By the time I reached my third year in Yeshiva University High School, I had achieved a level of torpidity and apathy, caring little about my Jewish subjects—for they had degenerated into one, all-effacing blot, and that blot was Talmud. Throughout my life, I have received a great deal of bad advice from the most well-meaning people, and, in this case, a young tyro of a rabbi, Rabbi Spier (the name is fictional, as are the names of all teachers and students I mention in these pages), himself a ba’al teshuva, or fervid and fervent “born-again” Jew, had advised me—me, who shone in Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and Hebrew, to enter the Talmud Dept. of the high school, rather than the Hebrew Dept. Worse than that, I took his advice.
And so I found myself in the class run by Rabbi Helfgott, a rotund man with black, tightly-curling hair and beard, whose soporific talents were such that I was able to take my seat by 9 am every morning, and nod off to sleep by 9:15 am. It’s really not hard to sleep in Talmud class: one spreads the web between thumb and forefinger of the right hand, cradling the forehead therein, and closes one’s eyes. To the onlooker in front—the rabbi, that is—this gives the impression that the student is concentrating on the text, while in reality, the student is sleeping—not deeply, for that would cause the hand to relax, and the head to nod dangerously toward the desk. In such a case, the student would have already instructed his friends—Robert Cahn on the right side, Joey Maltz on the left—to jab him sharply in the ribs, awakening him.
And this was my daily routine. For Rabbi Helfgott was possessed of an orotund voice which gave little dimension to the tangled thickets of Talmud through which he attempted to guide us—Pesachim, I believe, was the Masechta, or tractate, we were studying; that is, the volume dealing with Pesach, Passover. Was I learning any insights useful for conducting the Seder meal, or, perhaps, gaining a deeper insight into the freedom for which my ancestors risked their lives in following Moses? No: instead, I was caught up in an intellectual game of Blind Man’s Bluff, in which the rabbi led us up intellectual hill and down hairsplitting dale, learning to distinguish between what flours and foods become chametz gamur—completely chametz (beer, for example; I do not drink beer, on Pesach, or ever), or leavened, or chametz nuksha—partially leavened (e.g., rice; I now eat rice on Pesach, in solidarity with my Sephardic brethren, for whom it is a staple. But I digress). That, and whether, if a dog burrows into the wall of one’s house during the festival, and drags out a piece of chametz, what was one to do, since it was forbidden to own, much more eat, such a thing? (I could not conceive of desiring to consume such a filthy, rotten object, but Talmud study does require a certain suspension of logic and belief.) Never mind: it was Talmud, and I was not doing well at it.
Thankfully, there was always recess to look forward to—during which we healthy, half-starveling adolescents would thunder out of the classroom and down the stairs, racing across Amsterdam Avenue to Mr. Zunder’s grocery, where we would purchase handfuls of Drake’s Cakes—they were only a quarter apiece. It took the chocolatey infusion of Ring Dings and Yodels, and sugared Apple Pies to shoot the necessary carbohydrates into our systems, the better to withstand another hour or so of Rabbi Helfgott’s Talmudic meanderings and not fall asleep, again.
In those days, Yeshiva was a magnet to all different sorts of people, not all of them Jewish. It was the 1960s; Kennedy had been president, until an assassin’s bullet killed Camelot, and now, Lyndon Johnson held sway over a nation that roiled with civil rights agitation and a growing conflict in Vietnam. I had no connection with such things; my concerns began and ended with Talmud in the morning and calculus in the afternoon. We boys dwelt in the Washington Heights neighborhood, but were not really a part of it, or even the world; from time to time, different, strange, exotic people would emerge and present themselves before us. One of these was the Wild-eyed Young Man.
He was lanky and tall, with a mop of Afro-type hair, although he was white; pale, even, except where the sun had given him a tinge of redness. His eyes were milky-blue, and distant-looking, as of one who knew of other times, other places--Biblical lands of prophecy, apocalypse, worlds comings to an end-- one did not want to look him in the face for very long; he had the look of a misbegotten prophet, set loose on the unforgiving, drug-ridden streets of Washington Heights. His hair moved in the breeze, almost of its own accord; it reminded me of the Gorgon, Medusa, her hair of snakes, each of which moved independently, hissing. But Wild-eye seemed harmless, if mad; we boys were New Yorkers and New Jerseyites; madness was something we accepted, and walked around, as I once saw pedestrians stepping delicately around an unconscious, ragged, homeless man who lay on the sidewalk, odorous of Mad-Dog 20/20 wine, a gash on his forehead running a red, bloody line into the gutter, until the ambulance came and grim, unsmiling men in white coats came and gathered him up in a gurney, packing him into their van like cast-off rubbish; running off, siren screaming, while people moved on, unconcerned. It was New York: one took those things in stride.
The Wild-eyed Young Man was just a few years older than we, and, once we had stuffed ourselves on Mr. Zunder’s bounty, we had a few minutes to spare. He was talking to us. Some of the older boys, eager for some break from our endlessly boring routine, went over to listen. I held back; I had problems and concerns of my own, all Yeshiva-based, and needed no more.
He held little, blue, hard-covered books in his hands: they looked like Hebrew prayerbooks almost, only thicker.
“I have books for you boys,” he said, “It’s the Good News, of the Coming Age. Here; take one.” He held a book out to Steve Eisenberg, who took it gingerly, as if it were a dead fish, and then handed it back.
“It’s OK,” said Wildeyes, “It’s just a book. No charge. Just promise to read it; that’s all.”
“Oh, OK,” said Eisenberg. Other boys came forward, holding out their hands: free books, something different, something to pierce through the day's endless ennui; why not?
“It’s the Good News,” said Wildeyes, giving out handfuls of books to the Yeshiva boys’ eager hands. I took one from Billy Eisbach, who had taken two by mistake. I loved books: books were my best friend, my comfort. I opened it: it smelled new: Good News for a New Age, it read, A Prayer: God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—help me to discover the Truth as I read. Amen. This seemed Jewish; there couldn’t be anything wrong with it. Hey, it’s just a book.
We went into the building: concrete stairs, brass rails, familiar echoes. While we were going up the stairs, one of the seniors came out of the Bais Medrash, the study hall where they spent most of their time in intensive Talmud study.
“What’s that you guys have?” he called after us.
“Little blue books,” we called back.
“You know what those are?” he laughed, “Those are New Testaments—that’s Christian shtus, goyishe nonsense! You got it from that meshugenah, that crazy guy on the corner, didn’t you? Get rid of that stuff—you can’t take it to Gemara class!” he said, using the common name for Talmud. We just kept climbing up to class.
By the time I came in the door, Chaim Wilnig, one of our most religious boys—at least, he never stopped telling us how religious he was—had taken his little blue book over to the waste-paper basket in the corner, and was carefully, methodically, tearing the pages out of it, crumpling them, and dropping them into the can. We went to our desks and sat down, watching him, yawning, joking with one another, scraping our feet, waiting for the Rebbe to return. I took my copy and put it into my bookbag. Wilnig kept on tearing: the sound made a little, tiny disturbance in the class, while the rumble of talk from the outside hall settled down as all the boys returned to their classes. The bell rang: 11 am. I ran my hands through my hair and cracked my neck, shaking myself awake as a dog would have done. The rabbi would be here soon—oh, right, there he was; there was Rabbi Helfgott. The door gave a long, protesting screech as he came in, kissing the mezuzah in that funny way he had, spreading his fingers wide, and kissing only the tip of his middle finger.
The rabbi came in, with that little half-smile and those sleepy eyes of his. We all sat at our desks; all except Wilnig. He stood there and kept on tearing: the pages fluttered into the basket. The rabbi looked around the class. His glance stopped.
“Chaim, what are you doing?”
Wilnig looked up. “Oh, this, Rebbe? This is shtus, goyishe foolishness. This is their book, Rebbe. A crazy man, down there on the corner—maybe you’ve seen him—a mish—mish—“
“Missionary,” said the rabbi.
“Right, Rebbe,” said Wilnig, “So he gave us these books, and I didn’t, I didn’t realize then, that it was their main book. It’s a trafe book, an unkosher book, Rebbe. So I’m destroying it.”
“Chaim,” said the rabbi, “Give me the book.” He walked toward Wilnig, and took the book from him. And then, in front of us, right there, in the trash basket, Rabbi Helfgott reached in amid the old chewing gum and bent paper clips and papers, and took out the torn pages. He gathered them together and took them to his desk, making a little pile, right next to his Talmud. We all stared, silent. What was the rabbi doing with the goyishe book? And putting it next to his Talmud, which was just slightly less holy than a Chumash, a Pentateuch?
The rabbi went to his desk and sat down. He looked around at all of us. He took a deep breath, and sighed. Then he spoke.
“Boys,” he said, “Talmidim—you are scholars of Torah—even those of you who sleep in class and think that I don’t see. We are Jews. Jews do not destroy books. When the Nazis, may their name and memory be erased, first came to power, they went around, and took the books written by people that they disagreed with. Many of these books were written by Jews. They built big bonfires, all over Germany, and they burned books. And what happened, in the end, in Germany, in Europe?”
“They killed six million of us,” most of us said, together. We knew all about the Shoah, the Holocaust. It was part of our history: it flowed through our veins and hearts.
“When you begin by burning books, you end by burning people.” He held up the scraps of the book which Chaim Wilnig had been tearing.
“This is a book. Maybe we don’t agree with it. Maybe we say that it’s wrong. But we don’t destroy it. We respect it. Please don’t do this any more, not to any book. Now, please, open your Gemaras. There is a sugya, a section, I would like to review, with both Rashi and Tosfose. Mark," he said to me, "You will read."
I stayed awake that afternoon.
The strange thing is that, years later, I looked up Rabbi Helfgott’s address in Brooklyn, and I wrote him a long letter, reminding him of that story, and thanking him for it: I had told that story many, many times, long after the Wild-eyed Young Man, and Chaim Wilnig, and the rest of my class—which recently celebrated its anniversary—had dispersed and gone on with their lives. And he wrote me back: he said that it wasn’t him, that he had no recollection of it; that it must have been someone else.
I do remember it, though. It was Rabbi Helfgott’s finest hour. Thank you, Rabbi.