I want to take a moment to address one of the most pertinent problems of today, as measured in the amount of mail I got this month.
Actually, I got one letter, and it was from an 8-year-old.
The kid asked me some basic questions, such as how I got into writing, and which of my books I like best.
I’m not going to say which book I like best. My books are like my kids. In fact, I sometimes call my books by my other books’ names.
So that was the letter. But I did get a rash of texts and e-mails that I need to respond to. This morning I got a text that read, “I am a third-grade rebbe in Lakewood, and I have a talmid who memorized your books. Please contact me about this.”
To be honest, it sounds a little urgent for something that shouldn’t sound so urgent.
Am I in trouble? It sounds like he thinks this is a problem.
I’m not sure what he expects me to do about this. Do I call and say, “Hi, I’m returning a call about the talmid who memorized my books?”
“Well, that’s all I know.”
I hope he’s the one who answers the phone.
Then I remembered that I’d gotten a similar, longer e-mail two weeks earlier, from a rebbe who wrote that he had a student who was infatuated with my book Cholent Mix, and that any minute this student wasn’t learning, he was studying my book and reading it aloud. To the rebbe. When he was trying to proctor recess and talk to the principal.
Finally, the rebbe thought he would get the kid to stop by challenging him to recite a chapter of the book by heart. (This is an old rebbe tactic going back to the time of the Mishnah.)
The rebbe then picked a chapter and tested him on it in front of the class, and the kid rattled it off.
“If you have any suggestion on what I can do to detox him from Cholent Mix,” the rebbe wrote, “I would greatly appreciate it.”
Personally, I was a little offended that the rebbe called it “detox.” I don’t know if I would use that word. My articles are largely nontoxic, for the most part.
I hadn’t answered that e-mail right away, as it was sent in June, during which I mark all of my high-school students’ essays from the entire year, but I did notice that the e-mail had been sent four times. So this is either all from one panicked rebbe, or there are a lot of third-grade classes in Lakewood that include a kid who memorized my fourth book.
Either way, I should probably answer him/them, even though it’s already the summer, and now this is the fourth-grade rebbe’s problem.
But before I do, I need to print a disclaimer here.
CAUTION: Taking the ideas and halachos expressed in this article literally can be hazardous to your health. ALSO CAUTION: Don’t eat this article. The paper may be toxic.
PLEASE NOTE that I am not a child-rearing expert, so please take everything I say here with a grain of salt. Unless your doctor says you can’t have salt, in which case you should take everything I say with a blood-pressure pill.
NOTE TO PARENTS OF MY STUDENTS: Please disregard the “not a child-rearing expert” thing. I’m very professional.
NOTE TO IMPRESSIONABLE YOUNG KIDS: I don’t actually encourage anyone to memorize my books. I don’t even memorize my books. Sure, Cholent Mix, for example, contains some life-altering knowledge about the history of cholent. But it’s scary to think that the words that I thought of in a panic on a deadline at 4 a.m. are going to govern your life.
But that said, my first reaction was to tell the rebbe to buy the kid my other books. I have five in total. Let’s overwhelm him so there’s too much to memorize.
The rebbe might not want to do that, though. In his letter, he says, “Now if this boy learned Mishnayos ba’al peh the same way, I wouldn’t have a problem.”
I love it when adults say that. Telling a person, “If only you would use those kochos for X,” makes for a nice teachable moment, but even adults know that there are certain things that are easier to memorize than others. If your wife said, “If only you would use those kochos for memorizing shopping lists,” it wouldn’t inspire you, it would annoy you.
“OK, then at least remember to take the list with you.”
He has the kochos for this because he enjoys this. He wants to memorize things he enjoys. All you have to do is get him to enjoy Mishnayos. That’s your job, just like getting kids to enjoy reading and writing is mine. I don’t know how to do your job. I don’t even know how to do my job. (NOTE TO PARENTS OF MY STUDENTS: I know how to do my job.) My job is hard enough, dealing with teenagers who don’t want to enjoy reading because they already enjoy Gemara.
“Yeah, but what do you do when you’re tired?”
Literally. Any given day there is at least one guy napping in the classroom.
So, I say to buy him my other books. (Maybe as a reward for learning Mishnayos?) I know it sounds like I’m plugging my books, but I’m serious. Anything he’s memorizing is good for him, even if it’s not learning. He’s expanding and exercising his mind and teaching himself memory techniques that he can use later for more important things.
Because people nowadays can’t remember anything. As I may have mentioned, I work at a local mesivta, where I teach English to impressionable kids who think they’re adults. And the principal isn’t helping. He keeps saying things like, “I don’t have to tell you guys this. You’re adults.”
He has to keep telling them this, because kids like repetition.
And they eventually believe it. They’re like, “Hey, we’re adults! We have life experience and everything!”
No, they don’t. The only life experience they have is that they know what it’s like to be in school for ten years, and even so, they’re still genuinely surprised when I say there’s going to be a test. And it’s not like I give pop quizzes. I give three days’ warning before every test, which is enough time for them to spend one day panicking, one day finding someone who has the notes, and one day studying. Or two days panicking, one day finding someone who has the notes, and one day haggling for another day. I would tell them about the test earlier, but then they’d forget.
“What? Oh, you told us a week ago.”
And a large portion of my students are totally lost studying for tests, because they never taught themselves how to memorize anything. For example, toward the beginning of the year, I give them a list of prepositions to memorize. (For those who’ve forgotten, a preposition is a type of word that is hard to define. Which is why I make my students memorize them. I tried to do that with all of the nouns, but it was insane.) And most of them can’t memorize it. Some can, but it’s not because those people memorized prepositions as little kids. It’s because they memorized other things, and now they know how.
Point is, the answer to my students’ complaints is never, “You can memorize the entire menu of the sandwich place, but you can’t memorize prepositions?”
Anyway, before I’d gotten a chance to reply, the rebbe sent me a sixth e-mail, telling me the kid’s name and that the kid had written me a letter the previous week.
Wait. That was the kid? And how did the rebbe know that he wrote to me? Was the rebbe the one who’d suggested it? Because that actually seems like a great way to detox him. After all, they say, “Never meet your idols.” I am not a laugh a minute. I’m more like, “You know these articles that take you five minutes to read? Those are all the jokes I make in the course of a week.”
And then my wife says, “Thank goodness it’s Shabbos.”
I certainly hope the rebbe was behind this, because, besides that move, I’m not sure he handled it the right way. He mentioned in the letter that after he’d tested the kid on memorizing the chapter in front of the class, the whole class started reciting chapters. It became the in thing, like fidget spinners.
(For those of you who don’t remember fidget spinners, they were really big last month, and no one has mentioned them since.)
Not only that, but the chapter he’d tested the kid on was about why children ask “Why?” and now he has a whole class of kids asking “Why?” at every opportunity. (Like my students with the prepositions.)
So now I feel bad for not responding right away, and I understand why the rebbe was panicking. Maybe in the two weeks that I didn’t respond, more and more kids had gotten inspired, and now he was surrounded by little kids quoting my lines at him, the poor rebbe.
Which is why he didn’t have time for a full text today. Just: “Help! My student has memorized your books! Please contact me about this.”
And my first question was, “Why?”
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of five books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.