Memoirs of a Yeshiva MIsfit Part Three: The List
The headlights were blinding, and I stepped back, off the paved road, on to soft earth and grass, waving a hand at the driver.
I was almost sad to get picked up so early. The night had been cool with the scent of spring abounding through the air. Grass, leaves, flowers, all mixed in a soft aroma that made you feel that, somewhere out there, hope, and wonder, and mystery still abounded and had been born anew in the natural cycle of the seasons. Standing out on the street corner, I had felt more alive and vibrant than I had the entire day.
Crickets chirped from the base of a nearby tree, giving my nightly routine the feel of a summer camp outing. I could smell wet earth in the air, so different from the stale air of the Beis Medrish, it touched some primitive chord in my mind, connected me, perhaps, to man’s legacy of tilling the soil, and taking joy in the labor that produced his sustenance.
I took a last deep breath of what smelled like freedom.
The passenger side window rolled down in a display of high technology for the time.
“New”, he asked, “where are you off to?”
“Pine”, I replied, putting my hand on the door, “right where it crosses fifth.”
He nodded in the affirmative, it was more like a shrug of noncommittal; a yeshiva specific gesture that spoke of his lack of interest, but ultimate willingness to comply. It was customary for the older Beis Medrish students to offer a ride to their younger counterparts.
I made myself comfortable in the front seat, carrying only a bag with a toothbrush, toothpaste, and some soap in a small plastic soapbox.
My driver seemed inestimably old to me, he no longer had the thin face and boyish looks that separated the high school students from those who lingered on for interminable years of Beis Medrish after they finished. Where his chin ended there was a roll of fat, and I could see the prickly stubble of a beard poorly shaved. His oily hair was matted off to one direction, which made me suspect he was likely off on a shidduch date tonight. That and the pervasive presence of Aqua Velva gave it away.
He pulled the car away from the curb and drove into the night.
“What sugyah are you holding in?”
I replied, and expounded, detailing the details, nitpicking on mipharshim’s nitpicking, splitting ideas that needed to be split, respect ting the boundaries that needed to be adhered to, displaying memory, and interest, and ability; all the while staring out the window at the color, and light, and life outside of the yeshiva world.
It was early spring, and people where outdoors, doing, what was to me, strange goyish activities; walking around seemingly devoid of any purpose, talking loudly, their conversation fading in and out as we passed them by. They were eating outside the traifa restaurants, under their blazing neon signs; dining on plastic tables hastily assembled to take advantage of the fair weather.
I watched them with a mesmerized, detached, and highly prejudicial fascination. Many had been the time I had entertained base and uncensored fantasies about what life might be like if the weight of orthodox belief were somehow lifted off my shoulders. But what did they think? What did they feel, and how did they know what to do, without the permeating code that I lived my life by?
Even as I wondered I continued to recite my lesson by rote.
He nodded along with me, occasionally adding his own insight, as I spilled out the contents of the day’s shiur in halting unplanned sentences. He seemed happy to have the distraction from his impending rendezvous with one of the most painful social interactions ever envisioned.
He pulled up to the corner I had requested, “Kol tuv”, he said and ended our brief meeting. I nodded my head in a, “thank you.”
The house I was staying in was non descript. A paved set of stairs led up to a simple door. And as I trudged up the stairs I wondered if Rabbi Silver and his wife were home yet, or if it would be the babysitter answering the door again.
I pulled open the screen door and rapped lightly on the thin wooden one. In response the dinning room window was pushed open. Blue curtains swayed outward into the night air.
“Well,” I thought to myself, “that would be the babysitter.”
A few seconds later and a young Beis Yakov girl opened the door for me. She was covered with denim and cloth, swathed with it from head to toe, giving the impression of a heavily clad football player. She had a frilly collar to cover her neck from which her head almost seemed to sprout like some overgrown, bizarre, radish from its greens. She balanced a pair of glasses at the end of a bulbous nose. She smiled apologetically, “ I’m sorry, I don’t want to rush you but….I don’t even want a chashash of Yichud.”
“Chas Vesholom,” I said, indicating my cooperation.
It is so very hard, to think back and remember what encounters with the opposite sex were like as teenager. With no sisters, and stuck in my all male dorm, I literally had no experience with the other gender. I might as well have been speaking with a Martian.
Everything she did seemed strange to me, the way she talked and walked, even the way she motioned me to follow her quickly across the living room where a handful of the Rabbi’s children watched me in the silence they afforded my nightly intrusions. I carefully placed my footfalls around the scattered toys and books. A three year old waved playfully at me. I smiled back.
“Please,” she said and waved her hand in the direction of the basement steps indicating how urgent it was that I make it there in haste.
She closed the door , and from behind it, I thought I heard her breathe a sigh of relief as she fastened the eyepiece lock in position.
“Moishe,” she called out to one of the Rabbi’s minion of offspring, “you can close the window now.”
She spoke to me through the closed door, “ I’m sorry, that we have to lock you in, but I spoke to Rabbi Silver about it, and he said it is the best way to avoid a any problem with hilchos Yichud.”
She had locked me downstairs every night she had baby sat, but this was the first time she had felt the need to justify it with an explanation.
I thought I would ease the tension with a little humor, “Don’t worry,” I said as I clicked the pushbutton lock on the inside door handle, “now we are both safe.”
It seemed evenhanded to me, evidence of my lack of experience with the opposite sex.
She gasped, “Oy, mamash a menuval…”
“Why,:” I asked, exasperated with a rule system, supported by everyone I knew and respected, that saw fit to lock me in a basement on a nightly basis, “isn’t that exactly what you are doing to me…”
“No…” she said, and paused perhaps dredging through the hours of Beis Yakov seminary material that dealt with this specific issue, “because the metzius of a man and a woman is different, and … to even suggest.”
She paused, as if it were difficult for her to talk, “ ….that I…” her voice quivered.
“But isn’t that what you suggest….about me?”
It had started as a jest, but here I chaffed accidentally against truth. I knew the laws of Yichud as well as anyone else. Hell, I had studied the sugyot on depth. But, the actuality of it, of being forced into confinement, had begun to make me feel….well….criminal.
She decided to change tack and her voice gained strength from behind the closed door, “You know, they told me you were thrown out of the dormitory, and now I think I understand why.”
That was true.
I had been thrown out of the dormitory, that was why I was here, standing on the third basement step down, in some Rabbi’s house, talking tentatively to a wooden door.
It had been the culmination of being caught at one to many movies, having one to many “goyish” books. I had been called into Rabbi Brindel’s office a month ago and informed that my very presence was not tolerable amongst the other bochurim. My personality had been deemed a poisonous fume that could no longer be allowed to mix with the innocents and pure of heart.
It had been a house cleaning, performed by the Hanhalah.
Senior year was fast approaching, and several bochurim had been deemed unfit to accept the lofty honor of graduating the prestigious yeshiva program. Three of my closest friends had just been expelled after a brief discussion with Rabbi Brindel. I, on the other hand, had one Rabbi who believed in me, and he had used his influence to ascertain this bizarre state of limbo for me: Half in the Yeshiva, half out. A tenuous trial period for the last two months of my junior year.
There, on the steps with the babysitter, I toyed with several delectable retorts including a sardonic comment incredulously questioning, “anyone’s inclination to have Yichud with her,” but decided against a prolonged argument with a girl who would likely complain to Rabbi Silver about me.
I thought of saying I was sorry, to diffuse what was building into a contest of wills, but from within my basement cage, it seemed that compromising in any way with regards to what my ideal of fair was, would be giving up on the last thing that still remained mine: my own thoughts, my own vision of a morality that existed in my heart untouched and uninformed by the laws of the talmud. The Yeshiva world didn’t get to have that. I guarded that deep down in the recesses of my mind.
I thought of just saying good night, but in the end I kept my mouth shut and made my way in to the mildew-scented basement.
The accommodations were sparse. A thin cot lay pushed up in the corner next to a small nightstand. The walls were thin wooden paneling thrown up hastily over rough concrete, which peeked through gaps in the woodwork. A small table and desk stood next to the lone lamp in the room.
I sat down on the bed and kicked off my shoes. I had tactfully mentioned to Rabbi Silver, that there was nothing for me to do when locked in the basement at night. He had responded very enthusiastically about me bringing my seforim over from the Beis Medrish, but that he could not allow any “English” books in his house.
I took of my Yarmulke and put it on the nightstand. I lay down fully clothed on top of the covers and stared at the white tiled ceiling. A small clock on the nightstand ticked out the seconds as time slowed to a near standstill.
It had been a difficult last month for me in yeshiva. With my core group of friends gone, I felt very much alone. Walking through the linoleum lined halls without the usual presence of my loud and boisterous comrades left me with the anesthetized tingle of an amputee.
Rabbi Brindel had made the deal quite clear. I could see his face in my minds eye, stroking his beard in thought as he spoke to me.
“Uhh…Benyamin….Either your going to be…the bochur, that we know you can be with the proper hishtadlus, or you are going to find another path…”
He had outlined the details. No forbidden music or books. Perfect attendance at Seder. Ninety percent or better on all lumudai Kodesh bechinahs. If these conditions were met I would be allowed to return for and complete my senior year.
I lived my life now knowing I was being closely watched by the hanhallah. Scrutinized carefully for any hint of wrongdoing. I had not been thrown out, that was true, but I had maneuvered myself into a corner from which I no longer had any choices.
I let my eyes wander around the room, looking furtively for something to pass the rest of day. I let them rest momentarily on each object in turn. The white tiled ceiling, the peeling and faded wood paneling. The lone chair and desk. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I folded my hands over my stomach, nestled my head a little deeper in the pillow, and waited impatiently for sleep to come and take me away.
The next morning started as usual, with 12 of Rabbi Silver’s kids jumping on my bed, head, and other sensitive areas, to wake me up.
Someone was pulling on my hand, “Wake up, Yeshiva Bochur, wake up.”
They scattered as I got out of bed and within a few minutes I was in the car with Rabbi Silver back to Yeshiva. He was a Rebbi for one of the ninth grade shiurim, who had agreed to accept my dormitory fee and put me up for two months, and he had taken on the habit of conversing with me about my progress, or perhaps it was the only thing we had to talk about.
The conversation was innocuous enough for me to participate and daydream at the same time.
How was shiur going? Was I making the grades? Was I gaining the deeper understanding of yiddishkeit and yashrus that came with torah knowledge?
I nodded to all in the affirmative.
But then he changed the tone.
“You know, Chava, our babysitter, said that you said some unusual things last night…”
“Why, that little tattletale”, I thought. “She had gone and squealed on me”!
This was similar to the overwhelming majority of trouble I had found myself in over the years in yeshiva, in that it generally boiled down to some goody two shoes turning me in, for “my own good.” To me the tattletale was the lowest from of retribution against someone you had a gripe with, it spoke of cowardice and a backhanded view of dealing with problems.
Once, while in ninth grade, I had been temporarily befriended by a young dorm counselor, he had shown interest in me, and my taste for rock music and science fiction. He had told me about his own interest in these things in his “early yeshiva days”. But once he had ascertained my hiding place by gaining my confidence, well the next day, I had been summoned to Rabbi Brindel’s office, to explain myself, with my contraband sitting on his desk.
Rabbi Silver took an occasional sideways glance at me as he drove down the road. He seemed pensive. It didn’t appear had passed judgment one-way or the other yet.
I had to think quickly, this could be bad, I was on a “one strike and your out” contingency.
I thought it over, “not really,” I said, “I think I am just more makpid on some of the dinei yichud than she is. Chas Vesholom if something should happen that I could of prevented by locking the door…this is why we trust in chazal to make gezeros for us, to keep us safe from such problems…not that every one should abide by such a chumrah, but, yet, we have an inyan…be marchik yourself from a devar avairah…”
A brazen lie…but hard to refute.
Of course I had just been taunting her, unhappy with my fate of being locked in the basement. But now, I simply add the appropriate halachic garnish, pepper it with some divrei chazal, and ….Walah ! It sounded almost good enough to be a candidate for one of our after minchah muser shmusen.
Sadly, this is the utility I put most of my Talmudic knowledge towards…keeping myself out of trouble. The principles themselves had lost much of their meaning, they were simply useful tools for bolstering one’s point of view. I was, at this point in my yeshiva career, fully aware that this was the best methodology for dealing with any authority figure.
Rabbi Silver mulled this over for a few moments, bobbing his head to and fro in a circular fashion, as if the majority of his decision-making capacity resided in his neck muscles.
Finally, my reply cleared whatever mechanism he had working in his mullet to distinguish truth from falsehood, and he chewed on his beard with gusto and nodded his head up and down, “boruch hashem,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, “boruch hashem.”
We arrived early for davening, and after I unwound my tefillin I went back to my dormitory room. It was still there much as I had left it. I simply was not allowed to occupy it anymore.
There would be no more annoying morning banter from Yakov and Eli, they had both been summarily dismissed almost a month ago. I used the open time to take a shower and change into a new set of clothes.
A few minutes later and I was readying my self for shuir. I shook off my sadness and I found my seat and placed my Gemara on the desk. I took my spiral bound notebook and flipped to the first empty page, and took the cap off my blue paper mate pen. I readied it for the flurry of note taking that was about to begin. More than anything, this was the reason I believed that the yeshiva world represented a worldly image of what God wanted. And despite all of my inabilities to measure up to the mold, I still believed that, in most ways it was correct; for in the depth of my studies, I glimpsed a flickering image of truth.
Rabbi Shmuelevitz walked in and we all stood as a sign of respect. He took his seat and we were seated. He was a tall man, and very friendly. He had been the one member of the Hanhallah who had insisted that I stay in yeshiva. He thought he saw great potential in me. He looked at me know at the start of the Shuir, almost as if to say, “Now is your time, Benyamin, show them what you can do! Shine! Shine!”
He gazed at me with hope slapping his hand on the desk twice.
Others in the Shuir room picked up on the building enthusiasm. The calm before the storm. In the sea of white shirts, black pants and glasses clad students that surrounded me, I saw the momentum build to a fine pitch. Some began to sway in anticipation, shuckling in their chairs to their own rhythm. Others like me clutched their pens, flexing and unflexing fingers. Forgotten, were my pains of incompatibility with yeshiva life, what was about to occur was something special. A joy that is hard to describe to the uninitiated.
Another slap of his hand and it began.
Like falling water that could not be contained, it spilled from him, like a force of nature, gushing outwards, flowing.
And by God it was fast.
It was the Rashba, and it’s continuity between Sugyos, did it answer the Tosafos, or did it undermine it, leaving it to fall to logical obscurity ? It was the Gra, the Ritva, did they fit the tiny diyuk in the loshon of Rashi? Could they be made to squeeze ?
It was a roller coaster ride, twisting your logic almost back upon itself, only then to reorient you one hundred and eighty degrees.
We hung on for dear life scribbling all the while, hands aching and hearts pounding, totally immersed in an intellectual exercise that dwarfed anything that I have encountered since.
And then I saw it, like a picture in my mind, construed of words and symbols, a gossamer glimmer within the logic, a tiny pinhole through which an idea could be thread.
My heart beat like a jackhammer at the mere thought of raising my hand. I became suddenly conscious of all the students in the class, the force of their thoughts and minds… and their judgment. Here I was the outcast, the misfit, and from the lowest, most base position of tumah, unfit for life with the other bochurim, would I now expound my ideas to the rest of the group?
Nervous sweat began to collect under my arms, as I confirmed my inner desires by raising my hand slowly. I felt the stares of the other bochurim upon me as small hairs on the back of my neck stood at attention.
He held his hand out to me, leaning back in anticipation and nodded, it was his way of saying, “Tell us, Benyamin, Tell us your question.”
I blurted it out through a haze of fear and embarrassment, stuttering at first, but gaining confidence as I looked at his eyes.
He paused for a moment as I finished, an oasis of silence, in the avalanche of thought, as I waited on pins and needles. Was it a simple clarification? Had I missed something that to everyone else had been obvious? Had I just revealed to my class as a whole that I was of a lower grade, a lesser baki, a poorer lamdan?
I don’t know if he put it on as an act, or if it was sincere, but there was surprise, and joy in his face, and yes, there was pride too, that much I’m sure was real.
“Mamash, mechavin,” he said slowly, never letting me out of his sight, “Mamash mechavin to the thoughts of the Rishonim.”
Oh, I basked in it, bathed in it, threw it like abundant coin into the air in celebration; I let his pride shine upon me like hot rays of a summer sun, and my face turned from red to purple to unidentifiable beet.
Jealousy filled the air, like sweat perfume, for it was no ordinary gathering of boys in this small nondescript room. On the right side sat the grand son of the Rosh Yeshiva, arguably one of the Gedolai Hador. And scattered amongst the many velvet yarmulke’s were notables, children of powerful right wing pulpit rabbayim, even Poskim’s children deigned to share this room with me, and now sat bitterly wondering why their minds hadn’t fit the mold of the greats quite as nicely as mine did. For the ability to think like a Rishon, was not something to be taken lightly, it was considered the pinnacle of many years of Yeshiva training.
My joy was half made of sweet earth and dandelions, but half was fire. I allowed my eyes to flutter quickly to each side of me. “You see”, I said fiercely to them in my mind, for we all knew that the power to understand the torah was the ultimate power, “I have strength that is greater than yours!”
Like all things beautiful, my moment of glory was cut short, it’s ending foreshadowed by a knock on the door.
Our small grandmotherly secretary stepped into the room and looked around in a confused fashion, “Benyamin,” she said quizzically, “Rabbi Brindel needs to see you now.”
This brought immediate laughter at my expense, for what is humor if not the contrast between two extremes. From the momentary inhabitor of the Rishonim’s thoughts to a sixteen year old about to be expelled from Yeshiva, my world flipped under me with enough force to make me dizzy. The emotional shock of my public humiliation hit me hard. Everyone knew I was about to be expelled. The room filled with a chorus of “ooohs”, and “oooys”, that Rabbi Shmuelevitz tried to stifle with extended arms.
Some of my classmate’s faces are burned in my memory that way, lips puckered in an O, eyes evincing mock sympathy.
I felt devastated and for just a moment or two I was taken by a powerful illusion in which down literally seemed up and up seemed down. The vertigo was sickening.
Rabbi Shmuelevitz looked at me, hat defying the rules of gravity by staying on his head in his current inverted position, floor reversed with ceiling: He was shaking his head, as if to say, “Why…why did you throw it all away?”
I was so unsteady I had to use my hands to stand up from my desk.
Now, it was not an unusual occurrence for me to summoned by the Menahel in the middle of Shiur. There were a total of three boys named Binyamin in the class, yet no one had any doubts about who was being called for.
I looked around the room at the relieved faces, smirking in delight at my impending demise, their competition thinned by one. But what did my expulsion hold for them personally? Was it troublesome to them that someone so steeped in the outside gashmius, as I was, could learn ? Did it make them wonder if perhaps the outside world did have value? Did it make their tiny world shrink even smaller around them?
But alas, they had been right all along, my feats in the realm of learning were quirks, unforeseen anomalies that didn’t represent greatness. My accomplishments were not knowledge, or understanding, that indicated that someone so non-“Yeshivish” could reach such a level. In fact, quite the opposite, my true character had been understood by the Hanhalah and I would be sent away, no longer entrusted with the holy words of torah. Words meant only for the leaders of men, meant only for those who would face the truth of their existence in this world.
How painful it was for me to believe so strongly in a system in which I so clearly didn’t fit.
As I walked on wooden legs through the door, the last vestiges of happiness fell away, as if an aura confined specifically to that classroom, that I would not be allowed to take with me.
I had taken this short walk down the hall the Menahel’s office many times, usually consumed by frantic composition of excuses and alibis for my latest movie outing. But this time I was truly puzzled. I had broken no rules, read no books, seen no movies. I was as clean as the fresh slate they had given me.
I knocked on the door to Rabbi Brindel’s office, rubbing my head with my other hand as the spinning sensation slowly subsided.
I paused for a moment at the door as I prepared for battle. I took a deep breath and let it out, and reminded myself to think twice before I spoke, and to be wary of being trapped in my own words. I had lived up to my side of the bargain, and I intended to thrust that fact out into the open as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
Walking in to Rabbi Brindel’s office was a like receiving a second reassurance that I would be leaving a world of ultimate truth.
A wealthy man, his office, much like his house, was devoid of comforts, niceties, or any hint that his money had ever been used for his personal pleasure. He lived his life as he taught his students to live theirs. How could that not be a sign of truth?
He was a big man, with big hands; butchers hands, people would of called them in the old country, and he waved me in with one of those large paws.
I had logged many hours in this particular chair, most of them spent fighting for my life. And I sat, leaning forward with my hands clenched together in my lap. Forcefully intent upon his every utterance, I vowed not to go down without a fight.
Rabbi Brindel was not in a rush, he finished with a bit a paperwork, and then looked up at me smiling. He had a large round face, with thick glasses. It was a friendly looking face, almost jovial. And with a smile glued to it, he invited me to want to smile as well. It would seem discourteous not to smile along. It was infectious mirth that came across at me first, the kind that assures one they are amongst good friends.
But I was not a beginner at this game. I had been dealt this hand before and new how to play it. Once you cracked and smiled along, you were a child in the presence of your friendly uncle, who’s advice and reproach you would then be forced to sheepishly nod along with. He wanted me to drop my guard, to smile and relax, as if in the company of family, thusly inculcated with a feeling of trust and comradery.
I didn’t cave. I kept on my face a look so stern it could of wilted summer roses. I didn’t look away, or look down, but looked deep into his eyes, “be fearless,” I thought to myself, “show him you have nothing to hide.”
Of course, this is what I told myself, even when I did have something to hide.
He held the smile, hoping that over time it would seep in, but slowly his smile faded into a grin and then tiring of the effort he turned to business.
“Benyamin….every night you leave the yeshiva grounds after curfew…”
“Of course I do,” I blurted out, ignoring my own advice to be cautious, “You threw me out of the dorm, that was your decision not mine.”
I was starting to get a little hot under the collar, was my final expulsion to be based on something I had been instructed to do by the Menahel himself ?
Rabbi Brindel was shaking his hands in the air, waving me off like an airplane that had wandered onto the wrong landing strip.
“No…..No, no…..just listen, Benyamin….just”
“Because I don’t think Rebbi should be allowed to throw me out for following the very thing….”
“Every night you leave the yeshiva grounds, uhhh…because we told you to…no?”
“Good…Good…Ok,” he seemed pleased now, as if he was really getting somewhere, for my part, I could not imagine where he was going with this. Did he want to extend my punishment? Was he going to change the rules?
“Now when you are waiting out there, to get a ride….you…see…other bochurim….No?”
I felt my head wanting to nod in the affirmative, but froze, desperately trying to piece together what was going on. Of course I saw other bochurim, plenty of guys would take an occasional ride out for a run to the local kosher Chinese or burger joints…
And then it hit me. I got chills all up and down my spine.
This wasn’t about me, it wasn’t about me at all.
I sat there immobile, unsure of how to proceed.
He began to look inpatient with me, “Benyamin, when you are waiting for a ride, you see many other bochurim, who also want to get a ride….No?”
His repeat question demanded a reply.
“I’m not sure what Rebbi…”
“No…no, Benyamin, there’s no “not sure”, there is no question, I’m not asking you a question, Uhhh, if you are waiting for a ride, then while you are waiting you see other bochurim..uhh, also waiting.”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t pay attention to that.”
“Benyamin, we are not going to play a game here, uhh, your days of playing games are finished.”
“I don’t pay attention to things that don’t involve me, I just stand there and wait, and I don’t think about…”
“Uhhh…but it does involve you, benyamin, it involves you very much…Uhh, Kol Yisrael, arevim Zeh La Zeh…Uhh you know this, you have been in yeshiva long enough to know this…”
“And if Chas Veshalom, one of these bochurim is doing something, uhh, meeting girls, Uhh going to movies and inappropriate places, uhh that are mamash a sakanah to his yiddishe neshama, Uhh then you have a responsibility to remedy that situation that is al pi torah, the thing you must do. And there is no question…no question, that you have a chiyuv to your fellow bochurim to help them…when they are doing something that could chas vesholom, damage their emunah and their very yidishkiet.”
“But I don’t think that’s the way it works..”
“Benyamin, if Chas Veshalom, one of these bochurim is damaged from these nesayons, and you could have prevented it…Uhh it’s mamash on your shoulders, Uhh you are a man now and these are things that you will carry on your cheshbon for your whole life, Uhh and there is no answer in Shamayim to say, it wasn’t my business, because if you are the one who can make a difference…then it is your business. And your responsibility.”
I was shaking my head back and forth. This was not something I could do. Couldn’t he understand that?
My entire yeshiva career I had been vexed with people feeling the need to reveal anything I did to the powers that be. I hated them, and I hated the entire concept. Informants for the hanhallah, I had always sworn I would not be turned into what I saw as the lowest form of human interaction.
I couldn’t be that, I despised that, and I had to make Rabbi Brindel see that he was asking me to cross a line in the sand that I could never step over.
“But Punishment is Rebbis’ job, not mine.”
“Uhh, our job, Benyamin, this is something we are going to accomplish together. And chas vesholom, punishment, we don’t have punishment. If we have bochur who needs to understand that what he is doing is wrong in order to preserve a yiddishe neshome, than we take the action that is needed to help the bochur learn, that’s all.”
He sensed my deep reluctance, it must have been stamped all over my face.
“Benyamin, this is not an optional request, if you can’t cooperate with this, then I can call your parents and tell them they are having a guest for dinner…” his hand was massaging the base of his telephone, “…..and that guest will be you.”
His face was plain as he stared at me from across the desk, his eyes steady, his forehead wrinkled in concentration. This was his ultimate leverage device, he knew he had me here. He knew I had dreams of life on the other end of my Yeshiva experience, and by dangling my diploma in front of me he touched on my greatest fear.
Just last year, one unsavory bochur had completed his four year stint of high school, only to be told by Rabbi Brindel, “ learn in yeshiva for a few years, we’ll talk about your diploma then.”
The incident was so well known because of the bochur’s unusually scathing yet grammatically respectful reply. Thus, “The Rebbi is an idiot,” had become a part of the yeshiva lore.
The idea of Rabbi Brindel having some type of long range control over my life was horrifying to me, I needed out, I needed Diploma and deliverance as soon as could possibly be achieved.
And so I courted evil, sorely tempted by the dark waters and what they might guarantee me in exchange for my soul. I dipped my toe into the shallow end to check the temperature.
“And if I could help you….I would graduate…just like I am supposed to…”
“Uhh of course, of course,” he spread his arms wide in a gesture of ultimate acceptance.
“Then know that t is in my heart to help as much as I can Rebbi, but I just don’t remember, but if I do remember anyone I will tell you, as soon as I think of them..”
He was becoming frustrated with me now.
“Benyamin…how are you doing in shiur.”
“New, you don’t have to be so modest, Rabbi Shmuelevitz told me you had a ninety two on your last Bechinah.”
“It was one hundred and eight.”
“Mamash Gevaldig”, he said looking at me with pride, perhaps for the first time in my life.
I volunteered more, “and today, I asked a kasha that the reshonim asked, I hadn’t seen it inside…I was mechavin,” why shouldn’t he know of my greatness ?
“That’s why it hurt us so much to see you wasting your potential, Benyamin, with the traifa books…you see we have always known how smart you were…”
“Oh crap”, said a sinking feeling in my stomach.
“Uhh someone smart enough to remember all these machlokisim in the Gemara, can remember the bochurim he sees leaving the campus…”
Played right into his hands.
And now he was grinning, that damned contagious grin.
“It’s different…I don’t know everyone’s names….”
I felt it start, the corner of my lip turned up….I bit the inside of my cheeks. I had to contain composure. But a roguish ‘caught in the act’ smile was breaking out across my face. I stifled it with shear will power.
“Here,” he said grinning like a leprechaun, sensing his approaching victory“ this will remind you of anything you have forgotten.”
And from out of his desk drawer he pulled several sheets of paper.
It was a list of all the bochurim in the high school.
His secretary was outside the door again and motioned for him to follow towards a wealthy looking man with a beard.
“New Benyamin”, he said, “ you have everything you need.” He pressed a ballpoint pen into my fingers, and put one of his large hands on my shoulder, as if to seal the deal.
“We understand each other now, uhh, just, put check marks, and leave this on my desk when you are done.”
And with that he disappeared, likely to sweet talk another donation out of a prospective sugar daddy.
I sat there alone in his office, just me, the list, and my conscience. I felt relatively certain that no one would know that it had been me. But that didn’t resolve a far greater problem.
If I checked even one name, how would I be any better than the people I despised, the people who had ratted me out on numerous occasions, without a second thought. If I participated in this shakedown, I would join the ranks of those who had been turned against their fellow bochur for the sake of self preservation.
But if I didn’t, and this sent real shivers down my spine, I would likely be taking a train ride home within the hour, leaving an indelible black mark of expulsion on my high school record, possibly hindering me from doing what I wanted to achieve with my life. Or, even worse, allowed to carry on, only to be told that I should spend some time in yeshiva before a diploma could be rightfully mine, and thus remain under the thumb of the hanhallah….indefinitely.
The pen I held in my hand was different from my blue paper mate. It was an adult pen, thick and metallic, and it felt heavy in my hand as I contemplated the deed I was about to perform. Slowly I brought it close to the paper, with resolve in my eyes.
A few moments later and I was back in shiur. A hush fell across the room as the realization set in that I had not been sent to pack my bags.
“Benyamin”, pleaded Rabbi Shmuelevitz, “ you missed a tosafos, but you can still catch up for the next one.”
I sat down and opened my Gemara, but couldn’t get my head into the game.
The knock on the door by Rabbi Brindel’s secretary came even a couple minutes before I expected it.
A murmur buzzed through the classroom….Twice in one day? Inquiring minds wanted to know what this was about.
I stood up and took my second walk to the principles office for the day.
Rabbi Brindel stood over his desk vigorously flipping through the list I had left for him.
“Uhh, this is a joke, you think this is a funny joke?”
His tone was very serious, serious enough to imply imminent expulsion.
“No, Rebbi, no joke”, I said as I sat in my mokom kavuah, terrified about the end of my yeshiva career. I had decided to gamble and now it came time to lay down my hand.
It had occurred to me as I had sat staring at the list, that I could cooperate with Rabbi Brindel, and also not tattle tail on anyone…you see, anonymity is maintained at both ends of the spectrum.
“Benyamin, You put a check next to every name..:”
“You have no idea how out of hand the bochurim are.”
“Uhh, that’s loshon hora and we both know that it’s not true. You are mamash being motzai shem ra.”
“Oh, it’s true.”
It took all my strength but I said factually, with conviction.
“You have seen every bochur, breaking ground curfew? No not possible, Uhh there would be no one left in the dormitory.”
“Well they don’t all go at once…”
“Benyamin, enough, you can’t be serious about this..”
“Rebbi, I’m not, I mean, I am, I can’t be a hundred percent.”
“What are you talking about…”
“Rebbi, as I was looking at the list, if I would come across a bochurs name, and I wasn’t sure if a bochur was or wasn’t there, I thought to myself…what if he was, and what if he was chas vesholom going to a movie with pretzus in it….It would mamash be on my shoulders if I made a mistake.”
“No. No, Benyamin, that’s not the way it works.”
“And if we were to lose even one yidishe neshama, due to my lack of remembering, that neshama would be on my slate, for the rest of my life, and there are no excuses for this in shemayim.”
“And then, Rebbi, I thought to myself, which bochur wouldn’t benefit from a chizuk of musar from Rebbi, about the dangers of the outside world.”
“Benyamin, punishment only works if you find those people who …”
“Chas Vesholum, punishment, this is about being mechazik emunah of bochurim who need help, this is about saving neshamos, not punishment.”
Rabbi Brindel was having a hard time keeping a look of disgust off of his face. I plodded on, “It’s just like you said, Rebbi, this is our responsibility, and what could be more responsible than giving every single bochur some chizuk in this regard, because Rebbi, at one time or another, I am sure everyone has done something wrong…No?”
He knew I was full of shit but all he could do is look at me as if he had swallowed a particularly rotten grape. He stroked his beard for a time, and then in resignation slowly shook his head back and forth.
“Go back to shiur, Benyamin, Go… go back to Shiur.”
I didn’t need to be told twice. I practically danced out of his office. I felt a sense of pride swelling in my chest. I had challenged power and won. I had faced his manipulations and outmaneuvered him. My step was light and my arms swung freely at my side.
As I stepped back in to shiur my fellow bochurim may have noticed me finally indulging myself in a boyish smile the reached from ear to ear. It must have been contagious because Rabbi Shmuelevitz caught it too.
“Sit down Benyamin”, he said grinning wide enough to show the spaces between his teeth, “sit down. You can still catch up with the rashba, you can still catch up.”
He slapped his hand on the desk, and once again, we were off……