From Sir, With Compassion: Part 2

The Concluding Chapter of the Misadventures of a Secular English Teacher in an Orthodox School

The Whiteboard Jungle: Larry N. Mayer, the author of “Who Will Say Kaddish,” taught English literature at the high school level in an Orthodox Jewish school.
Courtesy of Larry Mayer
The Whiteboard Jungle: Larry N. Mayer, the author of “Who Will Say Kaddish,” taught English literature at the high school level in an Orthodox Jewish school.

By Larry N. Mayer

Published October 27, 2013, issue of November 01, 2013.
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Overall, the attempted discussions of the play were unsuccessful. The boys could not relate to Willy Loman’s failures. To them, he was just a crazy, pathetic old man, selling God-knows-what.They made comparisons between Willy and me.

“You’ve been teaching for 20 years, Mr. Mayer, what are you doing here? You wrote a book Mr. Mayer, can’t you do something else?” We joked about how I could write a play called “Death of a Schoolteacher,” and it wouldn’t be that far-fetched. Though, I told them, there was no plan to kill myself.

In the meantime, we started reading the screenplay of “12 Angry Men,” which the rabbi himself had recommended. It was a great idea, because all the parts in the script were for men. There was nothing to cut out — no women to speak of, no sex, no mention of religion. The story addressed the situation of a poor, young Hispanic man who is accused of murder and faces the death penalty. The case involves two eyewitnesses, an elderly man and “a woman across the street.” I tried to focus on the concept of “reasonable doubt,” which seemed like a good discussion topic. When the time came to write the essay, I gave them a choice of questions. One of the questions asked: If this were tried in a Jewish court of law, how would things be different? This prompted a discussion about the validity of women as witnesses.

In a Jewish court, a woman would not be allowed to testify, I was told. A woman was almost like a child and couldn’t be trusted. She would be too emotional to know what she really saw. She wouldn’t understand multiple points of view, it would be too complicated for her. When I tried to tell them that this was blatant sexism, someone said that I was questioning the rules and in turn accusing God.

On the first evening of Hanukkah, I was invited to participate in the candle lighting ceremony, which the students were left alone to conduct. It was in the basement cafeteria, the dreaded ninth grade classroom. Because the sun set early during those late days of December, the ritual was to take place immediately after classes ended. One by one, students appeared in the cellar.

“Mr. Mayer, will you light?”

“Of course, I will light.”

“Will you say the blessings?”

“Of course, I will say the blessings.” It was nice. Each student had his own menorah, made up of small glasses for candles, which they filled with olive oil. They put on their black hats, and black jackets over their white shirts, and I was suddenly surrounded by a sea of black. When my yarmulke fell off my head, someone gave me his black hat to wear. Fox, a nudnik if I’d ever met one, was also the most excited that I was lighting the candles. I said the blessings and received a round of applause. When I went home that night it felt promising. At home my wife, a non-Jewish, non-believer in organized religion; my two daughters, who are being raised half-Jewish by exposure; and I each lit a different menorah. My daughters recited the blessings. With the colorful candles glowing, and holiday decorations strewn about, our home had a cozy, hopeful feeling. We planned on getting a Christmas tree after school the next day.


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