From Sir, With Compassion: Part 2

Image: Courtesy of Larry Mayer

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.

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.

On the first full day of Hanukkah, the second evening for lighting candles, the boys invited me to a real Hanukkah party. They were even more hyper and restless than usual. So I sang the silliest Hanukkah song I could think of by Woody Guthrie, something about “latkes on your toes,” and then together we listened to it on YouTube. In return, they borrowed my iPhone and played me their favorite, “Candlelight,” by the Maccabeats, which — though none seemed to know — was a remake of “Dynamite,” a Top 40 dance song that my daughters and I often sang together.

“It’s a real song,” I told them, “Your guys just changed the words.”

Amid the commotion, one of the Moishes, Moishe Lanzman, a boy who looked like an embittered old man but who had turned out to be a fervent supporter of mine, asked, “Mr. Mayer, you lighting again today? You know, of course, it’s a mitzvah.”

“Am I lighting today? Of course I’m lighting today,” I said. “I am lighting twice today, like I did yesterday. First here, then at home.”

There was a momentary silence.

“Wait, what do you mean? You can’t light twice in the same night.” Moishe Lanzman filled three small cups with oil.

“I mean, I lit here, and then I went home and lit with my wife and children.”

“You mean they lit? They said the brachas — blessings?” He looked up at me.

Fox, who was balancing his too-small hat on my head again, gave Lanzman a covert poke in the ribs. “What’s the difference?”

“The difference is you can’t light the candles twice,” he repeated.

“No, it doesn’t make any difference — of course, he shouldn’t light twice — but his children aren’t Jewish anyway. So either way it doesn’t matter!”

Then, Yitzhak, the smart senior, who was more of a literal-minded stickler than the others, added, “His wife and his kids are goyim. Neither should light. It’s for your own good, Mr. Mayer.”

I took a few deep breaths. “You know what, guys?” I said. “I have to leave. I’ll light the candles when I get home. The truth is that my wife needs to pick up a Christmas tree.” Some nodded sarcastically, some cringed and recoiled in horror. “But don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll light the tree too. I’ll burn it down.”

One of the kids piped in, “We should burn down all the Christmas trees!”

Fox looked at me with his big teeth, a big sarcastic all-knowing smile on his face. My head began to tremble the way it had several months ago when they were inspecting my inside-out shirt.

“And since when are you my rabbi all of a sudden, Mr. Fox?” “He couldn’t be your rabbi,” Weasel added. “Mr. Mayer’s rabbi is probably a woman anyway.”

“No,” I responded, “He couldn’t be my rabbi because my kind of Judaism believes in tolerance and compassion.”

In the evening I lit candles at home, and we picked up a Christmas tree. I also got an email, offering me the position of “long-term substitute teacher of humanities” — a job I had interviewed for a few weeks before. The title was not so great; it reminded me of Willy Loman. But I would finally be out of here. Did I care? Would I miss the students?

“What a sad thing for the kids,” my wife said. “I’m sure their teachers quit all the time. And it’s not their fault.”

I wouldn’t miss teaching the classes, but I would miss interacting with the individual students. I thought of what one of the mothers emailed me after she’d gotten a complaint from the rabbi about her son’s behavior in my class: “I know it’s hard to believe, but almost all of these boys will turn out to be mensches — decent human beings.” I wondered about that. I believed they really would be decent to each other, but I also imagined that their tolerance for other people would not improve with age.

I gave Rabbi B. several weeks’ notice, and told him I would stay till mid-January. We decided it best not to tell the students until a day or two before I was to leave. I had hoped the rabbi might say he was sorry to see me leave, or that I had done a commendable job in my four months, that the kids would miss me, or that yes, he had kind of expected me to leave. He barely looked up from his computer screen. Within an hour he had already posted my vacated position back on Craigslist.

On the Tuesday of my last week, I announced the news to my 10th-graders. At first they all applauded and cheered. Within seconds the word had spread through the narrow halls, up and down the stairways of the building. In the beis midrash, some even stopped praying. One kid jokingly asked me for a hug. And soon, their shouts of approval turned into a barrage of questions: Where was I going? Was it the rival Jewish school? Was it a goyish school? What kind of students were they? What would I teach them? Would I visit some time? Could we have a party on Thursday?

On Thursday, my last day, I came in feeling strong and free. When I arrived, several boys were shooting hoops on the dilapidated court outside, yelling for me to come and play. One of the four Moishes — the most likeable of the lot, the one I called Smart Moishe — was unloading cartons from a van when he saw me. He quickly dropped the boxes, and in his black shoes, in a semi-lurking walk approached me.

“Mr. Mayer,” he spoke softly. “Can you keep a secret?”

“Depends. I suppose.”

“Please, if I tell you, you can’t tell anyone.”

“Well, no guarantees, but OK, tell me anyway.”

“I have a copy of your book, the one you wrote, and would like for you to sign it for me before you leave. I will give it to you later, but please don’t mention a word, please.”

Meanwhile, the 10th-graders had spread a white, plastic tablecloth across their desks, and ordered kosher pizza for my going away party. In my honor, someone wrote on the whiteboard in purple marker all the lyrics to “Happy Llama, Sad Llama,” and drew a cartoonish picture of a laughing latke on someone’s toe. I promised to visit for their next holiday party, on Purim, in March. I really meant it.

The ninth-graders, who had carried boxes down to the basement, had prepared their own farewell party. But as I made my way, Smart Moishe, now blushing, asked me to follow him to the dark hallway of third floor, where I had never been. Once there, he ducked into a room, and quickly handed me a black, plastic bag whose ends had been folded over and knotted.

“It’s in here,” he said. “When you’re done, put it on the shelf downstairs, where the hats are, in the main lobby, and push it into the corner. Don’t let anyone see you.” I nodded, as he lightly pushed me toward the stairs.

The ninth-graders were lying in wait in the cafeteria. Some were standing on red vinyl chairs. Others cleared chairs to the side of the room. And when I arrived they let out a series of cheers.

“Mr. Mayer, Mr. Mayer! Look, we bought all this — pretzels, chips and soda — for you. And Weasel’s mother even made you brownies.” One of the boys plugged in an electronic device to a set of small speakers and began to play some bass-driven Hebrew song.

“It’s time to dance, Mr. Mayer.”

“But I’m not dancing,” I said. “I don’t know how to dance, not the way you guys do.”

“Oh, come on, we’ll teach you.”

About eight boys gathered in a circle in the center of the small underground hideaway. They were already holding hands, eagerly waiting for me to join them in a freylekh. “Come, Mr. Mayer.” A place opened in the circle for me to enter the chain.

We began circling to the right. We snaked around between the basement girders and chairs. We completed several rounds, and then Weasel’s sweaty palm let go, breaking the chain, to dance by himself in the center — to show off, I thought. The music was loud, very loud now. Perhaps he would squat close to the ground, fold his arms across his chest, and kick each leg out in a Jewish rendition of an old Cossack dance. But instead, he grabbed both my hands and pulled me inside with him so that we could swing around together. The circle around us clapped in unison, until one of the Shlomos cut in. We were now three.

At this point, the red fedora I had been wearing for the occasion fell off my head. Shlomo picked it up and replaced it with a yarmulke. I had my right hand on my head, holding it in place, the other grasping his hand as we continued to go around. As if I had created a new dance step, Shlomo and Weasel imitated me, putting their right hands on their heads, and with great animation, tilting, bobbing and weaving. This went on for several minutes until I ran out of breath, and the music stopped.

But the boys had just started. Weasel introduced another song for me. He nodded — a slow number, something in Hebrew — something sentimental. It seemed rehearsed. Eight boys side by side — arms around shoulders and waists, all smiling. As I photographed, they began to sway back and forth to the melancholy rhythm. I switched my iPhone camera to video recorder. The words were now in English as they sang: “The spark in your soul is still there, it’s never too late, Mr. Mayer. It’s never too late.”

A second group of boys stacked themselves into a small pyramid while chanting, “Na Na Na, Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye.” The original group backed me into a corner, clapped over their heads, and wagged scolding fingers at me as they sang: “You are still a Jew. You are still a Jew. Mr. Mayer is a Jew. He is still a Jew.” After the song faded, several of the boys handed me their phone numbers and told me to keep in touch.

Upstairs, the 12th-graders who had spent the last four months convincing me that high school seniors weren’t ever expected to do schoolwork, were waiting to present me with a gift. It was a four-cornered, open-necked undershirt with hanging, twisted tassles — tsitsis — intended to remind me of my religious obligations as a Jew.

“It’s not a big deal,” Yitzhak the arbiter of Jewish law told me. “You wear it like an undershirt, no one will even see. And besides, in the winter, it will keep you warm.” But I knew I would never wear it. I shook my head and apologized. “OK, but for us, now, please say a blessing, and wear it this once.” I agreed. I said the blessing. I slid the garment over my head as he clicked my camera.

“The hat, the hat, put his red hat on,” someone suggested. “And the black leather vest.” There was a pause. And then Yitzhak looked at the photo and proclaimed: “Mr. Mayer — a fine-lookin’ Jew.”

Yes, although we disagreed on just about everything — from our interpretations of Judaism to our attitudes about the world — they still considered me as part of the fold. Perhaps in this way, they were more tolerant of me than I was of them.

It was time to leave. One of the boys handed me a folded prayer to keep in my wallet.

“I guarantee if you keep this with you, it will keep you safe.”

They gathered around me as I took off the white shirt. I exited the classroom into the vestibule. Smart Moishe had surreptitously taken my book wrapped in the black plastic bag off the hat shelf. He nodded at me over his shoulder and then ran down the stairs into the street. He was one of the few who I thought might be saved. And I’m pretty sure he was thinking the same about me.

Written by

Larry N. Mayer

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From Sir, With Compassion: Part 2

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