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My mom was a middle-school social studies teacher for many years, teaching in the South Carolina school district I attended. That meant that when I reached the seventh grade, I had the singular pleasure of having my own mother as one of my teachers.
For a shy 12-year-old boy, this was not actually a particularly agreeable situation to be in. It started with the simple awkwardness of how to address her in class; there was no option that wasn’t embarrassing, so I tended to avoid addressing her by any name at all. (If I needed to get her attention, I had to just raise my hand and wait quietly until she happened to look in my direction.) And, of course, at home I couldn’t get away with claiming I had no homework, not if she had assigned some of it.
But she was a good teacher. At the time, our school district was experimenting with a system that divided the school year into four quarters rather than two semesters; these shorter units allowed more flexibility to include some interesting classes that might not have been practical to offer if they had occupied half of the school year. (This was before standardized testing and No Child Left Behind, so teachers had a lot more freedom to define their own curricula.)
My mom taught a couple of these quarter-length classes, including “Would-Be World Conquerors” (a survey of Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and Hitler) and “World Religions” (a sort of comparative survey of major faiths). I took both of these classes and enjoyed them both, but the one I tend to think about most often is “World Religions.” That’s mostly because of one experience that has stuck with me all these years.
As we were studying Judaism, my mom invited a Jewish woman of her acquaintance to speak to our class several times. She was generous with her time and willing to answer all sorts of questions, and she also helped my mom arrange a field trip: as a class, we attended a weekly Shabbat service at her synagogue in Charlotte. (I can’t imagine such a field trip happening today.) Remember, this was a small town in South Carolina in the 1970s; most of us were from Baptist families, and if there were any Jewish kids at my school, I was never aware of it. It was a novel experience to be exposed to something so exotic and different.
Or at least, you’d think it would be. I wish I had more specific memories of that experience, but what I do remember is that it didn’t in the slightest feel intimidating or alien. It was a warm, welcoming atmosphere, and everyone in the congregation was friendly. To be quite honest, I have attended Baptist church services that felt far less welcoming. (Admittedly, this was a Reform temple, and I suppose we might have found an Orthodox worship service less accessible, but I doubt we would have found the people any less friendly.)
This experience is probably part of why I have never really been able to understand antisemitism; I don’t see where it comes from, because Jews have never seemed like “others” to me. I suppose I’ve come to understand the historical antecedents, but I just don’t see how such attitudes could have survived into the modern world. Even growing up in a place that was almost exclusively Protestant, I had no trouble recognizing Jews as people with the same values. I had no trouble seeing the people in that temple as “us.”
During one of her visits to our classroom, my mom’s friend had taught us a short (and I think well-known) Hebrew hymn that she said her congregation sang at the end of each Shabbat service. We practiced it in class, and again on the bus on the way to Charlotte, and we then joined along with the congregation when they sang in the temple. For some reason it stuck with me, and I can still sing it to this day. I don’t know anything about Hebrew, but I looked it up phonetically, and it goes like this:
Hineh ma tov uma na’im
Shevet achim gam yachad.
Roughly translated, it means:
How good and pleasant it is for people to sit together.Published in