Sunday, April 29, 2012


Last week, there was a reunion of students of the Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, for alumni of eighth and twelfth grades covering about a dozen classes. I was a student there for seventh through tenth grades.

The entire high school,
when I was in tenth grade
The program was at the school, but Sunday we were being Skyped in for a few hours from Faygie Butler Posy's house here in Jerusalem. Morris Kinast was the organizer who coordinated with us and he had asked me to speak for a few minutes about what I have done over the years and reminiscences of Hillel.

Most of what I had to say about what I have done was on the Reunion's Facebook page and in the Power Point that Morris had prepared, but I agreed to complement what I had already written.

We had a nice turnout here on the Jerusalem end - twenty-one Pittsburghers, plus a few spouses. The Skype connection was not good enough to have any meaningful interaction, so I scrapped what I had planned to say. At the suggestion of Shanen Bloom Werber, I am fleshing out my notes here. (I always do what Shanen tells me to do.)

Hodesh Tov.

On behalf of everyone here, I want to thank Morris for getting us all together and Faygie and Carl for opening their home to the assembled. Morris asked me to speak about what has happened to me over the years, and to recall my experience at Hillel. Most of what I can say about myself is on the Facebook page and the Power Point, but I'll add a few things.

For those of you who remember me, I am very much as I always was. I was a chronic under-achiever and I still am. I was incurably optimistic and I still am. I was always losing the battle of the waistline and I still am. And I was insufferably full of myself and I still am - but I wouldn't have it any other way.

Of course like with most of you, the age is showing. I cannot read without glasses and I am constantly telling my grandkids to speak up - when I am not pleading with them to quiet down.

Back when I was thirty-seven or thirty-eight, I read a book about ADD and I recognized everything in it. Suddenly the world made sense. And I have been grateful ever since that they hadn't yet invented Ritalin when I was young.

For me, life's big game-changer came from Hillel, but not from the school or any of the teachers. It was from another student. Marc Fogel dragged me to Bnei Akiva and everything flowed from there. The idea of aliyah
was never on the radar of the school or the teachers.

So let me say a few things about Hillel, and what is Hillel but the teachers.

In Jewish studies, we had some excellent teachers who really knew their stuff. I expect that everyone who ever attended Hillel, would put Rabbi Nadoff at the top of that list.

We had others who knew their stuff - or at least we can give them the benefit of the doubt - but they couldn't control a class. Or they were simply boring. Or they had strange teaching methods. One in particular taught us a list of four hundred words and promised us that if we learned them, we'd be able to speak Hebrew fluently. Four hundred words. All nouns. I think of that teacher today when I use the words for soup and restaurant.

I learned over the years that Rabbi Rottenberg was right on almost everything, but that on one matter - which he himself defined as very important - he was absolutely wrong.

As far as secular studies go, anyone who ever thought that teachers should not be seriously demanding needs only to poll the Hillel High School students throughout the years about Mr. Tomko. He never felt he had to be anyone's buddy and no one expected any favors. Everyone learned.

There were other excellent teachers, as well as some average and a few who should have been doing something else.

There were two who tried to brainwash us on matters social and political. One did so as a matter of ideology. One did so out of ignorance, not ever considering that anyone might think that Franklin Roosevelt hadn't made the sun shine. Had I taken those particular lessons home, my father would have set me straight PDQ and I would have brought his arguments back to the classroom. It would have gotten ugly.

There were two classes we were never offered and over the years I was sorry for that. One was writing and one was speaking. Mrs. Belle used to have us get up and speak in front of the class frequently, but she never taught us how we should be doing it. As a result, I acquired the confidence to speak in front of a group even when I had neither structure nor style and without much content to offer.

Mr. Mandell hinted once that there was such a thing as a dedicated class in writing, but he never taught it. I went through school thinking that writing was for girls.

Let me leave you with something else, that I have learned over the years that has nothing to do with school. Those of you who still have a parent - or even older aunts and uncles - prompt them to talk and listen to what they say. Ask directed questions about when they were young and about their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, their aunts and uncles. Get names, dates, places. ("Russia" doesn't count as a place. Be specific.) Get them to label the photographs. ("My grandfather" is not an acceptable label.) If you can bring in a professional interviewer and cameraman, do it. We did that with my mother.

You think you know about your grandparents, but life is more than a resume.

I am a genealogist and there are parts of the basic structure of my family that I may never know, yet all I had to do was ask my grandfather's brothers back when I was a teenager, for they surely knew the answers.

Even if you aren't really that interested, eventually someone will ask  "Why don't you know..."

Then talk to your grandkids, independently of their parents. Repeat yourself shamelessly. They may laugh that you do, but "familiar is good." Tell them who and where and when. Make them charts and show them maps. And label your own photographs.

Last summer, I took one of my grandsons to the cemetery at PZ Sheraden. We went to my grandparents and great-grandparents and some aunts and uncles. I showed him the grave of the great-grandfather who was on the building committee of the PZ. He pretended to be interested, but he will remember.

If you talk to your grandchildren about these things, then sixty or seventy years from now, they will talk to their grandchildren and they will say "My grandfather said..." or "My grandmother showed me..." They will be talking about you. And you will know and your soul will be happy.

GO STEELERS                   PARTY ON DUDES          

1 comment:

  1. I loved this blog post. It was gutsy and honest and in many ways reflected my own experiences at Hillel, except you apparently missed out on the abuse to which I got treated. Lucky you. Poor me. I always say that I became religious and got to Israel in spite of Hillel. Even though I love my classmates like brothers and sisters forever. And they love me, too. Strange how that works.