Memoirs of a Yeshiva Misfit
“Will that cover it?” I asked the restaurant manager handing him two twenties. He nodded yes glancing sharply at my friend who stood in the thrall of mind-altering substances, too stupefied to be concerned with the fact that he couldn’t pay his own bill. I don’t know how he had gotten my number but he had been lucky, my Manhattan apartment was just a few blocks from this restaurant, so I had come to bail him out.
“What were you thinking,” I asked as we left, leading him by the arm, but he was incoherent, dosed on something I had likely never heard of, and could no more answer my questions than understand them.
I let him sleep it off on my couch, and in the morning he woke me up to ask for more money for a cab home. There was no other conversation. Just, “ I need some more money to get home.”
It was the first time I had seen him in at least ten years. He had changed so much. The lines on his face, the receding hair, he didn’t meet my gaze as I forked over the cash. And as he left without a word I could almost see the kid he used to be, and was reminded of the time we had spent together in Yeshiva….
How can I begin for you…How can I let you see through my eyes, to tell this story as it needs to be told…well, I will set the stage, I was a vibrant and healthy young man, making my way through my first year in Yeshiva. I remember sitting on my bed in my cubicle of a dorm room, and looking out the window at a world gone gray.
Mid-December in the northeast means that every tree is bare, and the sun dares not peak from behind the dismal clouds that seem to frown on your very existence. The feeling permeates your soul and even your stride seems shorter, your purpose muted by the doldrums that winter casts in its long shadow.
I toyed with the condensation as I breathed onto the first floor window of my room, writing the names of our noted luminaries, my finger squeaking with friction, as I penned their greatness immemorial into a fleeting existence of vapor on glass: “Rambam….Rashi…the balay Tosafos”
What had their young lives been like?
Had they gravitated naturally to the powerful logical framework of the Talmud, immersing themselves in its waters of knowledge and understanding, without coercion? Or did they have the helping hand of the rabbinate, as I did, threatening spiritual destruction in the absence of proper performance. Controlling their lives and actions, with ever-present watchfulness, grinding their will to dust with grueling fourteen-hour days in the Beis Medrish.
Probably the former, I reasoned to myself, I had been well trained to know that these scholars were in no way comparable to a current day human.
But had they not ever wished for a day off? I knew I did; it was clear evidence of my inferior character.
I put on my winter coat, and fished my boots out of the puddle that melted snow had created around them. I trudged up the dormitory stairs to get my night seder chavrusah, and tried not to think of the next two hours of mind numbing review that awaited me in the Beis Medrish. As I opened his door I was met with a gust of freezing air.
Pulling my coat closed against the cold, I immediately knew that something was amiss. Yakov Bruner, my night seder chavrusah, did not carry a gemarah in his hand as I did. In fact, he was covered from head to toe in fluffy snow, as was Eli Rubenstein, who stood next to him, sporting a grin that spoke of misadventure and more to come.
“Ben ! You have to try this,” Eli said breathlessly above the whistling wind that rattled the posters and paraphernalia in his room to nature’s own rhythm. A picture of Rev Moshe had broken the bonds of its scotch tape and lay face up on Yakov’s pillow starring reproachfully at us all. And judging from the way Rav Hutner was flapping in the breeze his time was soon to come.
Now Eli Rubenstein was something of an unsavory character in the Yeshiva world. His natural light blond hair made everyone wonder if the shabbos goy had accidentally wandered into the beis meidrish, whenever Eli arrived. And his arrivals were far from frequent enough to win over the heart of the Menahel. Additionally to his detriment: Eli was not a learner. Just watching him try was enough to make you feel painfully uncomfortable. He would butcher every Rashi, stuttering out the words piecemeal, never able to make any logical connections. Just staring at the small print seemed to make his eyes strain and nose run.
But where wit failed, Eli, had dexterity. He was short and wiry, and, God, I don’t know, he just had the ability to move. You couldn’t catch him on the football field; he was too light on his feet and could bolt in any direction at a whim. Oh, and one more thing, he could dance, not just running in a circle “dance”; this was something different, a grace given only unto the petite of frame, a synchrony of sinew and sound that was something to behold. Even the longest bearded Rabbis would clap and admire him at a Mesibah, as he bobbed and weaved effortlessly to the rhythm of the music.
But such popularity is not meant to last, and the warmth of rabbinic appreciation, cooled as the music played out. Eli was deemed a poor prospect and thus a bad influence; it was rumored that he would be asked to leave after ninth grade.
“Try what? It’s time for night seder”, I said, as Rev Moshe’s picture seemed to frown in joint dismay, from his new home, snuggled cozily, in Yakov’s bed sheets, “and close your window, it’s freezing in here.”
“Wait,” said Yakov, smiling an unwholesome smile, “You have to see this.”
Yakov Bruner was a different story all together. He was a year older than the rest of us fourteen year olds and had a sad past. His mother had died several years ago and it had left an emotional scar. He was tall, dark haired, with a powerful build, and it seemed, that his response to the pain of his loss was the adoption of a new mentality devoid of fear of consequence or authority. I was drawn to this trait, perhaps because I lacked it in entirety.
Many had been the time Bruner had been asked point blank by a teacher if he wanted a failing grade for his poor behavior, only to invite a display of unflinching poor judgment in return, “Yes, I would like a failing grade…and why don’t you give it to me.”
If I had been allowed to watch the “breakfast club” I would have noted the similarity to Jud Nelson. It was like watching a voluntary train wreck, a self-induced disaster guaranteed to occur if the right mix of control and caprice were brought to a boil.
Yakov’s powerful disdain for authority extended beyond the bounds of this realm, and one Friday night as I sat next to him during a dinner time dvar torah about taking God’s name in vain, I heard him whisper under his breath, “Fuck you, God.”
“Shhhhhh”, I had told him, “Don’t be an idiot, you can’t win against God, it’s not like making fun of an English teacher..it’s…it’s..just wrong.”
“Why”, he had asked me plainly, “what’s he going to do.”
I scooted over an inch to avoid the bolt of lightning I knew was on its way.
And where was my place amongst such rebels?
I had no childhood traumas, indeed my childhood prepared me poorly for yeshiva, my parents were lax and allowed me to play and learn as I wished. As for academics, the Talmud gave me few problems in decoding it’s encryption, but the slew of science fiction books and radios I had “donated” to my dorm counselor were earning me a name with the hanhalah.
Why, my Rebbi asked me on numerous occasions, could I not just let go of the outside world and concentrate on this unique opportunity to mold myself in the image of a true ben torah? I didn’t have an answer for him, I couldn’t put my finger on the source of my resistance, but in the end I had to acknowledge that it was there, and the tighter he squeezed the more I yearned to break free of my yoke.
It would take me many years to untangle my feelings towards religion and isolate the reasons I couldn’t bring myself to follow the law as preached so confidently from behind mahogany shtenders. As a youth I just knew that something deep inside of me would not give in to the control tactics, the manipulation; if there was truth to be found it would come to me on my own terms, I was sure of it. And no sermon in Yiddish, nor musar from the most convincing teacher could turn me from what I new in my heart.
The three of us had nothing in common other than discontent, but such are the ties that bind.
“You wanna go?” Yakov asked Eli. They were both breathing heavily and the excitement of the moment was palpable.
“No, you go,” said Eli, laying down the gauntlet. This was characteristic for these two, every conversation was turned into a brazen confrontation of wills.
“No you,” said Yakov, secure in his obstinacy, you see, it was his defining characteristic, and he prided himself in it’s usage in all situations.
“No, you, stupid,” said Eli, bumping the rhetoric up a level.
“You’re calling me stupid? You can’t even read a Rashi,” said Yakov, knowing full well that he was baiting Rubenstien for a fight.
“Just go! If your not afraid…chicken…bawk, bawk, bawk”, Eli clucked waving his folded arms at his side and strutting in a circle…. “b’cawk”
“You, just go!”
This towering height of ninth grade conversational ability was brought to an end as Eli climbed up on the open windowsill and perched expertly on this narrow stretch balancing with his hands against the frame.
“Fine, I’ll do it,” he said smirking, “Watch this Ben.”
I was alarmed.
“See what ? Do what? What on earth do you think you’re doing?”
Eli winked and let his hands drop to his sides, his feet slid of the sill and in a moment he was gone. I heard a shout of glee where there should have been a splat.
Bruner looked at my astonished face and laughed heartily.
I ran to the window and looked out to see Eli buried up to his neck in a huge snowdrift that had collected where the building met itself at a right angle.
“Your crazy”, I yelled into the wind, “you could of killed yourself.”
I would have heard his answer but Yakov was pushing me out of the way and climbing onto the windowsill himself.
And down he went, hitting the snow bank with a puff of powder released at impact.
I stared out into the night in dismay…. they were both nuts.
Eli burst back into the room first, gasping for air from the run up the steps, “Ben you have to try it, it’s amazing.”
I stood next to the window, eyeing the rusty metal and peeling white paint, and then climbed up unsteadily into the sill. I just wanted to get a closer look at how far the drop was, I told myself.
I stared down the pale outer wall following its descent brick by brick from where it left the window all the way down to the snow below. Suddenly my perception seemed off, and I was seized by a strange sense of vertigo, down seemed up and up seemed down. My intenstines tightened into knots, and I felt nausea permeating my stomach. My hands clutched the windowsill tightly now in true fear, as my legs began to shake under me.
“What’s wrong?” asked Eli puzzled, “Just Jump!”
He didn’t understand, where he was as lithe as a little monkey, I was gangly and forlorn, as if a godly experiment gone awry, I was a teenager made from long flailing arms and legs each operating without consulting central control.
“No, I’m not going to do it”, I said in terror, it was the smart move on my part, it was time for night seder, I was in enough trouble already, and truly this could be dangerous.
That’s about when my foot slid off the ledge.
My eyes opened wide with terror as I realized I was going down, my hands clung on for a fraction of second digging into the paint on the sill but they could not support my weight.
And then I was falling…
There was no night seder, no Rashi, no Rabbi, no task, no duty, only the world pulled out from beneath me, my hand tracing across the bricks as the image of Eli and Yakov on the other side of the window drifted up and away to the sound of my, “AAAAAGGGHHHH!!!”
In a burst of white flakes it ended. I sat there in the fluff for a moment and took a quick inventory. I was alive….yes….intact…wait a second… that was fun, that was mamesh fun!
I burrowed my way out of the snow and looked up as Eli used one hand as a pivot and came out the window head first, he tucked himself into a ball and landed with his feet in the snow as graceful as a ballerina.
He was submerged a few inches away from me
“That was awesome,” I yelled.
Yakov came down in a heap a few inches to my right spraying wet snow everywhere.
“Whoohooo.”, he exclaimed summing it all up.
I viewed the situation with fourteen-year-old talmudic acumen for a moment. Clearly jumping out of windows was fun. But the fun ended as soon as one landed. The only possible solution to such a stupefying problem was….more jumping.
We raced back up to the room, and without hesitation Eli leapt head first out the window using his hands to balance.
I tried to copy it, clambering up into the window sure of my resolve to dive into a cannonball and flip over. But as the vertigo took me I chickened out and went down feet first. Yakov followed almost immediately.
We ran up the step and burst into the room, my heart was racing a mile a minute, and snow had worked its way into every gap and seam on my clothing. Soaking wet and thrilled with the prospect of another plunge I made for the window but Eli beat me to it. He was getting ready for another dive when we heard it. It was a characteristic knock on the door that we all knew a little too well.
Eli stepped back from the window in fear, Yakov sat down on the bed and pulled off his coat, I simply turned to face the music.
The door swung open revealing before us the large oval frame of Shalom Newberg, Head dorm counselor.
“Hello”, he said slowly entering the room, eyes roving all around taking in every detail, every clue of wrongdoing.
Shalom was a large man, and he carried his weight smack in the middle of his body, stomach protruding from hips like an unbidden eruption of adipose tissue. His legs were thin and spindly giving him the impression of balancing his girth upon stilts. His gait followed suit, and he almost waddled into the room, distributing his mass as if upon two toothpicks holding up an egg. His face pictured a perpetual smirk.
He was a power broker, this man, and wielded his hold over us with a singular mirth and delight. Many had been the time he had toyed with me. Asking for details on a Scientific American article I was reading as if to make conversation, before gently pulling it from my hands, “for your own good,” he would say, “one day you will understand.” It was like being crushed slowly under his heal.
“What’s going on”, he asked speaking the words with lips turned down, mouth never deviating from that half bemused half disappointed expression.
No fool this one, he knew he had us, he just wasn’t sure for what.
Like an ostrich burying its head, I simply looked down, hoping to avoid making the situation worse.
As if foreshadowing the coming doom Rav Hutner’s picture chose this moment to flutter from the wall, it skittered across the room creating a bizarrely realistic illusion of Rav Hutner sliding into first base…..safe!
“Night Seder started fifteen minutes ago,” said Newberg, looking from me to Eli to Yakov, putting out his psychic antennas to sample the chemical residues of our fear and predict who would crack first.
“What are you doing here,” he inquired and following his gut walked over to Eli, and taking in his wet coat and shoes with swift eyes behind tinted glasses, probed further, “snowball fighting ?”
Eli looked away, keeping silent, his mind was running laps, as was mine, digging franticly for an excuse that was reasonable, not forbidden, and included being soaking wet and covered in snow. It had to be something so intuitive that whoever brought it up would be assured of unanimous agreement within the group. There could be no dissenting opinion, and there was only one chance to get it right and the clock was ticking. I made my decision: Football.
It wasn’t ossur, and it explained our clothes. Being late for night seder carried enough of a penalty, we didn’t need to be hit with anything more. I felt fairly certain that jumping out the window qualified as something more. Yes, that was it, if he asked me I would lie and lead with football, and hope to god that Yakov and Eli had the sense to follow my lead.
So young to have such a criminal mind.
But fate did not have it that way, or perhaps it really was a developed skill Newberg had honed to perfection over the years, preying on the fears of the young and helpless, for he didn’t ask me a thing but went straight to Yakov Bruner, straight to the kid who couldn’t back down from a fight or say no to a challenge.
“What did you do here tonight, Yakov?” he asked, as Bruner stood from the bed to face him man to man, to stare at him eye to eye and let him know that his authority held no power over him.
Oh curses, Oh damnation, that bloodhound Newberg was on the scent, Bruner would not back down, he would state his actions in bold defiance and revel in his own punishment and Newberg new it.
I met Eli’s gaze and saw he knew it too. We were lost, all lost.
“What makes you think that it is your business, Shalom,” said Yakov, careful to stand so his nose was almost touching Shalom’s, exuding his rebel spunk in the glint of his eyes and the tone of his voice, “were late for night seder, and now we are going.”
That smirk, that suspicious, degrading smirk just deepened as Shalom looked at the open window, and then back at Yakov, I could sense the wheels turning in his head, but he hadn’t put it together yet.
He pressed further ignoring the chutzpah of being called by his first name, “But what were you doing, to make you late, Yakov?”
Bruner wouldn’t drop his gaze, he wouldn’t lie, and he was about to blurt it out.
It would be bad for me, maybe even “suspension” bad, or “on your permanent record” bad, and the same went for Brunner, but for Rubenstien it would be different. There had been too many warnings, too many second chances..
I think he sensed that, I think at some level Eli knew that this was the end for him. Because that’s what it seems like when you are fourteen and you get kicked out of Yeshiva. It just seems like the end of your life. Like a failure from which there is no return.
I cannot attest to the thoughts in another man’s mind, but what could Eli be thinking just then. I don’t believe he could have predicted the end results of his actions. I don’t think any of us could.
Perhaps, poor Eli, decided that his end was going to be a beginning, a story, a thing that people would talk about for years to come. I imagine that’s what he thought, for he never gave Newberg a chance to hear Yakov speak.
“I can’t take it anymore, Rabbi Newberg,” Eli stood up and confessed with no hint of sarcasm, “I can’t take the pressure of Yeshiva and learning…I just can’t”
And with that, he turned on one squeaky wet heel. Took two long steps and, touching neither frame nor sill, jumped head first out the second story window.
Now, I knew he was fine, and so did Yakov, that kid was as dexterous as a chimpanzee. But Shalom Newberg believed himself to be witnessing the first attempted suicide in the history of the Yeshiva.
Given the knowledge of my later years I am surprised he did not have a heart attack on the spot. But, in fact, he just stood there, frozen. I can still picture him, black hat tilted to the side, tinted glasses with mold on the nose pieces, pendulous girth overflowing belt and buckle, and that damned smirk replaced with the most bizarre, caricatured, O.
He held that pose for so long I was tempted to throw pennies or lozenges in his mouth from behind an imaginery line, for sport, or at least walk over and gently push his lower jaw back from whence it came.
It must have been a full fifteen seconds before he walked over to the window to look down.
He turned to me for the first time, not as Shalom Newberg, head dorm counselor, to be feared and revered, to hide my books and radios from, to talk in a respectful tone to; but as a humbled man, afraid of what had just happened, asking me for help.
“What happened Benyamin, where is he, where is he…” he asked in a high shaky voice scanning the snow through the darkness of night.
I took pity on him I really did, I was about to allay his fears when Eli Rubenstien burst into the room covered in white fluff, stopped in the middle of the room pointing the fingers of both hands at Shalom and burst out, “ I got you, I really got you,” and then fell into near psychopathic laughter.
Rabbi Newberg slumped onto the bed in relief, ignoring the fact that all three of us now were hooting and hollering at his expense.
He tried to regain composure, “Your all..late for night seder…” he was so winded he could barely talk, but it wouldn’t have mattered had he orated the combined musar of the middle ages at full volume. His spell was broken, his authority had dissipated into thin air. He was just some guy waddling to the door in most desperate need of a change of underwear.
Our sense of newfound control was intoxicating and we pranced about the room in celebration after the door had closed behind Shalom.
“Eli, your crazy, I mean that was great, but your crazy,” I told him as he bounced up and down on someone’s bed.
He did have a crazed look in his eyes just then, as if in realizing the end of his Yeshiva career he had discovered himself, a self he was at ease with, one that made sense to him.
Even Yakov was duly impressed with Rubenstein’s performance, “you’re a total nutcase, mamash a nutcase…but that was the best thing I’ve ever seen.”
We didn’t go to night seder, but spent our time in that room telling and retelling the story.
“You should have seen the look on his face!”
“ He had no clue what was going on?”
“He never saw it coming!”
The funny thing was, it was never reported, none of us ever sat across the desk of the Menahel to explain our actions, no report was ever made.
I think Shalom felt best to let that incident slide from his memory, I think he was more afraid of what the hanhallah would say to him if they found out kids were jumping out the window on his watch.
All of us made it through that year in Yeshiva, but Eli and Yakov did not graduate. They were expelled in tenth and eleventh grade. I was the only one of the group to receive a prestigious diploma from this institution. And that by the skin of my teeth.
I saw Yakov some time later, many years after our adventures in Yeshiva, and, in fact, he came to my wedding to wish me well, and to my knowledge he leads a happy life. I could still sense the rebellion in him though. It’s hard to erase something that runs that deep. He had gripped my hand, smiled kindly, and asked me to, “be good.”
I met Eli several times in later years, but life had not been kind. One failed business venture after another had left him hard and bitter, replacing the eagerness of his youth with resigned anger.
I don’t know when he turned to drugs, or how long it took for them to ruin him, and I won’t be so trite as to just blame it on yeshiva, but when I paid his bill at the restaurant that night, most of his former self was gone, and I could barely recognize the kid I once knew.
I wanted to remind him that he once inspired me and himself, that he once threw caution to the wind and took a chance, even when he suspected it would change his life. I wanted to tell him that he still had that power within him, that it was not too late to start again. But he couldn’t listen.
I had decided, a few weeks ago, to write down some stories of my Yeshiva experience, and I suppose I found it most important to write about Eli because that’s what came out on this blank page. Eli when he was in control, when he was a force to be reckoned with, is a memory I cherish. When he showed me that power and authority can be as fragile as a soap bubble and popped just as easily is something I won’t soon forget, and I try to think of him as Eli Rubenstein the fearless kid who jumped out a second story window all those years ago….when he was still capable of being…my friend.