High school is like war; it can haunt you for years after you’ve moved on – even if you’re one of the lucky ones who got out in one piece. This was especially true for my Jewish high school, where academic and material competition left everyone in perpetual mayday.
My survival tactic was simple – I spent as little time in class as I could, wandering the halls or reading in the library. When I did happen to show up, I interrupted the class with wisecracks. Few teachers cared enough to reach out to me; most of them threw me out with a detention slip.
This was especially true when it came to my Judaic subjects, the classes I hated most. What was the point of busting my head on a dusty, archaic language, learning about people who were long dead or deciphering the geography of places that now only existed in chards underground? No one ever discussed why we were learning these things – certainly there was no mention of the word “God” – the whole exercise seemed like a punishment my parents had inflicted on me to ensure that I would one day marry a nice, Jewish doctor (though why that was so important, I wasn’t sure). I often held the tall, yellowing volumes of the Talmud vertical on my desk so I could sleep undisturbed behind them.
There was only one class I went to regularly: Navi, where we studied the kings and prophets of Israel. It wasn’t the subject that kept me in my seat each day, but our teacher, Rabbi Kavon. He was one of those teachers you knew meant business; he didn’t believe in second chances (or third, or fourth…). Although in his forties, he had the look of an older man, with stooped shoulders and pants pulled up to his chest in various shades of beige. His gray curls sprung out in a tight, unmoving sponge. He had a long beak nose and eyes that bore right into me, sharp and steady, making me feel like he could hear my thoughts.
Unlike the other teachers who preferred my absences to my in-class disruptions, Rabbi Kavon made me sit up front with my desk right against his. His face was no more than four feet from mine for the entire 39-minute period.
And for some odd reason, he called on me a lot, to read aloud, to answer questions, to ask my opinion on what we’d read. As if he thought I would have an opinion.
One day I decided I’d had enough of messianic prophecies of battle and bloodshed and spent my Navi class, and the rest of the afternoon, in the library with a copy of Anna Karenina. Despite my uneasiness at the thought of getting on Rabbi Kavon’s bad side, I figured if I came in tomorrow with the homework done, he would let it slide.
The next day, I spent my lunch in back of the auditorium, reading. As the bell rang, I gathered my things and headed for the door.
Rabbi Kavon was on the other side, waiting for me.
“You didn’t come…” His voice broke. Then he looked at me, imploringly, as if to say, Don’t you know what you’re missing?
The second I saw him I steeled myself, hoping to head off his tirade with a snappy excuse for my absence. But the look on his face stopped me from speaking. It wasn’t anger I saw, only sadness, like someone had hurt him deeply. I couldn’t imagine what could have happened.
“You didn’t come…” he said to me quietly. His voice broke, as if he was about to cry. Then he looked right at me, imploringly, as if to say, Don’t you know what you’re missing?
My tough reserve melted. My head emptied of excuses, like water from a pitcher, leaving only thoughts of remorse.
“I-I’m sorry,” was all I could say.
He nodded. “I’ll see you in class.”
I nodded back.
As I watched him shuffle off down the hall, I was struck by an unexpected thought: Maybe there’s more to this than I think there is.
If Rabbi Kavon had come to me with anger and punishment, he would have just pushed me farther away, like most of the other teachers had, the way almost everyone I knew had, by acting as if being Jewish was just something you happened to be, like green-eyed or Australian, but didn’t really impact the way you lived your life. If he’d treated me as if I was just another troublesome kid, I would have had no reason to look deeper at what he was trying to teach me.
But he didn’t. With just a few words, Rabbi Kavon communicated to me that I had been given a treasure, along with a map to find it. To squander it would be waste on a tragic scale.
It was a long time before the seed he’d planted would sprout, but I would never forget that quick exchange we’d had in the hallway.
Dancing with the Torah
Years later, I would remember it again at Simchat Torah, when Jews gather together to celebrate the completion of the yearly cycle of Torah readings. Our entire congregation had gathered to take the Torah scrolls from the ark and dance with them. Amidst the celebrants, I saw my two-year-old son riding on his father’s shoulders, gleefully reaching out to kiss the Torah as it came by. “Torah!” he shrieked, making the men circling with him laugh.
As I looked on, a woman walked over to me. Her eyes were teary. “Watching your son kiss the Torah makes me cry,” she said.
“Watching your son kiss the Torah makes me cry.”
Then she took my hand. “I wasn’t born Jewish,” she went on. “I was raised as a Christian, and I’ve raised my children as Christians. But over the years, I’ve seen the beauty of Judaism and realized that I have a Jewish soul. My family has joined me, and they even come to shul with me. But it was too late for me to raise my children with the Torah.”
She looked at my son, held aloft by his father amongst the dancing Torah scrolls. “You have been given such a precious gift.”
I was moved, knowing she was right – in more ways than she realized. If it wasn’t for Rabbi Kavon, chances are I would have rejected the gift. Now I am lucky enough to pass it on to my children.
For that, I will always be grateful.