Why was my smile so deep and broad when President George W. Bush got together with President Bill Clinton and declared that every American child should be able to read by the end of the third grade? Even though I don't usually give my stories names, I'm calling this one "The Day I Annoyed the Rabbi"!
Around the time Bush and Clinton were formulating their bipartisan resolution that all American children should be able to read by the end of the third grade, an interesting Jewish charity, Ozar Hatorah, invited me to speak at a fundraising dinner in New York. When former French colonies Algeria and Morocco gained their independence, many Jewish families had fled to France, and they wanted their children to have an Orthodox Jewish education, which was not always easy to come by in the highly secularized nation. Ozar Hatorah came to the rescue by establishing Orthodox schools all over France. There were more than 20 such schools, and they depended on Ozar Hatorah for their survival.
I agreed to spend two days in and around Paris visiting Ozar Hatorah schools so my fundraising speech would have the phosphorescence of authenticity!
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The rabbi in charge of the first school I visited led me through corridors decorated with children's drawings of Stars of David, Hanukkah menorahs, the Western Wall of the Temple and other Jewish symbols. As we entered the first classroom, the rabbi, who spoke very little English, told me, "Voici la premiere classe," which means, "Here is the first grade." It could have been any first grade class in the world. The 6-year-old children sat in a semi-circle on their cute little chairs and obediently reached for their books when their teacher instructed them to. But what happened next was staggeringly impressive, although only fractionally as staggering as what was to follow.
The children took turns reading paragraph after paragraph from their French books. The month was March. Remember that. You're going to need it later on. The children were good, very good indeed. In fact, they were so good I began to wonder if I'd understood the rabbi correctly. They seemed too sharp and in command of the material to be first graders. Could I have misunderstood the rabbi? Could he have said, "Voici la troisieme classe" – "This is the third grade"?
And then came the knockout punch. At the teacher's command the children put their French books away, pulled out their Hebrew books and gave an equally dazzling performance in Hebrew!
The performance of those children would have reached knockout level if the two languages these 6-year-olds spoke were similar, say, like Spanish and Portuguese, German and Dutch, Norwegian and Danish etc. But it's hard to find two languages as dissimilar as French and Hebrew. Hebrew has its own unique alphabet, which bears zero relationship to the Roman alphabet used by the French. And yet I witnessed their seemingly effortless transition from French to Hebrew!
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That educational tour de force reduced me to a happy state of shock. I literally couldn't conceal my admiration for the students, the teachers, the method employed – the works! Nor could I lower my voice as I told the rabbi I'd never seen anything remotely like it.
Later on I understood why my ravings were plainly annoying to the rabbi. To him this academic marvel was nothing special. It was unremarkable, routine. The rabbi wasn't looking for compliments on the performance of the students. The rabbi wanted me to be impressed by the Jewishness of it all, the Stars of David and Noah's Ark. That's what he wanted me to rave about to the sponsors at Ozar Hatorah when I got back to New York. Bringing me over looked like a mistake, a bad investment. The poor rabbi was afraid I would blither onward toward the wrong goal line.
I saved some praise for the way the rabbi brought me back on target. Once I stopped raving to take a breath, he casually remarked, "Why shouldn't they read French and Hebrew well?"
"After all," the rabbi continued, "They've been here since September!"