Memoirs of a Yeshiva Misfit Part Four
Like satin sheets gently draped over your consciousness, it falls upon you, veiling the sharpness of inquiry and calculation, with a gentle motion, rocking you softly to a safer place, where imagination can plant it’s soft feet almost unnoticed. From turning pages it’s whisper arises, carried in the rhythmic cadence of a hundred voices breathing life to the words of the Talmud, accented by the squeaking of chairs and the shuffling of feet. It fills the room with a background hum, a white noise of torah, that closes in on your ears like a soft blanket and furnishes womb and heartbeat, to lull those who are not careful, into the ever present danger of the daydream.
I don’t know where my mind had drifted to on this particular day of beis medrish study, but my empty gaze must of wandered to the chavrusahs immediately diagonal to me, for I returned from my dreams to see Yossi Lefkovitch thumbing his nose at me from across the table in response to the vacant stare that I had settled upon him. He opened his eyes wide and slapped his Gemarah shaking his head at me… “New!”
I shook myself out of it and pulled my attention back to the peeling fake mahogany table in front of me to my own chavrusah. We sat there in pairs of two’s surrounded by the collective knowledge of our Rabbi’s; the walls crammed from top to bottom with bound and rebound ancient texts of learned wisdom. The texts contributed a musty odor, a fundamental dry rot mystique that filled the place with an air that promised ancient secrets.
My Chavrusah was involved in a day dream of his own, balanced on the hind legs of his chair, feet half out of his penny loafers, with soft eyes that looked past me as he spoke. His voice once again faded into my consciousness as I tuned back in to the world around me.
“Kidarcho….” He said distantly, “Shelo Kidarcho….it’s all mutar according the Rambam...all mutar, once your married...but not before.”
“What are you talking about,” I snapped at him, “we’re learning hilchos tzitzis.”
He came out of his reverie just as irritated as I had, his eyes regaining focus on me, his mind remembering how irate he had been to be paired with me at all.
Mordechai was quick to remember the origins of this conversation. In fact Mordechai was quick to remember everything. He was short and stout and he sat across from me wearing his starched white shirt and black woolen pants with a thick pair of glasses that revealed deep red grooves on the sides of his nose whenever he took them off. He sported the proud beginning moustache of puberty and had been aptly dubbed by some as “Mustache Mordy”.
“I was telling you why it’s not worth it to go to college and be michshal bi’ervah and be boel every arusah in the preitzusdika velt”, he stated strongly, finally remembering what had caused him to arrive at such prust subject matter to begin with.
“What? What in the world does that have to do with….”, I truly had not been mentally present to pin down the start of this conversation, but it did sound a lot better than hilchos tzitzis.
But then it started to come back to me, I had heard some of this through my daydream.
It was talk I had heard many times before. The dangers of the outside world, the sexual abandon, the loss of yiras shemayim, the end result: going off the derech….no wonder I had tuned out.
“I’m telling you about the nesayon that’s waiting for you after yeshiva if you don’t figure it out for yourself….”
“Jees, what’s wrong with you, tons of frum people go to college, it’s about getting knowledge and a career, not…”
“In here”, he said caressing the open page of his sepher, “all knowledge is from the torah and chazal…”
It sounded to good to be true…I would have to think about it.
“Once you have the knowledge of chazal under your belt, then, if you have to, you get a career. Not before! The outside world doesn’t have any true information, everything is twisted into a nesayon that can turn your neshama into a yetzer hara”
“That’s why we don’t let the tarfus of the goyim into the yeshiva”, he said squinting meaningfully at me, as I had a history of ownership of such various items as books and radios, “so that bochurim can have some time to formulate a real immunity that isn’t metameh from the goyishe velt. Without that pure knowledge of good from bad, your bound to be turned by the taivos out there.”
It may seem odd for me to have been receiving such personal mussar from a counterpart my own age, but it was relatively standard fare for the most religious kids in yeshiva to begin to take on a semi rabbinic role.
“Everything out there”, said Mustache Mordy, “ is a test, just like God tested Avraham with the akedah. And if you go out there without the proper preparation, there’s no chance for you….”
It’s not that his mussar wasn’t working on me, he was quite convincing, and had probably borrowed the bulk of his speech from his father, but I had other things on my mind at the moment.
“…is that really true… about what the Rambam said..?”, I ventured full of curiosity no end.
“New”, he proclaimed, indicating the discussion was over and it was time to return to the real work at hand. Saying ‘New’ was a way of recognizing out loud that bitul torah was occurring, and with this recognition only one respectable path lay ahead to be followed.
“Say”, he shot at me, remembering his familial heritage and feeling some urgency to change the subject. He scratched his short cropped curly hair careful to keep his hand on top of his worn velvet Yarmulka, “I am waiting for you to say viater. Go!”
I contemplated the small print of the mishnah berurah in front of me, “I just said…. you say”, I attempted feebly, hoping I could ride out the remaining five minutes on Mordechai’s coat tails.
It’s not that I was dumb, to the contrary, it was for the few times I had shown my skills in talmudic logical refinement that the hanhallah had chosen to make me their “project”. That was why I was paired with Mordechai, son of one of the most eminent Rabbi’s of our time. He was supposed to rub off on me, or as I imagined it, Torah, like powdered sugar, couldn’t help sticking to anything that came in contact with it, and I was to be heavily sprinkled.
But learning with Mordechai was difficult in a way I had not experienced before. He outgunned me on every level. The difficult Hebrew wording and abbreviations that I paused to consider, he read as fluently as second grade English. Every halachah was review for him. Every concept for him was a re-visitation to well trod terrain.
And so he would sit with me as I read, exorcising the pain of being appointed the task of: ‘mentorship of the “modernisha”’ by powerfully correcting every mispronunciation with a confidence born of experience, bludgeoning me expertly for every mistake.
He had all the knowledge of Rabbinical law at his disposal, and none of the tools of the educator, save for cruel beration.
I don’t know why anyone would have expected more from him, we were only fifteen.
The sessions, though short, left me with a hollow feel, turning me into almost a shell of myself, my core being having fled for the hills to preserve it’s last shred of dignity, I read the passages in ready acceptance of my dosage of verbal abuse thinly veiled as the necessity of imparting torah knowledge, desperately awaiting the end so that my soul could return to my body.
As such, our chavrusaship had become more and more strained with unhappy feelings accumulating on both ends.
We could not have been more different people. Mordechai, raised on the knee of torah greatness, oblivious to any world outside his own, centered on his own potential and the expectations of accomplishments that he would achieve through learning; was as foreign a human being as I had been exposed to. I had been raised with movies and rock and roll, science, and liberal free thought. It was a personality clash before either one of us even opened our mouths.
“No. I just said”, said Modechai in full possession of the truth, shaking his head back and forth, “Come on, finish up the sugya before mincha, let’s go.”
I attempted to prepare myself mentally for another episode of brow beating as I focused on the thin lines of text, and I turned off my feelings and pride, as my finger found the place on a five letter abbreviation. My mind barely wanted to decipher it, consigned instead to await the impatient answer from across the table.
“Say !” he cried in frustration at being slowed to the pace of his inexperienced counterpart and punctuated his demand with a sharp jab at the near spine of his mishna berurah that translated to the adjacent spine of mine. Neither his sefer nor mine budged and inch, but the force delivered a potent blow to my solar plexus that had been pressed against the books edge in my attempt at concentration.
I awoke then in full form, as cross table chavrusah warfare was an art in which I was well versed.
I met his eyes and in that poignant second we conceded to do battle, letting our combined distaste for each other overflow into the physical realm. I assessed him then, how he sat tilting on the hind legs of his chair, how our sepharim lay now end to end, the proximity of the Rabbinate, all in a flicker of the second hand, casing the angles like a pro.
In a deft move born of hundreds of hours sitting at these tables I swept my foot against the front legs of his chair sending him careening backwards and he grabbed the table, desperate to save himself from falling over. In his panic his left shoe, loosely worn, came off and I viciously kicked it to the side sending it skittering across tiled floor to the next table over, gleefully chancing expulsion for my shot at revenge. Yosi Lefkkovich, to my immediate right, looked up again in agitation and found his intense concentration interrupted for the second time today, this time, by a rogue shoe skittering past his feet.
“Mamzer ben Needah”, Mordy muttered in anger, his faced flushed with humiliation, retaliation burning hot in his blood, and as I mistakenly enjoyed watching his shoe complete it’s journey across the room, he slid the thick side of his mishnah berurah under the thin side of mine , and slapping it upwards caused the cover of my sepher to hit me sharply in the chin.
Don’t ever say they don’t teach physics in yeshiva.
“You little…”, I mouthed as I raised my shoe for a crushing blow to his exposed toes.
“New, how’s the chavrusah going…good?”, asked Rav Goldstien.
I swear he materialized out of no where, I half expected beams of glittering light and that three toned high pitched whistle, to accompany his step out of thin air.
Mordy and I looked at each other, barely able to disguise the fury to which we gave vent but we quickly settled down. He carefully covered his unshod foot with his other shoe.
One little piggy stuck out of a hole in his sock.
Rav Goldstein, as was his nature, was as oblivious to our tussle as he was to the world around him.
”Boruch Hashem”, I said, still breathing heavily but loathe to admit the hanhallah had been wrong to choose me for special grooming.
Rabbi Goldstien looked over at Mordechai, “Eh ?” he said in a manner that communicated the question was being repeated.
“Mamash..”, said Mordy with a faint smile, “making progress…boruch hashem.” I suppose he didn’t want to fail in his specially appointed task either.
“Ehhh!!” Said Rabbi Goldstien in conclusion, with undisguised satisfaction at the chemistry of our bar plugta…apparently, his plan was working perfectly!
Mordy and I were a match made in heaven.
Rabbi Goldstien looked upwards for a moment as if receiving a message from above. He was the type of Rabbi who only appeared to be cognizant half of the time, and even then it was with a special effort.
“Mincha”, he stated.
Either by prophecy or by the fact it had turned two o’clock a clop resounded within the bies meidresh and the frenzied conclusion of seder culminated in a din of rustling and jostling as people relocated to their mokom kavuah’s for davening.
Mordy hobbled back in the act of walking and putting on his shoe simultaneously, “I’m serious”, he said, trying to regain the moral high ground, “no more bittle torah from you.”
“Ashrie yoshvie vaysecha”, I replied firmly, shrugging my shoulders, “ode yehallelucha sella”.
He waved me off with a look beneath contempt.
But I was in no mood for davening and had no prayers to offer God. I slipped easily out of the beis medrish and found my way to my locker in the English building.
Biology was to be my first class and I dug quickly through my notes. There was no textbook of course, that was much too risky. Instead we had photocopied selected chapters for some subjects, but most lessons were simple handwritten stencils, penned by the biology teacher and approved by the principal for general consumption.
I pulled today’s crumpled papers out of my loose-leaf binder and headed early to my biology class. And sitting all alone amongst the jumble of wooden metal hybrid desks in horrible disrepair, I felt more at ease than I had the whole day. I took my moment of solitude to make a quick perusal of the upcoming material.
“Salk and Sabin”, stated the lead paragraph of the handwritten memo, “discover vaccines.”
Wow. It sounded enticing. If only I could have some details….but the mimeograph paper read like a telegraph of disconnected factual blurbs, peppered with spelling errors.
Behind me I heard my biology teacher shuffle in to the room and I turned to watch him enter.
He was a true example of what the Yeshiva’s non advertising, non recruitment policy could achieve when it really put it’s mind to it.
You see, fearful of the legalities of turning down a qualified female applicant, yeshiva-teaching positions were filled through hushed back alley affairs.
Fresh of the boat from some dark corner of India, and sporting the same shirt and pants for three months running, he moved nervously between table and chair, making quickly for the authority of his teachers desk as if it represented home base from a children’s game, rendering him immune to being tagged so long as he kept a finger on it.
He acknowledged my presence, I was his star student, which meant I could answer questions by reading his handouts and parroting back the information.
“whoaaa”, he said to me in a deep guttural tone nodding his head in my direction.
Was that hello ?
I considered carefully as I watched the nervous tick that made his head rotate to the left and then the right after a jittery twitch of his shoulders. He was not much over five feet tall, and as paunchy as an in season Santa Claus, but brown and bald as a cashew nut.
He was a caricature Mr. Potato head, and the image was strong enough to make you want to mentally replace an ear with a thin spindly arm just for kicks.
“Hello”, I said carefully, hoping this had been the tenure of the conversation.
He was nodding his head to me when we jointly heard the tumult of the hordes coming up from mincha. I saw his face change. Even his dark skin blanched from mahogany to elm, and his large brown eyes, nervously darting now…It was fear.
The poor guy was terrified. I didn’t blame him, yeshiva students were notorious for misbehavior that bordered on criminal. Perhaps after five hours of intense study during which misbehavior was spiritually forbidden, English classes represented nothing more than an excuse to vent the enormous teenage energies that had no other outlet.
He was our third biology teacher this year.
In flooded the masses surrounded by a cacophony of hoots and hollers, a rolling din of contained conversations in which I was quickly engulfed. We had all been tightly wrapped for our Shiurim and chazarah seders, where no sign of disrespect or disobedience could be tolerated, and this collective sigh of relief, as that girder belt came loose, was the burden of the English teacher.
Someone was poking me in the back.
“Loser, what are you doing here already.”, he said raising his characteristic monotone above the noise around us.
It was Yakov Brunner, badest of the bad, the kid with a rebellious streak that ran straight through.
He had fair rights as my friend, and we passed a lot of otherwise misery filled time together, but truth be told I was hoping for a little quiet time in which to hear this lecture.
How did they figure out vaccines, how could they have known, did they put a whole virus in you and just hope you didn’t get infected??
I don’t think any of my friends really had this type of hunger about the world around them. I don’t know if they had ever had that spiritual experience of marveling at it all when you finally understood how something worked, how something happened. The high that comes with understanding even just a small piece of your surroundings.
“I was bored of mincha”, I answered blandly hoping to end the conversation so as to have a chance to hear if the teacher had brought any pearls of wisdom with him today.
Mordy overheard me as he walked behind my desk to his own seat.
”Boruch Hashem”, he said, “Bitul torah and missing tefilah betzibor, what’s next”?
“Shut up, Mustache” said Brunner, hoping to start a fight… any little turmoil would suit his causes. I knew, that however much he tormented Mordy now, it would just be held over and delivered upon me with interest during chavrusah time tomorrow. This was the difficulty of learning with the “enemy”, one’s loyalties were always split.
“Yeah mustache”, said Eli Rubenstien, not knowing what we were talking about as he walked in late, but happy enough to add fuel to whichever fire might be raging.
I cringed as he sat next to me.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved these guys, but me, Eli, and Yakov sitting in such close proximity was pretty close to a meteorological phenomenon, and as Eli took his chair, I watched the completion of the Bermuda triangle of misbehavior.
Along the far side of the room another group assembled, the rabbinic notables, the heirs to destinies of yichus and yeshiva careers. The room typically split in this odd segregated pattern. We had no jocks and nerds, so we made our own lines in the sand.
Mordy, now settled amongst his peers, who stared us down in righteous anger, was about to mouth off in reply, but was cut short by the beginning of class.
“YOU”, said our teacher loudly in an almost indecipherable accent while pointing an ambiguously directed finger, “READ.”
This was how class always began, with selected bochurim breaking their teeth over the illegible ditto sheets, reading aloud to the class what the teacher could not.
“YOU…. READ”, he said again, louder this time, with his eyes gaining that nervous look, as if the entire class was about to jump up and unseat him. His finger pointed to some unseen center of the class, and perhaps he hoped that by some miracle someone would take up the challenge without direct coercion.
We sensed his fear, for it spilled from him in waves, we felt them washing over us, carried by some mystical ether.
Brunner started the pot boiling.
“Read what”, he said with just enough agitation in his voice to bump the situation to code red in the teachers mind.
“READ”, said our teacher going into a panicked jitter that made his shoulders and eyelids twitch, as if he were sending off a distress signal in Morse code for immediate medivac.
“Read wha…”, Yakov started to ask even more indignantly.
“Wax..”, the teacher said quietly, “WAXINES….READ.”
A confused buzz spread across the room as the collected bochurim tried to figure out what the hell was going on and I heard individual questions surface from the background noise.
“What’s he talking about” ?
“What’s a waxene” ?
“I don’t know.”
Hearing the room turn from silent attention to mid-whisper debate sent our teacher into full DEFCOM 4 alert status and he began to jitter like a man on his fourteenth cup of Joe.
“WAXINE”, he roared, it was almost a scream by now, as he ventured momentarily backwards, to tentatively place a piece of chalk on the board and write out what he couldn’t pronounce, and then feeling unnerved with his back turned to the hoards, he hastily returned to his desk, having written nothing, to reassert his statement, “READ….WAXINES!!!!” He performed this dance between desk and blackboard, never writing a word, several times, like some gravitational force was pulling him against his will, caught in a helpless orbit between one and the other.
Brunner was whispering in my ear as we watched him circle like a lonely planet between desk and board all the while screaming ‘waxines’.
“This guys blown as gasket..”
But even as I nodded my head in agreement I reread the title of today’s worksheet, “Salk and Sabin vaccinations…”
“Of course”, I thought as I combined his accent with the intended subject material but I couldn’t stifle my laugh in time, and as I heard my own, others joined in gleeful exploitation of someone who was different then us.
Before long the room was in the uproar, and quips came from all sides, “I’m going on wacation”, sniped someone from the back row. “Does this apartment have a wacancy”, shot someone from the side.
Looking around the room at the laughing faces I happened upon Eli, and his smile was noncommittal, his laugh, just enough to join the ruckus. He really had not gotten why this was funny yet. He had never been the sharpest tool in the shed, and he was waiting patiently for it to dawn on him, smiling along all the while, he was as clueless as could be, I had seen that look on his face before.
Perhaps because he had the most serious looking face in the classroom, our, by now irate, Biology teacher descended on him in near madness, with his temple vein throbbing to such excess I could time his pulse from my chair.
“WAXINES…..READ”, he fumed, standing over Eli with his fingers pointed at the sheets. Eli turned a special shade of pale and fumbled with his memos, sensing something bad was going to happen.
I think I may have been the only one who realized that Eli didn’t understand which section to read, I think the knowledge that he was outside the class’ shared joke was mine alone.
And so when he innocently asked, “I can’t find Waxines”, in a timid voice, the class once again burst into laughter, loving the continuation of this joke for one more round.
I saw Eli quietly cringe with shame as he heard the laughter around him, and perhaps Brunner’s nearby guffaws hurt him the deepest. His hands shook and his eyes scanned franticly for the place. What did everyone know that he didn’t?
Our Biology teacher falsely intuited Eli’s role as a class Jester, and decided this was the place to regain authority.
“READ…WAXINES…SALK AND SABIN…NOW”
It was a command. A command expressed so as not to be violated. The class quieted with respect, the balance was restored and our teacher waited with confidence for his bidding to be done.
And so, when Eli turned his tortured red face up to the teacher, and proclaimed with innocence that would make angels sing, “I don’t know what a waxine is”, the class, fooled into premature calm, once again exploded in appreciation. By God this was good Cinema, Eli played an excellent straight man, giving no hint he was setting up for the punch line. Or so it looked to everyone.
Low and behold, this humor was good for another go around.
As liberated cackles filled the air, both Eli and our Biology teacher turned shades of Red and purple. Eli, because he assumed the class was laughing at him, for not understanding what everyone else did, and for having had to so shamefully display his ignorance to the class.
He felt the laughter around him in the most painful manner, as he had frequently been accused of being slow, and a poor learner, and now, as mean mannered chuckling filled the air, Eli felt the inferiority of his intellect was source of the snickering.
After all, everyone seemed to understand and be amused by something he couldn’t fathom. And upon his frail teenage psyche this episode of public humiliation festered and magnified, cutting his fledgling ego deeply.
Of course, our Biology teacher, correctly identified the laughter as directed at him, and incorrectly blamed the sole innocent of the class.
“WALK…….”, he said, in a fiery voice.
“WALK TO PRINCIPAL.”
“But I didn’t do anything…”, Eli chaffed at his expulsion, realizing now that both the class and teacher saw his innocent questions as misbehavior, but he continued to be mystified as to why that was so.
And now with his protestations of innocence the class looked at him anew. All the grinning faces, the down turned sneers. They had been sure he was joking….was he really so stupid that his questions had been real. Surely not, surely he had been playing class clown to entertain them, could he really be that slow? The confused faces of the class looked at him curiously posing the question of his motivations. And their judgment awaited the outcome.
Eli didn’t fathom the details of the situation, but he intuited that he had a choice now.
The moment Eli realized that his self perceived stupidity and the humiliation that came with it could be redeemed, purified, and outright traded in, for social popularity points through acknowledgment of intent of misbehavior; he made his choice to redeem his ego, and with that decision and only at that moment…became the class clown.
By now our biology teacher had returned to the safety of his desk, and from its security he pointed his finger at Eli.
At this Eli stood from his chair and hoisted his pants to somewhere just below his shirt pocket, puffed out his belly, and stooped with freely swinging arms, his face distorted with concentration, and with that, Eli Rubenstien…… disappeared.
He’d always had a knack for movement, dancing at a whim with grace, blazing across a football field. He could control and contort his entire body as if every involuntary muscle was under his steady control. He had often imitated mine and others gates and habits to such eerie precision that it would drive the object of his mimicry to laughter or tears. I don’t know how he achieved it, but it was always something to marvel at.
And so, Eli Rubenstien disappeared, and in his place, mimicked nuance for nuance, gesture for gesture was a smaller to scale replica of our Biology teacher.
Mr. Golinar, our Biology teacher stood mystified for a moment, wondering why he suddenly appeared to be observing himself in near mirror image.
“WAAAALK”, he said deeply, pointing a finger at Eli.
But just as quickly, in fact almost in unison, Eli’s finger came up and he spoke with near perfect deep Guttural tone, “Waaalk”.
Mr. Golinar’s nervous system performed then, the equivalent of two backfires and a stall, as his eyelids flickered and his shoulders hunched and descended, followed by the tick in his neck that made his head look like it was revolving around on a slow motion centrifuge.
Eli mimicked this near seizure episode to exquisite perfection, and once again the class gone lord of the flies filled the air with their adoring laughter.
As predicted earlier by Bruner, Mr. Golinar was close to snapping, we’d seen plenty of teachers snap before, and snap he did. The classroom, the students, the laws of government and society, and the universe, all eclipsed by the primal need to get at Eli Rubenstein.
He bolted around his desk in savage rage, but Eli, a child of physical instinct more than anything else, had the good sense to bolt forward rather than back, placing the length of the desk between him and our teacher, never once leaving the module of mimicry that replicated every fumbling step our teacher took.
“YOU”, said Mr. Golinar, pointing a shaky finger at Eli, and appearing like he could barely see through the red haze in front of his eyes.
“You”, mimicked Eli with a crooked finger, pulling his pants up another notch.
Mr. Golinar lurched around the desk in his futile attempt to grasp Eli Rubenstien by any body part by which he could shake him to death. But Eli just moved as light as a feather in the other direction taunting all the while.
There they frolicked, chasing each other around the desk better than Tom and Jerry ever did. As our Biology teacher paused for breath Eli took another opportunity to immortalize himself in the annals of misbehavior.
“You not teacher”, scolded Eli as they stared at each other from across the desk, “I teacher now”
As the last trace of social glue eroded the classroom exploded and in a cacophony of flying paper and yelling, Eli slipped easily out the Door with our teacher fast on his heals, the rest of us trailing as anxious spectators, hooting and hollering like a bunch of brigands.
But even as the first half of the class exited the room the pandemonium was replaced by a stiff silence, an icy stoppage of celebration that crept back along the chain of boys so that the last to exit the room did so in trepidation, fearful of what lay at the other end of the quiet.
There in the hallway stood our principal, Mr. Bernstien, a fierce disciplinarian of a man, he was six feet and bit, and resembled most of our Rabbis in appearance save for his more closely trimmed beard.
Mr. Golinar stood silent in near asphyxiation with one deadly finger pointing at Rubenstien.
Eli stood in psychological paralysis, caught in his biggest gamble ever, his posture had changed and he stood with his head bowed as if in agreement with the both the timing and propriety of the executioners ax.
But what Mr. Bernstein said next surprised us all.
“Israel is under attack”, he said in a deadly serious tone, “and you will all go directly to the bies medrish immediately.”
“Mr. Golinar”, he said briskly to our teacher, “you are excused for the day…thank you.”
Poor Mr. Golinar, if only he could of found the words, he fumed a few syllables after Mr. Bernstien that sounded something like yelling bloody murder, but Mr. Bernstien was already on his way to the next class.
We all made our way quickly to the beis medrish, with Eli taking the long way around a still befuddled biology teacher.
The look on Eli’s face was as close to what I can imagine Yitzchak looked like after the Akedah.
We were alive with conversation, as none of us kept up with any form of news.
What was going on?
Who was attacking ?
Why were they attacking ?
As we bustled down the stairs I noticed a quiet Moredechai walking beside me. His eyes were red and he looked…
My God, he was crying.
I asked the obvious question, as there had been a lot of commotion in the classroom with Rubenstien running laps around the teacher, “what’s the matter…. did you stub your toe” ?
He looked at me, momentarily furious I had noticed his tears.
And then it came, blurted out syllable by syllable, “My Tatee”, he said choking on the words, “My Tatee is in Israel.”
I’m ashamed to say it, but my first and silent thought was, ‘do people really call their fathers Tatee’, and my second was a mild sense of embarrassment to be next to the kid that was balling like a child, but somewhere under there I had compassion, and as it welled to the surface I took Mordechai by the arm, “C’mon”, I said, and brought him over to Rabbi Brindel, our Menahel’s office.
Even as I reached the open door Rabbi Brindel was on his feet. He was a man I feared tremendously, as he ruled his yeshiva with an iron will and an unbending philosophy of fundamental beliefs.
It was almost difficult for me to voluntarily walk into the lion’s den of his office, so I tried to deliver the information hastily.
“Rebbi, Mordy’s father is…”
“I know”, he said and with two great strides was beside us, he put his arm around Mordy as if father to son, “hashem yisboroch watches over you father”, he said with the complete confidence of the faithful, “don’t worry, he’ll be alright…he’ll be alright.”
Always on the defensive I had never realized how deeply Rabbi Brindel cared for his students, and I hesitated by the doorway almost a moment too long, seeing him in a different light.
As I stepped back from his office I was caught in a stream of humanity headed for the Beis medrish, and I had to push my way to my usual seat were four of five people now stood. The entire yeshiva and high school had compressed themselves and it seemed there was barely room to breath.
The room buzzed with speculation and various news sources, but I couldn’t get a clean fix on anything.
A moment later and Rabbi Brindle entered, striding purposefully to his shtender. He was a large man, hefty and tall, with thick strong arms and large hands. He raised a hand above his head and brought it swiftly down on the flat of his wooden shtender, creating a piercing boom that brought the crowded room to instant silence.
There we hung, suspended in a quiet too pristine to even exhale in.
And then he spoke.
“We”, he said, “do not believe in the government of Israel, or the secular state…”
“But right now, Yidden in Eretz Yisroel, need our tefilah, to survive.”
“More than bunkers, or Airplanes, or tanks….the kavanah you have right now…will determine the outcome of the war. We dare waste not another second, as our prayers are needed right now…”
Crammed too close to breath, I spent a moment thinking of all my relatives in Israel, all my friends there. Having just seen Mordy in tears only made it feel that much more personal, that much more… my battle.
I had never felt very much in terms of prayer, they were an empty service to me, a fealty to a being I didn’t understand, a set of praises I didn’t really feel; but despite my past, I was momentarily convinced that Rabbi Brindel was correct, and that my hishtadlus at this moment was quintessential to the survival of actual individuals in Eretz Yisroel.
He pointed a finger at the frail chazzan at the bimah and from the silence his thin voice lifted in a song with a tune more wistful than aichah.
“shiur hamalos…mimamakim kirasecha adonoi.”
There was a pregnant pause as he finished the first verse, as if the collective yeshiva was gathering it’s cavanah , a deep spiritual breath that we held for a moment.
Like thunder from the heavens themselves….
Our response shook the very foundations of the building, windows vibrating in sympathetic resonance, the roar of hundreds of voices, calling out from the depths, forming a plea no God could ignore… I was surprised to recognize my own voice amongst them.
We prayed for our families and the families of others, we prayed for our fellow yiddin, we prayed for their lives with all our strength.
We prayed until late in the night, until exhaustion left only the truly stout in the beis medrish learning. As I returned to my room I noticed my voice was hoarse and raspy, both of my roommates had already collapsed and I rolled quickly into bed ready for sleep.
But before that gentle reprieve could take me I heard my door squeak open.
It was Mordy, and he made his way quickly over to my bed.
His eyes were bloodshot and red rimmed.
His voice was as hoarse as mine, “I want your radio”.
“Shhhhh”, I silenced him looking fearfully at my roommates, both of whom would report my contraband in a heartbeat. Then I looked again at Mordy realizing he fell into the same category.
“Even if I have one, why should I give it to you”, I said as quietly as my rasping voice allowed, and checked again on the sleeping status of my roommates, “you’ll just turn it over to…”
“I won’t”, he said looking me in the eye, “I just need to know what’s going on.”
I slid my radio from the bottom of my tissue box and handed it over to the “other side”.
Mordy looked hopelessly forlorn. His eyes were burdened with worry, he looked lost.
I remembered, how Rabbi Brindel had spoken with him, giving him hope and courage and I tried to follow suit.
“Mordy”, I whispered, “if God can hear anything then he must of heard something tonight.”
Mordichai nodded his head, and seemed to cheer up a bit.
I worked on his smile.
“Remember Rubenstein today”, I whispered, thinking how that seemed like it happened a week ago.
“you not teacher”, I whispered, “I teacher now”
We both laughed a little bit.
“You can take it back to your room”, I said pointing at the radio, “just bring it back when your done”.
Mordy lost his smile and looked at me as if I just asked him to hide a cheeseburger under his pillow.
“I’ll listen to it here.”, he said sitting at my desk.
“Fine”, I sighed, “just don’t wake up my roommates…or get caught…and put it back when your done.”
I watched him for a moment as he operated the dials, needing to hear words from the outside world.
I don’t know how long Mordy stayed awake listening to the news as I fell asleep almost immediately. The next morning my radio was back under the tissues of my tissue box, much as he said it would be.
Of course, Mordy’s father was OK, either due to dud rockets, or ultra powerful prayer. Most in the yeshiva believed that that night’s absolute solidarity during prayer had incurred the positive results.
Funny thing was, from that day on our chavrusa time took a turn in a different direction, with Mordy giving me the most unusual positive encouragement, in place of his normal scathing repertoire. It turned from a daily torture session to something I could quite enjoy.
Silly as it sounds, I guess we made a break in our friendship that night, we found a way to trust each other for a little bit, and it seeped into our chavrusah time in an un quantifiable way that only good feelings can, oiling every rusty joint, polishing every dulled gear.
Turns out, Torah isn’t like powdered sugar, it doesn’t stick of it’s own volition. You need to work on it to own it, not just be around it, and that’s true for any knowledge.
It’s been years since I left yeshiva, and I’ve heard that Mordy made good on fulfilling his family heritage. He went on to become a great and compassionate Rabbi, just like his father, and he teaches in a very prestigious yeshiva.
Well, I’m glad all of his preparations weren’t for nothing. And I imagine he gets plenty of practice with his “dangers of the outside world speech”, and has probably made it twice as convincing as the last time I heard it. I bet sometimes he even has to confiscate items from bochurim who are not acting with their better spiritual health in mind.
I bet he sometimes sits and talks to bochurim about the difficulties of the goyish velt, and, while assuring them it’s for their own good, takes away their radios.
But on these quiet evenings when I reminisce about times past, I can’t help wondering if Mustache ever remembers the one he returned, and the long night he spent listening to it…