Touched

 

Touched

By Margueya Novick

 

The back window in Rabbi Schwartzman's office looked out at his students—and, he believed, their hearts—while they played at recess. He could see who was picked first for teams, who was left at the end for the reluctant captains, and who was not even asked to play. He watched the boys share snacks and saw the bags of carrots and snap peas make their way to the trash, while the boys with chips and cookies were surrounded by eager hands.
           
Rabbi Schwartzman swiveled his chair towards the window every day at recess, scanning the boys to note the changes, small as they were, and more importantly, to follow that which did not change. The leaders continued to swagger out of the building and dictate what game would be played, and the followers willingly agreed. And always, there would be two or three boys standing alongside the yard, hunched over in the cold or sweating in the sun, watching the other boys play while Rabbi Schwartzman watched them all.
           
As the bell rang, signaling the end of the last recess, Rabbi Schwartzman swiveled back around and shuffled through the papers he had on his desk. Three resumés for the seventh-grade history position, an invoice from last month’s trip to the matzah factory informing him that the school owed another two hundred dollars. He was relieved to hear a knock, hoping for a pleasant distraction; then sighed when he saw Mr. Cunningham.
           
“Rabbi, we need to talk about the hallway,” Mr. Cunningham began, making his slow approach to Rabbi Schwartzman’s desk. Even from the distance, Rabbi Schwartzman could smell Mr. Cunningham’s yellowed teeth and his old-man breath filling the office. “Some teacher put up posters where my class needs to display their maps. It’s not right.”
           
Rabbi Schwartzman sat back, cracking his knees beneath his desk. Mr. Cunningham’s displays owned the eighth grade’s hallway, as his class generated monthly exhibits of negligible historical significance. Rabbi Schwartzman dutifully made his way through the children’s projects, noting the uncorrected spelling errors and occasional inaccuracy. The one time he had asked Mr. Cunningham the purpose behind the endless projects, the conversation had taken almost forty-five minutes, and left Rabbi Schwartzman just as confused as before, and no longer interested.
           
“Mr. Cunningham, some of the other teachers have expressed interest in using the hallway on occasion. I’m sure you can put a hold on—”
           
“Put a hold? Rabbi, you don’t seem to understand what I’m trying to do here.”
           
Rabbi Schwartzman leaned back, shoulders sagging, as Mr. Cunningham itemized the number of times an assembly had cut into his class, and how he was already a decade behind where he should be in his curriculum, and didn’t anyone care that the students learn?
           
Rabbi Schwartzman nodded and nodded, eyeing his phone in the hope that someone might call, thinking sadly about the teachers who could never assign any homework because of Mr. Cunningham’s projects. There was an ongoing bet in the quiet corners of the teachers’ room as to when Mr. C. would finally retire, and Rabbi Schwartzman was pretty sure he himself would be leaving first.
           
The bell rang, and Mr. Cunningham hovered in the doorway, his finger raised in warning and trembling slightly. “This school has to prioritize,” he said. “This isn’t camp.”
           
Rabbi Schwartzman watched the children file back into their classrooms and teachers head out of the teachers’ room, hands clutching steaming cups of coffee as they wove through the crowd.
           
He waved at the teachers as they passed his window, and soon the hallways were empty, the doors to the classrooms closed, and a muffled sort of quiet descended. Within ten minutes, Benjy Firestone was in his office, his freckled face twisted into a smug look of satisfaction as his teacher outlined that day’s transgression. Just yesterday, Benjy had released several crickets into the classroom, and today he had slipped salt into his teacher’s coffee.
           
With difficulty, Rabbi Schwartzman held back the smile that threatened to overtake his features. He enjoyed students like Benjy, and had been in the business long enough to know that this menace, before too long, would end up more successful and probably happier than the pale-faced students who took home ribbons and trophies at graduation. He spoke sternly about the need for decorum and respect, and held back the temptation to give Benjy a lollipop on the way out.
 
Rabbi Schwartzman double-checked that the buses had been ordered for the eighth-grade trip to the science museum—they had had to reschedule it several times to appease Mr. Cunningham—and then flipped through the messages his secretary had collected for him. It did not surprise him to see Mr. Rothberg’s name on one of the slips, marked urgent.
 
Among the small collection of sad boys who stood alone at recess, there was one boy in particular who always caught his eye, a skinny, pale boy who never had a chance. He looked anemic, seemed to always have a cold, and spoke with a slight stutter that flared up when he was nervous, which was often. Pinchas Rothberg, or the unfortunate “Pinky” to his classmates, had transferred to the yeshiva two years prior, already a sad case, and just last week Rabbi Schwartzman learned that his parents were divorcing.
           
As principal, Rabbi Schwartzman felt like the drain at the bottom of the shower, where all of the dirt collected and never quite escaped. Eventually, sooner than people could imagine, it all ended up on his desk. The upheaval in Pinky’s home was no exception. The information had come to him, as it often did, because of money.
           
“Mr. Rothberg,” Rabbi Schwartzman had said the week before, calling after a second check had bounced, steadying himself with a quick sip from a small glass bottle he kept in his bottom drawer. He hated calling parents.
           
“I’m afraid your check covering the last three months’ tuition came back.”
           
There had been silence on the other end. Rabbi Schwartzman had a vague image in his mind, having met Pinky’s father once, at some assembly or another. A shrunken man, alarmingly thin, with heavy eyes and a sort of gray look to him.
           
“I know, Rabbi. I’m really sorry. Things . . . things haven’t been easy.”
           
Rabbi Shwartzman raised the bottle to his lips again, promising himself that he wouldn’t touch it again that day.
           
“I’m sure,” Rabbi Shwartzman murmured, and he rolled his eyes as he thought about how not easy it was for his teachers, who depended on these checks, and for himself, who watched family after family try to slip beneath the radar, each espousing how important it was to send a Jewish boy to yeshiva, and agreeing that teachers were underpaid, yet feeling that the money needn’t come from them.
           
“Unfortunately, my wife and I are separating.”
           
Rabbi Schwartzman clutched the bottle, feeling the slick surface where his lips had been. “That’s awful,” he said finally. He eyed the pictures on his desk—from the last bar mitzvah, years ago, his whole family grouped together, hair shiny, eyes squinting above large smiles. It seemed that every day he heard something else, something whispered in the halls of his school indicating that happy families were a dying breed, an endangered species that was disappearing along with the ozone layer. The whole world was coming apart. This crisis was what drew him to education—that vague yet desperate call to make a difference—and yet the weight of it was what he took home every evening, with a heavier step than the day before.
           
“I’m not sure how we’re going to make it just yet, I was hoping, well . . .”
           
Rabbi Schwartzman had rubbed his eyes. He had allowed it, of course he had, and once again the pay checks went out late—for there were many Mr. Rothbergs, and so few of the Kleins and Gottliebs whose checks came in like clockwork, paying tuition  not only for their own children but for the ones who could not pay their share. And once more his staff grumbled, and his best teachers threatened to leave, and the cycle continued to spiral.
           
Now Rabbi Schwartzman frowned, recalling the heaviness of that phone call, as he dialed the familiar number and was once again privy to more than he wanted to know about the lawyers, the custody issues, and the constant state of disrepair in the home. Could he have more time? Mr. Rothberg pleaded. The kids needed stability more than anything, he knew, and that meant staying on in a school they could not afford.
           
After making his way through the piles of papers on his desk—it amazed him that a job driven by passion most often resulted in his signing his name on random slips of paper—Rabbi Schwartzman stepped out of his office and began flicking the lights off along the empty hallway. He passed a classroom that was still lit and poked his head inside.
           
“Ah, Yoni,” he said with a smile, nodding at the young teacher who was sitting over a Talmud with a student.
           
“Hi, Rabbi. Elisha wanted some help with his test tomorrow.” Yoni Prager’s sleeves were rolled up, and his kipa sat somewhere towards the back of his head. Though he dressed in the same white shirt and black pants as the rest of the teachers and students, something always seemed a little more flippant about his clothing. It was a subtle scent that the students picked up on, and they gravitated toward Yoni, eager for his approval. Thank God for the young teachers, Rabbi Schwartzman thought, who won’t be needing their checks with the same urgency. And for being a lot more likable than the old ones.
           
“That’s great,” he said. “Lock up when you leave.”
           
Yoni was a new addition, having taught in a different school until that year. Rabbi Schwartzman had been delighted that Yoni, already a beloved teacher, was willing to work for such meager and unreliable pay, but Yoni was a single man in his early thirties, which made finding a job teaching boys challenging, and Rabbi Schwartzman felt that both were doing the other a favor.
                                                                                                                                                      
Rabbi Schwartzman pulled out of the parking lot, his car, as always, one of the last to leave, and made his way home, his mind sifting through the problems of the day—an irate parent who felt her son was being picked on by the teacher, and an annoyed board member who wanted his son promoted to a more advanced class.
           
The Schwartzman home was a nondescript box alongside identical boxes in Flatbush. The first week that he had lived there, he had often parked at the wrong house. There was a tiny square of grass in front, and it was almost worse than having none at all. He had grown up in upstate New York, where there were far fewer religious Jews and much more greenery. It was a trade-off he sometimes resented.
           
His wife Elka had her tehilim group that night, the same fifteen women she had met with each week to pray for the sick for as long as he could remember. He rifled through the refrigerator, settled on some questionable egg salad and a few pieces of matzah. He had just wiped the crumbs off his lips and combed his fingers through his beard when the phone rang, the caller ID spelling out Moshe Kellman, the mashgiach at the yeshiva.
           
Rabbi Schwartzman—who had resisted caller ID for so long, but now felt almost godly when he could announce the person’s name—said, “Hello, Moshe,” and settled back into his chair.
 
Moshe was not someone Rabbi Schwartzman would have ever picked for the position of advising and guarding the boys’ spiritual growth; he was an intense man, with rabbit-like teeth and a beard that grew in unsightly patches along his pimpled chin. He had not done very well in any of the yeshivas where he had studied, and it was only upon the insistence of Moshe’s father—a revered rabbi who was known to pull strings like a marionette when he needed something—that Rabbi Schwartzman had entrusted this weighty role to Moshe.
           
From the start, it had been painful to watch Moshe interact with the students in the beis medrish every day, walking between the rows of benches and hovering over the boys deep in study, waiting for them to ask him questions. Moshe peppered the students with queries that stung like interrogations, and instead of the smooth, easy way Rabbi Schwartzman and much of the staff had with the students, Moshe knew only how to provoke them, to keep them hidden in their corners rather than drawing them out.
           
A small handful of students confided in Moshe: they were the ones who were picked last for teams and had no one to partner with during lab. They responded to the very things the others resisted; Moshe’s constant questions struck them as caring and concerned, his awkwardness put them at ease. Rabbi Schwartzman felt a mix of emotions when he saw these sad children flutter around Moshe like moths, while the other children, just as much in need, hurried past him as though he carried a disease.
           
Worse than observing Moshe with the students was watching him eye the other teachers. While Moshe slunk away from the boys and was often alone, his eyes would narrow as he took in the rest of the staff. Many of the other rabbis made their way down the study hall and wove through the beis medrish amid calls from the students, eager to hear what this rebbe had to say about that part of the Talmud, or to ask the rebbe a personal question. Moshe, whose very job this was, sank further into his seat, and watched the surrounding frenzy, looking more like a prison guard than any kind of mentor.
           
“I’m so sorry to disturb Rabbi Schwartzman at home,” Moshe began as Rabbi Schwartzman winced, bristling at the third-person phrasing—a sign of respect, he knew, but from Moshe it felt clumsy and desperate. “But I am very concerned about something I heard, and I felt it could not wait.”
           
Rabbi Schwartzman tugged at the tzitzit that hung outside of his shirt and twisted the strands around his fingers. He found that whenever Moshe came to talk to him—and the topics he raised felt more like excuses—he needed to grab onto something tightly, or he simply could not have the conversation.
           
“What is it?” he asked.
           
“It’s . . . a delicate matter, Rabbi, and I am not sure how to put this. It’s about Yoni Prager.”
           
Rabbi Schwartzman appreciated the phone call that interrupted his evening quiet, if only because it allowed him to smile, for the moment, without Moshe seeing him. Of course it was about Yoni Prager; Yoni, who was never Rabbi Prager to Moshe, though Yoni was equally entitled to the title as was Moshe. Yoni, whose very walk bespoke a man more at ease with the students than was Moshe. It was always about Yoni Prager, lurking behind whatever pretext Moshe had.
           
“What about Rabbi Prager?” Rabbi Schwartzman asked, allowing himself the small jibe.
           
“Well, I think there is something not quite right. What I mean is, with the boys . . . with one in particular . . . I think things are not right.”
           
Rabbi Schwartzman yanked at his tzitzit, harder than usual, and wrapped them around his fingers, watching as they bulged and darkened.
           
“Moshe, I need you to be clear, please. Not right . . . how?”
           
He heard Moshe exhale a loud cloud of noise. “A boy came to tell me that, that Yoni has been . . . ” Moshe took a few agonizing breaths. “He has been inappropriate,” Moshe said at last. A silence fell between them like a chasm.
           
Rabbi Schwartzman dropped the threads of his tzitzit. He thought for a moment of the bottle stashed inside his desk at the office, a reprieve he rarely needed at home, yet for which he now felt a sudden urgency.
           
“Moshe,” Rabbi Schwartzman said slowly, the name turning bitterly in his mouth and feeling polluted, “what you’re saying . . . what you’re implying is very, very serious.”
           
“I know that, Rabbi. But a boy came to me and told me. I can’t imagine he made this up.”
           
An invisible crime. One that seemed to be on the rise, like a cancer that spread its toxic fingers and infected nearly every institution. The door Moshe had opened made Rabbi Schwartzman feel like he had stepped off a cliff. In all of his years as principal, with so many issues and grievances appearing on his desk, never had someone accused a teacher of something of this nature.
           
Rabbi Schwartzman’s mind churned as Moshe’s labored breathing continued to moisten the silence between them. There was rarely any evidence of these crimes, and there was intense pressure—he knew without having encountered it himself—to not let a teacher’s life be destroyed over what could be one boy’s confusion . . . allegations that could end one’s professional career, and in some instances even one’s personal life, all in a matter of seconds. Yoni Prager was not only a charismatic and effective teacher; he came from a well-known rabbinic family, a throng of bearded men whose influence was known throughout the country.
           
Rabbi Schwartzman’s mind ricocheted like a pinball, bouncing from one frightening thought to the next—What if it were true? But what if it weren’t?—and then settled on Moshe, his slumped posture at lunch time, where he was supposed to eat with the boys, yet few if any tables made space. More than once, Rabbi Schwartzman knew, Moshe’s eyes had narrowed as he took in Yoni’s table, where Yoni sat voluntarily, the boys flocking to him.
 
“Moshe, I wonder if you might have misinterpreted what this boy said,” Rabbi Schwartzman began, wishing he had never caved and hired this hapless, awkward rabbi. “You know, every teacher has a different approach, and sometimes we feel . . . well, we can feel threatened by another teacher’s success.”
           
He hadn’t meant to say that, hadn’t meant to spell it out quite like that, but there it was, and perhaps it was for the best.
           
“Rabbi, with all due respect—”
           
“Moshe, listen. Boys sometimes crave attention, and they may not understand the implication of what they’re saying. I think you may be critical of Rabbi Prager for other reasons, and that wouldn’t be fair.”
           
“This is a serious matter, Rabbi Schwartzman,” Moshe said, his voice tight and hard.
           
“Of course it is, and I appreciate your bringing it to my attention. I will certainly speak to Rabbi Prager and see what he has to say. Who is the boy making this claim?”
           
There was a long pause, and Rabbi Schwartzman imagined Moshe, in his belabored way, struggling whether or not to tell. Whether he was worrying for the boy, or worrying for himself, Rabbi Schwartzman did not know, but finally Moshe said, “It’s Pinky Rothberg.”
           
“Right,” Rabbi Schwartzman said, thinking, Of course it is. “Well, Moshe, thank you as always for looking out for our boys. I will take care of this.”
           
He hung up the phone and cracked his knuckles, then wandered into his study. Often he found that submerging himself in Talmud eased his mind, shifted his focus onto something else that consumed him entirely. But tonight he merely looked at the books, ancient tomes that towered over the other volumes on the shelf, and wondered what answers could possibly lie within their pages.
           
Elka returned home, her sweet perfume entering the house before she did, and Rabbi Schwartzman hurried into the kitchen where he found her unloading the few groceries she had picked up.
           
“How was your day?” she asked, taking some oranges out of a bag and placing them in the bowl on the table.
           
“Something happened at work today.”
           
“Oh? Something good or something bad?”
           
“Something . . . strange. I got a call from Moshe,” Rabbi Schwartzman began, and almost laughed as Elka rolled her eyes. “This was a little different from his usual calls.”
           
He outlined the story as best he could, giving background on Pinky’s fragile state, and Moshe’s wariness of Yoni’s success.
           
“Oh my,” Elka said, and she sat down, her eyes dark with worry. “What are you going to do?”
           
Rabbi Schwartzman spread his hands. “I have no idea. You know what this means for Yoni if I do anything . . . drastic.”
 
“And for you,” Elka added, hearing the loudly omitted piece. “The Pragers will ruin you.”
 
“I know.”
 
They sat quietly as the clock ticked behind them. All along the walls, Rabbi Schwartzman had hung plaques and paintings that the yeshiva had presented to him, honoring his years of service and dedication. For so many years he had placated anxious students, heard out irrational parents, negotiated with demanding teachers. And all of it could just disappear like vapor.
 
When Rabbi Schwartzman looked back at Elka, he saw tears in her eyes, her lips a tight line across her face.
 
“That boy,” she whispered, her eyes avoiding Rabbi Schwartzman’s. “If it’s true . . . that boy. . .”
 
Rabbi Schwartzman took Elka’s hand and pressed it against his bearded cheek. Her hand was cold and limp, and he held it there until it began to warm.
 
 
The next day, Rabbi Schwartzman filled his morning with every task that he could come up with to postpone confronting Yoni. He returned even the most unsettling phone calls and observed some of the classes he had been meaning to sit in on for months. By the time lunch rolled around, Moshe had walked by his office about six times, each time looking through the glass as if merely to confirm that yes, Rabbi Schwartzman was indeed in his office.
 
Finally, Rabbi Schwartzman had run out of excuses, and the gnawing in his stomach had reached an alarming acidic feel. He needed to cross this off his list, and he needed reassurance that there was nothing to this allegation.
 
He lifted the receiver and dialed his secretary’s extension. “Can you call Rabbi Prager to my office, please?”
 
“Of course.”
 
“Tell him it’s urgent.”
 
Yoni appeared within minutes, his top shirt button unbuttoned, his tie hung casually over his shoulder. Rabbi Schwartzman knew that Moshe was not the only one who found Yoni’s slightly casual appearance suspect; many of the older rabbis eyed Yoni with concern. They felt themselves to be the last gasps of another world, an era when older rabbis were revered rather than seen as passé and put to pasture. The young teachers smacked of less respect, more frivolity, but Rabbi Schwartzman wondered if there might be some envy there, too. Perhaps the older rabbis also wished the boys would raise their hands for a “high five” or a “fist bump” as they passed them in the hallway; wished the boys would confide about girls and secret trips to the movies, rather than avoid these rabbis like a revolting stench.
 
“Hey, Rabbi,” Yoni said, slipping into the chair that sat across from Rabbi Schwartzman. “What’s up?”
 
“This is rather difficult,” Rabbi Schwartzman said as he got up to close the door. He was pleased to see Moshe walk by just then, his beady eyes scanning the room and settling on the back of Yoni’s head. There, Rabbi Schwartzman thought, now leave me alone.
 
“Something came to my attention, something that I am sure is just a misunderstanding.” He took off his glasses and scratched at the corners of his eyes, his vision blurring for the moment. “It’s about Pinky Rothberg.”
 
Rabbi Schwartzman studied Yoni’s face carefully as he heard the name. Nothing registered, not a flicker of recognition, and certainly no panic or alarm.
 
“Skinny kid, glasses?” Yoni asked. “He isn’t in my class, but I think I know who you mean.”
 
“Oh, he’s not in your class? Ah, okay, well then I’m sure this is all . . . coming from nowhere, then.”       
 
“What is? I’m not following.”
 
Rabbi Schwartzman coughed. “This, this issue . . .  That is, Pinky seems to feel you may have . . . you may have done something to make him uncomfortable.”
 
“Me? I’ve never even spoken to him.”
 
Rabbi Schwartzman felt his shoulders ease up, and he replaced his glasses along the bridge of his nose. “No? Well, do you have any idea why he might have said that you . . . did this?”
 
“Look, Rabbi,” Yoni said, lifting his leg and resting it on his other knee. “A kid like Pinky? I mean, he isn’t exactly making it here. Maybe he wishes we had a relationship. Maybe he needs some attention. Who knows? But what you’re saying, what he’s saying . . .  that never happened.”
 
“Okay,” Rabbi Schwartzman said, “that’s what I thought. I just have to check out, you understand—”
 
Yoni lifted his hand as if to block the words. “Say no more, Rabbi. I get it. You’re doing your job. Now can I go back to doing mine?”
 
“Yes, yes,” he said, “please. And this conversation never happened.”
 
Yoni left the office, as unruffled as when he walked in, and Rabbi Schwartzman exhaled a long, heavy breath. Of course, who could know what kind of troubled mind a boy like Pinky had, a boy with no friends and now a shattering family? And what boy, at the age of eleven, could really know the effects of these allegations? All the boys knew, really, was that the world stopped for them, and everyone ran circles around them, and teachers were fired and lives were ruined, and one little boy could suddenly feel powerful.
 
He dialed Elka’s cell phone, catching her on the way to Tomchei Shabbos, where she picked up and delivered food packages for the needy.
 
“It’s done,” he said, and wished his stomach felt the relief he was willing it to.
 
“Oh? What happened?”
 
“Apparently Yoni has never even spoken to the boy. Pinky must be needing a scapegoat, something to help him deal with the divorce.”
 
“Are you sure?”
 
The three words thudded against each other. “Elka, how can I be sure? It’s a disturbed boy’s word against one of our best teacher’s. What do you want me to do?”
 
“I just . . . I’m sorry, but what if it were Motty? Or Ephraim?”
 
Rabbi Schwartzman pictured his sons, now grown boys about to start dating, but once just tiny first-graders who ran across the hallway to recess, once as vulnerable as Pinky if not as miserable. What would he have done if one of his boys came to him with such a complaint? How would he have perceived the teacher, whether or not he was innocent, once he heard the whisper of guilt from his own child?
 
“What do you want me to do?” he asked again, but this time with thick desperation.
 
“Shouldn’t you at least talk to Pinky? See what he says?”
 
Rabbi Schwartzman reached down to the bottom drawer and pulled out the bottle. “Yes,” he said to his wife, “I should.”
 
The day dragged on until the concluding bell rang, and Rabbi Schwartzman peeked through his window to watch the boys at dismissal. His eyes found Pinky, aloof and dwarfed by his knapsack, walking alone and hunched over as he made his way to the bus. Tomorrow, Rabbi Schwartzman thought to himself; I’ll talk to him tomorrow.
 
He slept little that night, and the few stolen moments of sleep were shadowed by terrible dreams, dreams that featured Pinky, and ones that didn’t, but echoed with pangs of uncertainty and terror. He drove to work early and waited in the courtyard as the buses came in, catching Pinky almost the moment he stepped onto the pavement.
 
“Can I speak with you?” Rabbi Schwartzman asked, and because it was not a question, Pinky simply followed Rabbi Schwartzman into the building.
 
“Pinky, is there anything on your mind, anything you need to talk about?”
 
Pinky shook his head. He sat awkwardly in the chair across from Rabbi Schwartzman, a striking difference from the self-assured Yoni who had sat there the day before. Pinky’s limbs were knobby and hung at odd angles.
 
“Pinky, let me be clear here. Rabbi Kellman mentioned that you had some . . . uncomfortable interactions with Rabbi Prager. Is this true?”
 
Pinky sat quietly, his eyes staring intently at the gray carpeting beneath his feet.
 
“Pinky, are you aware of how serious it is to accuse someone of, of what you said?”
 
There was nothing from the boy, no sign that he was even listening. The meeting ended shortly thereafter, with Rabbi Schwartzman feeling none of the relief he had hoped he would, but having, at least, tried to hear the boy out.
 
The day passed in a series of distractions, and once more Benjy was brought to his office, this time having let loose a string of profanities that the teacher refused to repeat but merely said “were appalling.”
 
Rabbi Schwartzman raised an eyebrow, surprised that Benjy had deviated from his usual pranks. The child merely shrugged as Rabbi Schwartzman gently probed, finally resulting in a stalemate. Before Rabbi Schwartzman dismissed Benjy, Yoni Prager poked his head into the office.
 
“Hey, Rabbi, got a minute?” He looked over and saw Benjy. “Hey, my man!”
 
The two high fived. “You coming over tonight?” Yoni asked.
 
Benjy nodded, then said to Rabbi Schwartzman, “Can I go now?”
 
Rabbi Schwartzman nodded, a sudden discomfort overtaking him as he watched Yoni watch Benjy, a sick feeling twisting inside of him as suddenly nothing felt familiar or right.
 
“What is it, Yoni?”
 
“I was just wondering if I could take some of the boys out next week. I was thinking a hike. They could use a change of scene.”
 
“That’s . . . that’s interesting. I need to think about it.”
 
Yoni leaned against the door frame and looked at Rabbi Schwartzman.
 
“Hiking during a school day,” Rabbi Schwartzman said feebly. “It’s . . . well, it’s a hard sell, isn’t it? The other teachers, I mean—”
 
“The other teachers come down too hard,” Yoni said, and for the first time Rabbi Schwartzman noticed a certain cadence that Yoni’s voice adopted, an implied camaraderie that was quietly seductive. “I mean, Mr. Cunningham? The guy’s always on my back, like the kids having fun is going to make them illiterate.”
 
Ordinarily Rabbi Schwartzman felt a small thrill when the teachers complained about Mr. Cunningham, but now he simply frowned. Could it be that just a few weeks ago he would have fought for this hiking trip?
 
“I’ll get back to you,” Rabbi Schwartzman said, and his eyes flickered toward the door.
 
A pause hung between them. Finally Yoni said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about that boy you told me about. It’s really sad, how his parents’ divorce is making him accuse people like that. I hope he’s getting the help he needs.”
 
Once more Rabbi Schwartzman looked toward the door, and this time Yoni left. Rabbi Schwartzman tipped back the bottle, the liquid drawing closer to the bottom than it ever had. He had never mentioned the divorce to Yoni.
 
As the bell rang and signaled the end of the day, Rabbi Schwartzman stood at the door of his office and watched the exodus of students make their way to the buses. Yoni sauntered by and Rabbi Schwartzman took him aside.
 
“About that trip—”
 
Yoni smiled. “It’s a go?”
 
“No,” Rabbi Schwartzman said, and he felt a mix of indignation and fear when he saw Yoni’s features twist unhappily. “I’m not comfortable with you taking the boys out. Not until we get to the bottom of that situation we spoke about before.”
 
Yoni’s eyes narrowed, and he moved his mouth to speak, then finally just shook his head and brushed past Rabbi Schwartzman. The hallway emptied moments later, and soon only the echo of Rabbi Schwartzman’s footsteps filled the space as he made his way out of the building.
 
There were still a few cars in the lot when Rabbi Schwartzman got to his car, and he ignored the image of the papers left neglected on his desk and instead began to drive. He took the long way home, slipping onto side streets and getting himself lost in cul de sacs and roundabouts. His cell phone buzzed in his pocket, and he fumbled for his Blue Tooth and answered.
 
“Yes?” he said, glancing at the caller ID and seeing  Restricted.
 
“This is Chaim Prager.”
 
Rabbi Schwartzman clutched at the wheel, barely looking around him as he pulled the car over. A series of surprised and angry honks trailed behind him, and he put the car in park, his breath ragged and dry.
 
“Yes.” It was all he seemed able to say.
 
“I think you know why I’m calling.”
 
Rabbi Schwartzman held back another yes. “I’m listening,” he said.
 
“My son has been so happy in your school,” Chaim began. Rabbi Schwartzman could hear distant sounds of traffic on the phone, and imagined Chaim in his own car, smoothly making his way through the streets. “It would be a shame, really, for someone of his talent to suddenly be out of a job. To not be able to do what he does so well, molding students and giving so much of himself. Am I right?”
 
Rabbi Schwartzman said nothing, hearing his heart beat loud against his chest, and the outside world, muted behind the glass of his windows, continue to churn around him.
 
“And how awful if it were your own sons who could not get jobs, how terrible for your boys to not get positions as rabbis in any of the places they try. I think we want the same things, Rabbi Schwartzman.”
 
“You’re putting me in a very bad place,” Rabbi Schwartzman said.
 
“And my son? Is he not put in a bad place, as well? And by whom— a lost, sad little boy? Do you really want to destroy a life?”
 
No, Rabbi Schwartzman thought miserably. No, I do not.
 
“Think about it,” Chaim said, and the line went dead.
 
Rabbi Schwartzman made his way home, barely seeing in front of him, slowing to a snail’s pace. He spent the night in his study, unable to tell Elka about the phone call, feigning a headache and a need for a dark room. She just frowned and left him there, the distant clicking of her heels sounding ominous and cold.
 
The next week, Rabbi Schwartzman canceled a meeting he had scheduled with a teacher and instead reached for his phone. He rifled through his files and found Yoni’s folder, his résumé listing his previous school.
 
Once he was patched through to the principal, Rabbi Brown, Rabbi Schwartzman clutched his tzitzit and introduced himself and the school where he worked.
 
“Ah, yes, Rabbi Schwartzman,” Rabbi Brown said. “You’re where Yoni Prager ended up, I believe. Your gain is our loss, I’m sure. He left a real hole here.”
 
Rabbi Schwartzman said only, “I was wondering if you might tell me why Yoni Prager left your school.” There was a pause. “Was he not controlling the class, was he frequently late?”
 
The pause continued. Finally, Rabbi Brown said, “Let’s just say, off the record, there were some . . . suspicions, nothing proven, mind you, but some . . . well, some people wondered if maybe he was too involved with the students. More than is helpful, you understand.”
 
Rabbi Schwartzman understood. “I didn’t see that in your letter of recommendation,” he muttered.
 
Rabbi Brown made some sort of a noise, something between a cough and a harsh bark of laughter. “No, I suppose you didn’t. And something tells me yours won’t have it either.”
 
Rabbi Brown hung up then, and Rabbi Schwartzman looked at the paper in his hands.
           
Rabbi Schwartzman watched the students and teachers stroll past his window, students stopping to wave, teachers nodding at him as they passed. Tomorrow he was to lead an assembly, give a speech about the weekly Torah portion. The message was always the same: God is watching us. And if you are scared of what your principal might see, then just imagine God, eyes always upon you, noticing everything, ignoring nothing. It was enough to make you dizzy, make you want to run to your room and draw the shades and never come out. 
 
Rabbi Schwartzman sat in thought, shifting his swivel chair in angry twists as his peripheral vision cut off first one corner, then another. The scene outside his window blurred until the individual students ceased to take shape, and his eyes could only take in a wave of distorted color. Never before had he felt so trapped behind the thin pane of glass, so observed and so alone.

Copyright © Margueya Novick 2014

Margueya Novick has an MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College where she completed a collection of short stories about the Orthodox Jewish community. She has taught Creative Writing to high school and college aged students for the last six years.  Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in numerous literary magazines.



 

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