Rabbi Solomon's Court
    Laurence C. Schwartz

I'm not a Jew. I'm Jew-ish. I don't go the whole hog.
Jonathan Wolfe Miller (from Beyond the Fringe)

The grades ranged from first to sixth. I was hired to teach the fifth. When Rabbi Gold interviewed me, I told him I preferred to teach the youngest, thinking they might be the most obedient. Rabbi Gold thought me best suited for the upper-grades. I accepted. I owed the IRS.

When the interview concluded, Rabbi Gold stuck out his hand and said, "Welcome to United Talmudic Academy, Elijah."

On my first day of classes, I arrived at two-thirty and went to the locker room where the teachers would gather before classes began. I found three teachers there. The youngest was sitting on a window sill and smoking an unfiltered cigarette. The older two were talking about a construction project in Williamsburg.

"Williamsburg does not need another bank," one of them said to me.

"Excuse me?"

"We both just had our first agreement in months," the other man said, "we both agree that Williamsburg does not need another bank."

"What does it need then?" I asked.

"Less banks and more bakeries," the first man said. He wore a yarmulke.

"I'm Elijah Jeffers. I begin teaching the fifth grade today."

"The fifth?" The first man asked, " tough group."

"Why is that?"

"Eleven, twelve years old, they're first entering the garden of pubescence."

"I don't think Santayana or Montessori could have put it quite that way," I said, in-sucking my cheeks, "but thanks, thanks very much for the tip."

"I'm Mel, this is Schlomo," he said, pointing his thumb at his friend.

"Anybody ever tell you you look like Prince Charles?" Schlomo asked.

"It's been known to happen."

"I was tellin' Schlomo the construction unions have these sly guys on the payroll to figure out ways for the job to keep going on and on and on forever, depending upon the power of the client."

"You're probably right." I put a cigarette in my mouth and walked over to the younger man at the window sill. "You have a light?"

He reached into his shirt pocket and took out one of those Zippo lighters.

"If you have any trouble with them, leave the class and find Rabbi Solomon," he said, as he snapped shut the Zippo.

"Have you done this yourself?"

"One and one time only. Enter Rabbi Solomon." he said, looking over my shoulder.

I turned around. In the doorway loomed a hulking tower of Jewish ultra-orthodoxy. Quietly ferocious, black-haired and bearded, an eerie smile carved onto the lower part of his face. He wore black shoes, black pants, and a black vest over a wrinkled white dress shirt that opened to the third or fourth button, exposing a v-neck cotton tee-shirt. He held a walkie-talkie.

He began talking to Mel from the doorway in Hebrew. I hadn't a clue what they said. Then I heard Mel mention my name. Rabbi Solomon walked across the room to me. The ash to my cigarette needed tipping. I looked around for an ash tray.

"It's all right, put the ashes on the floor." Rabbi Solomon said. "Elijah Jeffers? Our new Elijah Jeffers?"

I offered my hand. He squeezed it without shaking. My fingers felt like linguini warmly ensnared by thick sausages.

"Let go of his hand, Labish," Mel said, "he needs it to write on the chalk board.

"Where are you from?" Rabbi Solomon asked.

"I grew up in Larchmont. But I lived in Brooklyn until I was six."

He turned around and said something to Mel in Hebrew. When he turned back, I noticed his right eye wandered a bit.

"You teach now other than here where?"

"I teach a couple of courses in Media Studies at Brooklyn College."

"Media Studies?"

Then I remembered that the popular mediums were off-limits to the Hasidic world, especially the world of its children. I said to Solomon: "I've been informed that if there's any trouble in my class in terms of discipline, that I should--"

The Rabbi put his hand on my shoulder and said, "You have any, any kind of problems with them, you come to me. I won't be hard to find. If they're not doing what you're here to have them do you just tell me and what's to be done by them will indeed get done."

Solomon's brand of syntax amused me. I grinned.

"Good. Much better," Solomon said, releasing his hand from my shoulder, "Relax. What's a man like you to be frightened?"

"Thanks."

"What Steven?" Solomon said to the young man at the window sill, "I'm poison to you? All of a sudden I should come into the room that you should ignore me?"

"Poison is impossible to ignore," Steven said after lighting a cigarette.

"Very good, Steven," Solomon said, "poison is impossible to ignore." He uttered something in Hebrew to Mel and Schlomo. They both laughed.

A bell rang from the hallway. It was time for class. Steven flung his cigarette out the window. Then I did.

"Are you a professor?" He asked.

"Hardly. I am a part-time adjunct lecturer."

"What room are you in?"

"Two one six."

"I'll walk you over there, I'm in 208."

We left the locker room and turned right. Around twenty feet away, two very little boys were leaning against the wall. As Steven and I approached, they stopped their conversation in Hebrew and gaped at me. I smiled. One stuck his tongue out at me. The other started sparring to the air.

"All right," Steven said, as he stopped at 208, "this is me."

As he gripped the doorknob, he said, "when you write on the board, hook your Ts at the bottom. Otherwise it looks like a cross, that's forbidden around here."

I nodded. He entered his class. The door slammed.

A city of children could be heard outside the door to room 216. I opened it slowly. Boys hovered around the teacher's desk and the blackboard; laughing and jostling, and speaking Hebrew. With dangling prayer shawls and all, they looked like a raggedy spool of innocent mischief until one of them noticed me. He ran over, grabbed my hand, and led me over to the teacher's desk while he announced to the universe, "Jeffers! Mr. Jeffers is here!"

I let him place me in the chair behind the desk, centering me in a swarm of swinging side-curls, freckles, bad breath, and oversized glasses. Some of the voices had that disarming tone that falls between boy and teen. The boys closest to me pawed my shoulders and hair.

The pelted me with questions: "Are you a Jew? What's your first name? Where's your yarmulke? Ever saw a tallit? Are you married? Do you like girls? How does a razor feel? Do you yell at your wife? Do you like your fish extra salty?"

I let this go on until I acted on the idea of looking at the ceiling, closing my eyes, and yelling, "Tais-toi! Tais-toi!"

They backed off a bit.

I climbed on top of the desk, took off my loafers, and threw them to the other end of the classroom.

After my shoes dropped to the floor, the boys looked up at me, their mouths open, eyes vacant, waiting to be filled with an explanation for the strange language they had just heard and strange behavior they had just witnessed. I looked down at them and said, "Boys. You are all just boys. Shall I tell you why?" I turned to a red-haired lad on my left. "I said, shall I tell you why?"

"Why am I just a boy?"

"What's your name?" I asked, with an affected curiosity.

"Zev."

He was smaller than the others. I reached down and extended my hand. He took it and I squeezed without shaking. He looked around at his classmates.

"Don't look to your friends for approval," I said, "you're too special for that." I placed the forefinger of my left hand under his chin and led his head back to me with his help. "Look at me Zev. From this moment on, you shall be an exquisite man. Starting now."

I reached into my pocket and pulled out the key to unlock the cabinet that contained the textbooks for the class along with the students' notebooks. I took his hand and placed the key in his palm. "Here," I said, "go and unlock the cabinet. After you do that, bring the key straight back to me. That's clear, isn't it?" Then I looked at the rest of the boys and said, "Will you all sit down at your places while Zev becomes an exquisite man?"

With raspy chuckles, a lone belch, and dramatic whispers, they slowly dispersed. I jumped down. Zev just stood in place looking at me with a gap-toothed grin. He cupped the key in both his hands, as if he'd been given something cherished.

"Take me to the cabinet," I said.

As he led me to the other end of the room, all heads followed.

"Open the cabinet Zev."

I wasn't quite sure whether he'd be tall enough to reach the lock. He reached it with difficulty, but hadn't the strength to unlock the lock. It was rusty and the door made of thin and rotting lumber.

"There's a chair right behind you," I said.

He scratched his ear and licked his lips.

"Zev, exquisite men do not give up so easily."

"What does exquisite mean?" He asked, as he retrieved the chair.

"You and your friends will find out soon enough," I said, as I put on my loafers.

He hopped onto the chair and after a little difficulty, opened the lock.

"Now bring me the key and please take your seat."

In the cabinet, there was a stack of black and white checkered notebooks. Each of them had the name of its owner scrawled in chicken scratch on the cover. The names themselves didn't help either. Lazar, Mordechai, Pinkus, Dovekum, Yosrelka; names I wasn't used to reading or saying.

"Who's Lazar?" I asked over their talking. "Lazar? Where are you?"

"Over here teacher."

When I reached Lazar's desk, I held out the stack of notebooks and said, "Take yours, it's on top." This procedure of calling out each name and personally delivering each notebook to its owner continued until my hands were empty. By then twenty minutes of class had passed and not a lick of actual instruction given. I approached the board, picked up a piece of chalk, and, remembering to hook my T at the bottom, wrote the word 'exquisite.' Then I opened up my briefcase and pulled out a plastic bag filled with freshly sharpened pencils. I held the bag aloft and said, "We must allow for mistakes. With a pencil you can erase until you attain perfection!" I handed the bag to Lazar. "Take a pencil and pass the bag."

"Who knows what 'attain' means?" There was no response. I wrote the word on the board under the word "exquisite.' Then I wrote the word 'perfection' under the word 'attain.' I looked at the board and backed up a few feet. Then, from the corner of my left eye, I saw an arm in red jerk down as a yellow object flew just a few inches above my head and hit the board. It was a yellow piece of chalk, and it splattered into little pieces. I heard a giggle. I turned around. The boy in red wasn't difficult to spot. He sat face down, his hands covering his mouth. I walked over to his desk. I picked up his notebook and read the name Aaron Moskowitz.

"Aaron, can you please look at me."

He didn't move. The boy sitting next to him mumbled some Hebrew.

"Be quiet!" I turned back to Aaron and said, "The great Aaron, older brother to Moses." This time he looked at me. He was quite handsome. His hair was dirty blonde, neatly styled, and he could easily pass for gentile.

"Aaron, I think you owe me an apology."

He looked at the class, and said some Hebrew. I calmly walked out of the classroom. I started to walk, where to I hadn't any idea. What I really wanted more than anything else was a cigarette. I was walking towards the locker room when I heard heavy footsteps rushing from behind. I turned around.

"Is there something wrong," a young man asked. He wore a Stetson and held a walkie-talkie.

"Who are you?" I asked.

"Rabbi Schooler. Can I help you with something?"

"I want Rabbi Solomon to come into my class."

"Can I help?"

"No. I'd rather see Rabbi Solomon."

He hesitated a moment. Then he said some Hebrew into the walkie-talkie. After a moment, Rabbi Solomon came through the other end.

Elijah Jeffers, I said.

When I returned to my room, I waited outside the door. The inside of the class sounded like a cafeteria. I kept looking in each direction. Not a sound could be heard except from the noise inside my room. I felt like an idiot.

Then I heard from my right, "Mr. Jeffers! What's the problem my young friend!"

It was Solomon, looking extremely happy to see me, as if hed waited for this moment and it came sooner than expected. He held a thick, yard-long ruler. Something he hadn't had when I saw him in the locker room.

"Well, a student just threw a piece of chalk at me but I think maybe it's a good idea that I try to hand-"

"What's his name?'

"Well his name is Aaron but as I said-"

"Aaron. Okay. Let's go to work." He marched passed me and opened the door and said, "After you Mr. Jeffers.

"Go ahead Rabbi. I'll follow you in."

He went in, the door closing behind him. After a moment of indecision, I opened it to a room of hushed little boys. Aaron was standing a few feet away from his desk, shaking his head, and mumbling in Hebrew. The big bearded man stood in front of the class, milking the terror his presence drew. He pointed his ruler toward Aaron, and with it, silently summoned him to come forth. Aaron mumbled some Hebrew again and obeyed. Now Aaron cowered ten feet from the Rabbi, his back to the class.

"Rabbi Solomon? I said, approaching him, "I think our young friend has by now learned his les-"

"Mr Jeffers," the Rabbi said, with a soothing tone, "please stand where you are while I handle a child that by now should know how a man behaves."

He turned to Aaron and barked some Hebrew. Aaron whispered some Hebrew back through a trembling lip, and walked toward the Rabbi, who swung the ruler back like a tennis player preparing to deliver an offensive forehand. Aaron's arms remained down. The blow landed just above Aaron's elbow. Then Aaron's mouth quivered. The Rabbi barked some more Hebrew, swung back the ruler as he did before, held it in an outstretched position, and Aaron freely let his tears pour.

"Now maybe you'll think twice before you shame this shul, go and sit now."

The Rabbi put the ruler behind his back and resumed his barking Hebrew to the entire class. He turned to me and said, "You have any, any kind of of problem here, please Mr. Jeffers come tell me."

He turned to the class. "I'm always around to make sure they're doing what you are here to have them do."

I nodded my head and he departed.

The class sat in silence. Some of the boys were copying the words I had written on the board. Aaron was holding his arm with one hand and wiping one of his eyes with the other. I looked at my watch. It was three-fifty-five. I walked over to Aaron. He looked at me as if he expected more of the Rabbi's home remedy of discipline. I pulled out a handkerchief from my back pocket, and blew my nose as loud as I could while I did a little tap dance.I heard some snickers, Aaron's eyebrows dropped to neutral, and he returned to himself. The bell rang. The boys started to rush the door. I told Aaron to sit still and wait. When Aaron and I were left alone, I asked him to hold out his palm. When he did, I placed a one dollar bill in it.

"You should save it so you'll remember me," I said, "because this is the last time you'll ever see me in this school. Now you go ahead and have a nice evening."

The next day I arrived at United Talmudic Academy at twelve-thirty. I went to Rabbi Gold's office.

"Yes Elijah? How was your first day?"

"Don't you know?"

"No I don't. Should I?"

"I quit, Rabbi."

He looked at his watch, ran his fingers over the slope of his red beard, and asked: "After just one day?"

"One day was all it took."

"All right Mr. Jeffers," he said as he picked up his phone, "you said you were quitting. If you're quitting, please leave the building, I'm a busy man."

"Aren't you curious to know why I'm quitting?"

"No, not after one day I'm not."

I said "au revoir" and left.

Later that evening, as I supped on sliced ham, shrimp salad, corn bread, and cold beets, I felt strangely holy. I ate by candlelight, washing my food down with warm buttermilk. I didn't tell Rabbi Gold what had happened, did I? Let them be, I thought, as I cut a slice of ham and piled a mound of shrimp salad on top. Blessed be the unholy and righteous


Lawrence C. Schwartz's short fiction has been published by The Paumanok Review, The Pink Chamelion, EWG Presents, American Feed, and others. He is the author of the play, Artaud for Awhile, produced at Wings Theatre in New York City. He lives in Manhattan.
 
 

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