It was back in Washington Heights, Manhattan in 1986, I was sixteen years old and in 11th grade at the Marsha Stern Talmudic Academy/Yeshiva University High School for Boy – lovingly referred to MTA to this day, and we were quite a group of misfits. That school taught me everything I would need to survive; not much in the area of academics, though. Imagine Lord of the Flies set in Anatevka. Not to reinvent the wheel here, as I believe that my comrade Shalom Auslander who trailed me by a year, accurately captured my experiences in his brilliantly illustrated autobiography, A Foreskin’s Lament.
It was there in MTA, where often timid little naive Jewish kids, many from suburban neighborhoods, descended daily on the Dominican Republic’s satellite city in the very upper corner of Manhattan, that I learned valuable lessons on life. Some of us found drugs, some found religion, others found new friends and even new found inner strength. All of us, however, learned the value of money – that if you had it, you were treated one way, and if not, you were just cast out.
Two juniors took a freshman for a magic carpet ride on his first marijuana high. The kid broke down and told his parents who then told the principal. The junior whose father was a school benefactor was given probation and the junior from a family with somewhat less money and who was likely on scholarship, was expelled. That didn’t come as a shock, but it was one of the most blatant hypocritical contrasts to what we were taught about God and religion and the reality of everyday life. Yet, I cannot complain because I benefited too, no doubt.
My advantage wasn’t money, for I didn’t grow up with much. It was the next valuable lesson, influence. My father – who by the way, just successfully survived major surgery – was the executive editor at the New York Jewish Week back then; the Jewish publication with the largest circulation at the time and was also an important propaganda engine for the Yeshiva University network of schools. I had a bad habit of getting myself thrown out of school for doing little more than expressing my concerns for the quality of my education.
There was the time I was sitting in Talmud (Gemara) class, referred to as a Shiur, and the head of school came in to test us young men on what we knew – or didn’t. It was a random thing. Rabbi Yitzchok Cohen, a tall, thin, beady eyed man with a long white beard, soft spoken, with a deliberately and distinctively enunciated diction that sounded like a throaty Bostonian accent with an Eastern European twinge will always be remembered by me and hundreds of my fellow inmates for his performance in the Wilf Auditorium of the high school decrying the message of the one-hit-wonder pop song by Samantha Fox, “Touch Me!”
That day, he stood up in front of an entire school of young impressionable lads and started flailing his arms wildly, touching himself and yelling “touch me’, “touch me” as he went into a rant over inappropriate messages of modern music. Any one of us that day who did not know the song before hand, went out and bought it, or borrowed the cassette to copy. Good thinking rabbi.
That same approach was successfully employed by Mel Gibson’s folks earlier this decade when they had the Anti-Defamation League publicly oppose his movie The Passion of The Christ. ADL successfully raised funds for its organization, and Mel got better advertising than he could have otherwise afforded to fund for this project. Yet, I digress…
So, we were in Bobo’s class (not his real name, but we kind of referred to our rabbi by it; it was passed down for years before we ever got to his class), well known for being a den of miscreants. One of our esteemed class clowns was comedian Elon Gold, who had a sitcom on network television, many cable comedy programs and does stand-up. I like to believe that he tested many of his early jokes in this class. Now, Rabbi Cohen walked into our class one day and picked up the book of the Talmud that we were presumably learning from and he randomly called on students to answer questions.
We were learning from Tractate Bava Kama, but that didn’t really matter to most of us. He would pick out a word or a phrase and then call on a student to explain it. After a few students had their turn to varying degrees of success, he points his finger into the Talmud and quietly read the words “Esnan Zonah,” simply defined as money paid to prostitute for her services. Now the issue here was about whether an item given in exchange for this money may be offered as a sacrifice, but more to the point.
Rabbi Cohen stated the term and looked up from the book and called out, “Yehuuuudddaa En-Gel-May-errr.” I looked up at him and asked him, “Yes Rabbi?” He continued, “What does ‘Esnan Zonah’ mean?”
Being in an uncomfortable situation here, having to talk to a rabbi about such issues, I simply stated, “money given to a prostitute for her services.” He came back at me with, “What does it mean… what are you paying for, why does it matter?” I stared at him, and just restated “it is money paid to a prostitute for her services.” The rabbi looked at me, clearly bemused by what he saw as my vacant answer and said, “Services? Did she go down to Heshy’s (local coffee shop) and buy you a danish?” I gulped. All that I could mutter from my mouth, caught somewhere between fighting my instinct to be a wise ass and not wanting to have a conversation with this rabbi about what turning tricks is all about, was “Rabbi, if you’re not clear, I don’t think that I should be the one to tell you.” Bobo spit his soda out of his mouth laughing. Sure it was funny, but I got kicked out of class and “expelled” for it.
So, I did what became habit for me, and I called my father and told him my version of the truth. He moaned, yet still did his part and called his friends at the Yeshiva University Board of Directors who wanted to maintain a positive relationship with the newspaper. I was told to report back to school the next day. When I approached the school steps the next morning, the principal was standing there and said to me, “I don’t appreciate getting calls from the Board of Directors about you,” and I just said smugly, “Then don’t kick me out anymore.”
Lesson learned here: it’s not what you know, but who you know.
I graduated, life goes on. I learned so much about life at MTA; valuable lessons in street smarts, politics and diplomacy, and surviving. It was the kind of school where the smart kids did just fine and those who struggled continued to do so, just keeping their heads low so to stay off the administrator’s radar.
Fortunately, my children will never be in a place like that. Our hope is that the schools they are in will help them grow academically and spiritually, and will also gain some of the moxie we found in the dark corridors of that old musty building in Washington Heights.
Juda Engelmayer is President and Partner with the NY PR agency, HeraldPR