Beloved monster
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Beloved monster

The monster with the orange-and-green face and flying white hair burst into the classroom. "Ma-seh-chah! Ma-seh-chah!" boomed the voice from behind the grotesque green mouth.

We gasped and laughed at once. Simon Chasen, teacher of Modern Hebrew I at Weequahic High School, was at it again. And to this day, I doubt if any of my classmates have forgotten that "ma-seh-chah" means "mask."

But just to make sure he had embedded the word in our brain, the monster flung the colorful ma-seh-chah on his desk (the flying white hair was his own), and swiftly scribbled some Greek characters on the board. "Read!" he commanded in Hebrew. We looked at each other. It was literally Greek to us.

Mar Cha-zan, as Mr. Chasen had instructed us to call him in class, muttered under his breath. "American education!" Quickly he translated the letters into English, and pointed out that the word "mascara" was a derivative of ma-seh-chah.

This was his way. He would stop at nothing to make us learn. And because of his intense passion, he was, many times, impatient. Many kids didn’t like him, were scared of him, thought him tough. He brought my best friend to tears when she couldn’t recite the entire ‘3rd Psalm in its original Hebrew. "You should know it!" he repeated over and over, almost pleading. Two weeks later she was to hear it — and understand each word — at her father’s funeral.

Behind his back, we called him "Chasen," but that was all you needed to do behind his back. Because in Chasen’s class, you could openly look at the paper of the kid in front of you when you were taking a test. You could even open your "Modern Hebrew" textbook if you were stuck. Or, if you sat like a dummy, Chasen himself would charge over to your desk and tell you the answer! Anything, anything — just as long as you learned.

He rarely uttered a word of English during class. He had other means — most of the time his entire, slight, wiry body — to force Hebrew into your very being.

Once a student translated the sentence, "I rode on a train," literally. "On a train?" Chasen screamed in Hebrew. Nimbly jumping atop the first desk, he proceeded to march down the entire row, frantic students ducking out of the way of his legs. "Where? On the roof? In Hebrew, you ride in a train!" he shouted, plopping into the last seat, as the student who occupied it hastily extricated himself from the path of the whirling dervish.

He’d stop at nothing to make you remember. He emptied wastebaskets onto his head. He blinked his huge eyes. He balanced himself on the windowsill.

And it worked. Hesitantly at first, a dybbuk — ‘,000 years in mute exile — began sounding out an ancient tongue through our amazed lips.

I had not wanted to take Hebrew. I’d had enough in Hebrew school, where the old teacher wielded a red stick (painted, but the kids swore it was really bloodstained). The lessons — by rote — kometz alef aw, kometz bais baw, were tedious, irrelevant, and barely tolerable.

But in 1948, my mother had accidentally and fortuitously met Julius Herr, another parent, who convinced her that, since there was a brand new State of Israel, a committee should be formed to petition the Board of Education to include Hebrew in the
Weequahic curriculum. And once they succeeded, how would it look if Mrs. Gordon’s own daughter didn’t take Hebrew?

Mazal was on the side of the Israelites in those days, for on the language staff of Weequahic was Simon Chasen, linguist par excellence. He was teaching several of the many languages he knew (some said it was 17, some said 35). He agreed to teach Hebrew as a secular subject, but he managed to get in some of the ancient literature.

And that is how it came to pass that Hebrew — and Mar Chazan — changed my life. He enriched it ten-thousandfold. I began to understand the Hagaddah at the seder, and the prayers at the synagogue. He taught me who and what I was.

He organized an after-school Hebrew Club and brought to our auditorium folk dancers to teach us the resurrected culture of our people. He used any occasion to give us presents — books of poetry by Bialik and Tschernichovsky. On a Saturday night, he shlepped us to Carnegie Hall by bus to hear the Israeli pianist Nahum Nardi. He dragged us to Israel Bond benefits, and crackled with indignation when we said the swarthy beauty, singer Shoshana Damari, sounded like a man. "She’s Yemenite!" he exclaimed. "Their style is guttural!" To pursue the subject, as was his wont, he fired our imagination with descriptions of "Operation Magic Carpet," by which the entire Jewish population of Yemen — second-class citizens, and endangered at that — was airlifted to the Holy Land on the silver wings of ‘0th-century eagles, in fulfillment of the ancient promise.

Chasen taught himself a language by buying a Bible in that tongue and translating it. The last time I saw him, he was teaching an after-school class in Swahili to the changing population of Weequahic.

But my most vivid memory came about during the summer I spent as a teen in Israel. I was writing a letter in my dorm room when a vaguely familiar voice boomed over my shoulder, "Shalom!"

I turned to see my beloved monster, white hair still flying ? la Ben-Gurion. And if I had not known beforehand that "shalom" meant "hello," it would have not been beyond credulity that Simon Chasen had traveled 6,000 miles, halfway around the world, just to teach me that one word.

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