Sidney Gross (1941-2016)
Above: Celebrating the Holidays (Sue’s old doll-house furniture)
It’s inevitable that some of the Jewish and Christian holidays should meld, such as Hanukkah and Christmas. Both fall in December, and each involves some form of gift giving. My own memories of Hanukkah revolve not so much around the traditional potato latkes or the brass menorah flickering in its place of honor atop the TV console, but rather at an incident which occurred at the Hebrew school.
Our Hebrew had a faculty of three. Rabbi Eisenman and his wife taught classes in both the 3:30 and 5 PM sessions, and a Mr. Finkelstein also taught in the early session. The rabbi’s wife taught the raw beginners, Mr. Finkelstein the intermediates, and the rabbi the advanced. Beyond this, if you survived, was Mrs. Eisenman’s five o’clock, and finally, the rabbi’s. Each of these grades encompassed a full academic year.
In Mrs. Eisenman’s early class, you learned how to read and write Hebrew, as well as some useful colloquialisms such as “May I take the book from the table.” You were also assigned a Hebrew name. Mine was Schol, a transliteration of my Jewish name, Scholem Abba. In Mr. Finkelstein’s class we did a lot of praying. We each had to buy a large blue siddur or prayer book, which served as the text for the class. We chanted the prayers, without translation into English, so often that by the end of the year we knew practically all of them by heart. In the rabbi’s 3:30 class, we began to read the Chumash, the books of the Pentateuch, in Hebrew. The two five o’clock classes continued this theme, adding some topics in advanced Hebrew grammar, as well as a generous admixture of cultural information about Israel.
By age eleven, I had made it through the ranks to Zipporah (affectionately and behind her back known as Zippy) Eisenman’s five o’clock class. Hanukkah was about a week away, and Zippy was putting us through our paces with the traditional prayers over the candles and some of the more festive songs, such as:
I had a little dreidel
I made it out of clay
And when I spun the dreidel
The sides began to sway.
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel
I made it out of clay…
All of us boys in the class really got into the spirit of Hanukkah. We anticipated the gifts of Hanukkah gelt, and we looked forward to the last day of Hebrew before the holiday, when we got to spin the dreidels for prizes of nuts and raisins. The song came to an end, and we were looking at one another in a self-satisfied manner, when we became aware of a sharp, rhythmic sound. It was Zippy tapping on her desk with the long dowel rod which she used for a blackboard pointer. “I want you to listen to me. Quiet,” she ordered.
We all settled down at once. Discipline was not a real problem in Zippy’s classes. She was bigger than we were, and the combination of her kinky hair pulled severely back and her harsh foreign accent were always enough to intimidate us.
“I want to tell you about something that happened to me last Hanukkah.” Zippy’s face lost all its color as she clenched her fist around the pointer. Hushed silence fell over the class. “There was (she emphasized the word “was”) a student who used to go to this Hebrew school. I won’t mention his name. Last year I went to his home to talk to his parents. Do you know what they had, right there in the home? A Christmas tree!”
We sat absolutely still. No whispers, no snickers. This was serious. “Can you imagine,” she continued, “a Christmas tree in a Jewish home? I was so mad that I turned around and walked out the door.”
I’ve forgotten how the lecture ended–no doubt with an exhortation to keep the faith. If any of us were thinking about nagging our parents into putting up a Christmas tree alongside the Menorah, I’m sure we were dissuaded by the thought of Zippy walking into our living room unannounced and discovering our treachery.