| Encore |

Encore: Chapter 24

“Oh, come on, you know how Rabbi Wasser can get, why did you have to challenge him that way?”


ate on the night before Yom Kippur, Sholom Wasser left the house for a walk.

When people asked Penina how she juggled so much — running a busy office, little children, wife of a rosh yeshivah — she liked to say that busy people don’t have time to worry, so they manage better.

Now, Sholom realized how true that was. He was struck by the intensity of this thought: running a yeshivah was dinei nefashos, and it would have been wiser for him to be a plumber, or a cook, or a bookkeeper like Penina was; anything but this. Why had he done it?

He left quietly, not wanting to wake anyone, and gently closed the creaky front door and headed out.

Who was he, after all, to take responsibility for the growth of these young men? What about their happiness? Could he be sure he’d never hurt any of them?

He didn’t think he was the perfect mechanech. He knew that there were times when he was too intense, or too set on doing things his way. The old menahel had made sure that he knew that.

Once, Sholom remembered, the Hellenberg boy — Sholom had tried hard to be mochel and forget his name — had come into class late, sauntering in just in the middle of a Tosafos, just before the best part of the teirutz. Sholom hadn’t said much, he’d just placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder and redirected him toward the door.

“Later, come back later, after recess, not now,” he whispered. The boy had turned again, heading toward his seat, putting Sholom in a difficult position. He couldn’t pull or push, but he couldn’t look away from this open challenge.

“I can’t teach with people coming and going at will, there are zemanim in this class, I need you to leave,” he said with as much pride as he could muster.

Hellenberg had shrugged and sat down, opening his Gemara.

Sholom was aware that all eyes were on him, that even the dozers and space-outs and doodlers were following the proceedings with interest. Later, he’d revisited the scene and tried to think what else he could have done: Perhaps he himself should have summoned up his dignity, smiled sadly, and left the room. That probably would have been the wisest course of action.

But he hadn’t done that.


What he had done was this: Reasoning that he wasn’t touching anyone or being physical, he walked behind Hellenberg’s desk and started sliding it toward the door of the classroom. At that moment, it had seemed a clever move, but even as the desk slid easily, he’d heard the muffled laughter. His jacket had ridden up, and the desk had gotten stuck on the broken floor tile, but he’d had to push through. Hellenberg didn’t give him the satisfaction, waiting a good two minutes till he got out of the desk, looked pityingly at the rebbi, and sauntered out just as he’d come in.

“Thanks for the ride, that was pretty awesome,” he said as he walked out.

Sholom had tried to go on teaching, but he’d lost the class for that morning. Later on, during lunch, he told the menahel what happened and a meeting was arranged with Hellenberg and his parents.

Sholom had come a bit late to the meeting, and from the hallway, he’d heard the menahel’s exasperated voice. “Oh, come on,” he was saying, “you know how Rabbi Wasser can get, why did you have to challenge him that way?”

That had been three years ago, but the words — how Rabbi Wasser can get — would pop up at the most unexpected times, like an old camp theme song that never really goes away.

Now, as he paced the grounds of the yeshivah he led, they played in his mind again and again, the chorus of a song that made him question what he was doing in Modena, New York, walking behind a quiet building that had once been a motel and then lain vacant, and was now, somehow, a yeshivah. It was almost like Sholom himself didn’t understand how it had happened, what the story was, the events that led to this becoming a yeshivah: Who had taken responsibility that Rabbi Wasser would lift up the boys and do right by them? Who, Sholom Wasser thought as he walked along a dark, deserted strip of Ralston Road, had thought it a good idea?

A car approached, then slowed as it passed him. It was an older driver with one arm out the window. He stopped, then continued driving once Sholom didn’t react. Half an hour later, Sholom was still walking, still wondering if in his shmuess before Kol Nidrei he should publicly ask mechilah from the bochurim for pretending to be a mechanech or if it would come across as trite.

Eventually, he shuffled back up the road to yeshivah, no calmer than when he’d left, still wondering what right he had to this yeshivah and if the whole thing was a big mistake. In the morning, he knew, Penina would laugh at the question and remind him that he cared enough for three roshei yeshivah, but for now, he was tormented.

He was deeply grateful for the fact that Yom Kippur was approaching. He had teshuvah to do.


In the morning, he didn’t get to speak to Penina because there were new crises. The caterer hadn’t sent the Erev Yom Kippur seudah, and Ephraim had to drive to Monsey to get it, so it came late and Minchah had to be pushed off. Shuey Portman wasn’t feeling well, and he worried that he wouldn’t be able to daven from the amud.

Shuey had thought it a bad idea to do Yom Kippur in yeshivah, since the bochurim were leaving Motzaei Yom Kippur anyhow. He thought they should go home before Yom Kippur and daven with their fathers, but Sholom had thought differently, feeling that it was an opportunity to teach the bochurim how to approach Yom Kippur.

“Reb Sholom,” Shuey had countered, “I know Rosh Hashanah was special, it takeh was, but Yom Kippur is much harder, it’s hard to create the matzav and to give the bochurim what they need…. It’s not the same thing.”

But Sholom had brushed it off. He knew Shuey’s family wasn’t coming for Yom Kippur, so maybe that was the problem? He was rosh yeshivah, right? He was the one who knew what the bochurim needed, not Shuey Portman.

And so the sign had gone up: The zeman would be over an hour after Maariv on Motzaei Yom Kippur. He’d appointed Zeldman to arrange rides for all the boys, and between Shuey and Ephraim, most of the yeshivah was covered.

But now he had a sense that it had been a mistake, that Portman had been right about not keeping the boys here. The food that finally arrived for the seudah looked lousy, and Portman wasn’t sure he could daven from the amud.

Sholom carried to the dining room two large chocolate cakes Penina had made that morning and put them on the table apologetically. Then he hurried out, looking for Shuey.

The office was empty, and Sholom walked gingerly through the dormitory and tapped lightly at the door to Shuey’s little apartment.

It took a minute until the door swung open. It looked like Shuey had been sleeping.

“Reb Shuey, I just need to ask you now, before we get busy again…. Are you mochel me?”

Shuey Portman looked startled.

“Me? Mochel you? Of course. There’s nothing to ask mechilah for.”

Sholom was quiet.

You know how Rabbi Wasser can get, he thought, but he said nothing.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 807)

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