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Emil Fackenheim on His Jewish Education in the 1920s (Retrospective Account)

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Our own rabbi, Albert Kahlberg, did have an impact on me. The Jewish education he was in charge of didn’t seem much, but, rob us though it did of a free afternoon, it was a fact of life and thus accepted. With instruction for just two hours, plus occasional youth services on Shabbat afternoon, it may seem astonishing that this Jewish education stayed with me. But I can think of two reasons why it stuck. There was no hunting after “relevance” and no frills, only substance—Torah, prophets, siddur, history, Hebrew. And after a fashion, the teachers were professionals. I say “after a fashion” because only Rubenstein, the Hebrew teacher, was a professional, employed full time by the community. He was also the only Polish Jew I knew more than slightly in my youth. He was pretty bad at maintaining discipline, and we did not help by poking fun at his poor German; but nobody questioned his command of the subject, and I still remember grammar as he taught it. (Hebrew grammar is as exact a subject as Latin and Greek, and his experience cured me of the notion often leveled at after-hours Jewish schools—that they are not “real” school.)

But one cannot learn much Hebrew in one hour a week. And the fact that the Halle community imported a Jew from Poland to teach Hebrew speaks volumes.

Who were the other teachers, and in what sense were they professionals? There was the rabbi, of course, but also Kaufmann the cantor and Heymann the shammes (beadle), and since different classes would meet on different afternoons these four were enough. Kaufmann and Heymann were professionals, in that Judaism was not for them a part-time but a full-time job—a lifetime vocation—and it was good that teaching was part of it. (What if the caretaker of an American synagogue also had to teach?) I have fond memories of Cantor Kaufmann, a lovable person with an excellent—I would say, devout—voice, sincere and devoid of cantorial mannerisms, and a knowledgeable teacher also. As for Heymann the shammes, I remember him with affection. He was a huge man, or so he seemed to us children, with a formidable handlebar mustache. Once I came home announcing I would get a pretzel from Heymann next time. Actually it was a prize, a Pasach Haggadah. (The words pretzel and prize are similar in German.) Heymann was a natural teller of stories for the young. From the biblical stories, I remember how the wicked Jezebel was thrown out of the window and eaten by dogs.

Heymann also taught elementary Hebrew grammar, but he didn’t do it very well, for in reciting “my song, your song” and so on, everybody invariably got tuck, and Heymann would call the delinquent a sheep. Once he forgot, so I reminded him: “Herr Heymann, this one is a sheep too.”

Then there was Rabbiner Kahlberg himself. He also taught several grades; and, since he did not preach every Shabbat, had few weddings and funerals, and did not, except for holidays, have much else to do, teaching took up most of his professional time, not a bad thing for a rabbi. True, there was no adult education, for there was no demand for it, and this may have soured him on his rabbinical life in Halle. But later, when in preparation for Berlin I studied with him privately, I was amazed by his knowledge. I had only an inkling of this knowledge before, such as in bar mitzvah classes when he taught us about Spinoza on freedom and determinism. Later I learned that at seminary he had been the equal of Max Wiener, my future philosophy professor in Berlin.

Such as it was, our Jewish education had substance. More importantly, it conveyed the idea that Judaism itself was substantial rather than ephemeral and prey to fashion: it had to be respected even when it was boring. And boring Kahlberg’s major sermons—for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—may often have been. But they were solemn, for they dealt with verities.

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