It was marvelous to meet up with so many of you on my trip to the States. What was even better was meeting your kids (and sometimes your grandkids!). One of the most surprising things about these chance meetings was that they forced me to concede that I am over forty. I was seventeen for most of my adult life, but skipped up to forty just a year or two ago.
What brought this message home far more dramatically was an email invitation that I received about a year ago inviting me to my High School class's fiftieth reunion. I let the organizers know that I was interested in participating and then proceeded to forget the entire matter. It was too ridiculous to consider seriously; so I filed it away under "Huh?" When I received a followup invitation and then a call, there was no place to hide. I would come. I had planned to be in L.A., but I could no longer pretend that I could avoid choosing to go or not to go. It was yes or no. My dear daughter Chani patiently rearranged my tickets so that I could be in N.Y.
I arrived at the hall and found myself surrounded by the graduates of Bais Yaakov circa 1966; They were disguised as middle aged matrons. Yes, I know that "middle aged" isn't quite true. I don't actually know many 137 year olds. This puts me a bit beyond the middle. Considering that I was seventeen. I shared so much of my life with the "girls". We all wore plastic identity cards to make the entire process of figuring out to whom you are talking to less brutal. We mixed, caught up, and of course ate (we are Jewish after all…). Once you scratched the surface, the drama of everyone's lives shone through. What made this one of the best afternoons of my life, is that they were, overwhelmingly 'Winners'.
In the only contest, that means anything. They were fulfilled, self-actualized versions of what they wanted to become at seventeen or eighteen. Their lives were not all easy; they had survived the tribulations that life offers with astounding success. They were resplendent versions of what Bais Yaakov is meant to inspire. They were not all successes in the material sense, nor were they all stereotypical wives and mothers. Some of them has suffered tragedies, some had health issues. Their goals of living Torah lives, keeping the example of their teachers and the Torah that they taught, turned them into a group that exuded a strong sense of achievement, and love of life. Some of the girls who came from difficult backgrounds were living testimony to how little that has to do with who you are at the end of the show.
The vast majority of girls were children of holocaust survivors, as were many of the teachers. They were inspired by their parent's faith and grateful that they were able to walk down the same road with fewer obstacles. One girl recalled that she was struggling her way through Tehillim homework. The language is sometimes difficult and often poetic. At the same time she was attacking Tehillim, her mother recited Tehillim without understanding what she was saying, but with absolute faith that Hashem heard her, and that the holy words have profound value.
The minority of "American"s became more ambitious; we would go where even the most observant families had not yet tred. We saw photos of ourselves in the outrageous hairstyles that were the rage; huge mountains of hair sprayed into immobile and visually unbelievable hairdos. We are now wise enough to not take ourselves too seriously, and to enjoy the ride more than we did back then.
The real winners were the teachers (one of whom came to the reunion). Our principal, Rebbitzen Vichna Kaplan set the tone. She was always calm, always focused on the real goals, and always able to convey the truth without any form of apology or varnish. The teachers were human; some were more exciting, others less so. The clarity and the calm was always part of the package. We were far happier as a group than kids are today. We were teenagers and capable of emotional dramatics, but the greyness that seems to hover over so many of today's kids like an invisible cloud wasn't there. We were more certain, more civil, and more optimistic. We took ourselves seriously (and of course had endless Deep Meaningful Conversations).
There was lots of imperfection all around us. The building I learned in was a converted funeral parlor that had never been refurbished. B.Y. of Boro Park had originally been a hospital with a fully equipped birthing room. You can imagine the jokes about school being a cradle to grave full service experience. The general studies teachers were underpaid, making BY a safe haven for teachers who couldn't find work elsewhere. None of it mattered in the long run.
When I met Neve 'girls', I realized that you have your history and your tales of your Neve Daze and that they will build you and G-d willing turn you into the kind of winners that we grads of '66 are fortunate enough to be.