The Misadventures of a Secular English Teacher in an Orthodox School

From Sir, With Compassion, Part I of II

Sit and Deliver: Larry N. Mayer worked as a secular English teacher in an Orthodox school.
Courtesy of Larry Mayer
Sit and Deliver: Larry N. Mayer worked as a secular English teacher in an Orthodox school.

By Larry N. Mayer

Published October 20, 2013, issue of October 25, 2013.
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The son of Polish Holocaust survivors, Larry N. Mayer grew up in the Bronx, NY. His first book, “Who Will Say Kaddish?: A Search for Jewish Identity in Contemporary Poland” was published by Syracuse University Press in 2002. He has worked with at-risk high school students for over fifteen years, and wrote about his experiences for the Boston Phoenix in 2000. His short story, ‘Love for Miss Dottie,’ was selected for publication by Mary Gaitskill, in the “Best New American Voices 2009” anthology. This essay is based on his experiences as a secular English teacher in an Orthodox School. The second and final installment will be published next week.

Though he led his own Orthodox congregation several blocks away, Rabbi Berman was in charge of the yeshiva’s secular education program. A youngish man with an expressive face and a brown beard, he seemed to be moonlighting as principal — a way to earn extra money and perhaps satisfy a lesser passion for teaching. He smiled easily and was shy in a scholarly way. Upon meeting at our interview, he turned away from me, pumped his fist like a little boy, and whispered to himself, “Yes! Yes!” I could see him smiling. I was Jewish, I had 20 years of experience teaching English in high schools and at the college level, and I had even written and published a book on Jewish identity in Poland, which I’d brought to our meeting and placed on his desk. Only now does it occur to me that he never looked at it. During my tenure at the school, he would be a good boss in that he rarely interfered. Yet he gave me fair warning: Regular high school subjects for these Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews), he said, “didn’t count” in the bigger scheme of things. Non-religious subjects were a time to unwind, sleep or break down the walls of the old Victorian house. The yeshiva bokherim, as they are called, studied Talmud and Torah all day, getting up at 7 a.m. and not finishing till 9 p.m. The hours from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., when they studied literature, history, science and math, were considered down time.

These kids were going to be a handful, yet I imagined I could handle anything. Because of my wife’s academic career, we had relocated several times as a family and I was used to taking unusual teaching jobs. I started as a high school English teacher in the crack-infested South Bronx of the early 1990s, moved my way around the country to a school in a juvenile detention home in Ohio, to several at-risk high schools in inner city Boston, and finally to teaching Holocaust studies and creative writing to mostly apathetic college students in the Pacific Northwest. I was up for this latest challenge. How hard could it be?

On my first day, I walked uncertainly up the steps of the front doorway. In the small vestibule, deep-brimmed round black hats were resting on shelves and brown-covered prayer books were piled carelessly. A sickly-sweet smell pervaded the building. I peeked into a central room; several boys were praying, others studying. I had asked Rabbi Berman if I needed to wear a hat or a yarmulke out of respect, and he’d told me to wear what was comfortable, so I wore a nice button down shirt and my best suit pants. I was ambivalent. On the one hand I felt reassured by the familiar Jewishness of the setting, but on the other I felt a sense of alienation, distrust and unease. Though I strongly identified as Jewish, I was hardly religious, and I had formed my own opinions about the crazy Haredim in Israel — for instance, those who were making world headlines by forbidding women to sit in the front of buses, and spitting on young girls in short-sleeved blouses.

I quickly got a feel for the three-story building. There were no paper towels in the bathroom; the toilet seat jiggled. A leaning mattress blocked the hallway to the semi-kitchen.

“A class in session,” the rabbi told me. “We use every part of the building.” My ninth grade class was to meet in the basement cafeteria. We would work among the rodent traps and their unmistakable blue pellets of poison. The room smelled of institutionalized food, large pots of barley soup, and cleaning products. I immediately wondered whether or not these teenage boys wanted to be here at all. The black hats and pants. The white shirts. The lack of girls. The shabby facilities. The main office looked like a converted storage closet, where the other rabbi, who was the head of the Yeshiva — Rabbi Alter — maintained his desk of clutter. A photocopy machine from around the age of the bicentennial sat crookedly on a pile of papers. The first thing I said to him was, “I thought you’d be older.” He resembled a Grateful Deadhead in a suit; he nodded and murmured, smiling. He looked to be hiding in his little hovel, slouching low in his chair, with a phone crooked against his shoulder, and Chinese food leftovers skulking among the ruins on his desktop. In the same room, the “secular” rabbi — Rabbi Berman — handed me his black binders of old lesson plans, covered in what looked like flakes of dandruff and dried yogurt.

“No Shakespeare,” Rabbi B told me. “Too much talk about love. The only love they need to know about is in the Torah.” To his credit, I did get the impression that he was rolling his eyes at that idea.

“What about poetry?” I asked. “Can we read poems?”

“You can try, but poetry is either love or death. And last year the students complained that all the poems they read were about death.” So death, as I understood it, was played out. And the other option — the love option — was out. And we couldn’t read novels because students were not supposed to have work outside the classroom. The real day was for learning Torah.

“You can also do grammar with them,” he said. “It’s good to do grammar.”

I had four Moishes in my first class of 10th-graders, but no one would tell me his correct name until Rabbi B came in. The senior class had three Yehudas. And the freshmen had two Shlomos — the good one, and the bad one. In the end, I found it easier to call them by their last names, even though it felt old-fashioned and a bit disrespectful: “Sit down, Foxman. Take a seat, open your notebook.”

Before class I had seen several of them outside playing basketball at a neglected looking hoop. The court was overgrown with weeds and scattered trash, yet they played with all the fervor of normal teenage boys, though it looked harder to run and jump in their formal outfits.

In front of me, I saw a palette of white shirts and pale, pimply faces. A few had payes, or side locks, like little old men without the beards. One boy told me that from a religious standpoint only sideburns were required, but he kept his hanging curls for what I rephrase here as “extra credit” from God. Was I Jewish, they all wanted to know? More importantly, “Is your mother Jewish? Is your wife? If not, you must be stupid.” I sang what I could remember of the Haftarah from my bar mitzvah, and they were pleased. They argued over which parsha — the weekly Torah portion — it was from. It was almost cute. And in some sad way I felt as if I belonged.

Rabbi B had wanted to be sure I could pronounce the guttural “ch” sound, instead of the American “k” sound. So before class he’d prepped me. I did it properly — gave it that extra phlegm in the throat sound — which pleased him also. It’s very important to pronounce their names correctly, he told me. They get a big kick out of your making a mistake — easy to do because of the constant confusion of whether their names were Hebrew or Yiddish, or some form of Judaicized English. For example, was it Levi like a levee in the Mississippi River, or Levi, like a pair of jeans? Or Levi, which rhymes with “Navy”? When I came to the name Reicher, I made sure to gutturalize the “ch” but of course they all laughed because in this case it was pronounced “Riker,” like the prison island. In the end, though, what mattered most was that my mother was Jewish.

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