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Bontshe Shvayg

I've spent a substantial amount of energy mining my memory of my own school experiences. As one who was a school "success story", but at the same time both lacking in self-awareness, and crippled in my understanding of what the institution was actually trying to do to me and my classmates, my pick-and-shovel approach allows me to come to grips with who and what, for better or for worse, shaped me into whom I am today.

Doing so makes it easy to illustrate that the emperor of public education has no clothes, and I plead guilty to having taken more than my share of cheap shots, especially as the target is so difficult to miss! In more than a decade traveling with and helping other homeschooling families on their journeys, I have learned that when I am totally at a loss for solutions to every "problem", I simply recommend they try to remember what would happen in school under similar circumstances, and then just do the opposite. (Try it: it usually works!)

But I have also discovered that working to understand my school experiences gives me power. Environment does not have to be all-determining. By coming to terms with how institutional education shaped me and the way I view the world - and my capacity to learn about it - I gain the freedom to make other, more empowering decisions, both for myself, and with my children.

My poor brain is still cluttered with detritus gathered up in those 12 years, and I've never managed a spring cleaning. There are snatches of Russian-language dialogue tapes (I was a "Sputnik baby" with an IQ over 90, which means I was to be nuclear physicist who would invent the magic weapon that would destroy the Soviet Union forever). I can wax poetic about the mating habits of the three-spined stickleback fish (as distinguished from the Chinese Communist eight-spined variety), bore you with bits of a poem about a calliope, and I think I can still manage square roots on a sliderule.

But as I mine, I notice that there is almost a complete blank when it comes to how I learned any of this stuff. Oh, I can remember the books, and the blackboard, and the names of virtually all of my teachers, but the method by which I was expect to acquire knowledge now seems largely opaque to me.

What I do remember are the culling sports, from reading to dodgeball. I remember vividly when I learned that cooperation was really a sham, and how and when I learned to cheat. I learned the seven lessons of John Taylor Gatto's "Seven-Lesson School Teacher" profoundly well: confusion; class position; indifference; emotional dependency; intellectual dependency; provisional self-esteem; and inability to hide. I was well-rewarded for the effort. I learned that no work is really worth finishing (becoming a writer required significant retraining), that there is no past and no future outside of the class period, and that I could be saved by the bell! And while I know they made me sit through dozens of them, and read several dozen more, other than a few novels I have reread as an adult, I can't remember a single story!

And then, as I reflected back, a story returned. It wasn't from school at all. No, it was from a TV show, one that I thought I must have seen when I was eight or nine, and it came back to me fully clothed in words and pictures, and I wrote it down as I remembered it.

Ah, the wonders of the Internet. Within 24 hours of having written down the tale in a white heat, I found out that the dramatization of the magnificent Yiddish story "Bontshe Shvayg" had aired precisely once (on December 14th, 1959 - I was indeed nine), and that most of the original tapes from this series (but not this one, titled "The World of Sholom Aleichem") were destroyed in a fire. By the end of the week, I had a videotape, featuring some of the finest Yiddish actors of the 20th Century, including Zero Mostel, many of whom had been blacklisted during the McCarthy Era.

I didn't remember any of this, though. What I did remember was the story of a man whose expectations had been diminished, and who, offered the entire world, could no longer even imagine what it was to desire. And something inside me, even at age nine, responded to this tale of thwarted aspirations, and of a man who wasn't allowed to have any, and this tale has stayed with me for almost 50 years. My school education had failed me, and for this I am forever grateful.

Desire more for your children, and allow them to have desires of their own. Feed their aspirations (and allow them to change). Take the seven lessons of the "Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher" seriously, and play them out in reverse. Figure out what they'd do in school, and do the opposite. And fill their lives with stories, and your own as well.

Here's the tale:

Bontshe Shvayg

by I. L. Peretz, as retold by David H. Albert

On the day Bontshe Shvayg died, people almost didn't notice. They knew something was slightly amiss when they came to the synagogue for morning prayers and didn't find him curled up on the front stairs. So they looked around the side of the building, and there he was, stretched out straight and narrow on the snow, eyes closed, as if already perfectly prepared for his pauper's pine coffin. He didn't want to cause the undertaker any extra trouble. Two crows hopped about nearby, oblivious to the fact that the Angel of Death had visited close at hand.

Bontshe arrived, dazed and bedraggled at the gates of heaven. The angels were singing, intoning his name in astonishment and wonder, as if a great guest had just arrived. "He's here, he's here, Bontshe Shvayg, Bontshe Shvayg!" they chanted, and more gathered, eight and ten deep, just to see if they could get a peek at him through the beating of wings. "Bontshe Shvayg, Bontshe Shvayg", they whispered to their angelic children, who spread celestial rose petals before him. Bontshe didn't look up, but shuffled slowly, confusedly toward the open court that stood before the great gates.

You see, it is custom in heaven that before one is allowed to enter, a trial is held to ascertain if one is worthy. Seated in the center on His great throne, two steps above everyone else, was Lord God Himself, the Judge of all, lines on His forehead furrowed from all His cares for the world, and pulling on the ends of His cloudy white beard, frayed from worry. And there, on His right, a step down, a flaming sword on his large desk together with mountains of books, papers, and scrolls, and a permanently frozen half-frown/half smirk barely concealed behind a pencil-thin moustache, was the prosecuting angel. On the left, behind a smaller desk, swept clean except for one small piece of paper, was the angel prepared to speak for the defense.

The angel for the defense rose (for in the courts of heaven, it is the custom for the defense to say its piece first).

"This is Bontshe Shvayg," he began, as the angels leaned in to hear. "He has had a long and difficult life."

"On the day he was born, his mother cursed him as just another mouth to feed. His father deserted them all, ran off with the chimney sweep's wife. His mother was a drunkard, and beat him every morning before breakfast, when there was any and what there was of it, and, one day, she too ran off with the village rag peddler, leaving the children to fend for themselves. And Bontshe Shvayg never complained. His brothers left what little gristle they gave him in the dog's bowl, so he and the dog could fight over it, though Bontshe never fought. But the dog grew to hate him nonetheless and finally ran off, food bowl and all. And Bontshe Shvayg never complained.

"At the synagogue, in exchange for his lessons, he followed the sweeper on his hands and knees, picking up the little wafts of dust and grit left behind by the broom. His teachers covered his knuckles and shoulders with bruises from their switches and yardsticks. And Bontshe Shvayg never complained. They married him off to the miller's wife (she had already gone through six husbands), and they had two daughters, who used to kick him and belittle him, until all three - his wife and two daughters -- ran off to America, never to be heard from again. And Bontshe Shvayg never complained.

"He slept in ditches and in goats' pens, and shared the leavings of meals with the pigs. And Bontshe Shvayg never complained. He ran odd jobs for the beadle and the beadle's wife, and half the time they forgot to pay him, and he never complained. And even at his death, he saw to it that he didn't cause anyone any extra trouble.

"My Lord," he concluded, "This is Bontshe Shvayg. Let him be judged according to Your Will."

And the defending angel sat down. The prosecutor rose to make his statement, and the angels shivered, for the prosecuting angel knew all, and his eyes were unforgiving. He looked down among his papers and books and scrolls, glanced over at the burning sword, and then at Bontshe Shvayg, and, in an uncustomarily weak voice, said, "I have nothing to say against this defendant," and sat back down.

A great murmur rose among the angels; nothing like this had ever been seen in the courts of heaven. All around, one could hear the whispers, "Bontshe Shvayg. Bontshe Shvayg." knowing that he soon would be admitted to their company.

And the Holy One, Blessed Be He, gave off feeling through His beard for the woes of the world, and rose from His Seat of Judgment, came down the two steps, and lifted Bontshe Shvayg from the floor before the throne by his elbow.

"Bontshe Shvayg," He said, in His Godly weariness, "The courts of heaven cannot judge you, for, with your life as it was, what is there left to judge? Now the gates are opening to receive you. And what's more, because you have borne a life hardly worth bearing, and have never even once complained, I hereby stand ready to grant your every wish, every boon. My Kingdom and all that is within My Dominions are yours. Ask and you shall receive it."

And, stunned, Bontshe Shvag looked up into the tired eyes of the Most High. The angels were hushed. The prosecuting angel looked down at his scrolls, and the defending angel folded his hands in front of him And Bontshe Shvayg said, still unsure of himself, "If it isn't too much trouble, perhaps, if it could be arranged without it being a problem, and please don't go out of Your way for me, maybe I could have a warm roll with a little bit of butter every morning?"

* * * * *

The best available adult edition of some of Peretz, a giant of world literature, is The I.L. Peretz Reader, edited by Ruth Wisse (2002). A nice illustrated edition suitable for adults and children is Seven Good Years: And Other Good Stories of I.L. Peretz, translated by Esther Hautzig (2004). The video "The World of Sholom Aleichem" contains three short plays. The first one, "A Tale of Chelm", is guaranteed to please children of all ages, and the second one obviously held me for almost 50 years. It is now available very inexpensively. www.jewishjukebox.com/products/yiddish_videos/977.asp