For eight years. I attended a Moriah Hebrew Day School in Englewood NJ. Shame lingered from my inability to understand Navi (Prophets) or Gemara (Talmud) taught in Hebrew. When I entered Rabbi Reshevsky’s class, he would open his arms saying “Chayala, Chayala, give me a smile-a.” As usual, he motioned for me to sit right next to his large, weathered desk covered with papers and old books. He would faithfully squeeze my cheek between the knuckles of his forefinger and middle finger. It hurt but I allowed it because it was a gesture of endearment.
The prize for winning Rabbi Reshevsky’s yearly Brachca Bee was coveted by all. I studied extra hard to overcome my disadvantage since the only blessings my family said were over the Shabbat candles and even that wasn’t regularly.
“Chayala, what is the bracha for apple juice?”
I started to say, boray p’ri hagafen, but that was for wine! His gaze slowly dropped as I prolonged uttering, ‘boray p’ri haytz,’ the blessing for fruit from a tree not fruit juice! “Come on!” kids squawked. “She’s slow,” someone whispered. Watching Rabbi Reshevsky’s face for hints, I said hesitantly, ‘…shehakol’ his mustache widened, ‘…niheyeh,’ his peppered beard raised a half inch, ‘bidvaro,’ I completed.
“Is that your final answer?” he asked. I looked deep into his glassy gray eyes and confidently answered, ‘yes!’
“Nachon Chayala. Next.” With Rabbi Reshevsky’s subtle hints, I won the Bracha bee in my class! The winners of each class were invited to ball game at Yankee stadium. Never having gone before, I was ecstatic.
The four other winners and I got out of his rickety burgundy Chevy at the stadium. His black suit and hat, with payos tucked behind his ears, drew subtle stares. Embarrassment about my long skirt and sneakers came in waves as I noticed other kids in faded, ripped jeans and trendy fashions. How I wished I were ‘cool.’
“Section H, Aisle 12” Rabbi Reshevsky said sing-songy, as his hand went from a gentle stroking of his beard, to swooping in the air with a pointed finger, as if revealing an important passage from Deuteronomy.
Dropping to the back, I took the furthest seat from Rabbi Reshevsky pointing my knees away from the group. Vendors went up and down the aisle selling food I couldn’t eat. We shared kosher potato chips and Sun-Maid raisins. Rabbi Reshevsky looked my way and said, “Chayala, give me a smile-a.” I obliged, returning an artificial grin.
Rabbi Reshevsky made me feel important, yet I didn’t fit in with him or my classmates or the people in the stadium. In desperation, I wondered if I would ever find my people.
The teen tour to Israel helped, as did teaching in a Hebrew school where my love for the performing arts melded with my desire to feel connected to Judaism.
Now, when a student participates in my interactive storytelling performances and their inner star shines, I think of the teacher who opened his arms saying, “Chayala, Chayala, give me a smile-a.”
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Eva Grayzel is a nationally recognized Master Storyteller and expert on interactive storytelling techniques, specializing in Jewish Folklore. She grew up in Englewood NJ and raised her family in Easton PA where she was actively involved in her synagogue, led High Holiday services for young families, community Passover Seders, tutored Bnai Mitzvah students, and sat on the synagogue board. As a resident of Jax Beach, among her contributions to the Jewish community include leading programming for the High Holidays at the JCA, providing an educator workshop and a parent workshop at The Beaches Synagogue, a featured speaker for the Jacksonville Jewish Business Network, and a lifetime member of Hadassah.
Currently, she is an active international motivational speaker on the patient perspective of surviving cancer and the author of two children’s books to minimize fear and promote dialogue around cancer.