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MEMORIES OF MY GRADE THREE MUSIC TEACHER SHAYLA FINK

By Mira Sucharov, July 20, 2010

LESSONS IN IDENTITY AND MEMORY AT A WINNIPEG BAR MITZVAH

Sometimes, we happen upon a perfect moment of community and connection. One such moment for me involved my daughter, her doll and the memory of John Lennon during a Shabbat morning a few weeks ago.

The setting was Congregation Etz Chayim (formerly Rosh Pina) in Winnipeg’s north end. My daughter, Rory, and I had flown from Ottawa to Winnipeg for the long weekend to attend the Bar Mitzvah of my friend Carrie’s son. Twenty-five years earlier, almost to the day, I had flown from Vancouver to Winnipeg to attend Carrie’s Bat Mitzvah.

As a heartfelt nod to our friendship, Carrie invited Rory and me to lead Ashrei, the prayer immediately following the Haftorah reading. It’s a wordy prayer, chanted responsively. My daughter can’t yet read Hebrew and the English transliteration would be overwhelming for a kid in kindergarten. We practiced a little by watching a rabbi chant it on YouTube. 

She pretty much mastered the first line, but when the time came to stand on the bimah, Rory couldn’t see over the podium. Her solution came midway through the prayer when she lifted her doll, Ashley, above her head and perched it against the edge of the siddur. Titters rippled through the crowd and I stifled a laugh. Ashley was a natural with the Ashrei.

With Ashley’s inanimate, latex nature keeping her serene, I was filled with nostalgia. This was the same shul where I had my own Bat Mitzvah. It was the building where I composed and performed an unabashedly maudlin number with a few friends at the city-wide Jewish song festival in Grade 6. The shul was where my parents had first met at my aunt and uncle’s wedding. And it was the same shul where we said a final goodbye to my Babba Rosie – for whom Rory was named – a dozen years ago.

But it was not only place and space that captured my emotions that Shabbat morning. It was also spotting my beloved Grade 3 music teacher, Shayla Fink, among the worshippers. Whenever I hear the music of the Beatles, I think of Shayla. The same goes when I think of how children are sometimes forgotten during momentous times. You see, Shayla had realized that even eight year olds might want to share in the collective consciousness surrounding the death of one of rock music’s most legendary singer-songwriters.

The day after John Lennon was murdered outside his New York apartment, Shayla changed her lesson plan. She told my Grade 3 class at Ramah Hebrew School about the Beatles, and of Lennon’s tragic death. That day, we learned to sing “With a Little Help from My Friends.” If it weren’t for that lesson, I am certain I would have no direct memory of that hugely significant event.

People like Shayla remind kids that they matter. While adults often talk in hushed tones around children, teachers like Shayla took us seriously. Specifically, Shayla helped carve out a tiny space for us in cultural history. Standing with my daughter and her doll on the bimah that Shabbat morning helped me feel that I was keeping her connected to the long story of Jewish culture through the central practice of communal Hebrew prayer. Leading tefillah as a woman and a girl also reinforced the idea that the chain is being richly broadened from the time of my parents and grandparents. The words to the Ashrei were complicated, but my daughter had a place. The podium on the bimah was too high, but Rory had her doll to help mark the spot. The tune isn’t as melodic as a Beatles hit, but it is pretty and laden with history.
 
When we returned to our seats, an older lady leaned over and smiled at my daughter. I glanced over and paused. I realized that it was my school principal who I had last seen in Grade 3. Her regal face was unmistakable, even 30 years later. “Mrs. Fink?” I whispered (she happens to be Shayla’s mother).
It was, indeed, her. We sat together during the Kiddush luncheon and caught up. Over party sandwiches, cheese kugel and Winnipeg’s famous cinnamon torte, we filled in the links of identity and memory. And with my daughter beside us, we were also helping to add new ones. 

Former Winipegger Mira Sucharov, an associate professor of political science at Carleton University, is writing a book on nostalgia and political change.
 

 

 
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