The son of Polish Holocaust survivors, Larry N. Mayer grew up in the Bronx. His first book, “Who Will Say Kaddish?: A Search for Jewish Identity in Contemporary Poland” was published by Syracuse University Press in 2002. A graduate of Columbia University’s Teachers College, he has worked with at-risk high school students for over fifteen years, and has taught secondary English in the Boston area. This essay is based on his experiences as a high school English Literature teacher at an Orthodox Jewish school. The names of students and instructors have been changed to protect their identities. This is the second part of a two-part series. Last week, when we left Mr. Mayer, he was trying to find a way to teach Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” to his teenage students.
As it turned out, bowdlerizing “Death of a Salesman” was not that difficult. Using white out, I obscured anything I thought inappropriate. Wasn’t there something illegal about this? I wondered. I hadn’t read the play since teaching it five or six years earlier at a public high school, and I went through it page by page. There was a “damn” here, a “hell” there. A mention of Biff having sex for the first time had to go. Linda Loman’s stockings? Questionable. Maybe even a mention of “God.” Unfortunately, I missed a “bitch,” which caused endless grumbling among the students. We read aloud. Some of the ninth-graders enjoyed reading, and even argued about who would play whom.
Read the first part of Larry N. Mayer’s two-part story about teaching English in an Orthodox high school
After a week, we had gotten to about the middle of the play. I borrowed the video “Death of a Salesman” from the public library, a wonderfully depressing, black and white 1966 TV version starring Lee J. Cobb (formerly, Leo Jacoby of New York’s Lower East Side). At first, watching the film was a bonding session. Because they were not allowed to have computers, televisions or high-tech gadgets at the school, both classes huddled around my laptop computer to watch, and for them it was a treat. I was offered candy. For me, it was a respite. And, it seemed to be working. After this, I would find another play and we would watch that too.
Well, that didn’t last long. Rabbi B came to me privately.
“Please, no watching of videos, one of the boys complained,” he said.
“Complained? They loved it, there were a couple of ‘damns’ and ‘hells’ but overall it was a great experience for them.”
“Well, apparently while you were fast-forwarding the film, one of the boys saw the image of a woman, showing a bare shoulder to Willy Loman.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No, please, no more videos. It only takes one parent.”
I was beginning to understand why so much was forbidden. It was pretty simple: Whatever good might be gained from contact with the outside world couldn’t measure up to the potential dangers and damage it might cause. Nearly everything outside their proscribed world could be construed as a temptation away from God, and a threat to their existence.