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What Hebrew School Taught Me About Guitars

I constantly cut Hebrew School classes to play electric guitars and eat Dunkin’ Donuts. Years later, I learned a valuable lesson.

Jonathan Zalman
September 12, 2016
Molra_Fee / Flickr
Guitars, sweet electric guitars. Molra_Fee / Flickr
Molra_Fee / Flickr
Guitars, sweet electric guitars. Molra_Fee / Flickr

Editor’s note: Every day this week, The Scroll will publish a memory relating to an experience in Jewish education, in honor of those wonderful kids in our lives who are heading back to school, back to where it all begins, for better or worse.

Raising me must’ve been a bitch.

I was a precocious, overgrown kleptomaniac with a penchant to throw temper tantrums, and yell over others, and do other attention-seeking things. The youngest child. An Alex Portnoy-in-training. Except where I grew up, in Central Massachusetts, I was the only Jew on my block and one of maybe five or so in my entire high school. This was a far different experience from my previous home near the Jew-heavy ‘burbs of Boston, where Hebrew School was just a few minutes away. And when my family moved west, towards church-heavy Worcester, I was still forced to attend Hebrew School in Brookline—every Thursday evening and Sunday morning, without fail—even though it was, like, so far away.

I generally hated Hebrew School. I particularly recall the smell of it—a mixture of the bookish dampness of never-washed tallit and yarmulkes from the sanctuary looming just a hallway away, and the breaths of my teachers and fellow zitted classmates. God and puberty.

One year, my Hebrew teacher was a strict Israeli whose mythical reputation as a mean, ex-IDFer instilled a level of decorum I never once afforded anybody in my life, ever. I used to watch her boots. She dressed in drab green, I recall, and had a salt-and-pepper mullet, and nobody ever left her classroom without being called on. During class I stared at the floor mostly, deep in thought about sex and sports. When she would call on me my mouth would open and I might utter some Hebrew words I knew—cool-sounding words like those for table and white, which also rhyme—or say nothing at all. Her eyes would burn a hole through my head.

I decided that this was an experience I didn’t want to have much anymore. So I skipped class. I’d just walk right out, every week, as though I was going to have a very important cigarette.

I headed straight to Boylston St.—first to the Dunkin Donuts for a coffee roll and medium coffee with cream, then to Guitar Center. Do you know what it’s like for a guitar-playing teenager to spend time, alone, in Guitar Center? Let me rephrase: Do you know what it’s like to replace Hebrew class for a period of time during which said grunge-loving teenager licks processed sugar off his fingertips so as not to dirty that Paul Reed Smith the Phil Anselmo lookalike has just brought down for you to shred?

But these trips to Dunkins started to bleed well past the hour my Hebrew class ran, which began to eat into my time with a frail rabbi who taught a small group of us about Torah and Talmud. Sometimes I would show up to his class late, and he always welcomed me in. Soon I’d just start missing all of it, and show up back at school in time for my ride home.

This rabbi was quiet and old; so old that every time I saw him I felt the urge to touch his skin because I knew it would feel soft and thin and familiar. I think I loved him. In fact, I think the entire class felt the same way. I liked the way he reminded me of my grandfather, who was still alive then, and who talked in short, breathy sentences that all felt like wisdom. I liked how slowly he got up because it made me feel as though I was in a room with someone important, someone who had been through a lot, too much, and in that way, I felt honored to be in his presence, as though he were a Hall of Famer. I like the way the rabbi he told us to open our books to a certain page, because it made it easy to follow along.

But I also pitied him. I couldn’t have cared less about what we were learning, and I imagine I wasn’t the only one. And having come from Hebrew class, where we sat in a perfect semi-circle, the rabbi’s demeanor presented itself as an opportunity to fart proudly, and play games, like the Penis Game, the best game ever invented for 14-year-olds, which is a competition as to who can say “penis”—a very, very, very funny word—the loudest. (I was pretty good at it, but not the best.) And the rabbi, who must have been 90 years old, would get agitated. That was our goal, wasn’t it? To piss off the only man we all inherently respected—because of his age, and his slouch, and his thin, thin arms—but for whom we just couldn’t put our immaturity on the backburner because he was talking to us about a subject, Judaism, which was the scapegoat for having to be there and not elsewhere—Guitar Center, in bed, wherever.

Somehow, a few years later, I graduated from Hebrew high school. And a few years after that I learned the rabbi had died in a freak accident at home. It’s a funny thing—respect. The choices we make during childhood that can feel so shitty later on. But I hope that somewhere he knows I’m sorry, and that had I known then what I know now, that I would’ve at least put the guitars down sooner.

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.