In a recent on-line discussion about independent minyanim (non-synagogue ad hoc prayer groups), someone suggested that the predominantly young people who populate the indy minyan scene would be seeking out synagogues when they had children of school age. As a member both of the synagogue “establishment,” and of a generation that knew not day schools, I was inclined to agree – until I remembered my own Jewish education, in what I suppose we could refer to as an indy cheder (Hebrew school).
In the corner of the world where I grew up, the predominant modes of formal Jewish education were the Reform and Conservative congregational religious schools, the four-afternoon-a-week community-sponsored Talmud Torah, and private tutoring , which may or may not have included actually learning Hebrew, for a memorized, rote Orthodox bar mitzvah
For a certain coterie of suburban professionals, including my parents, none of those alternatives was an appealing option for their children. The synagogue schools were too minimalist, the Talmud Torah too time-consuming, both in classroom hours and travel into the city, where the bulk of the Jewish population still lived. I don’t know whether they sought a solution, or whether the solution presented itself, through the presence in Cleveland of one of the great heroes and pioneers in Jewish education, now virtually forgotten, Abraham H. Friedland, known to his friends, family and disciples by his Hebrew initials, Chet Aleph.
Friedland’s “day job” was running the Bureau of Jewish Education and the community Talmud Torah system, the Cleveland Hebrew Schools. But in the course of his work and his volunteer activities, he attracted a personal following like Chasidim sitting at the foot of their rebbe. I remember that my mother shlepped downtown every Friday, and my father took time away from his office, to have lunch in a private room at the Russet Cafeteria, where Chet Aleph held court. His impact on the community was such that, five years after his death, we named our Habonim Zionist youth group chapter Chet Aleph, while my friends’ AZA chapter (as the Bnai Brith Youth Organization was known in those days) was called Friedland AZA.
Under Chet Aleph’s guidance, our parents organized and operated the Bialik School, a two-afternoon-a-week laboratory school taught by one of his disciples, Lillian Berman (later Miller), which differed in three important regards (and a couple of less important ways as well) from anything else that was then happening in Hebrew education:
- The emphasis was on modern spoken Hebrew, not merely on providing a reading knowledge of the siddur and the Chumash.
- Accordingly the language of instruction was Hebrew, not the Yiddish that had still pervaded the cheders of the previous decade, nor the English that was used in the four congregational schools (two Reform, two Conservative). Using what would now be called the Ulpan method, but was then called Ivrit b’Ivrit (Hebrew in Hebrew), G’veret Berman never used a word of English in class from Day One, nor allowed us to.
- Like Friedland, and like the parents of the students, the school was outspokenly Zionist, and thus our pronunciation was the pronunciation of the Jews of Palestine, Sephardit, not the Ashkenazic pronunciation of the synagogue and the non-denominational but Orthodox-sensitive communal schools. And it was relatively secular; to the shock of my friends at the two Conservative synagogues, we did not wear yarmulkes in class. We got our Bar Mitzvah training elsewhere; but Bialik School did teach us the requisite blessings for Shabbat, Chanukah and Passover.
I don’t remember Chet Aleph ever appearing in our classroom, although his picture hung on its west wall, opposite the picture of Chaim Nachman Bialik on the east wall. I did meet him, though; somewhere in the family archives there should be a picture of me, taken at the rededication of the Hebrew Cultural Garden in Cleveland’s Rockefeller Park, standing in front of Chet Aleph and the guest speaker for the occasion, the eminent Hebrew poet and novelist Zalman Shneour.
Friedland’s presence was reinforced because there were no generally available text books to support Ivrit b’Ivrit teaching, so he had to write them. Our books – pamphlets really – carried his byline, and I later learned there were hundreds of them. They were called Sippurim Yafim, Pretty Stories – mimeographed Hebrew equivalents of Dick and Jane, with typewritten text and crude cartoony line illustrations. For whatever strange reason, I remember that one of them dealt with a tarnegol, a rooster, and another, probably designed to teach us feminine verb forms, was Aliza Kor’et Sefer, Alice Reads a Book. I can also visualize my machberet, the little blue notebook we used for learning to write in Hebrew – the one intrusion of English into the classroom, because on the inside back cover was the Balfour Declaration, to remind us constantly that His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.
Bialik School outlived Friedland by half-a-dozen years, eventually done in not so much by the absence of his charismatic recruiting as by the career imperatives of the one teacher who had been thoroughly trained to teach Ivrit b’Ivrit. G’veret Berman had been able to combine her Bialik School responsibilities with her major job, running the Hebrew program at The Temple; but the demands on her time following her promotion to Education Director precluded moon-lighting. Most of the students in the two classes transferred to congregational schools, but David Halperin and I were judged proficient enough to enter the Talmud Torah high school program. We had as many years of study under our belts as our new classmates – but we had been going two days a week, while they had been going four. We now had to adjust to a long commute, a switch from Sephardit to Ashkenazit, and wearing kipot in class. But since this, too, had been Friedland’s program, the method was familiar.
When the indy minyan discussion got me thinking about my indy cheder, I went on line and Googled Friedland. What I found on my first round of research was relatively sparse, but it included the dates of his birth (in Lithuania) and his death. Given the strength of my memories, I wasn’t willing to believe that he died when I was only eight years old. However, I corroborated the date by getting in touch with his grandson, Rabbi Daniel Polish at Congregation Shir Chadash, LaGrangeville NY. Rabbi Polish had never known his grandfather; but he put me in touch with Rabbi Michael Shields, at Lake Norman Jewish Congregation in North Carolina, who had written his rabbinic thesis at Hebrew Union College on Friedland’s life and work. (www.mjshields.com/index).
From Rabbi Shields’ thesis I discovered various other things about my Hebrew schooling that were apparently unusual for the times, if not unique: games and singing as part of the curriculum, not only for their pedagogic value, but also (revolutionary idea, even today) because Friedland thought that learning should be fun. Although the aim of the Bialik School was to teach us Hebrew, not to prepare us for bnai mitzvah, we were mostly boys. Later, when the Bialik School closed, and I transferred into the Talmud Torah system’s Hebrew High School, the classes were very much co-ed – and from Rabbi Shields’ research, I got some perspective on that. Friedland had been brought to Cleveland to run the Talmud Torah on the strength of his success in founding and running the National Hebrew School for Girls in New York.
Friedland’s legacy included organizing the Cleveland Bureau of Jewish Education, providing coordination among all the institutions offering Jewish studies, and instituting youth groups, teacher training, a children’s theater, and adult classes. In addition to his professional activities, he was also president of the Ohio Zionist District, the Histadrut Ivrit (an organization promoting Hebrew language and culture), and the National Council on Jewish Education. Shields characterizes him as one of the four top leaders of the Cleveland Jewish community. (The other three were rabbis: Abba Hillel Silver, Barnett Brickner, and Solomon Goldman, until he moved to Chicago.) He was also a national leader in the promotion of teaching and using Hebrew as a modern language. His legacy to me lay in the creation of an environment for Jewish study that kept me in the Hebrew classroom into my college years, and has kept me learning ever since.
Friedland’s only child, his daughter Aviva, married Rabbi David Polish z”l, who, some ten years after his father-in-law’s death, founded the synagogue to which I now belong. As part of the congregation’s current celebration of its sixtieth anniversary, there’s been a lot of reminiscing about Beth Emet’s early days, and one factoid that was recently mentioned was that it had been the first American congregation to worship and educate in Sephardit Hebrew. Obviously that practice is now relatively standard throughout the Reform movement – but my reaction when I learned that it had rippled forward from Beth Emet was to smile and think to myself, “I’ll bet I know where Rabbi Polish got that idea.”