Sunday, April 10, 2016

My Chavrusa is a Vampire: Nister Meets Mutik Nachtleiber for the First Time


My Chavrusa is a Vampire

By David Hartley Mark

            The Bais Medrash, the Study Hall of the Yeshivas Urim v’Tumim (Rabbinical Academy of ‘Lights and Wonders’) was dark; only the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light over the Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark, illuminated the room. My Chavrusa, my study partner, a new student in the Yeshiva by the name of Mutik Nachtlieber, was supposed to meet me that evening. He was two hours late. I had fallen asleep and the other boys, yawning, had quietly slipped away to their rooms, careful to close their holy books and kiss them tenderly, protecting them against Demons of the Night.

I was alone; only a stale, lonely breeze from the open windows moving the greygreen curtains back-and-forth, back and forth.

In the distance, I heard the horns and sirens, along with the occasional screeching of brakes on the Sleepy Hollow River Drive to the East. There was little earthly traffic at this hour. I held my Dimex watch to my bleary eyes and pushed in the stem: 12:34am.

If the Lord God had opened the Study Hall canopy and peeped through, there to see me, a lone Yeshiva Bochur (Chosen Scholar) working at his studies, I would have missed it. I looked around: there was neither Angel nor Daemon left in this place of study: the Holiest of Holies, where both Limud u’Tefilah, Study and Prayer,  took place.
I was neither frightened nor worried; ChaZal, our Rabbis of Blessed Memory, tell us that an unclean spirit cannot enter a holy place. I rose, and stretched, knocking the Maseches Gittin, the Tractate on Divorces that I had been studying, to the floor. I bent to pick it up, and brushed my lips over the ancient leather, as Tradition instructs us to do when dropping a Holy Book.

A page had fallen askew, and I squinted at its lines in the half-darkness: “And if a messenger be lost between chutz la-aretz, the gentile lands Outside the Land of Israel, and Israel itself, he must seek out the local authorities….”
I heard a creak at the door, and saw a glimpse of white shirt: was that Nachtlieber? I went over to see. In the halflight, he appeared thin, rail-thin, and of average height—that is, Jewish height, about five-eight.

He smiled briefly at me, lips only, and ran his fingers through his hair. I heard a slight—crackling?—noise. He carried no books, no briefcase, no notebook. He knelt down before me, as if tying his shoe—or was he hiding something beneath his pantleg? It was dark; I could not see.

What kind of student is this? I wondered, Without sefarim or backpack, he’s not even a Hamor nosay sefarim, an Ass bearing books, a bookish dilettante. I hope he’s no laydehgayer, a layabout, a batlan, a time-waster. I am eager to succeed in the Yeshiva, and Talmud b’keeus—mastery—is my goal.

“Never fear me or my efforts, YaChabibi,” he said sharply, looking up at me, and cutting through my thoughts, “I will hold up my end of our chavrusa; I will gladly learn, and gladly teach.”
“Are you Mutik?” I asked.

He straightened up, put his arms akimbo, licked his lips as he looked me up-and-down. Beneath the deep red of the EXIT sign, his tongue, which I saw only momentarily, flickered in-and-out, like a snake’s.
“Yes, are you Nister?” he asked me, smiling with fullest teeth—they seemed almost to glow in the dark. We shook hands. His skin felt cold and dry.
“Come outside; I need a smoke,” he said.
It was odd to meet a yeshiva boy who smoked anymore. He took out a vaporizer as we walked through the empty halls of the Main Center. His heels clicked against the marble. We pushed through the heavy bronze doors, which usually squealed in protest, as if begging us not to leave the sacred precincts of the yeshiva, but they did not utter a sound.
As if—but we were in the street, where old, raggedy scraps of newspapers tumbled by, and a stray cat perched on an overflowing garbage can arched its back and hissed at us, before leaping-and- scampering into the blackness. Mutik flared a match against his vaporizer, and his face almost vanished in a cloud of white smoke. It swirled around us both, and I thought of the Ketoret Ha-Samim, the incense-cloud that accompanied the priestly service—strange why that image should pass through my mind, but it was now nearly 12:30 am by the clock of St. Anthony’s Holy Roman Catholic Congregation next door to the yeshiva, and I had not eaten since that Devil Dog from Zunder’s Grocery, some five hours before.
“Do you want to learn?” I asked Mutik. “What masechtas, Talmudical tractates, have you studied, thusfar? Which Rishonim and Achronim, Primary and Secondary Sources? Where would you put yourself in terms of Practice, Belief, Women’s Rights, Israeli Issues—?
He abruptly stopped walking, held up one hand to silence me. He smiled widely in the flare of his vaporizer, and turned to me. White clouds, thick as anan v’araphel, surrounded us.

His teeth were very white. I glanced upward but could no longer see the moon; clouds covered all but a dim glow from behind.

“All will become clear,” he said, in a low voice, and I heard the beating of many wings—was it a flock of pigeons rising up from Father Mortara Court, next block over?

“I can teach you a great deal,” he said.