Photo Credit: Feldheim

Title: 5th Grade: A Novel (Yeshiva Makom Torah Series)
Y.A.R (Rabbi Yitzie Ross)



“When a communal fast is instituted for a distressing circumstance, the community’s court and its elders sit in the synagogue and review the conduct of the city’s inhabitants from the time the morning prayers are concluded until noon. They remove the stumbling blocks that lead to sin. They give warnings, enquire, and investigate all those who pursue violence and sin, and encourage them to depart from these ways. Similarly, [they investigate] people who coerce others and humble them”(Rambam Laws of Fasts 1:17).

Bavli Brachos 19a: “If you saw a Torah scholar sin at night, do not think badly of him the next day; assume he has repented.”

It is brave to take on the delicate topic of chinuch and to write a fictional series about it. Ata HaIsh – You are the subject of this story. We are the community, we are the parents, we are the students, we are the teachers, we are the board members. I worked in chinuch for twenty years, and even though I taught high school and I taught girls, I came away with a lot to think about.

The first thing to say about this book is that it is a fantastic, fun, interesting read. I cannot wait to share this with my preteen son. I’m sure he will be captivated by all of the characters and their adventures and concerns, and I am very eager to discuss it with him. Every chapter has exploits that are so relatable to a child, and has just the right amount of conflict and excitement; you want to see how everyone chooses to handle the situation, since each quandary can go a number of ways, just like in real life. Every episode is very well thought out, fun to read, and brings up deeply relevant concerns to our children. This series keeps going and I cannot wait to follow these boys to graduation and see how they grow in maturity, middos, and on their own unique paths with their own unique strengths, challenges, and situations.

The author writes with alarming sensitivity about communications between parents and children, and between other adults (teachers, administration, etc.) and children. I use the word “alarming” because on one hand, it is breathtakingly insightful. On the other hand, it is a big mussar haskel for us adults to carefully study the way the author detects the types of incidents that happen and how he describes what is going on in the child’s mind. When you compare the child’s perception to how the parents or other adults proceed or react, I cannot help but be alarmed at the very big gap and mismatch between how we understand the situation vs. what the children are thinking. With the best of intentions, we adults can have harsh and potentially disastrous responses to our children when they need discernment and help. The author gives many, many examples of beautiful responses to children’s difficulties on the part of the adults around them. I particularly appreciate that one of the stable and responsive parenting examples is portrayed with a child whose parents are divorced, and that one of the more emotionally attuned teachers is the boys’ secular studies teacher. There are also sobering examples where parents and teachers miss the boat. In some cases, that is part of the drama of the story – how the adult comes to understand the situation and handle it better and how the boys work hard to improve themselves. However, the grave reality is that some of our children are dealing with serious difficulties and serious mismanagement of these difficulties, and some of it is due to lagging skills in their adults.

This next point is tricky and I bring it up with some trepidation. I only dare to speak about this because I taught in yeshivas for twenty years. I want to discuss classroom management and teachers getting angry and frustrated with misbehavior.

Before I get into that, I’d like to say how I loved the principal. He seems to me to be modeled after the beloved principal of the local yeshiva in my neighborhood, in terms of his deep understanding of chinuch and the students he cares for, and his tremendous administrative proficiency. The mashgiach, too, is an inspiration and a role model. The administration is admirable. The secular teacher is delightful and creative. It is heartening to read how much the school works on trips, the emotional and middos development of the children, and how to keep the children engaged. I appreciate the discussions around discipline and the considerations and insight into how they make decisions. It is uplifting how much learning Torah is prioritized and how the children and their parents care deeply about limmud Torah and about kavod HaRav and kavod Torah.

The main rebbi is a very interesting character. He looms large in the life of the children. They desperately want to please him. He is experienced and skilled at class management and has a deserved reputation for motivating his students to learn in a serious and advanced manner. He also thinks deeply about interactions he has with his students, frets about whether he was fair and reviews many interactions he has and words that came out of his mouth. Despite these fine qualities, he also tends to get angry, verges on losing his temper numerous times, and has a serious lack of training and understanding about learning disabilities and the emotions of his students. His natural talent and his experience compensate for a lot of this and carries him a great deal. Nonetheless I winced many times when his vein pulsed in his forehead, when he shamed a student or the class as if shaming is the optimal chinuch response to a problem caused by a learning disability, an emotional handicap, or even immaturity or a current lack of shared values.

I believe this sends mixed messages to students, and I believe it was portrayed magnificently. In our schools, respect for rebbeim is a reflection of respect for Torah and is paramount. As it should be. And yet, 5th graders are certainly astute enough to discern when their rebbi is behaving with subpar middos and being reactive and punitive instead of rehabilitative and corrective. And yet they are also young enough to believe their rebbi if the rebbi implies that they should feel great shame at their behavior. Sometimes a sharp word or a pulsing vein conveys a degree of shame that is wrongly contemptuous and humiliating.

The Rambam (Laws of Deos 2:3) says: “Anger is such an exceptionally bad quality that it is fitting to distance oneself from it to the opposite extreme. He should school himself not to become angry even when it is fitting to be angry. If he should wish to arouse fear in his children and household (or within the community, if he is a communal leader) and wishes to get angry at them to motivate them to return to the proper path, he should make himself appear to them as if he is angry in order to discipline them, but inwardly he should be calm, like a person acting like someone angry in a moment of wrath, but who is not actually angry.”

I realize this is a lofty ideal. I’m a parent and a teacher and have failed at this many times. Nonetheless, that does not excuse us adults from continuing to strive. And to publicly state that it is a serious harm to behave with true inward anger towards children, especially when we mistakenly give them the impression that their behavior angers Hashem, when Hashem intends a different quality of discipline. This is also Rambam’s interpretation of Moshe’s sin (4th perek of Shemona Perakim) and the chillul Hashem that ensued. I bring this up even though the rebbi is portrayed as writing down any incident where he realized he embarrassed a student, and he asks mechila at the end of the year.

We all know that skilled mechanchim are difficult to find and difficult to hold onto, and clearly the rebbi depicted in this story is a caliber of mechanech that the community and Klal Yisrael are fortunate to have. There is much to enjoy about this book. There are adventures and high jinks and high-quality fiction with Torah values and complex conundrums we want our children to think about. I think every child who reads this will certainly be thinking and pondering the decisions and outcomes – what they have seen about this and what happened as a result. Let us also carefully analyze and investigate the issues that this book brings up and do teshuva, as parents, as educators, as a community, and as the Jewish people.

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Jessie Fischbein is a Tanach teacher, popular lecturer, and author of the book Infertility in the Bible. She homeschools her children in Far Rockaway, NY.