I don’t remember Hebrew school very well. I started attending sometime in elementary school, when I was around seven or eight years old, and stopped attending after my bar mitzvah. That was decades ago.
I remember that in the early years, Hebrew school largely consisted of singing songs and learning the Hebrew alphabet. My class met once a week, on Sunday mornings. We baked matzoh for Passover, built a sukkah for Sukkot, and ate delicious latkes and applesauce for Chanukah.
I grew up in a town that was overwhelmingly Christian, so I went to Hebrew school one town over. As a result, none of my school friends attended Hebrew school with me, but in these early days, that was okay. We were singing songs and eating fun food, so we were all very happy.
Around the age of ten or eleven, I graduated from the Sunday school program and Hebrew school changed dramatically. Now it would meet twice a week, after school. Instead of making meals and singing songs, we would study Jewish history. And I had a new teacher: Mr. Weinstein.
I remember that Mr. Weinstein had a booming voice and a quick temper. When he talked, we listened, and most of Mr. Weinstein’s class consisted of him talking.
Jewish history, in Mr. Weinstein’s telling, was largely a series of near exterminations. I remember him talking about the destruction of the temples and the Spanish Inquisition. I remember a particularly powerful lesson on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, an event that, according to Mr. Weinstein, gave great evidence of the world’s willingness to let Jews die, even if it did not represent an attempt at extermination.
Mainly though, I remember Mr. Weinstein talking about the Nazi Holocaust. He described, in vivid detail, the atrocities that our families and communities had suffered. He showed us videos and brought in guest speakers who had survived these atrocities.
I remember one lesson that consisted of Mr. Weinstein comparing this holocaust to other terrible historical events. He announced, repeatedly, that the Nazi Holocaust was the worst thing that had ever been done to any group of people, ever. He spent a few minutes explaining how this holocaust was far worse than American slavery because the violence of slavery was spread out over hundreds of years, whereas the Nazi Holocaust took place over just a few years. Somehow, according to his logic, this made slavery a more diffuse and less severe atrocity.
Thinking back, the strangest thing about all of this was that while it made me feel sad, it also made me feel really special. As a Jew, I was a part of this group that had suffered more than anybody else.
Since I grew up in a largely Christian community, I got poked fun of now and then for being Jewish. I usually laughed this stuff off, but of course it made me feel uncomfortable and isolated. Hebrew school had exacerbated these feelings. While my friends were playing soccer and riding bikes, I was in a classroom with kids I didn’t really know learning this weird language that nobody spoke anymore. I remember wishing that I had been born Christian.
But Mr. Weinstein taught me that I was superior to my Christian neighbors, who had, by the way, either stood by while my ancestors were slaughtered or taken part in the slaughter. Why would I want to be one of those heathens when I was one of the chosen few who been purified through centuries of suffering?
Mr. Weinstein taught us that after the Nazi Holocaust, the European powers gave Israel to the Jews as a sort of prize for the suffering we’d endured. He didn’t really talk about the mechanics of this real estate transaction: in his telling, the land had been there waiting for our people to occupy it. I remember he did explain that thousands of years ago, the Jews had lived on that land, so it was kind of ours anyway. For me, at eleven or twelve years old, all of this made perfect sense.
I remember that in Mr. Weinstein’s narrative, Palestinians only came into existence after the creation of Israel. That was when they started attacking us—as if we hadn’t suffered enough already!
I remember that Mr. Weinstein’s narrative shifted when the Israeli/Palestinian conflict began. While Jews were still victims of unparalleled persecution, the creation of Israel had given us a new virility: it had given us an army.
Mr. Weinstein would wax rhapsodic about the power and precision of the Israeli military. This was, he explained, partly due to the unequalled devotion of our soldiers. In Israel, Mr. Weinstein said, everyone is a soldier and the soldiers are trained harder, smarter, and better than any other soldiers in the world. I remember one lesson where he claimed that Israeli fighter pilots were so vastly superior to the rest of the world’s that they had managed to drop pigs on holy Muslim sites, thereby accomplishing two aims: 1. Defiling the holy sites of Muslim infidels. 2. Striking fear into the hearts of our enemies. (I looked for evidence of this tactic online, but couldn’t find it. If any reader could verify or disprove, that would be much appreciated.)
In Mr. Weinstein’s narrative, the Israeli military was a small, plucky band of fighters surrounded by a vast army of Arab wolves. (He did not, to my memory, note any distinction between Israel’s hostile neighbors. Palestinian, Jordanian, Egyptian, and Lebanese people were all part of one enemy army.) Somehow, like the Maccabees, the Israelis managed not only to survive in this hostile desert, but would claim victory again and again.
All of this, of course, made me feel great. After learning that my people’s suffering made me special, I now learned that it made me strong. If, for thousands of years, we Jews were forced to play the victim, the creation of Israel allowed us to play the avenging angel.
For a young boy struggling through early adolescence, this narrative was intoxicating. Any sense of exclusion I felt in Christian society, I was right to feel it. My people had been excluded for thousands of years. Any anger I felt was righteous anger.
I went from middle school to high school, and then went off to college where, for the first time, I heard a new narrative. In this new narrative, Israel was not the plucky underdog, but the aggressor. The land had not been waiting for its rightful, Jewish owners, but had been stolen from the Palestinian people. The Israeli military had not achieved superiority through the mystical devotion of its soldiers, but through the largesse of the U.S. government.
I closed my ears. I shouted down my classmates and accused them of anti-semitism. I repeatedly invoked the violence of the Nazi Holocaust as some sort of suffering trump card that would silence my enemies.
And that is most certainly how I viewed anyone who dared criticize Israel: the enemy. Even though, unlike Mr. Weinstein, my professors and classmates cited copious amounts of evidence to support their narrative, I didn’t like how they made me feel. In fact, all their evidence just made me hate them even more. The identity to which I’d grown so attached had no basis in historical reality. They had taken it from me.
I’ve been thinking about Hebrew school a lot lately. I don’t know if Mr. Weinstein is still teaching. I’m sure, though, that at Hebrew schools all over New York, the U.S., and the world, young Jews are being trained, as I was, to view the world as a hostile place where outsiders are not to be trusted.
I’m sure that at this very moment, a teacher is explaining to a wide-eyed, lonely kid that murdering Palestinian children is a righteous act and that bombing hospitals is a fine example of the Israeli military’s tactical brilliance. I don’t know what it means to be a Jew when these atrocities are carried out by the Jewish state and I don’t think that it matters. We need to pressure the U.S. government to cut off all aid to Israel, we need to support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, and we need to end the occupation now.