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The Day I Annoyed the Rabbi

Tuesday, 04 September 2001 12:00 AM

It came zooming to center stage in the theater of my mind when then-President Bill Clinton solemnly proclaimed the goal of making sure every American child could read by the end of the third grade. I found that goal depressing. I found it even more depressing that so many Americans were doubtful that such a goal could be achieved.

I clearly remember being able to read by the end of the FIRST grade in a public school in the Deep South during the Depression. Everybody could read. Even the failing students could read. They didn't LIKE to read. They didn't WANT to read, but they COULD.

Onward, then, to "The Day I Annoyed The Rabbi."

I do occasional public speaking to support my radio and writing habits, and once I was scheduled to make the keynote address at a fund-raising dinner in New York for Ozar HaTorah, a Jewish charity that provides orthodox Jewish educations for the children of Jews who fled to France from Algeria and Morocco.

(You may recall when Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii got himself into a sizzler of a scandal by trying to put Ozar HaTorah into the U.S. budget for $8 million. When people began to ask why American taxpayers' money should go to schools in France to educate children from North Africa in the Jewish religion - well, you can imagine the rest. At the time I thought I had a clear picture of what had happened. I could actually visualize some prominent Jewish supporter of Sen. Inouye who had repeatedly donated money to his campaigns from the very beginning and never asked for anything in return - until the big bite: "Dan, there's a great charity I care about in France that could use a little help." My suspicions could not have been more wrong. The charity insiders told me Sen. Inouye feels extremely Jewish in his outlook, that he knew and admired the work of Ozar HaTorah, and has long been hovering on the brink of conversion to Judaism himself!)

About two weeks before my scheduled talk the American head of Ozar HaTorah called me and said, "Our board met yesterday and decided you could do a much better job if you actually went over to Paris and saw some of our schools in action."

In other words, would I accept an all-expenses paid trip to Paris? I was too well-bred to refuse. Off I went.

This charity showed me a lot of style. Some charities' personnel and participants fly first-class and stay in luxury hotels. I flew, not just COACH, but knees-in-my-ears coach. In Paris they put me up in the only hotel room I've ever seen that was too small to do my morning workout, which involves push-ups and leg-raises. I finally managed by opening the bathroom door and exercising with my body deployed half in the bedroom and half in the bathroom.

Early the first morning I walked the half-block to the headquarters of Ozar HaTorah and was taken to the first school they wanted me to see. The rabbi in charge spoke no English, but my French would have made Miss Mitchell back in Greensboro High School proud.

The month was March. Remember that. You're going to need it later on.

The school was nice, clean, bright, wholesome, with Jewish symbols, attractive posters and children's art festooned all about. The rabbi led me into a classroom and whispered to me as we entered, "Voici la premiere classe." No big linguistic challenge there. That meant, "This is the first grade."

Nothing initially made me doubt that this was, indeed, the first grade. The little chairs were first-grade size and the little children who sat in them were first-grade size. My doubts began only when the children opened their books and began to read in French. They seemed ever-so-slightly too advanced to be first-graders, but I figured, maybe the rabbi wanted me to report back to New York that the children were in good hands, so he somehow stacked the deck to cluster all the overachievers together in that one room while the observer from America was in the building.

Then the whole thing jumped off the charts!

The teacher told the children to put their French books away and open their HEBREW books!

Okay, Swedish kids might conceivably be able to decipher a few words in Norwegian, a very similar language. German kids might likewise be able to slog through a sentence of two of closely related Dutch, and Spanish kids could hack a little highly similar Portuguese. But only a linguistic showoff could name two languages more remote from each other than French and Hebrew.

French is a romance language. Hebrew is a semetic language. They have radically different alphabets. Yet, as casually as a teacher might say, "Now, children, put away your red pencils and pick up your blue ones," that teacher instructed them to close their French books and open their Hebrew books! And the kids read just as ably in Hebrew as they had a minute earlier in French.

"Shoot me for a billy goat," I said to myself. "What's going on here?"

I thought, perhaps, I'd misunderstood the rabbi when he told me, "This is the first grade." Maybe what he'd said was really, "This is the THIRD grade," which would have made everything only slightly less miraculous. They LOOKED like first graders, I figured, but maybe that's because they didn't get enough protein in North Africa, thereby making it conceivable that they were third graders who LOOKED like first graders! Whatever, all I could definitely say was, I couldn't be seeing and hearing what I THOUGHT I was seeing and hearing.

When the rabbi led me out of the classroom I went what he must have considered slightly insane. "Did you say those children were FIRST GRADERS?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied.

"And they were already reading French AND Hebrew in the FIRST GRADE?" I ranted.

That's when I could tell I had annoyed the rabbi. He knew why I was there. He was hoping I would go back to Ozar HaTorah headquarters and rave about the Jewishness of the education and the piety and reverence for God and the Jewish religion that was being so effectively instilled by the rabbi and his teaching staff into those young children. To hear me go berserk about first-grade children being able to read two languages affected the rabbi like it would have affected an art lover if a visitor ignored the genuine Picasso and instead got hysterical praising the frame!

How did the good rabbi express his annoyance?

As I continued to twist in unrestrained spasms of praise and disbelief that I'd actually witnessed first-grade students FAR FROM THE END OF THEIR FIRST GRADE TERM reading without hesitation in French and Hebrew, the rabbi said something I wish President Clinton could have heard. I wish President Bush could have heard it, too.

You remember, don't you, that the month was March?

What the rabbi said was, "Why SHOULDN'T they be reading French and Hebrew?

"They've been here since September!"

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It came zooming to center stage in the theater of my mind when then-President Bill Clinton solemnly proclaimed the goal of making sure every American child could read by the end of the third grade. I found that goal depressing.I found it even more depressing that so many...
The,Day,Annoyed,the,Rabbi
1185
2001-00-04
Tuesday, 04 September 2001 12:00 AM
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