Dr. Isaac Herschkopf ‘67

Dr. Isaac Herschkopf ‘67

The Spring of ‘67

On a global, national and personal level, the spring of 1967 was fecund with memories for me.

Isaac-Herschkopf-sIsrael fought the six-day war. Anti-Vietnam protests began. The Philadelphia 76ers dominated the NBA, as The Dirty Dozen did the big screen, and Batman the small one. The Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper” pushed The Supremes’ ” You Can’t Hurry Love” off the airwaves.

Most importantly, I was graduating high school.

As much as I hated grade school, and even more than I despised my subsequent college experience, I loved my high school. Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Manhattan, better known as MTA (Manhattan Talmudic Academy), was perfect for me.

I made many friends with whom I stay in touch to this day. I was inspired by, and learned so much from both my Rabbis and secular teachers. I even developed a lifelong friendship with my principal, Rabbi David Weinbach.

Unfortunately, it was because I spent so much time in his office.

We were introduced at the beginning of my sophomore year, thanks to my Latin teacher.

There were but five students. (Not many of us were planning to move to The Vatican.)

As our first class began, I was joking with my classmates, when our teacher walked in. He turned to me: “You! What’s your name?”

“Herschkopf.”

“Herschkopf, you dirty dog. You spit on my wife’s grave!” (Apparently, his wife of many decades had recently passed.)

And so, my two-year Latin adventure began. The other students sat contiguous with his desk. He placed me in a different area code, in the far corner of the empty room. If I dared raise my hand, he glared at me until I put it down. And yet, I learned a great deal of Latin, which I still use frequently.

That was not apparent from my test scores. Reflecting the size of the class, our tests were informal. He would read passages in Latin and English; we would translate them. He would arbitrarily subtract credit for every mistake.

When I got my first test back, I was relieved to see that my grade was over 100. Then I noticed the minus sign preceding it. It was downhill from there. My subsequent scores were -212, -314, -613. No matter how hard I studied, I could not make it back to zero.

Eventually, I approached him and tried to diplomatically point out how unfair his grading system was. His helpful response was: “Quod Licet Jovi, Non Licet Bovi.” (What is permitted of Jupiter is not permitted of an ox.)

When I showed Rabbi Weinbach my tests, he started rubbing his forehead with his thumb and index finger. He asked me if I had discussed this with my teacher. I reported our dialogue. He rubbed faster. Finally, he asked me if I would accept 85 as my grade. I nodded. (In retrospect, I should have held out for 95. I wasn’t a very good negotiator then.) My next eight report cards had my negative Latin grade in red ink, with 85 in blue ink marked over.

My last office visit with Rabbi Weinbach occurred in the spring of 1967.

Our Rebbe had, weeks earlier, assigned each of us a page of Talmud to study, prepare and present to the class. We had no idea when this would start, or who would go first. One day, an hour before class ended, he unexpectedly called upon Ephraim Love.

Seated a few rows behind Effie, I could not see his face, but I noticed his ears flush. His voice was hesitant as he read the first two words: “Tonu Rabbanon.”

He then paused. It was clear that he, like most of us, was totally unprepared. It was only when the Rebbe looked up at him that he finally translated: “The rabbis ask.”

He paused again. Rebbe looked up at him again. He continued: “In actuality, the literal translation is ‘ask the rabbis.’  Why is it phrased that way? Why does the verb precede the noun? What is the Talmud trying to tell us with these two words? Is it suggesting that the function of rabbis is to ask? Is it telling us that the questions might be as important, or perhaps even more important, than the answers? It behooves us to focus on this important issue. Does anyone have any thoughts that they would like to share?”

Effie’s voice was now strong and confident. It was apparent that Effie, a future politician, was attempting to filibuster until class was over.

Rebbe was not pleased. He said: “Veiter”  (Yiddish for “forward” i.e. proceed, go on.)

Effie however, like any good politician, was determined to stay on message: “Why is it the rabbis, plural, who ask?  Surely, they were not asking the exact same question, in the exact same words, in unison. Surely, it was one rabbi who had the question, and perhaps the others agreed with the question. Why not identify the rabbi who had the question? Does he not deserve credit for the question? Is this to teach us that the message is more important than the speaker? Is this to teach us humility?”

Rebbe was losing his patience. He banged his hand on his desk: “Love, veiter!”

Effie would not be dissuaded: “Is it possible that it was, in fact, the rabbi who asked the question himself who did not want to be identified? Is it possible that he realized there was greater honor in being identified as part of this prestigious group, rather than taking credit individually? Is this a message that is still relevant to us today? Does anyone have any thoughts on this important subject?”

Rebbe banged his hand again. He turned to us: “Can anyone explain what Love is doing? Can anyone explain why he won’t go past the first two words? Can anyone tell me how to get him to proceed further?”

Perhaps it was spring fever, perhaps it was senioritis, perhaps it was because we would be graduating shortly, perhaps it was sympathy for Effie; I raised my hand. Rebbe, and the rest of the class, looked at me disbelievingly. This was a rhetorical question; no one was supposed to answer.

Rebbe, with whom I had a good relationship, spread his hands disbelievingly, as if to say, what are you doing?

I smiled: “Rebbe, don’t you know?”

Rebbe shook his head, even more disbelievingly.

I stood up, spread my arms like a Las Vegas headliner, and started to sing The Supremes’ familiar lyrics: “ You can’t hurry love. No, you just have to wait. Love don’t come easy. It’s a game of give-and-take.”

I sent down to absolute silence and stunned looks. With two fingers, Rebbe motioned me to leave the room, which at that point I was relieved to do.

When Rabbi Weinbach saw me enter his office, he immediately, wordlessly started rubbing his forehead. He remained silent as I told him what happened, but his thumb and forefinger moved from his forehead to his lips. When I was done, without a word, he motioned me, with some urgency, to leave his office.

As I closed the door behind me, his secretary Naomi started to ask me what he had said, but we were interrupted by the sound of hysterical laughter from behind his door.

The spring of 1967 is now a half century ago, but I remained friendly with both Rebbe and Rabbi Weinbach for decades.

Some years before he passed away, Rabbi Weinbach had to have brain surgery at my hospital. (I was worried that he rubbing his forehead on all my visits to his office had caused it.) The outcome was perfect, but with surgery of this type, someone had to ascertain that there had been no deleterious impact on his cognitive functioning. I was honored that he asked me to do so.

We sat in his hospital room and spoke for over an hour. Within minutes, it was obvious that his thinking and memory were completely intact. Neither of us however wanted to end the conversation. We kept reminiscing until the neurosurgeon and the rabbi’s wife, Lee, finally interrupted us.

They looked at me, concerned with my verdict. Before I could say anything, Rabbi Weinbach grabbed my hand: “ This was the finest student in the history of MTA.”

I looked at them and said: “He’s psychotic.”

I so miss him, MTA and the spring of ‘67.

– Dr. Herschkopf ‘67, President of the NYU Bellevue Psychiatric Alumni, has written in literary, medical and news publications. This excerpt is from a forthcoming memoir.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *