Vivian Finkel

Hebrew School Educator
1921 – 2009
by Renee Ghert-Zand

Vivian Finkel.

Courtesy of Liora Adler.

I recently learned that Vivian Finkel died last 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.

Her death notice 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.

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.

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:

"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 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.

Originally posted on "Truth, Praise and Help" on November 24, 2009.

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I doubt IÌ¢‰â‰ã¢m the only non-Jew who studied Hebrew with Mrs. Finkel but like the countless other Jewish children whose lives she influenced, Geveret Finkel shaped mine tremendouslyÌ¢‰â‰۝though I was already in my mid-twenties when I studied with her.

From the moment we met at Park Avenue Synagogue she exerted her wonderful energy and indomitable spirit onto my life. At the end of my very first Hebrew lesson she called me a Ì¢‰âÒchachamÌ¢‰âÂå and had this twinkle in her eye when I asked her what that meant. She encouraged me to find out before our next lesson. I was a hopeful NYC actor in those days, mostly earning my living as an art model. During a session at the National Academy not far from Park Avenue Synagogue I put out feelers on the definition of Ì¢‰âÒchachamÌ¢‰âÂå and got my answer. The woman sculptor told me it all depended on context. It could mean smart but it could also mean smart-alecky. Up to that point in my life, sadly, the second definition was more apt so I went with that one.

I will never forget the horror on Mrs. FinkelÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s face when she replied loudly, Ì¢‰âÒDani (my Hebrew name). No, no, no,Ì¢‰âÂå at our next lesson. She went on to reinforce the first meaning of the word and continued to do so for the four years I studied with her. This absolutely changed my life.

In my struggling years in NYC, her classes were the highlight of my week. My stomach may have been growling but my spirits were high. She was the most dynamic teacher, exuding such charisma. ItÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s because of her that I went back to school, studied the Great Books at St. JohnÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s College, tried law school before moving on to a Master of Science in Counseling. And though I studied other foreign languages I never came across another language teacher with her skills.

We corresponded on and off until the early aughts, letters I just recently discovered and which set me on a Google search that led me to this site and the sad news of her passing. She will be missed.


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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Vivian Finkel, 1921 - 2009." (Viewed on April 25, 2024) <>.