1967: there I am, a naïve, trusting sophomore in my second year at Yeshiva University HS for Boys-Manhattan, ready, willing, and eager to learn about Judaism, in all of its glory. Israel will, in the course of this fateful year, prove and valiantly reinforce its existence against the combined efforts of five neighboring Arab nations which attempt to destroy it, led by the hateful Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and the myopic boy king, Hussein of Jordan—I cannot remember whether Hafez Assad, the Butcher of Damascus, is yet on the throne of that unfortunate nation.
My rabbi for Sophomore Year is one Rabbi Stanley Shtippelholtz. He is a baal teshuva, a born-again Jew, full of the zealous form of Orthodoxy which makes him at once fervent and yet dangerous to more skeptical types such as I, who have been religious—frum is the operative word—since I became a sentient, questioning Jewish being.
Rabbi Shtippelholtz is always coming up with brilliant (at least, to him) new schemes to increase our devotion. In this particular instance, he has hit upon a Book Report for each of us to write, using a book from a list he has prepared, from which we will each choose one. This tome will, he believes, inspire us in the same direction he has chosen: Cheerleaders for the Lord.
In my case, he will be wrong. I am busy with schoolwork: every night, I make my way home, via subway and bus, leaving YUHS at 6:15pm, arriving home by 7:30pm, wolfing down my hurried dinner while my father, anxious for his younger child and only son to succeed in a highly competitive environment (and, worth noting, a school he pays considerably for, out of pocket), grills me: “How was math today? Did Dr. Rapaport work those proofs we discussed? Did you do the Biology exercises? What did the Rabbi do and say?” and so on.
Dinner is an excruciating experience, but the Worst is Yet to Come: Dad will sit alongside me, on a four-legged stool, while I tackle my Math Homework—Geometry: not so difficult as was Algebra, the year before; I can grasp the concepts, they being mainly triangles, parallelograms, and other concrete symbols—but it is still difficult for me.
Dad will explain the problem softly and patiently, the first time.
I will not understand it.
He will repeat it, demonstrating it with paper and pencil.
I will continue not to understand.
He will repeat his explanation, changing it not one whit, and losing a bit more of his composure; his voice will rise in volume and exasperation.
I will continue not to fathom the esoterica of Geometry.
He will begin to yell, to scream and shout at me.
I will begin to cry: bitter tears of frustration, fatigue, and ignorance: why must I take Math? Why must I attend such a wretched, competitive school? Why am I so tired, every day?
This is our nightly ritual; it does not vary, until he and I manage, somehow, to complete the exercises. My Math illiteracy continues to this day.
The next morning, Rabbi Shtippelholtz, as full of enthusiasm as ever, congratulates us boys on the splendid opportunity and experience upon which we are about to embark. He passes out mimeographed sheets, from which we all inhale deeply before reading. I am careful to note which books appear shorter; this is not an area of study I believe I will enjoy, and am determined to make it as painless as possible.
One of my best friends, Bob Rothstein, chooses the classic, Herman Wouk’s This is My God. Had I known then that this is a finely written book, a beautiful defense of and apologia for Orthodox Judaism, I might well have chosen to read it and write a report about it; indeed, I might still be Orthodox today, rather than a disgruntled left-wing Conservative. Still, there are no accidents, and we human beings manage to work out God’s plan for ourselves, rough-hew His ways how we will.
I decide on Isaac Grunfeld’s The Sabbath: A Guide to Its Meaning and Observance. It is short, which cheers me: little do I realize that this tiny tome will repel me from any and all future Sabbath observance, that its nitpicking methodology will convince me that the Sabbath, properly observed, is an exercise best left to anal-retentive zealots of the Rabbi Shtippelholtz sort.
For, as I gradually discover, the 39 Av Melachote (literally, “Work Categories”) are divided and subdivided into more and more oppressive categories—from “Plowing,” for example, Rabbi Grunfeld (who is no mere ‘rabbi’; he is a head of the London Bet Din, the Jewish Court of Law, if you please) considers a pocket comb to be a First Offender in the War against Proper Observance of Shabbos—for this miscreant, plastic tool is capable of, not only Plowing one’s hair, but also Plucking, Winnowing, and, should it manage to remove even one hair, Reaping.
This sort of casuistry is too much for me to bear. Reading further into the book’s short, but highly detailed pages and charts, I feel the Walls of Talmud closing in around me; it becomes difficult, almost, to breathe. From the point of my completing the book to the present day, I become able to determine easily what exactly I Am Doing Wrong on Any Given Shabbos, from Carrying a Handkerchief (Carrying even a Feather from a Private to a Public Thoroughfare is Strictly Forbidden) to Sorting Anything, to Tying One’s Shoelace, to Completing a Project (“the Final Hammer-Blow”), and on and on.
It is the Beginning of the End for My Being Orthodox, and I owe it all to the well-meaning, well-scrubbed and smiling Rabbi Shtippelholtz, and his damned list of books….