A story from yeshiva, based on true events.
They are singing though they hate to sing and listening though they question respect. Not all of them; the library welcomes all sorts tonight, the kind and the quiet, the studious and the odious, drawn forth from the dorm where they have been resting, chatting, drinking, drawn forth for the spectacle. Farbrengen!
No, they vary. But some of them, the only ones I really notice (their transgressions fill my ledgers) are as statues come to life and for no good reason. Most of the time they are cold rock, closed to the world, denying its qualities. “Rabbi so-and-so (whom I have never met) scrabbles for power in his distant city in the most amusing wormlike way.” “Singing means nothing.” “It’s all just externalities, that’s all it is!” Usually I smirk and bear it because I know (though I can’t yet put it to words) that by rejecting anything but their own high standards they are rejecting their own humanity and that one day I’ll grasp their inferiority, and if that’s not faith, I don’t know what is. So I don’t mind them so much.
But tonight, in the library, the chairs pressing all around, table set in plastic austerity and dotted with oily salads, the holy books of responsible students, and one warm bottle of Smirnoff, something inside me gives way and my contempt for them rises to my nostrils. Here they sit, acting as if they respect a man for more than his participation in the correct schedule, as if the music moves them even though it’s pointless, far beneath blood or purity.
The Rabbi says “L’chaim,” strokes his brown beard, tells a story. I’ve heard it before, and if I’ve heard it, so have they, a thousand times. I’m some confused can-kicker from Atlanta who fell into a shred of wisdom by accident; they were swaddled in it and fed by it; this story is to them their whole family back to Adam, an artifact torn from the Siberian snow, still frozen. The story means what their father said it means, what their grandfather said it means, what Moses (“My mother’s father’s ancestor, head shliach to the Sinai, a sweet guy but a real mamzer in politics”) said it means. We do not need to add our thoughts. We are here to participate in it and transmit it. But I do have my own thoughts.
I can’t help it; I’m trying to quit; I see an inherent parallel to a sicha I learned once, though it raises certain questions, and I make a mental note to learn that talk again though I have a bad habit of losing heart these days because most people don’t know enough to relate to my inferences and those who do turn back to stone when the clock strikes midnight and the farbrengen ends and the license for sincere self-expression is revoked.
I wonder whether I might obtain such a license one day, but saying you want one is the first step to never being taken seriously again and besides, I am not a descendant of the shliach to the Sinai. Whatever. We all know those licenses censor as much as they permit and there’s a reason these farbrengens mostly sound the same. So I leave.
It’s the beginning of Winter and the Jersey air greets me like a puppy and the bottom of the stairwell. It tells me it’s been wandering since I saw it last; while I was breathing garlic and body heat it had blown down from Canada, free of worry or regret, and is now on its way to the city. The stars glimmer in their eternal sublime silence, their agonizing beauty. They are content to inspire man, to be painted and rhapsodized in poetry, but they do not condescend to help us when our mouth tastes like onion and tomato and we look to the deer stalking across the dark baseball field with a strange, pagan envy.
I roll the sleeves of my white shirt down and sit on a bench. My yeshiva looms around me. It was once a monastery up on this wooded hill and it is not hard to imagine a student walking his luggage down the length of the parking lot, expelled, shaking his fist at the buildings’ soaring mass with a visigoth’s contempt, his heart brimming with the barbaric pride in never having erected a single pillar because all excellence is oppressive and civilization is a siege tower against the soul’s embankments. It smolders within me, the hint of this resentment; it warms my heart. I want to pull down the damned building and what it symbolizes brick by brick until my arrogant detractors tumble into the field with me and I will show them just how human they are –
Somewhere nearby, water hits the bricks of the courtyard with the velocity granted by a long fall. It sounds almost like the splashes you sometimes hear mid morning when the bochrim on the third floor, late for class and too lazy to find a sink, empty their bedside basins out a window with a charm that may or may not violate the Code of Jewish Law. But this is a more continuous pouring, more focused, almost as if – there! A body stands silhouetted in a high window, hands holding onto its inner edge as he urinates with aplomb into empty space. Behind him, I can hear laughter and singing. I make the calculation. The window belongs to a classroom near the study hall. My curiosity is piqued.
I roll up my sleeves, give the night a last, longing look (the deer are long-gone) and walk inside.
There are different degrees to which Judaism demands we violate the space between us. I have worked through long witching hours at the Western Wall, alone in a vast plaza; I have been there are the bustling pilgrimage festivals. I have felt the pressure, the smothering heat before the gravestone at Meron. But none of these are quite the same as the Farbrengen With Limited Room. One cannot compare the standing/stumbling of crowded prayer to this seated insularity, food and drink passed and spilled hand-to-hand, the table supporting the inside of it and the tension of love or mere attention crackling in the ether. The classroom excretes cigarette smoke through the still-open window and I breathe others’ hot vodka-tainted breath.
The one who peed upon the world has already retaken his seat to keep his mysteries forever. He could be anyone present, for arrayed before me is a proper thieves’ farbrengen, the scoundrels’ council of the Yeshiva. In the thick of it sit the clean-shaven chain smokers, the lower-grade scalawags who spend half the week begging for Shabbos leave and the other half resenting the declination, the wilder Frenchmen, the ideological philosopher dissidents, the cross-bearing floaters too delinquent to succeed at anything except keeping their parents blissfully ignorant.
They’re not mine, these wilds. I’m sure, as I stand in the doorway, that thinking they might see me as some sort of rat is making them see me as some sort of rat, but they are hardly paying attention. Berel is speaking and it’s his words that prevent me from closing the door and dashing off. “I want to be good,” he says.
It strikes at a flint deep inside and for just a moment I feel as if I shine. Here, the men are made of flesh. Here, none will ever own a license, barring some transformative experience that will allow them, in their middle-age, to say “In a past life.” Perhaps this chaos is mine. Perhaps it is the true order.
“Just do one thing,” Arraleh suggests. “Don’t go too fast.” Berel nods heavily; they are equally in their cups.
I don’t sit because I have never smoked and I still want to be excellent, maybe. I’ve spent too much time thinking to take these late words on their faces, and I wish to get up on the table and ask – if you want to so badly, then why don’t you? Are you an honest thief doing wrong and respecting right or are you crying over your vodka to stay the same because the wages of crime are so great?
I take my own bribes, but I take them in private. I can’t give up being true for being good. The world is too big to be merely a cancer on my self-justification; the stars are not my friends; the path from rebellion down to nothingness is well-worn and turns love to loathing…
I, of the first person, am not unforgiving stone, not an angel, not an animal.
In the morning, the classroom will be a desolation of stale smells and damaged property, and the library will bear the dutiful repeating of the Rabbi’s words.
I choose my bed.
The stars watch on as I carry my sore head up three flights to my waiting Wal-Mart sheets. My roommate the saint sits under his bedside lamp, studying as always. He will go on to greatness, we all know.
As for me, the month of Kislev is coming, and the snow. As I fall asleep, I remember a promise from years ago that somewhere here in yeshiva the living G-d bides his time, a new coat in his hand, waiting to bring me in from the cold.