Remembering Hebrew School and Bas Mitzvah

    June 2010            
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The Eleventh Commandment?

By Julie Kim Shavin

Back in the sixties, when every teenager in his or her right mind (as though that's possible) returned from school to listen to the Beatles and avoid homework, I was carted off to Hebrew school three times a week. There I studied theology, customs and ceremonies, Jewish history, and reading and writing Hebrew. And strangely, I loved it! I did not, by the way, dislike the Beatles, but was a classically-trained pianist from an early age, not yet sold on rock 'n roll. So additional schooling was no big deal, and even got me out of practicing on those days!

Here's what I loved most about Hebrew school, which should be obvious to anyone giving the matter some thought: potato sticks. Not that my mother ever gave me the nickel to buy from the snack-stocked machine; no, no, no, I had to bum them, like smokes. The whole classroom, as the teacher went over the aleph-bet, or why we light candles, or discussed the emergence of monotheism, was saturated with the aroma of those sumptuous, greasy sticks, for which I had to clandestinely beg when the teacher's head was turned, so as not to get in trouble. They came in small, bulging cellophane bags, about 3 inches high, and to this day, I have not forgiven my mother for prohibiting a personal potato stash, my violating right there several religious ideologies, like honoring thy parents, and which is why, I suppose, a solid five years was needed to train me in things like turning the other (potato-packed?) cheek, and, of, say, not coveting things, be it someone's hunky spouse (eeeuw!) or, much more pertinently, some seductively savory snack food.

Later in life, i.e., now, -- I've had to not forgive my mother for my hips, as any kind of potato will, and does, suffice. This is what happens with forbidden desires, of which all religions are aware. I crave the tuber in all its glorious incarnations: baked, boiled, fried, sauteed in onions, hashed, mashed, knished, you name it. You simply cannot concoct a potato I don't adore, or wait, that's not true! I despise potato salad. Cold chunks of potato drenched in mayo or mustard was not one of the admonitions mentioned in the Ten Commandments, but to me, it should be near the top of the list. I'm sorry, but there are certain things one just does not do unto a potato. If it were meant to be consumed cold, why bother cooking it? It boggles the mind, much like the name of the girl with whom I had my double Bas-Mitzvah ceremony.

Her name was Candy Caine. Well, I'm sure she was Candace Caine, which is different from Candy Caine, or even Candy Cane, but still, this struck me as an odd, rather strange choice of name for a nice Jewish girl from, well, I don't know where she was from -- some neighborhood that allowed her to attend Hebrew school three times a week for five years. Man, did I have fun with Candy! Dark-haired, a bit stocky, and funny as heck, she engaged me in non-stop, hysterical verbiage, and then some. We had to be separated often. Our hilarity could not be contained, although I can't remember even one thing that was so funny. I guess, as with good friends, everything became fair game.

Candy nicknamed me Motor-Mouth, a title which preceded (and is still preferable to) the one proferred when I was twenty-something: Thunder-Thighs (those darned potatoes!). We worked hard learning all the material for the big night, practiced by listening to recordings of our parts, and together as well. We were to sing almost the whole service in unison. This allowed some measure of reassurance and ease for us both. We wouldn't be so nervous before the several hundred people who would be in attendance that night, watching and listening as two girls proclaimed themselves women, formally embracing their religion of origin.

But, quite un-funnily, on our big Bas Mitzvah night, Candy had laryngitis. She couldn't so much as squeak. This, I couldn't get over. Was her voice loss somehow evidence of a wrathful God? Had I posited some other God (small, sticklike, golden and salty?) before Him? Or was it some Divine displeasure with my mute friend's inexplicably Christmassy moniker? Whatever. She Milli-Vanillied the seemingly interminable service, myself the voice of us both (kind of like eating for two only less fun, especially if potatoes are on the menu). I was nervous and distraught, but the service went off fine. I received a lot of compliments. Candy received lozenges.

Time passed, Hebrew school drew to a close, and Candy and I drifted apart. We went on to be confirmed, graduated Sunday School, and became, presumably, religious, moral, and spiritual beacons for the future generations that we (we? you're kidding, right?) would beget, beget and beget, in order to follow us in our path to Hebrew school, to proud Jewish citizenry, even, in the end, to Gan Aden, were we righteous enough, and, of course, to its well-stocked snack machine. But Candy and I, we weren't really buds anymore.

Ah, buds. All I have to do is eat one potato stick, and I am reminded of my years of studying, laughing, chanting, cramming, bumming, and becoming the better (and wider) person than I was pre-Hebrew school. I worship many things now, am, hopefully, more knowledgeable and wiser, but have never, even with all that religious training, unraveled the essential, cosmic twin mysteries of my personal, if not the larger, universe, namely: Candy's curious name, and my mother's stubborn stinginess. As for the latter, I should really allow for inflation (financially, not somatically): a nickel then was like $1.50 today. And perhaps my mother didn't want my hips to go the way of hers. Ok, I forgive her already, including the hips [her perhaps well-intentioned strategy back-(pun intended) firing]. Hindsight is always, well, enough of pun and games.

As for Candy and her quizzical nomenclature -- well, she must be married by now, right? Maybe to our old friend Jonas Apple. Or perhaps she's since divorced, and took on the rakish Ronald Corne. Who knows? God works in mysterious ways, and, I've noticed over the decades, definitely has a sense of humor.

That, in fact, would explain potato salad.

Julie K. Shavin, mother of three, lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and is married (thrillingly!) to a couch potato.


from the June 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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