A child write "Hello" in Hebrew (Shalom Kita Alef) on a chalkboard/DepositPhoto

A Tribute to Jewish Friends — and Public Education

A Tribute to Jewish Friends — and Public Education

By Walter Hesford

This year, three of my hometown friends passed away, all of whom were Jewish. I would add “happened to be” but happenstance had nothing to do with it.

Growing up Lutheran in a working class suburb of Boston, I lacked soul mates until around 11. I was delivering papers when a fellow in a car yelled, “Hey kid, I hear they’re selling houses around here to Jews. Do you know where?” I didn’t, nor did I then understand the implications of his question — that there were towns where no Jews were allowed, that in the Boston-area of the 1950s anti-Semitism was common.

Fortunately the fellow was right. Soon, due to a large exodus from Boston, I had Jewish paper route customers and Jewish classmates who were as bookish as me — even more so, since they got to go to Hebrew School to learn their Torah portion. Boy, was I envious.

In fifth grade one of them, Barry, and I became particularly close, which was handy since he was way better in math than I was. Though we lived about a mile and half apart, we often walked to each other’s homes, sometimes staying for supper. My family was aware enough of kosher laws not to serve pork, but not aware enough to know that we needed to “put a fence around Torah” and not serve milk with hamburgers.

I went to Barry’s bar mitzvah, as well as that of Leon, another close Jewish friend. I was envious again: they got a lot more gifts than I did at my confirmation. I also become fascinated by the Conservative Jewish service, and would keep attending synagogue services over the years. Since they were of course in Hebrew, I of course was often lost, until the SHEMA—HEAR, OH ISRAEL; THE LORD OUR GOD, THE LORD IS ONE (Deut.6.4) — was sung. Years later, when I taught Bible as Literature, I had my class sing the SHEMA to sense Torah’s binding power.

By junior high I was leading expeditions into Boston via bus and subway. I knew the way since my family still worshiped in a German Lutheran church in their old immigrant neighborhood. And my friends knew the way to a glorious Jewish deli, serving hot pastrami on rye and free half-dilled pickles.

In high school I had many more Jewish classmates. Hanukkah songs were added to our Christmas-time assemblies.  History, Civics, and English classes were lively with debate. I remember how upset my Jewish friends were when during a discussion of “The Scarlet Letter” I agreed with the Puritans that humans were flawed through Original Sin.  My friends considered mea righteous idiot.

College took us in different directions. During a holiday break in the mid 60s, Barry and I took the subway downtown to see The Pawnbroker”.  Stunned by the Holocaust scenes, we rode home in silence. Difficult to believe but I think that this was the first time I heard of this horror. Barry afterward mentioned that his family never discussed it. Later I learned that one of my former paper route customers was a Holocaust survivor.

Careers took us further apart. I ended up way out in Idaho, but on trips back to Boston we would get together to share memories and keep our friendship alive. With Leon I would visit the graves of some of his ancestors, and he would  visit the grave of my parents with me. I brought flowers and a shot of whiskey for my parents; Leon placed stones on his ancestors’ tombstones.

I regret that I was not able to be with my Jewish friends when they died, but I was able to tell them how much they had meant to me before they passed. They opened my eyes and heart to different cultures, different histories. They deepened my thinking and my concern for the welfare of others. They saved me from narrow-minded parochialism.

And this would not have happened had not public education brought us together. Now under attack in Idaho and elsewhere, public education has been crucial to our development as a more inclusive, socially just society. Those on the far right dislike inclusivity and social justice, and see it as their religious duty to undermine, underfund what they call “government schools.” Thanks to my Jewish friends, I see it as my religious duty to celebrate and support public education. Maybe you do too.     

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