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My Life 4

Hebrew Teacher's Seminary

The big white house,

After failing at Wits university I enrolled in the Rabbi Zlotnik seminary for Hebrew teachers. It

Trolley busses Johanneburg

showed promise of fulfilling three objectives; free tuition, acquiring an occupation for earning a livelihood, and the acquisition of knowledge.

We sat in the living room of the big white house, at little square tables, arranged in a rectangle, at the open side of which sat our teacher.

Occasionally my attention waned, I turned my head away from the teacher to look out of the bay window of leaded glass. A short street, leading nowhere, lined with leafy oak trees passed before my gaze. The sky was a clear blue, the clusters of buildings below, turned Johannesburg into a forest of concrete.

Built by a Jewish family, who had come to S.Africa from Lithuania and had made their fortune, the house was sold in 1951, and became a teacher’s seminary, named after Rabbi Zlotnik, head of the Jewish Board of Education, at the time.

I came there from Krugersdorp by train, then on the upper deck of a trolley bus, from where, each day, I stared with envy at the hordes of people rushing to work. I thought of my parents, who never encouraged me to work at anything. I’m sure they would have been happy to give me money and have me hanging around at home doing nothing, but, perhaps foolishly, I dreamed of also having work to go to, of doing something that would make them proud of me.

Bokkie was the first teacher of the day. He poked his long, curved nose round the door, peering in before entering. Delighted at finding himself where he was meant to be, he entered with a gleeful smile, like a lost child who had found his mother.

Beady eyes, encased in round black-rimmed spectacles, glared into thin air, contemplating…. he rummaged in his battered black briefcase, pulled out a gigantic curved pipe. We exchanged laughing glances at one another. The entertainment began;

Puff puff, he teaches, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth…” fire goes out. Bokkie desperately tries to light a match while holding the biblical text.

Scratch scratch, flame rises. Puff puff, clouds of smoke float into the air.

Sandra pulls a face, waves hands, the pollution is choking her. “What’s the matter? He retorts with a look of surprise. “Pshaw, stop the fuss”.

He goes on with the lesson,” And darkness was on the face of the void”.

Rabbi Baruch Rabinowitz, known as bokkie, Afrikaans for little goat, taught us the book of Genesis. When we’d finally qualify as Hebrew teachers this would be the book we’d teach to children in the first grade at Hebrew School.

Hebrew teachers were, notoriously poor. They were on the lowest rung of the social ladder. Scenes in Jewish Literature portray them rousing little children from their beds, early in the morning, while it is still dark, leading them in a long line, through the village to a room, where he supervises, rod in hand, the recitation of the book of Genesis.

My uncle Dave laughed when my father told him that I was studying to become a Hebrew teacher. He was just a simple bicycle mechanic, an occupation, he regarded more highly than a Hebrew teacher.

The low status of teachers is revealed in a 5th-century discussion of our sages. “Who is the most desirable woman for a wife? Best choice is the daughter of a scholar, worst, the daughter of an unlearned man”. Second last in the list: the daughter of a teacher.

Only the largest Jewish communities employed a scholar, who was a rabbi. But even the smallest communities employed a teacher, whose income was so small that he had to supplement it by slaughtering animals, being a cantor, reading the scriptures, and leading the congregation in prayer.

Failing at plumbing, my father was at a loss to predict my future. When I entered teacher’s seminary, he thought he could see where I was headed.

Eagerly he mapped out my future multifarious tasks. He was being practical, sending me for singing lessons and arranging visits to the abattoirs. This put me off eating meat to this day, but I still enjoy cantorial music.

I didn’t see the point in disabusing him of these ideas, but I had made up my mind that I’d settle for just being a simple teacher, however lowly, without the accoutrements, which disgusted me.

Other subjects were taught at the Rabbi Zlotnik teacher’s seminary, besides the book of Genesis. Mr ben Moshe, opened my eyes to Jewish History, which is still today my main focus.

Mr. Shalit, who had been a pioneer in Israel, draining the swamps and had suffered malaria, made me fall in love with the pioneering period of modern Israel. Rabbi Hilewitz encouraged me to search for the esoteric meaning of biblical text.

Most of the students were girls, who had come to acquire an occupation for earning a living. But teaching wasn’t attractive for men, as I’ve pointed out. The few men had come here to deepen their knowledge of Judaism and to go on to become rabbis. I also started on this road, but veered off to wider horizons.

I enrolled at UNISA, South Africa’s great correspondence university.

I was on my way to achieving my goal, working and studying at the same time. This has been my life until now.

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