In some academic cultures, the best and ambitious rise to the top. They become principals, provosts, deans and professors.
In the chasidic model, the best teachers rise to the bottom, you might say. They teach first grade. Yitzhak Buxbaum, an authority on the Baal Shem Tov (the Besht), has written that the Besht (the original rebbe of the chasidic movement) worked as a teacher in a cheder for little boys, teaching the alef-beis and how to daven. “The Torah study of innocent children is more precious in Heaven than the studying of even great scholars,” said the Besht. “And by being with children you can learn to be childlike … to absorb their sweet qualities of innocence and trust.”
The Baal Shem Tov’s spiritual descendants, Reb Nachman and the Piacezno rebbe, suggested that the bigger the rebbe, the younger the grade. Unlike Oral Roberts or Brigham Young, the followers of Chabad never opened a university but hundreds of preschools.
The greatest Yiddish lullaby, “Oyfn Pripetchik,” is about a rebbe teaching the “kleyne kinderlach dem alef-beis,” not only the letters but also the love within.
All of which is to answer the question — “why first grade?” —many have asked of 83-year-old Rabbi Baruch Pollack, who’s been teaching first grade in yeshivas for 60 years; the last 35 years at Staten Island’s Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, which recently honored him for being a beloved, “consummate mechanech,” a warm Jewish word for teacher.
Perhaps the answer is in Rabbi Pollack’s Beshtian understanding of teaching Yiddishkeit, or perhaps the answer goes way back, before he born, when, as it is said of all babies in the womb, his unborn soul studied life’s mysteries with the angels.
Here’s something that must have put a lump in those angels’ throats: Baruch Pollack died before Baruch Pollack was born. More exactly, a young father died, leaving a pregnant widow. When her baby was born, she named him after the father, Baruch ben-Baruch.
God owed him one, some might say, but the kid lived his life like it was the other way around.
“I was born in 1927, in Brownsville — not Brownsville, Texas, Brownsville, Brooklyn,” the old rabbi says with his gentle humor. His grandfather taught him to read with a chasidish pronunciation. “When I got to school I thought I could go right to second grade because I could daven already,” he remembers, “but they said no, you have the wrong inflection, you have to start alef-beis all over again, so I went to Yeshiva Chaim Berlin from first grade (there was no kindergarten then) through rabbinical school.”
He got his first teaching job in 1950, teaching alef-beis at the Lubavitch Yeshiva of the Bronx, and then at the Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway.
“First grade was different then,” says Rabbi Pollack. “The children weren’t so street-wise. They had no TV, let alone Internet. Many of the parents came from Europe; they had a different way about them.” In the early years, he translated the Hebrew into Yiddish.
He’d teach the kids in the affectionate and physical way that his grandfather taught him, but with changing times he, like all teachers, were told that you can’t hug children anymore, or hold them on your lap. “Sometimes a child needed a hug, but it’s now taboo,” says Rabbi Pollack. “It’s a loss. I understand. It’s something I can’t argue with, but I think some children miss it.”
His first-grade curriculum was the same as the Baal Shem’s: Alef-beis; davening, beginning the morning with Modeh Ani; dikduk (grammer); and the weekly Torah readings.
“I’m a rebbe who pushes. The more you push, the more you get. The kids had a great time in my class — I did magic tricks, too.”
Joseph Schreiber, one of Rabbi Pollack’s former first graders, says that his son came home from his first day in Rabbi Pollack’s class, and Schreiber asked, “Did he pull chalk out of his ear?”
The son looked at the father: “Yeah! How’d you know?”
He’d pull cigarettes out of his ear, back in the day when rebbes still smoked. He’d show you a shiny penny — where’d it go? He’d make the first graders themselves be part of a trick: “I’m going to teach you to say the alef-beis backwards.” What? Then he’d have all the little boys stand up, turn around, and face the back of the room and say the alef-beis. “Hey! You’re saying it backwards!”
This belongs to you, the magic said. Someday, you’ll remember what you studied here, as the verse from Oyfin Pripitchik puts it. This is magical and it’s yours: the rhythm of davening, the music of his soulful niggunim, the stories, the legends of the holy letters. He was raising these boys to be completely at home in the forests of Yiddishkeit; like Davey Crockett, raised in the woods so they knew every tree.
“The boys loved him,” says Debbie Perles, a fellow teacher at RJJ, who remembers how the sounds of davening coming out of Rabbi Pollack’s classroom would bring tears to her eyes, the sheer beauty of it.
To this day, there’s a shul in Brooklyn where the men, during Bereishis, all say “tohoo va’vohoo” in the exaggerated way that their rebbe did in first grade.
After teaching yeshiva in the morning, he taught Hebrew school in the afternoons, mostly at the Young Israel of Bedford Bay, in Brooklyn. “I became the principal there, also the day camp director.”
The Hebrew school kids got his full repertoire of off-balance patter. His niece, Soshea Leibler, who was a teacher at Bedford Bay, remembers how he’d walk into a Chanukah party and ask the little children, “What’s that I smell, latkes or dreidels?”
The years passed. Children grew — more than 1,000 passed through Rabbi Pollack’s first grade.
The rebbe says, “The reason why I retired early was, two years ago I had an accident. I missed a few weeks of teaching. The principal was concerned that I couldn’t come back the next year. He hired another rebbe with me, to share the class. Then I was OK, but they thought that at my age, it was time to, well, look for greener pastures. I left voluntarily. No hard feelings.”
The school missed him, and he missed the school. In September, he’d regularly drive from Flatbush, over the Verrazano Bridge, to RJJ, to voluntarily tutor students one-on-one, in exchange for carfare.
“When I go to help out, I’m jealous that I can’t go in their classrooms. I hear kids learning,” he says wistfully. “I want to jump in. I miss it.”
Without his old schedule, “I go shopping with my wife more. I go to the second minyan instead of the first. I haven’t been feeling great. I’m OK, just my left knee. I can hardly run around. I can’t play basketball with the kids anymore.”
He sees his “boyalach,” now men, on the avenue, or in Jerusalem. “They run over and khop me around, saying ‘rebbe, rebbe, rebbe.’ They ask me, ‘are you still teaching?’ On the way to Israel, I was carrying a suitcase in the airport and, well, I have that problem with my knee, a little limp. A man, about 40 years old, says, ‘Rebbe, can I help you? Can I give you a hand?’ I say, ‘No, thank you. Give me a foot.’
“He enjoyed the joke,” said the rabbi quietly.