The courtyard of the Bnei Dovid Yeshiva in Boro Park was in a commotion. The students were conferring secretly in every corner of the school, for something terrible had happened; during recess one of the boys had sneaked into the teachers' room and had stolen Rabbi Yaggid's gradebook!
Yaggid knew that the culprit was from the eighth grade but he didn't know who; everyone had his suspicions. The principal was outraged, and assembled the class informing them in no uncertain terms that if they didn't tell him by the end of recess who had stolen the book, they could forget about the class trip to Washington D.C.
The students were torn: they subscribed to the unwritten code of mutual help which made snitching on a classmate a crime akin to manslaughter. But failure to report the felon meant jeopardizing the trip to Washington, the highlight of the school year. There was also the small matter of conscience, of telling the truth. What should they do?
Moshe Shechter was always considered the best pupil of the class. Short in stature and with an unathletic physique, he was a serious boy who devoted himself to learning. Intent on his studies, he never joined the other boys for recess in the schoolyard, and today was no different. The events of the morning, therefore, were slow in penetrating his thoughts.
"Nu, Professor, what do you say?" came the taunting voice. Moshe lifted his head from his Gemara and saw the class low-lifes standing in front of his desk, led by the biggest bully of all — Binyamin Greenbaum. "Nu, Professor, say something already!" and they all burst out in raucous laughter.
Moshe turned red. He didn't know what they wanted from him. It wasn't the first time they had made fun of him, and for the life of him he couldn't figure out why they did. Greenbaum, their brawny leader, obviously had something against him.
Moshe thought about this a lot. What had he ever done to Greenbaum that he should pick on him so? He was half Binyamin's size, so he certainly couldn't be a threat to him.
Yet Greenbaum was always throwing a ball or a yo-yo at him and then pretending it was an accident. He even ambushed Moshe several times on the way home from school, sometimes to torment him, sometimes to beat him up.
But Moshe held his peace. He found different routes to walk home, which wasn't easy since they lived on the same street.
Bnei Dovid never had any nachas from Binyamin Greenbaum. He came from a broken home and barely was eligible for promotion from one grade to the next.
Everyone wanted to throw him out of the yeshiva, but the principal justified keeping him on by saying, "I cannot bear responsibility for this child's future if he is forced to leave grade school. Who knows what will become of him?"
The bell rang and recess was over. As usual Moshe didn't even bother answering Greenbaum, although he was now fairly certain who had stolen the gradebook.
The principal entered the classroom and fear gripped the pupils. "This is your last chance! I expect the person responsible to stand up like a man and confess." The room was charged with tension. Students turned to stare at Greenbaum who had his own gaze pointedly fixed on the ceiling. "They can all rot," he thought to himself, "I'm not telling..."
Five minutes passed and the principal bellowed: "Well?" The classroom was utterly silent. Suddenly, Moshe Schechter, the teacher's pet, rose and said in a quavering voice: "I am the one." Jaws dropped in amazement and disbelief. The principal muttered, "It's impossible, impossible!" "I did it," Moshe repeated, his voice clearer now. "The others needn't suffer because of me and miss their trip. I am to blame."
That night Moshe walked home late. Only one streetlight was burning on the whole long block. Suddenly, he heard footsteps behind him — it was that awful bully Greenbaum. His heart thumped loudly. There was no one on the street to help him. Moshe started to walk quickly but the footsteps behind him quickened too. They got closer and closer. Moshe started to run but Greenbaum was faster and stronger.
"Professor," Binyamin called as he grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around. Moshe was in a panic, too frightened to look up from the ground. Greenbaum forced his chin upward until their eyes met.
"Professor, I just wanted to say thank you," and he vanished into the darkness.
The story and the parable have always been critical educational tools. The university professor and the heder teacher both know that their point can be made more effectively and lastingly with the backing of a pertinent tale or example.
Hanoch Teller, a superb story-teller, consciously sets out to teach Jewish morals, tradition and pride. His wide range of characters and settings confirms the universality of his subject.
He divides his collection of twenty-five tales into eight categories: Providence, Devotion, Deliverance, Piety, Faith, Integrity, Greatness, and Compassion; and each section is prefaced by an appropriate maxim, dictum, or quotation.
For example, to illustrate the subject of Divine Providence, which in his preface he calls: “God’s guiding hand in every area of human endeavor,” three chance encounters have fateful results. A man misses a plane, but saves his life; a yeshiva student rescues a bum due to a long-forgotten school incident; and a baal teshuva is “led” to the yeshiva, and later to the wedding canopy, by “Unknown Forces.”
Similarly, the section on Devotion is introduced by a well-known quotation from Isaiah, and by Teller’s own explanation: “Prayer in Judaism is an open line of communication to the Almighty, giving finite man limitless access to his Infinite Creator. The only prerequisite for guaranteeing that his message will be heard is kavana (devotion). Prayer without devotion, writes the Chovos Halevavos, is like “a body without a soul, a shell without a kernel.”
Three stories on Faith are taken from three completely different walks of life. A shul in a rough New York neighborhood survives diabolic attempts to appropriate the property as well as attacks by hoodlums, only because of the old rabbi’s simple faith. A carriage, serving as the sole means of sustenance for a kugel-shlepper disappears one Sabbath, but turns up miraculously, where it had vanished in Kikar HaDavidka. A tank crew during the Lebanese War is snatched from certain death after a non-observant soldier prays spontaneously.
No anthology of this sort would be complete without descriptions of famous lives – such as rabbis or great Torah scholars whose conduct and achievement give us a model to emulate. Happily there are as many righteous women included as men.
Even children are featured protagonists of this book. In the chapter on Integrity, a young heder boy is late for class because he did someone a favor. His rebbe, however, doesn’t believe him resulting in a slap that still resounds decades later when the youngster, now the famous head of a yeshiva, declares: “It is essential for a rebbe to know his students well enough to be able to determine when – and if – they are lying. Punishing a child when he tells the truth is unforgivable…”
One can only marvel at Teller’s tremendous command of the English language, and his delightful way of conveying unforgettable images or thoughts.
Reviewed in The Jerusalem Post
Words of Praise
|“No one tells a story like Teller, still the champion of spinners of tales! The variety of stories, the cast of characters that people them, the exotic settings they inhabit are tied by a common thread: inspiration.”|
Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, Editor
|“Chassidim have always appreciated the power of story-telling – it’s ability to impress and absorb. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a Chassidic story is worth a thousand pictures. However, one must possess that special ability that Hanoch Teller has. Soul Survivors is a powerful lesson of ethics that both old and young will love to learn and review. It is no easy task to deal with abstract ethical concepts and to present them in a tantalizing, convincing format without a trace of moralizing. Hanoch Teller has overcome the difficult task of retelling true stories with a flair, without compromising their authenticity. To read Soul Survivors is to be transported to other parts of the world, to other times – or to encounter the unexpected in your own backyard and then to leave far richer for the experience: higher in insights into human nature, richer in understanding Jewish values, richer for having explored the upper reaches of human attainment.It is my hope that this book will help to kindle aspirations to that which is holy to our people, in those who crave inspiration.”|
Rabbi Levi I. Horowitz