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The Magic of Good Teaching

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The Magic of Good Teaching

A fond memoir of mid-twentieth-century Americanization offers a welcome respite in our current environment. April 22, 2021
Education
The Social Order

Oy! Oy! Oy!: The Teacher Is a Goy, by Henry Saltzman (Wicked Son, 271 pp., $17.99)

Amid an epidemic of anti-American wokeness, Henry Saltzman’s thinly fictionalized memoir of mid-twentieth-century Americanization comes as a welcome respite.

Saltzman’s story begins in 1953, just after he graduated from Brooklyn College and is working in a furniture store on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn. He is an Americanized Jew who grew up speaking Yiddish but has embraced the English language and its literature, and American culture more generally. He finally lands a teaching position in, of all places, a Satmar yeshiva in Williamsburg Brooklyn. (The Satmars originated in Hungary, suffered major losses in the Holocaust, and were at the time assumed to be part of a dying cult.)

Saltzman struggles to educate his class of ten-year-old boys in the ways of the wider culture. He bypasses the dull curriculum he’s been given in hopes that his innovative lessons about vocabulary, geography, and current events will tempt his students to learn about and even appreciate America, their land of refuge. But it’s a delicate dance, and he repeatedly stumbles on Hasidic sensibilities. First, he looks different. Saltzman wears standard clothing for men of his time in New York: no peyes, no yarmulke, no tzitzis. “He took pride in displaying, by means of a bare head, his freedom from their inhibitions and rules.”

It’s no surprise, then, that one of his future students shouts out defiantly after his job interview: “‘Oy Oy Oy the titchur is a goy.’ . . . There it was. The ugly word meaning gentile out in the open again, as it had been all through his childhood. Only this time, he was the object of its scorn.”

Saltzman innocently introduces himself to his students by writing his name on the blackboard: “Mr. SALTZMAN.” Little did he know that his letter “T” would immediately outrage the entire class. One boy runs to the blackboard to make a curl at the bottom of the “t,” changing it from what they all saw as a cross (a “tseylem”) to the letter he had intended. “‘A Jew is not allowed to make a tseylem, Teacher. Me tur nit!’ (It is forbidden!).”

Yet despite these early missteps, Saltzman’s knowledge of Yiddish makes him the perfect teacher and interlocutor. Deftly fielding the boys’ occasional insults, both intended and unintended, he gradually draws them into a love of secular learning. The class is a ragtag group that includes Holocaust survivors, refugees from displaced-persons camps, and neglected sons from enormous families. He discovers that the boys, with their limited, Yiddish-accented English, are fascinated by new words.

By sharing his own joy in speaking and understanding standard English, he helps his students unlock mysteries of the wider world. They also challenge him to dig deeper into his own prejudices as he discovers how to build on their serious study of religious texts to expand their English vocabularies. The students, for example, chastise their teacher for his hubris in taking attendance. As the class leader states, “only God can give de order ven to count people. . . . de rabbis tell us dat only Hashem tell ven people should be counted.” Another student, Moshe, explains further: “Because dis would be like you were trying to be like Moses.” Saltzman replies, “You mean it would not be right for someone to imitate Moses.” The class was pleased that the teacher finally got it. And Saltzman was thrilled that he could introduce and elaborate the meanings of the word “imitate” to these bright but provincial boys.

Saltzman teases out the meaning of his transgression by drawing on his own experience: “One of the special pleasures of his childhood had been the joy he got from bumping into new words as he explored new books. . . . For him, each new word discovered was like turning a corner and coming face-to-face with a beautiful, mysterious stranger.” A gifted teacher, he was able to communicate this joy to his students.

His final and most inspired project is a class newspaper. Having considered stories from the New York Daily News as topics for discussion, they step back for a wider look at what a newspaper is and how it is created. Under Saltzman’s guidance, each student takes on a specific editorial role (sports, humor, news, general editor, and so on). Saltzman acts as copy editor, saving students from spelling and grammatical errors.

The boys radiate pride as they hold and read from their finished newspapers. But Saltzman also harbors some fears that this will be the final straw that results in their “goyishe teacher” being fired. In the end, though, only one student’s father is enraged enough to call the principal, and to no effect.

The sports editor’s column is a “keeper.” Shlomo, the best athlete in the class, puts all his teammates’ statistics in one box and puts his own stats in a separate box. Then he writes: “Shlomo Karapinsky was up fifteen times in the four games and got nine hits and thirteen runs knocked in. Shlomo is the champ, and this makes him also the best.”

The class is annoyed by Shlomo’s moxie, but the students have a hard time articulating their displeasure, since he is in fact the class’s best athlete, and they all know that one should tell the truth. Moshe once again leads the class to a deeper understanding. “Shlomo is the best player. . . . But it is written that a wise man is also a modest man—and Shlomo did not write modestly. . . . He should write the exact same thing in a way so that people can understand he is the best without him smacking them over the kop (head) wid it.”

One of the most withdrawn boys, a refugee from a displaced-persons camp who is still struggling to learn English, surprisingly volunteers to be the humor editor. He works hard to tell his three jokes, while his classmates show surprising patience in allowing him to develop his theme.

Saltzman’s memoir reminds each of us of the magic of good teaching. He engages his students through his unorthodox (pardon the pun) strategies. He recognizes how his students’ finely honed intellectual skills, awakened and continually reawakened while studying Torah, can be transferred to other areas. He discovers that exploring the various meanings from passages of Torah wasn’t so different from studying new English words. As the year unfolds, the boys harmonize with their teacher’s goals; they jump up enthusiastically, waving their hands, bursting with ten-year-olds’ energies to be first to call out the right answer.

The story ends with a loving twist. As the school year concludes, the principal calls Saltzman in for a toast—a glass of Slivovitz—to congratulate him on a job well done. As the teacher leaves the principal’s office, his students run up. One grabs his hand, and they chant lovingly, “Oy Oy Oy, the teacher is a goy,” while walking their beloved instructor to his car.

Photo by Andy Katz/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

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