Book Review: Strange Bedfellows

Teacha! Stories from a Yeshiva By Gery Albarelli Glad Day Books 104pp.; $10.95, Strange Bedfellows: An Italian-Catholic teacher finds his way into the hearts of his Satmar Hasid students.

I think it was Woody Allen who once turned Shaw’s quote on its head when he observed, “Those who can’t teach, teach gym.” Later critics added, “Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.” After surviving five years teaching in a hasidic yeshivah in Willamsburg, Brooklyn, Gerry Albarelli might offer a correction: “Those with unbelievable patience, creativity and a sense of humor teach English to Yiddish-speaking yeshivah boys.”

“Teacha! Stories from a Yeshiva” is Albarelli’s sometimes amusing, sometimes obvious account of a non-Jew teaching in a world where English is not valued, non-hasidic teachers are seen as outsiders, and students are cooped up from 6 in the morning until 6:30 in the evening without a single recess.

Albarelli answered an ad: English teacher wanted – yeshivah – Brooklyn – call Rabbi Steiner. Based on his prior experience teaching English, and an overall shortage of teachers willing to work in such a school, Albarelli was hired after a five-minute interview. On his first day of work, he was greeted by fresh-faced third-grade boys throwing wet toilet paper bombs, walking on tables, fighting on the floor and sneaking to the bathroom for a game of cards. Keeping track of the class was difficult, given that most boys were named “Joel” and some even shared the surname “Teitelbaum, “ after the late Satmar grand rabbi, Joel Teitelbaum. Behavior management was a huge problem – until Rabbi Katz, the disciplinarian, came in the room, wooden stick in hand, to reassure Albarelli that he knew exactly what type of “different medicine” each boy needed, be it a tap on the head, an affectionate smack, or just a good scare.

The rosh yeshivah (school head) was nice enough to give some practical guidance (in broken English, of course). He said, “Think of it this way – you’re going to Mars,” and handed Albarelli a mimeographed copy of “Rules for English Teachers,” which included such gems as “No current events. No talk about Israel. No movies. No TV. No vulgar language. No talk about the human body.” One teacher was reprimanded for bringing a paper skeleton to class since “they shouldn’t know what’s inside of their bodies.” The most important rule, “No girls,” was enforced by censors who reviewed each English reader and textbook to make sure faces of females were blackened out. Too bad there was no rule mandating enough books, supplies or even a curriculum.

Though Albarelli is tempted to quit, he “sticks it out” and becomes something of a local hero – neighborhood families invite him to march in the Purim Parade, cops greet him, and local coffeeshop owners engage him in conversation about his students at the yeshivah. Yet the secret of Albarelli’s success is no secret at all. He uses “tricks” that are obvious to all good teachers: He starts where his students are, making no assumption about their knowledge of the world beyond their neighborhood, tries the unconventional, rolls with the punches and forgets every bit of “formal teaching wisdom” he learned while teaching more traditional high school and college English courses.

In Albarelli’s bag of tricks: He brings pictures from National Geographic and instructs the students to arrange them and make up a story. The students have a blast, but this works for only a few days. So he moves on to Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad, asking the pupils to perform skits about slavery. In one lesson, Albarelli asks, “If you could be whatever you wanted for just one day, what would you be?” The answers include astronaut, captain of a ship and dope addict.

Albarelli clearly transports his students from the insular neighborhood of Williamsburg to a world they never knew existed. The subjects he exposes them to – social studies, math, civics and a dash of psychology – are no less important than the English he teaches them.

Albarelli has an eye for detail and nuance and captures the experience in a way that elicits pity for him and his colleagues and love for his young boys. The Italian-Catholic outsider, he gradually becomes something of an insider: Students share personal stories, rabbis invite him to holiday celebrations, and one parent secretly recruits him to tutor all eight of his kids. Even after he moves out of his Williamsburg apartment and has a long commute to school, he comes back each day – and not only to gather material for his first book.

Albarelli’s ability to tell stories respectfully, non- judgmentally, is both a strength of this rather short book and its major weakness. The reader is left wanting more “inside dirt” and critical analysis of a community that few know so intimately.

While reading “Teacha!” I was transported back to a lovely afternoon at the Bronx Zoo. It is the middle of Passover and the zoo is packed with hasidic families. I am struck by their long sleeves and black coats on an unseasonably hot day. I wonder if I have more in common with my fellow shorts-, T-shirt- and baseball cap- wearers, or with my matzah-toting brethren. Is my life more like Albarelli’s or his hasidim? Albarelli illustrates how knowing others comes not through distant observations and brief encounters, but through patient, open-minded interactions over time. His descriptions of everyday life allow us to get past our own judgments and stereotypes, and see the people behind the garb – if only for a brief moment

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