I was a typical Jewish boy growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940s. Although my family was not religious, I was sent to the local Talmud Torah (Hebrew school) to prepare for my upcoming bar mitzvah. It was there that I met a rabbi who would eventually turn my life around. As a result of his influence, I became a Breslover Chassid.
Years later, I endangered my life to travel to the Soviet Union and pray at the grave of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. I was the first person in almost fifty years to break through the Iron Curtain and visit Uman, the city in the Ukraine where the Rebbe is buried. As a result of that journey, the site was eventually opened to the public. Today, tens of thousands of Jews make the pilgrimage to Uman for the privilege of praying at Rebbe Nachman’s grave.
This book is the story of those two spiritual journeys.
I was born in Brooklyn in 1940. My father, who immigrated to the United States from Russia when he was ten years old, left behind his religious upbringing and immersed himself in the secular melting pot of America. My American-born mother had even less of a religious background than my father.
I somehow managed to get through public school without learning a thing. Although my friends and I were Jewish, we had little understanding of what it meant to be a Jew. Sporting such names as Arnie, Jerry and Steve, we tried desperately to fit in, to be part of the American crowd.
Then one day, when I was about ten years old, my parents, together with my friends’ parents, decided that we were old enough to enter the local afternoon religious school and begin studying for our upcoming bar mitzvahs.
We despised school, so obviously we were not excited about attending additional classes in the afternoon. But despite our grumbling, within a few days our parents marched us off to Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, located in the Flatbush Gravesend section of Brooklyn, to begin our three-year stint of Torah study. After all, how could we have a bar mitzvah if we didn't know how to read Hebrew?
Our first impression of the school principal, Reb Kahana (1), was not a pleasant one. He scolded our parents for not having brought us there earlier. "A Jewish education is supposed to start at seven years old at the latest," he chided them. "Your boys are ten and they know no Hebrew? What do you think this is, a bar mitzvah factory?"
We were cowering in the corner, praying that he would refuse to accept us. But in the end Reb Kahana did agree to take us, with the understanding that we would have to be put in a class with seven and eight year old kids. He promised to give us extra coaching so that hopefully we would be able to catch up. The fee was five dollars a month. Our mothers wrote out checks without bargaining and left.
The minute our parents were gone, the rabbi’s demeanor underwent a drastic change. It was almost as if he had become another person. He smiled at us and said in a kind voice, "I had to say that to your mothers, but it isn't your fault. Don't worry. It's not so hard to learn Hebrew. We'll do what we can to help you."
He presented each of us with a prayer book, explaining that since Hebrew is read from right to left we would have to start reading from the back of the book. “Here’s your first lesson in Hebrew,” he added with a smile. “Remember that in Hebrew, ‘hu’ is ‘he,’ and ‘he’ is ‘she’ and ‘me’ is ‘who.’” After that piece of clarity, we were led downstairs to meet our teacher, Miss Hirsch.
The first few classes were not easy. The little kids could read. We didn't even know the alphabet. But Miss Hirsch never embarrassed us. There was an unspoken agreement between us that if she did not insist that we do our homework, we would not disturb the class. Reb Kahana sent us tutors from the older grades, and somehow, slowly, with Miss Hirsch's encouragement, we were learning Hebrew.
About a month before Purim, Reb Kahana walked into our class and handed out printed invitations to a grand Purim assembly. On Purim eve, everyone would be expected to come to the synagogue with their parents to see a presentation put on by the children in the Talmud Torah and hear the Megillah (the Book of Esther) read. The younger children were excited, but we viewed the whole idea as ridiculous. Our invitations found their way into the garbage, and although we would have preferred to spend Purim eve riding our bikes, we realized that we really had no choice but to attend. After all, we did want to graduate.
That evening I had my first glimpse how a Torah life can make a person more in touch with himself. I also encountered, for the first time, the rabbi who would become my spiritual mentor and bring me close to Rebbe Nachman’s path.
Miss Hirsch had told us we would hear the Book of Esther read aloud in Hebrew. But Reb Tzvi Aryeh Rosenfeld, who taught the Talmud Torah’s higher grades, had prepared his students a little more carefully. The day before Purim, he had told them, "There's a certain problem that happens on Purim. By law, every Jew is required to hear every word of the Megillah. And if you miss one word, you have to hear the entire Book of Esther a second time. There's also a tradition that when you hear the villain Haman's name, it's good to shout and pound your feet so that he will have a more awful time in Gehinnom. But the problem is, if you are shouting for a long time, the reader might lose patience and continue reading before the children have quieted down and then you might miss the next word in the story. So what do we do?
"This is my plan. Bring any noisemaker you want to the shul, and when you hear Haman's name, make as much noise as you can and shout at the top of your voice. I will stand next to the person who is reading the Book of Esther, and when I see that he is about to go on to the next word, I will bring my two hands together as a signal. The minute you see me do this, stop, so you don't miss a word. Other than my signal, if anyone else, even Reb Kahana, tells you to be quiet, don't listen to them. That will be our own little secret,” he concluded with a twinkle in his eye. “No one will ever find out.”
The program began. Skits were performed. Speeches were made. Songs were sung. And finally it was the moment to read the Book of Esther in Hebrew. I had never been to a Megillah reading; neither had any of my friends. All of a sudden, as the reader mentioned a certain word, pandemonium broke out. The older boys had brought groggers, cap guns, pots and pans. There were more than a hundred of them and the racket was deafening. But as quickly as the noise started, it suddenly stopped. A few minutes later, when the name Haman came again, again there was pandemonium. Each time the noise became louder and more boisterous. We had to put our hands in our ears, it was so loud. Reb Kahana was trying to get the kids to stop. The parents were trying to get the kids to stop. Nothing worked and yet, magically, the kids would be quiet all at the same time.
The little children in Miss Hirsch's classes also got caught up by the excitement, so ten minutes into the reading they too began to shout and stamp their feet. But since they didn't know the secret signal, they didn't know when to stop. After half an hour had gone by, the reader had barely begun the Megillah.
The president of the shul was furious. Why were the children making so much noise? He unfairly assumed that Miss Hirsch had been remiss in her duties and had never taught her class how to behave properly in public. He insisted that she leave the auditorium together with her young charges.
My friends and I, however, were not about to miss out on this fun. How often were we encouraged to make as much noise as we wanted, and in a house of worship to boot? Instead of leaving, we slipped out of line and ducked into the aisles where the older kids were sitting. No one noticed. The reader resumed the Megillah reading and we asked the boy next to us in a low voice, "How do you know when to stop?"
"Simple," he said. "Just watch the rabbi's hands."
So we joined in and were making as much noise as they were, and as soon as the rabbi touched his hands together, we also stopped. Ten or fifteen minutes went by and we were having a lot of fun. I was the last boy seated in my row and I suddenly sensed that there was someone sitting in the empty seat next to me. It was Mike, and I could see that something was wrong. “Why did you return to the assembly?” I asked. But he was much too upset to reply.
A few minutes later, Mike had composed himself enough to inform us that there was no way he could possibly explain why he was so upset. He insisted, however, that we follow him out of the assembly. He wanted to show us something.
“Let’s get out of here,” I whispered.
“But what if someone tries to stop us?” Jerry asked.
"Just tell the truth," whispered David. "We'll say we're in Miss Hirsch's class and we got kicked out."
As unobtrusively as possible, we filed out of the assembly and tiptoed downstairs to the classrooms. We spoke in whispers, petrified that someone might discover us. Mike’s hand was shaking as he pointed towards our classroom door, which was partially open.
"Look in there," he said.
We snuck over to the door and peered inside. Our teacher, Miss Hirsch, was sitting at her desk, crying like a small child.
We could not believe our eyes. It had never occurred to us that adults actually had feelings and were capable of emotion. We had always assumed that teachers were misfits who took pleasure in torturing their young charges. But here was a teacher who was crying because she felt sorry that the children had been thrown out of the assembly. We wanted to cheer her up.
"Anyone got any money?" David asked.
We searched our pockets and came up with a dollar and ten cents. That was a lot of money in those days. We sent Arnie, who was the fastest runner, to go ten blocks down King's Highway to buy a box of Barton's candy because we knew that was kosher. We told him to make sure they wrapped it in Purim wrapping. We were determined to follow Miss Hirsch home, give her the candy and tell her how much we liked her.
People were leaving the assembly. We waited a long time. At last Miss Hirsch came out and locked up the synagogue. We gave her three-quarters of a city block lead and then followed her. We crouched in the gutter and leapt from one parked car to another so she wouldn't see us.
It didn’t take long, however, before she realized that someone was following her. When we saw that she was frightened, we came out of our hiding places. At first, she was upset that we had had the audacity to traipse after her. But once she understood why, she was grateful for our concern. “It’s true,” she began, “that they told you to leave the assembly. But I wasn’t crying because of that.”
We were stunned. We had never heard a teacher – or any adult, for that matter – speak so openly.
“I was upset,” she continued, “because everyone assumed I did not know how to control my class and that I am not a good teacher. I was embarrassed.”
We were floored. We never knew that an adult could be so real, so honest. It would have been so easy for her to remain silent and allow us to believe that she had been crying because of us.
“I live around the corner,” she continued, “in a two story house. My husband and I live on the top floor, while my parents live below us. But after what happened tonight, I’ll have to look for another job. I can’t return to the Talmud Torah.”
I was standing next to her, and could see how upset she was. “Don’t do that,” I argued. “You’re the best teacher we’ve ever had. Why do you care what people think? We want you!"
Miss Hirsch did not answer. Instead, she became an adult again. "Listen, it's getting late," she said. "You boys should be going home now."
"No!" we all protested. "We're not leaving unless you promise you're coming back."
Miss Hirsch did not argue. Instead, she began to cry again. We were flabbergasted. In a few minutes she pulled herself together, blew her nose and said, "If it was up to me, I would invite all of you to my house right now for Purim treats. But it's late and your parents will be worried about you. So tomorrow, when public school lets out, come to my house and I'll have some treats ready. We'll talk some more. I promise I'll come back to school until the end of the year."
We cheered. She wrote down her address, gave it to us, and left.
We started walking back to the Talmud Torah. Everything seemed so profound, so real, so filled with meaning. We were amazed by Miss Hirsch’s honesty and ability to relate to us in a real, meaningful way.
David, however, argued that we were naive for thinking that we could remain friends with an adult. “Don’t fool yourselves,” he said. “Tomorrow she’ll stop being human and turn into a teacher again.”
We somehow found the courage to show up on Miss Hirsch’s doorstep the following afternoon. As we knocked at her door, I could not help but wonder, “Who’s going to open the door for us now? An inhuman teacher or a real human being?”
Miss Hirsch’s mother opened the door, and Miss Hirsch was right behind her. They invited us in, took our coats and gave us a tour of the house. Miss Hirsch and her husband lived in the apartment upstairs and her parents lived downstairs. She told us that she had a different married name, but she had kept her maiden name for teaching. She took us to her mother's apartment and showed us the room she had when she was a child. Her dolls and toys were still in the room.
Then she invited us into the living room where the table was set with real plates, not plastic or “kid proof” ones. We were all given a choice of coffee, tea or soda. Nobody took coffee or tea. But we were grateful for the choice. We began to talk and she wanted to know how we got along at home, how many sisters and brothers we had and what we really thought about Hebrew school. And she invited us to ask her questions. We felt that she was relating to us as human being, and therefore we gave her straight, honest answers. She told us that anytime we wanted, separately or together, we could come to visit her. And we did. All through the year we went to see her.
This was my first real, meaningful contact with a religious person. Miss Hirsch had an incredible sense of humanity and goodness which I had never encountered before. It occurred to me that if all religious people were that honest, that open, that caring, able to bridge the gap between the generations, maybe there's something in that religion worth looking into..
Miss Hirsch kept her promise. She continued to teach us until the end of the year. And then she quit. I never saw her again. But many years later, when I was going through the piles of old books that I had left in my parents’ house, I discovered my old autograph book. Miss Hirsch had written in it, “To Jay, a very fine gentle-man.” In Hebrew she wrote, "Bracha V'Hatzlachah, Blessings and Good Luck."
The following year I joined Reb Tzvi Aryeh Rosenfeld’s class. I remained his student for the rest of my life.