Going Back to Sunday School

I wake up early, groggily slapping the snooze button and hating the outfit I’ve picked out the night before. When I go to brush my teeth, I’m frightened by the sight of a hideous pimple that seems to be taking over the left side of my face. A familiar sense of dread comes over me. I have to go to Sunday school. Well, I don’t have to go; I’m choosing to go. I’m going back to Sunday school to find out if it’s as bad as I remember it.

The morning is appropriately drizzly, reminding me of the endless San Francisco Sundays I spent hauling myself across town, riding two different buses, to study under the mind-numbing tutelage of a bitter octogenarian named Mrs. Kipnis. Those days are over now, I tell myself. My skin and self-esteem may not have improved, but at least I have a driver’s license, and that’s progress.

I park in the crowded lot of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills and convince Tovi Kempis to let me sit in with his class of sixth-graders. As they mill around, he hands out Hebrew work sheets, and I try to make small talk with the 11-year-olds.

Boys and girls do not intermingle, and it’s clear that, even at this age, cliques are forming. There are pretty girls, sporting bright sneakers, green and purple nail polish, and a confidence that makes me nervous. These are the girls who never talked to me in Sunday school, and aren’t too jazzed on the idea now. Maybe they’ve noticed the pimple. Then, there are more studious types. I sidle up to a redheaded girl with wire-frame glasses.

“So, do you like Sunday school?” I ask.

“Yes,” she says, stopping to think. “Although I feel we could use our class time more productively.”

Next to the redhead, one girl is brushing another’s hair. “What is this, Vidal Sassoon?” asks the teacher, with a thick New York accent. I laugh along with the rest of the class. Are Sunday-school teachers getting better?

Unlike Tovi, who is an actor and stand-up comedian when he isn’t teaching Sunday school, Mrs. Kipnis was short on one-liners. She conducted class with a megaphone, using the device even when you were two feet away. For reasons I’ll never understand, she also insisted on calling me “Laura” for four straight years, as in “Laura, what is the Festival of Lights?”

“Chanukah,” I’d answer, not bothering to correct her.

Tovi serves up bagels and apple juice for snack time, and I take the opportunity to catch up on junior high culture. I muscle in on a group of girls and insinuate myself into their conversation.

“So, what music is cool?” From the looks on their faces, I’m pretty sure the word “cool” isn’t cool. “Do you guys like Alanis Morrisette?”

“Yuck,” responds a girl with a jaunty blond ponytail and a pink plastic watch.

“I liked her in, like, third grade. Now I like Lauren Hill and Natalie Imbruglia.”

I nod enthusiastically and notice that a small crowd has formed around me. For the first time, I’m popular in junior high. You can go back. The break ends, and Tovi launches into today’s lesson with the question of the day: “What in life gives you total concentration?” The answers range from swimming to singing. The discussion heads into other questions: “What do you want to focus on? What do you want to be when you grow up?”

The redheaded girl responds: “I want to be a lawyer for the ACLU. I want to defend the Constitution. Even a horrible person has the right to speak.” Are junior high kids getting smarter?

I’m wondering where this is all going when Tovi asks us to open our books to a chapter on kavanah, which is Hebrew for “intention.” According to the book, “Every Jew must wage a lifetime battle to try to pray, study and act with kavanah.” Have textbooks gotten better?

As I read, I notice the students coming up with every possible excuse to leave the room. Tovi is on to the bathroom thing, so the kids are getting creative with such gems as, “I have to go wash this ink off my hands” and “I have to go throw away this piece of paper.” After awhile, even I am eyeing the door. I read the next passage, “The next time you feel fidgety during services that seem to go on forever, know that other Jews have the same feeling.” Chatter and giggles are breaking out across the room as Tovi tries to discuss the assigned reading. “Girls, I’m talking. That means you’re not.” The room is silent. Now that he has our attention, he says something so simple and poignant that it makes me forget about the pimple and the coffee I didn’t have and the football I’m not watching.

“You guys always ask me why last year’s students come back in here to talk to me. I’ll tell you. It’s because I believe in them. They have my concentration, my intention and my focus. So do you.”

I’m blown away. I have found the anti-Kipnis.

I leave a little early (because I can), and I feel good. I’ve done something productive today. I’ve gone to Sunday school. And it wasn’t half bad.

Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.