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The Rime of the Ancient Pedagogue

yeshiva Jubilation — my 12th graders celebrating year’s end

Yeshiva Years 

Like many of my male colleagues and/or main wage earners in the profession, my teacher's princely income was in need of a supplement. Consequently, I also worked at an additional job in the afternoon - for many years, teaching English at a yeshiva in Tel Aviv. Coming from an orthodox home, being traditional and belonging to a shul, fitting in and wearing a kippah presented no obstacles and when I needed a minyan there certainly was no problem!

This venerable ultra-orthodox institution, singular in being renowned for its Gemara learning plus preparing students for a regular matriculation, draws its students from the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) sector in Israel with many parents having university education – doctors, lawyers, accountants etc. and from Europe with many in commerce and in the diamond trade. It is also very prestigious boasting a fair number of elite graduates and generations of fathers, sons and families have graced its study hall benches.

The yeshiva's expectations from its students have always been crystal clear. They devote themselves to Torah and Gemara and after five years of learning, they graduate. They are then expected to further their studies for another three years at a High Yeshiva after which they will be ripe for marriage. This happy state being achieved, they ideally will join a Kollel, spending their lives in full time study.

The yeshiva hierarchy was clearly defined with the Rabbi being the head and beneath him the rabbis/ class teachers. Next, came the headmaster of the high school and then at the bottom of the ladder - the subject teachers. English and other matriculation subjects were regarded as an appendage, a necessary evil so that after completing High Yeshiva, graduates could acquire, if so wished, a university degree and enter a profession.

The daily schedule is demanding: Gemara studies last from morning until five in the afternoon with a lunch break in between. At five thirty after prayers, secular studies continue until eight in the evening when the external students return home and the boarders go for supper. These last three lessons were not easy to teach as the boys were naturally tired and towards the end, with stomachs rumbling for supper. Accorded a lower status than the rabbis and teaching in the worst hours of the day, we subject teachers had to work to gain respect by learning the unwritten codes and maintaining a balance of strictness, fairness and in my case - humor.

The students themselves are smart and sharp-witted, a close-knit community with a code of honour, zealously observing omerta that would do the Cosa Nostra proud. Some of them were constantly thinking of ways to outwit the establishment whether by trying to obtain copies of the coming tests or clandestinely purchasing post supper pizzas by lowering bandels tied together down to the delivery service waiting outside the yeshiva walls.

No TV, no radio, no mobile phones (in my time at least) and strict discipline. The linchpin of all this was the head, the Rabbi who had ruled with an iron fist in a velvet glove for over half a century and whose word was law. This soft spoken little old man, the embodiment of the institution, in his customary frock coat and Homburg hat, was both feared and revered. When he walked down the corridor and passed the students, they stood respectfully like statues. He was sharp as needles and as I discovered, endowed with a wicked sense of humor.

There are many stories about him, but my favorite concerns his chance meeting of a student in the street. Now, students are forbidden to buy food on the outside and the young man busily enjoying a lovely chocolate coated ice cream stick was unpleasantly surprised to see the rabbi coming towards him. Hastily shoving the delicacy into his trouser pocket, he advanced. The rabbi well aware of what had transpired, stopped the young man for a leisurely chat during which he enquired about his family, his health and quizzed him at length on his studies. In the meantime, the ice cream and chocolate had long melted and run down his leg.

Heads of yeshivas do not relinquish their posts and the Rabbi was true to the tradition, carrying on teaching until well into his 90th year. A few years before I retired, as per custom, he gave a lesson on Shabbat morning and not feeling well was admitted to hospital later that day. When asked if he had someone to look after him, he snorted indignantly: "A caregiver! I work for a living!!" He passed away a few days later and as he briefly lay in state, the commodious prayer hall was packed to the ceiling with students both present and past who had come from far and wide to pay their respects to the passing of a legend.

The staff was all male (in my time at least!) and therefore visits by inspectors belonging to the fair sex were not encouraged. The late Dr.Thea Reves, a very imposing lady, the former chief English inspector of Tel Aviv recounted to me a visit she had once paid there. Upon entering, she was escorted by the secretary to the office of the rabbi where he politely but firmly informed her of the institution's policy. With the interview terminated and on the way downstairs, she asked the secretary if there were no women working there. Being informed that there was indeed one – the cook, she said that if there was one woman already there, then she foresaw problem for herself. "Ah, Ms. Reves," replied the secretary: "You haven't seen the cook!"

I have many memories of my yeshiva years. Here are a few anecdotes that I deem most noteworthy of passing on.

In a lower level matriculation class of mine, sat David. A weak student, he was a very pleasant fellow: mild and unassuming who being perpetually tired somehow reminded me of the dormouse in the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. In winter he would hibernate in my classes and for the remainder of the year assiduously practice for that coming season. As the final external exams were approaching, his class was prepared for the oral examination in which an external examiner would conduct a 10 minute structured interview with a student that would constitute 10% of his/her external grade. Let me assure those of you who doubt its efficacy, that in the allotted time, a skilled tester could accurately and swiftly gauge the level of the examinee and that the interview, with the emphasis on the positive, was always conducted in a pleasant atmosphere.

The customary test venue was the yeshiva library – a large, little used room with shelves lined with many tomes of Talmud and at one end, dominating the interior, hung a large oil painting of a former chief rabbi of Tel Aviv after whom the place was named. Unfortunately, the artist in order to accentuate this dignitary's luxuriant white beard had colored his face a bright shade of yellow giving him the appearance of suffering from an acute attack of jaundice! Adorning its walls up to the ceiling were tens and tens of the traditional framed pictures of the graduating classes. These pictures ran to an established format: everyone in passport photos, at the head was the Rabbi, below him the rabbis/class teachers and then the rows of students. "Very well," you may ask, "What about the subject teachers?" As we had a lesser status, we were deemed unworthy of inclusion and I would joke that if you turned the picture around, there were our photos facing the wall!

Come the afternoon of the test, David's turn having arrived, I escorted him into the library where the examiner, a very affable individual, sat. Being curious to hear how he would perform, I took a seat nearby, "Well," said the examiner, opening the chat, "When you get married, tell me, how many children would you like to have?" "Twenty four!" shot back the prompt reply! The tester was most taken aback and so was I! In his years of attending my lessons, here was I, unknowingly and seriously underestimating my student: an ambitious soul, who while not being in the arms of Morpheus, had been studiously planning to marry an equally determined, fecund and robust life partner! The rest of the interview limped along and at its termination, I accompanied him to the door. On his way out, he turned to me (in Hebrew). "What did he say to me?" "Did he ask me at what age I wanted to marry?"

The external English written matriculation has definite rules: the students sit at separate tables, the teacher is forbidden to be present and outside people do the invigilation (proctoring). The level of proctoring varies as the pay is very low and therefore mostly retirees and an odd assortment of individuals take on this boring job. One year, in my high level class, were two good friends: one was American (whom we shall call X), a native English speaker and the other (Y) a rather mediocre performer and together they had devised a crafty strategy to improve the weaker friend's grades. The plan was deceptively simple: they would sit next to each other and after having been given their examination forms and sticking their name labels on them, they would swiftly and unobtrusively swap papers. X would then quickly write his friend's exam for him and since the exam was two hours long, after swapping back, this would give him enough time to complete his own. The first part went smoothly until, alas, fate stepped in! While giving out the forms, the proctor had his back to the students. The task completed, he sat down at a desk facing them and for the duration never removed his eyes from the examinees. Unable to execute a swap, Y had no choice but attempt to complete his friend's exam!

As expected, Y received high grades and X was close to failing. Being completely ignorant of what had transpired, I was surprised to see the American returning a year later to rewrite his English exam. Only after the all-knowing headmaster had told me the whole tale, did I understand why when I had complimented Y on his unexpected success he had given a rather sheepish smile.

As the youth that choose to study there have a definite motivation and awareness of the institution's expectations, the student population is understandably homogeneous. Nevertheless, within it there were those from homes where they had TV, were relatively worldly (one of my students was a Beatles fan) and well informed to those who were ultra pious and to whom study of the Torah was their entire universe.

One afternoon, I was approached by one of my 10th grade students, a genuinely sweet and gentle soul, who was wrestling with a great problem. He had noticed that while perusing through a 9th grade English textbook that there was content that he felt was unsuitable for the orthodox. It also contained illustrations of the fair sex – mainly young people, engaged in innocuous, mundane activities. Worried about the deleterious influence on young minds, he had consulted with his rabbi/class teacher who had advised him to speak to me. The two of us then sat down together to have a meeting of minds and I patiently and respectfully explained to him that all English textbooks (as this was!) are approved by the ministry only after meeting definite linguistic and didactic standards laid down in the official curriculum. Moreover, the content should not be offensive to any sector of society. I could understand his concern that the textbook did not meet his standards of modesty but unfortunately, no English textbook for the ultra-religious sector existed. (After listening politely, he said he would return to his rabbi with the problem.

For all those unduly worried, let me put your minds to rest, for after a few days deliberation, an equitable and ingenious solution was reached: a suitable amount of small white stickers would be purchased, distributed to the students and in class under the benign guidance of the teacher (me!), the offending pictures would be covered over.

DOSSFM (Day of Sticking Stickers for Modesty) dawned and that afternoon armed with the textbook, a list of preselected pages with the offensive illustrations and a generous pile of stickers, I sallied forth to class where we spent the best part of a lesson diligently restoring their books to an acceptable state of modesty. Moreover, as each pupil was left with a surplus, I told them that they were free to stick them wherever they wished.

In retrospect, my pious student was now able to sleep easily, the rabbi who had more important things to do got on with them and the pupils who had never been bothered by the book's content enjoyed the diversion. Whenever I tell this story, the proverb: "Evil is in the mind of the beholder" comes to mind and I remember one particular line of The Lord's Prayer: "Lead us not unto temptation, but deliver us from evil…….." that was recited at daily morning assembly at my public high school.

In July 2012, my 19th year drew to a close and I became eligible for retirement. Even though the headmaster had asked me to stay on, I decided that the time was ripe to leave. I enjoyed working there and my relationship with my students, colleagues and the rabbis was most cordial. Nevertheless, I disliked the English syllabus which I (and so many of my colleagues) found flawed in many ways and teaching it had become a drag. Why suffer needlessly? The final lesson concluded, I bad farewell to the headmaster and exited the gates. True to tradition, there was not one word from the head of the yeshiva (the baton had been passed to the Rabbi's son) and it was as if I had never been there. Human relationships had never been his strong point!

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