Tygerpen: Sunday schools life lessons

I know what Lag B’Omer is. The Jewish holiday that falls on Thursday, May 10 was one I used to mix up with Tu B’Shevat (New Year of the Trees) because coming from Oregon, I associate any sound like “log” — as in “lag” — with lumber.

Now I realize Lag B’Omer, though not mentioned in the Torah or requiring a formal ritual, is a jovial holiday that does involve lumber in Israel. Families go on picnics to parks, often where there are trees; Israeli boys collect wood for Lag B’Omer bonfires; and out in the forests or fields, children carry bows and arrows and pretend to hunt, symbolic of their participation in “The Hunger Games.”

Fortunately, I can keep these two holidays straight. And I owe that to the quality of religious school education I had at two synagogues in Portland, one Conservative and one Reform. A great number of adult Jews — including a high percentage of Jewish celebrities — sniff at their religious school experiences and claim they’re nonpracticing Jews “because I didn’t learn anything I can remember.” On the contrary, I owe a debt of gratitude to the teachers and principals (i.e., education directors) who waited until I and my Jewish classmates went through confirmation before entering hospitals for cardiac intensive care.

I began my religious school studies — “Sunday school” —at the Conservative synagogue. One teacher I remember fondly was Jerry Stern, who apparently was divinely rewarded for his stint in the classroom by becoming a wealthy businessman in the construction and plumbing industries. An unflappable teacher, Jerry talked to us 10-year-olds about Joseph in the Bible being a “good team player,” and said God’s desire to assist Moses in front of Pharaoh was “empowerment” and “effective marketing strategy.”

Even better, Jerry was a humorous and kindly man, which, as he learned decades later, was fortunate since one of the girls in my class was Susan Berman, daughter of Las Vegas gangster David (“Davie the Jew”) Berman. Known for his strong-arm tactics, Dave Berman succeeded Bugsy Siegel at the Flamingo when Bugsy was gunned down in a mob hit.

At the Conservative shul, I also enjoyed the all-school assemblies where the soft-spoken, ethereal rabbi at his lofty pulpit spun stories from the Bible. When I was in younger grades, I thought God must be a larger version of the rabbi, but later when I saw the rabbi at a Jewish summer camp in shorts with his knobby knees and alabaster legs, I realized God wouldn’t look like that. Especially with the sandals.

The year after I had teacher Jerry Stern, my parents announced we were joining the Reform synagogue. After I was enrolled in a sixth-grade class, I discovered they’d been studying Hebrew for two years. Hebrew only began in sixth grade at the Conservative synagogue. I realized I needed to catch up, a daunting task. The sixth-grade workbook was called “Rocket to Mars,” about a kid who learns a new Hebrew letter or vowel whenever he lands on a different planet. Given the level of my class’ cooperation, we were up to the letter “gimel” at year’s end, but we knew it real well.

Unlike today’s more reasoned and tolerant approach to classroom hell-raisers, back then Sunday school teachers sent young rogues to the principal, just like in regular school. At the Reform synagogue, the principal was a man with curly red hair, an ever-present pipe and a fearsome German name — Rolf Schickler. (His real name was Bill Johnson. That Teutonic touch was brilliant!) Rolf Schickler. The name was whispered in the halls and bathrooms of Sunday school, where footsteps on the corridor meant Schickler was coming!

Students sent to the office knew they’d met their match. Apparently most were instantly rehabilitated because of Schickler’s rumored unorthodox methods, such as making a kid sing “Hinei Ma Tov” 50 times while standing on one foot (“the Hillel Treatment”), or demanding that the kid eat a plate of 2-week-old oneg Shabbat cookies — mandelbrot — baked by the Sisterhood. Years later, Schickler became one of the founders of the National Association of Temple Educators and was honored for his excellence in classroom discipline (the Davie Berman Award).

I was fortunate to have the religious school education I did. Though celebrities may characterize themselves as “a lapsed Jew” or “from a nonpracticing Jewish family” like author Jodi Picoult (yes, her), at least I know the difference between Shavuot and Sukkot. One involves a hut.

Trudi York Gardner
lives in Walnut Creek and can be reached at [email protected] or via her blog, www.tygerpen.com.