They say write what you know. My first novel is about a yeshiva boy who leaves his religious education to attend a public school in suburban New Jersey. I drew from my memories of a building in Perth Amboy called Hillel Academy, a place that was so ill-prepared to teach that it was torn down a few years after I left. In fairness, it was the seventies, and information on children and how to raise and teach them was not as ubiquitous as it is today. The “How To” book world would need another decade to even begin to school us on the craft of respecting children, our spouses, our neighbors.
But alas, it is important to recall the positive aspects of all periods of life, be they hard to come by or not. I used to love this teacher from Hillel named Rabbi Laloosh. The guy was probably 6 foot 11, wore orthopedic shoes and only said about six words in English.
But he knew just what we yeshiva kids needed. He would position himself in the center of the entire student body just before we were dismissed for the weekend and, during a song I forget the name of, let all three hundred of us scream OO-FARR-ATZ-TA!!! into his ears. I never learned what the word meant, but it had to be the most cathartic primal scream any of us had ever had. Even as a second grader I had the feeling Rabbi Laloosh knew our school life sort of bit the big one. He was letting us vent as the Sabbath approached, and I always admired him for it.
It took thirty plus years for me to understand why my early education left with me such skewed memories of religion. Aside from the much-taught melancholy associated with Jewish history like the Holocaust, the slavery in Egypt and some of the human calamities in the Old Testament, I always had an innate disinterest in the “push” to adhere to the suggestion that I was merely a soldier amongst many in the plight that is Zionism. To me this meant I was merely one, under God, a thistle in a forest of survivors who were forced to overcome more adversity and human loss than any culture on earth. I was thusly obliged to be a part of a larger sum as opposed to an entity unto myself in which life is dictated by both the unfolding of our individual days here, and the way one’s predisposed brain takes flight in a world fraught with possibility.
But I’ll tell you some of my most positive yeshiva memories.
My first thought of kissing a girl was in the back of Hillel Academy. At the time it held a small blacktop that offered a kick ball sized space surrounded by a chain link fence. I think of this square as the place I learned to lust for the smell of Wendy Friedberg. She was the older, fifth grade girl who preferred kissing one’s lips to slapping one’s back in “You’re it” the yeshiva version of “tag.” I would chase her cloud of pheromones around this tiny area with the ferocity of a Wild Kingdom clip, until my fingertips brushed against her ruffled shoulder.
“You’re it!” I yelled, and our eyes met amidst the haze of baking tarmac. “You’re it, Wendy Friedberg.”
You’re it, and I’m the one who made you so. I remember the pressure to kiss her. All the kids watching, egging me on, kiss her, kiss Wendy, and I knew that the only thing before me, before Talmud class, Abraham and Isaac and the Hebrew alphabet, I‘d need to place my lips against Wendy Friedberg’s cheek. But I was hesitant. Scared? Embarrassed? My teacher Mora Mirium would call us, Time’s up, recess is over.
I chickened out. She was older, okay? A fifth grader. She was just too sensual and sweaty, running around that blacktop like a gazelle and all. Her family would later visit our new house in South Orange for Shabbat because Wendy’s brother was my brother’s buddy. There was a song we sang at the end of our ceremony that required we all hold hands. I was next to Wendy and I remember pretending that I had to reach for the person to my left so hard that I couldn’t very well also take her grip. My dad called me out, “Take her hand, Joshua.”
I felt Wendy’s fingers against mine but didn’t face her for the entire song. She truly was a confusing and complicated woman. And I never would have known her without Hillel Academy.