A spoonful of kindness

My poor melamed, my poor teacher of elementary Hebrew, had to try to teach me to read, with flawless pronunciation, the holy passages I'd be required to read at my Bar Mitzvah.

Every night for weeks we would meet in the basement room of a ramshackle building that served as a school for Jewish studies. Always I would get there before him and sit down at my end of the long study table. Some minutes later he'd enter and go immediately to his end of the table, sit down, and with a sort of what's-the-use gesture tell me to begin.

With my nose to the sacred writings I would begin reading as Hebraically as I could those passages whose meaning I hardly understood; passages whose subtleties the melamed never even tried to explain to me. ''What's the good,'' he would say in his thick Lithuanian accent, ''of trying to explain to a child what lies too deep even for the rabbis?'' Often I'd stumble, stammer, or be unable to see words because my eyes were filling with tears of distress.

And there he would sit in his shabby clothes -- on his face a perpetual scowl of disbelief that any child should so mutilate the holy sounds. Often, oh so often, and with many plaintive groans, he would correct my pronunciation or supply words I had left out.

Once only, in all those lugubrious sessions, did he ever smile at me, something I'll never forget. Here's how it happened:

One night, in the midst of one of my most blasphemous mutilations, he stood up, gripped the edge of the table, and bobbed forward and backward, as if he were in horrible pain. I was so ashamed I'd upset him that I crawled under the table and covered my head with both hands.

Then, as if cued by some mystical conductor of despairing spirits, we joined in a kind of duet of lamentations. While I lamented in English below the table, ''I'm sorry I'm such a trial to you, sir!'' he lamented in Hebrew above it -- only God knows what! For I understood not a word. Perhaps he was lamenting his whole life. Everybody knew of his disappointed ambition to become a rabbi. Everybody knew of his unhappy marriage. His pay was terrible and his wife, punishing him for their poverty, beat him over the head with gravy spoons, even on holy days.

When his lamentations reached such a pitch that they were drowning out mine, I became afraid that if I didn't somehow hearten the melamed he might lose all hope not only for me but for himself. Crawling from under the table, I bolted out of the room, ran the three blocks to my house, grabbed two spoons and a jar of honey, and ran back.

I found the melamed slumped in his chair, momentarily exhausted from lamentations. Poor man, much harmed by spoons, now other spoons would help him. Giving first him and then myself a spoonful of honey, I said, ''May it sweeten this hard day for you, sir.'' Then I lifted my spoonful and proposed the ancient toast between all partakers of deliverance -- ''L'chayim!''m ''To life!''

The melamed winced at my pronunciation. ''Child,'' he said, ''the toast 'L'chayim'm is pronounced LOCK-HIME, not ROCK-LIME!'' Then, seeing how near to tears I was for failing to cheer him, he touched his spoonful to mine and said, smiling sadly,''L'chayim!''m

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