22 Sivan 5779 / Tuesday, June 25, 2019 | Torah Reading: Korach
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Cathy the Cossack    

Cathy the Cossack

We need to get out to the park, away from human beings with their memories, biases, brain-washings, hatreds, rages, half-truths, stupidities, wisdoms and outright lies…


In fourth grade at Public School 163 I had a teacher named Miss Leo, a former nun who used to smack me with a ruler. In those days nothing happened to them, the teachers, but as I remember I smacked her back, which of course landed me in Miss Leddy’s office.


Miss Leddy, also an erstwhile nun, gave me the bitter news that this episode will be a black mark forever in my record, which is probably why my life became one small catastrophe after another. That is, until the Breslevers took me in, since as you know they see only good points in everyone, including those with black marks on their records.


I will never forget the day when a monumental report about something or other came due. We had to hand it in to Miss Leo, complete with perfect penmanship, headings, subheadings and Roman numerals, and I hadn’t done any of it. So, I relied on my routine for emergencies: claiming to be sick and running to the girls’ bathroom, and then standing there. I don’t remember how long I was able to keep it up before I had to face Miss Leo, who mocked me lavishly in front of the class. Other days I pretended to be so sick that the secretary took pity and called my mother to take me home.


Think of it as rehearsing for my acting career, but it didn’t start there.


A year or two earlier, I had snuck into the bathroom with my mother’s thermometer and turned on the hot water tap. Somehow my mother let herself be convinced to set up the couch with a pillow and blanket, tea, sugar, and toast. Other days, while walking home from a miserable day at school, I took off my coat, hat and sweater and rolled around in the snow, hoping it would make me sick. It didn’t, though.


Don’t think only the teacher and the principal bullyragged me; the kids did it too. Bullying was part of the culture and folklore of the school. And not only the year or two before fourth grade; it went all the way back to first grade.


My mother may she rest in peace was out at college, studying to be a speech therapist, and I came home for lunch. There was Grandma, peace to her, washing dishes, and she noticed I was crying.


I said a kid beat me up.


What you need to know about Grandma is that a Cossack in the Ukraine had murdered her first husband, and she hadn’t grown up knowing about the magical American melting pot, as my mother and I had.


So, Grandma asked about the girl.


The girl’s name was Cathy.


Cathy-the-Cossack. “That’s why she beat you up,” said Grandma definitively.


In all my years before first grade, I had never heard such a dissident, freethinking, nonconformist, disbelieving statement like that before, though I recalled that, on first entering public school, the kids had grilled me: “Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?” which I didn’t understand and couldn’t answer because it didn’t compute: I believed in the magical melting pot.


The whole story with Grandma happened before I read in a book called Guard Your Tongue that you shouldn’t repeat a private conversation but, since I felt confused and distressed, I told Mom what Grandma had said.


Mom’s eyes flashed fire. “NO! Grandma didn’t say that!”


Then I felt totally baffled and began to believe I had made it all up--but I held my tongue this time.


So, you see, dear sisters, we can’t rely on anyone to know the truth for sure—not on Grandma, and not on Mom. You can’t rely on Alizah either.


And that is why we need personal prayer, hitbodedut. That’s also why we need to get out to the park, away from human beings with their memories, biases, brain-washings, hatreds, rages, half-truths, stupidities, wisdoms and outright lies. And there we find the truth! We don’t have to be afraid of anyone. We don’t have to lie or believe any lies.


As Rabbi Shalom Arush says, “The true purpose of our lives is to know Hashem. Without clarifying the truth, this is impossible. If a person lives a lie, he is distanced from Hashem. We therefore don’t want to live a lie. One who denies the truth is only cheating himself.” (In Forest Fields, p. 258)


It boggles the mind to imagine the happy life G-d has hidden for us, even in childhood, and all we have to do is run to the park for an hour and talk it all out with Daddy Universe.  



* * *

Alizah Teitelbaum served as an actress, an editor’s assistant at Random House, and a columnist at the Jewish Times of Johannesburg. Her stories appeared in Hamodia, Ami, Mishpacha, The Voice of Lakewood, The Jewish Press, and other places. She edits fiction and poetry  for https://sassonmag.com/ and blogs at http://alizahteitelbaum.weebly.com/blog . Alizah lives in the Negev Desert. Write to her at eliseteitelbaum@gmail.com

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