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Remembering

Photo credit: Inaki del Olmo on Unsplash

We called ourselves the Boston Club. We were three couples, no longer young, very far from Boston, the city in which we grew up, now living in Israel.

We loved sharing our memories of the old country (who would have imagined referring to the USA as the old country?) Individually we weren't very much alike but we had one thing in common that bound us together - we were all graduates of HTC, Boston's venerable Hebrew Teachers' College.

We came from different neighborhoods of Boston and attended different high schools and colleges but for eight years, on weekday evenings and Sunday mornings, we sat in the same classes and had the same teachers. We studied Jewish history, Hebrew Literature, Bible and Talmud, and Hebrew was the language of instruction. We were the select few students who had chosen to continue our Jewish education beyond Bar or Bat Mitzvah age.

Our teachers were a beloved and quirky group of middle-aged men (in those years there were no women on the faculty). They all had doctorates from European universities or rabbinic ordination from European yeshivas. One or two were Holocaust survivors but most had arrived in America before the Second World War. We looked up to our teachers, respected their erudition and knew that we could never attain their level of Jewish knowledge which they had brought over from Europe. But being kids, we also knew how to find their weak spots and laugh at their idiosyncrasies - which were many.

Dr. Moskowitz, for example, would close his weary eyes while teaching Talmud. Rabbi Lowenstein, a Holocaust survivor, saw in each of us a living saint (we weren't). Dr Stein would write every sentence of his lectures on Hebrew Literature on the blackboard for us to copy including his sometimes irreverent asides. Dr Zucker, a Hebrew poet of some renown, would literally shudder when we made basic mistakes in grammar (we made many).

But it was Dr. Wolotsky whom we enjoyed most. He taught history with a passion. His lectures on what the Crusaders did to the Jews on their way to the Holy Land; his description of the anguish of the Jewish people when they discovered that Shabbetai Tzvi was a false messiah; his analysis of disputes among Jewish sects, a subject on which he was a world authority, were unforgettable. As one alumnus wrote in a retrospective: "Because of him history became part of our emotional memory, not just our cognitive memory. In a word, he made history come alive." He also had a broad and welcoming smile, a mischievous gleam in his eye, and an ironic sense of humor. "Teyerson, " he would say when I disturbed his train of thought, "be a dear son and stop doing whatever you are doing." Teyerson, in Yiddish, means dear son.

And so, many years later, when we heard that Dr. Wolotsky had retired and was now living in a nursing home in Jerusalem, we resolved that we must pay him a visit. The manager of the nursing home arranged a room where we could all sit comfortably and even provided coffee and pastries. What a delight it was to see our old teacher - the years had taken their toll to be sure, but he still had that gleam in his eye and a wide grin on his face. We introduced ourselves to him and he nodded happily. We told him of our fond memories of HTC and how those years shaped our lives. We told him about our decisions to live in Israel, our life here, our work and our families. And then it was his turn to speak. I remember not a word he said. We stayed about an hour. We then stood up and he smiled broadly again. We told him how lovely the evening had been and said our goodbyes - I don't believe we hugged, because after all he was still our teacher and we were still his students - and left.

On the way home we were silent for a time. What an evening of nostalgia, of old memories, it had been. And then one of us said, "You know, I don't think he knew who we were." To which we all sadly agreed.

Author's note: Our teacher of Jewish history, Dr. Mordecai Wilensky, spent a lifetime teaching us to remember, an ability he lost in his old age. This story is written, with respect, in his memory and to his memory.

 

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Friday, 19 August 2022

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