Family & Education

How I went from cheder dunce to shul addict

Cheder baffled Susan Reuben. But now she's found a way to love Judaism.


You’ve been to shul three times in three days,’ my husband said accusingly on Sunday lunch-time.

‘Have you?’ my dad said. ‘I’m getting worried about you.’

‘It’s nothing,’ I replied. ‘This morning’s Shacharit was just because I was on the rota to make a minyan. And anyway, it wasn’t at shul — it was in someone’s house.’

‘But I could have gone,’ said Anthony. ‘You said you wanted to.’

‘Yes, but only because there was someone there I wanted to talk to,’ I replied.

‘So what about the other days?’ asked my dad.

‘Well yesterday was just Assif as usual,’ I said. (That’s my minyan-of-choice at New North London.)

‘…Where you were leading the Torah service,’ Anthony added emphatically.

‘And Friday night was Finchley Reform. Just because… the singing.’

‘Three times in three days!’ Anthony replied.

So, why was I being so defensive — so unwilling to admit that I was going to shul because I wanted to?

I think back to my cheder days, and how differently I felt about Judaism then. Cheder was unequivocally the worst thing in my life. Every single Sunday morning and every Thursday night, I hoped in vain that my parents would forget to take me. I was convinced that if only I didn’t have to go, my existence would be completely serene and untroubled.

I was educated there by a procession of teenage girls from Gateshead, who would each teach us until they went off to get married at age 17 or so, leaving a younger sister to take their place.

They were all very sweet but I don’t imagine they were startlingly good at their job. I doubt they had any training and they were pretty much children themselves.

I never had the first idea of what they were talking about from one end of the lesson to the other. Truly not a clue. I was the Jewish equivalent of a kid who fails at school because their home background doesn’t support their education. Sunderland was a frum community and my classmates were living the things we were learning in their home life, not only from Shabbat to Shabbat but from day to day. Their immersion in Jewish observance was far removed from that of my own family.

When something did manage to penetrate through my fog of incomprehension — an example of gematria, for instance, or one of the more arcane laws of kashrut — my brain would fail to retain it beyond the end of the lesson. I didn’t believe this stuff was interesting or relevant and I just couldn’t bring myself to care. This was in stark contrast to my school life where I’d been moved a year ahead of myself for being what Anthony now describes as a ‘girly swot’.

During my final cheder year, we were encouraged to earn points by answering questions correctly during lessons. The prize for enough points was a Jewish Child’s Memo Book.

There was a set of six of these tiny paperback volumes to collect, listing everything a child devoted to Judaism should wish to know: the dates of the festivals, the names of the fast days, the dimensions of Noah’s ark and much, much more.

I really wanted these memo books. They were small and collectable, came in a range of attractive pastel colours, and once you’d won them all, you got a purple slipcase to put them in.

My teacher wanted me to have them, too. I think that as far as she was concerned, once I left cheder these little books were the only thing that would stand between me and the abyss of Jewish ignorance into which I was heading.

The problem was that I never got any points because I didn’t know the answers to any questions. So the teacher declared that, instead, I was allowed to win them by colouring in photocopied sheets featuring scenes from the Torah.

A pre-teen by this stage, my colouring-in days were long behind me.

But as we saw from the adult craze that swept the country in the last year or two, there’s nothing like a good bit of colouring-in how ever old you are.

When I handed in each ‘artistic’ endeavour, my teacher would exclaim over it, admiring my technique and execution.

As I was so clearly stupid, she really enjoyed being able to praise me for something. The way I kept within the lines was a joy to behold.

My Jewish Child’s Memo Books now sit on the shelf next to our machzorim and haggadot, but I still do not know the ensigns of the twelve tribes, nor the height of the Israeli mountains.

I have, however, discovered a type of Judaism that means much more than that to me…though I fear that it’s not one of which my cheder teachers would approve.



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