Hebrew School Lament

Julia Bell


I dig an exploratory fingernail under the scab on my elbow.

“Before we conclude the service, I ask the congregation to pray for our fellow congregates and listen to some closing announcements,” Rabbi Steiner thunders from the bema.

I peel the edge of the scab. It stings a little, but not too bad.

“Please pray for Joshua Goldfarb, whose shingles have returned and waylaid him to bed. Please pray for Mr. and Mrs. Kessler’s dog, which has been missing for a week.”

I pull until the scab rips off in one piece. A pool of blood bubbles up on the exposed skin.

“Please pray for Cantor Simon’s safe flight as he returns from his kibbutz this Saturday.”  

Blood trickles down my arm. Maybe bleeding in services is against the rules. I cover my elbow with my hand.

“Finally, Rebecca Lieberman requests that all baked goods for the Purim bake sale are made with gluten-free ingredients to accommodate those with dietary restrictions.”

I had heard my mom complaining on the phone that Mrs. Lieberman was using her son Ravi’s gluten allergy to undermine her position as the synagogue’s chair of fundraising. “Have you ever heard of a gluten-free hamantaschen? I’m not saying we shouldn’t be accommodating, but that’s practically sacrilegious.”

Ravi was the reason we had to eat lemon bars instead of brownies at the Hanukkah party. His hand was always raised straight in the air while the rest of us puzzled over the difference between Heit and Teit in lessons. And even though yarmulkes were optional at our reform synagogue, Ravi’s was always clipped neatly atop his head with a small brown hairclip.

After the service, our class files out of the temple behind our teacher.

“David,” she says to me, “you’re bleeding.” She addresses the class, “Will someone walk with David to the nurse?”

Ravi’s hand shoots up. “I will,” he volunteers.

I walk begrudgingly with Ravi down the hall. I’m already cursed to carpool with him because our moms knew each other in the sandbox and playgroup days. A knot of boys in our Hebrew class make a sport of casually ridiculing Ravi, and I am afraid the stain of his delicate eagerness would rub off on me if they thought we were friends. I walk a step or two ahead of him. The hall is papered with Kindergarten artwork for Purim. Glaring King Haman and smiling Queen Esther’s flutter in our wake.

The nurse looks unimpressed. She dabs the dried blood away with a wet paper towel while Ravi stands at attention. “You shouldn’t pick at yourself,” she says.

She hands me a Band-Aid. “Now don’t touch it again.” The adhesive side of the bandage folds and sticks to itself. “I sent Rabbi Steiner’s junior assistant out with mono a few days ago,” the nurse says. “And the rabbi just came in here complaining that he has no one to flip his cassette tapes over for him while he chants. If you want to get out of class for a bit, you could help him in his office.”

“Yeah,” I say, “sure.”  

“I’ll call and tell him you’re coming,” the nurse says.

Ravi walks back to class and I head to the rabbi’s office. Rabbi Steiner is the mythic patriarch of the New Jerusalem Reform Temple. All students live in fear of rebuke from Rabbi Steiner. If he catches a pupil saying the name of the creator or hiding their cellphone inside of the Talmud during services, he yanks the sinner out of their seat and admonishes them with a wrath worthy of Him. Oren S. told me that the rabbi once gave his older brother a minor concussion by whipping The Jewish Book of Why at his head for talking out of turn.

I knock on the door at the end of the hall and a gruff voice says, “Come in.”

I edge into the office. A bookcase crammed with Hebrew and English titles leans against the back wall. The rest of the room is decorated with religious prints from the stories that no kid wants for their Torah portion: the plagues of Egypt, the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah, Jael driving the nail through Sisera’s head.

“Hello, Rabbi. The nurse said you, uh, might need help because your assistant is sick.”

“Yes, you must be David,” the rabbi says from his desk. “Close the door behind you.”

I do, sealing myself into the office. “Come here,” he says. He is burly and has wide shoulders and big forearms. Gold-rimmed glasses are balanced on his nose. “I will be practicing my cantillation for the Purim service. When I tell you to flip the tape, turn it over. When I tell you to change it, put the next one in.”

He is sitting at his desk in a straight-backed chair with the Book of Esther in front of him. The ancient cassette player is behind him on the bookshelf, so I stand facing his back. I play the first tape and he begins chanting rhythmically in Hebrew along with the scratchy recorded voice. The harsh syllables crash together. In the rabbi’s dusty office, they sound even more solemn than they do in temple.   

“Flip,” he says at the end of the track.

I turn the tape over and he begins the chanting again. He never stumbles over a word, not even when turning the page. His balanced voice twists with the recorded chant coming from the cassette player.

“Change,” he says.

I change tapes until my legs start to ache from standing for so long. My mind drifts and I stare at the back of the rabbi’s curly hair and black yarmulke and unmoving shoulders. I am not dismissed until we hear the frenzy of students pour into the hall at the end of class.

“Come back next week,” he grunts. “Worthless Zachary is sick.”

I scramble out of the room, feeling like Moses after he saw a glimpse of God.  

While we wait outside for our rides, a cluster of boys asks what the rabbi’s office is like. Ravi is silent beside me, watching for our car. “It’s nice inside,” I say. “There are a lot of books.”

“I was in it once,” Eli says, “but I don’t really remember what it was like because he was yelling at me the whole time.”

“You’re so lucky,” Josh says. “I can’t believe you get to miss class two weeks in a row.”

The next week, I walk into class and announce, “I’m going to Rabbi Steiner’s office again.”

“Actually, you don’t need to go to the rabbi’s this week,” the teacher says. “Ravi offered to go in your place so you don’t fall behind in your Hebrew studies.”

“Oh.” I look at Ravi smiling by the door. “Okay.” I sink into my regular plastic chair.

Ravi flounces out of the room. I am a not-special non-rabbi helper once again.

It’s not fair, I think, I was the one chosen. I imagine Ravi being the private audience to the rabbi’s chanting. He doesn’t deserve a beady once-over from Rabbi Steiner. He doesn’t deserve to get leg cramps from standing beside the tape player. He doesn’t deserve to be special. I start picking the scab on my elbow, but it’s mostly healed.

A few weeks later mom comes back from her book group flustered. “Rebecca Lieberman is running against me for chair of fundraising,” she says. “She had one successful bake sale and suddenly she thinks she can beat the incumbent chair of fundraising.” She starts dialing numbers on the phone. “Well, she can kiss her carpool goodbye.”

“Everything is politics to those people,” my dad says. “Alph Lieberman is a rat bastard. He has my tennis racket.”    


Julia Bell is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences.  She is a prospective English and environmental studies double major.  Julia is a Seinfeld enthusiast and a student of the Elaine Benes School of Dance.  Black licorice jellybeans aren't her preference, but she will eat them if they are offered in a mix with other flavors.  Julia is a staff writer for The Daily Pennsylvanian and a member of the Philomathean Society.