How Attending Sinai Temple Sunday School Introduced Me To The World of Crime ©
Robert Silverman Champaign, Illinois
Rosh Hoshanah 5774 (2013)
If the job of a rabbi is to enhance Jewish experience, then my rabbi was Phillip O’Connor, the Irish Catholic director of the Creative Writing program at Bowling Green State University, Ohio. In 1985, already with a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling and years of experience assisting people with mental illness and substance abuse, and following years of dealing with family illnesses, I had been accepted into this master of fine arts degree writing program as a “teaching fellow.” My mother, diagnosed with cancer in 1980, died in 1983. My father, following her death, suffered heart failure and his recovery took about a year.
My first study sessions with Professor O’Connor went like this: I submitted a story, he gave feedback about its Jewish content and I would get mad at him. This drama repeated itself the entire first semester of the two year program. Eventually, tired of anger, I asked myself what he saw that I did not see. The veil covering the Jewish world lifted and a reality I had never before seen revealed itself. In the next 18 months I spent significant time at synagogues in Toledo and the Hillel at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 60 miles north. The poisoning which had prevented my ability to learn things Jewish had found an antidote.
After Irish Rabbi O’Connor showed me the Jewish world through writing, my first reaction was anger at Sinai Temple, not only because it was the place which had taught me nothing, but because I remembered an event which took place, I think when I was ten, not long after we joined, and which caused my numerical value for Jewish learning to be a negative number. A Sunday school teacher – a grown man, not a university student – told me my father was “immoral” because he sold liquor. I didn’t understand the significance of this until decades later. This drash is the story of how this unfolded.
Even though this minyan’s traditional Rosh Hoshanah drash is a personal story rather than a Torah study, I told Garth I would make sure it related.
On Rosh Hoshanah we read about Abraham’s two sons. We read about first-born Ishmael of mother Hagar. Then we read about second-born Isaac of mother Sarah. We know the Jewish people live within the lineage of Isaac. In the first story Hagar is cast out, afraid her son will die and God assures her he will be fine and Ishmael is spared. In the second story, known as the Akedah, God tells Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering. But God allows a ram to be used, instead, and Isaac is spared. Because the sons were spared, the Biblical story of the community building continues. Equally significant is that every Jewish and non-Jewish child everywhere experiences both roles on an almost daily basis, sometimes being outcast Ishmael and sometimes being nearly-sacrificed Isaac.
Not academically talented as a youngster, public school was the depository for a middle-class townie like me. My parents returned to Champaign in 1953, my six-year-old sister and two-year-old me in tow. My Champaign-born mother with Russian parents and Danville-born father with Romanian parents met and married in Chicago. Local Jewish businessman Mandel Barnett offered my father the manager’s job at Piccadilly Liquors, just west of the downtown train station, the location later becoming Leo Weisel’s Army Surplus store. Our first home was a small duplex on Van Doren. Then we moved to the oily-sticky streets of West White and my father split from Barnett to open his own store, realizing the bleakness of working for a man with sons. I recall attending shul in the conference room in the Commercial bank, long ago torn down and now the location of the Champaign Police Department. In 1957 we moved to Lincolnshire with its wide, paved concrete streets. This home had a separate kitchen for my kosher-keeping grandmother who lived with us during the last years of her life. Afraid her confused mother might wander off, my mother tied a nightly string from her sleeping mother’s toe to her own. My parents were not observant. It was the 1950s. My father worked all the time. I knew one other Jewish public school kid. Hang out with him, my mother said. You’re both MOTs (Members of the Tribe).
My father’s first tavern on First Street, north of University, catered to policemen and workmen from the Illinois Central Railroad. On Sunday’s I’d go with him where he worked with papers while I tossed sawdust on the smooth concrete before sweeping. When finished I slid pucks down the alley of the bowling machine, drinking grape soda.
My kind, quiet mother slept until 2:00PM and smoked unfiltered Chesterfields. My MOT friend’s mother screamed at us on a regular basis. Not a loving, Jewish mother scream, but sounds of rage and
pain, horror and sorrow, depth not normally heard. But as all things become normal with practice, her scream became normal in its predictability. This friend lived in a great house, with multiple floors and almost countless rooms to hide in. We would be in some kind of game and all would be great until his predictable mother would blow her predictable top. During the many years this went on, other friends laughed out of embarrassment but I never did. Never made fun of her, or him, and, to me at least, my sad compassion was due to the fact that I knew something was terribly wrong. Sorry for my friend to have such a mom. Sorry for his mom who had such a scream.
My mother, on the other hand, didn’t scream at all. Never once did I hear my mother scream. Smoking, sleeping and silence is what my mother represented. But she had a few callings. She worked at night, into the early mornings, doing bookkeeping for the business. She retyped books using an oversized key typewriter for the visually impaired. And she protected my father, even from me, her one rule repeated throughout my unstable adolescence. “Don’t get arrested,” she mandated, “or it will hurt your father’s business.” That was it. And since I never actually got arrested this lesson didn’t get much exercise. Or, perhaps it worked.
Later, after hindsight and professional training in the field, terms like bipolar, PTSD and depression seem to be the most accurate descriptions of these two Midwestern Jewish mothers. And I want to mention this, though it’s not the point of this story, best left for another one. My mother died with me holding her hands and looking into her eyes, so don’t think we were estranged. She couldn’t reach out. So I learned to reach in and talked to her a lot in the last years of her life.
Around the time I was ten my parents joined Sinai Temple in downtown Champaign. I hated every second of sitting through the opera-styled services. I hated it long before I had any concept of how German High Reform Judaism had been the model upon which Sinai Temple had been based. Nevertheless, when it became time for me to attend Sunday morning prison, and even though zero interest would be expressive of too much enthusiasm, I dutifully went. I went because that was the deal. My parents loved me in the only way they knew how and I went to things I didn’t want to go to because they asked me to go. It is truly remarkable how significant this is: the simple, family, emotional transaction. And how families and even entire society’s disintegrate when this transaction fails.
I got fake arrested once and a big taste of what guilt felt like. The policeman placed me into the car, but he knew me because he and his son and me and my father had gone fishing together. Thinking we needed alone time, my father drove me to Canada when I was ten for a two-week-long fishing trip. We caught, cooked and ate perch, walleye and northern pike, ate bear and moose steaks and drank water right from the lake that the guide, Skinner, said was 99% pure. It was 1961 and Skinner’s statement was probably as true as the water was cold, straight from the glacier. The next year we went again and this time my father invited Bates, a policeman friend and his son to go with us. We had another great time. And the unintended consequence of that trip I experienced four years later, at age 15, after two guitar lessons and a different friend talked me into going with him to steal a microphone for our fledgling rock- and-roll band. With the microphone under his shirt, my friend and I found a locked door as we attempted to leave. Cameras focused on the aisles, we were watched and the door-lock button pushed. The squad car arrived and I locked eyes with Patrolman Bates. When the door opened my friend dropped the goods and ran without looking back. Bates pretended to arrest me and instead of driving me to the station, drove me to my father’s business which, at this point, was a package liquor / sandwich shop in a larger building on Bloomington Road. I spent the day in the doghouse, sweeping floors and moving cases from one section of the backroom to another. My father earned some stripes that day when the only words he spoke were: “next time you want something, ask me and I’ll buy it for you.” Much later, when I staffed and then directed a nonprofit agency teaching emotional skills to at-risk teenagers, I told this story to each new group of teens, along with the caveat that had I had a different skin color, or had a different officer arrived, the days trajectory would have gone differently. Lucky me.
Years before the fake arrest I met my fellow MOT each Sunday morning at Sinai Temple’s religious school at the corners of State and Clark – me raised by my depressed Jewish mother and workaholic father and he raised by his bipolar Jewish mother and often absent father. Two public school Jews coming into first contact with the better side of the track kids: the Jews from Uni. And yes, there will be more stories to come out of this bubbling well. But in the beginning, my friend and I, having no earthly purpose in Sunday school, often walked in the front door and then out the back door, headed for downtown Champaign. Kresge’s five and dime ruled an entire block and they had cherry and vanilla Coke. Kresge’s later became the place where the so-called friend who abandoned me to take the rap for the microphone showed me how to steal record albums, the thin storybook covers sliding beautifully under the outside door at the back of the Kresge store.
Being fake arrested ended my life of crime. Helping to start it, though, shooting the alienated pinball of my Jewish identity into motion, was the disarrayed and sometimes sadistic world of the Sinai Temple Sunday school. Feeling outcast in public school has many threads, some delusional, some real. But after returning to MOT school after another downtown expedition and having no questions asked, no interest given, despite our being gone significant amounts of time, this became something else, something unidentifiable, a completely different kind of outcast role. Feeling outcast in public school usually vacillated between feeling silly or humiliated, depending on the days direction. But being outcast in Sunday school, MOT school, felt punishing, like something was genuinely wrong, even though I had no idea what it might be. I was soon to find out.
In those days the atmosphere of public junior high school revolved around race. Racial fights were common, but I was not a fighter. I knew some of the black kids and even their parents. At one point my father had two taverns on North First street and most of his employees were – – in the days before black was the adjective for skin – – colored or negro. As a kid, I often worked there weekends, holidays and summers and I knew many people and they knew me. My hair got cut by the colored barber next door. The family cleaning went to Tinsley’s and I often ate at Big Joe’s. Big Joe Tyler eventually managed his business as the sandwich shop of my father’s package store, becoming a long-term employee. Ironically, decades later, Joe hired on as Hillel’s head chef when I worked in the building as the Executive Director of the Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation. Joe told me three things. First, how grateful he was to my father who purchased and paid for a life insurance policy for him the entire time he had been employed and that this would allow his son to go to college. Second, he laughed, telling me how odd it was cooking without butter due to the rules of kashrut. And third, the day he quit, he told me how one of the college-kid-staff had, in an argument over food, called him, “boy” and there had been no consequence.
Civil rights was one of the issues my father took seriously and this became attached to being Jewish. Arriving at the Sinai Temple Sunday School with my outcast MOT and it being so clear that neither of us fit into the club, that no space would be made and no explanation would be given, I had no balance. And then, as I said earlier in this drash, around the age of ten or eleven, soon after we joined Sinai and one of the years my father took me fishing, one of my Sunday school teachers – – an adult man: not a university student – – looked me in the face and told me he felt sorry for me because my father was immoral because he sold liquor.
Every few months on a Sunday, I sometimes went with my dad to Chicago where he picked up cases of kosher wine and kosher meat, delivering them to Sinai Temple and to local families. When I heard what my Sunday school teacher said I knew there was nobody to tell. I kept this poisonous secret until today. Here I was, a Jewish son of depressed and bipolar Jewish mothers, in the years before people spoke about the Holocaust, listening to a teacher I did not know how to ignore. So, once I heard, I knew, that to a large degree, I somehow had to integrate this poison knowledge.
We Jews are all half-crazy, working out not only our own child and adolescent nightmares, but also our ethnic ones dating back tens, hundreds, even thousands of years. We begin as outcast Ishmaels and nearly-sacrificed Isaacs, seeking balance which remains elusive. But now it’s clear that it’s meant to be elusive. The story continues and it’s our job to find that balance, regain the balance and do everything in our power to maintain balance.
I eventually found – and wrote my way through – this childhood mess, allowing me to meet incredible Jewish teachers in locations across the United States and Israel, including here in Champaign at Sinai Temple. But as an emotionally blind Jewish kid at the Sinai Temple Sunday school in Champaign, Illinois, what I didn’t know then was that there were also grown-up, and some profoundly stupid, Jewish teachers.