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Farewell, Mr. Gnatt. Thank you for the music.

Mr. Moshe Gnatt, my childhood music teacher, died yesterday.

He was the music teacher at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, both in elementary and high school, as well as my long-time piano teacher.

In elementary school he taught us from third grade. He taught us to play the recorder, and one year he also taught us violin.

He would always play funny, lively music when we walked into the classroom. My friend, Mona, and I always remember how he taught us songs like "The sun is a mass of incandescent gas," which we still remember.

More recently, I have been remembering how he often had the song, "Good morning starshine" playing. Since my granddaughters were born in May, I have been singing that song to them when I see them in the morning, too. It's such a great song for greeting people you love. Although it is also an unlikely choice for a yeshiva day school, considering that it is from the play Hair, a hippy-extoling, counter-cultural, sexually explicit piece of art. Mr. Gnatt played it to us anyway. I think there was something playfully rebellious in that choice. It's so interesting because he was a Holocaust survivor and he could hardly be accused of being a hippy. But thinking back, I think he had an understated playful spirit and a wise, soft-spoken, deep care for children.

Also, I think that these choices reflect a very powerful educational statement. In so many classroom environments, children are greeted in the morning with all kinds of barking orders and directions to sit down and be quiet. Mr. Gnatt was doing something radically different by greeting us with music and play. Wow. I can still feel the impact of that today. His room was just different from everyplace else. I am sure we didn't appreciate it then, but as I get older, I appreciate it more and more.

Mr. Gnatt was also my piano teacher for seven years, from third grade through tenth grade. He lived around the corner, and I learned all the classics from him -- Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart, and even ragtime, and Billy Joel. If he heard that I liked a song I was hearing on the radio, he would get me the sheet music, and learn the song himself before teaching me how to play it.

He was also the conductor of the high school orchestra, where I eventually was first piano. Actually, there was only ONE piano player, and it was always the most senior piano player. In order to keep me included in the orchestra, he taught me to play the Glockenspiel in ninth grade. It was a clunky and rather simple instrument to play, but it kept me involved while waiting my turn, which was quite brilliant of him, I must say.

I often feel like orchestra saved my life in high school. I hated sitting in class, I did not know why we were studying most of the topics we were studying, and so many teachers were just really weird, including some who had strange issues -- like the history teacher who sat girls with the biggest boobs closest to him and make sexually inappropriate jokes with the leering smile, or the science teacher who was married to a student and was later found to have been hitting on other girls, or the rabbi who was just way too friendly and touchy with girls while preaching to us about things like negiya, modesty, and the importance of getting married. It would take me another 20+ years to unpack the underlying patriarchy that guided so much of this religious educational experience. But back then, I mostly felt like a complete misfit.

Looking back, it was all a bit surreal, and it is still amazing to me how little the people around me knew about my experience or my inner life. I didn't connect at all to my teachers, I never took notes, and I spent most of high school looking for other things to do. I would get involved in any volunteer club I could, and sought out excuses to get out of the building,. Orchestra was the best for all this. I always had an excuse to leave class -- whether to work on the next school assembly or holiday event, or to play music at a club visit to an old-age home. There was always something. Thank God for orchestra.

I don't know if Mr. Gnatt knew all this about me, but looking back, I'm pretty sure he had a quiet sense. He didn't care at all if other teachers were upset that I was in the music room instead of in with them. He was just doing his thing. Or maybe, deep down, he understood what I needed better than anyone else in my life. It could be. I think he gave me these gifts -- the gifts of music, creativity, and freedom -- without saying a word about why I needed them so badly.

Farewell, Mr. Gnatt. Thank you for the music. And everything else.

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1 Comment

Sheryl Haut
Sheryl Haut
Oct 18, 2021

Thank you for writing this. I also get lost in high school except for orchestra. I remember Mr Gnatt insisting that we put our music on "cardboards" and the look he gave me when my uncardboarded sheet fluttered off the music stand during a school performance 😂. Your essay brought back wonderful memories of school, also terrible ones especially the abusive history teacher you mentioned. But Mr Gnatt was one of a kind! BDE

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