A Self-Taught Man Usually Has A Poor Teacher And A Worse Student
Shavuot holds a special place in my calendar. Not necessarily for the reasons that most people might assume – true, Lori and I spent many years doing okay by this festival. During our La Cuisine days we sold our fair share of cheesecakes and quiches, but that is not what I had in mind. I like Shavuot because of its low-key, almost humble demeanour. There is nothing headline-grabbing about this holiday; no significant ceremonies, no fancy accoutrements. Apart from overindulging in cheesecake and blintzes our main preoccupation is to learn, to study, to engage our brain. Precisely, because of its esoteric nature, Shavuot is sometimes a bit of a hard sell to the uninformed or unassociated. During my five years of high school (no, I did not repeat a year – back in the day, we in Ontario attended grade 13), more major tests fell out on Shavuot than any other Jewish holiday – teachers had no inkling of its existence, not to mention most of my fellow Jewish classmates who were equally clueless. The scenario became all too predictable. “Sir, could you please reschedule the test. Shavuot is a major Jewish holiday and I will be in synagogue.”
“Major Jewish holiday, huh, Rapp? Okay. Cohn, you are Jewish, will you be attending synagogue on Shavuot? Cohn, have you ever heard of a Shavuot? Rapp, are you trying to pull a fast one on me?”
The issue was usually resolved when I produced a letter from my rabbi verifying the authenticity of said holiday. I recall one year actually writing a rescheduled test outside the principal’s office. I believe that was the one and only opportunity during my entire high school tenure that I came face to face with my principal. Westdale Secondary High at that time had an enrollment of more than 1800 students. About the only occasion one had to visit the principal’s office was if one had committed a felony or if one had to write a rescheduled test from Shavuot.
Years later, I sense that it still takes a concerted effort to popularize Shavuot for the masses. A quick glance on Google revealed a host of Tikkun programs for this past night of Shavuot with such varying and edifying topics as, “The Borscht Belt: Boot Camp for America’s Comedians,” “Did the Rabbis Make up all These Laws?” and one simply titled, “Trees.” Learning, by definition, is a bit of a hard sell.
When I began the second grade, back in 1963, there was a determined effort by the rabbi of our community, Rabbi Green, and some other visionaries to launch a Jewish day school in our modest community of Hamilton. At the time there couldn’t have been more than a handful of Sabbath-observant Jews in the entire city. Who did these driven optimists think would be attending their school? I still retain a vivid image of Rabbi Green, and Rabbi Millen, who would become the school’s first principal, arriving at my house on a Sunday to make a pitch for their new project. The scene was probably reminiscent of the way college football coaches try to lure prospective high school athletes to enroll in their athletic programs. For some inexplicable reason, my parents bought into the idea; it was quite a courageous decision on their part. That first year’s enrollment must have totaled no more than 40 students in the entire school. And the curriculum: a half-day of religious studies and a half-day of secular studies. My mother was probably convinced that I would receive only half an education.
Lori’s story is not that much different. Her parents were both hard working immigrants who never travelled to Florida in the winter, but made sure that their two children received a proper Jewish day school education. A good education meant something to our parents.
Today, we all pay lip service to the importance of education. We certainly spend enough time and ink complaining about the sorry state of our schools, and the lack of qualified, motivated, exciting teachers. Yet, how many of us encourage our qualified, motivated, exciting children to become teachers? “My child the doctor,” still remains the mantra of many a parent.
Mrs. Marshall. Mrs. Marshall was my second grade teacher in the newly established Hamilton Hebrew Academy. I still remember her today because she was a teacher totally dedicated to her vocation and to the young students entrusted in her care. If Shavuot is the holiday that extols the value of learning, perhaps more of us should be encouraging our brightest and gifted children to take up the gauntlet of education. It’s about time that we hear it for “my child the educator.”