The printed programs with the winning names were stowed away from prying, curious eyes until the big night. Who would take the prize for best all-round student? Secular studies? Chumash? Only the teaching staff knew who had risen to the top of the Grade 7 class and would give parents bragging rights at the graduation ceremony.
Most of my classmates had started together in Young Israel’s nursery or kindergarten and were friends, or at least yoo-hoo neighbours. We lived in a district easily identified as Jewish by the weekly staccato of gefilte fish being hand-chopped and the packs of dark-suited men strolling to and from shul on Shabbat with hands behind their backs.
That night 50 years ago capped the last time I would walk through the doors of the small, tight-knit day school on site at the Young Israel shul of Montreal. Although Young Israel thrived for many more years as a synagogue, the school closed in 1966 with the final graduation exercises in which I took part. With my hair teased into an Aqua Net bouffant, doing a slow-mo march down the long aisle of the shul in white heels, matching white dress and gloves, (practising my future “kallah walk”), I joined my classmates in receiving warm wishes and crisp diplomas, happy that most of the old gang would reunite at the new Hebrew Academy high school.
Wasting no time as soon as we were seated, I flicked open the evening’s program resting in my lap. The shock of seeing my name in bold print as an award recipient all but flattened my helmet-hair. But a hairdo is no competitor of academic self-esteem, and the latter deflated with a puncture to the prize balloon. That two of us were sharing one award didn’t faze me. My co-winner was a close friend at whose wedding in that very same shul I would dance some years later.
No, it wasn’t who but what the prize was for: good citizenship.
In the 20 seconds it took to walk from my seat to the podium to collect the medallion, I careened from dismay to embarrassment. This was neither recognition of proficiency in a particular subject nor a showcase for a written essay or oral presentation displaying critical thinking. I’d just won the equivalent of Miss Congenialty in the Miss America contest.
Still miffed months later, I would let the rabbi-principal know it (too bad there was no prize for chutzpah). The medal was soon conveniently misplaced, and until a few weeks ago, long forgotten, committed to the Closet of Life’s Disappointments. But hearing recently of a commemorative dinner held by Young Israel to mark the dedication of a new Torah revived the memory of that good citizenship award, and with it recognition of a subtle but strong influence on the seeding of a social conscience.
From the moment I stepped to the podium and accepted that medal, I put myself in its hands, not the reverse. The ruach (spirit) of that round piece of metal embedded itself, alerting me like a geiger counter to hot spots of injustice and inequity, spurring me to stir up the pot, to act alone or with others, in the interests of making something right or real.
Through the decades, good citizenship has waved me to the finish line for causes large and small, Jewish and secular. “No” or “Can’t be done” do not speak my language. On reflection, good citizenship was the beta version of tikkun olam, what Jewish communal life now refers to as repair/healing of the world, or if nothing so grand, at least fixing your little corner of it. Not every student can win the prize in math or Jewish history. But good citizenship reflects the values of Yiddishkeit taught from the day I set foot as a four-year-old in Young Israel’s school.
I pass Young Israel occasionally. Although no longer a resident of the area, I frequent nearby Pratt and Joyce parks, still my all-time favourite green spaces. I also like to walk the familiar streets in what can safely be called in middle age “the old neighbourhood.” And it is precisely at these times that the ghosts of classrooms and teachers mingle with my gratitude for Young Israel’s day school.
No child could have asked for a better start in life or been given more valuable and profound lessons to guide them. They’ve made me keep my eye on the prize of being a good citizen, and that’s been its own best reward.
Dorothy Lipovenko is a writer living in Montreal.