Family History

Sometime over this past year / century of the pandemic, I spit into a little tube and sent my saliva to Ancestry’s DNA lab to have it analyzed.

The results were as expected: 100% European Jewish.

It’s not like that came as a complete shock. It may have been cool to have some weird result so that I could speculate about infidelity in my family tree. But I knew where my grandparents came from: on my mother’s side, Russia and Poland; on my father’s side, Austria and British Palestine. All of those Jewish communities have roots in medieval Ashkenaz, so of course that’s where our origins are.

But I get a little obsessed with family history every now and then. And at the time, I was looking for things to do so I could justify not working on my dissertation, which seemed huge and undoable.

So I bought a subscription to Ancestry’s records and started building a family tree, using all the documents I could find to flesh out the details. Although the records didn’t give me much new information, it was still exciting to see ship manifests and naturalization documents showing my ancestors’ passage and acclimation to America.

Family history has always been important in my extended family. More than one wall of our dining room was devoted to portraits of ancestors, and we often talked about our family tree. One of my uncles allegedly built a family tree that traces back to Rashi on my mother’s side, but I’ve never seen the document nor heard of its existence since about fifteen years ago. On my father’s side, our claim to fame is being descendants of Reb Shmiel Chait, or Shmuel Schneider, who was (so I was told) an esteemed rabbi and tailor in Jerusalem. Yichus, after all, is gold in the frum world.

My maternal grandmother was notorious for telling stories about her childhood in Tomaszow and her Holocaust years spent in a Siberian labor camp after she was caught smuggling sugar across the Polish-Russian border – often the same stories, told with the same phrases and knaitches each time.

In the slideshow above:
Bobby with her Bernstein grandchildren over the years, and serving ice cream at the annual Chanukah party hosted in her Boro Park apartment, ca. 1992.

My maternal grandfather died before I was born, and we somehow never heard stories about him – I’m not even sure he grew up in Russia. I know he spent some time in Chernobyl, but that might have been for yeshiva. I don’t know where he was during the war years, but I know he had a brother whom he lost contact with during the war and was never able to track down. I sometimes get a little excited when I hear about someone else named “Hardt,” thinking it may be Zaidy’s long-lost brother’s family.

Bobby and Zaidy met and married in the DP camps after the war, where they had their first child, my Tante Sara, and then immigrated to America.

The documents below record the overseas journeys taken by Fiszel and Feiga Hardt, my grandparents (1951); Sara Hardt, my aunt (1951); Boruch Goldstein, my great-grandfather (1957); and Nachum Goldstein, my great-uncle (1957). They are all listed as of Polish nationality as well as Jewish. My grandfather’s occupation is listed as “none,” my grandmother’s as “saleslady in foodmarket,” which she definitely wasn’t, and my aunt’s as “child.” My grandparents and aunt are all sponsored by the HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society).

In the second document in this slideshow, the manifest of a ship leaving Munich, Germany, on March 24, 1957, the person listed above my great-grandfather Boruch Goldstein (occupation “rabbi”) is sponsored by a Joseph Bernstein. No relation to my father’s family, as far as I could tell… But I did find some interesting connections between my maternal and paternal families from before they’d ever met, which I explain at the end of this post.

From family lore, I know that the reason my great-grandfather Zaide Boruch came over six years after my grandparents was because he had tuberculosis. Oral history says that Uncle Nachum actually sailed to America in 1951 with my grandparents (though I couldn’t find his name on the same ship manifest), and went back to Germany to fetch his father when Zeide Boruch was finally cleared for a visa. None of that is supported in the documents I could find, but of course Ancestry’s records can’t be the final say in the non-existence of those records.

The naturalization cards for my grandparents list two different addresses. I assume that the “1913 Bergen Street” on my grandfather’s card is an error, since all other documentation lists “1915 Bergen Street.” There’s a possibility that they moved two houses down, but certainly not between the morning of August 28, 1958, and the evening…

The coolest thing about my grandmother’s naturalization card, to me, is her signature. It’s exactly the same handwriting as all those little notes she would leave near the telephone, the pad with all her children’s and grandchildren’s phone numbers… A real blast from the past, coming from even farther back in the past.

My paternal grandparents rarely talked about themselves or their family histories. They lived in Israel, and we saw them only on rare occasions. My childhood memories of them are mostly being coaxed to talk to them – complete strangers to me – on the phone every Erev Rosh Hashanah, answering their questions about school and saying “amen” to their brachos, and then passing the phone to the next sibling in line. They had visited for a few months when I was a baby, but I had no memory of that. I got to know them a bit better when my family took a month-long visit in October of 1994, and when plane travel became more common and less expensive, they visited America more often, usually for Pesach.

They still didn’t talk much about themselves. Saba was harsh and abrasive, demanding perfection and rewarding it with a pinch on the cheek that stung for hours afterwards. Savta was quiet and soft-mannered, plying us with her apple strudel and watching us play with a quiet smile.

What I knew about their pasts came entirely through my parents. My own father wasn’t very talkative either, but my mother told us all about her in-laws. Saba had grown up in Yerushalayim, and wasn’t affected by the Holocaust. Savta had grown up in Vienna, Austria, and she and her brother – my Great-Uncle Moishe – had been evacuated via the Kindertransport and spent the war years in the countryside of Scotland. Their mother had joined them somehow, and they all took a ship to America after the war. On that ship, Moishe had met a nice young man named Yaakov Shimon who was on his way to America for a visit from his home in Israel. Moishe liked Yaakov Shimon, introduced him to his sister Batsheva, and the rest is history – or in any case, one of the branches on my family tree.

In the slideshow above:
Saba and Savta visiting from Israel in 1988, with a bonus appearance from Savta Chaya, my great-grandmother.

When I was around fifteen years old, Saba and Savta visited for Pesach. My older sister and I moved into our younger sisters’ bedroom so that my grandparents could sleep in ours for the first days. They would go to our cousins for chol hamoed and the second days, because there was an actual guest bedroom in their Midwood house. Our temporary bedroom change wasn’t for very long, and I left the book I had just finished reading on my nightstand.

The book was Far From the Place We Called Home by Sarah Schleimer, a book of historical fiction following a group of boys who flee Germany via the Kindertransport on the eve of war and spend the years of the Holocaust in the Scottish countryside.

My grandmother read the book during the first day of Pesach, when she was supposed to be having her afternoon nap. That night, when the men were in shul and it was too early for the women to start washing up from the first Seder and the first day’s seudah, Savta sat down next to me on the couch and took my hand in hers.

She told me how the book got everything right, from the emotions surrounding leaving her home for the strange unknown to the hostility the children faced from their Scottish hosts when they insisted on eating kosher and keeping Shabbos. She told me then how her host family sponsored her mother’s visa, claiming that they were hiring her as a cleaning woman.

I asked her where in Scotland she’d stayed. She refused to tell me.

“Do you still have contact with your host family?” I asked. “Maybe I’ll get to visit there one day.”

My soft-spoken Savta suddenly became animated and spoke with uncharacteristic vehemence. “Never go back there!” she said. “They saved us from the Nazis, but they’re hardly any better.” She wouldn’t tell me why she said that, wouldn’t give me any more details on her experience there, and my questions seemed to have dried up the well of memories she was willing to share with me.

I’ve always regretted that. I wish she had given me more details, more stories. I do wish I knew where she had spent her war years, because – despite her command never to go back there – I love Scotland and would like to visit the place she spent those crucial years of her life.

I hoped to find that information in Ancestry’s records, but unfortunately, they tend to have access to few records from outside America, even when I did splurge and buy a temporary subscription to global records.

The records I did find confirmed the family lore of Moishe Billet, my grandmother’s brother, meeting Yaakov Shimon Bernstein on the ship to America. I was not able to find my grandmother’s or her mother’s name on any ship manifests, but Moishe (listed as Joseph – his full name was Moshe Yosef) and Yaakov Shimon (listed as Jacob Simon) were certainly on the same boat in 1949 – although their destination was Israel, not America. They sailed on the Neptunia in August 1949, departing New York and bound for Haifa.

The documents below record ship passages of Brenda Bernstein (my grandfather’s mother), Rachel Bernstein (his sister), and Jacob Bernstein (my grandfather), in 1941 from Port Said to New York; my grandfather’s registration card from 1941; the page from the Neptunia‘s 1949 manifest showing both Joseph Billet and Jacob S. Bernstein; and a page from the Laguardia‘s 1951 manifest showing Jacob Simon sailing from Haifa back to New York.

When I first found the registration card with the name Jacob Simon Bernstein, I wasn’t sure it was my grandfather’s. As far as I had known, he didn’t come to America until after the war. When I found the ship manifest for him, his mother, and his sister – with the same address listed on both documents – I knew it was his.

But noticing the address led me to something else. I began to map the addresses of my grandparents and their sponsors in America – all in Brooklyn. (I omitted the HIAS address.) And I discovered that, long before my mother and father met, their two families lived within mere blocks of each other.

With one exception, all the addresses on my ancestors’ documents are within the same few blocks of each other.
  • 354 Saratoga Ave
    • Listed on:
    • Registration card of Jacob Simon Bernstein, 1923; other person living there: Hyman Bernstein.
    • Ship manifest of “Neptunia,” traveling from New York (August 10, 1949); US Citizens and Nationals, Jacob S. Bernstein, returning permanently to Israel.
    • Ship manifest of “LaGuardia,” from Haifa, Israel (June 14, 1951) to New York (June 29, 1951); Jacob Simon Bernstein, age 27.
  • 331 Thomas S Boyland St
    • Listed as 331 Hopkinson Ave on ship manifest of “El Nil,” traveling from Port Said (Sept 5, 1941) to New York (Nov 28, 1941). Passengers listed as US Citizens: Brenda, Rachel, and Jacob Bernstein.
  • 415 Lefferts Ave
    • Listed on manifest of ship “Neptunia,” sailing from New York (Aug 10 1949) bound for Haifa, Israel. US Citizens and Nationals, Joseph Billet.
  • 1915 Bergen St
    • Listed on ship manifest MIFLY(?) from Munich/Reim, Germany (March 24, 1957); carrying Nachum and Boruch Goldstein; address is of sponsor Mrs. Feiga Hardt.
  • 1913 Bergen St
    • Listed on Naturalization papers for Fiszel Hardt, Aug 28, 1956 (likely a mistake and should be 1915 Bergen Street as the others?)

So what does all that mean? What did I learn about my family from doing all this? Not much that I didn’t already know or that will affect my life in any meaningful way. But it’s still cool.

Maybe someday I’ll devote more time to this, maybe someday I’ll enlist a genealogist to help me find out more information. Maybe, even, someday I’ll find out where my grandmother stayed in Scotland. Maybe someday I’ll move there and use that location to live out my dream of living in the Scottish countryside and becoming the village witch.

I stopped this research and cancelled my Ancestry subscriptions when this brief dive into my past helped me get over the writer’s block I had been experiencing, when I was able to finish and defend my dissertation, edit a collection of essays on artifacts of frum childhood, and begin preparing a book proposal about frum children’s literature.

It’s all part of exploring my past, really, all part of making sense of who I am and where I come from – and where I plan to go from there.

One thing I did discover – one of my cousins is clearly also building a family tree on Ancestry. The website keeps giving me “hints” about people I put into my tree, which is how I found the birth and death dates for some of my third-greats on my mother’s side. Their tree includes names I recognize as belonging to the family of my Tante Sara’s husband, Moshe Leib Laufer, a Bobover chossid. I’ve resisted reaching out or requesting to connect via Ancestry, because of the shaky ground my relationship with family is on at the moment. So whichever Laufer cousin is illicitly using the internet to build your family tree and inadvertently giving me information about my own family tree – thank you.


Sleepover Shenanigans

In elementary school, after a few debacles when girls used birthday party invitations to snub other girls, as pre-teens will do, a rule was created: either the entire class is invited to  your birthday party, or you don’t invite any classmates at all.

For those same social-regulating ends and for reasons of not pretending like a girl’s bas mitzvah is the same as a boy’s bar mitzvah, all bas mitzvah parties were forbidden. My mother, sister, aunts, and female cousins threw me a party anyway, but no classmates were invited.

It never really occurred to me to question the school’s right to limit our out-of-school activities.

A Bais Yaakov teacher is not just an educator of regular school stuff but is also a spiritual guide and judge. Her duty is to mold the bas Yisroel to be the best she can be, and that means having a say in every part of her students’ lives.

But the absurdity struck me when I was teaching eighth grade in my former elementary school.

In my second (and last) year of teaching eighth grade, one of my classes came to me towards the end of the year with a dilemma. They had been in the process of arranging a graduation sleepover for the whole class. Everything was arranged, and then somehow one of the principals found out about their plans.

She said “b’shum ofen,” in no way possible could they have an unsupervised sleepover. If they wanted to do this, they had to find a member of the hanhala who would agree to stay and supervise the entire night.

They had asked many teachers, of course sticking to the younger and unmarried ones, but no one even considered it. They were mostly amused that the girls expected a teacher to consider something like that. So they appealed to me to come at 11pm and stay until 7am, when the hostess’s mother would wake up and take over.

I agreed.

I went to the principal and told her I had agreed to supervise. She looked at me in disbelief and laughed at my naiveté. I just stood there, totally confused.

She sighed. “I only told them that because I didn’t think any teacher would agree to do something like this!”

“Oh. Um…I mean, it’s not a problem for me to do it, if they want to have their graduation sleepover…”

“Well,” she said, shaking her head in chagrin, “there’s nothing we can do now. I told them they could have their sleepover if they find someone, so we have to let them do it. It’s a shame. This sleepover should never happen. Who would have thought any teacher would agree!”

I almost pointed out that if she wanted that to have happened, she should have warned the teachers before the girls asked us. But then I realized that every other teacher had implicitly understood, as evidenced by their amusement at the thought of the request. Rather than further revealing my own misplaced hashkafos and priorities, I kept quiet.

At the sleepover, as you might imagine, very little sleeping happened. The girls engaged in all kinds of shenanigans, and my supervision was sorely needed. I confiscated two cellphones and a Gameboy. And then pretended I didn’t see right through it when a couple of girls delightedly lied to me about what a DS is, once I had revealed my ignorance. I may not have known exactly what it was, but it was some kind of electronic game, wasn’t it?

I should have confiscated it. But that was the principal’s “should,” not mine. So I just left the room and “didn’t hear” their shrieks of “Oh my God, I can’t believe she doesn’t know what this is!”

Sometime around 3am or so, I got pulled into a conversation with three or four girls about the merits of eating glue. Don’t ask, I have no idea what was going on. One girl spun a whole yarn about how she used to regularly eat glue, only to reveal at the end that she is a disturbingly good liar. And I found out a few days later that one girl used her camera to video me. I lost a lot of dignity and had a lot of fun.

Most of my time that night was spent making sure the basement door stayed closed and the noise level didn’t reach too far above deafening, so the parents sleeping two floors above would stay that way. I spent some time convincing girls to move into the other room if they wanted to make noise so that the girls who wanted to sleep could have quiet, and then convincing the girls who wanted to sleep that they probably actually didn’t want to sleep at their once-in-a-lifetime graduation sleepover.

The next afternoon, at graduation practice, you could totally see the effects of the terrible sleepover. They were all sleepy-eyed, and girls who hadn’t spoken much to each other all year spent much of the practice time with their heads resting on each other’s shoulders. These “unruly teenagers” who the principal didn’t trust alone at a sleepover had used the opportunity to build their achdus and ahava for one another. She should have been proud.

Rabbi Goldstein, DDS

If there’s one rabbi I remember with fondness, it’s Rabbi Goldstein. When he moved to California, when I was in high school, I think, the whole community felt the loss. He passed away a few years after that.

He was the principal in charge of the younger grades – first through third grades. He was always smiling, always gentle and soft-spoken and always had time to crouch down next to a girl who needed a little extra attention, with his flowing white beard, his sparkling eyes, his long black frock.

There were many traditions Rabbi Goldstein instituted. One was the lunch song, which I find myself singing in my head every so often, especially when I’m in a rush and the train station is so crowded I can barely move:

Walk walk walk
Do not run
Take it easy and
Have a lot of fun.
If you run,
You may fall,
And tumble over like a ball,
So when at home
Or at school,
Remember this important rule.

He would stand on the stage at the front of the dining room while we were eating lunch and lead us all in a chorus of the song. Every day. And every day, all those little high-pitched voices joyfully sang along.

Another tradition of Rabbi Goldstein’s probably would have gotten him in trouble if he were in any school except a Bais Yaakov. But it was another sign of his genuine caring for us.

We were at the age when our teeth were falling out. It’s exciting, that first loose tooth, that moment when there’s an empty space, when you walk around with an awkward wide grin with your lips positioned just so, to reveal your gummy gap.

Rabbi Goldstein would be available once a day, during morning recess, for any girl whose tooth was about to fall out. He would wiggle it and pronounce it ready, or say one more day, two more days… If it was ready, he would pull it out.

I remember at least one girl being the hero of the day, showing off the tooth that Rabbi Goldstein had pulled out. It was worth more than any tooth fairy could give, to treasure the tooth that Rabbi Goldstein pulled out.

I’ve had this fond memory for ages. When I mentioned it to some friends recently, they were horrified and asked lots of questions about hygiene. No, I don’t know if he washed his hands before he took the tooth in two fingers and wiggled it.

Even writing it now, I’m trying to make it sound the way I remember it – a beautiful moment – and it sounds … wrong. And that’s the funny thing. Because it was a beautiful moment, and it is a beautiful memory.

Is it completely absurd? Absolutely. But Rabbi Goldstein was a sweet, gentle, loving man. And though the expression of it, pulling out girls’ teeth, is pretty much unique to Bais Yaakov I’m sure, that sweet, gentle love was real and genuine and a memory worth treasuring.

Bais Yaakov Taught Me to Do Research

Bais Yaakov provided me with a wonderful foundation for higher learning.

Yes, you read that right.

See, it started in seventh grade navi class.

We were learning about Dovid HaMelech, who had trouble keeping warm later in life. He had disrespected clothing, that time that he stuck it to Shaul by cutting off a piece of his cloak and going “nyah nyah, look how close I got to you, I could have killed you but I didn’t, who’s the bad guy now.” So clothing refused to keep him warm, and an old man has got to keep warm.

The posuk says:

1 And king David was old, he came into his old age, and they covered him with clothes, but he was not warmed. א וְהַמֶּלֶךְ דָּוִד זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים וַיְכַסֻּהוּ בַּבְּגָדִים וְלֹא יִחַם לוֹ:
2 And his servants said to him, “Let them seek for my lord the king a young girl, a virgin, and she shall stand before the king, and she shall be to him a warmer, and she shall lie in your lap, and it shall be warm for my lord the king.” בוַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ עֲבָדָיו יְבַקְשׁוּ לַאדֹנִי הַמֶּלֶךְ נַעֲרָה בְתוּלָה וְעָמְדָה לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ וּתְהִי לוֹ סֹכֶנֶת וְשָׁכְבָה בְחֵיקֶךָ וְחַם לַאדֹנִי הַמֶּלֶךְ:
3 And they sought a beautiful young girl throughout the borders of Israel, and found Abishag the Shunemitess and brought her to the king. גוַיְבַקְשׁוּ נַעֲרָה יָפָה בְּכֹל גְּבוּל יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּמְצְאוּ אֶת אֲבִישַׁג הַשּׁוּנַמִּית וַיָּבִאוּ אֹתָהּ לַמֶּלֶךְ:
4 And the young girl was very beautiful, and she was a warmer to the king, and she ministered to him, but the king did not know her. דוְהַנַּעֲרָה יָפָה עַד מְאֹד וַתְּהִי לַמֶּלֶךְ סֹכֶנֶת וַתְּשָׁרְתֵהוּ וְהַמֶּלֶךְ לֹא יְדָעָהּ:

My teacher was a lovely girl, straight out of seminary, doing her year of teaching while waiting for her bashert. In seminary they teach you all sorts of wisdom about teaching.

But she must have slept through the day when they discussed how to hide from your students that the Torah actually talks about sex quite openly, even if it was just to clarify that it didn’t happen.

At least we know that she is emesdig and has a hard time lying.

Because when we got to these psukim and she was translating for us, she stuttered and stammered and said, “They found a young girl to keep him warm. We don’t really know what that means.”

I was too young to look in Metsudas Dovid and Metsudas Tzion on my own then, but this struck me as somewhat puzzling. With all those thousands of years of study, had no one attempted an explanation about how a young girl could keep an old king warm?

When I got home from school that day, I expressed my confusion about this to my mother.

“Of course we know what that means!” she said. She didn’t tell me what it means, though.

After that, I knew that whenever a teacher said something that struck me as “off,” I would do well to find out some more on my own. I developed many methods of finding out information, which of course stood me in good stead when I started college.

And I have to say I’m grateful to my naïve and inexperienced and clueless Bais Yaakov teachers for that.

Periods in Bais Yaakov

I had terrible cramps one day in eighth grade, so bad I couldn’t even stand up at recess. I couldn’t tell my teacher what was going on. She knew, of course, which I recognize in retrospect. She crouched down near me, tried to get me to tell her, and when I didn’t, she just said, “Ok, wait here.”

She went to the office and called my mother, who gave me permission to come home. My teacher stayed with me, spoke to me soothingly, until I was able to unfold myself from the desk and straighten up, gather my things, and walk home.

When I was teaching eighth grade, I supervised a sleepover once.

During the night, one girl lay down on the couch and was groaning in pain, asking everyone to leave that room, to be quiet. Her friends got really annoyed with her – this is a sleepover! So what if it’s 1am, we’re going to be up all night!

She was half in tears. I asked her what’s wrong, what hurts, if she wants the girl whose house we were in to get her some Tylenol.

“No, I can’t, I have to take a special medicine!”

Okay, now I was amused. Did she mean Midol?

No, she meant Excedrin. I suggested that the hostess might have some Excedrin in her medicine cabinet – should we ask her?

“No, I need to ask my mother before I take it!”

Well, it was 1am, there was no way I was letting her call her mother to ask if she could take Excedrin. I tried to convince her to take Tylenol, but no go.

She was crying, and holding her arms pressed over her abdomen.

Finally, I crouched down near her. “Look,” I said, “I know it hurts. We all know how bad this can hurt, right?”

Her crying suddenly stopped. Her breathing may have stopped. I went on.

“But it’s not dangerous. If you don’t want to take a painkiller, do some deep breathing, maybe get up and walk around when you feel up to it, and wait for the cramps to pass.”

Still silence from her.

“Because this is your only eighth-grade graduation class party, right? Don’t let this ruin it. Try, okay? Try as much as you can to push past this pain, this pain that all of us here understand, and enjoy tonight as much as you can.”

She nodded then, eyes still wide on me.

I left, to check up on the wild sounds coming from the next room and to make sure the door leading up from the basement was still closed so we didn’t wake the parents.

About an hour later, I saw her sitting with other girls on the sofa in the other room, smiling shakily but smiling nevertheless.

Just Write Teshuva

In twelfth grade, we had a once-a-week class on Yechezkel. The teacher was a respected woman in the community, but her teaching was… kinda boring.

Now, I’ve had teachers with boring teaching styles before. But this one, Rebetzin Wasserman let’s call her, combined a droning voice with repetitions of tired old adages we’d all heard since fifth grade. Plus she taught only in Hebrew, and her Hebrew wasn’t very good.

So basically, for all my goody-goody-ness most of the time, I couldn’t be bothered. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

I chatted my way through her class. Which normally would be fine, and in fact some of my conversation mates got away with it. But that was because they at least pretended to take notes. I didn’t. And I sat in the front row.  

Which all led to my being kicked out of class one day.

I wandered out, dazed and confused (not really) but mostly relieved to be out of that classroom. I spent the period with the girls who always hung out in the stairwell, and was fascinated by this life I’d never known existed behind the walls.

At the end of the period, I said goodbye to my friends-for-an-hour and went back to class. Rebetzin Wasserman didn’t give me detention for cutting class or report me to the principal because she didn’t know my name. She didn’t know anyone’s names.  

A few weeks later, the year was over and we had two weeks of finals. When the Yechezkel final came around, I briefly thought about getting someone’s notes so I could “study.” But I had better ways to spend the evening, and another final (plus regents!) to study for. So I didn’t prepare at all.  

On the day of the test my friends knew I hadn’t paid attention all year and hadn’t asked them for notes, so they knew I wasn’t at all prepared. We knew the test was going to be a format of fill in the blanks and short answers, so they came up with an idea: a suggestion that would help me score something correctly on the test. They advised me to write “teshuva” for every answer on the test.  

I did.  

I got an 85%.

The Singing Principal

Every year before Purim, the school hosts a Purim chagigah. It’s supposed to last the whole morning, meaning we miss all our “Hebrew” (limudei kodesh) classes, and get back to class in time for “English” (secular studies). In practice, we usually got back to class for the third period of afternoon classes.

When I was in twelfth grade, the chagigah ended a bit earlier than usual. It was just past lunchtime, which meant we were barely halfway through the afternoon’s first period. The twelfth grade that year was housed in classrooms on the Mezzanine, where there were no principal’s offices, no eyes from the watchtower. They did have cameras whose feed went to the secretary’s office on the second and third floors, but no actual person of authority was on our floor.

When we got to the Mezzanine after the chagigah ended, no one wanted to go back to class. We wound up sitting on the floor in the corridor, backs against the lockers, forming two long lines. And we started a kumzitz. (I shouldn’t say “we” – I don’t think I actually joined, I just watched from the classroom.)

Teachers were of course not very pleased with this. They wanted us to come to class. But what could they do in the face (looking down at the heads) of a hundred or so girls, sitting with their arms around each other and singing soulful songs?

They tried a few times, but their voices were not really heard, and definitely not listened to.

The singing went on, and faltered only a moment when Rebetzin Kalmanowitz, the principal who everyone loved and no one wanted to disappoint, appeared in the doorway. Determined to sit their ground, the girls kept singing.

Rebetzin Kalmanowitz pulled over a chair from the side of the corridor and set it down at the head of the two lines of girls. They kept singing, but warily, keeping an eye on Rebetzin Kalmanowitz.

She joined in the singing.

Everyone was surprised, and the singing faltered again for a moment, but then went on, stronger and full of joy. She sang one song, two songs, and then in the lull between songs, she said, “Nu, girls, I think it’s time for class?”

And they all went to class.


My elementary school was so large that grades had lunch at different times, and in multiple lunchrooms which doubled as auditoriums with stages at one end. The eighth grade ate in their classrooms because there was just no space for them. But when I was in seventh grade, my grade ate lunch in the large lunchroom with the sixth grade.

We all sat class by class, at long tables arranged, as a friend pointed out when I told her this story, like the Great Hall in Hogwarts. The sixth grade was at the far end of the room, and the seventh grade tables were towards the front, near the stage. Each table was manned (womanned?) by the class’s Hebrew teacher until their English teacher came towards the end of lunch to take over.

After lunch, we were led in bentching (grace after meals) by a few girls, and then we davened mincha (the afternoon prayer).

One day, the principal who usually stood at the front of the room directing everything, from bentching to mincha to class-by-class dismissal, wasn’t there. Another principal, Mrs. Pitkin, took over. But before we could start mincha, she took the microphone and called across to the back of the room.

“Excuse me,” she said, “excuse me, why are those girls standing at the wall? Why are they already davening?”

And all heads swiveled to the back of the room, where a line of five or six sixth-graders were already standing for shmoneh esrai (the standing silent prayer). And immediately the entire room burst into gales of laughter.

Because those five or six girls were not simply standing there, they were shuckling, swaying in concentration, so hard that their ponytails were flopping back and forth over their heads and down their backs as they violently flung their upper bodies back and forth – in concentration, remember.

Their teacher waited until the noise of the laughter had died down, and then called back across the room to Mrs. Pitkin, “Rabbi Eiserman gave them permission to always start earlier.”

There was a pause as Mrs. Pitkin continued looking perplexed, and the teacher added, in a tone which seemed almost ashamed of what she was saying, “because they take a long time to daven. They, um, they have a lot of kavanah (concentration).”

How they could concentrate with hair flying in and out of their eyes, I do not know. How the hanhala could allow such a farcical exhibition of proper davening, I do not know.

Middle-School Angst

In eighth grade, Mrs. Kornbluth taught us parsha in the morning and math in the afternoon.

This was not the first time my class had encountered Mrs. Kornbluth. She taught us navi in sixth grade as well. My notes on Shmuel Aleph were exact dictations of Mrs. Kornbluth’s words. That’s how she taught: dictating in half-sentences at a time. We would all write down her exact words, and she would wait until we finished to move on to the next half-sentence.

Out of sheer boredom, most of my classmates took to decorating our notes with fancy little scrollwork; that was the birth of the hooked g’s and y’s, the backwards-pointing p’s, and forwards-pointing d’s.

In eighth grade parsha class, my group of friends and I took it to the next level by pretending to write down the dictation but in reality writing letters to each other. It took a lot of skill, because we had to figure out how long it would take to write down Mrs. Kornbluth’s words each time, and then wait to finish our sentences during her next bit of dictation.

My friends were the star students throughout our twelve+ years of grade school, so Mrs. Kornbluth would not have continued her dictation until they were done writing. Being a role model is sometimes (okay, most times) very limiting.

As for me, I vacillated between being a star student and being a total slack-off. When I knew something was ridiculous, I had a hard time acting in self-preservation and not making it known. My friends were a good influence on me, but there were times I just couldn’t rein it in.

This particular day, during parsha class, I felt like Mrs. Kornbluth kept an extra-sharp eye on me.

I was writing really slowly – I wasn’t writing a letter to a friend, but I also refused to engage in the futile activity of writing down pointless dictation. So I engaged in the far less futile (and, okay, passive-aggressive) activity of taking ages to write each word.

For all her ineffective teaching methods, Mrs. Kornbluth wasn’t exactly stupid. She realized I was writing extremely slowly and asked me about it. I answered, she was placated, we went on, until it happened again. By the end of the period, I was done. Mrs. Kornbluth was thoroughly exasperated with me, I was exasperated with her, with the situation, with futility and useless pretenses at learning.

During lunch, I made up my mind: there was no way I could sit through her math class in the afternoon. My friends were sympathetic. I mention this because if you knew them, the best girls in the grade, this would have great import, that even they acknowledged the impossibility of me sitting through class.

One friend, Nechama, offered to cut class with me. I tried to persuade her not to get involved – she didn’t need to get in trouble along with me. I was ready to take the consequences, but she didn’t have to. She convinced me the risk of consequences was minimal, and so she and I waited until first period English was over, then darted out the door as the teachers switched classrooms.

We found a quiet stairwell right outside the pre-school floor and spent the forty minutes of math period there. We’d brought along some work to do, but mostly we just chatted and tried to keep our minds off what might happen. Well, that was me. Necahma tried to convince me nothing would happen.

But I was right. As luck would have it, the attendance monitor came to our class when Mrs. Kornbluth was teaching.

Every day, during morning sessions and afternoon sessions, an attendance monitor would come around and the teacher who was in the room at the time would write down the names of anyone who was absent, which would then be reported to the principal’s office and recorded in our files. When exactly the monitor made it to each classroom was unpredictable. And this time, it was during second period math class.

Nechama and I got back to class when recess had started. The rest of our friends told us what had happened.

“She asked who’s absent, and we told her, and of course we didn’t say your names, but she looked around, and she asked ‘Where’s Esther Shaindel?’ And we tried to say that you were called out of class, but her mouth got all thin like it does, and I’m pretty sure she wrote down your name. Probably Nechama also, but she didn’t ask about her.”

Well, of course. Get into a spat with her in the morning, she’ll remember I was there and would write me down as absent in the afternoon. More tension.

Third period started, and our history teacher, Miss Lichtenstein, came in. Halfway through the period, Mrs. Kornbluth opened the door, and Miss Lichtenstein went over to talk to her. My friends looked over at me and Nechama, and I felt myself dying inside.

Miss Lichtenstein and Mrs. Kornbluth looked over at us. “Esther Shaindel and Nechama,” Miss Lichtenstein said, “Miss Berliner wants to speak with you.”

We stood up and followed Mrs. Kornbluth to the principal’s office, where we attempted to pass off our prepared lie about spending time in the library during first period English to do work for the school paper, for which I was editor, losing track of time and deciding not to interrupt class when we realized the next period had started. She didn’t buy it.

Miss Berliner asked how she could trust us on our senior trip to Washington if we showed such a lack of responsibility. Washington was a dangerous place, and if we can’t be responsible, they couldn’t take us on the trip. She said she’d need a few days to think about it. The trip was the next week.

“They wouldn’t do that,” everyone assured us. “They’d never dock you from Washington. They’ll punish you, but I’m telling you, don’t worry, they won’t dock you from Washington.”

They didn’t, of course. Nechama and I had to come in the day after the trip, when our grade had a day off, and do some math examples in an empty classroom. We sat in opposite corners, as instructed, and whispered to each other when we were left alone, acting studious and serious when Mrs. Kornbluth came to check up on us.

One of the Good Ones

In seminary, we learned Vayikra. Most of my high school classmates had been glad that we didn’t learn the “useless” stuff about korbanos — even if some of us were kohanim or levi’im — as girls we wouldn’t need to ever know this stuff.  

But in seminary, we were all happy  to flex our intellectual muscles in a way we hadn’t before, and there were underlying concepts that unexpectedly bled into the rest of our lives.  

When we learned about korban mincha, one phrase sounded familiar to me, but I couldn’t place it. Until next Shabbos, when my roommates and I were sitting at the table for shalosh seudos and sang Baruch El Elyon – and hey, mincha al machavas! But that was the lesser version of a korban mincha (I don’t remember the rest of that lesson, but this part I remember).  

So on Monday, I asked the rabbi: why is it considered the lesser korban if someone fulfilled shabbos exactly as he should? He didn’t know the answer right away, but he didn’t brush it off as “it’s just poetic language, it fit, whatever.” He looked into it.  

The answer is quite simple, actually: someone who fulfills shabbos exactly as he should is doing the minimum, so it’s the lesser korban. Someone who really gets into it and honors shabbos, that’s like the better korban. I obviously have issues with that answer and the way it unnecessarily stratifies religious observance, but it is an answer.  

I think the reason that stayed with me all these years is that I’d been asking questions like that for ages.  

Every time I connected something we learned in class to something I encounter in my day-to-day life, or in song or piyyut or whatever, my teachers would treat me either with amused indulgence — it’s just a song, sweetheart, don’t think so much about it – or with righteous indignation — it’s just a song, how can you compare it to the serious stuff we learned in class!  

But here, a rebbi we all respected not only didn’t brush off my girlish question about a song, but treated it seriously, and showed me in the process that the things that mattered to me mattered to him because they mattered to me.