From Nursery School till the end of Seventh Grade (or, as they say in Canada, Grade Seven), I attended the Toronto Hebrew Day School where, for half the day, we studied regular subjects – the ones they taught in regular schools – and for the other half of the day, we were taught subjects related to our ethnicity, such as Hebrew, Bible studies, and Jewish history, where every story was exactly the same:
“We were living in (PLACE COUNTRY NAME HERE), and then they kicked us out.”
Just before graduation at the end of Seventh Grade, it was mandatory for the graduating class to take a Public School “Equivalency Test”, after which we moved on to the regular school system, where we were all promptly “accelerated” into Ninth Grade. I never understood that. Public schools studied for a full day the same subjects that we studied for half a day, and yet our school’s Seventh Grade classes invariably skipped an entire grade. How is that possible? Maybe they had a longer recess.
Also mandatory before we were permitted access into an educational system where students learned a smaller amount in twice the time, was a requirement that the graduating male students of the Toronto Hebrew Day School take a one-year course in “Manual Training”, which was colloquially known as “Shop”, an assignment that involved working with sharp, pointy tools that could knock your eye out, and electric drills, which, if not handled correctly, could put a hole through your hand.
The female students took “Home Ec(onomics)” instead, where they learned to cook. This was, it goes without saying, pre-“Unisex.” Otherwise, I would certainly have selected the cooking.
Twice a week, after our regular school day, our class was bused to relatively nearby Glen Park Public School, which was outfitted with the full array of “Manual Training” accouterments. For “Shop” purposes, Glen Park would be our nomadic home-away-from-home.
From the moment we arrived, it was clear we had ventured into Unfriendly Territory. A small number of my classmates came from strictly Orthodox Jewish backgrounds. Among other obligations, this required them to keep their heads covered at all times. I myself came from a more relaxed religious background, so I not only did not follow that requirement (outside of my school), but I cannot enlighten you on the religious underpinnings of the “head covering” requirement.
I might have been tempted to ask my teacher about it, but my school did not encourage curiosity in such matters, hewing instead to a lockstep adherence to the rules, the deviation from which was punishable by “the ruler” or “the strap.” They were generally nice people at my school. As long as you stuck to the rules. And you didn’t ask questions.
We walk into this tool-bedecked workshop, where we are met by Mr. Kells, a no-nonsense, middle-aged man with a neatly trimmed mustache and a haircut that spoke – if hair can speak – of recent military service, with which he must have strongly identified, as he devotedly maintained their hairstyle after he was out.
The first thing Mr. Kells bellowed as my classmates and I warily filed into this unnervingly alien terrain was,
“Take off those beanies!”
My Orthodox brethren, however, stuck adamantly to their guns. Mr. Kells was a fearful presence. But they feared the Almighty more.
As with all of my disturbing experiences, including, to some degree, my entire show business career, there is some “PTSD” component clouding my “Manual Training” recollections. I do not recall them in any great detail. Just flashes and fragments, as in a traumatizing night battle, illuminated by artillery fire.
I remember that the year was divided into three distinct work programs: Wood Shop, Metal Shop and Leather Shop. At as result of that tri-partite delineation of challenges, I learned, over the year, that I was terrible at all of them.
In Wood Shop, we made sailboats, comprised of two sails, the hull, the rudder, and a small shelf, extending out from the sails – the shelf not really being part of an actual sailboard, but you want your work to be functional as well as decorative – all screwed or stapled into a recognizable water-traveling conveyance.
You drew the outline of the sails on a larger piece of wood, then cut along the lines with a thin-bladed coping saw. I could not cope with the coping saw, breaking blade after blade with a sharp, metallic “sprong. “ Sometimes, splintered pieces of my coping saw blade would fly around the room, forcing nearby classmates to duck for cover.)
I also managed to split one sail of my sailboat while I was sanding it. Finally, I fell so far behind, Mr. Kells retrieved an abandoned, completed sail, and just gave it to me, saying, “Use this!”, storming away in Vesuvian exasperation.
Metal Shop was worse. To fashion some sort of nameplate, I was required to cut a piece of sheet metal with a pair heavy, scissors-like shears. Even using two hands, my weak hand muscles were not close to being up to the task. After weeks of effort, my defeating sheet of sheet metal was touched with the barely-noticeable imprint of a superficially indented dimple.
By the time I rotated to Leather Shop, I was running out of time. To accommodate my schedule and my demonstrably substandard abilities, my assignment was continually simplified, downgrading from a wallet, to a key case, to, in the end, a jaggedly-edged eye patch.
Now, listen to this; this was amazing. At the end of the year, Mr. Kells delivered our “Manual Training” grades to the Day School, so they could be included on our final report card. The thing is, the Public School grading system was the standard A,B,C,D,E, “E”, of course, being the lowest grade you can get. The grading system at the Toronto Hebrew Day School, however, placed “E” at the top, “E” being for “Excellent.” (Followed by “Very Good, “Good”, “Satisfactory”, “Unsatisfactory” and “Poor.”)
Consistent with my performance, Mr. Kells had graded me with an “E.” You see where I’m going here. Maybe it was a clerical error, I don’t know, but, somehow, my Public School “E” was transformed into a Toronto Hebrew Day School “E”, thus anointing me with the highest grade in the class.
“Manual Training” was a nightmare form beginning to end. But you know what? For some reason, I have, over more than half a century, held on to that sailboat I made. I am looking at right now. And I’ll be entirely honest with you.
It’s not very good.