Remembering Classmate David Rakoff

Before Fame, Writer Was Short Kid at Toronto's Bialik School

She Remembers When: Before he became a famous writer and radio host, David Rakoff was a short kid in the class at Bialik Hebrew Day School, the Labor Zionist day school in Toronto.
getty images
She Remembers When: Before he became a famous writer and radio host, David Rakoff was a short kid in the class at Bialik Hebrew Day School, the Labor Zionist day school in Toronto.

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Published August 13, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

“Since you contacted me, I’ve been thinking a lot more about Bialik,” David Rakoff told me when I interviewed him two years ago for a piece I was writing for The Jerusalem Report. He was referring to Bialik Hebrew Day School, the Labor Zionist day school in Toronto we both attended as children. It was the place that in many ways launched both of us on our professional trajectories—his as an identifiably Jewish writer, and mine as a Jewish educator. But his Jewish and Zionist identities ended up differing considerably from mine, and that’s why I had wanted to talk to him.

I hadn’t seen David in three decades. Back then, I was one of the tallest kids in the seventh grade and he was by far the shortest boy in the ninth. In my mind, I can still see the diminutive David in his class photo, dressed in a plaid flannel shirt and denim overalls seated cross-legged on the floor—the spot traditionally reserved for the shortest kids.

As much as David was ecstatic to have finally grown and put those years behind him, right now I prefer to picture him in my mind as the short and round-faced, but healthy, boy he was, rather than to look online at recent images of him as he became progressively sicker and thinner.

“I hated being a child,” David told me. This was something I already knew from having read his essay, “Shrimp,” in his last book, “Half Empty.” “Childhood was a foreign country to me. Everyone has an internal age. A time in life when one is, if not one’s best, then at least one’s most authentic self. When your outside and inside are in sync, and soma and psyche mesh as perfectly as they’re every going to. I always felt my internal clock was calibrated somewhere between forty-seven and fifty-three years old,” he wrote.

“There was a lot of collateral damage memory-wise,” he told me, explaining the fact that he hadn’t thought much about Bialik since graduating in 1979.

Much of our conversation was about how I had drunk the Zionist Kool-Aid at Bialik and he hadn’t. I spent several summers in Israel as a teenager and fell in love with the place. David, on the other hand, understood during a revelatory moment while volunteering on a kibbutz in those same years, that Israel would not become a focus of his life. He returned to Israel only one more time—during college to visit family there. New York became his Jerusalem.

“My relationship to Israel is very ambivalent now,” he said. He added that he was reluctant to go into detail, but nonetheless made at least one of his thoughts known. “The fact that a walking racist cartoon like Avigdor Lieberman has a voice beyond the extreme lunatic fringe is outrageous.”

He was disheartened by the shift to the right in both Jewish education and Israeli politics in recent years. “The kind of Jews we were, is somewhat endangered,” he said. David defined himself as a liberal cultural Jew. “I’m anti-religious,” he said. “I don’t like people telling me what to do.” David never felt compelled to keep kosher, but his essay, “Dark Meat,” in “Half Empty” about his love of bacon and pork is one of the most profoundly Jewish pieces of writing I have read.

“I did speak a beautiful Hebrew,” David admitted in regard to his Bialik education. “And I loved learning Yiddish. I love the fact that I know Yiddish, and I feel intensely connected to that—and I thank the school for that.” But it was the leftist, secular European tradition that he felt closest to. “That’s real Yiddishkeit.” It’s the kind of Yiddishkeit that inspired and informed his voice, leading him to write highly observant and incisive works that, like those of his literary predecessors from that tradition, make us laugh and cry at the same time.

When I heard that David had died last week at 47—the age to which he believed his internal clock had always been calibrated— I searched my email inbox for messages he had sent me. I found a note he had written in response to my asking for advice as I prepared to visit our old school to do reporting for my article. I was asking about visiting the school, but he knew I was really talking about revisiting our childhood. “Keep reminding yourself you’re a grown-up,” he wrote.

Renee Ghert-Zand is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to the Forward.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.