This wasn’t supposed to happen, especially not to me. I could give you all the stats: my great-grandfather learned in Radin with the Chofetz Chaim, my grandfathers learned in Slobodka and Novardik, and my father has smicha from Ner Yisroel in Baltimore. Outside of the brief fantasy (which lasted a lot longer than I care to admit) that I would be the star player who takes the Chicago Bears to the Superbowl, I always saw myself in yeshiva. It is what I had always planned to do, and I never really contemplated anything else.
I missed all the warning signs, too. The fact that I really didn’t like to learn, and that that might have some impact on my plans, never crossed my mind. After all, I was good at it, winning awards and learning competitions in day school (I definitely liked that) and shooting up through the ranks in high school to the highest shiurim. I also failed to notice that as high school transitioned to beis medrash most of my peers really wanted to learn and didn’t play those silly “hiding from the Rebbe games.” The truth is learning was something I did because I had to, not something I did because I wanted to or enjoyed it.
That fantasy world came crashing down on me after I seriously injured a high school boy in a football game that took place when I was supposed to be in seder (I guess I didn’t want to give up on that Chicago Bears fantasy so quickly). Sometimes you just see things more clearly after an event like that, and I suddenly realized that I wasn’t really doing much of anything in yeshiva. I still see that play, that tackle and the pain from his broken collarbone playing over and over in my mind.
Things were mostly a blur at that point, and even though I have a very good memory, I cannot remember the actual moment at which I decided that it was time to leave. In all honesty, I probably thought that I’d just leave and start again in another yeshiva, somewhere else. I also don’t remember the point at which I decided not to even apply for admission to another yeshiva, although the fact that I couldn’t give a decent accounting of what I had learned over the previous two years probably had a lot to do with it. The football game was on a Sunday. I was home by Tuesday afternoon with no idea what to do and what my future would hold.
I was only partially aware that for most people a quick exit from yeshiva without even an attempt to transfer someplace else was usually an indication of some serious offense. While I had been guilty of no such thing, I didn’t feel comfortable telling people that I had never lived up to any of that potential they always thought I had in learning.
I must have been asked scores of times over the first few weeks, “Why aren’t you in yeshiva?” It was a question I really couldn’t answer for myself, let alone anyone else. Luckily, my response, “I lost my football scholarship,” made people laugh and walk away without pursuing the question any further. In retrospect, I probably would have been better off trying to develop a real response to that question. It may have given me some of the kind of guidance I really needed.
The point was I always had a vision of where I saw myself going. Yeshiva as far as the eye could see, marriage and kollel and the likelihood that I would spend my life learning in the mornings and teaching history (my favorite high school subject) in a yeshiva’s General Studies department.