Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Let the 10 Commandments Go

Jul 06, 2024 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


      A few days ago, I read a Facebook post that served as a catalyst for this blog, one where I felt the need to air my proverbial two cents. The wording of the post:

Hallelujah! Louisiana has mandated that the Ten Commandments be displayed in every public school in the state. Praise the Lord and all the glories belonging to Him. Amen (followed by an emoji of hands clasped in prayer).   

       The post resulted in me revisiting the landscape of yesteryear, a dangerous undertaking as the past holds any number of landmines. I grew up on a street in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where, in December, one would be hard-pressed to find Christmas lights. As with other minorities, Jewish families congregated in the neighborhood where there was a commonality of religion, culture, and backgrounds. The woman who lived two doors away provided my introduction to the Holocaust when I asked about the inky blue numbers on her arm.

     I attended West Prepatory (West Prep) where, although the students were 98 percent Jewish, the teachers disregarded this statistic when planning seasonal festivities. In December, there was a Christmas tree in our classroom, and the teacher instructed us on how to decorate the evergreen. As an added treat, we put our names in a hat so we could be secret Santas. In that capacity, we would buy each other gifts to place under the tree for “the biggest day of the year.” (I hated what my Secret Santa had given me, disguised under lovely tinsel: brightly colored bath beads. However, I digress). When I returned home, in my first experience at regifting, I presented my mother with the bath beads.

       While waiting for my after-school snack, I burst into a rendition of “Jesus loves me yes I know.” When my Polish-born, orthodox grandfather looked at me in bewilderment, I assumed it was because I had a terrible singing voice. I was aware that I could not carry a tune because in choir the teacher had put her fingers to her lips and scowled in my direction. (Hmmmm another unpleasant memory has just resurfaced. Sorry for this secondary digression). His horror was not because my voice had the effect on humans as a dog whistle did on canines, but because I was singing about Jesus. My mother placated her father, but, she did not voice a word of complaint to the teacher or principal. When I asked my parents if we could have a tree, decorations, and gifts-that seemed a better deal than watching candle wax drip on the menorah, the answer was no- that would be traitorous. In retrospect regarding my crash course in Christmas for Jews, matters could have been worse. For example, there was no discernible mistletoes that entailed the tradition of what occurs when standing under them. One must give thanks for any dodged landmines. 

       I attended York University as an English major, and the University of Toronto where I received my teaching credential. My first position was at North Toronto Collegiate, an upscale zip code. The cars in the students’ parking lot were of much newer vintage than those the staff could afford. One afternoon, a parent dropped by to stipulate he did not want his daughter exposed to “that anti-Semite Shakespeare.”  His bone of contention against the Bard was in Macbeth one of the ingredients in the witches’ cauldron was, “liver of blaspheming Jew.” His greatest ire was directed against The Merchant of Venice. He fumed that the titular character, Shylock, was the stereotypical money-grubbing Jew.  I refrained from giving him my spiel against the slippery slope of banning books. Instead, I told him that the play’s essential theme was Shylock had only become the victimizer after he had been made a victim. Shylock’s famous soliloquy was a plea to treat religious minorities with compassion.  The usurer who had demanded his pound of flesh stated, “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed?” Due either to my failure at the art of persuasion or because of his preconceived notions, his daughter was on an independent contract when we studied Shakespeare. Without the classroom experience, she missed out on a segment of her education. In addition, studying in a room on her own cast her in the role of a social pariah. Kids can be unkind.

         Subsequently, I moved to San Diego where I also worked as a high school English/history teacher, though with a very different student demographic; Sweetwater High was situated a few miles from the Tijuana border. My first several semesters were spent in a trailer that had seen better days. To cover the peeling and pockmarked wall that resembled a Rorschach Test, I hung posters with quotes which I hoped would prove enlightening.  One was from Martin Niemöller, a priest who perished in Auschwitz. Niemöeller wrote, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” We discussed the message of the danger of not speaking out against injustice. By taking the stance of the three proverbial monkeys-seeing, hearing, and speaking no evil does not banish evil.

         However, other teachers had different decorating ideas. When I went into a history classroom, I was appalled when I saw a huge cross on Mrs. G’s wall. Although I wanted to launch into a lengthy harangue how American schools mandate a separation of church and state, how our students were not all heirs of a Judeo-Christian heritage, how the country was not a theocracy, I refrained. Sometimes, sometimes, I have instances of self-control-precious in its rarity.

         Currently, the situation involves not just an isolated teacher in an inner-city school making her religion take precedence. Now it is the lawmakers who are stipulating a religious symbol take its pride of place on public school walls.  

       All students matter equally, and in a multicultural country, teachers should not do what my elementary school did: foist symbols on students even though they are not part of their comfort zone. Secondly, in public schools we must uphold the Constitutional mandate of the Founding Fathers who were unequivocal in their demand that church and state slumber in different beds. Third, we must reinforce the precept that, unlike Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, we are a democracy, not a theocracy.

       And then there are the practical reasons for not posting the Ten Commandments, which, if its image is going to be a nod to verisimilitude, should display Hebrew letters. The first issue is a linguistic one. If something is going to be on classroom walls, it should have a pedagogical purpose. How, exactly, should elementary teachers have a discussion regarding phrases such as, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife?” If I had explained that biblical injunction, no doubt a teenaged boy would have called out, “Yeah, but not if she’s a MILF!” For the uninitiated, a MILF is an acronym for, “Mothers I would like to F***.” (Welcome to my world). An equally daunting Commandment to explain, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” The tenet would merit the same MILF response. Even “Honor thy mother and father” might prove problematic. I can just hear one of the little darlings shout out, “Not my father. He’s an a-hole.” And yet, the problem of Moses’ tablets extends beyond linguistics.

        I have had atheist parents tell me that they are against their children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance due to its phrase, “one nation under God.” The students had to wait in the hall each morning until the announcement, delivered via the P.A. system, informed,  “You may now be seated.” The kids in the hall did not want to be singled out; several students whined why they had to stay inside.  Jehovah Witness parents made it clear that I was not to foist any of the Satanic rituals of Halloween on their offspring. Take it from a veteran teacher-with wrinkles to prove her years in the educational trenches- there is enough mishigas in the classroom without adding anything else to the mix.

       Of course, one way to skirt the mandated display of the Ten Commandments would to be merely drive a nail through the poster and then let it gather dust. If teachers tale this route, the students will peruse the wording with as much scrutiny as they do to the fine print on the fire hydrant locked in glass cases by the doors. By merely tacking the poster on the wall, the controversy regarding the states’ mandate is a nod to much ado about nothing. Despite the plethora of posters that I painstakingly put up, I am sure if I asked students about them, even as graduation approached, they would have no recollection, though it had been part of their classroom landscape during the previous ten months had been. In contrast, the semi anatomically correct depiction of a male appendage that appeared on my white board-that no artist fessed up to drawing-was remembered by all. Thank God the rendition did not make it into the Yearbook. My principal is the educational equivalent of Nurse Ratched; one needed a First Aid kit upon entering her office.

       I hope I have not given the impression that I have objections to the inherent principles of the Ten Commandments. As a student in after school Hebrew classes, I loved the story of the Old Testament prophet talking to God who appeared in the guise of a burning bush, the Golden Calf, and the return trip up Mt. Sinai. If everyone followed the ancient texts’ precepts, the world would be far more utopian.

         For my part-unless California follows suit with the South-I will stick to teaching morality through literature and history, and not by an ancient document, held sacred only by some. I am optimistic that teachers will take the stance, “I will not post” as their commandment, their commitment, to American democracy. In a paraphrase of Moses’ injunction to his Lord, “Let the 10 Commandments Go.”