Monday, September 10, 2012

Fork in the Road

Sitting in the cinder block windowless anteroom waiting for the appointment to commence, Ben felt clammy in spite of the chilled air. He had been summoned by the dean’s secretary a few days earlier for as meeting at 11:00 AM, which was highly unusual and worried him. The dean of the rabbinical college Rabbi Streitz rarely had personal contact with students outside the classroom since he was teaching, flying off to New York for meetings with National Jewish Leadership or lecturing at another rabbinical college where his brother was the dean. Rabbi Streitz was distant from his students; few social skills, no sense of humor, puritanical in his sense of esthetics, and principled to a fault. Ben wasn’t flattered by being summoned. No, no. In fact Ben was stressed and hadn’t slept very much since receiving the phone call. He intuited that the purpose of the meeting was to formally inform him that his conduct unbefitting a rabbinical student and could no longer remain a student at the yeshiva. He was being thrown out, aborted; an ignominious end to something that should never have begun. Nervous, he arrived at the dean’s office a full half hour early, which was a mistake, a miscalculation. The dean was notorious for being unreasonably late for meetings, which meant that Ben might be waiting an hour or longer. 

Ben had considered the option of not showing up; he was in no mood to face the dean and the dreaded consequence he must bear for demonstrating such an awful lapse of judgment. What difference did it make? He was convinced that he was being dismissed. And for what? For having convictions, Ben asked himself. What was so terrible about believing in something so strongly that he was willing to go to the wall? Weren’t rabbis, Ben considered supposed to be principled, allowing their god inspired conscience to guide them rather than politically correct considerations? Screw it! Just send me a letter, he thought, and be done with it. All this meeting would do is add insult to injury. What a way to blow a career that hadn’t even taken off yet? What a way to start life, with this on his record. His real fear was his father who begged and borrowed to scrape together the tuition for his promising son. Ben’s dad had big plans for him. His father, living vicariously through his son saw ordination as just the first stage. A PhD would round him out preparing him for a combined academic and rabbinic career; something that Ben’s father had desired when he was a young man; while he had the brains hadn’t the stamina. Ben, on the other hand had both, a winning combination. His father had been grooming him for this career for as long as he could remember. As a matter of fact, Ben had never been asked if this is what he wanted.

Sitting on a hard wooden chair in that chilled anteroom, the fluorescent light casting a yellowish glare added to the already depressing atmosphere enhanced by the grey painted cinder block. It was dead silent. All he could hear was the buzz of the electricity flowing through the fluorescent lighting. Biting his inner lip till it was raw, trying to stop his left leg from a trembling nervous reflex Ben considered flight at that moment. Just leave, get out. It would be preferable than having to face the wrath of Rabbi Streitz. Seeing the dean angry on few occasions was memorable to this impressionable student. Rabbi Streitz had a gift for slicing straight to the heart of the matter. Ben shuttered at his propensity for fulminating, his mouth moving at speed that causing his cropped beard to quake didn’t serve him well. Ben knew him too well, having been his student for the past two years. Those were tough years. He was an exacting, demanding teacher, who got caught up in the detail without seeing the larger picture. It was with the trivia that he would dig a rut that before long became a trench, which became a trap, difficult, almost impossible to extricate oneself. Lost in a maze of worthless information was how Ben saw it and not infrequently trapped and lost in detail with little hope of finding the kernel of information, the message to be taken away. A severe consequence of his daily three hours marathon lectures was his halitosis insidiously filling the room with a stench that was nauseating to anyone with a sense of feng shui as Ben had. The morning lectures never started out that way. In fact at 8:30 AM when class began, the twelve students sitting around a “u” shaped table arrangement so that all of us were eye to eye with the dean, none further from him than three feet, eager, alert and full of anticipation, which dissipated within a short time. It was only after he ranted straight for two hours with no end in sight did the smell began to become pervasive and oppressive. It was a test of one’s stamina to be able to think critically and take notes with the stench of his breath combined with the mist of his spittle hitting you if you happened to be in the path of its trajectory. Paused periodically for a sip of water would have mitigated the fetid air. No not him. Carried away by the subject at hand he would go on for three hour marathons - non-stop. When he finally stopped out of sheer exhaustion the feeling was nearly indescribable. Leaving the room was life affirming as the delight in breathing fresh air gave Ben an added appreciation of clean air and the need to cherish it always.

In those years Ben unlike his classmates but like so many others of his generation was deeply concerned over the injustice and manner by which the Viet Nam was being waged and prosecuted. Sitting through those lectures, Ben envisioned himself as a soldier ambushed by the Viet Cong in a swamp pinned down for hours with no option other than waiting for reinforcements. In Ben’s case reinforcements came in the way of the dean collapsing in exhaustion, as the tacticians of the war was hoping that would happen to the enemy. Relief. Live another day. 

Those three-hour intellectual assaults were nothing more than mental gymnastics, an intellectual slight, the apotheosis of useless information. Ben recalled one particular instance when he wished to challenge the rabbi in the midst of a learned discourse on the timely and crucial subject of catching a fly on Shabbat: the circumstances under which one is allowed to lower a box over a fly, while not violating the shabbat, Ben’s lack of confidence as always got the best of him remaining silent knowing that this lecture wasn’t worthy of his time especially when the world around Ben was burning down. There was no end to the war in Viet Nam where the death toll of US combatants was staggering; as obscene as the daily blood baths of innocent civilians. 

This wasn’t all that was bothering Ben. He was deeply concerned with the alarming rate of assimilation among American Jews. Ben was sure that his unique style and approach to teaching Judaism would help staunch the hemorrhaging.  Ben passionately cared about the future of his people and was flummoxed by these inane lectures on catching flies or opening umbrellas on Shabbat. He’d have no trouble swatting the sucker if it happened to land on his chopped liver. Perhaps this lack of interest in the detailed minutiae of Jewish law, the legalisms and the loopholes that hammered the Jewish people into a formidable nation that had survived thousands of years was at the root of Ben’s problem. Ben however decided to take a pass deferring to another time the need to challenge his teacher.

The truth was, Ben didn’t give a damn about orthodox interpretation of Jewish law.  He wasn’t like his classmates. Having been raised from the cradle in an orthodox environment, as his maternal bobbie was wont to say “in a strictly kosher environment” he found it awkward, feeling like an outsider. He simply didn’t fit into the orthodox mindset concerned more with social issues than the parochial concerns of the orthodox community. It distressed him that the liberal movements found their niche in social activism claiming it as their mandate. It concerned him that the institution, which he was attending, had started moving to the right, becoming more identifiable with the ultra orthodox institutions in the east. It didn’t bode well for Ben.

Had Ben the gumption, he would have applied to a more liberal rabbinical college. He had really wanted to attend the Conservative Seminary in New York, but hadn’t the courage to confront his father by coming out of the closet and announcing that he wasn’t, that he couldn’t in good conscience be orthodox any longer. He wanted to deemphasize halacha focusing on the philosophical and social issues. Granted, Ben reasoned, religion’s original purpose was to create order out of chaos. But society had advanced since then: the whole point of religion wasn’t to control people anymore but to spiritually enrich and uplift people through social action. He envied those of his generation who were able to shed the ties tethering them to their parents’ values breaking loose in the words of Bob Dylan, like a rolling stone. Ben hadn’t the fortitude nor had he the ability to do what was right if it meant alienating his father. Ben took the path of least resistance, the path of the submissive, the path that demanded little effort and no confrontation. He had been living in a fool’s paradise and at any moment it was going to blow up in his face, ending this charade that should never have begun.

At this thought Ben breathed a sigh of relief recalling the indomitable truth in the wisdom of Jesus when he said the truth will set you free. Finally after years of repressing his true feelings there would be resolution. The real problem still remained: facing his father, a formidable man. He remembered all too well being thrown out of the house one cold winter Shabbat when he vehemently disagreed with his father on the prosecution of the war and the policies of Barry Goldwater.  At Shabbat lunch, Ben had the temerity to challenge his father’s support of Goldwater referring to him as stalinesque. For the first time ever, Ben had to duck when his father took a swing at him calling him every name in the Yiddish book, concluding with: you “davar acher” get the hell out of my house!

His second hurdle would be finding another seminary to attend. True enough, the reform seminary would grab him. They loved his kind: the type that had a very strong authentic, Jewish background conversant in classic texts, Talmud, rabbinic literature and Hebrew language. Their typical students had little knowledge of Jewish text, finding their Jewishness at a Jewish camp one summer and the next season at camp discovering their calling. 

As Ben was considering all these issues and the fate that awaited him the spiritual advisor of the study hall, a rabbi from the old country, a survivor of the Holocaust poked his head in the room not acknowledging Ben who was responsible for his current predicament.  The first time Ben had encountered Rabbi Werner was when he first sent to the yeshiva at the tender age of 13. He was assigned a seat in the bet midrash, which also served as a chapel, close to where the rabbis sit. At the moment when the prayer leader reached the “shema”, the declaration of faith, the rabbi’s face contorted, scarring the living daylights out of Ben. It was as though the rabbi had seen a horrible monster and in absolute and consuming fear began to quake and distort his face into a grimace that made him look grotesque. In despair and fright Ben turned to his neighbor asking him if someone was going to help the rabbi as he was in terrible pain. His neighbor, not answering since it was forbidden to talk during this phase of the prayers merely shirked, rolling his eyes, suggesting that it was the rabbi was fine.  To young Ben watching the rabbi depart at the conclusion of services seemed old, of another age and another world, which contrasted with his gait that had a youthful carefree bounce.

Rabbi Werner had never liked Ben because he was different than the others. His parents, American born, didn't speak authentic Yiddish marked by a European accent resulting in Ben having a rudimentary knowledge of this antiquated language, that he considered more a badge of shame. His classmates, Yiddish speakers, had no trouble following other talmud classes which were in Yiddish, giving a greater authenticity to the classes than having them lectured to in English. Yiddish was venerated; more so than Hebrew, the holy tongue, since it was base being the spoken language of Israel. It wasn't only the lack of Yiddish that set Ben off from the others and from the study hall rabbi, it was the clear cultural divide that marked him as modern, contaminated by American culture. As there were no clearly defined dress code other than wearing a fedora during services thrice daily Ben wore chinos, a button down shirt topped off with a corduroy sports jacket giving the appearance of one identifying with the college set, giving him the moniker "college Joe". In itself this wouldn’t have been too heretical. What set him apart wasn’t the beard that he sported because most of the students grew beards for religious reasons. Ben's however was deemed religious because it was offset by shoulder length hair, giving the impression that identified with the notorious Chicago Seven radicals than with conservative rabbinical students in the tradition of their European parents. Typically his classmates wore dress pants and a white shirt, giving the appearance of older people, clearly set off from the American college type.

That was how Ben appeared on that fateful morning when he walked into the study hall, except for the fact that his right arm was draped in a black armband. Demonstrating his solidarity with students nationwide in mourning for the slaughter of students at Kent State, a bold demonstration, but out of character for Ben. Known as the Kent State Massacre, four students were gunned down by the National Guard and nine others horribly wounded for demonstrating against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Students all over the country were wearing black armbands on May 4, 1970 and Ben did the same on that fateful morning. Had he known that he too would be mowed down in perhaps a different manner, but nonetheless taken out of action would he have reconsidered his act? Ben hadn't the foresight to think it through. Within minutes of him entering the study hall the spiritual advisor yelling in broken English from across the large vaulted room for him to leave “immediately if not sooner”. Stunned, Ben stood there frozen like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck when a friend of his nudged him into leaving before the rabbi lost it altogether.  Ben's hesitancy for a split second prompted the rabbi to race over to him yelling a quoted biblical text "behukoseihem lo seilechu", roughly translated as "in their footsteps you shouldn't walk". In truth this text referred to the Israelites not following customs of other nations who practiced body tattooing, body piercing as well as refraining from dietary customs of other nations; all this with the purpose of creating their own unique culture.

That was a month ago. It was now mid June and Ben, being shunned from the study hall hadn't been back since. Actually he appreciated the opportunity to move his books out of the study hall and set up shop at his carol at the university where he was a graduate student. In the solitude of the library he was able to continue studying his rabbinical and graduate studies at a clip that surprised even him. The only catch, a blessing in disguise, was that he had to absent himself from Rabbi Streitz’s marathon lectures, the room accessed through the bet midrash which he was banished from.  The dean hearing of the bet midrash imbroglio summoned Ben to his office with the intention of bringing this episode to a conclusion. The dean, a zealot, principled to a fault regardless of the political fall out determined to enlighten the entire faculty and student body of the complicated issue needed first to speak with Ben.

And so, on that fateful day in mid June 1970, Ben found himself sitting on a hard wooden chair, nervous, with damp arm pits staining his button down when he was finally beckoned into the inner sanctum of he dean's study one and a half hours after first arriving. The dean was visibly upset with Ben for having missed a month of lectures. With one pithy sentence the dean brought to a conclusion the entire episode when he said, "you were clearly within your rights to identify with those students who opposed a war that had no legal justification". It was a Thursday and the dean intended to give a lecture that night in the study hall to the entire student body denouncing the war. Ben was instructed to be there, overriding the rabbi’s ban.

Exiting the meeting, Ben felt vindicated and leaving, felt a bounce in his own gait, having been reprieved from termination. He wouldn't have to face his father and he could go on as before. On the other hand perhaps this episode was meant as a sign, an indication that it was time for Ben to stand on his principles, face his father and make application to a college that reflected his values. Would he be rejected or respected by his father? Reaching the proverbial fork in the road Ben returned to his room to think.