Saturday, April 25, 2015

"The Yeshiva Bais Midrash," or Study Hall, In the Style of Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain (1998)



We was studyin the Masechta, the Tractate about Gittin, Divorce, that is, when the door of the Beis Medrash opened up, and the Rebbe came in. You knew it was the Rebbe from the way he walked. Goddam. He wore his Rebbe hat and his Rebbe coat and his Rebbe shoes that went squeak squeak squeak when they hit that ole linoleum tile floor. He walked in, straight in, past Shimmy and Moishey and me, and we was just studyin.
“It’s the Rebbe,” said Shimmy, and we all stiffened, nervous-like, like a cockroach that gets its tail caught on Rabbi Schappes’s Buick LeSabre, and then you drive into a gas station, and that cockroach is there too, caught in the grillework, dead as your Polish Bubby, and everyone gawkin, and Rabbi Schappes sayin,
“What is it? What’s wrong? I just stopped the car on the East River Drive to fetch me that ole rusty needlenose pliers that I saw on the divider; nobody else wanted it. I didn’t see that air cockroach. He couldn’t help himself. I couldn’t help it. And now, he’s dead. Well, better a cockroach than a Jew.”
That was just like him. I remembered that.  Yes. Two, maybe three years ago, with me in the front seat, Shimmy in the back, and Rabbi Schappes barrelin that LeSabre along, peelin hisself a Hershey Bar with Almonds with just two fingers, and workin that air steerin wheel with his pointer finger and thumb. Wheels squealin and the taxis flyin by, on the Drive. Goin downtown, past Con Ed on 14th Street. Yes.
We was just lookin at that Rashi about how when a man brings a Get from a country afar off the sea, he should say, “This here Get was written and signed before me.” That is what he should say. And the Rabbis in the Mishnah all agree with that. Yessir.
And Shimmy, he likes to argue, and he says, “Well, what all does that there Tosefose say?”
And Moishe says, “Well, why don’t we wait for the Shiur, the class, and wait to hear what the Rebbe thinks?”
There was a mist blowin through the air, like a mold smell, and off to the side, Little Berel was unwrappin one a them Drake’s Cakes Raisin Cakes, the kind where there’s a cellophane outside, and no matter how you unwrap it, it just goes crinkle crinkle crinkle, botherin the Ammunition Hill out of everybody, until Big Shmuley turned to him, he turned to him just as Berel was putting that there Raisin Cake in his mouth, and Big Shmuley said,
“Did you make Boray Meenay Mezonos on that there Raisin Cake, or She’hakol?”
And Berel he said, “Well, what in the name of Judea and Samaria does that all matter?” and he said it right firm and cross, because Berel is a man likes his Drakes, and he figured that Shmuley could care less about what bracha he makes, he could only care that Berel is eatin more than the size of a k’zayiss, that is, equal to or larger than, an olive in Israel. And he backs Likud, the Right Wing, or would, but he is in no hurry to move to Israel.
“I intend to first learn the entire Shas, Mutty,” he says to me, “and then find me a modest and devout Yiddishe maidel with strong loins to bear a large race of right-wing haredi Talmud scholars, and then I will board the Holy Eagle to move to Israel.”
Still, I know that Berel is blowing natural gas, since he does not date any sort of Jewish woman at all, being modest himself, and shyer than a Sinai gazelle on Mount Seir. But Berel has an inordinate fear of Heaven, and is therefore careful too, and so is quick to pray, not only just one or the other prayer, but both. And he eats that Drake’s Raisin Cake, real fast-like, because he is concerned, greatly concerned, that Shmuley will ask him for a piece. And so he eats it. Very speedily, he gulps it down, and then says the Ahl Ha-Michya, the Prayer for After Eating Foods of Grain, slowly and with great devotion, while Big Berel looks on with hunger and not a little jealousy, not having any Drake’s.
But then, the Rebbe gets to the pulpit, the reading-desk, the shtender, and he shtends there, and he clears his throat, as if he is fixin to talk, to use them right smart fancy words, and all.
And the Rebbe clops on the shtender, I say, he clops, and so we all look up from our Gemaras, and give him our attention. He is standing there, the Rebbe, a man not given to long speeches, except he must give one now, being that he is a man, and a Jew, and a rebbe.
“Talmidim,” he begins, “Students, we must prepare to take the schoolwide Chumash Exam, which will be held, Please G-d, on Thursday in three weeks.”
And Moishey closes his Gemara, right gently, because he does not wish to show that he is not paying attention, since bitul z’man, that is, wasting time, is a large sin, and he kisses the Gemara Gittin right on the space between the two letters Gimmel, where it says that the book contains a selection of both Rishonim and Achronim, that is, both early and later Commentators.
And Moishey says to me, low voice, like sotto voce,
“Why is that owlheaded rebbe of ours setting us up for certain failure, by consenting to a schoolwise Chumash exam, when it is well-known that the bulk of the school’s efforts are to make us Talmud scholars? How am I to face my father and mother, and apprise them of this news?”
And I say, “Define your terms, you long-thumbed son-of-an-accountant. What is the meaning of ‘apprise’?”
And Moishey rolls his Juicy Fruit Gum around gently in his mouth, and takes it out, holding it gently between thumb and forefinger of his left, not his right, hand, and looks at it, studying-like, and puts it carefully under the reading desk. And he says the Beracha Achrona, which is the blessing following the Eating of Food, although I disagree, since I doubt whether gum counts as food, and was not known in the days of the Talmud, and certainly not to Moshe Rabeinu.
And Shimmey puts in his two shekels, and he says to Moishey, by way of supporting my argumentative statement, which I offer in the Spirit of Torah,
“Can you honestly say that Juicy Fruit gives you the same sugar rush that Doublemint supplies, you Talmud-pondering, Wall-davening, Jerusalem-visiting Yeshiva Bochur?”
And the Rebbe says, “Would the Boys at that table care to give out the Siddurim? It’s time for us to daven. I wish for all to clear their desks, and we will straighten our yarmulkehs, and take some of our given time, while we are breathing in and out here amid the books and dust and chaff of this well-appointed and heavily-endowed and be-memorial-plaqued room of study, and offer up extensive supplications to the G-d Who made heaven and earth.”
And I say to my Chavruta, with whom I have sneaked many a schnapps on several Shabbosim,
“It is going to be a long davening. It is Thursday, which will include a Torah Reading. And I am to straighten my boots, rise in my place, and offer the chanting of the Sacred Scrolls.”
“Why, you head-covered son-of-the-Yeshiva,” says Moishe, popping a new piece of gum into his mouth, pulling at his top lip and not offering us any, while the echoes of “Amen” ring and reverberate off the muddy-painted walls of the Bais Medrash, and the davening begins.
I reach for my tefillin, and keep a shaded eye on the boys at the next table. They are sitting in peace and tranquility, while I stealthily grope for the cucumber in my lunchbag, hoping to sneak a bit of vegetable refreshment before the davening commences, in this room with six windows and two squeaking doors, swinging on their hinges like the Judgment of a Questioning and Judgmental God.
“Baruch atah Adon-i….” begins Berel on the Birchos HaShachar, the Blessings of the Morning.
We rise up, shake ourselves like sapient sutlers of the Lord, and respond, Amen v’amen….