Memories of Jewish Education, When You Least Expect Them

A Serious Man, in the making

A Serious Man, in the making

I was sitting on a train, looking at the Virginia countryside, and checking my email when this post came through. For the second week in a row, I am stunned by negative memories of childhood Jewish education.  In my last posting, there simply was none, and the request for some Jewish education was denied.  Here, it sounds as if the poet (and yes, I understand that it is poetry) had an old-fashioned sit-and-repeat education.  It reminded me of the Hebrew school segments in A Serious Man. If you remember that movie, the kids are sitting in their rows of desks in Hebrew School while the teacher goes on & on without really noticing them.

As a Jewish educator, I aim to create classes and programs that are engaging and inviting.  Although there are still topics for which serious “tush time” is needed, as one of my grad school friends used to say.  I do not believe that we can leave our children with everlasting skills if we only make art projects.  But if we do not do a song and dance, both literally and figuratively, will our students flee after that magical day at age 13?

I am saddened to read about prayers that made the author feel like a “prisoner.”  I am disheartened when I read about Jews who flee after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  And, since this is poetry and I am limited by what is here, I am unsure about the author’s reference to his experience at the Catholic College.  Is this just a teaching gig or is there something more?  Or does the experience bring back memories of his more active Jewish past that might set him on a new path?  Is their a glint of hope here?

What do you think of this poem?

Crosses on the Wall

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

My father sent me to Hebrew school,
where mournful prayers kept me a prisoner,
preventing me from playing first base
for my beloved Little League team.
On the High Holidays, I dreaded wearing
my wool suit which made me scratch.
I looked all around the synagogue, bored,
counting the number of lights on the memorial wall.
I kept sneaking looks at how many pages remained.
Liberated at 13, I ran free, but was slowed by guilt.
Years later, I am a speaker of literature
at a conference at a small Catholic college.
Two nuns sit in on my workshop,
and on the wall floats a giant cross.
“So boychik, my ancestors seem to be saying.
“How are you feeling these days?
See how your lack of Jewish education has cost you?
Are you now playing first base for the other side?”


The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit:

reprinted with permission of The Jewish Writing Project

About Gail F. Nalven

Jewish Educator, Rabbi, Tefillah Leader, Songleader, Teacher, and Freelance Jew
This entry was posted in Music, Spirituality, Teaching/Education, Tefillah (prayer) and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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