By Perle Besserman
The playing field of Paulie’s day camp was little more than an open sandlot behind the rundown yellow brick building housing the Yeshiva Rav Shimon bar Yochai. It took Sharon two hours by bus, plenty of time to dread having to plead with Rabbi Tayson to keep Paulie on, but what choice did she have when her son’s behavior had deteriorated to the point where no other day camp would have him? She and Pinnie had argued, and she’d left the house forgetting her wallet, with only enough change for round trip bus fare in her purse. Last night’s conversation with Barney hadn’t helped, either. She’d called him, and a woman had answered.
“Is Barney Berg there?”
“Barney—I think it’s your ex-wife,” the woman yelled into the mouth of the receiver without bothering to cover it. Sharon heard the magnified sound of the woman’s chewing gum followed by the popping of a bubble.
Barney took the telephone. “Yeah?”
Picturing his pink, bald dome, Sharon asked, “Who was that?”
“That lady who answered.”
“Oh, that was Irma. I’m going to marry her this coming winter.”
A tense, long pause. Then, finally, from Barney’s end: “What did you want, Sharon? The alimony’s not due till next month.”
“I didn’t call for money. I’m calling because of Paulie.”
“Is he sick?”
“No . . . Yes, in the head a little, maybe. Phyllis had a cold last week, but she’s better now.”
“Yeah?” he breathed impatiently into her ear.
She’d be damned if she let his cud-chewing Irma get off that easily. And Barney, too, whose accidental spilling of seed eleven years ago had produced Paulie, despite her pleading with him to put on a condom. Deciding against further stalling, Sharon let him have it all in one unedited rush. “Your son is on the verge of being turned out of the last day camp that would have him. And Rabbi Tayson doesn’t want him back in school this fall, either.”
“He’s a discipline problem. I don’t know. I didn’t talk to him; Pinnie did. Anyway, I’m going out there to see the rabbi about it tomorrow, do you think you can come?”
“Barney?” she thought she’d lost him for good then, their connection cut by the impatient Irma’s hand. “Are you still there?”
“Yeah, I’m here.” Barney muffled the receiver, permitting her to hear only the sound of murmuring. After a few seconds he got back on. “Listen, Sharon, I don’t know why you bother me with these things. I have enough trouble keeping up with all the alimony you need—private schools and so on. Where is it written that Paulie needs to go to a yeshiva? What do you want to do, turn him into a rabbi or something? You live in a good neighborhood. Let him go to public school like the rest of the kids.”
Sharon was stunned. That little speech was the longest Barney had ever delivered in all the years she’d known him. She needed a minute in which to recover. “Is that how you feel about it?” she forced out, not sure whether she was about to laugh or scream.
“Yes, it is. Irma has two kids of her own, and I’ll have to help out with them, too, come winter. And I’m no money machine. Besides, it’s the slow season now, anyway.”
“Oh, yes, I remember.” Although she tried hard to disguise her rage by tightening her quavering voice, she could not, so she took the next best way out: “Oh, my God! Soup’s overflowing the pot. . . Sorry, Barney. . . Gotta get off this very minute!” Hoping it would leave him at least partially deaf for life, she slammed the telephone receiver into its cradle.
It wasn’t until the next morning as she was preparing to leave the house that, imagining Barney and his ruminant Irma interrupted while watching Survivor, Sharon saw the humor in that telephone call.
She was still three long city blocks away from the yeshiva and she was already exhausted. Her feet were hurting. She wanted to sit down on one of the benches under the mealy canopy of trees lining Eastern Parkway and rehearse what she was going to say to Rabbi Tayson, but every bench she approached was torn to splinters. The neighborhood had fallen into such decay that very soon not even the yeshiva could safely remain there. No doubt about it, this was no neighborhood for a yeshiva, or any kind of school, for that matter.
Arriving at the front entrance, Sharon adjusted her headscarf and prepared her most convincing supplicant’s smile for her talk with the formidable Rabbi Tayson. Just as she was about to take the first of the steps leading to the building, a huge brown dog rushed up ahead of her barking furiously.
“Hush. Get out of here, you.”
Leaping away at the sound of her voice, the dog gave her a mournful glance before loping down the steps into the street and disappearing around the corner.
If I believed, really believed in omens, she thought, what would I make of that one? As she stood there pondering the possibility that she might have only imagined the dog, she was interrupted by the deafening blast of a bell. Within seconds, boys of all shapes and sizes wearing identical white shirts, black pants, and black yarmulkes barreled past her in every direction. Desperately, she searched for Paulie but could not find him among them.
“Sorry, missus.” A little one no more than five years old stumbled over her shoe and called back at her over his shoulder.
Sharon opened the front door and entered the building. In the hall, she passed three ultra-Orthodox teenagers flaunting tzitzit and long payos, who covered their eyes with their hands so as not to look her in the face.
She climbed the creaking wooden stairs to Rabbi Tayson’s office, fortifying herself with a list of complaints about the day camp: the hallways were dark and dangerous, there was dust everywhere, and the so-called playing field in the back was filled with dog poop and garbage. There were only four counselors out there managing a writhing mass of fifty boys. And they had been trained to discipline the younger, smaller ones by slapping them around, which, even for private religious schools, was against the law.
She reached the third floor. Walking past a storage room, she saw two bearded men in shirtsleeves stacking prayer books in neat little rows. One of the men let loose a ferocious sneeze. To her left there was a darkened classroom that smelled oddly of fresh tar. Down a long stretch of tiled corridor ending in a triptych of doors, Sharon found herself in front of Rabbi Tayson’s glass-windowed office. It was there that her offensive stance failed her. Turning the knob with a trembling hand, she opened the door.
“Please sit down, Mrs. Berg.” Greeting her from behind his desk, Rabbi Tayson addressed her with exaggerated courtesy. “Sorry for the mess. We’re in the middle of our summer inventory, as you can see.” He pointed to a chair surrounded by tables piled high with books and tallesim, their tassels knotted beyond untying.
Sharon sat down in the dusty high-backed chair he’d pointed out to her.
“Yes, I saw the men in the—”
“What do you intend to do with the boy in the light of my report?” Rabbi Tayson interrupted before she could finish.
Battling a surge of nausea, Sharon struggled to maintain her composure. She’d never been good at hiding her dislike for Rabbi Tayson, and his blunt assault caught her off guard. There was no getting around the arrogant picture he made, sitting there in his funereal striped suit and vest with that superior smile under a sly black mustache, his pudgy, soft hands forming a steeple against his ample belly. Avoiding the oily puddle of his glance, she asked naively, “What report?”
A long, dagger-like shaft of sunlight fell against Rabbi Tayson’s left cheek. There was a slight flurry of movement on his side of the desk, a scraping of wheels, and an almost imperceptible shift in his position. Without getting up from his chair, he had turned to the window behind him and closed the blinds.
This is it, Sharon thought. Now he’s got me dead to rights.
“Did you know, Mrs. Berg, that your son Paulie is being observed by a child psychologist at my recommendation?”
She did not, but it was a rhetorical question, so she kept her peace and waited for Rabbi Tayson to continue.
“Did you know that Paulie likes to duck his friends’ heads in the toilet bowl of the boys’ bathroom?” The rabbi tapped his finger steeple against his vest.
So the interview was to take the form of a catalog of her son’s horrors. Sharon leaned her head thoughtfully to one side.
“Were you aware that he spits out the window at passersby during morning prayers? And that he has on numerous occasions left the schoolyard without permission in order to follow Catholic nuns down the street?”
Sharon was not aware that there were any other kinds of nuns in Brooklyn.
“As his mother,” the rabbi continued, “I’m sure you’ll be interested to know that he sometimes does not show up in school at all. And maybe you haven’t heard yet that he was fresh to me during the yeshiva’s bi-monthly assembly?”
“What did he say?” Sharon asked timidly.
“I hate your guts.’” Rabbi Tayson said, leaving her open-mouthed. “Fortunately, I am a tolerant man, especially with children.”
“Yes, extremely tolerant,” Sharon murmured, looking down at a loose button on her dress. It was the sixth button down; she’d have to ask Pinnie to sew it back on for her, since she was planning to wear the dress to shul next Shabbos. She looked perky in that dress, a hand-me-down from her secular sister Arleen. It was more stylish than her usual Orthodox clothes.
Seeing her drift off, Rabbi Tayson homed in for the kill. “Showing that kind of disrespect is a very serious offense, wouldn’t you agree, Mrs. Berg?”
Sharon looked down at her shoes.
“I’ll have a talk with him,” she said.
“I already have.”
“The situation, I’m afraid, is very grave. Very grave indeed.” Rabbi Tayson’s r’s fell from his tongue like drops from a leaky faucet. “You are aware, of course, that it is only because of your unique position as secretary of our Ladies Auxiliary that I have gone to such lengths to keep Paulie with us here. As it is,” the rabbi paused and broke the finger steeple to touch his mustache, “at great cost to the yeshiva—in view of the huge discount you are getting on his tuition, the virtually free summer day camp services… Hello, yes?” There was a knock at the door and the rabbi interrupted himself.
The door opened and one of the bearded men she’d seen stacking books in the store room stuck his head in.
How convenient. Sharon didn’t doubt for a minute that Rabbi Tayson had planned the interruption. She had only to look at the man awkwardly standing in the doorway to get the picture.
“Brendel, Fortzman, whatever your names are. . . come here, I want to talk to you for a minute”—then the deferential shuffling of the bearded men, the tall sneezer in front and the short one behind him.
“A lady is coming to see me this afternoon. One of you, make sure to knock on my door after fifteen minutes. I don’t want her to overstay her time and ruin my schedule. There’s too much work to finish around here.”
A grunt from the tall bearded one, followed by an “Okay, Rabbi . . .”
“Yes?” the rabbi asked now.
“Rabbi,” said the man, “you told me to remind you . . .”
“Thank you, Brendel, you can close the door now.” Rabbi Tayson dismissed the bearded man from the doorway and loudly clapped an open desk drawer shut. Then leaning forward with an expression of feigned sympathy, he said, “I’m sure you understand my position. After all, Mrs. Berg, considering your own involvement with the yeshiva. . . ahem. . . pardon me—” the rabbi coughed a raspy little cough, covered his mouth with one hand and withdrew it again—“I’m sure you comprehend the difficulties.”
What was he up to? Where was he taking her?
Pulling a handkerchief from her purse, Sharon dabbed at her eyes. “I fully understand your predicament. I really do. In fact, I only came here today to tell you. . . I came to tell you that I’ve thought it all out and I’ve decided that it would be better for everyone involved if I sent Paulie to a public school in my neighborhood. In fact, he’s already been enrolled by his father.” She lied, pretending to blow her nose.
“But what about his Hebrew education? Surely, you of all people would not want to leave him in the hands of. . . of outsiders, would you?” Rabbi Tayson rose up in his chair.
“If you mean Gentiles, you needn’t worry, Rabbi. It’s a very Jewish neighborhood, and the school is over eighty percent Jews.” Sharon lied again, pulling numbers from the air. “It’s one of those progressive schools, not more than ten children to a classroom,” she added, knowing full well that, at the Shimon bar Yochai Yeshiva, students were packed thirty-five to a room.
“If you do that, I and everyone in our congregation will be very disappointed,” Rabbi Tayson parried quickly.
Sharon blushed. “I don’t want to inconvenience anyone with my personal problems,” she said lamely. The conversation was getting dangerously out of hand. “You, least of all.” That, too, hadn’t come out right. She was stumbling, falling fast.
“No, no, don’t misunderstand me. Under the circumstances, I’m willing to make an exception.” Rabbi Tayson cocked an eyebrow at her.
“What do you want me to do then?”
“Five dollars more a month,” he shot at her crassly, looking at his watch.
Rabbi Tayson riffled through the papers on his desk to let her know he was finished with her.
“To defray the cost of the psychologist,” he said without looking up.
“Three dollars,” Sharon snapped back.
His neck reddening above his stiff white shirt collar, the rabbi said, “Very well, then, three dollars, if that’s all you can afford at this time. We are well aware of your devotion to. . . to . . . the yeshiva and wouldn’t want to be too harsh about the money. Nonetheless, the boy is a problem and needs special attention.”
“I’ll talk to him.” Sharon stood up and headed for the door.
Rabbi Tayson likewise got up from his chair, walked around the desk and, carefully avoiding any physical contact, led her out of his office.