Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Educating Rivka

If you are one of my siblings or one of my cousins on my mother’s side, and I say that I’m about to tell you the story of Savtah Rivka, the white lace gloves, and the white lace parasol, you’re probably already smiling. It is, after all, a beautiful story that perfectly captures the force of nature that was my grandmother.

Rivka Schorr was born in Jerusalem in the early 1910s, at a time when the Turkish Ottoman Empire stretched over three continents with Jerusalem more or less at the center. World War I raged when she was still a little girl, and when the war was over, and Western Europe had won, the victors broke the Empire apart into numerous new countries. The area of land that the Romans had called Palestine was handed over to the British, and in 1917 the Balfour Declaration vowed that Palestine would become a homeland for the Jews.

Young Rivka Schorr grew up mostly under British rule, and she was still a little girl when the British divided Palestine into two parts. The larger part to the east of the Jordan River was given to a sheikh to create the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan. The third to the west of the Jordan River was still promised to the Jews, and she grew up with the hope of seeing that dream become a reality.

Rivka was the daughter of a respected orthodox rabbi, who was also a newspaper editor. She was not my great-grandparents firstborn. She was the youngest. But she was the only one to survive past infancy. Naturally, her parents doted on her.

I don’t know how old she was at the time of this story. My guess is that she was probably twelve or thirteen. Both of my grandmothers grew up in Batei Machaseh, apartments that were built to house Jewish families outside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, so this is where the story takes place.  

Photo from of Batei Machaseh

Young Rivka had the proper upbringing for an Orthodox Rabbi’s daughter at the time, which meant she didn’t go to school. There was, as far as I can tell, only one school in the world for Orthodox Jewish school for girls—Bais Yaaakov—and it was very new and very far away in Poland. Orthodox Jewish boys in Jerusalem went to yeshiva, but orthodox Jewish girls were expected to be educated at home by their mothers, governesses or tutors.

This, however, didn’t suit headstrong Rivka Schorr. 

Rivka was determined to go to a real school, never mind what was expected of a rabbi’s daughter!  

The Evelina de Rothschild school for girls in Jerusalem had a required uniform. Rivka couldn’t ask her parents to buy what she needed. Oh, no. They never would have agreed. So she wrote to a cousin in Austria, and asked him to secretly send her a white lace parasol and a white lace pair of gloves. She took them to a hotel in what today is the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City. The hotel belonged to a Jewish woman who later became the grandmother of my writer cousin Emuna Elon’s husband, former Israeli Member of Parliament, Rabbi Binyamin Elon. The hotel’s owner agreed to hold on to the parasol and gloves so that Rivka could pick them up on her way to school.

I imagine young Rivka was very proud of herself, sneaking out behind her parents’ backs, conspiring with her European cousin and with the owner of the hotel, and attending school where no one knew that her parents would have disapproved if only they had known what she was up to.

Unfortunately, however, she couldn’t fool everyone.

Somehow the Maggid, the old Jewish version of the town crier, found out, and he was determined to make sure that everyone heard about it.

One day the Maggid marched back and forth in front of the family’s house and cried over and over, “What can be said of the shepherd that lets his own sheep wander?”

My great-grandfather poked his head out the window and asked, “What’s this about?”

The Maggid told him. My great-grandfather was so embarrassed. And young Rivka Schorr’s secret was a secret no longer.

I wish I could say the story has a happier ending, that my Savtah’s father hadn’t bowed to the expectations of orthodox Jewish society in Jerusalem at the time. But he did. Rivka wasn’t punished, of course. Her parents doted on her too much for that. Instead her father expressed his disappointment and told her he would find tutors for her in any subject she wished to study. And he kept that promise.

My grandmother was brilliant and well educated. While her mother could only speak Yiddish, my grandmother learned to converse in Yiddish, Hebrew, Arabic, Ladino, and three other languages. She made friends everywhere she went, and when she got old and it was time for her to move into a nursing home, she was surprised to discover she already knew most of the residents. The women joyfully cried, "Rivka!" and welcomed her with hugs. 

Still, I love to picture my Savtah as a young girl with white lace gloves and a white lace parasol secretly walking to school in Jerusalem, a young girl determined to get an education who would not let society’s expectations stand in her way. 

No comments: