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Winter 01
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bachelor girl

Joseph Pelloni

The lucky ones got to go home for Pesach and most of them even went home a few days early. I was not one of them. The remaining orphans were left behind for a variety of reasons. Dormitory life is really not that bad. For one thing it makes holiday preparations easy. You just look around your room and under your bed and in your closet and you’re done. For another, you don’t have expectations that will not be met.

It was Friday morning, officially the last day of school and I was still lying in bed. Sunlight reflected a little too brightly into my room through my window. Pulling apart worn curtains I couldn’t believe what I saw. Snow! Tons of it. Mountains, heaps, drifts... and right before Pesach. I stared out the window and lingered recalling how I would spend Saturday mornings sleigh riding with my dad and little brother down the hill behind my house.

I was late for class so I davened (prayed) in my room and skipped breakfast. Classes were held in the main building across the street and the waist deep snow made it seem as if I had to cross Antarctica. Leaping and struggling through the snow, I pulled open the building’s large glass doors. The snow put a white veil over everything and made it seem as if I was the only person left alive in the entire world. Even the guard that was supposed to be signing visitors in and out of the building was missing. The place was deserted. I heard the echo of my wet footsteps on the tile floor and the sound of my own deep breathing.

Quickening my pace I ran up the dimly lit stairway to my classroom. The door was closed and the lights were off. They must have canceled school. They could have put up a sign.

Feeling disappointed I started my descent through the stairway into the lobby and back through the large glass doors. But, just as I cleared the doorway someone grabbed me from behind.

"Where do ya’ think you’re goin’," a raspy smoker’s voice said, stopping me in my tracks. "A little snow and you’re cuttin’ class?"

"Rabbi Mishpat?"


"Actually, I thought they canceled---"

"Canceled lemud (study of) Torah? Not while I’m runnin’ this place."

"I was up by the classrooms, the lights were off and there were no---"

"I called all of ’em and I told ’em to all stay home. No reason to have my teachers drivin’ in the snow on erev (day before) Pesach. I’m teachin’ today." As Rabbi Mishpat pulled me back through the large glass doors his eyes were shimmering wildly and he had one of those sneaky smiles on. "Get movin’ we’re wastin’ time."

Together we scaled the stairs and entered the classroom. Rabbi Mishpat made his way to the teacher’s desk in the front of the room and out of breath, motioned that I should find a seat. He sat down and pulled open one of the desk drawers, like a magician, extracting a bottle of wine and silver kiddush cup.

"Do ya’ know anything about the seder?"

I was the only student in the room; nevertheless I desperately looked around for help.


"Neva’ mind, we’ll begin with kiddush (prayer sanctifying a holy day) Nu…get up."

Cautiously, I slowly stood up and stared at Rabbi Mishpat in wonder and said haltingly, "Are we learning about kiddush?"

Rabbi Mishpat filled the kiddush cup and with a little difficulty lifted it up in his right hand. The cup trembled in his hand and some wine spilled on the desk. Rabbi Mishpat pensively recited the kiddush complete with God’s name. I didn’t have the nerve to ask him why he didn’t say Hashem (lit. The Name, used as a substitute for God’s name). His kiddush was only for educational purposes and the pronunciation of God’s name is generally reserved for the real thing. I was pretty sure Rabbi Mishpat had some halachik basis for his actions. He was my posek (halachik authority).

Then Rabbi Mishpat pulled a tray of matzah with karpas and the whole seder plate from the desk drawer and placed it on the desk. He made another bracha, ate the karpas and broke the middle matzah in half. Creasing his Haggadah, he continued with the Ha Lachmah. He smiled at me and asked, "Do you know the Mah Nishtanah?" I looked at Rabbi Mishpat skeptically. Again, motioning with his hand he said, "C’mon, let’s go." I stood in the middle of an empty classroom and sang the entire Mah Nishtanah. Rabbi Mishpat filled the room with nachus (joyous pride).

Two years before, at my freshman interview, I couldn’t read Hebrew, never heard of Rashi, and thought studying gemorrah meant learning about the city destroyed with Sodom. It was an embarrassing interview. Rabbi Mishpat even accused me of coming to the interview without wearing a yarmulka. (It was actually buried somewhere in my hair.) At the end of the interview he said, "Ya’ seem smart enough, but I’m not sure of ya’ backround. It’s very weak. Ya’ may not be able to catch up. It’ll depend on ya’ commitment." I assured him I was committed. Shaking his head and with a pained expression on his face he said, "I’ll accept ya’ in the program, but I’m goin’ a keep my eye on ya’." During the course of the year I was called into Rabbi Mishpat’s office for numerous tests. At first I was put off by Rabbi Mishpat’s style; he was pretty tough on me. I couldn’t understand how a guy with so many rough edges got to be the head of the school. But as the months went by I discovered his insides didn’t exactly mimic his public persona.

One night, early into my first year, I was studying in my room after midnight and the phone rang. The forceful voice at the other end said, "This is Rabbi Mishpat, it’s past midnight. Stop learnin’ and get ta’ bed." "But Rabbi Ginsberg’s bechinah (exam) is---" "I don’ care about any bechina. Get ta’ bed. Click!" My window shades were drawn and only a reading light was on in my room. I couldn’t figure out how he knew I was still studying. Then, some time in the middle of my first year my very German Opa took sick and wound up in the hospital. When I went to visit him he was sitting proudly in his bed and said, "Zat Rabbi Mishpat must really like you. Vee talked a long time. Highly educated man…and his Cherman was very gut. A real mench. He tinks zat you vill be a Judaic scholar." I never told Rabbi Mishpat I had an Opa. How did he knew he was sick? One of the last vestiges of my former life was my forbidden blond girlfriend. When the inevitable breakup occurred I was feeling so alone I felt sick. Not suicidal, God forbid, just without comfort. A day or two later I get called into Rabbi Mishpat’s office for my usual testing session. Without any introduction or preamble he sat me down and said, "Before I got married I went out with a girl I thought was the cutest thing in town. Then one day she says, I’m not goin’ out with you anymore. I couldn’t believe it. I asked why? And she says ‘cause your goin’ a be a rabbi and I don’t wanabe a rebetzten. I was pretty upset, and I didn’t think I was goin’a get over her. Right then I was learnin’ Beraishis and was learnin’ how Aisov got married to Cananites and his parents didn’t like it. And what does he do? The wicked Aisov… he divorces them and marries the daughters of Yishmael. Aisov could do it, so could I." He dismissed me with, "That’s it for today." There were a lot of other every day kind of things too. But you get the idea.

Rabbi Mishpat continued to read from the Haggadah. When he mentioned the Arbah Banim, the blood seemed to leave his ruddy face and drop to his ankles. Instead of reading on, he stared off into space. "I’ve got a son. He’s at one of those secular colleges. I was against his goin’, but my wife let him… and he’s not coming home for Pesach." I asked him, "Why not?" He said, "The kid prob’ly thinks I don’ wan’ him there. He’s my son, flesh and blood. Why wouldn’ I wan’ him there?" A few tears fell from his rough cheeks into the kiddush cup. He looked right at me and waving his hand said, "Nu! Go on." I didn’t say a word.

Rabbi Mishpat went back to the Haggadah. As he read the Magid, he occasionally looked up at me and asked me to translate a word or phrase into English. He was testing me again; to see how much I knew. When we got to the Makos, Rabbi Mishpat poured a little wine out of his cup as he said each plague. You can’t drink a full cup in the presence of such carnage. I expected Rabbi Mishpat to share some pshatim with me; to enlighten me with some of the secret meaning hidden within the words of the Haggadah, but I got nothing but straight text. We sang Diainu together and then Hallel and then Rabbi Mishpat got up and disappeared through the classroom door returning with his hands held up in the air. He made another bracha and sat down eating matzah, then maror and korech. The Talmud says that eating matzah erev Pesach is like being with your engaged wife before the wedding in your father-in-laws house. I was beginning to question Rabbi Mishpat’s behavior.

"Some meal? Ya’ know it’s supposed to be the Karbon (sacrifice) Pesach." Laughing, Rabbi Mishpat said, "I’m eatin’ the Karbon Pesach and I won’t even be flaishig (having eaten meat). That’s a nes (miracle)! By the way, why didn’t ya’ go home to ya’ parents for Pesach?"

"I couldn’t."

"Why not?"

"You know, my parents aren’t kosher."

"So? Ya’ couldn’t have kashered a pot or two and given ya’ parents some nachus?"

"I thought---"

"What? You thought that God wants a kid to be away from his parents? Don’t do this." Shaking his head he reinforced his disapproval.

"Okay. I mean, I won’t."

I watched him take out a broken piece of matzah from his drawer and stuff the pieces into his mouth.

Rabbi Mishpat benched, said the rest of Hallel and drank the remaining cups of wine. He sang every word. He stood up when he sang le shanah habaah beyerushaliyim and started dancing around the desk. He grabbed my hand and pulled me out of my seat to dance with him. After a few seconds, Rabbi Mishpat was out of breath and he was a little unsteady. He grabbed me with both arms and hugged me. Placing his lips near my ear, he half whispered, "Ya’ know, a father’s lucky ‘cause he got his kids to defend him in the World to Come. A Rebbe’s luckier, he’s got his talmidim (students)." Rabbi Mishpat held me so tightly for a moment, that I thought he was going to break my ribs. Then his eyes suddenly rolled back in his head and his body went limp. He was breathing deeply with a slight gasp at the end of each breath. He was losing consciousness. I felt for his pulse and it was weak and irregular. I kicked away the desks within my legs reach and gently lowered Rabbi Mishpat’s failing body to the ground. A few seconds passed while I desperately prayed for guidance. I was tragically alone. My initial reaction to the emergency was paralysis. I needed to get help, but how could I leave Rabbi Mishpat lying on the ground alone. Outside the classroom, down the hallway I heard some noise. It was getting louder and it sounded like footsteps. I ran to the doorway and screamed to the silhouette coming toward our room, "Help me, Rabbi Mishpat’s sick. Please…"

The guard from the lobby ran into the classroom, looked at Rabbi Mishpat and ran out saying, "I’m goin’ a call an ambulance. Don’t you move, ya’ hear me?" It took some time for the ambulance to arrive but at least I knew help was coming. I sat next to Rabbi Mishpat on the floor and put my jacket, rolled up under his head. I held his cold hands and spoke to Rabbi Mishpat. I told him how much I admired him and how he took a chance with me and how he changed my life and how his bechinas were not that hard and told him different interpretations of chumash and gemorrah I learned…and I kept on talking as tears poured down my cheeks and my voice started to break up into sobs.

Finally, medics arrived and started their work. They rocked Rabbi Mishpat onto a stretcher and picked him up and put him on a cart. He was lying on the stretcher with his eyes wide open and while he was being rolled out of the classroom his arms started to jerk violently and he started to make some sounds. I ran along side the stretcher and leaned over his mouth. Struggling to speak he said, "Ya’ know…Ya’ know… I’m countin’ on ya. I’m countin’ on ya’. Don’ let me down."

It was already bayn hashmashus (the beginning of the holiday) and my family was just sitting down for the seder when I arrived home. Outside through the window I could see snowy hills and just make out tracks left by a kid’s sled.

And I couldn’t help but wonder if Rabbi Mishpat’s son made it home for Pesach.

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