Remote Jewish Learning, 1980s Style

Back-to-school stories are beginning to kick-in throughout the news and social media. Few and far between, however, are the stories focused on five ways to decorate your locker, or what not to wear on the first day. Rather, the focus is on will school be online at home, or in-person at school. Scroll through the pages focused on Jewish learning, and the debate continues.

I feel for parents who are working full-time jobs from home, alongside coaching their kids through the school curriculum. However, my empathy rises for those parents whose kids pursue additional Jewish studies for Bar and Bat Mitzvah training. I was a student of remote Jewish learning well before it was mandated by a pandemic. In fact, my parents were 40 years ahead of their time.

Growing up in Minot, ND, my parents worked hard to make sure I had a strong sense of my Jewish identity. We lit the candles most Friday nights. I went to a Jewish summer camp from the time I was ten until I graduated high school. And, my parents worked with the Minneapolis Talmud Torah to help teach me how to read Hebrew.

When I was in second or maybe it was third grade, I learned to read Hebrew on Beta videotapes sent to me from the Minneapolis Talmud Torah. Just a clarifier – Beta in those days didn’t mean test mode. Rather it stood for Betamax, a video format that lost the war to VHS. The cassette was shaped like a medium-sized brick, and almost as heavy. The tape player wasn’t slim and discrete, but rather large and grey with an injection window that received the tape like it was swallowing hardened cement.

My parents would queue up the video and the teacher appeared on the tv screen my teacher with chalk in hand, writing out Hebrew letters on the blackboard. From the front of the empty classroom, she instructed me on the Hebrew alphabet, and how the sounds came together to form the words on the page.

Ironically, there was always a lot of commotion going on outside the room. If you attended Talmud Torah in the eighties it’s likely I heard your chatty voice amongst on the other side of my classrooms closed door. I would sit about two feet away from the screen in our basement and follow along in my workbook. This two-feet distance is likely why I wear coke bottle thick glasses today.

Following the lesson, my Dad and I would sit, side-by-side, squished together on an over-sized 1970’s chair and ottoman that was bright orange with yellow and green speckles. Together, we’d read out loud from a book that accompanied the lesson. Sounds like an Andy Warhol-stein image, right? Well, not exactly. Here’s how I remember it:

Me: I can’t remember the sounds!

Dad: Let’s start again.

Me: (energy rising) I don’t want to do this!

Dad: (patiently) Just read it through.

Me: (tears) nooooo!

Dad: Let’s keep going

Me: (emphatic) FINE!

Due to my Dad’s persistence through my stubbornness, I did learn to read Hebrew. My rate of reading, however, is like a first grader reading English. This was of no fault of the teachers, or my father, rather my own stubbornness to practice between US Postal deliveries of the lessons.

When you finish reading this story, call a teacher. Thank them for the grit and fortitude they bring every day to make sure our kids reach new heights in learning.

As for me, my appreciation specifically goes out to our community’s teachers of Judaica. Forty years ago, my parents enlisted this committed team to bring me an on-demand Hebrew education. The COVID-19 crisis is likely presenting this cohort of teachers with huge challenges, which I have every confidence they will meet with the same spirit of creativity they brought to me. I applaud their tenacity for educating our kids on Hebrew and Jewish traditions. I know how stubborn kids can be when learning Hebrew. I was that kid.