Dear Michael and Caroline,
A 12-year-old boy, short, skinny, frizzy hair, is slapping a spaldeen against a brick wall at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, playing hooky from Hebrew school. It’s me, of course.
I’d gone to Hebrew school for maybe two years by then, and had at least another year to go until my bar mitzvah. I’d never wanted to attend, but my parents had insisted, mostly my father, saying I should learn about Jewish history, understand my identity, my cultural heritage.
I found the classes boring, all that stuff about Abraham being ready to kill his son and Moses being found in the reeds of the Nile. On and on the teachers droned, teaching us the Hebrew alphabet and the pronunciation of words and the meaning of Purim and asking us to study and come back the next time ready to recite a passage.
All in all, I preferred to play handball against a brick wall, much as I was doing now, daring the authorities with this bold act of hooky.
My father had talked to me a little over the years about being Jewish, about enterprising Jewish businessmen and about anti-Semitism, and I could tell he took no small pride in being Jewish. My mother never really talked about it at all.
We certainly never discussed Jewish affairs as a family, nothing about Israel or the Bible or the prophets, nothing about the Holocaust or Jewish destiny. So I must have sensed some disconnect between my obligation to go to Hebrew school and how our immediate family lived its life, its decidedly secular, only marginally Jewish life.
The principal of the Hebrew school came outside that day and caught me red-handed – why I had opted to play hooky right there on the premises I’ll never grasp – and brought me inside for a gentle talking-to. I never played hooky again, chastened by my capture, and went on to get my bar mitzvah, never to return to Hebrew school again.
I’ve never stopped feeling Jewish, though, and caring about being Jewish, even though I no longer go to Sabbath services or observe the Jewish holidays. Hebrew remains an ancient tongue I have no urge to master. And God is still a rumor I have yet to verify. In a sense, it’s as if even today I’m still somehow playing hooky.