Commentary Magazine


A Curious Theft:
A Story

The junior counsellor ran up to the division head.

“We found the Torah in Mickey Rosen’s trunk,” he said breathlessly.

From this statement one might surmise that he had been looking for the Torah in Mickey Rosen’s trunk, which was, of course, not the case. In fact, the junior counsellor had been deeply surprised.

The division head, busy with the cares of last-day packing (for the camp was breaking up that afternoon), creased his forehead in absent-minded puzzlement.

“Why?” he asked.

And then, as the full import of this information was borne in on him, he asked:

“Why, why in God’s name would he want to take the Torah home with him?”

The junior counsellor shrugged.

“I don’t know,” he said. “There it was, at the bottom of the trunk, covered by a blanket.”

“Let’s go,” said the division head, wondering if he’d be able to get his own packing done that day.

They began to thread their way through the trunks, duffle bags, valises, cartons, etc. etc. It was one of those clear brilliant New England days in September (in those days camps broke up in September, not on August 28) when one was able to feel simultaneously the warmth of the departing summer and the intimations of autumn. Sweaters and a few lumberjackets were in evidence.

“What did he say?” asked the division head.

“Nothing,” said the junior counsellor. “He wouldn’t say a thing.”

The camp followed a policy of checking the kids’ trunks on the last day of camp. There wasn’t much to steal; in fact the examination was so cursory that any small valuable which a kid might steal (like a mounted butterfly from the nature hut) would almost certainly be overlooked. Only something very large would be noticed.

The division head thought of the great thievery years back, when he had been a camper. One of the boys, on his own, had simply pasted a label on the big Indian war canoe and then called the express company. In the confusion of the last day, nobody had noticed the canoe being hoisted into the truck, which then drove up the path from the lake, past the main house, and onto the road.

“Anything is possible on the last day,” he thought, as they came up to Mickey Rosen’s trunk.

_____________

 

Now one of the difficulties which confronted the division head was that he was in love with Mickey Rosen’s sister. It was a late love, flowered when the season was coming to a close (maybe because the season was coming to a close), but love nevertheless, and the effect of this attachment had been to put him in a kind of protective position toward the boy.

The conflict between duty and love was not fairly joined here, for since this was the last day of camp, what kind of discipline could be invoked?

Keep him out of the evening activity?

But the evening activity was the train, homeward bound.

They found the lad sitting, somewhat disconsolately, a bit defiantly, on the steps of his bunk.

The division head waved to him, and the lad walked up slowly.

“What’s the idea?”

Mickey shrugged.

The division head opened the trunk, and there, sure enough, unwrapped from the blanket in which the boy had tried to hide it, was the Torah, the Scrolls of the Law from which we read during the Sabbath services.

The division head was truly staggered by the conception, blocked in his expression by love for the boy’s sister.

“See,” said the junior counsellor, like the oaf in the fairy tale, “see, I told you.”

And he gazed into the trunk, fascinated by what he was afraid to believe.

This impasse was deepened by the appearance of the head counsellor, for word of the enormity had spread.

He peered into the trunk, to assure himself of the accuracy of the unbelievable report. Then he turned to Mickey, and asked, in a tone that meant to be strict, authoritarian, but was not deficient in a musing quality:

“Do you realize what you’ve done, do you realize that you have tried to steal the Torah?”

The boy did not consider that this was a question which demanded an answer, so he remained silent.

“Do you know what it says in that book about stealing, can you tell me that?”

‘It says,” said the boy, “that ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal.’”

“Excellent,” said the head counsellor. “It says ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal,’ so you steal the book where it is written ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal.’ What made you do it, please explain that.”

“I wanted to bring it home to my father,” said the boy, looking for support to the division head, who looked away in confusion.

“What do you mean, take it home to your father?” asked the head counsellor. “You know that it is not permitted to keep a Torah in the home, but only in the Ark of the Synagogue.”

The youth was quiet in the face of the theology.

“Well,” said the head counsellor, looking at his watch and thinking of train-time, “take it back.”

The boy took the Torah from the trunk, but at this point there was an interruption from one of the seniors, a particularly privileged senior, whose compound of atheism and theology had made him a nuisance all summer long.

“What do you mean ‘take it back’?” asked the privileged senior insolently. “You can’t take it back to that Ark, that makeshift Ark, because the congregation is gone, and therefore that hall is no longer a Temple.”

“Quiet,” said the head counsellor. “The Torah will be put away in its correct place, but first Mickey will bring it back to the place from which he stole it, that is the least he can do.”

“You are very lucky,” said the head counsellor, “that this is the last day of camp.”

“If it weren’t the last day,” said Mickey, emboldened by the fact that it was the last day and that he had two brothers and a sister enrolled as campers, giving him, in those depression days, an unholy economic power, “if it weren’t the last day, do you think I’d be crazy enough to try to steal it?”

“Get going,” said the head counsellor.

“This is very unusual,” said the privileged senior. “He is not even wearing a hat.”

At this the junior counsellor, who was quite Orthodox, pulled a skullcap from his pocket and placed it on Mickey’s head. Then the procession started out, with Mickey up front, hugging the Torah close, for fear of dropping it.

_____________

 

As they made their way through the . crowded thoroughfare, campers and counsellors looked up at the unusual sight; those who were aware of the circumstances were not surprised, others wondered as they idly looked up from their packing chores, while some of the youngsters, considering this a parade, attached themselves to the line, only to be chased off, but then trailing along nevertheless.

“It is a holiday,” confided a junior to a bunkmate. “Tisha b’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple.”

“Then why is Mickey carrying the Torah?” asked his friend. “He’s not even thirteen yet.”

“Well,” said the junior, who was not only weak in history, but who also refused ever to be at a loss, “he is probably a descendant of the Tribe of the Rabbis, they have special privileges.”

“Mickey stole the Torah, Mickey stole the Torah.”

The freshman started this chant, and a few of the sophs picked it up, but they were quieted by their counsellor.

Mickey disregarded the cries of these small children, and held the sacred scroll closer. The fact is that he was to be confirmed late in September, and that all summer he had been receiving special instruction from the camp rabbi, reading over and over again his portion of the Law, and reciting, day after day, the speech which had been written for him by his city rabbi, though it was touched up here and there by the young seminarian, the camp rabbi.

Mr. Rosen thought that the Bar Mitzvah was too close to the end of the summer to allow for the sojourn in camp, but the director had promised that the boy would receive regular and expert instruction and the Rosens finally agreed.

On their way to the social hall, which was used as a synagogue on inclement Friday evenings and Saturday mornings (otherwise services were held in an outdoor setting, a bit too pagan for some of the more Orthodox visiting fathers), the little group passed the lake.

There was something incongruous about the scene now—the lake seemed so foreign in face of this group symbolizing a people whose destiny has been bound with the desert and with the great metropoleis of history.

How little the Jews have had to do with lakes, these clear inland bodies of water, so self-contained, so secure in their settings of mountain and wood.

Just before they reached the social hall, a boy jumped out and tried to seize the Torah from Mickey, who resisted this onslaught, aided, of course, by the horrified onlookers, who pushed the offending youth away. It was Harry Weiner, Mickey’s most formidable rival in incorrigibility.

“What are you doing?” screamed the head counsellor.

“Why should he have it?” asked Harry. “That crook!”

The counsellors were stunned by this curious, altogether meaningless question.

“All the kids seem to be going crazy this last day of camp,” said the junior counsellor.

Mickey glared at his rival who, unsuccessful in his bid for the main role, reluctantly joined the onlookers.

They all reached the social hall just as the director came running up from the opposite direction. He was running but tried to give the effect of walking, just as, genuinely horrified, he tried to give the effect of calm.

“Come, come,” he said, “let’s all get back to our bunks and finish packing.”

He took the Torah from the boy’s hands, saying:

“I will bring it up to the main house now.”

“My God,” thought the director, “it surely would have been left here through the winter.”

And he thought of the cold, the desolation, the wild animals prowling in the social hall, before the makeshift Ark, clawing. . . .

Then it was his turn to seize the Torah to himself, guiltily preserving what had been saved by an outrageous act.

_____________

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