When I was eight days old, I was carried into a synagogue on a fluffy white pillow while the congregation yelled, “Baruch Habah!” or, “Blessed Is the One Arriving,” and the mohel, a rabbi who performs the ritual circumcision, removed my diaper and cut off the foreskin of my penis. At least Isaac got Mount Moriah and nature. I got a stranger’s lap and a stuffy room full of people staring at me. Some of them clapped and sang. Some cried. Some fainted.
I was officially one of them. I had made the cut.
The fourth of eight children (four boys, four girls), I was raised in the Orthodox Jewish community of Monsey, New York. There was a saying in Monsey about large families: “Every time a Jewish baby is born, we stick it to Hitler.” My father had high hopes that at least one of his four sons would stick it to Hitler better than anybody; become “The Wise One,” the next great rabbi of his generation; and spend his days studying Torah.
In the early days of my parents’ marriage, my father, who dreamt of becoming a scholar himself, studied Torah in Kollel in Monsey, a school where adults learned the sacred texts and received a small paycheck. But the small paychecks weren’t paying the bills, especially once my mother got pregnant for the second time.
After ten interviews, my father found work at a computer software company in Manhattan. He shaved his Kollel beard and began taking the Monsey Trails Bus to the city every morning, his dream of becoming a great Jewish scholar destroyed by the births of his children.
He tried grooming my older brother, Yisroel Meir, named after the Chafetz Chaim (one of the revolutionaries in the writing of Jewish law), to become a scholar. When Yisroel Meir was just a few months old, my father taped pictures of rabbis to the bars of his crib. But my brother was born a rebel and tore the pictures down. I imagine he became nauseated by the bearded men who stared at him while he fell asleep and were still there when he woke up.
And so four years later when I was born, my father turned to me, his second son.
“Moshe, do you know who you’re named after?” he asked throughout my childhood, smiling at me across the Shabbos table.
“Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.”
“That’s right. Rabbi Feinstein, one of the Godol Hadors, Greats of Our Generation. At your bris, you were given a blessing to become greater than him.”
“I know,” I replied, focusing on my chicken and potato kugel.
“You see these seforim?” my father continued, pointing to the hundreds of books on the bookshelf behind him. “They’re my books from Kollel. Rabbi Feinstein was so great, he studied all of these books hundreds and hundreds of times. And so will you.”
Whenever I walked by the portrait of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein that hung on our dining room wall, I believed he was watching me. He was making sure I was studying and doing all the mitzvahs and not sinning. I don’t want to be you, I thought. I don’t want to have a gray beard one day. I don’t want to wear suits and ties. I don’t want to sit all day studying Torah. I don’t want to answer questions and bless people who believe that my special connection with God will grant them children, happiness, and good health.
I wanted to play sports, read magazines like National Geographic, and chase the beautiful shiksas. But I rarely had access to TV, radio, or secular books, so there wasn’t much to do besides study and memorize.
The only books I was allowed to read were The Hardy Boys. My mother bought them in bulk from Costco on Friday afternoons before Shabbos. Unlike the hundreds of Hebrew books sitting on the bookshelves in the dining room, The Hardy Boys contained girls, mysteries, kissing, guns, and suspense. The Hardy Boys traveled to places I’d never heard of, like Boston and Washington, and they spent their time having adventures, not arguing over some ideology from the Talmud, like, if my ox gores your ox, what do we do?
I didn’t want an ox. I wanted to be like Frank and Joe Hardy.
At five years old, I was already trying to read through the Talmud, ancient Aramaic teachings that dissect Jewish law. I would sit at the dining room table in my blue legging pajamas and hunch over the open book like an actor studying lines for an audition—an audition for the greatest part, in the greatest show, for the greatest director ever. I didn’t understand anything I was reading, but I read the words over and over. Sometimes my father taught me pronunciations and definitions. Sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes I didn’t care at all about the words. I just knew that if I opened the Talmud and placed my finger on the text, following line to line, right to left, right to left, I would appease my father, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and God. Make the directors proud.
“Tatty, I finished reading Bereishes,” I said, running to my father when he walked in from work one night.
“That’s great, son. Try reading through the next book.”
By the time I was in Pre-1A (the grade before first grade in yeshiva), I had read all five books of the Torah, cover to cover, at least twice. And for good measure, I did it again in first grade. Rabbi Braun and my parents were so proud that they made a party for me at school to celebrate my accomplishment. My mother made bags of candy for me to hand out to my classmates. I dressed up in a white shirt, black slacks, and black shoes, and went to school with my father that day. I felt special, dressed in nice clothes, walking into school with my father’s hand on my back.
“Mazel Tov, Moshe,” my father said that day. “This should be the first of many to come.”
How many? I wondered, imagining Rabbi Feinstein handing out bags of candy to his congregants.
When I was eight, I started memorizing Mishnayos, the first written recording of the oral Torah. It consisted of six volumes, each of which contained seven to twelve tractates called Mesechtot. I memorized three tractates. On the way to synagogue, on the way back from synagogue, or before the Shabbos meal started, my father and I tested each other on what we’d memorized that week.
Then there were the school contests that ran over holidays like Passover and Sukkoth. Whoever studied the most would be the winner. One Passover, I studied over 22 hours. And what did I get? Naturally, more candy and another book to study from.
When I entered sixth grade, my rabbi was determined to make everyone in the class a scholar. He created a club called The 11x Club. Whatever he assigned for homework, we had to do 11 times. These assignments were to study, and sometimes memorize, 15 to 20 pages of the Talmud, Chumash, or Mishnayos, the logic being that hundreds of years ago, Rabbi So-and-So studied the same thing 111 times a night, so the least we could do was study it 11 times.
And what did we get for studying the same text 11 times every night of the year? You guessed it: 11 pieces of fruit snacks candy inside a plastic bag inside a cup that someone had printed with the words, “The 11x Club.” And another book to study from 11 times.
I started to wonder if there was a manual that my parents and rabbis were following:
- Teach the children from a young age that if they study, they will receive treats. Lollipops, potato chips, or jellybeans will suffice in the early indoctrination stages.
- Remind the children every day that the more they study, the more treats they’ll get, and the higher the treat quality will be.
- During the second phase of indoctrination, elevate the treats: a donut with custard inside, a chocolate bar, or a piece of marble cake with a glass of chocolate milk, the latter being the most effective.
- If thoroughly manipulated, the children will have a better chance of meeting with me—God, of course; who else do you think would write such shit?—at the end of their lives, so they can sit at my large and lonely dining room table. On the menu: suckling pig. Up here, we understand the painful years of salivating over non-kosher food. And the parents and rabbis who teach the children to obey so respectfully will also be invited. Get it? You (rabbis, parents) promote and sell the product and receive a percentage of the profit.
Toward the end of sixth grade, I realized that if the return on my life investment of studying was just candy, more books to study from, and a picture of me hanging in people’s houses, I didn’t have much to look forward to. Judging by Rabbi Feinstein’s gloomy picture, studying hadn’t made him too happy, either. Plus, the scholarly life was exhausting. My leather prayer book cover was riddled with teeth marks, where I chewed when I got anxious. And all the candy was giving me cavities. I had eight by the time seventh grade came around. I looked at Rabbi Feinstein on the wall, told him I was sorry, gave him the finger, and walked away.
Then, when I was thirteen, I thought of a way out.
“What’s my English name?” I asked my father one night.
“You don’t have one.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“I was going to name you Michael, but you had a cousin, Michael, who was schizophrenic. I didn’t want to put a curse on you.”
I’m cursed anyway, I thought.
Maybe I would feel less pressured if Rabbi Feinstein wasn’t watching me, I thought. So I took his picture down from the dining room wall, shoved it onto the top shelf in the hallway closet, and replaced it with a portrait of the Chefetz Chaim.
Things got better in high school when I started playing baseball and basketball and dreaming of becoming the next great athlete. I discovered the Finkelstein Memorial Library in Spring Valley, and read Lolita and The Catcher in the Rye. I started dressing in jeans and T-Shirts. When I turned 16 and my parents embarked on a long, loud divorce, I switched from yeshiva high school to public high school, horrifying Orthodox Jews the world over. Then came Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, parties, R-rated movies, college, and non-kosher girls.
What can I say? I was a disappointment to God and my father. A disappointment to Moshe from the Bible, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and Moshes all around the world. I remain a disappointment. But it’s okay. There are thousands of new, young Moshes training right now to become The Wise One of their generation.
And I know why: so that when they get to Heaven, God can hand them another bag of candy and another book to study from.