A Hell Whose Name Is School

Less than a hundred years after it declared war on the heder, Jewish literature began to long for it. A new collection of articles and memoirs explains the paradox surrounding the oldest and most vilified educational institution of them all.

The Heder: Studies, Documents, Literature and Memoirs, edited by Immanuel Etkes and David AssafTel Aviv University Press, 578 pages, NIS 140

Lithuanian philosopher Salomon Maimon was one of the first Jews to leave the world of Hasidism in Eastern Europe, back in the 18th century, and join Moses Mendelssohn's enlightened Jews in Berlin. His autobiography, "The Lives of Salomon Maimon," published in Germany in 1792 (and recently reprinted in Hebrew ), is not only a bildungsroman that is typical of its time, but also an important and original historical document testifying to the condition of millions of Jews who stayed "behind" In the ghetto.

It is only natural that the autobiography opens with his first and formative memories from the heder (literally, "room," the term used to describe the one-room school where Jewish children would receive their primary education ), and it is only natural that these memories open the literature section of this new, lengthy anthology, "The Heder." "The school," writes Maimon, "is usually a small hut filled with smoke, in which some of the pupils sit on benches, and some on the ground. The rabbi sits on the table wearing a filthy shirt ... The 'helpers,' each in his corner, drill the pupils in their studies, bullying them like little despots, not unlike the melamed [teacher] himself."

Later on, Maimon draws the reader's attention to the curses of the heder's instructional methods: haphazard and unsystematic teaching of the Torah and Hebrew grammar; jumbled teaching of the common parlance, Yiddish; reliance on "all sorts of hard-to-understand commentaries"; teaching by the "pilpul method," which "is completely contrary to systematic and purposeful study," and more. To sum it up, writes Maimon, "Since the children are sentenced to suffer at the early stage of their childhood in a hell that is called school, it is easy to understand the joy and cheerfulness with which they anticipate their salvation from it."

Although Maimon wrote these words in his later years, by which time he was an adherent of natural theology (as distinct from revealed religion ) and attacked Judaism in general, his memories of the heder became an archetype of the genre. Those who subsequently wrote similar memoirs were charter members of the Enlightenment, Jews from Eastern Europe who were joining the modern world of scholarship and science. They were fighting to put right the substandard Jewish education. Mordecai Aaron Guenzburg would eventually found a Jewish school in Vilna, in 1841, in which he attempted to fix the defects in Jewish education. A decade earlier, he had already specified what these defects were, in his autobiography, "Aviezer" (also recently reissued ).

Guenzburg adds new sections to the indictment drafted by Maimon. At the end of his traumatic first day in heder, he recalled, "I commenced to be afraid of the sun at noon and to hide from my own shadow, to see dead people and genies in every corner of the home, and a witch in every old woman who was not from our people."

Moshe Leib Lilienblum, in his autobiography, "Burden of Torah and Melamdim" (1872 ), levels even more piercing charges at the heder: "When I was four years and three months old, before my tender powers had yet developed, I was already given the burden of Torah and the burden of those who teach it, and from that day onward I was imprisoned all day long in the room where the studies took place .... They denied me every bit of knowledge and anything else that did not rank as Talmud study; instead, they stuffed my brain with terrible nonsense and filled me with pernicious poison, until, being a boy of 12 years old, my heart had already broken within me, distressed by the black spirit of God, as if this kind of foolishness is suitable for a child, and that his heart should be saddened."

Nearly all of the fathers of the new Jewish literature wrote about the heder, because the new Jewish literature was born as an anti-clerical mechanism, and the heder was the initial target of the writers and the social reformers. Several horror-memoirs are included in the new anthology, and there are others that were left out. This latter group includes Josef Perl, who in practice collaborated with the Austro-Hungarian empire to effect changes in Jewish education in Galicia, and Mendele Moykher Sforim, the "grandfather of both Yiddish and Hebrew literature" who describes, time and again, the narrow-mindedness of the heder. A chapter of Mendele's "Dos Kleine Menshele" ("The Little Man" ) that is included in the anthology opens with the words, "I learned in a Talmud Torah. I had not thought that I was such a small-minded youngster."

We can assume that, like Mendele, other writers also learned how to read and write in heder, but nevertheless, all of them describe it as a place that doled out the wrenching experience of violent beatings by the melamed and his young deputies. The beatings were part of the educational doctrine, and the poet Yehudah Leib Levin relates in his memoirs that his older brother was beaten to death by a melamed.

How did this hell manage to endure in Ashkenazi communities for hundreds of years? In her article for the volume, "Heder Education in the Early Modern Period," Yiddish scholar Chava Turniansky cites references to the heder as early as the 13th century. By the early 17th century, she finds written criticism of the teaching methods: "Not only do the melameds not know the meaning of the words and the use of the language, they do not even know how to read the words with the [consonant and vowel sounds] dagesh and rafeh and the shva nah and nahd."

Nothing to compare it with

However, most criticisms of the heder appear later, and derive from its comparison with the progressive educational methods implemented in Europe from the 18th century on. Earlier, there was nothing to compare the heder with, since schools did not exist in Christian Europe, most certainly not in their modern form. Jews who learned in a heder, even if they were abjectly poor, at the very least knew how to read and write, at a time when most of the surrounding Christian population was illiterate. Even their limited education was still no worse than that of their neighbors.

The heder, then, was a necessary evil. Even inspectors from the Russian Jews' secular Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment, who surveyed the heders toward the end of the czarist empire in 1912 and filed scathing reports on their lack of hygiene and the apathy and ignorance of the teachers, did find one positive thing to say: No other institution could compete with the heder, "neither in terms of its natural connection with the people, nor its capacity for survival." (These reports appear in the compilation for the first time, with an outstanding translation from the Russian by Eli Fuhrman. )

Avner Holtzman, a professor of Hebrew literature, in his article on the heder in memoirs and in modern Hebrew literature, explains that perspectives on the heder changed during the second half of the 19th century, influenced by romantic ideas about childhood and Old World folksiness. One hundred years after Maimon, numerous Jewish writers would gaze far back over time, except now they would come to the heder's defense. "The Jewish heders in the little towns, to which I was exposed when I was in the land of my birth, bastions of baseness and poverty, are undoubtedly a grievous and heart-rending vision," wrote Micah Joseph Berdichevsky. "Nevertheless, there is hope that their pupils will remain loyal to their people, even if they aspire to a secular spiritual revival, whereas the pupils of the modern educational institutions are candidates for severing the link to their roots and assimilating into the general society."

Elsewhere, Berdichevsky succinctly wrote, "The poet will sense the splendor of the heder as well as the discomfiture of the heder" -- expressing the complex double vision of the revivalist generation in just a few words. In the poem "A Pauper's Hope," Haim Nahman Bialik expressed empathy for, of all people, the poor melamed, and Sholem Aleichem, as an adult storyteller, showered his sympathy on Boaz the sadistic melamed, the erstwhile terror of the heder. (Both of these works are found in the anthology. ) Here, too, we see the intergenerational and ideological gap between Sholem Aleichem and Mendele, his revered mentor.

Return to the heder

If the struggle to revamp the heder reflected the desire to revamp Judaism in general, the return to the heder also reflected a return of sorts to Judaism. The heder may have caused suffering, but how is it different, essentially, from a black coat and fur hat on a summer day? They, too, cause suffering that is not mandated by the laws of the Torah, but they nevertheless seem to us to be part of an ancient tradition. In his book "Le Juif errant est arrive" ("The Wandering Jew Has Come Home" ), the French journalist Albert Londres gazed incredulously at this adherence to ancient customs, but eventually came to understand that this was the secret of Judaism's survival. In his description of the heder, Londres writes: "The scene was lovely, not at all ridiculous; heart-rending, imbued with the mark of greatness and stirring a deep sense of dignity."

Criticism of the heder turned into nostalgia as the number of heders diminished during the accelerated process of modernization undergone by the Jews of Eastern Europe. Co-editor David Assaf, a professor of Jewish history, describes the circumstances that led to the composition and popularization of the well-known Yiddish song "Oyfn Pripetshik" (about a "small, narrow, hot room" ) from the late 19th century. It is a song of praise to the heder, and concludes with the call: "And although in exile you will carry your burden, and even sigh bitterly, in letters [of the Hebrew alphabet] you will seek comfort from all trouble."

In the 19th century, Jewish literature enlisted in the war against the old Jewish world, and 100 years later, it seemed that the war had been too successful. "Among writers and intellectuals who had already abandoned the towns where they were born, and lived in the big cities, there was a profound sense that the sun had nearly set over the old town in which they'd grown up," Assaf writes. "Parallel with this recognition and perhaps because of it, a new conversation emerged, one of longing for that town and its Torah institutions."

This nostalgia intensified, of course, after the Holocaust, when it seemed that the heder had vanished forever, along with the old world. But it is back, and not only in Bnei Brak and Brooklyn. Plenty of new heders are cropping up in the settlements of the West Bank -- Talmud Torahs in which pupils are taught Torah concepts in the old method of consonant-and-vowel combinations, from a Pentateuch or prayer book. While the conditions are improved and the books are new, the new is meant only to preserve the old, which has been sanctified. The Jewish genius, which tried its hand in the 20th century at repairing a broken world, is now inventing Sabbath elevators.

The heder is now being portrayed as an alternative to the faulty state-funded school system in Israel, and many people believe that salvation will arise from its once-reviled pedagogical methods. And so, after 200 years of reform in Judaism, with a sort of deterministic historic force stronger than any lesson or logic, the heder is reentering Jewish life. So that we are properly prepared, and so that we will no longer have to suffocate in a small, narrow, hot room, autobiographies like "The Lives of Salomon Maimon" and "Aviezer" should be reissued and read, as should important anthologies like "The Heder."

Benny Mer is deputy editor of the Culture and Literature section of Haaretz Hebrew Edition.

Haaretz Books, February 2010, haaretzbooks@gmail.com