Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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A low-grade, persistent terror plagued me throughout the summer before sixth grade, because in June I’d found out I was to spend the next year in Rabbi Friedberg’s class at my Orthodox Jewish Hebrew school. I’d heard that he could deliver a blow to your cheek so swiftly, you wouldn’t even see it coming; that a slap from him would rattle the bones in your skull and leave your ears ringing for days. But I’d also heard that he almost never hit anyone. He didn’t have to. He instilled such fear with a look or a menacing shift of his hand that few students dared do anything wrong.
On the first day of school I sat quietly in class awaiting Rabbi Friedberg’s arrival. I was a shy kid and didn’t quite fit in with the other boys. They liked sports and cars; I liked The Mike Douglas Show and Mary Tyler Moore. They were also beginning to talk about girls in a strange new way. But that first day all the boys, without exception, were talking about Rabbi Friedberg — who was notorious in our Syrian Jewish community. They eagerly exchanged stories of him kicking a student in the shin or twisting another’s ear until it nearly came off. Their breathless tones almost made it seem as if they admired Rabbi Friedberg’s unyielding commitment to discipline.
At the sound of heavy footsteps approaching, we grew quiet, and the silence that greeted Rabbi Friedberg as he entered was of the sort usually reserved for visiting Holocaust survivors. As he made his way to his desk and began to settle in, he didn’t even acknowledge us, which was itself a declaration of our worthlessness.
Within a few weeks my fear of Rabbi Friedberg had diminished. I was relieved, but also a little disappointed, that he had not once displayed any kung-fu-like skills in striking students. In fact, Rabbi Friedberg was easily the most boring teacher I’d ever had at Sheepshead Bay Yeshiva in Brooklyn, and that was saying a lot. Even his appearance was monotonous. All the rabbis wore black — it may have been a religious requirement — but Rabbi Friedberg also had a heavy black overcoat and a long black beard and thick-framed black glasses. The only lighter colors on his person were his dingy white dress shirt and his yellowish prayer tassels, or tzitzit, and neither did anything to brighten his look.
Each day, in an affectless monotone, the rabbi would read the assigned portion of the Torah first in Hebrew, then in English, and the portion always seemed chosen for its complete and utter dullness. Did we read about how Laban fooled Jacob into marrying his plain daughter, Leah, instead of his beautiful daughter, Rachel, whom Jacob loved? No. Did we read about the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah and how her brothers got revenge by tricking her rapists into getting circumcisions, then killing them three days later, when the pain would be at its most excruciating? No. Every time our study approached a story that might delight adolescent boys, Rabbi Friedberg would jump ahead to something else — the laws governing the lending of an ox to a neighbor, perhaps. He spent a week on the descriptions of the Ark of the Covenant, reading God’s instructions to Moses for how the Ark, which held the broken tablets of the Ten Commandments, was to be built: “Two cubits and a half shall be its length, a cubit and a half shall be its breadth, a cubit and a half shall be its height. . . .” I wondered how even Moses had stayed awake.
While the rabbi droned on, the other boys came up with ways to entertain themselves. Benny Botinder would pick his nose, then show off his find by slowly turning his finger like a car on display at an auto show. Sonny Suede would read muscle magazines under his desk. Charlie Cattan would scribble until his page looked like the darkness that existed before God created the world. We all thought Charlie was — and this was the only word we knew for it in the 1970s — retarded, but his father kept him from being officially labeled as such by donating enormous sums of money to the school and synagogue.
Jacob Sutton, who was destined to be the first in our class to draw Rabbi Friedberg’s ire, was one of the few boys who showed any interest in the lessons. Jacob would keep his index finger on the page, following each Hebrew word as Rabbi Friedberg spoke it. Sometimes Jacob would lift his freckled face from his book and shake his head in puzzlement, and I would wonder why he was so interested in what our dull, dull rabbi was teaching.
I had gone to Jacob’s house once after school in fifth grade. At recess one day he and I had discovered that we both liked movies about nuclear holocausts — A Boy and His Dog, Five, The Day the Earth Caught Fire — and that had been enough for him to invite me over. On the outside, Jacob’s house looked like a set from one of those post-apocalyptic films: no grass in the yard, only dirt and a few gangly weeds, and bare windows. His mother answered the door wearing go-go boots and a short white skirt, an outfit I had never seen on someone’s mother before. “I guess you’re not my blind date,” she said to me in mock disappointment, and I felt a small thrill at being included in an adult joke. Everyone knew she was divorced, which was almost unheard of in our neighborhood.
The house had practically no furniture. As Jacob and I lay on the fuzzy carpet and watched Godzilla vs. Mothra, I couldn’t help but notice that his mother failed to offer us potato chips or Pepsi. “I’m off on my date,” she announced. “Will you be OK?” Jacob didn’t answer. Just before his mother walked out the door, a look passed between them that made me feel like an intruder for having observed it. Somehow I envied them and felt sorry for them at the same time.
After Jacob’s mother left, he announced he was going to the kitchen for cream-cheese sandwiches and Tang, which sounded like exactly the kind of snack a boy who lived with his divorced mother would make. I felt strange being there without an adult and wasn’t sure what I would say when he returned with the cream-cheese sandwiches and Tang, a combination that made me want to throw up.
Leafing through a Newsweek magazine, I found myself transfixed by a picture of Robert Redford in tight tennis shorts. He wasn’t wearing a shirt. I felt I should look away, but I couldn’t.
Suddenly Jacob was standing over me with a tray. I closed the magazine and said, “Sorry,” hoping he thought I was apologizing for reading his mother’s magazine without permission.
“For what?” Jacob replied, putting the sandwich down in front of me, the white bread busted open by an angular glob of cream cheese.
Was he only pretending not to have noticed how long I’d stared at the picture of that beautiful man? I sipped the Tang and told myself I was drawn to Robert Redford only because I admired him as an actor. On TV Godzilla’s rubber tail kept getting caught in skyscrapers and tanker trucks. After the movie ended, I announced I had to get home for supper.
I hadn’t been over to Jacob’s house since.
In November Rabbi Friedberg finally found something interesting to teach us: a passage about how Moses’s sister and brother criticized him for not “lying” with his wife. I was surprised the rabbi was covering this subject. We all knew that to “lie with” meant sex, and the other boys tittered and smirked. Benny Botinder surreptitiously formed an O with his thumb and forefinger and poked an index finger through it. Sonny Suede whispered the word neek — “fuck” in Arabic, a language we all knew a few words of because our grandparents had emigrated from Syria. I tried to appear amused and not nervous.
Jacob, however, held his face close to his book, turned a page, then looked up with a wrinkled brow. His arm shot into the air. This was notable because Rabbi Friedberg never invited questions. It was as if he believed there was something irreligious and perhaps unmanly in being curious.
The rabbi looked at Jacob as if he were the first eleven-year-old boy he had ever seen. In fact, the rabbi rarely looked directly at any of us.
“Yes, Yacob?” Rabbi Friedberg said.
We all waited eagerly to see if Jacob was going to ask Rabbi Friedberg about sex, but Jacob had something else on his mind: “Rabbi, doesn’t it say in the Torah that Moses’s wife was black?”
Nothing in Jacob’s voice or manner betrayed that he had asked anything out of the ordinary. Rabbi Friedberg got up from his desk and advanced slowly toward the boy until he hovered over him, rocking minutely back and forth while the rubber soles of his shoes squeaked. “What are you saying about Moshe, Yacob?” Rabbi Friedberg asked, using the Hebrew name for Moses. There was something menacing in the way he posed this question. The rabbi wasn’t of Syrian descent, like the rest of us, and his accent was a combination of Israeli, Yiddish, and Brooklynese.
“If you look here,” Jacob said, and he skillfully read a passage in Hebrew and then translated it into English: “And Miriam and Aaron said things against Moshe because of the Cushite woman Moshe married, as Moshe had married a Cushite woman.” Jacob looked up at Rabbi Friedberg as if seeking permission to continue speaking. It didn’t seem to me that the rabbi granted it, but Jacob went on anyway. “A Cushite is from Ethiopia, in Africa. So doesn’t that mean Moshe’s wife was black?”
Jacob’s expression was innocent, his tone earnest, but he knew full well that he was upsetting the natural order of Hebrew school. His thin body looked on the verge of disappearing into his loose-fitting shirt with its iron-on cartoon message: Keep on Truckin’.
“You think,” Rabbi Friedberg said, “that Moshe Rabenu was married to an abdeh?” He spit out the last word as if it were a morsel of pork that had somehow found its way into his mouth. Everyone in our Syrian Jewish community referred to a black woman as an abdeh, a black man as an abid — both words derived from the Arabic for “slave.”
“It’s not what I think,” Jacob said, staring rigidly ahead. “It’s what it says right there, that Moshe’s wife was black.” It seemed Jacob was using the English word black to rile Rabbi Friedberg.
“You’re going to tell me what it says in the Torah?”
“I’m not telling you,” Jacob said. “I read it to you.”
Rabbi Friedberg bent in closer and trained his eye on the boy’s cheek, the spot all rabbis seemed to aim for when they struck us. He took deep breaths, expelling air forcefully through his nose. I receded into my chair in anticipation of the blow that would surely land on Jacob, but the rabbi slowly straightened up, and his breathing steadied. He took one last look at Jacob, who stared ahead at the blackboard as if it contained some complicated lesson he was trying to absorb. The corner of Rabbi Friedberg’s lip curled up, and his head shook back and forth just once before he returned to his desk and resumed reading where he had left off, as if nothing had happened.
We all knew it would have been better for Jacob if he had gotten slapped. By ignoring the question, Rabbi Friedberg had indicated that Jacob was so disgusting, he wasn’t even worthy of punishment. To be honest, I didn’t think what Jacob had said was wrong, and if Moses’s wife was black, it was no big deal. My parents never used the word abid. Still, I tried to keep a look on my face that suggested I believed what everyone else in the class did: that Jacob Sutton was a bad Jew.
As Rabbi Friedberg continued to read, Jacob’s eyes landed on me. I stared into my book and pretended not to notice, but I was curious to know what I would find if I met his gaze, so I looked back, just for a second. Jacob rolled his eyes at me and smiled as if what had happened was extremely funny; as if he and I were somehow cohorts. I felt bad for him and knew the way Rabbi Friedberg had treated him wasn’t right, but I didn’t smile back.
Because our yeshiva was too small to have its own playground, recess was held in the park across the street. Unleashed that day, we sprang like captive animals let loose in the wild, racing to the punchball field and laying claim to it before any other class could.
The process of picking teams was cruel and defeating for nonathletic boys like me, and sometimes I would get picked after Charlie Cattan. Jacob, a decent athlete, was always chosen about midway through, but that afternoon he simply wasn’t chosen at all. This had never happened before. I had assumed there was some sort of requirement that every boy get to participate. To add to the cruelty, not a word was said about it. It was as if the team captains had picked up from Rabbi Friedberg that Jacob was to be disregarded.
As we scattered across the field, our shouts rising into the sky, Jacob wandered off. I had a clear view of him from my spot in right field — the least likely place for the ball to go. Even if the ball came toward me, the shortstop would swoop in and catch it, so there was little need for me to keep an eye on the game. Instead I watched Jacob walk deeper into the recesses of the park, past the fence we were not permitted to go beyond, his brown curls blown by the November wind. He kept going until I was no longer sure if the figure I had my eye on was Jacob or someone else. I imagined Jacob stumbling upon a group of boys who wore gold crosses and thin T-shirts, and I pictured them offering Jacob a Now and Later — a candy that was forbidden because we believed it contained gelatin, which came from the hooves of pigs. I imagined Jacob unwrapping the candy and eagerly shoving it past his lips, its hard corners scraping the roof of his mouth as he experienced an explosive burst of apple so sour he could feel it in his eyes.
The next day Rabbi Friedberg had us turn back to the page we had read the previous morning, and mischievous smiles spread across the boys’ faces in expectation of what was to come. Rabbi Friedberg read the disputed passage first in Hebrew, then in English. He did not challenge the translation Jacob had provided, but the rabbi also gave an exegesis of the passage by Rashi, the revered rabbinical scholar whose commentary had accompanied every Torah I’d ever read. According to Rashi, Moses’s wife was described as a “Cushite” not because she was black but because she was so beautiful she stood out among women the way a black person would stand out among whites.
We had always been told that Rashi was one of the most brilliant scholars who had ever lived, but now I wondered: Was Rashi stupid? His explanation seemed a desperate attempt to get around the fact that, according to the Torah — according to God! — Moses’s wife was black.
Jacob reacted by shaking his head as he sprawled in his chair, nearly supine. Rabbi Friedberg, who was pacing the room, stopped beside Jacob, and I hoped he would finally hit the boy, so everything could go back to normal. But instead Rabbi Friedberg moved on with the lesson.
If Jacob had simply left it at that, I think his offense would have been forgotten eventually, but instead he embraced the role of class pariah with zeal. During English class, when Mrs. Lipchitz asked us what we wanted to do when we grew up, Jacob quoted a rock song: “I want to fly like an eagle and let my spirit carry me.” During social studies he declared, “Yasser Arafat has charisma!” At lunch he listened to a transistor radio through earphones to further isolate himself.
In turn, the boys in our class ridiculed Jacob on a daily basis: They claimed his mother neeked Black Panthers. They called Jacob’s curly brown hair an Afro and said he grew it that way to look more like a Cushite. They even bought an Afro pick and surreptitiously tried to stick it in Jacob’s hair. I thought the boys were being unnecessarily mean, but when Benny Botinder finally landed the pick in Jacob’s hair, I laughed and felt a warm thrill at being part of the group.
Jacob never complained to any authority figure or shed a tear, that I knew of. Or maybe he did cry once, when he was pretending to blow his nose in his handkerchief. I wasn’t sure.
The more Jacob became the class pariah, the more I cultivated my invisibility. At eleven I was aware that my boyhood was practically over, officially to end with my upcoming bar mitzvah, and also that I would have to work even harder at being invisible once I became a man. I was beginning to hear a word spoken in my vicinity, and sometimes directly to me: fag. Not a lot, just here and there. Sometimes boys used the Yiddish word faygeleh, which they had picked up from our non-Syrian rabbis. It literally meant “little bird.” Jacob overheard this once and told me, “Don’t listen to them,” but I just looked at him: What are you talking about? When he said his mother had asked him to ask me to come over again, I didn’t respond.
One day Jacob’s mother appeared at school, standing outside Principal Biton’s office in an orange-and-pink paisley minidress, pulling down on the hem as if hoping the dress would suddenly grow an extra inch. She didn’t look old enough to be the mother of a sixth-grader. I wondered if she had decided to talk to the principal on Jacob’s behalf, or if the school had summoned her. Either way, I didn’t think she would be able to protect her son from Rabbi Friedberg or from the other kids.
When she called my name, I could have pretended I hadn’t heard — the hallway was crowded and noisy — but I turned around.
“I haven’t seen you in a while,” she said, as if she had seen me more than once. “You should come over. Jacob has Atari.” The word Atari, when spoken by Jacob’s mother, sounded magical. She was as glamorous as a stewardess on an airline commercial, and I felt a sudden flash of hatred toward Jacob’s father for leaving her to raise their son on her own. Jacob’s mother looked at me with such hope, but I couldn’t be her son’s friend. I couldn’t risk drawing that kind of attention.
“Sure,” I lied. “That would be fun.”
Fall became winter, and the classroom radiator emitted a persistent hum that made the windows vibrate. Jacob had withdrawn to the point that he never so much as requested permission to go to the bathroom. He seemed to have lost whatever courage had motivated him to express his odd beliefs, and he would spend each period with the side of his head cradled in one hand while he doodled.
One day Rabbi Friedberg was reading to us about how the Israelites complained to Moses and Aaron that they had no water in the desert. He used the names “God” and “HaShem” interchangeably as he translated: “So God said to Moshe and Aaron, ‘Speak to the rock in front of the people, and it will give water.’ But instead Moshe took his rod and struck the rock until the water came. Because Moshe disobeyed HaShem’s instruction, HaShem punished him by not allowing him to enter Eretz Yisrael” — the Holy Land. When the rabbi was finished reading, he said, “This tells you that you should always obey HaShem and never question.”
Something in what Rabbi Friedberg had said caused Jacob to take notice, and he began paging through his Torah the way I imagined a great scholar might, holding one page aloft while reading another, using a finger to find a specific passage. I was happy to see the old Jacob return. He lifted his arm to ask a question, but Rabbi Friedberg began reading aloud again from his Torah, which was about three times the size of ours. Jacob patiently kept his arm raised while a solid minute went by. The boys in the class began to rouse from their lethargy.
Rabbi Friedberg brusquely told us to read to ourselves, as he often did while he tended to some matter at his desk, but nobody did. We were all looking at Jacob’s raised hand, which teetered a bit from the strain of keeping it up.
“What do you want, Sutton?” Rabbi Friedberg finally asked.
Jacob brought down his arm. “Rabbi,” he said with great deference, as if striving to set things right, “I don’t understand why Moshe didn’t get to go to the Holy Land.”
“I just told you why. He didn’t obey God. He struck the rock when HaShem told him to talk to the rock.” Rabbi Friedberg didn’t sound angry. Perhaps he thought Jacob had asked a good question this time. Perhaps he was on the road to forgetting what Jacob had said about Moses’s wife. “The lesson is: you should always do what HaShem says without questioning why.”
“But, Rabbi,” Jacob said, “who more than Moshe deserved to go to Yisrael? He did so much for the Jews: He brought them out of slavery. He parted the Red Sea so they could get away from Pharaoh. He led them through the desert. He got the Ten Commandments. He performed so many miracles.”
“But he didn’t listen to HaShem.”
Jacob and the rabbi looked at each other. All Jacob had to do was say, Oh, OK, Rabbi, I understand. The moral of the story was obvious: just do what they tell you. But I thought Jacob’s question was valid. It seemed outrageous that Moses wouldn’t get to go to the land of Israel.
“But, Rabbi,” Jacob said, “maybe Moshe hit the rock because he was annoyed.” A rattle crept into his voice. “No matter how many miracles the Jews saw Moshe do, they still kept whining and complaining, to the point where they even prayed to a golden calf! Or maybe Moshe just forgot that God told him to talk to the rock, and he hit it instead. Why was that so bad?”
Rabbi Friedberg stood up at his desk. “You think it was OK for Moshe to disobey HaShem, the way you disobey God with how you act in my class?”
“I don’t disobey HaShem,” Jacob said. “This is all stupid anyway. I don’t even believe in HaShem.” Jacob paused, then added, as if to leave no doubt about what he’d said, “I don’t believe in God.”
I feel sure there wasn’t a boy in that classroom who didn’t take deep pleasure in hearing Jacob Sutton announce that he didn’t believe in God. Finally something exciting had happened! We were savoring every second of this astonishing event.
“What kind of a filth are you?” Rabbi Friedberg shouted. “Get out of my class!”
At first Jacob didn’t move. His eyes remained fixed on the blackboard. He didn’t even look like he was breathing.
“Get,” Rabbi Friedberg panted, pointing to the door. “Out.”
Jacob held on to the sides of his desk, and I imagined Rabbi Friedberg physically throwing him and the desk out of the classroom together.
The rabbi began rocking back and forth with fervor, as if in prayer on Yom Kippur. “Get out,” he said while rocking. “Get out, get out, get out! I will not have your poison brain infect my classroom one minute more.”
Jacob stood and began placing his books in his knapsack one by one, fitting them tidily inside. Then he retrieved his coat from the closet and, displaying a will I could not fathom, slowly removed his scarf, hat, and gloves from his pockets and carefully put them on, turning the act of obeying into an act of defiance.
Rabbi Friedberg had fallen silent, as if afraid that any sound he made might cause Jacob to change his mind. The radiator hummed. The windows vibrated.
All bundled up, with his scarf around his neck, Jacob made his way out the door.
After he was gone, a palpable unease hung over the classroom as we waited for the rabbi to usher us back into our lesson. Instead he sat down at his desk and rubbed the dingy yellow strings of his tzitzit between his fingers. I was watching him intently, and, by chance, he looked up, and we found ourselves staring right at each other. Throughout the school year I had never once captured the rabbi’s attention. I felt nausea and fear. Did he associate me with Jacob somehow? Had he seen us talking? Had he heard what the other boys called me? I searched his face for any sign that he knew, but it betrayed nothing, and his attention moved mercifully away.
As Rabbi Friedberg resumed teaching, I looked out the window and saw Jacob emerge from the building. He hadn’t just left the rabbi’s classroom; he was leaving school. How would he get home? There hadn’t been time for him to call his mother, and the school buses didn’t run until three. Jacob paused on the corner of the four-lane avenue and looked right, then left, as if unsure where to go. The wind blew the curls that poked from beneath his hat, and he appeared cold and lost, standing alone on the deserted sidewalk. Then a city bus stopped in front of him, and he climbed aboard.