Lessons of Crime and Punishment in New Square Yeshiva
How Beatings and False Reports Pass for Talmud Teaching in Hasidic Enclave
By Shulem Deen
Published March 15, 2015, issue of March 20, 2015.“All Who Go Do Not Return,” which chronicles his painful journey from 18-year-old newlywed to being expelled from New Square as a heretic, he recounts how the need to provide for his growing family led him to practices he would later question.
It was now fourteen years since my third-grade rebbe thwacked my palms for my profane drawing, eight years since my ninth-grade rebbe slapped me for eating a bag of potato chips during a lesson on liabilities for digging pits in public places. All that thwacking and slapping now came to mind as I tried to teach Srulik Schmeltzer’s sixth-grade class the laws of discarding leavened bread on the day before Passover. The boys chatted throughout the lesson, as if I weren’t there, some even getting out of their seats and strolling around.
“Chaim Nuchem Braun, can you please sit down and keep quiet?” I called to a skinny boy who had stood up to look out the window and shouted something to a friend across the room.
“Chaim Nuchem Braun, can you please sit down and keep quiet?” the boy mimicked, then grinned at his friends as he walked to his seat and the class burst into laughter. I could feel the blood rush to my head as my body froze. I could not process any thoughts beyond the feeling of humiliation. I felt a kind of physical weakness in my body, a tremor in my jaws, and I clenched my teeth to keep it from showing. It was the second day of a two-week job. I could not imagine how I would last two weeks. But how could I, a twenty-two-year-old man, be cowed by a class of ten-year-olds?
At 12:45, I walked the two blocks home for an hour of lunch, before I would return for the afternoon. Along Clinton Lane, near the site of a new home construction, I spotted a “wire” on the ground, at the side of the road. It looked almost exactly like the one my fourth-grade rebbe had used instead of a rod, a white length of round, hollow rubber. It was the perfect size, twice arm’s-length, just right to fold in half and hold at one end.
There were the usual bouts of shouting and laughter across the classroom that afternoon, and I began to grow accustomed to it. I would not use the wire in my pocket, I decided. I would deal with the boys as best I could and somehow get through it. The next day, however, the boys grew even rowdier; when I called to Berry Glancz to stop speaking to the boy sitting next to him, his response sent me over the edge.
“Ich feif dich uhn.”
He muttered it under his breath, not brazen enough to say it out loud, but the words were unmistakable. The language of defiance in the schoolyard, or among siblings in their rivalries, a child’s bluster. Ich feif dich uhn. I fife my horn at you. I do not care for you or for your orders or your requests or desires, and so I blow my whistle at you. I shoot a burst of hot air in your face. Because you are nothing to me.
But I was not nothing to this boy. I was his rebbe. I reached into the inside breast pocket of my coat, where the rubber cord lay coiled flat against my chest. In a flash, I stood over Berry. For a moment, I intended to order him to “hold out your hand.” Instead, as if my body acted on its own, I delivered a strike to the boy’s upper left arm, a hissing sshhwisscchh-thwack! that frightened even me with its violence. Berry’s hand flew up to cover the spot I had struck, his mouth forming a sudden, silent “AH!”
I could see the anger in his eyes but did not care. He could fife and fife, but I was the one with the authority to use force, to strike him, and I watched as this realization sunk in and he looked back at me, angry but silent. The rest of the class, too, was silent as I made my way back to my desk. They remained silent for the rest of the afternoon, and the day after and the day after that.
Silent and contemptuous. I had gained the boys’ obedience but not their respect. I had demonstrated not strength but weakness, and I saw in their eyes that they knew it. They had broken me, and I hated them for it.
In the teachers’ room down the hall, the rebbes would talk about changes. The rebbes in New Square were always more brutal than the rebbes in Borough Park. I had heard the stories. One rebbe beat a boy with his gartel mercilessly until the boy lay on the floor howling for hours. Another thwacked a boy’s palms several hundred times, until his welts began to bleed. One of my friends told me of a first-grade rebbe who had spanked his backside so raw that he couldn’t sit for days, all because the rebbe had accused him of taking a small bag of candies from his desk drawer, only to find the candies in a different drawer a few minutes later.
Now the punishments were more measured. Some only slapped the students, instead of using a rod. “Feel the sting in your hand,” one fifth-grade rebbe said to me earnestly. “If it hurts the child, it should hurt you, too.” Others thought the rod was acceptable but that strikes must be meted out judiciously. Whipping a boy until he howled for hours was no longer advisable. Berel Eisenman, a teacher for nearly two decades who was once known to be the most brutal of all rebbes, had done a complete turnabout. “I no longer use a rod. Now I use ice cream pops.” Instead of punishing for bad behavior, he rewarded for good. The other rebbes thought his approach too lenient. Even the principal shook his head. “Children need to be hit sometimes. That’s never going to change.”