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At last something of value comes from the Department of Education. They just let us know that two-thirds of eighth-graders in Wisconsin cannot read proficiently. That’s the eighth grade! And that’s in spite of the fact that Wisconsin spends more per student than any other state in the Midwest.
Do you suppose that’s what all those teachers demonstrating in the Wisconsin State Capitol looked so unhappy about?
Here comes a true story, firsthand. I don’t give a name to all my stories. I get annoyed by people who “over-name.” A quite beautiful woman once annoyed herself right out of my Rolodex because she named her sports car “Freddy.” But this story does have a name. It’s called “The Day I Annoyed the Rabbi.”
The charity, Ozar Hatorah, raises money in America to fund Jewish parochial schools in France for the children of Algerian and Moroccan Jews who emigrated to France after those two Islamic nations gained their independence. You may remember in the late 1980s there was a short-but-sharp controversy when Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii got into trouble for earmarking $8 million of American taxpayers’ money to finance orthodox Jewish education in France! I thought I’d grasped the whole picture on first bounce. A Jewish businessman in Honolulu, I figured, had supported the senator for years and years and finally put the arm on him for his favorite charity. Wrong on all counts. The vastly more interesting story is that the Japanese-American Inouye “felt Jewish” and thought that was a perfectly legitimate use of American money. Considering what we’ve paid for elsewhere in the past, who can say him nay?
Back now to “annoying the rabbi.” I was scheduled to make the keynote speech at a New York fundraiser for Ozar Hatorah. About two weeks before the speech I got a phone call from the coordinator. “At our executive committee meeting last night we decided to invite you to go to Paris for a few days to visit some of our schools, so you have a better feel for what we’re doing.” I’m too well-bred to turn down an all-expenses-paid trip to Paris.
The month was March. Please remember that. You’re going to need that later on.
When they picked me up to take me to the first school, I realized I’d harvested yet another perk. It was an English-free organization. They spoke only French, which gave my schoolhouse French a chance to come out of retirement, and it didn’t do too badly. At the first school the rabbi in charge welcomed me and gave me the tour. The walls were covered with those endearing drawings you find in grades one through three – in this case drawings of six-pointed Stars of David, Hanukkah menorahs, the Western Wall of the Temple, etc. (Attention: Non-Jews with Jewish friends. Don’t call it the “Wailing ” Wall. Israelis and Jews in general want to get over that image of “wailing.” The poise with which they handle President Obama’s treatment suggests they’re doing an OK job.)
The rabbi showed me the kosher kitchen, mezuzahs (tube-like devices containing passages of the holy Torah) nailed to every doorpost, the library featuring holy books. Yes, indeed. The Paris trip was a great idea.
Then the rabbi ushered me into a classroom whispering, “Voici la premiere classe.” I got it! That meant, “This is the first grade.” The children sat in those cute little chairs taking turns reading French out of their little books. Wait! This can’t be. Here they were, first-graders, and they were reading very well. It just didn’t fit.
Then the teacher barked a command and the children put away their French books, picked up Hebrew books and continued reading fluently and flawlessly. I thought, “They look like first-graders, but could the rabbi have possibly said, “… troisieme classe”: “third grade”? Even for third-graders it was a startling performance.
I’m afraid I went a little bit nuts. When the rabbi and I left the classroom and he confirmed they were, indeed, first-graders, I waxed as flamboyant as my French allowed. “This is incredible!” I railed. “Unbelievable. These babies are reading French and Hebrew; completely different languages, completely different alphabets, and they’re only in the first grade!”
The rabbi was clearly annoyed. He wanted me to be impressed and amazed, all right, but not with their reading, which he thought was no big deal. He wanted me to go nuts over the “Jewishness” of it all; what a great Jewish education they were getting and in such a great Jewish environment. That’s what he wanted me to report back to his sponsors in New York. He wanted New York to know about those pictures of the menorahs and the Stars of David.
In the middle of my continuing rant about all that great reading, the rabbi cut me short and snapped, “Why shouldn’t they be reading both French and Hebrew?
“They’ve been here since September!”