In this Sfardi school, we did not learn RA-shi. We learned Ra-SHI. Either way, I was definitely feeling apprehensive about my ability to impart the skill of learning this new alphabet to my rambunctious third graders. Definite plus: today all the third grades were gathering to have a RaSHI Assembly. Regardless of what was to come, an hour’s break during which I did not have to teach (=discipline) was quite a treat.
The assembly room was filled with small boys and girls filling small chairs. Silence fell as the principal walked to the front and stood there (how come I could not get them quiet that way?!). This woman, whose poise, articulation, and force of personality never ceased to amaze me, began to speak about the great milestone ahead. “It is so exciting,”she said forcefully, “that all of our boys and girls, every single one of you, is very soon going to be able to read RaSHI.” Forty-five small faces watched her every move. I found myself spellbound, swept away by excitement. Wow! These kids were actually going to be able to learn Rashi, for the first time! It was pretty incredible, when you stopped and thought about it.
The mood heightened as another (Sfardi) principal came to the front and said a few words. “And now,” he concluded, “we have a very special guest. This man, who is coming to speak to all of you today, is a holy man. Do you know what he does? He sits and learns ToRAH all day. And he has come here today, to speak to you, about this exciting thing that you are going to be starting – learning RaSHI. So please welcome…”
The name was lost on me in a burst of mental laughter. So the speaker was a kollel yungerman. Holy man. It was funny to think that out of Lakewood culture prescribed that one must refer to such an individual as a “holy man.”
The young man now walking up to the lectern did, indeed, present the picture of the typical kollel-man. Dignified and modest, dressed in white shirt, black suit, hat, and graced with a full, black beard, he spoke endearingly to the children about the journey they were embarking on.
“…but do you know what you have to have before you can learn something new…?” the soft-spoken speaker challenged the students. One of my smartest kids raised his hand. “A question,” he offered.
I marveled at the man’s wisdom in stressing this particular aspect of learning. It would serve these kids well. And make my job easier as a teacher. The “holy man” was doing a good job.
All too soon it was over, and any thoughts other then “keep them quiet, keep them in line” were driven away as I shepherded my charges back to the classroom.
My job as a substitute teacher provided me with plenty of material to share with my family. I came home that day and provided my daily dose of the weird, wild, and wonderful to whoever was, or wasn’t, interested in listening.
“…and it was so funny. The principal introduced the speaker as a ‘holy man.’ I was wondering what kind of chaCHAM or something it would be. And you know who it was? Some Sfardi kollel yungerman. I was laughing so hard to myself…” I chuckled at the memory.
My father, peacefully sipping his afternoon coffee, smiled indulgently. “But you know,” he said, “he really was right.” I looked at my father sharply. Tatty’s voice was soft, and smiling, but serious in the way that it becomes when he is, well, dead serious about something. The voice that makes me look up, because I know that wisdom is being imparted, and I better take heed.