Just a small piece of my Yeshiva Memoir

My friend Matthue offered to edit a chapter of my yeshiva memoir so I could get going on writing the darned book already, for some time I have been struggling with an opening chapter, I have a file full of openings, I wrote this the other night – it’s not that great, but it brought back some interesting memories. The longest one I have written so far is over 20 pages, this is far shorter.

The Rabbi stood at a short wooden shtender in front of the room, he held up a novel for all of us to see.

“Now this is how you check a book to see if it’s kosher”

Up until then I had no idea that you could eat books, I had assumed they were just for reading, I had read exactly one book for the fun of it in my entire 13 year lifespan so I wasn’t really that familiar with all the uses of books. I knew that larger books could be used as door stops, paper weights and crushing tools, but I never knew there could be kosher and unkosher books.

The Rabbi opened the book to a random page and told us that if the random page you opened to contained any unkosher items such as relations, I had no idea what relations were, but I dared not ask, I never asked questions in a public setting and my greatest fear was being called out so I sat around until he explained a little more in detail.

The Rabbi continued “Everyone knows that the best and dirtiest parts of a book will most likely be the ones read over and over, so this test is sure to work. If you open the book to a random page and it’s clean, than most of the time the book is kosher.”

I assumed he was talking about sex, but why not just say it, what on earth were relations. I honestly had no idea and quite frankly, I didn’t want to read about relations, girls and sex were cool, but all I knew about relations were that they had something to do with the public.

I was sitting in the beis medrish, the air conditioning was blasting, but I was still sticking to my seat, I simply wasn’t used to wearing long dark pants in the middle of the summer with my shirt tucked in. Right after we all tried in vein to choke down a breakfast of dried bread and cornflakes we were herded like cattle into the beis medrish for the welcome assembly. Like all gatherings where Rabbis were the MC’s it began with a devar torah, I don’t remember it, but I’m sure it had something to do with rules are made to make sure we don’t hurt ourselves and succumb to our evil inclinations.

I wasn’t sure why my evil inclination would waste his time on getting me to wear my hat backwards, but apparently this was evil, for it was goyishe and whatever the goyim did was bad. Blue Jeans were also not allowed, in fact, they loved to point out that anyone who wore blue jeans might as well be naked. I wondered if they shielded their eyes when my father, clad in blue jeans, said shalom aleichem to the Rosh Yeshiva when he dropped me off the day before? Shorts were also not allowed, unless we were indoors, I had no idea why, but I guess it had something to do with the sexy legs of 13 year old boys turning on the kollel wives who worked in the office.

Apparently all of the stuff that was banned was normal, because no one dared get up and tell the black bearded Rabbi that these rules made no sense. I was wondering what on earth was wrong with tank tops and backward hats and these kids were just taking it in, as if it were perfectly sane to call folks who wore blue jeans, naked.

We were not to get letters from girls, if we did, we may get a call from the Rosh Yeshiva who would read it to us. Later in high school I wondered where they got a heter to break a federal law by opening your mail and than publicly embarrassing you by reading your personal letter out loud in an office filled with Rabbis. How on earth they could tell it was a girl writing the letter was beyond my years, I didn’t really know many girls besides the ones from my classes in grade school and we sure as hell weren’t going to be writing letters to each other. The only person I got letters from was my father, usually a piece of paper folded with $40 cash in the middle and a short note that ranged from “Hey Hesh – How’s it going? Love pop” to “Call me once in a while, Love pop.” Apparently the secretary was expert at picking out letters from girls, I one time got a letter from my aunt and was called in to the office for the public embarrassment – about three sentences in they realized their mistake.

Letters from girls wasn’t the only mail that was opened, as if we were on war-time censorship mode, all magazines would be censored as well. The yeshiva received free subscriptions to Time, Smithsonian, Sports Illustrated and National Geographic. While we didn’t long to see the sagging breasts of African tribal lords, we didn’t mind those random cards that fell out of sports illustrated advertising for their upcoming swimsuit issue – even those cards were promptly removed by the secret service before we ever knew they were there. Once in a while, the censor police forget to cut out a leg, boob outline or full figured female, you would be surprised what a 14 year old boy could use for porn, put it this way, the JC Penny underwear ads were highly sought after on Sunday’s.

“We don’t want to make your life insane, but you can all agree that most goyishe music isn’t really kosher.”

We weren’t allowed to have any non-Jewish recorded music. We weren’t allowed to listen to non-Jewish music with words out loud. We were allowed to listen to Jewish music out loud and we could own recorded, but unfortunately, Bob Dylan, Anthrax and Art Grafunkel weren’t considered to be Jewish music. We were allowed to listen to instrumental non-Jewish music out loud and own recorded copies of it. We were allowed to listen to the radio with headphones.

I found out later that most yeshivas didn’t even allow radios, as if to cut their Jewish souls off from the outside world, no newspapers either, no English books (dud they allow Russian) and no magazines.

“If we catch you with non-Jewish tapes or CD’s, we will take them away.”

Is that legal? I wondered if the yeshiva was breaking the law by enforcing any of these silly rules. I felt like I had fallen onto Mars, I had no idea why these rules were in effect, but it seemed that everyone around me smiled and nodded like they knew the secrets behind the Rabbis rules. I had to find out what the deal was.

“If you want to leave the building, you have to check out. During the day you can simply sign the sheet on the office door, but if you want to go for longer than half an hour or out during the evenings – you MUST get permission from the dorm councilor.”

The yeshiva was located just down the block from a small business section of the street, several very nice smelling restaurants which were subsequently used to illustrate the fine points of the yetzer harah in almost every ethics talk given by a Rabbi of the yeshiva, several pharmacies, a couple of Laundromats, a head shop and a very miniature grocery store. Park Avenue, it turns out, was the hip place to live and hang out in Rochester, I found it ironic threw the years that although we were surrounded by beautiful half naked women, the yeshiva continued to try and tell us how evil they were, as if they placed the yeshiva there as one big experiment on how to bend human nature, not looking at the girls as they told us, was almost impossible.

Permission from the Dorm Counselor could mean two things, he trusted you or he didn’t. The entire point of checking out had nothing to do with safety like the yeshiva liked to claim, in fact they cared nothing for our safety, if they did – they wouldn’t have had the yeshiva live in a crumbling old building with countless hazards waiting to cave in on us at any moment. No, the entire point of checking out was so we wouldn’t go to movies.

I had heard of Jews who didn’t go to movies or watch TV, but besides for my ultra orthodox cousins in Monsey, NY I hadn’t had much exposure to them. I wondered if the Rabbis of the yeshiva knew that before shul on shabbos morning my brother and I would watch Saturday morning cartoons, while my father buttered our challah and told us to eat while we watched.

I guess movies must have been evil, why else would an entire system of signing, checking out and getting permission be instituted to censor that aspect of society. I guess I could understand the theories about movies and being sedate, maybe they wanted us to get outside and explore, rather than just sit around and watch the screen? That couldn’t really be the case, because for some reason, while TV was strictly forbidden and punishable by death or expulsion depending if the Rabbis or God got to you first, video games hooked up to TV monitors were perfectly acceptable. I guess doom was better than mid morning numbers games on the Price is Right, although I could definitely understand the fear of yeshiva guys getting hooked on Jerry Springer like I had whenever I was home sick from school.

Movies were forbidden, if you got caught going to the movies, which it turns out everyone did at some point, you were in trouble. If you brought other people to the movies and got them to sin as well, then you were in big trouble. One of the ingenious ways invented by the rabbis to prevent kids from going to the movies was the receipt rule. If you and your friends went to the mall or anywhere in close proximity to a movie theater for an extended period of time you had to get receipts at half hour or shorter intervals, it was a pain to do, imagine if you had to leave the theater every few minutes to do – it just didn’t seem worth it. I didn’t go to many movies as a yeshiva bachur and I still don’t – I wonder if that was their goal? Many others didn’t see it my way, they would risk life and limb to see a movie, it may have been the badassness of it or the fact that yeshiva guys just needed to let their minds go blank once in a while.

We later learned that the Dorm Counselor would follow you to the movie theater and sit behind the group and then tap them on the shoulders at the best scene. I was followed by the DC every once in a while, he in his white 1980’s Caprice cruising slowly behind to see if I didn’t go exactly where I said I was going. I later realized I could just say “biking” or rollerblading” and they were fairly content when they realized I was doing just that.

“Cooking is forbidden in the dorm because it’s a fire hazard. Extension cords are also not allowed because of the fire hazards.”

I didn’t know how to cook so I couldn’t care less, I later found out that people cooked with irons and that sure as hell seemed like a fire hazard to me, but extension cords seemed a bit silly. Speaking of fire hazards I remember the first time the fire inspector showed up. This guy yechiel was on the walkie talkie communicating with one of the janitors as to where the inspector was going, as they went around batteries were taken from smoke detector to the next in order to look like they all had batteries in them. Later on when the George Forman Grill, every yeshiva guys best friend was invented, it seemed that everyone would just cook in the hallway to bypass the restrictions on cooking in the rooms.

“We will be conducting room searches every once in a while to make sure you don’t have any contraband.”

Contraband consisted of comic books, non-Jewish recorded music, unkosher books, pornographic magazines (turns out Rolling Stone was on the same level as Hustler), cigarettes, extension cords, toaster ovens, letters from girls, pictures of girls, alcohol and jeans.