Whilst pupils were at the High School they would reach their Jewish majority, 12 in the case of the girls and 13 for the boys. When I came to the school, the school had special courses - a Barmitzvah course for boys and an Eshet Chayil course for girls. I was told that it was Rabbi Plitnick who had, quite rightly, insisted that the girls’ course be called “Eshet Chayil” and not “Batmitzvah.” In the course of my tenure at the school, I think I made great improvements in these courses.
In addition to these courses, the boys were given individual Barmitzvah tuition free of charge, at the school by Sam Kauffman and Rev. Malcolm Malits. As soon as I began work in the school, an official of the King David Foundation (I think it was the Clerk to the Governors) sent a letter to the Headmaster saying that a boy had been taught the wrong portion for his Barmitzvah. He suggested that since there was a new Director of Jewish Studies, it would be a good opportunity to decide that the new Director was henceforth to be responsible for checking the Barmitzvah portions being taught to the boys. The Headmaster accordingly asked me to open a register of boys about to be Barmitzvah together with the necessary particulars. I opened such a register, listing the boys in chronological order and recorded for each boy details of his name, his date of birth, the Shul in which he would have his Barmitzvah, who was teaching him and possibly other details as well. For each boy, I would check from his date of birth, the Shabbat when his Barmitzvah was due to take place and thus his Parashah.
In my early days at the School, the Foundation asked if I would attend a meeting on one Sunday. At the same time, they apologised for taking up my free time. I remember that one of the subjects discussed at this meeting was whether they should continue giving free tuition for Barmitzvahs. I answered that I felt the parents should pay. I said “they pay for the ‘bar’, let them also pay for the ‘Mitzvah’!”
The Barmitzvah teachers were also responsible for teaching the boys, about a month before they reached the Barmitzvah age, how to put on Tephillin. The parents of almost every boy bought a new pair of Tephillin for their son. On a few occasions, when a boy turned up with an old pair, I would speak to their Ministers or parents about the importance of giving him a new pair. I was concerned that an old pair might have become possul during the course of the years.
One day I received a report that a boy had put on Tephillin on the Shabbat of his Barmitzvah, before he went to Shul! I spoke to the boy and asked him “Don’t you know you don’t put on Tephillin on Shabbat?” He said that he knew but thought that the Shabbat of his Barmitzvah was a special one and therefore put on Tephillin that day.
This reminds me of the story of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev. He was out one day with his pupils when he saw a man greasing the axle of the wheel of his cart whilst wearing Tephillin. His pupils wanted to take action with this man for what they saw as disrespect to Tephillin. But Rabbi Levi said, “Look how this man loves the Mitzvah of Tephillin. Even when his greases the axle of a wheel, he can’t bear to take them off.”
Well I hope this boy has continued to put on Tephillin, not on Shabbat, but on every weekday.
Since almost the entire community was Ashkenazi, I decided that all boys would put on their Tephillin in the Ashkenazi way. I also adjusted the knot on the head Tephillin to the correct size for a particular boy and tied the knots according to the Ashkenazi custom. I also kept a bottle of Tephillin blacking and when I saw that a boy’s Tephillin needed reblackening, I would immediately do it.
One boy, whose Jewishness I had verified, did not have Tephillin given to him by his parents, because they said they were Liberal and therefore did not put on Tephillin! I invited him to my study and I showed him how to put on Tephillin. Whether or not his parents made some comment to the Headmaster, the latter allowed the boy not to put on Tephillin. If he had not wanted to wear a school blazer or sports kit, would the Headmaster have agreed?! Tephillin were no less a part of school uniform than a blazer or sports kit. The small consolation was that a person who has put on Tephillin once is better than a person who has never put them on.
When I came to the school, during their first two years at the school, the boys had a Barmitzvah course and the girls an Eshet Chayil course. At the end of the second year there was an examination on these courses. Whilst I was in the school, I largely rewrote the content of these courses and the format of the examinations. For a few years, I experimented until I reached the type of course and examination which satisfied me.
Unfortunately, in Britain in the 1970s (and the same can be said even today) and in many other places in the world, most boys learned their Barmitzvah haftarah in a “parrot wise” manner. The purpose of a Barmitzvah boy’s reading the haftarah at his Barmitzvah is not to impress all his aunts sitting in the ladies’ gallery, but that he should be able to read any haftarah, after his Barmitzvah. It is therefore necessary for the boy to learn his Barmitzvah portion in a logical manner by learning the notes and then fitting the notes to his own haftarah.
It was for this purpose that most of the first year of the Barmitzvah course was taken up by the boys learning the notes of the haftarah and the ability to fit them onto the words of any haftarah. For this we had the services of an expert in this field, our Jewish Studies teacher, Sam Kauffman.
Most boys reaching the age of Barmitzvah have only seen Tephillin from the outside and have no idea what is inside them and how they are made. By teaching them what goes into the making of a pair of Tephillin, the pupils will have a much greater appreciation of their Tephillin and treat this Mitzvah with much greater respect.
I am a great believer in teaching dinim in a practical way and I used actual Tephillin, the materials used to make them and audio-visual aids, all in order to teach the boys in this Barmitzvah course.
I contacted a Sofer Stam in Manchester and gave him a list of materials I required for my course. These included a large sheet of parchment, parchment already cut to size and ruled for both Shel Yad and Shel Rosh, an instrument for ruling lines on the parchment, quill pen and reed pen, special ink used for writing, and sinews to sew up the Tephillin. He sent me all these things and in addition a quill clipper, which he told me he had bought in an antique shop.
Incidentally, I thought at first that he was donating these things to our School. However after a few years he contacted me and asked whether I had finished with them. I accordingly told him we would pay for the parchment, which we were using up in our Barmitzvah class and asked him to allow me to continue borrowing the remainder of the items. When I left Liverpool, I felt it would not be right to leave them for my successor, who was yet to be appointed, since they had been loaned personally to me, and I returned them with our thanks.
I also required old Tephillin for the purpose of “dissection.” My father-in-law, who lived in Birmingham, said that there were plenty of such pairs in the genizah of his Shul and he would bring them the next time he came to Liverpool. The next time he came, he packed them in his suitcase, and on the train put it in the luggage compartment. By the time he reached Liverpool, the case was no longer there. A few weeks later the railways found the suitcase but instead of his belongings and these Tephillin, there was an old rag in the case. Fortunately, there was another genizah in the Shul which also contained old Tephillin and the following time he came he brought them. This time they arrived safely in Liverpool.
In my catalogue on audio-visual materials (written about later in this book) there is a section on how to “dissect” and thus prepare models for teaching Tephillin. Here is an extract on “dissecting” “Peshutim Batim,” (which are the sort which almost all the pupils had):
First open the Tephillin and remove the Parashiot. The Bayit can then gently be eased out of the titura thus obtaining an example of a bayit and a titura (with the ma’avarta) separate from each other. One can then take a Bayit of a Shel Rosh and separate the four compartments like the fingers of a glove. This may be possible by pulling the sections apart with the fingers but probably it will be necessary to use a penknife to separate these sections. Very great care must be taken when separating these sections so as not to tear the skins between each compartment.
In my lessons, I would cut parchment into small strips and distribute a piece to each pupil. They were instructed to use their compass points to draw lines on the parchment. Ideally one should use turkey feathers for quill pens - they are strong. It was easier however to obtain chicken feathers and a quill was made for each pupil using the quill clippers. I would write letters on the board as a Sofer Stam writes them and the pupils would copy them on their pieces of parchment using black ink I had told them to bring along to the lesson. In order not to loose these small pieces of parchment, the pupils were told to stick them in their exercise books and anyone losing them would have to pay for another piece.
In order to understand the construction of a pair of Tephillin, the pupils were shown the “dissected” Tephillin I had prepared and how the pieces were all put together to make a pair of Tephillin.
Also included in this Barmitzvah course was the subject of Tzitzit. I would cut out a big model of a Tallit Katan, of manilla card and stick in on the blackboard. I would then make a hole in the corner and demonstrate how one knotted the Tzitzit.
The age of Barmitzvah marks the time when a boy may be called up to the Reading of the Torah. Unfortunately, a large number of grown ups don’t know the correct procedure when they are called up to the Torah. Therefore, in the course, the boys were taught what to do when called up. How a Sefer Torah is written and the number of people called up on different occasions was also part of the course.
The Barmitzvah course was supplemented by a number of excellent filmstrips, especially those produced by “Torah Umesorah” of New York, which had recently come on the market.
At the same time that the boys were learning for their Barmitzvah course, the girls were learning for an Eshet Chayil course. I had arranged the allocation of teachers and periods in Jewish Studies so that I was able to teach the Eshet Chayil course throughout the two years and the Barmitzvah course in the second year.
The course began by teaching the girls the Kosher signs for different sorts of living creatures. At the time, one of the display cases in the Biology laboratory of the school was a cabinet of live locusts. When they died, some of them were preserved in alcohol. I asked the biology master for one of them which he readily gave me. When I was talking about the locusts permitted by the Torah, (and which are to this very day eaten by certain communities of Jews), I showed them this locust.
[Incidentally, there are today some Rabbis who are experts in zoology, who are trying to popularise the eating of many sorts of animals, birds and locusts, which while unquestionably kosher, are barely eaten by Jews today. They have made several public dinners at which these animals and birds were served and the locusts were given as dessert. One day, in the not too distant future we may be eating locusts, in the same way as today we eat sardines!]
The pupils were told of the various kosher foods available, and also who were and who were not the kosher butchers and bakers in Liverpool.
A major part of the course, and this was done in a practical manner, was the kashering of a chicken. In the 1970s people still bought fresh poultry and meat and took it home to kasher. [Today one buys almost everything frozen and pre-kashered, and hence it is rare to do this kashering in the home. My wife has not done it for decades. But in the 1970s it was still done in some homes.]
As I wrote earlier, when the Jewish Studies room was designed, I had insisted on a large sink, so that I could demonstrate the kashering of meat. Prior to this room being available, we used the pottery room sink for kashering the chickens!
For this course I would buy two chickens from the local kosher butcher. One of them was, as it had been received from the abattoir - the entire closed chicken with its head on, but defeathered. The second was as the housewife would receive it from the butcher - with no head and opened up.
I would begin by showing the girls the complete chicken and where the place of the Shechita was. We would then start the kashering process. It would take a number of lessons and between each lesson, these chickens would be kept (well wrapped up!) in the cookery department freezer. Obviously, by the time we had gone through he entire process of kashering, the chickens were not fit to eat, either from the hygienic or the kosher angle. (The reason for the latter was than one cannot stop for a week or so between each stage of the koshering.) Fortunately there were good dustbins in the school to receive them at the end of the course!
This course also included planning of the ideal Jewish kitchen, in particular for the separation of meat and milk, and the preparation of the house for Shabbat, Yom-Tov and Pesach.
I would finish both the Barmitzvah and Eshet Chayil courses with a lesson on who is a Jew, the conditions for conversion, and a warning that the London Beth Din was the only body in Britain authorised to perform such conversions.
At the end of the second year, both the boys and the girls had an examination on their two year courses, which consisted of one written paper. We intentionally held it in the main hall, the same room as the public examinations were held in, in order to make the pupils realise the importance of this examination.
In addition, the boys had an oral examination in which they would have to sing a few verses from an unprepared haftarah. I would call the boys one by one into my study, open the Chumash at a haftarah and tell them they had a few minutes to prepare the first few verses of it. I had the Barmitzvah register in front of me, so that a boy would not by chance receive his own haftarah! After these few minutes of preparation, the boy would have to sing these few verses. No two boys would have the same verses to sing, so that they could not tell each other which verses to prepare!
The first question on the examination paper, asked the pupils to write his or her Hebrew name together with the pupil’s father’s name. Included in the Barmitzvah paper were questions on Tephillin, Tzitzit and Reading the Torah, all of which required a few words or one sentence answers. The Eshet Chayil paper had questions on all aspects of Kashrut, the Jewish kitchen and preparation of the house for Shabbat, Yom Tov and Pesach, and they likewise required answers consisting of a few words or one sentence.
Both papers finished with questions on who is a Jew, conversion to Judaism and who is authorised to carry it out. The Headmaster once asked me why I included such questions.
After I had marked all the papers, I had to decide who would gain a distinction, who would pass, and who would fail. I decided that over 80 per cent would be distinction and the students gaining distinction would be listed in order of their marks. The ordinary pass mark would not be a definite figure but would be determined by the ability of the individual pupil.
I could not expect a remedial pupil to have to achieve the same mark as a bright pupil in order to obtain a pass. I would therefore arrange a meeting with the teacher in charge of remedial pupils and show her the marks of all the pupils who had taken the examination, in order than she might have a yardstick on which to measure the remedial pupils’ achievements.
I remember one particular case of a boy who could be classed as the weakest of the remedial pupils. He had obtained very few marks on the paper. When I tested him on the singing of the haftarah, he confidently managed to sing the haftarah tune but the notes were hopelessly wrong! When the remedial teacher looked at his marks she said that for him it was equivalent to what other pupils who had passed had achieved and he should thus be awarded a pass. I was especially happy to pass him. He was a boy who in the past had told the remedial teacher who was non-Jewish, “I love Jewish Studies.” The students who just achieved passes were listed in alphabetical order and their marks were kept strictly confidential. Otherwise, a bright pupil who had failed would start complaining that he obtained a higher mark than a remedial pupil who had passed. In fact very few pupils failed. The success rate went up from year to year and the year I left no fewer than 13 boys and 11 girls obtained distinction.
Each year towards the end of the summer term a Barmitzvah/Eshet Chayil ceremony was held. At these ceremonies the successful pupils would receive a certificate and a book.
The English and Hebrew names of the successful candidates were beautifully inscribed on the certificates by one of the art teachers who was Jewish. Before the ceremony, we had to gather in the Hebrew names of the pupils. The Headmaster had told me in my first year at the school that from his experience the boys all know their Hebrew names – it is some girls who don’t. I found this to be correct. There were a few cases and I stress only a few, where I had to give a girl a name.
One year, the Headmaster told me that if we were to hand out the certificates as they are, by the end of the ceremony they would look like rags, which was probably right. He therefore suggested that we roll them up, put an elastic band around them and put them in an envelope. We used this method, but in a later year we had a better idea - to put each certificate in a transparent plastic envelope.
The books for the boys were paid for by the Parents’ Association and their representative would be present at the ceremony to present them to the boys. For the girls they were provided by the Old Girls’ Association, which was very small and had little money and their President kept telling me that she had not yet reimbursed the Headmaster for the previous year’s books.
The Headmaster and I would sit on the platform wearing our academic robes. As far as I can remember at each ceremony, we had a local Minister as guest of honour. The two boys who had obtained the highest marks in the Barmitzvah examination would read the Barmitzvah prayer and likewise the top two girls the Eshet Chayil prayer.
A generation has now passed since I took part in seven of these ceremonies. I do hope and pray that the boys are laying Tephillin every weekday and the girls are Neshai Chayil.