The senior class play performed a few weeks ago by the latest graduates of Hebrew University Secondary School was unusual. Instead of skits reflecting school life and inside jokes, they chose to put on a surprisingly lucid satire about the characteristics of the veteran and prestigious institution, which is portrayed as a bubble in the heart of the Israeli reality that is faithful to itself - characteristics that, at least according to the writers of the skits, haven't changed from the day the high school opened its doors up until now, 66 years later.
The most biting skit was the one that showed the high-school admissions committee: three teachers, two women and one man, who were quick to accept the nerdy student, wearing pants pulled up to his chest and eyeglasses ("My parents are professors and I have a knowledge of astrophysics"); who were happy to help an Ethiopian pupil who didn't speak Hebrew (a check was immediately marked on a large piece of poster-board listing various ethnic groups, next to the word "Ethiopian"); and accepted three Russians as one package, because "the school is committed to absorbing immigrants" (and afterward tied them together with a rope). At the end of the scene comes the turn of the weakest link in the history of the school: the students of the "Project," the name given to the program for children who come from weak populations, usually Mizrahim (of North African or Middle Eastern descent) - some of whom emerge scarred, and most of whom emerge with a matriculation certificate. (More on this later.) They were accepted for admission as well.
In another scene from the play "But there's a war outside," sweaty soldiers from the Palmach [the pre-state military strike force] come to the high school straight from the battle for the Castel fortress outside Jerusalem, and ask for help. Of course, of course, reply the students in unison, and one by one they find excuses and avoid being drafted. Well, says the student who plays former principal Meir Shapira, we educated them to think, not to act.
Noya Kochavi, a senior, participated in the writing of the graduate production. "We wrote criticism about the school and its products. How is it possible that outside there is an intifada, an occupation, security and social chaos, and we are busy with ourselves?" she says. "Not out of anger, with a lot of self-deprecating humor. The school has never pretended to be a popular institution, and that is not what we were looking for when we applied. We are also nerdy Ashkenazim."
Next Thursday the nerds, graduates of the bubble, will assemble for class reunions. Thousands of invitations were sent out to graduates, who include such figures as Supreme Court justices Aharon Barak and Mishael Cheshin, authors David Grossman and Meir Shalev, Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman, draft refusenik Yonatan Ben Artzi, Israel Prize laureate in economics Ariel Rubinstein, several deans, two hospital administrators, businessman Muzi Wertheim, and high-tech tycoon Gil Schweid, a small number of painters and artists, one Rivka Michaeli, actress and presenter, and legions of hospital department heads and doctors, lawyers and somewhat fewer judges.
At the high school they have been working on the event for months. It was actually planned for last year, the 65th anniversary of the school, but the combination of the intifada, a doubtful security situation and the location of Jerusalem caused the organizers to fear a low level of participation, and it was postponed. Not that anything has changed in this "package" of the city and the terrorist attacks, but this time it looks final, and the green lawns of Ein Hemed, a park on the western outskirts of the city, will be swept up in a wave of nostalgia.
Anticipation of the reunion arouses a thrill of excitement in some of those who are attending, graduates of the institution that was once called the Beit Hakerem High School, and later, because of the new location and in a sort of statement of intentions, "the high school next to Hebrew University," officially, Hebrew University Secondary School - or for short "Leyada" [the Hebrew acronym for "next to the" university], simply Leyada, and no one continued to ask next to what.
Many continue to feel, years later, the sort of feeling of belonging to a special military unit. "Even now there is a kind of `pride in the unit,'" says professor of operations management Gur Mosheiov, class of `72. "I am very pleased that my children go there." "They gave us to understand that we were the best," says author Shalev, `66, "despite the fact that Gymnasia Rehavia, which is also a kind of aristocracy, regularly beat us at sports."
Ohad Sharav, a manpower director from the class of `87, says the school "always made its students aware that they were an elite group," and Aya Maisel-Admon, a painter and director of an advertising firm, class of `69, recalls that her first lesson began with the teacher declaring, "You are the cream of Jerusalem society," and says that even now, 35 years later, "I swell with pride when the high school is mentioned, and feel special." The school was considered the best, she says, "and in addition to the fact that it had status, it also created in us a commitment to life. It was impossible to come out and simply be successful, you had to be very successful." She will go to the reunion with great curiosity to see what happened to people, and even more, to see what happened to their ambitions. "There is also soul-searching here, to see if we justified the expectations, if we marched along the track of achievement, the track of excellence, which was mapped out for us."
Cynics will say the excellence stems not from the institution but from its students, says Prof. Michael Hed, a graduate and a former teacher. The strict entrance exams, which include a psychometric test, the grades on previous report cards and an interview ("They talked to me about Clinton's sex life," says Avner Oferet, a junior, and a third-generation student in the school), left only the intellectual aristocracy inside. Children who are thinkers, intelligent, curious and fluent of speech, craving knowledge, some of them gifted according to the definitions of the Education Ministry.
"One day a friend found me reading `Siddhartha' and `The Sorrows of Young Werther,'" says the head of the pain clinic at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, Dr. Itay Goor Aryeh, class of `77. "The truth is that it was pretty boring, but I read it because I thought it would impress the girl I wanted to start up with." In order to be accepted to the high school, he read William Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich."
The elitist image of Hebrew University Secondary School was famous in Jerusalem and outside the city, and haunts it even now, when intellectual elites have become a punching bag, when the bon ton is to condemn the knowledge, the snobbism, the pretension and the Ashkenazi arrogance that characterized the institution and its students.
Elitism and excellence, although they are not politically correct, are not dirty words. And they aren't necessarily accompanied by arrogance. That reputation for arrogance may have arisen from the Prussian image of the principal of the institution for almost 30 years, Meir Shapira, a doctor of physics whose books were used by generations of students. Designer David Tartakover, class of `62, provides an anecdote: "In my junior year I had problems in school, apparently this time they were serious, because my father was called in. During the conversation he called the principal `Mr. Shapira'. Shapira corrected him and said `Dr. Shapira.' My father replied, `In that case, I'm Dr. Tartakover.' `Oh,' said Shapira. `Now we can conduct a conversation on an academic basis.'"
"We were a homogeneous group, the school was elitist and Ashkenazi," continues Tartakover, "but what was Jerusalem at the time? A university, the government and the Jewish Agency, and the sons of the employees of these institutions attended the high school. I recently looked at the photos of my class. All Rehavia children [whose parents were mainly German Jews] and maybe three Mizrahim, who were also Sephardi blue-bloods" [descendants of aristocratic Sephardic families who settled in Israel in the 19th century].
Hebrew University Secondary School, like the Reali High School in Haifa, believed in Ashkenazi superiority, says Tom Segev, a journalist with a doctorate in history, from the class of `63.
"The high school's goal was to train the next generation of the state's intellectual elite, and it made the mistake of thinking this would also be the leadership elite. They made two mistakes: one, when they thought that leadership comes via the university, and the second when they believed in the Ashkenazi future of the country. They told us day and night that we were the generation that would lead the country, and that the way to do that was via high school matriculation and the university. It didn't occur to them that universities would turn into an extension of the Education Ministry. The school was characterized by Ashkenazi colonialism, and already then there were signs that it had no future."
The school's outgoing principal, Hannah Levita, says: "The Ashkenazi image stems historically from the fact that the school was a selective academic high school, and the aliyah [immigration] of the 1950s [mostly from North Africa and the Middle East] didn't pass the standardized test, parts of which were anchored in European culture." And the image remained, she says, because there are some people who still want to make use of it, Knesset members, for example, and go prove otherwise.
Improving good taste
The high school next to Hebrew University campus at Givat Ram was established in 1935 as a human laboratory for educational content, teaching methods and teacher training for the state that was to come into being, with the cooperation of the education department of the university. Already at its inception, the school adopted the European model of the six-year high school. It was the first school in the country that operated according to this model. One of the founders, and the first principal of the institution, Dr. Eliezer Rieger, wrote that the idea was that the age of 12 was the end of childhood, "and high school education is a concept related to adolescence, and is not a mechanical or administrative concept, but rather a psychological one, which parallels the most turbulent age in a person's life, the age of emotion and pressure, dangers and the best opportunities."
The guiding philosophy was that of American progressive education, according to the theories of John Dewey, says Efrat Balberg, a teacher and graduate. So from the beginning, the number of subjects taught each year was reduced, because the need for endless review, wrote Rieger, causes "stupidity or superficiality. The student's personality is quashed, and passive powers of spiritual obedience develop in him."
Another policy that guided the founders, including professor of education Alexander Dushkin, who is recalled with genuine admiration by the first graduates of the school, was interdisciplinary study, a balance between the exact sciences and the social sciences, and a strengthening of the humanities track in order to "make Hebrew literature bloom," "improve good taste," "and educate modern man to appreciate human and social values." And in fact, the high school was the first institution in the country that offered a combined track, which attracted mainly the drudges, and in which both the humanities and the sciences were studied intensively.
The first decades were also those of the mythological teachers. Prof. Akiva Ernst Simon taught Greek philosophy, artist Mordechai Ardon was enlisted to teach art, Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz taught biology and Maimonides, somewhat later Prof. Yosef Ben Shlomo taught Jewish philosophy - and in the afternoon he would invite the students to his home and play Handel and Mozart requiems for them. Malka Shaked is remembered as an excellent teacher of literature, and when she gave birth and took a year's leave, she was replaced by her husband, Gershom. A.B. Yehoshua.
On Fridays there was a tradition that continued for decades. The entire school assembled for a discussion, a lecture, a film or a concert. During the first years, the teachers and the principals performed. Yitzhak Navon, a graduate of the first class and the fifth president of the State of Israel, once wrote that he was very moved by this, and even more by the fact that he studied with a teacher, Dr. Hellman, "who had personally known [writers] Bialik and Mendele in Odessa."
Every generation has its own legends. Tartakover affectionately remembers Yonah Mach, a Jerusalem artist, and Malka Shaked "who made me love Agnon." Meir Shalev remembers learning with Talmud teacher Michael Nehorai as "a tremendous experience, although I knew nothing about the subject from home" - and afterward Nehorai tried to convince him to study in a yeshiva - as well as Tamar Shilo and Maya Frenkel who taught Bible, and "a wonderful assistant in biology, Elisheva Barak [today a judge and wife of Justice Aharon Barak]."
Prof. Iri Liebergall, a graduate and father of a graduate, who is also active in the school's friends' association, remembers Prof. David Hed, who taught Plato and Socrates. Dr. Yoram Peri remembers Ben Shlomo as a "fascinating figure," about whom Segev says that "already then he was a crotchety and blasphemous old man." Segev admired "Buli [A.B. Yehoshua], who was a wonderful teacher, the figure of a brilliant older brother, and Malka Shaked, a terrific teacher of literature, and Pnina Bodek for English. They were certainly special people, but they were all a little larger than life, and that was overwhelming."
The classes of the `80s remember Batya Gur, a highly emotional teacher and an expert in literature, and a decade later Ariel Hirschfeld, Yochi Brandes and poets Tzvia Litevsky and Liat Kaplan, who once a month, says a journalist who finished his studies in `95, had meetings in her house for students on the subject of food and literature - for example, the philosophy of sushi.
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