Famous last words: “I’ve allowed plenty of time to get home to change before the appointment. I’ve got time to spare even if I miss the first bus.”
But he didn’t have time, Dovid Vilner reflected, to miss two buses. And he had been waiting for fifty-five minutes with no bus in sight. Maybe a taxi was called for? He fingered the coins in his pocket and decided to wait another five minutes. Pulling the gigantic yellow flower out of his buttonhole, he emptied the water reservoir and tucked the gaudy plastic into a pocket beside the red nose he had removed earlier. There was nothing he could do about the oversized purple bow tie apart from switching off its tiny lights. Was it better to appear without a tie altogether, or to wear a violently unsuitable one? In the end he left it on. It might distract the eye from the pink-and-blue-striped shirt.
At this point three buses drew up, one behind the other, each with the suggestion of a puppy hoping its misdeeds will be overlooked. Dovid sighed and got on the first. He would have to take the bus directly to the school. If he ran from the bus stop, he might just make it.
Forty-three minutes later the secretary to the principal of Yeshivas Nes Godol stared at the apparition before her.
Panting, red-faced, disheveled, Dovid gasped, “I have – an appointment with – Rabbi Luftbaum. I – think I’m – in time.”
“You’re two minutes late,” the secretary said primly. “I’ll have to ask Rabbi Luftbaum if he can still see you.” Rising, she disappeared briefly through an inner door, then, returning, added with a final appalled glance, “You can go in.”
Entering the inner office Dovid Vilner found himself facing a man with a heavy sprinkling of gray in his hair and beard, a man with dignity so entrenched that he seemed to be carved from stone. The eyes looked at him uncompromisingly.
“Rabbi Luftbaum.” Dovid held out his hand.
There was no response aside from a slight nod toward a hard wooden chair placed in front of Rabbi Luftbaum’s desk, precisely in the middle.
When Dovid had seated himself, Rabbi Luftbaum deliberately opened a black folder before him and examined the papers within. “Your son,” he said in a dry voice. “He’s four already. You’re late coming to us.”
“We applied right after his bris, but we wanted to let him mature a little. We feel he’s ready for school, now.”
“Most people apply as soon as they have the first antenatal scan,” said Rabbi Luftbaum in a reproving tone.
“We didn’t live here, then. We only moved after he was born.”
The thin lips pursed. “Poor planning.” Rabbi Luftbaum turned a page.
Dovid leaned forward eagerly. “He already knows two mishnayos.”
The principal’s head jerked up. “Only two?”
Dovid’s eyes widened. “Most schools don’t like beginners to know too much.”
“Every child in Nes Godol is precocious. He’ll have a lot of catching up to do.” Rabbi Luftbaum drew out a form. “Let’s go on, anyway. Which famous rabbonim are you descended from?”
“Nobody I know of. Vilna was a great center of learning, though.”
“What does your father do for a living? What did your grandfather do?”
“My father sells socks and ties and some cufflinks. My grandfather started with a pushcart and worked up to the store with his own efforts – and hatzlocha min Hashomayim, of course.”
The principal looked as though a bad small had passed his nose. “Well, we’ll leave that issue. How long were you at the Mir?” His pen was poised above the paper.
“We assume all our fathers know how to learn. Everybody goes to the Mir.”
“I didn’t. What about Ponovezh?”
There was a short silence that seemed to cast a pall of disappointment. “I suppose we could make an exception,” said the principal at last. “How long were you at Ponovezh?”
“I didn’t go there, either. I was at Ohr Someiach for four years, then –” he rushed on before he could be interrupted (and from the look on Rabbi Luftbaum’s face he was about to be) – “I went to mainstream kolelim. When we came here I joined the Kolel Ho-Ir full-time, until last year.”
“And what happened last year?” The principal’s tone was not encouraging.
“I had to go to work when our third child was born.”
“You don’t seem to have much dedication to Torah. Your parents could have helped out. Your wife could have gone to work.”
Dovid sat up a little straighter. “We have no outside income, Rabbi Luftbaum. My parents can’t afford to help us, and my wife has no parents. My wife was working, but she got paid less than the babysitter would have charged for three children.”
“You sound as though you’re proud of having no support.”
“I am. Whatever we’ve accomplished, we’ve had to do on our own. We haven’t begged or cheated or expected anything from anybody.” Unlike many other bnei Torah, Dovid added to himself. We haven’t bought into the dependency, the ‘es kumt mir’ culture. Not that we could have even if we’d wanted to. “I have a partial stipend from the Kolel Ho-Ir.”
“This is not a good beginning, Mr Vilner,” the principal said in a weighty tone. “And that shirt you’re wearing is no recommendation. Pink and blue stripes?”
Looking down at the offending shirt, Dovid said, “I came straight from work; I was delayed and there wasn’t time to change, I’m afraid. But I did take off the red nose and the flower that squirts water. And I switched off the lights on the tie…”
“Mr Vilner! What kind of clown do you think you are?”
“A good one, I hope. I’ve been hired to entertain the kids in every children’s hospital ward in town, and I do a lot of children’s birthday parties, too.”
“You can’t have much of a learning schedule. What do you learn? Comic books?” It was plain that Rabbi Luftbaum felt Dovid Vilner was wasting his time.
“Rabbi Luftbaum!” Dovid protested. “I go to the six a.m. Daf Yomi, then, after davenning, I have a kvius with a chavruso. After that I go to the Rosh haKolel’s shiur and learn bechavruso for the rest of the morning. I only take half an hour for lunch, then I do my hospital job. In the evenings I learn with another chavruso and go to another shiur. I only perform at birthday parties if they’re on Sunday afternoons.”
The principal shook his head. “Your learning is all chopped up. Nobody with a schedule like that could possibly be learning seriously. I’m afraid, Mr Vilner – ” he closed the file with a snap – you’re not really the type for our school.”
“But my son – ”
“Be realistic, Mr Vilner. Look at all the strikes against you. You have no yichus and no money, you didn’t go to the right yeshiva, you aren’t learning full-time, your shirt is the wrong color, and you don’t even have a normal job!”
“But Rabbi Luftbaum, I’m not asking to go to your yeshiva! I’m applying for my son!”
“A child is the product of his home. What is the son of a clown going to grow up to be?”
“Haven’t you ever heard of ‘ivdu es Hashem b’simcha?” Dovid pleaded.
“You’re chasidish as well?” exclaimed Rabbi Luftbaum. “You certainly wouldn’t fit in Yeshivas Nes Godol!”