Chayala swears to me that, as crazy as this story is, it is 100% true. To be honest, I’ve seen enough defaced bus stops in Boro Park to believe it.
Dark whispers circulated around my school in tenth grade; there was a complex spy system going on, tracking us after hours.
Five seniors were summoned to the principal’s office; somehow she had found out they had gone to visit their friends in the BY sem dorm after midnight. She confiscated their cameras to look for disturbing evidence and told them they had violated a school rule no one knew existed — that 4 or more girls need to call the principal for permission to get together after school hours and on vacation.
One classmate had gone to Victoria’s Secret to buy some undergarments. She was spotted holding the Victoria’s Secret bag in the train station, and was chastised by my prudish principal for shopping in a store of pritzus.
Until my turn came, I refused to believe the rumors that there was a system in place to tip off my principal of any behavior that might tarnish the school’s image. But then one day, shortly after Chanukah vacation, I was called to the principal’s office.
“Chayala”, my principal started, her cold blue eyes sending icy fire out of her pinched cosmetics-free face, “What were you doing in the Brooklyn Public Library last week?”
I nearly fell out of my chair. What? How did she know?
Officially, our school rule book prohibited us from going to the BPL. Who knew what shmutz we might read there! Unofficially, many of us went, with the blessing of our parents who had spent many an afternoon there themselves as children and teenagers.
I had gone with my friend — and we both didn’t even have library cards. I had used my grandmother’s; my grandmother used to take me and my cousins to the library to pick out a movie to watch on motzai Shabbos or Sunday.
“What did you do there?” she probed.
“I took out a video,” I whispered, careful not to say the word movie.
“They have frum videos in a goyish library?” the Rebbetzin asked in a tone of contrived surprise.
Luckily, I had taken out Fiddler on the Roof.
“It was a video about the shtetl, and how a man named Tevye fought intermarriage,” I said, confident that my holy principal had never watched Fiddler on the Roof.
She looked thwarted for a moment, then her eyes glinted in triumph again.
“Do you ever watch goyish videos?”
Now, at this point most of my classmates would look at my principal with a practiced facial expression of horror, innocence, guilelessness, and utter hurt that she would even suggest the very idea. They would then be let off the hook to skip unscathed back to class.
To my detriment, I was a straight shooter; I had always maintained that as long as I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I had no reason to lie or evade the truth. If others took issue with it, that was their problem, not mine. My classmates would sigh in exasperation as I got called to the principal’s office, time and time again. “You just have to work the system,” they would say, but I couldn’t accept that.
“Yes,” I said. “And they’re all clean, usually classics, and I watch them with my family.”
“How could a goyish video be clean?” the Rebbetzin asked in genuine wonderment. “It’s an oxymoron! Why would you voluntarily want to look at goyim? It hurts my heart to think of your pure neshama seeing all that”
I saw red.
“What’s wrong with seeing non Jews? In the films I watch they’re always dressed tznius,” I protested.
My principal looked at me and wondered how her very own student could be so oblivious.
“Because they’re not Yidden! They have tumah. They’re goyim! Do you know, when I walk down the street with my children and we see goyim, I lower my eyes so I shouldn’t have to see them, and I tell my children, ‘Look down, shefelach, don’t look at the goyim!”
I stared at her in horror. I should mention that I had several non Jewish neighbors who my brothers always played with, my mom worked with wonderful non Jewish people, and while I knew my principal was racist, I had never heard this level of bigotry coming out of her mouth. I must have sat there with my mouth hanging slightly open, because she leaned over and said confidentially:
“I’m going to tell you something I never told any student before. But you have to promise not to tell anyone; I’m only telling this to you so you should see how important it is to protect your eyes and your neshama.”
I mutely nodded.
“Years ago, when I lived in a different neighborhood, there was a billboard hanging next to my block. There were teyere frum families living there, many kollel yungeleit and choshuve men — and one day, a new sign went up on the billboard that threatened to be nichshal all of them. It had a picture, in big, of a goyishe woman there, a prutzah. Every time I saw that sign, a shiver went through me. Who knew how many men were nichshal because of this! It was on for a week, then two, and then I knew I had to do something. I couldn’t come up to shomayim and say I had done nothing to prevent this.
“In middle of the night, when no one was around to see, I crept to the billboard with a bottle of black spray paint. I looked around to make sure no one was there — and then I spray painted the entire woman black.
“I could have gotten into trouble in the law, but I was moser nefesh; this was mamish pikuach nefesh for the men in my neighborhood’s ruchniyus!”
I looked at my principal, who had just told me she was a criminal — my mind had just about exploded.
“Do you understand now how saddened and upset I am when I hear that my student is voluntarily looking at goyish videos, looking at goyim just for entertainment?”
I nodded my head, and must have looked suitably solemn and grim as I thought about the bigotry that existed in my world, because she let me go. Her words definitely had an effect on me; instead of going to the library a few blocks away from me the next Sunday to get a movie, I went online and streamed one instead.