“He kept lists of talmidot whom he accepted after every other place closed its doors to them,” the speaker said, choked with tears
ust three days after I was accepted to high school, I was bitten by a dog. Abba had asked me to bring Bora some checks for his latest project. Bora was the gabbai of the Shabazi Beit Knesset, though ever since his stroke, he’d been confined to a chair and unable to speak. Abba knew he was still dreaming about his next project — this time, it was a plan to build a new mikveh for the Marmorek neighborhood — so to keep his spirits up, he’d asked me to bring over some checks.
“Tell him that in the end the menahel accepted you,” Abba told me, “and you’ll see, Bora will give you a brachah that you should do well in your new school.”
Bora knew that I’d been waiting months to get into high school. He knew what was happening in every home in the Marmorek neighborhood. But on my way to bring the checks and get the brachah, Bora’s dog bit me. Someone called a neighbor, and the neighbor called my father from the garage where he worked. My father hurried over. Someone mentioned a tetanus shot. Someone else started talking about the hospital. Bora couldn’t talk, but he shook his head hard. He motioned to the well in his yard, signaling that we should dab the wound with some fresh water. Then he closed his eyes to concentrate, spat three times on the ground, and motioned to us to go home. We knew exactly what he meant to say: “The girl needs to get to sleep, tomorrow she starts school.”
Bora knew I’d had problems getting into a high school, and he wanted me to start on the right foot. The menahel had added me to his list only three days ago. “I’m adding you to my list,” he had told me, “because I know that you want to do the right thing. One day your children will learn in yeshivot, you hear me?”
Now I was finally about to start high school, and I had to start on the right foot, with a dog bite on my left leg.
Our classroom was under the dormitory, and it had big windows that overlooked the garden surrounding the building. That first day of school, I noticed the menahel walking around among the bushes, then stopping under the window and listening to our lessons. His eyes seemed to catch everything.
The next day, he came into the classroom and swept an eagle gaze around the classroom. We knew we had to hide our hands deep in our pockets, so he wouldn’t see the big, bold rings we liked to wear — but he saw them anyway.
The menahel turned his hat over like a big black cup and passed between our desks. We knew we had no choice but to drop our rings in the hat. Some of the girls had five, eight, even ten rings on one hand, and the menahel would collect them all in his hat.
That afternoon, the bite was still hurting me, and I wanted to go home. “You need permission from the menahel,” the teacher said. I signaled to Jacquie with my head to follow me out of the classroom. “Quick,” I told her, “let’s switch skirts. I can’t go to the menahel wearing this one.”
That wasn’t all. I had to remove my earrings and hide them inside my pockets. I’d bought the earrings from Yemima at the Central Bus Station with the money I’d earned cleaning. Yemima had helped me choose “something dramatic,” but I knew the menahel wouldn’t like them. Back when he’d put me on his list, he’d made it clear that I was to behave like a proper Beit Yaakov girl, and I’d promised to try. Abba had written the tuition checks in the other office, where Adina, the secretary, worked. I didn’t want to get into trouble already in my first week. My name was on the menahel’s list, inscribed in his beautiful, clear handwriting. He believed that I had a place here.
There in the office, I told the menahel that a dog had bitten me, and it still hurt. I said I’d like to go home early.
He didn’t answer, he just looked at his lists for a moment, and then he asked me, “How many ‘Avinu Malkeinus’ are there?”
They’d already started saying Selichot in Bora’s beit knesset, but I didn’t know how many “Avinu Malkeinus” there were. I didn’t have a siddur with me. Seven, maybe? Ten? How was I supposed to know?
My hands were sweating in the pockets of Jacquie’s skirt, but the menahel didn’t look like he was about to let me off the hook. “A talmidah who comes from Marmorek to our school doesn’t know how many ‘Avinu Malkeinus’ there are?”
I didn’t want to disappoint him. He’d accepted me into high school after everyone else had closed their doors to me. All summer I’d hung around the neighborhood like a stray cat, until he’d told me he thought I could fit in here.
How many “Avinu Malkeinus” were there?
I looked at him. He had a stern voice and penetrating eyes, but behind his impressive beard there was always a little smile. What did he want from me?
“There is only one Avinu Malkeinu!” he roared. “And you try to hide your earrings from the One who sees everything?! Avinu Malkeinu sees everything!”
He told Adina to make me a tea, to soothe the pain from the bite, but he said I should stay in school and learn. That would take my mind off the pain more than going home. I didn’t agree, and I decided to take a little revenge.
Within a day or two I realized that the menahel came to and from school on a bicycle, which he parked near the entry gate. It wasn’t too hard to give him a flat tire. Jacquie helped me. She was happy to, after the menahel told her that that dress she’d bought at the Central Bus Station “did not befit a Beit Yaakov girl.” We took a ruler and a compass, and we punched a hole in his tire. On purpose.
You would think that the menahel would learn, but he still he didn’t give an inch. Not even to Jacquie, who cleaned his house every Wednesday. He didn’t dock her pay, of course — she did a good job cleaning and he thanked her and paid her well. But the next day she was called over the loudspeaker to the menahel’s office. It was the clothing again.
“He’s not serious,” she said to herself as she stood outside his closed door. “He’s not serious — only yesterday I cleaned his house….” But the menahel was very serious when he said she’d have to memorize whole chapters of Pirkei Avot, that he’d test her on every letter. “I expected better from you,” he said. “You’re on my list, and I ask you not to disappoint me.”
The following Wednesday, she went back to his house to clean and earn money. Most of the girls in his dormitory worked as household help, and his own household was one of the clients. The girls liked working there. They were paid nicely, given a special type of tea with real lemons inside, and they felt at home there. The menahel would compliment them for a job well done. But the next day, in school, he would fix that penetrating gaze on them and tell them he expected better of them.
One day the menahel asked how my dog bite was healing. I said I had an appointment for a checkup, and he wrote out a little note for me that said, “Sheyiheyeh eisek zeh li l’refuah, ki rofei chinam Atah.”
“We say this before any kind of medical treatment,” he told me. “You need to know it by heart. And you know what you do when you’re by the dentist, right?”
What do you do by the dentist? You open your mouth wide, that’s what. I laughed, but I knew that whenever he asked a question, there was something more behind it.
“When you’re in the dentist’s chair,” he said, “you can’t do much, only aaaah….” — he had a sense of humor — “you can’t talk, you can’t read, but you can think. A Jew can always think, and talmidot from my list can certainly think when they’re at the dentist with their mouth wide open.”
“What should I think about, Hamenahel?”
“Think about the sheish mitzvot temidiot. You know what they are, the six mitzvot that apply at all times?”
I was on his list, so I knew. There were certain things he wanted every girl on that secret list to know: how to check rice, how many “Avinu Malkeinus” there are, and how to eat fish on Shabbat.
“We don’t eat gefilte fish,” I’d said, making a disgusted face. “Only hreimeh. Nile perch with hreimeh doesn’t have bones, Hamenahel.”
He smiled, but he didn’t leave it at that. Bones or no bones, I still had to tell him the three conditions for borer on Shabbat.
By the end of that year, I wasn’t quite the same Mazal. I knew the menahel wouldn’t come to Marmorek, but still, even at home I dressed the way a Beit Yaakov girl is supposed to. I was on his secret lists, and I felt that at least I should dress the part, even if he couldn’t see me.
When I came late to school after a dentist’s appointment, the menahel asked me if I remembered what to think about while sitting in the dentist’s chair with my mouth wide open. Of course I remembered. I was on his lists, I had to remember. When the time came, the menahel said, he would need our help, and if I would build a home of Torah and yirat Shamayim and be worthy of the trust he put in me, even though everywhere else they’d closed their doors to me, and if my children would learn in yeshivot and I would be a true em b’Yisrael, then, when the time came, he would select my name, too, from his lists, and when he called us to come and help him to open the gate, he asked that we should please come.
I got the phone call a few days after Succot one year. It was Jacquie. She was crying, and she said we had to light a candle.
“What candle?” I asked.
“A candle for our father,” she said. “The menahel. He passed away last night.”
Jacquie was the mother of a large family by that time. Her sons learned in yeshivot, her daughters in Beit Yaakov. I met her sometimes when I came to visit the old neighborhood. It was all different now. Bora had passed away some time ago, but not before he finished building that mikveh he kept dreaming about. Rav Kook, the rav of Rechovot, had given him a brachah that he should fulfill his dream and build the mikveh, and so it was. Despite the stroke, he managed to get out of his wheelchair, recover, and even run the mikveh in Marmorek.
We took a bus together to the menahel’s levayah in Rechovot. I hadn’t gone back to visit my high school in years. A lot had changed since then, but a lot was the same. I saw old friends again, friends who’d also been on the menahel’s lists.
Jacquie talked about her Yisrael, her oldest son, who was learning in Jerusalem. “I named him Yisrael after the menahel. He was like an Abba to me; I was on his lists.” I stole a quick look at her earrings; they were just like the high school rules said. Elegant, restrained, like a Beit Yaakov girl, perfect for Rabbanit Jacquie, with three sons in Tifrach and two more in yeshivah gedolah in Carmiel.
We stood where the menahel used to park his bicycle, and where long ago — when it had all just begun — we’d punched a hole in his tire. We talked a little, and passed around pictures of our children. My sons learn in yeshivah, too, and my husband is the rav of our neighborhood in Nes Tziona. Odeliah showed us a photo of her son — he’s called Yisrael, too — and we reminisced together about the menahel’s lists.
They kept coming, the girls, only they weren’t girls anymore. Chana, Sapir, and Orah. Who would have believed it? Rabbanit Orah from Kiryat Malachi, coming to the menahel’s levayah. And Adah, who’s keeping Shabbat despite everything.
We listened silently to the hespedim, nodding along as they spoke of the menahel’s mission to strengthen girls from weaker neighborhoods, the girls no one wanted. How he believed in them, believed they would build homes of Torah and yirat Shamayim. How he took girls for whom all doors were closed, girls who had nowhere to go, and gathered them in his school on condition that they would grow up to be righteous women in Klal Yisrael.
“He kept lists of talmidot whom he accepted after every other place closed its doors to them,” the speaker said, choked with tears, “and he kept all their names on his long lists….”
I stepped on Jacquie’s foot. We knew so well what lists they were talking about. The menahel wrote in his will — his son read it out, word for word — that when his time came, he would call all the talmidot on those lists of his to come and help him open the gate.
“It’s time now,” Jacquie said.
“Come,” I said to her. We held hands, and one last time, we made our way to the gate, to let the menahel through on his final journey.
In memory of my grandfather, Rav Yisrael Mordechai Greenbaumm ztz”l, founder and menahel of the Beit Yaakov high school in Rechovot for over 50 years, who passed away on 25 Tishrei 5777.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 700)
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