My classmates sent me diverse responses to my reunion column (The memories are still green, August 18). There was the supportive email from the prettiest girl in the class — who probably didn’t know I existed way back then. Ah well. (Note: vis-à-vis my reunion, we’re all boys and girls.) And the boy with the unusual baseball swing responded to tell me that, sadly, he lost his wife to cancer, and then, happily, found love again. Good for him! He also noted, as did others, that he shared my warm memories of a time and place long gone.
But there is another side to the story. The most intriguing response was from Dina (the name she has used since making aliyah, not the name she used at the Hebrew Institute of Long Island), who poignantly wrote, in part: “Your memories of your HILI days are very different from mine…. Not all of us lived in Far Rockaway. Many of us came from Arverne, Belle Harbor … and even, God save us, the Hammels Projects…. Not all saw each other on Shabbatot and after school hours. Children in general tend to be cruel, especially to those who are different, have different lifestyles and live outside the close-knit community you described…. There were some who wanted nothing to do with the reunion because of negative experiences during our elementary school years.”
I had known that the class had a contingent from Arverne and other areas less affluent that the middle-class Far Rockaway of single-family homes with backyards (on the border of Lawrence) where I grew up. I had not, however, heard of the government-financed Hammels Projects. So Google taught me that this home to some classmates had rampant crime, and, as typical of many of Robert Moses’s urban renewal projects, also was used as a dumping ground for those on public assistance and troubled families and individuals.
I also was not that surprised that some of my classmates’ memories were different from mine. I remember the trepidation I felt calling the lovely girl who was unmercifully bullied by some of the boys and her understandable, though gentle, response that she’d “rather not reune.” And when I called a still good friend to berate him for not responding to the myriad of email invitations, he exclaimed “Joseph, didn’t you know I hated HILI?” (No, I didn’t.)
But when planning the reunion I didn’t focus on — and certainly didn’t realize in the 1950s — the effect the issues Dina raised had had on my classmates. But I should have focused more. My wife had gone to Manhattan Day School at the same time I was in HILI, and she had told me that it was only as an adult that she began to understand the differing experiences and home lives of the children of those parents who came to this country before the war and those who came after. Joseph Berger, the New York Times journalist who also is a graduate of MDS, captured this gulf in his book “Displaced Persons.” “On rainy days, having no raincoat, I would arrive with wet hair and damp cloths and see my schoolmates come dashing off the bus in slick yellow mackintoshes … their heads kept dry by sou’wester caps. They lived no more than a mile or two from my house, but they might as well have come from another planet.” Joe also notes the “fawning respect” shown to some parents but not to his (although there were some exceptions), and that this attitude trickled down to the students, resulting in Joe being dismissed thoughtlessly by some in shul. Dina was right; children can be cruel.
I recently read of a partial — though not by any means complete — antidote to this cruelty in a Facebook post by Rabbi Shai Held shortly before Rosh Hashanah. Always reflective and sensitive, Rabbi Held wrote, again in part, that after decades of studying and teaching Torah, philosophy, and theology, and having students share their questions and struggles with him, he came “to the conclusion that the most important question you can ask yourself while doing teshuva is this: Am I kind? Am I committed to growing kinder?” He goes on to ask: “If you are blessed with children, do they know, truly and unambiguously, that whether or not they are kind is what matters most to you? That you value kindness more than success; that you value it more than brilliance” or mitzvot like Shabbat and kashrut?
Kindness, Jewish tradition teaches, is one of the elements with which the world was created and upon which it stands, and it is one of the qualities that serve the Divine Throne. The Dalai Lama believes that “my religion is very simple; my religion is kindness,” and Mark Twain astutely observed, “kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”
Putting this idea into practice, a number of high school and college basketball and football teams arranged for developmentally challenged youngsters to dunk the ball or score a touchdown in an actual game — the exuberance felt by all is right there on YouTube. Or watch the video of the star college athlete joining the lonely autistic high school student for lunch. As Aesop sums it up: “no act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”
I told my family that I often regretted not doing something to try to stop the bullying of the girl who didn’t care to reune. One of my wonderful daughters, a highly skilled and experienced middle school teacher, told me: “Daddy, don’t beat yourself up. That’s not the job of an eighth-grader.” The thoughtfulness she showed me — and that I appreciate — mitigated my regret, but did not eliminate it. Just a bit of kindness, a thoughtful word, a plea to the tormentors might have, I truly believe, eased some of the pain.
And now, a 17-word sermon: When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people. (Abraham Joshua Heschel) Amen.