I didn’t know why I was being sent to Hebrew school. My father had not been religious and besides, he was dead. HE didn’t care. My mother had only a glancing connection to Judaism, not like her father who davened daily at a little shul in Albany Park. Nevertheless when I neared thirteen off I went to learn Hebrew at Shaare Tikvah, the big, new synagogue on Kimball Avenue. It was not a match made in heaven.
Afternoons I had spent riding bicycles or exploring the alleys of Hollywood Park, figuring out my life, were now spent with kids I didn’t know or want to know, learning things I didn’t want to learn from people I didn’t want to learn from.
Below, my prison of unwanted learning; through those double doors, up to the second floor and into the line of classrooms overlooking the alley.
In those upstairs rooms they taught what me they could. I grudgingly memorized the Hebrew for my Torah portion and when the day came I recited it standing on the bimah before my mother and my relatives and for the moment everyone was happy. Then I forgot all the ritual and I left being Jewish behind for forty years.
A few years ago I came back to Chicago to visit and driving by Shaare Tikvah on a Saturday morning I told my wife “There’s the place where I went to Hebrew school”. We parked and went in and were welcomed to services in a small downstairs chapel, not the big sanctuary where I had stood many years before. The overwhelming Shaare Tikvah was long gone, both the congregation and my confused feelings about it. It was dying and a few years later that congregation flickered out.
But something of him remains from those days, something I feel inside with all the strength of something that happened just yesterday. I remember this.
I remember sitting inside those second floor windows looking out. Not those windows exactly though - in 1955 the windows were different and I could imagine climbing out of them. What I saw looking out then was that telephone pole. I knew that if I was willing enough to take the chance I could climb through the window, grab the pole and shinny down to freedom. I knew it! All through my pained afternoons looking outside at the world I wanted so much to be in I looked at that pole and imagined the possibilities. I never took the chance.
It doesn't matter, I didn't jump out the window and my life turned out just fine. I've had success and good fortune, family and health. Still...there’s a little piece of me wants to know...could I make it…..can I make it? If I swing my legs out, duck my head under the glass; reach around to the left and push off can I get a foothold? Can I get a little way down the pole before the teacher comes running - stay out of reach of his desperate grasping arms? Can I get down the pole without falling and can I run away westward before they all come running out the door after me? Can I be free?