My 13-year-old son, Menachem, is my valued chavruta, or study partner; he has a keen and creative mind, and I hope he will one day become a true talmid chochom, or religious scholar. We study Talmud together every evening and Sabbath; Menachem’s mornings at yeshiva are also filled with the study of religious texts.
But he knows how to keep himself entertained. Our family chooses not to own a television, that ubiquitous appliance that a renowned if blunt-speaking rabbi once likened to having an open and flowing sewer pipe in one’s living room.
And so, Menachem reads.
Most of the standard fare of contemporary “teen lit” is as unwelcome in our home as televisions are. Many books, though, nonfiction and novels alike, have emerged from Orthodox publishing houses in recent years, and our son reads his share of these. With his well-developed sense of humor (and special appreciation of the imaginative and absurd), he has also consumed his share of J.K. Rowling and Lemony Snicket. Not long ago, though, I found him engrossed in an old book that had somehow survived many years and several interstate moves. Four decades earlier, it had made me laugh out loud and, amazingly, it was having precisely the same effect on my son. More amazing still, the book was already decades old when I had read it as a boy.
The tome was “The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N,” penned in the 1930s by Leo Rosten (under the nom de plume Leonard Q. Ross) for The New Yorker and then published as a book (followed by a sequel, “The Return of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N”).
For the uninitiated, Kaplan’s books are wonderfully droll accounts of the experiences of what we would today call an “English as a Second Language” instructor, as he strives to introduce new immigrants — Kaplan hails from Kiev — to the vagaries of American speech, grammar and idioms. The humor derives largely from the garbled yield of Kaplan’s accent and from his, shall we say, “alternative logic.” He is a student who proudly announces the principal parts of “to die” as “die, dead, funeral” and who, after he has submitted the word “door” as an example of a noun and then is asked to provide another example, responds, “Another door.” He bemoans his wife’s “high blood pleasure” and, in a business letter, pens the memorable sentence, “If your eye falls on a bargain please pick it up.” Not much in the way of plot, but the dialogue is priceless.
It’s always heartening for parents, especially those of middle age, to witness their young relating to ideas, books or activities that they themselves enjoyed while in their own formative years. But, for goodness’s sake: “The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N” was written in 1937, and a youngster is audibly chuckling over it close to a decade into the Common Era’s second millennium? What gives? Sure, Rosten is funny, but so are Mark Twain and P.G. Wodehouse (himself, incidentally, a fan of the Hyman Kaplan books); you don’t see many kids cracking up over them these days. And of course, the sort of things that ensue when Kaplan and his classmates engage in mouth-to-ear combat with that strangeness called English easily captivate anyone who appreciates the intriguing elements of language (as a toddler, on hearing a new word, Menachem would repeat it softly to himself several times, rolling it around on his tongue like a piece of candy) .
But I think there may be another, more subtle reason that both my son and I connected so well with the books, and it has to do with Kaplan himself.
For all his comical blunders and swollen self-regard (the asterisks — actually, green stars — are part of his flamboyant signature for a reason), Kaplan is endearing, and for a very Jewish reason: He is preternaturally determined, and undeterred by even his most spectacular failures. He’s in the class to learn, and learn he will — come hell or high vowels. He is committed to using his mind, to what he calls “dip tinking.” Although the Hyman Kaplan books are almost devoid of religious references, their protagonist hews unmistakably to a principle stated by the rabbis of the Mishna (Avot 2:6): “The bashful person cannot learn.”
Of course, the rabbis were referring not to study of the sort that goes on at the “American Night Preparatory School for Adults.” They were talking about the quintessential Jewish study, that of Torah. But Kaplan’s enthusiasm and devotion are familiar to anyone who has ever entered a yeshiva classroom or study hall. That the Talmud compares Torah to bread and water is not insignificant. The study of Jewish law and lore is meant to be the staple of the Jewish life of the mind.
Single-minded focus on the pedagogic goal, no matter what obstacles or failures may interject themselves, is arguably the essence of Jewish learning — and teaching. The Talmud speaks of the great merit of one Rabbi Preida, whose pupil could not understand a lesson unless it was repeated 400 times. Both teacher and student had every reason to become frustrated, indeed to abandon the task. But neither did; the goal was too important. And they were in it together.
Kaplan’s instructor, Mr. Parkhill (or “Pockheel,” as Kaplan calls him), while regularly at wits’ end over his student’s pronouncements and advocacies, also shows great patience, even signs of appreciation. After the rest of the class excitedly attacks a condemned building of words and illogic erected by their tenacious classmate, and Parkhill joins in with a withering demolition of the Kaplanesque structure, something surprising happens: “Even as he chastised his most intractable pupil, Mr. Parkhill felt nourishing juices course through his veins. For the priceless spark of life, the very heart of learning, had been revived in what, but half an hour ago, had been a dull and listless congregation.” Kaplan’s creator was not a notably religious man, but Kaplan the character and his goal-focused monomania readily evidence Rosten’s recognition — perhaps instilled by his parents, and certainly present in his genes — of a truly Jewish ideal: Learning matters, above all.
There is a story told of two Jews in the 1930s discussing renowned Lithuanian talmudic genius Rabbi Yosef Rosen, popularly known as “the Rogatchover.” “Why,” the first fellow muses, “if only he had studied physics, he could have been an Einstein!” “You’ve got it wrong,” the other says. “If only Einstein had studied Talmud, he could have been a Rogatchover!” And so, what really resonated in me and my son about Rosten’s memorable creation — aside from the laughter and amusement he brought us — may have been our realization, conscious or not, that if only Hyman Kaplan had studied Torah, he could have been a talmid chochom.
Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.