The Roller Skater

I recently learned that Vivian Finkel died this past June. She wasn’t a great stateswoman, famous entertainer or business mogul. She did, however, help shape the lives of countless Jewish children in Manhattan over the course of more than fifty years. And that counts for a lot, at least in my book.

Leonard Bernstein conducting the Park Avenue Synagogue choir singing his Hashkiveinu, 1945. This was the era in which Vivian began teaching in the synagogue's religious school.

Her obituary in The New York Times was modest. It was short and sweet, unlike Vivian the person who was short and spicy. And salty, too. She could be tough, but always in service of helping her students reach the high standards she set for them. And also unlike her obituary, Vivian was far from humble about her achievements. But after not only surviving, but thriving in the challenging environment of synagogue after school education for so incredibly long, her tooting her own horn was more than justified.

The 19th century Moorish style sanctuary at Park Avenue Synagogue, NYC

I was Vivian’s mentee, colleague, and boss at varying times over the course of a decade. We met at Park Avenue Synagogue in the early 1990’s, when I was beginning my career in Jewish education and she was already in her fifth decade of teaching there. I learned some tricks of the trade by working alongside her for a few years, and was again receptive to her sage advice when I returned to the synagogue a number of years later to direct the education program. Although I did not always see eye to eye with her, I very much appreciated the confidence she had in me and my abilities. The Vivian Finkel stamp of approval was not bestowed on just anyone, so I valued mine greatly. I still do a decade later and thousands of miles away.

Vivian worked to make Hebrew come alive for her students. (The Message by Oded Ezer, 2001)

Geveret (Mrs.) Finkel, also known as HaMorah (Teacher) Vivian, was quite the character. She had presence. And she had style, coming to work every weekday afternoon and Shabbat morning dressed to the nines and fully coiffed. She was from the generation of religious school teachers who not only championed the teaching of the Hebrew language to American Jewish students (and successfully taught it to them), but also viewed themselves as true professionals. There are still many Hebrew school teachers who take their work very seriously, but there are few left who rise to the level of skill, competency and dedication of Vivian Finkel.

I remember one time when I was at a loss as to how to get a certain student and his parents to understand the importance of and to adhere to the school’s attendance policy (three times per week – two days after school plus Shabbat mornings). This was when I was principal and Vivian had already officially retired, though she still seemed to find reasons to come by the school frequently.When Vivian dropped into my office to say hello, I asked her advice. She told me a story:

Could this girl, like Vivian, be on her way to Hebrew school? (Image by H. Armstrong Roberts/CORBIS)

“When I was a young girl I didn’t want to go to Hebrew school. I loved to roller skate and I wanted to go roller skating with my friends instead of going to Hebrew school. My father told me I had to go to Hebrew school, and I protested. And then he told me this: ‘Vivian, there will come a time when you will no longer roller skate, but you will be a Jew all your life.’ So what did I do? I went to Hebrew school like my father told me to…only I roller skated there.”

I am sure that Vivian did hang up her roller skates at some point, but her energy and vigor continued for many, many years. I heard that she did eventually slow down in the period preceding her passing as a nonagenarian, especially after her beloved husband Milton died. I never had the opportunity to ask Vivian about her eschatological beliefs, but I hope she, wherever she is now, knows she can rest assured that her little story, its lesson and she herself will be well and fondly remembered. Her legacy skates on.

© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

Update:  The Jewish Women’s Archive has re-published this tribute to the late Vivian Finkel in its “We Remember: Reminiscences About Recently Deceased Jewish Women Who Made a Difference in Our World” section. Click here to read it and see archival photos of Finkel courtesy of her daughter.

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