The day after they caught me singing Catholic hymns with the Hagin kids downstairs, my parents decided to send me to Hebrew school.
Terry Hagin was my best friend. She and her brother Johnny, a grade above and below me in fourth and second, boarded the bus each day to Saint Camillus, plaid minions in God’s army, while I walked to McCormack, the local public school. Terry and Johnny were emphatic, unflappable guides to such burning questions as what God looked like–could be a bush on fire, they said, or a white-haired grandfather on a throne so bright it could blind, or even a blonde, blue-eyed shepherd–and what happened when people died. Their descriptions of Hell were lustily rendered and gruesome.
Whereas my parents tended to give more philosophical answers like “Nobody knows” or “Some people believe.” As far as I was concerned, the red-haired, blue-eyed Hagins had a better bet going.
So my parents panicked and decided to send me to B’nai Emeth, the only synagogue with Hebrew school on Sundays, because my father worked weekdays and we only had one car. Ten miles away, in the middle of Washington, D.C., B’nai Emeth was a strictly Orthodox shul, which for me was like going from zero to ten on the Yiddishkeit scale.
The synagogue itself was an imposing white building with a gray, polished dome that reminded me of the planetarium we visited in New York City on a trip to my grandparents. The halls had high ceilings and echoed; I could skate a little in my shoes on the shiny tiles. All this spit-and-polish contrasted greatly with the austerity of the male teachers dressed in dark colors and the generally quiet demeanor of the other girls and boys. I missed my misbehaving pals at McCormack.
I liked B’nai Emeth, though. At least at first. Mr. Morsofsky, a gentle man with a lilting voice who wore a black silk yarmulke atop his balding dark curls, was my first male teacher, the first in a line of endless crushes. I loved the way he spoke my new name: Shulamis. Shulamis was the princess who danced the dance of the seven veils, not a chubby little girl with short, dark hair.
SUSAN ORINGEL is poet and writer, a teacher of creative writing, and a psychologist in private practice in Albany, NY. Her poetry chapbook My Coney Island was published by Finishing Line Press in 2019. Susan’s work appears in various journals and in a collection of translated Latin American poetry: Messengers of Rain, (Groundwoods Press).
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