Friday night, the moment when I was called upon to speak up from my heart and explain the beauty of something that was so real to me, I became conscious of my own inner voice. Successfully cast into the teacher’s role, I swam. And I became, in my own eyes, a teacher.

Looking back over many years in the classroom, I think it was my parents’ confidence in me, the opportunities I received early on to speak up and share, that taught me that I could teach.


Two Words

Michal Eisikowitz

W

hen I first met Mrs. G. as a callow ninth-grader I was underwhelmed.

I took in her slight build delicate features and soft velvety voice… and wondered how such an understated woman could have earned the reverence exuded by my older sisters.

Could this soft-spoken educator — a paragon of refinement who you suspected had atrophied her physiological capacity to speak past 70 dB — ignite apathetic adolescents give pause to image-obsessed teenagers for whom “inspiration” was not cool?

Then I experienced her first lesson and it was breathtaking: powerful sources brilliantly interwoven in a way that built up to a trenchant hard-hitting climax. You could hear a pin drop.

“So this is what makes high school different ” I remember thinking.

Mrs. G. didn’t used drama or guilt or tearjerkers to create artificial intrigue. Her core ingredient was content: penetrating timeless truths delivered with humility wisdom and grace. Her messages needed no fire and brimstone.

She respected us deeply (“Good morning ladies! How are you today?”); she treated us as intelligent thinking adults — presenting information allowing us to draw conclusions — and we responded in kind.

Even her barely perceptible mussar was palatable coming from a person of obvious consonance. The most cynical among us shriveled in Mrs. G.’s presence: no duplicity to mock no hypocrisy to expose. We felt deeply — she was the real thing.

But for me Mrs. G.’s greatest gift lay in two words.

I’d coordinated a yom iyun in 12th grade that included an original video presentation. My friend and I spent days planning it, working hard to ensure that the script was powerful but not preachy, engaging but not sensational.

At the event’s end, Mrs. G. approached me. She took my hand in hers, nodded thoughtfully, warmly, and looked me in the eye. “Michal, cheilchah l’oraysa [may your talents be used for Heaven].” Then she walked away.

At the time I was simply flattered. Could a self-centered 16-year-old grasp the poignancy of her words, foresee the choices she’d face 13 years later, when bills have to be paid and kids have to be therapized and sinks have to be cleaned, and compelling, lucrative professional opportunities come her way?

Today, Mrs. G.’s message serves as a powerful inner compass. She inoculated me with the understanding that while any job can be infused with virtue, a world exists beyond LinkedIn, and it uses vastly different performance metrics.

In two words, she imbued me with a sense of mission — and a reminder of Who Bestowed.

(Originally featured in Family First Issue 557)

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