Fifty-two years in radio leaves you with an awful lot of stories. And of all those stories, I’ve only given one a name! The others I describe. My coworkers know which one I mean. The one and only story I’ve ever actually named is: “The Day I Annoyed the Rabbi!”
On March 19, 2012, a gunman on a moped stopped in front of a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, and killed three children and a teacher. Another student was seriously wounded. Earlier that week the same moped, same weapon and, presumably, the same killer had murdered three members of the French military. The civilized world recoiled in horror. The uncivilized world rejoiced.
Oddly enough, my sole story with a “name” was about my visit to a school in Paris run by that same Jewish charity as the school that suffered the murders Its name is Ozar Hatorah and It serves an interesting niche in the philanthropic world.
When France freed Morocco in 1956 and Algeria in 1962, a huge segment of that North African population felt life would be more comfortable in France than in those newly independent Islamic states. This was long before 9/11 and al-Qaida, but thousands of “pieds noirs,” “black feet” refugees, flooded back into France, many of them North African Jews. Ozar Hatorah lept in to provide a traditional, “orthodox,” Jewish education for their children who’d had no such opportunity in North Africa. Ozar Hatorah had about 23 schools throughout France that emphasized authentic Jewish education plus the best of what we used to call “readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic”!
I was asked to make the keynote address at a banquet to raise funds for Ozar Hatorah in New York. About two weeks before the speech, I got a most unusual and welcome phone call from Ozar Hatorah. “Mr. Farber,” the official explained. “At the meeting of our executive council last night it was suggested that your speech might be even more effective if you could see our schools in action. We wonder if you’d be willing to accept our invitation to spend two days in Paris visiting a few of our institutions so you can speak with greater familiarity about our work?”
Two days cost-free in Paris! I was too well-bred to refuse. The month was March. Don’t forget! You’re going to need that later on.
I was picked up after breakfast my first morning in Paris and driven by motivated and dedicated volunteers for the French arm of Ozar Hatorah. The first school they took me to looked surface-wise like any American elementary school, except all in French; the signs, the notices, the words on the blackboard. The rabbi in charge of the school apologized for not speaking English, but that only served to make me even more grateful to Miss Mitchell, my high school French teacher who jack-hammered some pretty good French into me way back in Greensboro, N.C. The rabbi showed me with great pride all the artwork of the 6-year-olds on the walls. There were pictures of Torahs, Menorahs, Hanukkah dreidels (spin-top play toys), maps of Israel and six-pointed Stars of David. Ultimately, he led me to a classroom door, and before we entered, he whispered to me, “Voici la premiere classe.” Miss Mitchell would not have congratulated me for understanding. She would have berated me if I didn’t. That clearly meant, “This is the first grade.”
The rabbi and I quietly walked in and took seats outside the circle of young children to observe. They were all taking turns reading in French from their books. And they were reading quite well. I was trying to remember whether I and my classmates read as well at that age. I couldn’t recall.
If this were a movie, there’d be major mood music right here. The teacher issued forth instructions, and the children put away their French books and picked up books in Hebrew! At that point I felt I was missing several beats, but those children, without missing a single beat, switched from reading fluently in French to reading fluently in Hebrew! Completely different language. Completely different alphabet. Never mind. Those first-graders effortlessly transitioned from reading aloud in French to reading aloud in Hebrew. As a student of languages, a lover of education and a fan of young children, I was staggered. I sat there loving although disbelieving what I was hearing.
Maybe they weren’t really first-graders, I thought. Did the rabbi really say this was the “Premiere classe” or the “troisieme classe,” the “third grade”? The children looked young enough to be first-graders, but maybe they were already in grade three and just looked that young because they hadn’t had enough nutrition in North Africa.
When the rabbi and I exited the classroom I was raving in double-incoherency; incoherent in thought and incoherent in French. I remember raving about the absolute miracle of education I had just witnessed. Here I was – from a nation where two presidents from opposing parties, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, promised all our school children would be able to read in the third grade – witnessing first-grade school children reading in two different languages barely halfway through the first grade.
The rabbi was not flattered. He was not pleased. The rabbi was annoyed.
He had wanted me to be impressed with the “Jewishness” of his school – the Torahs, the Menorahs, the Stars of David; and here I was, saying not a flattering word about the high level of religiosity of his school, but rather raving uncontrollably about the children being able to read effortlessly in two widely different languages in the middle of the first grade.
The rabbi didn’t exactly scold me. He didn’t exactly tell me he’d prefer I emphasize to the Ozar Hatorah leadership in New York how impressive a Jewish environment he’d achieved in his school. But he made his feelings known about the time when I completed my first coherent sentence praising the students for being able to read so well in French and Hebrew long before the end of the first grade.
“Why shouldn’t they?” asked the rabbi. “They’ve been here since September.”
End of recollection: The Ozar Hatorah schools don’t teach Islamic studies. But the tragedy of Ozar Hatorah has helped France and the entire world learn quite a bit about the ways and means of certain members of the Islamic faith from the Muslim gunman who jumped to his death vowing to “bring France to its knees with hatred and terror” as the French police closed in on him.
I now tearfully relinquish my story’s title.
I may have “annoyed the rabbi” with my misdirected compliment.
The gunman did more than “annoy” with his well-directed gunshots.