I Went To Conservative Hebrew School, And All I Got Was An Image Of A Fat Face

My Hebrew school was in a cinder block addition to a conservative temple. It was there, in those off-white-painted concrete walls, where I first learned about smoking roaches, “the bases”, and that according to Gary and Lee, my all-girls summer camp was full of lesbians. It was also where I was first asked out by a boy. Robbie C. was the kind of kid who always had a Hawaiian Punch mustache, and in fifth grade he asked me out in Mrs. Sherman’s Tues/Thurs/Sunday class. I said no. Though naive I was, I did see the connection between “the bases” and “going out with someone”, and Robbie C.’s fruit snacks and Hawaiian Punch mouth was not getting anywhere near mine–no way, no how.

In eighth grade, I befriended a couple of shiksas, one of whom carpooled with Robbie C. The dad of the one who didn’t carpool with him got a load of his name, and any time we were going anywhere he’d say, “Are you going to see Robbie C.?” He’d say the name in this Dick Cavett/Casey Kasem voice, like Robbie C. was some kind of teenage idol. I never told them that R.C. had asked me out in fifth grade, because naive as I was, I knew I’d never hear the end of it. They made fun of me enough as it was.

If you’re wondering when I did ever “go out” with a boy, you’ll either be de-or-impressed to know that though one Russian Jewish kid, one Black super-Christian band kid, and one kid was who practicing to be a blacksmith and whose best friend was his school bus driver all asked me out during my teenage years, I refused all offers until age 20 when I met an extreme skier and extreme alcoholic named George. George wasn’t my boyfriend but I wished he was. Instead, he would smoke my weed and beat me at chess. The other part was George coming to my apartment drunk and hungry, eating all my leftovers, then leaving and forgetting he had ever been there. Why he deserved my admiration is still beyond me. He wasn’t my boyfriend; he wasn’t even really my friend. But for the record, if George had asked me out I would have gone with him.

Now don’t get too sad on my behalf–I am now married to the nicest man I have ever met. Having admired so people like George, who laughed at me once from the car behind mine when my truck stalled at the four-way-stop, it only makes me appreciate my husband more. My husband is a rare gem, especially because he loves me at any size. Which is important to note: Right now I am as fat as I have ever been.

Now I have a degree in Women’s Studies from UMass-Amherst. I mention the name of my alma mater just to drive home my point. Anyone familiar with Amherst, Massachusetts knows that they don’t mess around there with feminism, and especially not with political correctness. If anyone knows that fat is a feminist issue, that Ophelia needs to be revived, that love me=love my thighs, it is I who knows.

(All the feminism in the world isn’t stopping me from looking away when I look in the mirror.)

On the phone with my sister the other day, I said, “Remember [Hebrew school principal; name redacted]? Remember his long, fat face? My face looks like that right now.”

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“I’m sure you don’t look like [name redacted],” she said.

“I do,” I said. “I really do.”

[Name redacted] was one of those prototypical conservative-movement Hebrew school principals. I’m not talking about the revivalist, guitar-wielding, Carlebach-singing, egalitarian labor organizers of today. I am talking about the old, failing conservative movement of the 80’s and early 90’s; I mean temples with pipe organs and amplified choirs on Shabbat, places with the old-people smell on account of the fact that mostly old people were the congregants and the young families were only members because they had to send their kids to Hebrew school somewhere. I am pretty sure that Meir Kahana called those temples “mausoleums”.

[N.R.] was a relic of the old days, the last of a resentful guard. Every Shabbat morning, he would stand in front of the small chapel to lead youth services. Leading youth services involved loudly enunciating every word of the abbreviated service while trying to keep the peanut gallery quiet. (The chapel was where I did much of my primary learning about the different ways of rolling joints, who had run “the bases”, and the uncoolness of going to an all-girls summer camp.) Then we’d sing Adon Olam and Oseh Shalom all together, and join our parents for a kiddush of Danishes and coffee. It doesn’t really sound as grim as it was; in fact the only person for whom it was grim was [N.R.] himself. As far as we were concerned, it was a boring Saturday morning spent with Jewish kids from the neighboring towns. For him, though, it must have been demoralizing to stand up there week after week, over-enunciating and pretty much shouting the whole entire abridged Shabbat morning service while a bunch of little punks stared glazed at him or talked among ourselves.

I know [N.R.] was demoralized because as time passed, his long fat face got longer and more tired-looking, and by the time he either left or was ousted, he seemed to have given up altogether on the prospect of Jewish education at Temple Beth-El. It was one disciplinary problem after another with the kids; the board of the temple got overly political complete with grabs for power; and there weren’t too many qualified Hebrew school teachers around it seemed. The youth services eventually stopped, and gradually the Hebrew school principal wasn’t there anymore. I don’t remember who took his place.

It’s funny to flash back on those cinder block halls. I wonder if I am the only person in my Hebrew school class who ended up pursuing a very different Judaism than the one we learned (or didn’t learn) there. I wonder if Hebrew school meant much more to any of us than long afternoons spent indoors instead of playing sports, and a peer group away from public school who could introduce us to all the petty vices in the pre-teen world. I wonder if anyone else, on fat days, looks in the mirror and says, “My face looks like [name redacted]’s face.”