Timeless Teachers

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School Desks
31 May 2006

Shavuot is a particularly auspicious time for learning Torah. It’s also a good time to remember the people who are responsible for supplying us with the tools for and the love of learning – the teachers of Torah . As a student of long standing, as the wife of a life-long teacher, as the mother or mother-in-law of nine teachers in Am Yisrael, I have given much thought to that lofty profession.

Most people can remember one special teacher who cared, who really taught, the one who made a difference. I remember one too.

It was in a different era when day schools weren’t what they are now. Only children of highly dedicated Jewish parents (on the one hand), or highly problematic children who weren’t welcome in public schools (on the other) graced the portals of the fledgling day schools in the United States. Teachers were often Yiddish-speaking refugees from Europe; boilers broke down with increasing frequency in the middle of the winter; salaries went unpaid.

They were a no-frill affair, these pioneer day schools: No swimming, no gym, no laboratories, no libraries; no home economics or mechanics, or school trips. Nothing except classroom learning, seven and one half hours per day plus a half hour break for lunch. In this no-nonsense atmosphere, the quality of your learning experience was absolutely and solely dependent upon one factor: your teacher.

For two years of my young life I was blessed with a wonderful teacher. Every morning, a stout, smiling man with a wispy white beard energetically pumped me and the rest of my restless classmates with the glory of G-d’s Torah, the knowledge of His heritage, the uniqueness of His people. His name was Rabbi Eliyahu Bloch, and he showered us, the new generation of “Amerikanishers,” with love and devotion. He prepared our lessons as carefully as though we were a Yoreh Deah shiur, and spiced them all with common sense and lots of pedagogical creativity. It made no difference that we were only fifth graders. He taught us with a fiery passion.

He couldn’t have been old, although to my young eyes he always seemed elderly. I thought he was tall, but in later years I realized that he was on the short side. I never thought to ask where he had come from, although he was obviously from Lithuanian rather than chassidisha stock. He played no part in my normal, after-school, everyday life, yet he filled my world with knowledge and love of Torah.

Today, many years later, I still find it difficult to believe how much we learned at our old, scratched up desks, squinting at a glary blackboard (the school couldn’t afford the newer, green boards), and listening to a heavily accented, highly unconventional English. But learn we did – Chumash, Navi, dinim; Ivris and Yiddish (grammar, spelling and “kesiva yafa” because it was important to write legibly); tefilla, history and all sorts of vital things that refuse to be classified.

Rashi was a force to be reckoned with: we could never begin a Rashi until we had first figured out “what Rashi was asking.” Davening was serious business; no mumbling allowed. I left Rabbi Bloch’s class knowing most of Shacharit by heart. I could even write it all out, no mean feat for a ten-year-old American girl! And even today, his two “davening signs” are clearly engraved on my mind: Shivtsi Hashem lenegdi tamid, and Da lifnei Mi ata omed.

We sang, too, in the days before Mordechai Ben David and Avraham Fried and Carlebach. I can see him now, holding his high, black silk yarmulke with one hand, singing and pointing to the words on the shiny blackboard with his wooden pointer. (The boys in class would, on rare occasions, feel this pointer on their hands as a reminder of better behavior. Girls were only reprimanded verbally.)

When I came home singing the trop one day, my father questioned the wisdom of teaching “boys’ knowledge” to girls (since our small class consisted of both, we learned whatever they learned!), but Rabbi Bloch knew that no knowledge is ever wasted. That knowledge that has given me great pleasure through years of listening to keriat haTorah.

And, I must add, in those pre-feminist days, Rabbi Bloch never for a moment transmitted the feeling that girls’ learning was inferior to boys’. There was never a question that Jewish girls were absolutely, unquestionably vital to the welfare of the nation and that they must be learned. Perhaps this fierce feeling of pride he instilled in us is one reason that so many of the feminist questions being asked today do not seem particularly pertinent to me and my friends.

Then there were the “extracurricular” topics Rabbi Bloch spoke about. How he refused to change his name when he arrived at Ellis Island.

“I am the only Eliyahu listed in the Chicago phone directory,” he told us proudly. “And the only Bloch.” He was, too.

Lastly, I remember his burning, unending, overwhelming love for Eretz Yisrael. He himself had never actually seen this Land – not with his eyes, but no matter. He had seen it through the eyes of the Torah, and like the Torah, he made it glow, live, beckon.

I remember the day he told us Jews were fighting for their lives during Israel’s War for Independence in l948 and things were not going well. He explained how the Jews of Shushan were saved by the prayers of the children. Now, he said, the Rabbanim had declared a day of prayer and it was our turn and our duty to stand up and pray with all our heart and all our might for our brothers in Eretz Yisrael. Surely Hashem would listen to us – young children, born of a long and bitter exile – and would bring victory to the Jews.

I have said Avinu Malkeinu many times since that fifth grade class, but I doubt if any Avinu Malkeinu has matched the fervor and kavana of that teary prayer. I like to think that in G-d’s great scheme of things, the davening in our class helped.

Rabbi Bloch would be proud and happy – and amazed beyond words – to see his former students today. They include an impressive number of wonderful people, both in America and in Israel. Many of us are still good friends.

On second thought, perhaps he wouldn’t be amazed at all. There was never any doubt in his mind that the tree of Torah would take root – even in America. And that his students would be the branches and the flowers and the leaves.

Based on an article from the book “All Things Considered”, by © Yaffa Ganz; Mesorah Publications.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.