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Boaz the Teacher by Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich


That which I felt on the first day my mother took me by the hand to “Cheder” must be what a little chicken feels, after one has made the sacrificial blessing over her and is taking her to be slaughtered. The little chicken struggles and flutters her wings. She understands nothing, but feels she is not going to have a good time, but something different.... It was not for nothing my mother comforted me, and told me a good angel would throw me down a “groschen” from the ceiling. It was not for nothing she gave me a whole apple and kissed me on the brow. It was not for nothing she asked Boaz to deal tenderly with me—just a little more tenderly because “the child has only recovered from the measles.”

So said my mother, pointing to me, as if she were placing in Boaz's hands a rare vessel of crystal which, with one touch, would be a vessel no more—God forbid!

My mother went home happy and satisfied, and “the child that had only recovered from the measles,” remained behind, alone. He cried a little, but soon wiped his eyes, and was introduced to the holiness of the “Torah” and a knowledge of the ways of the world. He waited for the good angel to throw him the “groschen” from the ceiling.

Oh, that good angel—that good angel! It would have been better if my mother had never mentioned his name, because when Boaz came over, took hold of me with his dry, bony hand and thrust me into a chair at the table, I was almost faint, and I raised my head to the ceiling. I got a good portion from Boaz for this. He pulled me by the ear and shouted:

“Devil, what are you looking at?”

Of course, “the child that had only recovered from the measles” began to wail. It was then he had his first good taste of the teacher's floggings. “A little boy must not look where it is forbidden. A little boy must not bleat like a calf.”

* * *

Boaz's system of teaching was founded on one thing—whippings. Why whippings? He explained the reason by bringing forward the case of the horse. Why does a horse go? Because it is afraid. What is it afraid of? Whippings. And it is the same with a child. A child must be afraid. He must fear God and his teacher, and his father and his mother, a sin and a bad thought. And in order that a child should be really afraid, he must be laid down, in true style, and given a score or so lashes. There is nothing better in the world than the rod. May the whip live long!

So says Boaz. He takes the strap slowly in his hands, without haste, examines it on all sides as one examines a citron. Then he betakes himself to his work in good earnest, cheerfully singing a song by way of accompaniment.

Wonder of wonders! Boaz never counts the strokes, and never makes a mistake. Boaz flogs, and is never angry. Boaz is not a bad tempered man. He is only angry when a boy will not let himself be whipped, tries to tear himself free, or kicks out his legs. Then it is different. At such times Boaz's eyes are bloodshot, and he flogs without counting and without singing his little song. A little boy must be still while his teacher flogs him. A little boy must have manners, even when he is being flogged.

Boaz is also angry if a boy laughs when he is being whipped. (There are children who laugh when they are beaten. People say this is a disease.) To Boaz laughing is a danger to the soul. Boaz has never laughed as long as he is alive. And he hates to see any one else laughing. One might easily have promised the greatest reward to the person who could swear he once saw Boaz laughing. Boaz is not a man for laughter. His face is not made for it. If Boaz laughed, he would surely look more terrible than another man crying. (There are such faces in the world.) And really, what sort of a thing is laughter? It is only idlers who laugh, empty-headed gools, good-for-nothings, devil-may-care sort of people. Those who have to work for a living, or carry on their shoulders the burden of a knowledge of the Holy Law and of the ways of the world, have no time to laugh. Boaz never has time. He is either teaching or whipping. That is to say, he teaches while he whips, and whips while he teaches. It would be hard to divide these two—to say where teaching ended and whipping began.

And you must know that Boaz never whipped us for nothing. There was always a reason for it. It was either for not learning our lessons, for not wanting to pray well, for not obeying our fathers and mothers, for not looking in, and for not looking out, for just looking, for praying too quickly, for praying too slowly, for speaking too loudly, for speaking too softly, for a torn coat, a lost button, a pull or a push, for dirty hands, a soiled book, for being greedy, for running, for playing—and so on, and so on, without an end.

One might say we were whipped for every sin that a human being can commit. We were whipped for the sake of the next world as well as this world. We were whipped on the eve of every Sabbath, every feast and every fast. We were told that if we had not earned the whippings yet, we would earn them soon, please God. And Boaz gave us all the whippings we ought to have had from our friends and relatives. They gave the pleasant task in to his hands. Then we got whippings of which the teacher said:

“You surely know yourself what they are for.” And whippings just for nothing. “Let me see how a little boy lets himself be whipped.” In a word, it was whippings, rods, leathers, fears and tears. These prevailed at that time, in our foolish little world, without a single solution to the problems they brought into being, without a single remedy for the evils, without a single ray of hope that we would ever free ourselves from the fiendish system under which we lived.

And the good angel of whom my mother spoke? Where was he—that good angel?

* * *

I must confess there were times when I doubted the existence of this good angel. Too early a spark of doubt entered my heart. Too early I began to think that perhaps my mother had fooled me. Too early I became acquainted with the emotion of hatred. Too early, too early, I began to hate my teacher Boaz.

And how could one help hating him? How, I ask you, could one help hating a teacher who does not allow you to lift your head? That you may not do—this you may not say. Don't stand here. Don't go there. Don't talk to So-and-so. How can one help hating a man who has not in him a germ of pity, who rejoices in another's pains, bathes in other's tears, and washes himself in other's blood? Can there be a more shameful word than flogging? And what can be more disgraceful than to strip anybody stark naked and put him in a corner? But even this was not enough for Boaz. He required you to undress yourself, to pull your own little shirt over your own head, and to stretch yourself face downwards. The rest Boaz managed.

And not only did Boaz flog the boys himself, but his assistants helped him—his lieutenants, as he called them, naturally under his direction, lest they might not deliver the full number of strokes. “A little less learning and a little more flogging,” was his rule. He explained the wisdom of his system in this way: “Too much learning dulls a boy, and a whipping too many does not hurt. Because, what a boy learns goes straight to his head, and his senses are quickened and his brains loaded. With the floggings it is the exact opposite. Before the effects of the flogging reach the brain the blood is purified, and by this means the brain is cleared. Well, do you understand?”

And Boaz never ceased from purifying our blood, and clearing our brain. And woe unto us! We did not believe any more in the good angel that looked down upon us from above. We realized that it was only a fairy-tale, an invented story by which we were fooled into going to Boaz's “Cheder.” And we began to sigh and groan because of our sufferings under Boaz. And we also began to make plans, to talk and argue how to free ourselves from our galling slavery.

* * *

In the melancholy moments between daylight and darkness, when the fiery red sun is about to bid farewell to the cold earth for the night—in these melancholy moments, when the happy daylight is departing, and on its heels is treading silently the still night, with its lonely secrets—in these melancholy moments, when the shadows are climbing on the walls growing broader and longer—in these melancholy moments between the afternoon and the evening prayers, when the teacher is at the synagogue, and his wife is milking the goat or washing the crockery, or making the “Borsht”—then we youngsters came together at “Cheder,” beside the stove. We sat on the floor, our legs curled up under us, like innocent lambs. And there in the evening darkness, we talked of our terrible Titus, our angel of death, Boaz. The bigger boys, who had been at “Cheder” some time, told us the most awful tales of Boaz. They swore by all the oaths they could think of that Boaz had flogged more than one boy to death, that he had already driven three women into their graves, and that he had buried his one and only son. We heard such wild tales that our hair stood on end. The older boys talked, and the younger listened—listened with all their senses on the alert. Black eyes gleamed in the darkness. Young hearts palpitated. And we decided that Boaz had no soul. He was a man without a soul. And such a man is compared to an animal, to an evil spirit that it is a righteous act to get rid of. Thousands of plans, foolish, childish plans, were formed in our childish brains. We hoped to rid ourselves of our angel of death, as we called Boaz. Foolish children! These foolish plans buried themselves deep in each little heart that cried out to the Lord to perform a miracle. We asked that either the books should be burnt, or the strap he whipped us with taken to the devil, or—or.... No one wished to speak of the last alternative. They were afraid to bring it to their lips. And the evil spirit worked in their hearts. The young fancies were enkindled, and the boys were carried away by golden dreams. They dreamed of freedom, of running down hill, of wading barefoot in the river, playing horses, jumping over the logs. They were good, sweet, foolish dreams that were not destined to be realized. There was heard a familiar cough, a familiar footfall. And our hearts were frozen. All our limbs were paralysed, deadened. We sat down at the table and started our lessons with as much enthusiasm as if we were starting for the gallows. We were reading aloud, but still our lips muttered: “Father in Heaven, will there never come an end to this tyrant, this Pharaoh, this Haman, this Gog-Magog? Or will there ever come a time when we shall be rid of this hard, hopeless, dark tyranny? No, never, never!”

That is the conclusion we arrived at, poor innocent, foolish children!

* * *

“Children, do you want to hear of a good plan that will rid us of our Gog-Magog?”

That was what one of the boys asked us on one of those melancholy moments already described. His name was Velvel Leib Aryas. He was a young heathen. When he was speaking his eyes gleamed in the darkness like those of a wolf. And the whole school of boys crowded around Velvel to hear the plan by which we might get rid of our Gog-Magog. Velvel began his explanation by giving us a lecture—how impossible it was to stand Boaz any longer, how the Ashmodai was bathing in our blood, how he regarded us as dogs—worse than dogs, because when a dog is beaten with a stick it may, at any rate, howl. And we may not do that either. And so on, and so on. After this Velvel said to us:

“Listen, children, to what I will ask you. I am going to ask you something.”

“Ask it,” we all cried in one voice.

“What is the law in a case where, for example, one of us suddenly becomes ill?”

“It is not good,” we replied.

“No, I don't mean that. I mean something else. I mean, if one of us is ill does he go to 'Cheder,' or does he stay at home?”

“Of course he stays at home,” we all answered together.

“Well, what is the law if two of us get ill?”

“Two remain at home.”

“Well, and if three get ill?” Velvel went on asking us, and we went on answering him.

“Three stay at home.”

“What would happen if, for example, we all took ill?”

“We should all stay at home.”

“Then let a sickness come upon us all,” he cried joyfully. We replied angrily:

“The Lord forbid! Are you mad, or have you lost your reason?”

“I am not mad, and I have not lost my reason. Only you are fools, yes. Do I mean that we are to be really ill? I mean that we are to pretend to be ill, so that we shall not have to go to 'Cheder.' Do you understand me now?”

When Velvel had explained his plan to us, we began to understand it, and to like it. And we began to ask ourselves what sort of an illness we should suffer from. One suggested toothache, another headache, a third stomach-ache, a fourth worms. But we decided that it was not going to be toothache, nor headache, nor stomach-ache, nor worms. What then? We must all together complain of pains in our feet, because the doctor could decide whether we really suffered from any of the other illnesses or not. But if we told him we had pains in our feet, and were unable to move them, he could do nothing.

“Remember, children, you are not to get out of bed tomorrow morning. And so that we may all be certain that not one of us will come to ' Cheder' tomorrow, let us promise one another, take an oath.”

So said our comrade Velvel. And we gave each other our promise, and took an oath that we would not be at “Cheder” next morning. We went home from “Cheder” that evening lively, joyful, and singing. We felt like giants who knew how to overcome the enemy and win the battle.


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