Writings and Reflections

The College Visit

by Lloyd B. Abrams

Laibel was known by many as the best and the brightest in his yeshiva class. They described him as the fastest learner they had ever encountered--the best and brightest in many a year. On his SAT's, he topped out. Though the yeshiva did not require students to take the dreaded New York State Regents Exams--Laibel relished the challenge, and, of course, excelled. He was the all-around student, the proverbial natural, absorbing knowledge like a sponge. He was able to quickly memorize tracts of the Talmud, far faster than anyone had imagined or even deemed possible. To some, he was already a veritable legend--"an instant classic," in movie advertising hyperbole.

Many around him in his Yeshivist orthodox community of Borough Park had already planned out Laibel's life, without, of course, ever conferring with or even asking him. Some thought he should enroll in a rabbinical studies course at Yeshiva University after graduation. Others thought he should be married as soon as possible to the daughter of the highest bidder, though it wasn't put in exactly those words, so he could continue his Talmudic studies. But those closest to him, those who really knew him well, understood that he would ultimately do whatever he wanted, for he had an unyieldingly stubborn nature and a fiercely independent streak.

So Laibel spent several autumn weekends with Feivel, his older brother visiting college campuses within a day's drive of his Brooklyn home. One weekend, it was up to Amherst and then Harvard, where he savored a cup of coffee in the square, while Feivel sat silently drinking coffee and Laibel furtively and sacrilegiously ogled the girls. Another trip took them to the University of Pennsylvania. It was there that he was suddenly struck by the fact that his black suit, with the fringes of his tzitzis hanging out, his scraggily beard and the ever-present black fedora hiding his black yarmulke--all the outer accouterments of the devoutly religious--made him stand out, singled him out, made him be one who was never to be accepted in the world he wanted to be fully part of. And that would just not do.

Of course, this realization didn't just suddenly strike him. In his own way, in many ways, he had been rebelling against his strict upbringing and was doing as much as he could to absorb the culture of the non-haredi world--the world outside, the world with so many more opportunities, so much more happening, so much more diversity, so much more life. Naturally, this brought about anguish, an internal dissonance, as well as the fear of familial discord, disapprobation and rancor. The dispassionate observer might have said something to the effect that that's what children naturally do to undergo the inevitable separation from their parents. Well, that's what most children do. Except, that in addition to being gifted with an unusual intellect, Laibel was also burdened with a high degree of empathy. He did not want to make his parents suffer. In his eyes, his parents simply did not deserve to be wronged, to have their beliefs questioned, to be hurt in so many ways, not just by the rebelliousness of their younger son, but by the reaction of others around them. So he kept it all to himself.

Laibel's trip down to the Maryland was meticulously planned. He had told Feivel that he wasn't needed to drive him; he would take Amtrak this time. He reassured his older brother, who was secretly relieved, for Feivel felt much more comfortable at home, that going by himself would be much easier for both of them, would give him time to read, and would spare his brother the monotonous drive on heavily congested turnpikes. His parents finally gave in to his desire to travel by himself after he reassured them repeatedly that he knew exactly what he was doing. They quizzed him about his travel arrangements, where he would and with whom he would stay, and made him promise to call them as soon as he got down to College Park. They were both proud and sad when he kissed them goodby and left early on a Monday morning.

So Laibel set out on what he expected would become the journey of his life. He walked up the stairs to the elevated F train at 18th Avenue and, 25 minutes later, got off at 34th street. He passed Macy's on the north side as he walked the long block to Seventh Avenue. He walked downstairs, then through the Long Island Railroad terminal, dodging the hordes of harried commuters. He got to Pennsylvania Station with plenty of free time to walk around and generally kill time before getting on the 9:35 train to Washington's Union Station. From there, it was a simple Orange Line to Green Line transfer on the DC Metro and, finally, five hours after leaving his safe, loving, accepting home on the tree-lined street in Brooklyn, he was getting off at the College Park Station in suburban Washington, D.C.

The short walk to the Chabad House was uneventful, though his crowded Borough Park environment was quite different from the neighborhood of detached homes surrounding the college; it was not that it was bewildering to him in any way, but it certainly was new and somewhat disconcerting. But he squelched his fears since the University of Maryland was a huge campus--one of the largest in the country, and a large number of Jewish students attended, many from the New York area. So he knew that he would fit in at first, or, at least, find a compromise with which he could live. From what he had heard, he also knew that acceptably kosher food was available, as well. And that he'd always have the Chabad house, where he was to stay, as a spiritual conduit back to his Borough Park community.

Rabbi Berman, who opened the door, wasn't exactly what Laibel had expected, even after speaking with him on the phone. A short, round man with a long beard and friendly, open face, Rabbi Berman welcomed the high school senior with open arms and a hearty laugh. "Come in, come in," insisted the Rabbi. They shook hands and then Laibel heard the gallop of footsteps and three small children burst into the vestibule, wondering whom the visitor was. Just as suddenly, they became quiet and shy, the youngest child hiding behind her older sister.

"Hello," smiled Laibel, who held out his hand to the oldest one, who couldn't have been any more than seven years old. As the boy shook his hand with a karate-chop motion, Rabbi Berman introduced the three of them as Mordecai, the oldest, Sarah, the middle child, and Miriam as the youngest. "Your children are beautiful," exclaimed Laibel, and the children beamed up at him.

"Yes, all of my children are beautiful," replied the rabbi. The children smiled at each other and, turning as one, like a flock of birds, they promptly ran off.

"Let me show you where your room is," said the rabbi, as he put his arm gently on Laibel's to lead him up the stairs. Laibel picked up his black backpack and then followed the rabbi. As they got to the second floor, the rabbi said "Usually, there's a racket going on, but most of the students who live here have afternoon classes." Laibel knew how noisy it could get when he and his friends got into heated conversations. The nearly stifling silence was broken up only by soft, gentle singing emanating from behind one of the closed doors. Laibel couldn't put his finger on it, but the singing sounded like a mix of mournful Yiddish lamentations with which he was all too aware, and ethereal new age music with which he only occasionally came in contact.

"That's my wife, Rachel," the rabbi explained with no elaboration. "You'll meet her later."

The rabbi led Laibel several rooms further down the hall, opened the door, and said, "It's no Waldorf Astoria, but it's clean. And the food here is good." Laibel quickly looked around at the sparse, mismatched furnishings, and immediately felt at home. His put his backpack on the bed on top of the folded sheets and blanket, turned around and thanked the rabbi for his hospitality. Rabbi Berman acknowledged his thanks and, in return, said that Laibel's parents should be very proud of his good manners and upbringing.

"Look, Laibel. I have a couple of things I have to take care of. Why don't you make your bed, unpack your belongings,"--at this, he chuckled--"and come down to my office in an hour or so. It's the second room on the left, next to the kitchen. You can't miss it. Just follow your nose."

Five minutes later, the bed was made but Laibel didn't bother unpacking. Why bother? He took out the Elie Wiesel book, Messengers of God, from his backpack, sat down in a comfortable but dilapidated arm chair, and continued reading where he had left off. He got through several pages, and stopped. Even though his room was several doors away from the one with the closed door at the head of the stairs, he could still hear the hypnotic melodies wafting down the hall, beckoning him like an unexpected warm balmy breeze in March.

Laibel could not concentrate on his reading. He got up and paced around the room, looked out the window, and sat down on the bed. He couldn't understand his restlessness, except that he was moved by the singing from down the hall, music that was barely perceptible. A few minutes later, he could bear it no longer. He slipped out of his room, and walked quietly to the door at the head of the stairs, trying to avoid creaking the floorboards. He was puzzled why he worried about being discovered.

He carefully placed his ear against the scratched, discolored wooden door. He listened, smiling at first, and then more intently. His very being was moved by the purity and beauty of the singing. He was sure he had heard the melodies and their iterations sometime before, but it felt like long ago. He couldn't put his finger on the when or where it had been.

Finally, he couldn't stand it any longer. He opened the door slightly to peek inside, and then, pushed the door open a bit more. Then he saw her, sitting in a large wooden rocking chair, with rays of filtered sun shining on her face, transcendent in its soft rapture. Her long red hair flowed down her back. And in her arms, she rocked not a baby, not a toddler, not even a young child, but a teen-age sized child, who lay looking up at her with unseeing eyes. Laibel gasped and the child moved slightly in her arms. Laibel just couldn't help himself, and immediately felt a mix of shame and sorrow.

The woman looked up at Laibel, beckoned him into the room with an almost imperceptible nod and glanced at a hard-backed chair next to hers. Her eyes bored gently into his as he quietly closed the door and walked ever so softly, almost on tip toes, over to the only other chair in the room.

The woman began to sing once again, unfazed by her new audience. The strange being--the child, he corrected himself--began to writhe rhythmically, almost erotically, as she continued. She closed her eyes, and resumed the plaintive melody, varying it with riffs and chord changes and slight changes of tempo. Laibel looked more closely at the child, who had drool dripping from its open mouth, agape with mismatched teeth. Its face and head were malformed, and the child looked almost malevolent. The child was clothed in a large diaper and a short-sleeved shirt. Its arms and legs were contorted in impossible angles and its fingers and toes were gnarled with atrophy and disuse. It, too, had red hair, but its hair was sparse and uncombed.

Laibel then looked around the room, noticing, as if for the first time, the over-sized crib with only the near side open, and a large dresser of drawers, the only other piece of furniture in the room. There were no wall decorations, no mobiles, no mirrors, no drapes, nothing else to relieve the oppressive and stifling monotonousness of the room. The only things that gave the room life were the shafts of sunlight coming in from the window and the singing, which had a ethereal life of its own.

Laibel sat upright and listened intently until his eyes grew heavy with sleep. As much as he tried, he couldn't ward off the unavoidable drowsiness as he slouched down in the chair. And he slept, his dreams filled with nervous apprehension, threatening, diabolical biblical images, and ominous, misshapen beings.

It was already dark when he awoke with a start. A normally light sleeper, he opened his eyes when the door creaked open and the light from the hallway shone on his face. The rabbi walked into the room, and put his finger up to his lips. Beyond the silence of the room Laibel heard the din of people moving around the house. He rose stiffly from the chair and managed to walk out into the hall. The rabbi closed the door softly behind them.

"So, I see you've met my oldest child," the rabbi said. Still sleepy, Laibel could only nod.

"He was our first. We had such hopes. We would have had a bar mitzvah celebration next year, but..." and the rabbi's voice trailed off. At that moment, Laibel could almost hear an inaudible inner sob.

"I guess it wasn't God's will," replied Laibel.

Abruptly changing the subject, the rabbi said, "Come on downstairs. Everyone hangs out in the kitchen. And this time, you'll get to properly meet my wife."

The kitchen was a cauldron of goings-on. Students were arguing, and the children were running around. Rachel was bent over the open oven, testing to see if the roasted chicken was ready. The rabbi walked over to his wife, put his hand gently and unnoticeably on her back and said, "When you have a minute."

She turned, looked up at him and said, "I only have minutes. Never hours. Never a lot of time."

Rachel stood up and wiped her hands on her apron. She now wore a tichel covering her head. The kerchief, worn to protect her modesty, now hid the flowing red hair bunched up underneath it. She turned and looked at Laibel, as if for the first time, but as if they'd known each other for all time. She nodded and smiled, as Laibel sputtered, "I must've fallen asleep."

"Yes, you sure did," she said and laughed. To Laibel, even her laugh sounded musical.

"The trip tired me out more than I thought," he offered, but he knew that her singing had had a great effect on him.

"Dinner's almost ready," the rabbi said and interrupted Laibel's reverie. "We're pretty informal around here. But why don't you help set the table. Then you'll get to meet the other residents of our home."

Despite the informality and chaos, the dinner was a well-scripted ritual, from the preliminary hand-washing to the prayers of grace afterwards. Even the children, it seemed, started squabbling on cue, at dessert time, arguing over who got the largest piece of mandelbrot. Laibel was questioned about his plans about which he was clearly indefinite, and then told about the huge College Park campus and its academic, spiritual and social opportunities. Laibel had trouble concentrating, a vague sense of unease and foreboding clouding over him.

Silence immediately followed a rather other-worldly mewing sound emanating from a speaker placed on the credenza next to the table. The rabbi's questioning gesture was immediately answered by a nod from Rachel. She placed her napkin over her plate, got up, and said, "Please excuse me." As the talking and banter resumed, Laibel could hear her footsteps recede up the stairs.

"I guess dinner's about over," the rabbi announced shortly thereafter. The students got up and brought their dishes and cutlery to the sink. They threw away their paper napkins and swept away crumbs from the table cloth, which was then folded. Within moments, the huge table was bare and they were looking expectantly at Laibel. One of them laughed and said, "New guy gets to do the dishes."

The rabbi nudged Laibel and said, "That's the tradition. But let me give you a hand. All we have to do is load the dishwasher, anyway." The others drifted off to their rooms or to the common living room.

"I suppose you're wondering about Menachim," said the rabbi as Laibel rinsed and then passed him dishes to put in the dishwasher. "When he was born, he wasn't expected to live more than a few hours. Looking back, it would have been a mitzvah if he hadn't. But that wasn't God's will, as you had said upstairs."

"Anyway, he suffered massive brain damage in utero, or, maybe, his brain stem was never fully formed. We don't really know. But we do know that he's totally blind because his pupils don't respond to light and we also suspect that he's deaf. But not deaf in the conventional sense. We know he responds, in his own very limited way, to sound. And he can be soothed when he's being held. That's why Rachel's feeding him, holding him, loving him, and singing to him."

Before Laibel could get the words out, the rabbi continued. "He drinks from a bottle. That most primitive urge is still very strong. It might be the only thing that gives him pleasure, besides my wife's attention. I don't know how she's been able to do it all these years."

"And she gave up so much, though she never accuses; she never throws that in my face. She wasn't originally raised in the our ultra orthodox tradition. In fact, the first time I saw her, she was singing with an a capella group here on the campus. She was also in the choir. What a wonderful, glorious voice she had! I guess she realized that she would have to give up singing when she married me. She said it was a small thing, but I suspect it was much more than that. But that was a long time ago."

Suddenly, the rabbi caught himself. "I don't know why I'm telling you all of this. Please forgive me if I chewed off your ear." With a certain wiseness way beyond his 17 years, Laibel responded by holding his arms out, and the two of them embraced--the lanky six-foot teenager and the short, rotund, bearded man. At that moment, Laibel felt at first an overwhelming warmth and love for the rabbi and then the blackness of despair, a depth of hopelessness beyond mourning.

Finally, the moment passed. Laibel felt perspiration dripping down his forehead; he felt feverish and faint. The rabbi broke the solemnity, saying, "I've got papers to grade and I've got to figure out what I'm going to be teaching tomorrow." The rabbi chuckled and added, "Maybe you'll come and sit in on my class. Tomorrow's seminar is on marital obligation. Aptly enough."

Laibel's physical response to anguish passed so quickly that he wondered if he had felt it at all. Certainly, the rabbi hadn't noticed anything. He heard from afar the rabbi's words, and nodded automatically at his invitation.

"Two-thirty in the Religious Studies building. Room 245. Try to be on time." The rabbi turned and walked purposefully towards his office. Laibel was left standing in place, wondering what had just happened to him, wondering if he was just imagining things. He shook off the remnants of the moment and walked upstairs, stopping only momentarily to listen at the closed door. He then walked to his room down the hall.

Moishe, his roommate, was lying on his bed reading and, when Laibel walked in, tried to engage him in a game of chess. Although Laibel loved the chess and had often played the game--his father sometimes jokingly accused him of loving chess more than the Torah--Laibel begged off, feigning tiredness as an excuse. He knew that the real reason was that he would not be able to concentrate; he felt distracted and ill at ease.

Moishe went back to reading and Laibel picked up the Wiesel book. The words were a blur and, try as he might, the meaning was out of focus and way out of reach. He barely heard when his roommate walked out of the room. Laibel lay down on his bed on top of the blanket and closed his eyes.

Once again, the mystical singing began to penetrate and massage his consciousness like gelatinous tendrils of sweet, luscious sensuality. Laibel tried to sleep, but sleep, this time, did not come at all. Instead, he was drawn inexorably towards the captivating voice behind the closed door.

He got up from his bed, walked down to the hall and hesitated for only a few seconds before turning the knob. He walked into the room and closed the door quietly behind him. Rachel stood next to the window with the damaged child in her arms, rocking him and trying unsuccessfully, as always before, to make him whole. Once again, her flowing red hair was uncovered. She looked radiant, almost luminescent, in the dimming light from the setting sun outside.

The wordless melodies she sang--now he recognized them!--were Hasidic in origin, but to them, she added a flavor of--what was it?--expectation and want, and--no, it couldn't be!--blind lust and overwhelming need. And he was powerless to stop himself from moving towards her, to stand before her, to reach up and stroke her hair, and then, to pull her close to him and kiss her fully on her lips. Nor did she stop him.

She pulled him towards her and returned his kiss with a fury and an ardor that was barely contained. Soon, the child who was sandwiched tightly between them started to squirm, responding in its own way to the cessation of its usual undivided attention. Rachel, gasping for a breath, pushed Laibel away, got up and put the child into the crib. She then turned to Laibel, gestured him to sit down on the chair, and sat down on his lap straddling him. Immediately, their lips again met, and this time, there was nothing between them, nothing to restrain them, nothing to hold them back, not even the plaintive mewing coming from that subhuman child, now lying in a fetal position, far, far away on the plastic covered mattress, an inhabitant of his own private, unfathomable world.

They continued to grapple and grab at each other, neither one seemingly getting enough of the other. Their love making was not the slow, languid, mannerly kind, but a fierce and ferocious giving in to desire and insatiable hunger. They rocked and gyrated together, now naked, with him inside of her, trying to get his whole being--his entire essence--into her, while she held him with savage desperation, drawing forth from him all that he was, all that he could give her, while she ravenously begged him and silently screamed at him for even more. And they orgasmed together not with a quiver and shudder, but with the clashing tremor of two beings melted and melded together, a cementing of two souls that shattered and immediately tore apart once it was over.

As their breathing became more shallow, what was around them seeped back into their consciousnesses. The doleful cries from the crib had mercifully stopped. She rose up from him and pulled her dress back down over her head. Laibel slowly and guiltily put his clothes back on, including his tzitzis; the wearing of the special undergarment suddenly saddened and shamed him. Nothing was said. Nothing could be said.

She tied her scarf over her hair and walked out of the room. Laibel was left alone with his thoughts in the nearly dark and almost empty room.

In his angst, he started to pray. For no apparent reason--apparent to him, anyway--he started to recite the Shema, the most basic of prayers that every pious Jew reads and memorizes. "Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai, Ekhad"--("Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is One.") And then he stopped, for he simply could not remember what came next. He repeated the six Hebrew words again silently to himself, and then again, hoping that the words that followed would come to him automatically. But those words did not come, and would not come. He started to panic.

He discerned movement from within the over-sized crib. He looked over at the being, who now lay facing him. Its blind eyes were gazing into his, and its malformed lips were moving spasmodically. He heard a faint voice that came from far away and, yet, from deep inside. And the words he distinctly heard were the words he could not remember: "Baruch shaym kavod, malkhootoh l'olam voed."

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March, 2003…Copyright © 2003, Lloyd B. Abrams
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