“What am I paying tuition for?!” my father’s shrieking voice echoed through our home. He sat opposite me at the table brutally kicking my legs from under it. My mind was unavailingly trying to escape the physical and emotional pain and make sense of it all.
“What do you do in cheider?! Do I work all week only for you to klutz?!” He was breathing heavily, obviously very disappointed and in a lot of pain. I began to cry, my legs ached and so did my heart. Like most children, I didn’t want to disappoint my father.
It was Shabbos afternoon, and he was testing me on my studies, as he did every week. I was ten years old, and just started gemureh. It was bad enough with mishnayos, but now with gemureh my torment was increasing at an alarming rate. Gemureh was hardcore hair-splitting, the stuff that old men with droopy eyelids and long white beards had been fussing over for millenia. I had other things on my mind, though; the laws of prayer quorums and the high priets’s rituals on Yom Kippur aren’t exactly every ten-year-old’s area of interest.
A week earlier, I told my father that I needed a new gemureh.
“Take one of my old ones,” he said.
“But I’ll be the only kid in class with an old gemureh,” I said, “I’ll look like a nebech.”
He wasn’t impressed. I had to admit, though, he had a point. Given my past record, he didn’t think I’d be using it much, so why buy me a new one? I’d promised myself that as soon as I started gemureh, I was going to change; I would begin paying attention. But I suppose I could no longer be trusted. I’d made that promise to myself – and to him – before, but didn’t live up to it. My enthusiasm for a new gemureh, however, was real. I wanted to study well, and I thought a new gemureh would help. And I desperately needed to stop the hard toe of my father’s shoe from banging against my legs.
My teachers and parents preached that studying our ancient laws and sacred texts would improve my life. But the Torah and Talmud didn’t explain dick for a ten-year-old like myself. The week passed slowly and with every hour my anxiety grew, along with the fear of my father’s fists.
When Shabbos afternoon came, there was nowhere to hide. My brothers and I knew that my father would soon wake from his chulent nap and summon us to his interrogation room. We always wished we were sick so that for one blessed week we’d be spared. We tried to distract ourselves by playing games quietly. Playing loudly would awaken our parents and wouldn’t serve us well during the examination. To relieve the tension we joked about my father, imitating his voice and his outbursts, but that all came to an end when the lion woke and showed up at the playroom door.
“What are you doing here?” he bellowed. “Are you ready to be tested? Why aren’t you studying?”
Here it comes, I thought. It was like facing Dr. Mengele at theselection; none of us wanted to go first but we all knew our turn will come, and it did.
My father’s question hung in the air unanswered, and for many years I wondered about it. “What am I paying tuition for?” What for, indeed.
Now that I’m older, and a father myself, I think I know the answer: It’s what everyone did. Public image is perhaps the most important thing in the Hasidic community. What would people think of parents who didn’t send their kids to school? My parents demanded reward, as if I owed them for changing my diapers. As if they had
the right to bill me for the food I ate at their expense.
Why did my father pay tuition? Why did my mother feed us? Why did they have us in the first place? The most likely answers: They had children because they didn’t want to die alone. They had morechildren because it made them feel like better Jews. They changed my diapers because it made them feel like good parents. They wanted me to study because they wanted me to be their personal nachas-machine.
These days, when I see a parents with children, I see only selfish motivations. Religious or secular, adults make babies only for their own benefit. They nurture their kids in a way that makes them, and not necessarily the child, feel good. My father’s violent behavior was probably not the norm. But when I come across short-tempered people, I fervently hope they stick to wearing condoms. If they get aggravated waiting in line at Starbucks, how will they handle annoying babies? Think about that before ejaculating, and pull out.
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