I-280 traffic in the 1970s. (Photo/Flickr-walkingsf CC BY 2.0)
I-280 traffic in the 1970s. (Photo/Flickr-walkingsf CC BY 2.0)

A trip down memory lane in my Hebrew school carpool

Hebrew school is a well-known rite of Jewish passage. But for those of us who grew up in California, who can forget the related rite, the Hebrew school carpool?

My own 1970s childhood included many afternoon hours trapped in that carpool, traversing Taft Avenue and Ball Road in suburban Orange County in Southern California. The roadside scenery was strip malls and industrial parks. When we passed by the Tastee-Freez, we were halfway there.

It was a true Orange County experience. We always drove by Disneyland — our temple was only a mile away. What kid in the car didn’t look up at the Matterhorn as we crossed over the Santa Ana Freeway, wishing we were going there instead?

The carpool usually involved a wood-paneled station wagon, loaded with seven or eight cranky girls and boys, one brave parent driver, and Tuesday and Thursday afternoons stretching out at least until our bar or bat mitzvah.

Today, those Hebrew school memories make me smile. More than once, I’ve described a childhood friend to my wife as someone who was in that carpool or Hebrew school with me. It was a shared adventure, for better or worse.

I’m surprised the whole Hebrew school carpool experience hasn’t shown up more in Jewish American literature. A recent Google search turned up only a few mentions of permission slips for carpools, and details on how to drop off your kids safely in the parking lot. Where’s our Saul Bellow or Grace Paley to capture that era?

Back in the 1970s, the Hebrew school carpool was our ticket out of our small city of Villa Park, whether we wanted to go or not. Our parents certainly wanted us to go.

Each September, our moms would meet over dessert to figure out the annual weekday carpool schedule, along with who was driving early on Saturday mornings when we had to be there around 9:15 a.m.

The sleepy carpool ride was the least of my problems on Saturday mornings.  I needed to learn how to tie a necktie, without having to wake up my dad for help before the carpool came.

Why did we make the long carpool journeys from our new Villa Park homes several times each week? We lived much closer to a Reform synagogue. But our determined parents wanted their children to experience Hebrew school at a Conservative shul, which meant a 20- to 30-minute drive across arterial streets to get to Temple Beth Emet in Anaheim.

It was a time before seat belts were required and before airbags were installed, so we piled into gas guzzlers that got 8 to 12 miles per gallon. Our parental drivers could chain smoke as they drove us across Orange County. Fortunately, most of them didn’t. Although after a half hour with that many rambunctious kids, who could blame them if they wanted to? The parents had their reward at dropoff, seeing their own friends among the other drivers. Similar “shuttles” were coming in from places like Fountain Valley, Westminster and Fullerton.

It was an era of stereotypical gender roles, when moms wearing big sunglasses drove us in the afternoon, and dads with long sideburns schlepped us home at night.

Depending on who was in the car, the carpool might feature yelling, shoving or singing along to pop music tunes on AM radio station KEZY. We sometimes played Mad Libs (a great idea at first, although eventually it was banned when we kids started putting crude, off-limit words into the blanks).

Our carpool threw us together with the same Jewish kids who we saw every day in public school. We had plenty to talk about, along with our shared experience of trying to remember the important things to bring to class that day: our red machberet (right-to-left notebook), the snack for recess (cheese ’n’ crackers or some kind of candy) and that nickel for tzedakah.

We traded information on which teachers at Hebrew school we liked and which ones we  feared. The wise seventh-graders in the car, whose b’nai mitzvahs were approaching, would also explain to us the mysterious process of learning their haftarah portions and writing their speeches. How were we ever going to pull that off?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Larry Sokoloff
Larry Sokoloff

Larry Sokoloff is a writer in Mountain View.