Tshuva: A memoir

In short, for students of Torah coming from pious homes, tshuva was no shocking or surprising event; it was a normalized and expected holiday happening.

The Star of David is seen on the facade of a synagogue in Paris France, December 10, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/GONZALO FUENTES)
The Star of David is seen on the facade of a synagogue in Paris France, December 10, 2018
I “learned” tshuva (repentance) as a yeshiva student, just as one learned the topic of Shabbat laws from traditional codebooks and Talmudic sources. I debated its philosophic cadence with friends, just as we sought to measure the theological worth of Shabbat within the Judaic enterprise. And we lived its rituals – especially during the High Holy Days – just as we dutifully and joyously prepared and celebrated the weekly testimony to the act of God’s creation of the universe.
In short, for students of Torah coming from pious homes, tshuva was no shocking or surprising event; it was a normalized and expected holiday happening that cast a spell upon the entire year. But for a group of us in our mid-20s, who once experienced it in the most unanticipated and even disguised way from a strange source, it tore apart the life of a beloved friend with its savagely razor-sharp claws during one late summer in the early ‘70s.
Yossi (names and details are intentionally changed) was one of the hevra (gang) who lived that super-hot, sweaty summer in a few apartments on Bennett Avenue in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. We had all learned Torah together, either in Israel or from “The Master of Talmud Study” in the US.
We were immersed in graduate work, studying for smiha (ordination) examinations, dating, and playing a lot of late-night basketball in the park around the corner, as well as engaging in late-night discussions over cold beer back in those high-ceilinged brownstone apartments with the windows open, hoping for a breeze.
Yossi Felder was a star in this very talented and aggressive group of young men. The lone child of Holocaust survivors, he was a driven student and academic superstar. He had sharp elbows under the net, a sharper wit in debate, and a strong need to win. But for all that, he was only a more extreme example of the rest of us.
He had a ready and genuine smile that attracted the girls, and whenever he could, he would spend Shabbat back at home with his folks in Brooklyn. They had sacrificed greatly so that he would be one of the very few shomer-Shabbat (Sabbath-observant) students at one of America’s most elite medical schools.
Yossi thrived there. In those days he was conspicuous in his kippah, but he was a brilliant performer. We lived his medical rounds with him through his nightly storytelling. We loved him for his brilliance, his daily intensive Talmud study (while in medical school!), and his well-etched evocations of his experience.
He was in thrall with one particular mentor, a senior, white-haired surgeon. “The Professor,” as Yossi always referred to him, was a gentleman: impeccably dressed, with a precise and sparing manner of speech, incisive understanding of the body and amazing technique. And he reigned over the oncology ward with full authority and very dry wit. We concluded that Yossi had found a new rosh yeshiva in this WASP.
Disaster was as swift as Yossi’s mind and mouth. During rounds, “The Professor” led his charges by the bed of one severely ill patient. They reviewed his history, looking at the charts and the X-rays. Yossi surmised his analysis and added, “He hasn’t a chance.”
“The Professor” led his charges out of the room. In the corridor, he seized Yossi by the arm took him aside but within earshot of his colleagues and spoke to him, “You casually pronounced a death sentence by that man’s sick bed. A person like you has no right to be a doctor. You are thrown out of this school. And don’t think that you can get in somewhere else. I still have enough influence to have you blackballed everywhere else. Get out!”
SOMEHOW YOSSI schlepped himself home. We found him sitting upright with a very pale face at the dining room table. We coaxed the story out of him. It came in drib after painful drab. But then over the course of the next few days he repeated it so often and in such a strangled voice that we thought we would go mad. His parents called late on Friday (“Yosselle doesn’t call before Shabbos?” his bewildered mother asked), and he made up some excuse.
We, being young men, strategized incessantly, but we honestly couldn’t come up with a plan. In those days, such men as “The Professor” were king, and this was alien territory for us.
Meanwhile, we showed Yossi every compassion, making sure he showered for Shabbat and ate. We put him to bed at night and dragged him to synagogue in his near comatose state, looking like an overworked intern.
Also, we were angry with him. How could he do this to himself and, by extension, to all of us who invested so much pride in his efforts? Darkly we pondered what he would say to his parents, and if they could survive the shame. A terrible weekend.
Monday morning, Yossi rose early. He showered, put on his black Shabbat suit, and prayed. Adjusting his tie, he looked pale enough for his own funeral. He said laconically that he was going to clean out his locker, and that he was going to apologize to “The Professor” on his last day.
When he came home that day after the afternoon Mincha service, Yossi was again sitting at the dining room table. He was still in the black suit and looking even whiter, if possible.
This is what he told us: “After I cleaned out my locker, I went to ‘The Professor’s’ office. His secretary, the scary one, did not seem to be surprised to see me. I sat in the mahogany paneled outer office and she buzzed me in to ‘The Professor’s’ office after a half an hour. I came in – my only time in his office – and he was sitting behind his neat and exquisite antique desk, as you would expect. I tried to speak. He looked up from his papers and gave me that look. ‘Felder, I know why you are here. Of course, I am keeping you on as a medical student. You might make a good doctor yet. I just wanted you to know what it is to live without hope.’ Then with a wave, he dismissed me. I hadn’t said a word.”
The story struck us dumb. We felt euphoria and relief, but we also knew that “The Professor” had spoken the emes, the truth. Tshuva – the ability to change, to reconcile, and to deal with challenge – is all based on hope.
Things returned to normal, but Yossi had changed; a little kinder and gentler, even with all that drive. A year later, the last together in the apartment, we made minyan, a prayer quorum, on Yom Kippur in apartment 5B, the home of a wonderful woman who was unable to get to synagogue. We forced Yossi to lead ne’ila (the closing prayer before the gates of mercy and hope are locked), and he did so in his sweet voice.
After breaking the fast in our apartment, Shmulik toasted Yossi’s performance over schnapps, but added with a scotch-induced twinkle, “We only took you because ‘The Professor’ was otherwise engaged.”
The writer is former head of the Pardes Institute for Jewish Education and founder and director of Yashrut, building civil discourse through a theology of integrity, justice and tolerance. Yashrut includes a smiha initiative as well as programs for rabbinic leaders.