Avner Brenner, a Novel
By Dror Burstein
Vice Principal Shapira stood in the large schoolyard and held up a star map against the sun. The bell, which marked the end of recess, and whose metallic ring had been replaced, at Our Teacher Gertrude's initiative, with what she had described to the Vice Principal as consummate works of music, was now sounding a Bach pastoral, and two crows hopped off the flagpole, Ta tum. The students began to rise lazily from the yellowing patches of grass, shading their eyes with math notebooks, or with their yarmulkes, which had momentarily been slipped off their heads, taking care not to meet the gaze of the Vice Principal, who stood on the stoop leading into the lit hallway, and was straining his eyes to surveil for students without tzitzit, without tzitzit. Every couple of minutes a hapless youth passes under the Vice Principal's wing, who had hoisted up the large astronomical map to shield against the blazing sun, and is caught. Aha! The left hand of Vice Principal Baruch Shapira, derisively called Baruch-HaShem behind his back by the students, clamps down on the youth's back, who cowers with a frozen grimace of panic on his face, like a Jew, and gropes around for the gentle creases of cloth beneath the blue shirt, those tiny bumps, which indicate, below the visible surface of the school uniform, the presence of that second cloth, with four twisted tassels at the corners, as is writ. Most certainly, not every student is suspect, and some spare themselves from being frisked by yanking the four-cornered garment out from under their shirts, others nonchalantly fondle a tassel between thumb and forefinger, the wimps. The upraised arm of the Vice Principal holding the map is now tired, and he performs a magic stunt: letting go of the map, which, startled, remains aloft, he swivels round to face the building, and only the back of his hairy neck now confronts the courtyard like a small thicket of curled lashes, and then, O precision! he grabs the map – which has not dropped an inch – with his other hand, and with his weakened blood-drained right hand intercepts Ehrlich, who had hoped to slip into the classroom at the point where Shapira performed his pirouette, the sonofabitch. A few take advantage of the moment of capture and emboldened like lions, make a run for the 12th grade hallway, arriving at their seats in chime with the final notes of the pastorale. F major, No-man thinks now. Only the Vice Principal and Ehrlich remain in the hallway now, and the curtain has been raised. Shapira does not even need to feel the shirt to know: here, thank god, we are dealing with a conscientious tzizit-objector, one of many who have been undermining the foundations of our school these past years, today neglecting the talit-katan, and tomorrow, heaven forbid, it could be the snooker halls in the Central Bus Station, especially the Apollo 2000 club, which is for members only, where entry is barred from boys under eighteen for obvious reasons, but no-one enforces the prohibition, except for one time when Amos Fuchs was denied entry to the club in an arbitrary and demeaning way, which proved to be the Lord's salvation like the blink of an eye, indeed? Because five of the class members who had been caught by the Vice Principal while playing two-on-two over a shawarma wrap, just nearly succeeded in knocking in the last white ball and beating the brothers at the game. A-mos (first syllable stressed) and Ka-dosh (first syllable stressed) Aflalo (last syllable stressed) were kicked out of school the following day and transferred to the ORT technological school to major in milling, a non-matriculation track, but an army profession nonetheless. How lovely is thy dwelling place. To no avail were the entreaties of Uriah Gan-Eden's father, Shimshon, who served for some twenty years, maybe eighty years, as the chair of the religious council in our city. The Vice Principal must be stiff-necked, to set an example, Mr. Gan-Eden — however, the bribe offer, which was stunning in his eyes both morally and financially, finally tilted the scales, and Uriah, this babe in arms, was returned to school with no further explanations and to everyone's surprise, while his four other friends remained at ORT majoring in milling (non-matriculation), which quite predictably caused their yarmulkes to migrate to butt-pockets and from there, Oh Lord in Heaven knows where. The stick, the chalk and the green felt have become your altar, the Vice Principal rebuked them from Yalag Street when he saw them driving on the Sabbath to the soccer match between Maccabi Netanya and Beitar Yerushalayim, they took a 6-0 victory, the sonofabitches, and if Makhnes doesn't take top scorer this season, I'm a sonofabitch, and he wondered if he hadn't erred in refusing to take them back, together with the son of chairman Gan-Eden. Brenner, tassels dangling, etc. observed the Vice Principal from the courtyard and bet himself, as he passed by Ehrlich and Shapira, that this time he too would season his speech with the phrase "Baruch HaShem", but the Vice Principal, who was in a hurry to get to another science class with Grade 11/3, simply whisked out a copy of Sefer Ha-Khinukh and handed it to Ehrlich. "Read, read here a bit, and with God's help, so, nu, …," Brenner heard and receded into the shadows. With a thumb-thrusting jig, Shapira raised and rolled up the unfurled map, poking the belly of the sun gently with his rod. Ehrlich, who was infinitely embarrassed by the brown book, opened one of the pages and pretended to read but his eyes apprehended only a few words, because he could not suffer the gaze of the Vice Principal, and worse yet, he did not understand whether the book was a punishment or a gift, and the problem of whether or not he was supposed to return the book or keep it to himself discomfited him to no end. What Ehrlich did not notice was a letter, a warrant in fact, which had been placed inside the book by the school's pedagogical committee, requiring him to report on Friday, on the eve of the Sabbath of the weekly portion Tazria-Metsora about one month hence, God-willing, after the morning prayer at the school gate, prepared to attend a weekend retreat for Penitence and Religious Reinforcement in Beth-El which would be led by Rabbi Zanzuri, signed, on behalf of the committee, Gertrude H., home-room teacher. From the other end of the open yard, the girls' classes were now out for recess, and Ehrlich could have sworn that the curtain had been drawn back on the third floor, where, according to rumor, sat the Principal of the school. After many years where the boys' and girls' recesses had overlapped, the Vice Principal decided one year ago, together with Gertrude the Music and Oral Law teacher (4 matriculation points), who was a convert, and whose father had murdered Jews in Poland or in White-Russia, on the Eastern Front in any case, but Gertrude never spoke of this, why should she? she was in a different place today, no longer even dreamed of Papa, ten thousand he mowed down near the pit, with a machine gun in one day, however, he had more than just one day at his disposal, much more than a day, that is what Brenner heard explicitly in the teachers' bathroom but he hadn't understood which "he" the voice was speaking of, ten thousand he mowed down, multiply that and just see how much that comes to in a year, and she teaches here at our school, and I ask, and Brenner became frightened, what are we supposed to do with such a case? — the two of them decided to separate the recess periods in order to prevent contact between the boys and the girls, or to reduce it to a minimum at any rate. A hedge for modesty is modesty, Gertrude, the members are stiff, Gertrude, well done, linking Bach to the bells. Ah…is the door closed? Since in each year there were three girls’ classes to one boys' class, the schoolyard was now crowded, and the Vice Principal slapped Ehrlich on the back, bade him farewell, and moved on, saying all the while: "Rea
d, read, and come just so, no tricks up your sleeve, eh?" referring to the letter, not the book, which would only become apparent to Ehrlich later on. Ehrlich trudged off dragging his socked-and-sandaled feet and began to climb the staircase toward the bathroom, hurrying so he could occupy the vantage point overlooking the schoolyard to spy beyond the low bushes near the basketball court on Amos Fuchs, champion of the 1984 Talmud Olympics of the state religious high schools, district of Sharon and Samaria, who knew entire chapters of Baba-Kama by heart, including Rashi and Tosefoth, who was the only one in the class who wrote with a Parker pen, who felt at home in Chapter Ha-Nisrafin (The Burnt) as a fish in a water, and who got a grade of 100 in the pre-matriculation test on Chapter Ha-Nehnakin (The Strangled), as he kissed Sagit, placing his hand on the back of her neck, and afterwards, when she had gone, untucking his shirt and tzitzit. For some reason the Talmudic passage from chapter "Ha-Kones", folio 60b came to mind: when dogs frolic, this is a sign that Elijah the prophet has come to a town, this is so, however, only if there is no female among them, and he looked hither and thither with an expression both self-satisfied and embarrassed, and whistled, or spat. Ehrlich turned around to pee. Fatso. As punishment for his truly disruptive behavior in literature class two weeks ago, he had been given detention again after school today where he was supposed to copy Uri Nissan Gnessin's book "Meanwhile" and "Anacreon at the Pole of Sorrow" by Uri Zvi Greenberg, including the vowel marks. At first he thought to pay Brenner, who was dynamite at literature, to do the copying, but their handwriting was so dissimilar they would undoubtedly be found out, and in any case Brenner refused to touch anything remotely connected to the poetry of the filthy fascist, as he put it, which led a year later to his flunking the literature matriculation exam, and to the revocation of his entire matriculation certificate as a result. Ehrlich was about to leave the bathroom when he stole another look out at the yard and saw Sagit sprawled on the lawn. Her father, Ovadiah, had taught literature and composition at our school, and one day a year ago, as the saying goes, the acacia blossomed, the slaughterers slaughtered, Ovadiah jumped off the roof of the school with a pile of essays from Grade 11/4 in hand, on the theme: "The Empty Wagon – with what should we fill it?" amongst them Brenner's composition, which later became the cause for a week-long suspension from school, and which hovered for a few seconds in the air, landing next to the crushed body of the teacher Ovadiah Shem-Tov along with thirty-two other sheets of paper, one of them empty. After the corpse had been removed, Vice Principal Shapira instructed the essays to be consigned to the Association for the Welfare of IDF Soldiers’ recycling bin, but Tchertchi the chief superintendent noticed, when he was already standing near the orange receptacle, that the essays had been read and marked. The Vice Principal was gone, and the thought crossed Tchertchi's mind that perhaps the grades on the papers were a sort of final wish of the deceased, so he kept the essays in his room – if that hole-in-the-wall could be called a "room", a putrid broom-closet was a more apt description — for an entire year, and he came into Grade 11/4 in the middle of home-room hour with Rabbi Naftali on the anniversary of teacher Ovadiah's death, which if you think about it, was just yesterday, and they concurred to hand back the essays then and there to the students. Brenner, who handled the sheets of paper as if they were soiled underwear, even though they were clean and bore not a wrinkle, discovered to his dismay that his essay had a note attached which read, "Brenner! Your essay astounded me, please accept a failing grade! And please come see me in my room, God-willing, as soon as you receive the essay. O. Shem-Tov." Rabbi Naftali determined that the wishes of the deceased must be honored and therefore, may the student please go up to the teacher's room, God rest his soul, lest it otherwise wander aimlessly in the lower firmament and never find rest, Heaven have mercy. Brenner decided to leave the classroom and wait awhile in the bathroom, or the women's section of the synagogue, and then return, but Tchertchi grabbed his arm and said: "Azoy, komm, off we go, Reb Yid", and escorted him up to the teacher's room. The room was locked and tidy, and a cold glass of tea, which had been half-drunk, stood on the table, the tea-bag sunk in brown liquid and the saucer covering the glass. Tchertchi opened the door, leaving Brenner no choice but to enter, and closed the door after him yelling "Ten minutes, Jew!" through the keyhole. Brenner drew near the table and touched the glass of tea, which was completely cold, with black sediment settled at the bottom. For an entire year the glass had stood untouched, like the whole room. But now Brenner was gazing from the third floor at Baruch HaShem, who, in his capacity as head of the Enrichment Committee, had invited Yeshayahu Leibowitz to give a talk at our school in the spirit of "know how to answer the heretic", and "you must break open his teeth", and "those who ravage and ruin you issue from you", and who had noticed when Ehrlich was at his side, as he held his star map in hand, the hunched-over Leibowitz enter the school gate. At first he simply thought it was Brenner's father, who was supposed to arrive at that hour for a pre-suspension talking-to. Brenner's father, Yirmiyahu, would never show up at that meeting because the appointment was made with the Vice Principal's secretary by Brenner himself, who picked up the phone and posed as his father without considering the consequences of this act. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, at this time eighty-three years old, walked up the stairs and stood there at a loss, because the letter of invitation contained no explanation as to the exact venue of the lecture and he had expected someone from the school to meet him at the gate, but the schoolyard was completely empty at this hour. Having no other choice, Leibowitz began to wander from classroom to classroom knocking on the doors, but in vain, none of the teachers knew what he was talking about, and Gertrude, who failed to recognize the man knocking, thought he was one of the beggars who had begun to appear in and around school in recent years prophesying the destruction of the city, pressed a coin into his hand, and closed the door on him, and the flabbergasted professor stood for a moment at the door, on which a gold-lettered inscription was hung reading "A three-fold cord is not readily broken", next to a mimeographed portrait of Rabbi Avraham Yizhak Ha-Cohen Kook, may-he-live-days-that-are-pleasant-and-long, then turned back and bumped into Ehrlich, who had just come back breathless from the bathroom and was rushing to the gym. Leibowitz, having given up on the lecture, had begun to make his way slowly toward the exit, but Ehrlich recognized him and ran after him, touching him on the arm, and said, they're waiting for you at the gym, and added to himself, you P.L.O., you. The recess music had started up again, the doors to the girls' classes opened, and two-hundred blue-denim skirts swept across the hallway. Leibowitz marched slowly alongside Ehrlich on the way to the gym. "Is this it?" He asked as though trying to speak above the noise, and glancing momentarily at the black graffiti on the courtyard wall, smiled, but immediately looked back impatiently at his watch, and when he entered the gym immediately staggered backwards. Illuminated by a pale yellow beam of dust, behind the backs of the seated class waiting for the tardy lecturer he saw the corpse of a girl.
Translated from Hebrew by Ilana Goldberg
Hebrew edition: Babel, Tel Aviv, 2003