Whittier, Frost, and me

Whittier, Frost, and me

I would suspect that at some time in our lives, most of us have approached a crossroad with some trepidation.

It could involve school, romance, career, or even whether or not to watch gymnastics or swimming during the Olympic Games. I think we experience this anxiety because once we choose a particular path to follow, the one not chosen is forever foreclosed. None of us would want to be like Maud Muller, the eponymous heroine of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, who chooses injudiciously and regrets it for the rest of her life.

Regarding her plight, the poet observes:

“For of all sad words of tongue or pen,

The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!”

In his poem “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost speaks of traveling by foot along a road when he came to a parting of the way.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both.”

Like Frost, back in the spring of 1975, I saw two roads in front of me. I had applied for admission to Yeshiva University’s Yeshiva College as well as to another institution of higher Jewish learning. For someone like me, a public school kid who attended a Conservative synagogue, seeking admission to YU was like Frost’s less traveled road. Other than what I could glean from synagogue youth groups and Jewish summer camps, I’d had no formal Jewish education since my bar mitzvah. I was eager to learn more, but I was unsure how to proceed.

I was sitting in the vestibule of the administrative offices of Yeshiva University, waiting for my name to be called. This, the in-person interviews, would be the final and most critical aspect of the undergraduate admissions process.

I first met with an admissions officer. The interview featured pretty standard questions. What was my favorite color? If I were a cloud, or an animal, what kind would I be? What did I hope to study? At one point, wanting to attest to my Jewish activist bona fides, I mentioned that not only was I very involved in Young Judaea, but I had been president of the local chapter.

“Young Judaea huh?” he snorted. “Isn’t that where they tell you to have sex and go to Israel?”

Even at that tender age I was possessed of an irrepressible sense of humor, or as some people, my wife included, would say, a chronic case of wise guyness.

“Well, I replied, “yes — but not always in that order.”

I could have sworn I detected a flicker of a smile beginning to form at the corner of his mouth. However, calling upon his iron will, which no doubt served him well on fast days, he fought down the urge and instead fixed me with a baleful glare. He was displeased, but not so much as to eliminate me from consideration.

Shortly thereafter I was ushered into the office of Rabbi Morris (Moshe) Besdin, the director of the school. His would be the final decision regarding my candidacy. This interview was more like a conversation. We discussed where I was religiously and where I hoped to be. Did I put on tefillin? Who said kiddush at the Shabbat table on Friday evening and Shabbat morning? Did I attend synagogue every day? What was my parents’ religious background? At one point, he handed me a volume of the Chumash and asked me to read and translate a few verses. Fortunately, it was a passage that I was familiar with. And so I smiled and did so.

He then asked me what other schools I had applied to. After I told him, he said, “That’s a very good school. They’ll teach you about the Bible. They’ll teach you about the Talmud. They’ll teach you about Jewish law. Here we don’t teach about it. Here, we only teach it.”

And it was as if a light went on in my head. Having never experienced formal instruction on classic Jewish texts, I realized at that moment that this is where I wanted to be. He had me at “Here we only teach it.”

The interview was beginning to wind down when, while looking me up and down, he asked, “Schwartz, how is it that you come to an interview so slovenly dressed?” (As you might expect, there were any number of fellows named Schwartz at Y.U. However, as far as I knew, I was the only one whom he always called Schwartz.)

I was embarrassed, stung. I had chosen my outfit carefully, some kind of khaki-like trousers, a long-sleeved button-down shirt, untucked, with no visible tzitzit, and a knitted skull cap, which admittedly looked more like something that Ishmael would have worn on the Pequod than a kippah. Nevertheless, it was a far cry from my usual graphic tee and jeans. But I guess he was expecting something a little more formal.

Sensing my discomfort, he smiled and said, “On the other hand, there’s something about you, Schwartz. You seem like a serious boy. So I think I’m going to take a chance on you.”

Several months later I was nervously sitting in a classroom for my first ever Chumash class. In strode Rabbi Besdin, who announced, “Gentlemen, the Chumash is Beresheis. The parasha is Beresheis. The pasuk is aleph.”

I felt chills up and down my spine. I knew that I was in the right place. Like Frost, who had taken the road less traveled, I regretted it not.

Mark Schwarz of Englewood is a librarian. He is a member of Congregation Ahavath Torah and former co-chair of Minyan Tiferet of Englewood and Tenafly.