Heschel High School was hard but it saved me. As the Upper West Side building turns twenty this year, at a time when students across the city suffer anxiety and depression as exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, I as the sole Queens boy from the fourth graduating class reflect on the building that stitched me back together.
As a pimpled, thirteen-year-old Rodney Dangerfield wannabe, I had never heard of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, didn’t know that he was one of the deepest thinkers of the twentieth century. All I knew was that, atop a building bearing his name overlooking the Hudson River, there sat a basketball court and I wanted to play pick-up all day.
The problem was those pimples. Bulbous, red, even some sort of purple, the skin blotches led some kids to avert their eyes as I walked the halls or, worse, giggle after I passed, their chuckles echoing like tindersticks off the lockers. We squashed our beef, though, and one or two of the kids became my friends.
After a grueling first year, as the whiteheads vanished and a copy of “The Velvet Underground & Nico” played through my headphones, I started sophomore year with more ease. Classes were hard as hell, pages of Talmud alongside “The Scarlet Letter” pestering me all night, but I soon spotted Heschel’s so-called “nooks.”
Mini-living rooms of carpeted blue-green walls and leather sofas, the nooks enlivened the school and allowed students to prepare for quizzes, gab over bagels, and maybe even kiss before class. While I remained terrified of these city girls, brutally beautiful in their autumn sweaters, I played ball with the boys upstairs, devoured Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” and found jazz. School wasn’t terrible.
Junior year, it became fascinating. Rabbi Heschel, as the Judaic Studies teachers explained, wasn’t quite the traditional clergyman who addressed his congregation from a podium. Instead, he headed the Jewish Theological Seminary up by Riverside Drive and wrote revelatory books.
While Heschel is perhaps most famous for his slim title, “The Sabbath,” it is his longer work, “Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion,” that renders him a genius of the everyday. The concept of being in the present moment appears seemingly everywhere these days, even in commercials for shampoo, but Heschel perhaps presaged it with his coinage in the book of the term, “radical amazement.”
It is essentially the idea that daily life is not humdrum and painful but rather awesome and near sacred, that profundity lies within the mundane. The skeptic may challenge that Heschel was idealistic or even naïve, the world beset by tragedy as it is. As the Heschel faculty countered, however, the opposite was true; Heschel knew life’s darkness very well but dug deeper and championed its wonder.
Still, as a questioning sixteen-year-old, I didn’t fully buy this, didn’t completely absorb the ideas of my school’s namesake. Heschel was definitely humanistic but he was also heady. Besides, there was stuff going on inside my own head.
Around November of my junior year, I began to crumble. I started feeling strange: nervous all of a sudden, shaky, distracted, off. While before I enjoyed class and could focus for the full hour, now I couldn’t and felt like my brain was on fire. Stepping out for a bathroom break, I’d run to the water fountain and find myself taking six or seven sips of water, racing to rinse my teeth of any food that may be stuck there. On a walk one weekend with my older brother, I dropped a water bottle on the street and couldn’t help feeling filthy when I picked it up. While my brother scoffed, I trembled, the invisibility of my distress becoming sadness.
Rabbi Heschel was obviously a brilliant man, his phrases adorning the walls of the school named after him, but maybe even he wouldn’t know what was happening to me, wouldn’t know how to make the pain go away. Radical amazement, beauty, bliss: they didn’t exist. Only this strange turmoil.
About a month later, in December 2008, after a conference of doctors and parents in a Sutton Place doctor’s office, it came out: I had Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. OCD. I shrunk in my chair, my parents panicking on the couch across from me. A chorus of questions: what does this mean? What can we do? Is he going to be okay?
As senior year arrived, the pressure to graduate mounting, I felt torn, as if I was split in two: my anxiety on one side and my vigor on the other. I wanted to be like Heschel and smell the flowers. While I struggled almost every day that year, barely graduating, I witnessed magic, too: my brother driving me to my first date, a rocker singing electric in the rain, my teachers clapping in the stands at my graduation ceremony.
Today, as I ride in a taxi past Heschel, the latest news of the pandemic playing on the radio, I know the ennui inside that school and the other thousands throughout the city. But the kids will be alright. They will stand majestic.