Yeshiva Mesivta Chaim Berlin Kollel Gur Aryeh Photo Credit: Charlie Smith FDTB

The other day I was talking about my early yeshiva days with my neighbor and friend Idel Kolodny. We tend to talk about specifically my early days in yeshiva because Idel’s grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchok Kolodny, was a substitute rebbe of mine when I was a fourth-grader at the Lubavitcher Yeshiva on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn.

No, it wasn’t on the Bedford Avenue dotted with multimillion dollar homes; it was Bedford Avenue and Dean Street, and the older boys in the yeshiva, and even sometimes the rebbeim, were sometimes involved in fights with local thugs in the quickly changing community in Bedford Stuyvesant. On some days, as I recall, many of the classes were on the street at recess, which is when the battles used to break out. Sometimes the yeshiva area looked like a war zone.

By Larry Gordon

I stayed in the Lubavitcher Yeshiva through fifth grade. Then we did a shift and starting in sixth grade I was a student at Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway. Would you believe that even in the sixth grade our rebbeim were teaching us Chumash and Mishnayos and translating into Yiddish? I remember looking around the class — after all, we were already around 11 years old — to see if anyone looked like he knew what was going on. It didn’t look like it.

One day we were learning Chumash, and my classmate Eliezer Stern, who is now the head of Prospect Park Yeshiva in Brooklyn, was reading the Chumash when our rebbe, Rabbi Gronam Lezebnik, asked Lazer what a certain word meant. He gave the rebbe the translation of the word in Yiddish, as we were taught. But the rebbe asked him what the translation meant, and all he could do was repeat the word in Yiddish. Starting the next day, the rebbe began translating the Hebrew words into English. After that there was no looking back; the era of learning in Yiddish — in this yeshiva, anyway — was over.

I liked Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway and stayed there through eighth grade. Only for one of those years, though, was it actually on Eastern Parkway. All I can tell you is that our eighth-grade graduation was inside an under-construction edifice on Church Avenue and East 45th Street in Brooklyn; I don’t know what happened, but the tenure of the yeshiva at that location was brief. It was a geographic miscalculation, as that neighborhood spiraled downward quickly. Here’s a safe word to describe that neighborhood: dangerous.

To the best of my recollection there was a very uncomplicated reason why I switched from Lubavitch to Eastern Parkway for sixth grade. All I know is that yeshiva was scheduled to begin while it was still August, and I remember telling my father that I refuse to go to yeshiva while it is still summer. The next thing I knew I was in a new yeshiva that began classes around Labor Day. That was easy.

For high school, my father liked the Mesivta of Crown Heights. My sister attended Yeshiva of Crown Heights and my parents liked the idea of a more contemporary type of education that reached beyond the shtetl.

My father was good friends with Rabbi Yosef Baumol who headed or, I suppose, owned the yeshiva, and I recall going to his house on Crown Street for a “farher.” I read a piece of Gemara for him, but I had the sense that this was a formality and my acceptance was guaranteed before I even entered Rabbi Baumol’s home.

We were told that we were required to adhere to a dress code that included wearing a hat and jacket to yeshiva every day. This was, of course, a departure from the way we used to dress every day in elementary school. A few weeks later, I had a conversation with the principal about whether we were required to wear the hat and jacket to yeshiva or we only had to wear it in yeshiva.

I lost that argument, but a funny thing happened on the first day that I was wearing my hat and walking the three blocks from my home to the yeshiva on Crown Street. About a block away from the yeshiva, a gust of wind snuck up on me from behind and blew my hat off my head and into the street. Before I could run to pick up my hat from the middle of the street, a car ran over it, just about flattening it.

I couldn’t believe what happened, but I picked up the hat, put my briefcase down, and punched the hat back into shape. It still did not look that great but it was getting late and I did not want to be too late for the morning minyan. I’m not sure I did the right thing, as my rebbe thought my hat looking the way it did was my way of ridiculing the demand that I wear a hat to school. It really wasn’t, and I explained that it wasn’t my fault that my hat blew off my head and was run over by a car. It was a trying start, but somehow I overcame the challenge.

A few more things come to mind about those formative years in yeshiva. I think I was a good student — studious, serious, and fairly well-behaved. Still, back in seventh grade, my rebbe, Rabbi Wudowsky (I lost touch with him) asked me to sit up in front of the classroom at the left side of his desk. I wasn’t so happy about that so I asked him why it was that I had to sit so close to his desk. He said to me (I think he was joking) that he did not want to have to get up from his seat in order to smack me across the face.

Now, don’t misunderstand — five-and-a-half decades ago this was standard operating procedure. There was nothing wrong at the time with administering this type of discipline to students or children. It was only later when we might say that things got out of hand, so to speak, that our educators and mental-health experts concluded that this was not a good or healthy practice to allow.

When someone asks me what yeshivas I attended and I name them, it kind of sounds like I was bouncing around a bit, but that is not the case. After tenth grade, Mesivta of Crown Heights closed up. We had a choice of enrolling in any other school, but since most of the staff was joining Mesivta Chaim Berlin on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn, we were encouraged to enroll there and I did.

Not everyone transferred there; some went to BTA, others to MTJ, one or two to RJJ, and so on. We were the first Chaim Berlin class on Coney Island Avenue so it’s fair to say that we were a test case, a trial balloon, so to speak.

My good friends went to the other yeshivas and I am still friendly with some of them all these decades later. There are a lot of memories associated with being in high school. After all, those are likely our most formative and impressionable years on an intellectual level.

I had to take two buses from Crown Heights each morning to make it to school on time for the 7:55 a.m. morning minyan.  I woke up early enough, but I was a slave to the city bus system which, just like today, is mercilessly prone to delay.

Yes, I probably should have gotten up an hour earlier. I guess that is why I was late for minyan on most of those days over the two years on Coney Island Avenue. That was until we were offered a course in driver’s education and the requirement was that we had to be in front of the yeshiva at 5:30 a.m., sometimes twice a week.

Needless to say, I was never late for the driver’s ed course, which I quickly realized was going to create a problem for me. I wasn’t wrong.

I can go on endlessly with recollections about those great years, but I’m going to pause here. I thank you for indulging me and allowing me to pontificate on those important and special times.

Aside from the yomim tovim when we were off from school, one of the great bonuses of the year was Chanukah and the fact that we were dismissed early every day so that we could light our menorahs as the sunset. We usually lit the wicks and candles later anyway, but the important thing was early dismissal. That might have been one of the modern-day miracles of the chag.

Happy Chanukah to all.

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