The Tearing of Books
By David Hartley Mark
1968: Vietnam raging and boiling, a rude cesspool of blood and mire and politics, mixing stateside with the Black Panthers—a Huey Newton-scripted deathfest of “Kill the police!” and, in Chicago, hippies and yippies and Weathermen, all descending on the city, planning to take over the Democratic Convention. Death hides in a hotel kitchen, there amid steaming pots, chefs skimming the fat off of pork roasts, chateaubriand, and the steamship round of the Welfare State: Hubert Humphrey will triumph, Robert F. Kennedy will bleed his guts out on its floor. Months later, Dr. Martin Luther King, already derided and mocked as passé, will be standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee. The bullet will hit him in the neck; he will die an hour later.
I was apart from all of this: cocooned in a web of Torah, there in the Orthodox Jewish womb of LaFayette Heights, attending Hirsch Yeshiva High School, ignorant of world affairs, naïve to the thudding and thumping of mortar-rounds in Khe Sanh, Hue City, bombs falling from B-52 bellies onto Hanoi. All I cared about was passing Talmud, memorizing the different forms of chametz, leavened foods forbidden on Passover: chametz gamur (that which becomes completely leavened, e.g.: bread, rolls, cake; beer, schnapps, and whiskey—“This will be on the final; Boys, WRITE THIS DOWN DID YOU WRITE THIS DOWN?”) and chametz nuksha—that which becomes only partially chametz; e.g., rice, admixtures of starch, such as that which may coat pills—“What if someone must take meds during Passover, Rabbi?” “Is it a matter of pikuach nefesh, a matter of life and death? If not, he should not take them.”
This is Rabbi Y’s class. He is a chubby, rotund, little man, with sleepy-looking, large, brown eyes, a close-cut haircut, and a full, Afro-style beard, which begins somewhere beneath his nose, curls upward to cover most of his cheeks, and which he tugs and pulls at while he teaches us. I am determined to stay awake—I MUST STAY AWAKE, I MUST PASS TALMUD I MUST—but the Reb’s voice is low and slow, almost caressing; if the class begins at 9am, I am nodding off by 9:30 (I have been up since 6:30am, after going to bed at 11:30pm, after doing my math and science and history homework. I ride the bus and subway to work, every morning, for over an hour; I try to read, but I usually sleep on the train.) I learn to prop my head on my cupped hand, hiding my eyes, so that, when I drop off to sleep, it still looks as if I am paying attention. My friends, Robert Kahn on the one side, Joey Margolis on the other, know to jab me in the ribs if the Reb ever gets up, leaves his seat, and goes prowling around the classroom to catch the students not paying attention. But he never does; he sits at his desk, and teaches us Talmud in a low, sonorous, sing-song voice, until half the class and I are napping away.
Until recess comes. And then, we squeeze through narrow brassbound doors, pound down marble stairs, slam open heavy glass-and-steel gates and crash bars, to spill out onto the street of St. Athanasius Avenue; look both ways; only twenty minutes left—racing past trucksandcars—to enter the cool, spice-scented darkness of Mr. Zimlov’s Grocery, and yank Drake’s Cakes off the wire rack: twenty-five cents each. Ring Dings. Devil Dogs. Yodels. Thrust our greasy coins at Mr. Zimlov as he stands there in the dimlight of the ancient store, there amid Olam cheeses and CholovYisroel butter and then cram the chocolate sweetness into one’s mouth: a carbohydrate-and-sugar rush to carry us Jewsoftomorrow through the crashing waves and turbulent undertow of the Sea of Talmud.
Running back—dodge the traffic—heading for the side door, brass hasps agleam in the late-morning sunlight—and there he was, pacing the sidewalk: Mr. Wildwig. We didn’t know his name, but he stood there, day after day, standing next to his battered cardboard box, full of small, neat-looking blue books, holding three in each hand, offering them to us, like tickets for a trip we had no time to take, nor any interest in learning about—
“Take a Bible, Boys; take a Bible, no charge,” he smiles: his teeth gleam; they are straight and firm, but yellowed: he smells like cigarettes, and his eyes are sky-blue, with a distant, faraway look. We glance quickly at his face, then down: his pants are frayed at the bottoms, his shoes scuffed and beat-up-looking; his fingers twitch against the hard blue covers of the books.
I don’t look, but only grab. I am a book lover, and there is no charge. As I reach, Wildwig, his brown-blond-greyish locks floating in the early-spring breeze, waits until my fingers are almost within reach, and then he grabs the book away; he is skilled, he has a ploy.
“Promise me one thing. When I give you this book, you will read it.”
He waggles the book before me. It is small, but shiny-blue, and, even up close, has a strange, foreign attraction to me. I am not alone; other students cluster around.
He hands books out, all around. Hands reach out, grab.
As we thunder into the building, I hear the older students who call out from the Bais Midrash, the main study hall: “What did you take there? That’s the goyish book about yoshkee—don’t bring that in here! You’re going to get into such trouble with your rebbes….”We ignore them; the bell is ringing; it’s time to get back to class.
Back in the room: slam the door. We settle down—I have half a Devil Dog left, and a can of Mountain Dew: I pop the top, and lean back in my chair—while the Reb is getting settled, we can schmooze, and I can finish my snack. All around me, boys are jabbering about what concerns us—homework, different teachers, what’s been happening in sports, or Israel, or rock music. (My great love is The Doors: The Soft Parade is, I believe, a complete description of my life in high school—I play it constantly, all the more because my parents don’t understand it.)
Near me, I see Benjy Farber with his copy of the blue book open—where is mine? There, in my briefcase—tearing out pages, shredding them in a bunch, and dropping them in the waste paper basket by the classroom door. We mostly ignore him: Farber is not one of the better students; around him, the noise level begins to rise; boys in the back are laughing about something one of the other rebbes said or did.
The door opens, and Rabbi Y comes in. We gradually become quiet—it’s a matter of respect. Some rebbes insist that their students rise when they enter; Y is not one of these, but we are grudgingly respectful, even though he doesn’t demand it, and some of the class clowns have dared to shoot spitballs at his beard, though this doesn’t happen all that often. Farber goes on tearing pages.
We settle down, pull out our Talmuds. The Reb doesn’t go to his desk, though: he stands there, looking at Farber. We get quiet.
“Farber, what are you doing?”
Farber looks up.
“This, Rebbe?” he says, “This is goyishdikeh narishkeit (gentile foolishness), shtoos (stupidity). I’m destroying it.”
The Reb puts out his hand as Farber goes to put another handful of torn papers into the trash.
“No, Binyamin,” he says, gently, holding his hand to take the shreds, “you’re tearing a sefer, a book,” using the Hebrew term for a holy book.
As we watch, the rabbi takes the rest of the torn book from Farber’s hands, cradles it gently, so as not to drop any of it, and carries it to his desk, putting it next to his Gemara, his Talmud. He pats it together into as neat a pile as he can, and looks at us.
“Jews do not destroy books,” he says, “If you begin by destroying books, you end by destroying people. That is what the Nazis did, yemach sh’mom v’zichronam—may their names and memories be erased. We are Jews, the People of the Book—we do not destroy books, not any books. We respect books.”
That was the most life-changing piece of Torah I ever learned in Rabbi Y’s class, more than any Talmud. Years later, a rabbi myself, I wrote a letter to him, to thank him. He was, by then, long retired from his high school teaching job. And he had no memory of the incident, but I did. It has stayed with me, always.