Mizmor L'David Anthology 

 


Poetica Magazine, Contemporary Jewish Writing


Shai Afsai (shaiafsai.com) lives in Providence, RI. In addition to short fiction and poetry, his recent writing has focused on Jewish observance and identity in Nigeria, Jewish pilgrimage to Ukraine, Jewish-Polish relations, Benjamin Franklin’s influence on Jewish practice, and the poetry of Gerry Mc Donnell.

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Old Shekel's Teeth
Shai Afsai


We had a teacher in the tenth grade

named Mr. Shekel.

He was our history, Prophets, and Psalms teacher

and also our mechanech:

the educator who oversaw our class of about thirty boys.


As he was our mechanech,

and also due to his exceedingly advanced age,

we very much respected him.


Mr. Shekel shared his surname with Israeli money.

A few years before,

to counter inflation,

the country’s currency

was changed to the new shekel.

Earlier coins and bills became the old shekel.

He was Old Shekel.


Old Shekel would go out into the schoolyard

for a quick cigarette between classes

and stand outside chain-smoking leisurely

during lunch and recess.

This was in the early nineties

and smoking in Israel was acceptable everywhere

except maybe maternity wards and operating rooms.


People understood that cigarettes were harmful

and only one boy in our class smoked —

a muscular boy whose father

had a falafel stand at the shuk.

But Old Shekel’s longevity was irrefutable

and a counterargument of sorts to the ill-effects of cigarettes.

Decades older than all our other teachers,

he puffed away undisturbed.


Students sat two at a table in the classroom.

My table was front row center

abutting Old Shekel’s desk.

I shared the table with a boy

suffering from terrible acne.

We all had acne in the tenth grade

but his was of a different magnitude.

Old Shekel assigned me that seat

since I was the class’s only non-native Hebrew speaker.

They say sitting toward the front of a room

leads to greater academic success.


One day

while Old Shekel

was making an emphatic point

in a lesson on the Book of Psalms,

his false teeth fell out.

Because I sat front row center

the false teeth fell near me,

but my acned table-mate and I

failed to catch them

and they dropped to the floor.


The room was silent.

Old Shekel bent down,

picked up the teeth,

and placed them in his mouth

without dusting them off.

A boy at the back of the class called out,

“Teacher, at least clean them first!”

Old Shekel waved away the suggestion.

You don’t last that many years in the teaching profession

worrying about your false teeth falling out

or how clean they are when you put them back in.

“Nah. It doesn’t matter,” Old Shekel said

and continued with the lesson on Psalms.


I, though, started laughing.

It was a lengthy laugh,

a laugh I didn’t want and couldn’t stop,

a painful laugh,

a laugh that hurt my stomach and caused my eyes to tear,

a laugh that made me ashamed.

I turned around

so at least I wouldn’t be laughing in Old Shekel’s face,

and saw that all my classmates were calm and composed.

Old Shekel went on teaching

and I went on laughing

and the room was otherwise silent.


I lacked the words to apologize to Old Shekel.

Later, my classmates —

especially the muscular boy who smoked,

and who would soon drop out of school

to work at the falafel stand with his father,

and who perhaps now foresaw that his current nicotine use

could one day lead to devastating tooth loss —

asked me how I could have laughed.

“How could you not laugh?” I answered.


And so it is with so much of life.

How can you laugh? How can you refrain from laughing?


How can you laugh?

How can you refrain from laughing?