Another goal of her Hebrew school was to fight what immigrants called minhag America (the American tradition) in which Saturday was just another a workday. In addition to teaching the usual Hebrew curriculum, the school provided the children with a Sabbath-observing framework.
“We had a children’s beit medrash on Saturday mornings where we learned to daven,” Bernice recalled. “One of the teachers acted as resident rabbi. Many fathers were forced to work on Shabbos, but you didn’t play ball even if your father had to be mechalel Shabbos and go to work to support the family. You as a child went to daven.”
* * * * *
Having skipped three semesters, Bernice began Morris High School at twelve, and continued her afternoon Jewish education at Marshaliah. Founded in 1913 by the Bureau of Jewish Education, it was part of the Jewish educational revolution begun by Bureau founder Dr. Samson Benderly. Marshaliah had focused initially on boys, but soon opened a free but short-lived vocational high school for girls and later a full-time co-educational program, geared primarily to preparing future Hebrew teachers.
“But I didn’t want to be a Hebrew teacher, so I joined the afternoon high school,” Bernice recalled. By enrolling in the after-school alternative she became one of 2,200 teenagers throughout America who received a Hebrew high school education during the late 1930s.
Under the tutelage of Principal Dr. David Rudavsky, Marshaliah offered its students a varied program that included Hebrew language and culture, Bible, and Jewish history. Twice a week the class met in Marshaliah’s Bronx annex, while Sunday morning the students would gather in Manhattan at the school’s main building, Charles Evans Hughes High School on West 18th Street.
The weekly trip was an experience in itself. “There I was,” said Bernice, “twelve years old, and I would take the Third Avenue El to 149th Street, walk down the steps into the dark tunnel and take the Seventh Avenue line to 18th Street. Then you walked up the steps and over the drunks, who were sleeping off their Saturday night imbibing, and then down the block to the school. The drunks didn’t scare us; they were just part of the scenery.”
For four years, Bernice’s Hebrew high school class of five boys and three girls studied everything together with the exception of Talmud, which was offered only to the boys. Bernice had initially balked at the idea of being excluded and came home airing her grievances on the matter.
“When I asked my Zeide Victor why I and the other two girls in the class weren’t learning Gemara, he answered in his usual gentle way, ‘Mamaleh, nisht far dir’ – ‘Dear girl, it’s not for you.’
“I exploded. ‘Why not?’ But I had no choice. The exclusion still bothers me all these years later.”
But there was compensation. While the boys studied Talmud, the girls learned Israeli dancing with Dvorah Lapson, the “ballerina of Jewish dance.” She and her husband, Judah Lapson, director of Jewish Culture at the Bureau of Jewish Education, were heavily involved with Marshaliah and in promoting Jewish language and culture in various venues.
“They were the odd couple, but positively,” Bernice recalled. “He was short, squat, and serious, with piercing dark eyes, and she was a willowy dancer, graceful, and always with a smile.”
If Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was the “father of modern Hebrew,” Judah Lapson was its American agent, introducing it almost single-handedly into the New York City public high school system as an accredited foreign language. One of the seven participating schools in the 1930s was Morris High School, where Bernice studied.
“Our Latin teacher didn’t look kindly on the Jewish children leaving Latin to study Hebrew,” she said. “But off we went.” At the time she was one of 2,000 teenagers in the city – 200 of them from Morris – who took Regents in Modern Hebrew.
Marshaliah was free, but these were the Depression years, when many teenagers left school at sixteen and few continued on to college. Bernice, though, had a burning desire for education.
“In my day a girl had three choices: nursing, secretarial, or teaching. But I decided to go to college even though they said that meant I would never get married; that no boy would want to marry a girl from college. I said ‘so?’ – and I went.”
For years Bernice had yearned to be a doctor, and then she received a full scholarship to the University of Chicago to study social work. But her family balked at the thought. “I didn’t want to get married, I wanted to study, experience life, see the world. As the first girl in the family to go to college, no one was about to let me leave New York.”
She was accepted to the tuition-free Hunter College for women, where she joined the Menorah Society, a Jewish cultural group mentored by Rabbi Dr. David de Sola Pool of the nearby Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue.
“And then it was 1939, the war sabers were rattling in Europe, and soon we, too, would be involved,” Bernice recalled. Although the Cohens had no close family living within Hitler’s reach, Bernice now worried about how she could help her country. But that’s a story for next month.
This installment f the Bernice Chronicles is dedicated to the memory of Bernice’s great-grandmother, Vichnia Krieger, whose yahrzeit is the 19th of Shevat, which this year fell on February 15.