In nearly seven decades, countless teachers have entered and exited my life. I regret I’m unable to list them, I don’t remember all their names. As a teen, it didn’t matter to me if I knew or knew not. I doodled, passed notes, read books, still… I suppose, I learned something. Our greatest poet and teacher, David HaMelech noted, Mekol melamdai hiskalti. From all my teachers I’ve grown wiser. Melamdai? What of my melamdai? Who were they? A profusion of impressive scholarly rabbis and rebbetzins, men and women instructors, concerned parents and even innocent children, yet I sometimes wonder if they know the many lessons they taught.
My first grade teachers merit tribute simply for teaching the basics – to read and write. Mrs. Dee taught Aleph Beis, considered among the highest quality deeds one may achieve.
The faint scent of violets mingled with tobacco is a memory of Mrs. Gee teaching ABC. Her primary lessons were the most valuable and satisfying, keeping me occupied to this day.
Like an accordion my list expands, at times comparable to a tape at fast forward, sound bites of memory that consist of explanations, passages, theorems, equations and more. Countless voices, in Yiddish, English and Hebrew, voices that encouraged, embarrassed, admonished and sometimes complimented; a gallery of unforgettable personalities.
My high school Hebrew language teacher smoked leisurely as so many did in those days. The cigarette dangled, chain-like, from the side of his mouth. I often doubted that he knew my name, certain that he had some sort of code for marking papers that had nothing to do with the content of the work. Myth had it, he took test papers home, and threw them into a tub filled with water. Papers that floated received a passing grade. Those that sank, he failed.
Some fifty years later, I discovered my former Hebrew teacher, retired, and settled in Israel. Seated alongside my husband at a bar mitzvah his shoulders stooped, he held a cane, and when he stood, was much shorter than I remembered him. He had no clue who I was, and even when I gave him my name, I suspected he didn’t remember that my tests never floated on top.
However, he remembered my sister-in-law, a top Hebrew student, turned teacher. “Vun ov da best” he pointed out. “End I ulso knew your fodder-in-lo, may he rest in peace. Uv course I know who you are, I’m a landsman uv your huzbend’s family.”
The youngest of my teachers was a four-year-old granddaughter. I repeatedly answered her by questioning further, “What? Say that again?” She was annoyed that I didn’t understand her and finally she yelled.
“Savta, your ears aren’t healthy!”
That took care of false vanity and sent me off to resolve the problem.
Some of my most admirable coaches never entered the classroom. Our first Yerushalmi neighbor taught me to cope through personal daily example. As a young bride, ignorant of life in archaic Israel, unable to boil an egg, peel an orange, or slice a tomato, never mind kosher a chicken or skin and bone a fish, I needed to learn how to turn two left hands into a right one, I needed Momma at my side. My Yerushalmi neighbor demonstrated how to strike the Israeli mini-match so the gas flame wouldn’t blow up in my face. She helped prepare my first Shabbos meals patiently, and with an endearing smile.
Entering the computer age was a challenge, one that I could have ignored, but if I did, I would have remained on a shelf gathering dust together with numerous documents filed manually. The new dummy box commanded and forced me to adhere to instructors who would soon be replaced by the dummy. For the going-on-fifty crowd it was compulsory, it meant business, and in business there’s no employment for failure.
Two magnificent mentors whose longevity I ask Hashem to grant me as well, are women whom I have known from the day I was born…. my mother, and my aunt, the greatest examples of blessing that have kept my spirits motivated with love and faith.
My mother, Mrs. Miriam Mendlowitz a”h, until her petira a few weeks ago, was an active role model for that timeless Jewish mother having achieved matriarchal status as great, great, grandmother. Her progeny numbering many hundreds denies statistics provided in the recent PEW report. Momma a”h merited five generations, all Torah-observant Jews.
At age 104 my mother was still concerned about her relationship with Hashem. She exerted unlimited energy to daven three times a day despite near total loss of vision. For Mom, Hallel on Rosh Chodesh and Yom Tov was a “must.” Starting from Shabbos mevorchim she worried about who would say Hallel with her, and every month I assured her I would be there for her to praise and thank Hashem for the wonderful life he gave her. During the days of Sefirah she didn’t miss a single night of counting, and she fasted every Yom Kippur and Tisha B’av and even on the intermittent fast days. This past Yom Kippur she was threatened with a hospital stay if she didn’t drink water.
“Hashem melech, Hashem moloch, Hashem yimloch l’oilam vaed” was the verse Momma repeated over and over again, for countless hours during the final days of her life in Jerusalem’s Shaarei Zedek Hospital. Momma was completely absorbed in her obligations bein adam laMakom uttering her ahavat Hashem while parting with her many offspring as they recited Tehillim and sang at her bedside.
Her kid sister, nearly 100, continues to be concerned with the people she loves and appreciates. She “must” remember to tip the waiter, she “must” give a gift to a neighbor who treated her kindly, and she “must” phone or mail birthday greetings to family members. Her concern is bein adam l’chavero.
I apologize for personal expressions of gratitude never meted out, and indeed, I am wiser today due to educators, past and present, who crafted tools, forced and still cajole me to use those that I have. From time to time plain common sense sends me a buzzing reminder to be gratefully aware of the many learning opportunities offered. I regret classes that I miss, and I try not to forget that we are often judged by how much we know, and what we do best, and our teachers deserve much of that credit.
Teachers may be learning partners, or like gardeners who cultivate plants, they are often nurturing growth machines. Some can be compared to an hourglass filled with precious sand, sifting slowly through a narrow duct.
Over half a century in Israel, I’ve forged new friendships, admire and respect new instructors, and essentially enjoy classes I’ve chosen to attend. It makes no difference if the material presented is absorbed; there isn’t any roll call or end-of-year exams. It’s all about self-gratification and personal growth. Every evening I ask myself if I learned something new that day. If I didn’t, b’ezras Hashem, tomorrow is another day, another opportunity. Learning is a daily life-long venture. It can be an intellectual workout, or an aid for increasing common sense.
So…when leaves show signs of withering, flowers have faded, and the sun sets early, it is refreshing to summon up that spring bouquet I often promise to dispatch in appreciation…and here it is, presented in writing, from a student to so many inspiring teachers.
About the Author: Faigie Heiman is an accomplished short-story and essay writer and the author of a popular memoir titled “Girl For Sale.” Born and raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, she has lived in Israel for more than fifty years.
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