In Allan Appel’s recently published novel, “The Hebrew Tutor of Bel Air,” teen nebbish Norman Plummer is drawn into a battle of wills and values when he is hired to tutor the seductive and wealthy Bayla Adler for her bat mitzvah. To better understand the book’s unique subject matter, the Forward turned to an expert: Nick Weiss, brother of former Forward staff writer Anthony Weiss, is himself a Hebrew tutor in Los Angeles as well as a film director. Anthony recently sat down with Nick in a Beverly Hills delicatessen to discuss the life of a Hebrew tutor.
Anthony Weiss: Tell us what you thought about the novel.
Nick Weiss: This is an important book. The greatest untold story of modern Jewish life may be the role of the Hebrew tutor. We’re elusive, semi-mythical figures — samurai of learning who sweep into the lives of indifferent Jewish youngsters, wielding a sword of razor-sharp Torah.
Why do you think the author chose to make this a period piece?
Allan clearly did his research. The summer of ’63 was… well, it was just one of those moments. The musty old bearded men of yesteryear faded from the scene, replaced by a new generation of Hebrew tutors: young, hip and dripping with sex appeal. Mavericks like Mel Steinmetz, Barney Kuperstein and Gillie Pinchas roamed the freeways of Los Angeles, leaving a trail of starstruck prepubescents in their wake.
You make it sound downright glamorous.
Look, I’m not saying you can’t head up to the Valley and find a bunch of aging husks plodding around with their Alef-Bet flashcards. But that’s not how I roll. I came out here to make it big. Some of the most important Jews in Hollywood got their breaks as Hebrew tutors — Adam Sandler, Steven Spielberg, Mel Brooks. Did you know Harrison Ford was cast in “Star Wars” after George Lucas watched him teaching George Jr. “ Ein Keloheinu” ?
I don’t think Harrison Ford is even Jewish.
The bar mitzvah circuit is where the big deals go down. I was once gabbai at a bat mitzvah — I can’t reveal the family — but I witnessed a studio head and a top agent make a $20 million handshake deal on the bimah between the second and third aliyot . That’s how it’s done.
Getting back to the story, Norman becomes romantically involved with Bayla. I was wondering —
I think Allan took a cheap shot there, throwing in that tabloid trash to sell a few more books. Sure, things got out of hand in the early ’80s. Everyone was out of control — orgies in the social hall, snorting lines behind the *aron hakodesh, *kids getting paid off in unmarked bills. But the business really scrubbed clean after the Or Shalom bust of ’86.
Actually, I was just going to ask if the relationship with a student became too personal.
You need boundaries. Remember, Jewish teens are at their most vulnerable in the presence of the Hebrew tutor. That power must never be abused.
So you have to maintain a professional distance from the client family?
From the kids. But you can still have a little fun with the mothers. I always keep a pack of Trojans with my Chumash and siddur .
Do you have any stories you’d like to share?
That bit in the book where the stepmom gives Norman a little green Speedo, that really happened to me. And just like Norman, I was propositioned by a Holocaust survivor. Of course she was 87 years old, so it wasn’t as appealing as it would’ve been in 1963.
What about the part where the stepmom starts leaving Norman huge tips? Is that typical?
If you know how to play your cards right. I just did a bar mitzvah in Malibu where the Benjamins were raining down like manna on Shabbos. Double portion, baby.
What did you think of Norman’s whole fascination with motorcycles?
Pissed me off. I happen to know that Allan received that information off the record. It’s a trade secret.
So motorcycles are standard fare for a b’nai mitzvah tutor?
Off the record, yes — ever since Gillie Pinchas showed up on his chopper to tutor young Danny Goldberg in the spring of ’64, it’s been a standard of the trade. Remember, the first step is winning the kid over. You gotta be a rebel — talkin’ tough, dressin’ sharp, smokin’ cigarettes.
Wait, you smoke cigarettes in front of the kids?
You’re damn right I do. It’s role modeling 101. Us Hebrew tutors, we live by our own rules — the kids respect that. Remember, for a lot of these kids, we’re their first and only connection to Judaism. We have to make it seem cool.
“The Hebrew Tutor of Bel Air,” was published July 1 by Coffee House Press.