In the Teeth of Laughter

We had a teacher in the 10th grade named Mr. Shekel.

He was our history, prophets, and psalms teacher at our school in Israel, and also our mechanech: the educator who oversaw our class of about 20 religious boys. As he was our mechanech, and also due to his exceedingly advanced age, we very much respected him.

Mr. Shekel shared his surname with Israeli money. A few years before, to counter inflation, the country’s currency had been changed to the new shekel. Earlier coins and bills became the old shekel. He was Old Shekel.

Old Shekel would chain-smoke leisurely in the schoolyard. This was in the early ’90s. Decades older than all our other teachers, he puffed away undisturbed.

We sat two at a table in the classroom. My table was front-row center, abutting Old Shekel’s desk. He seated me there since I was the class’s only non-native Hebrew speaker.

One day, while Old Shekel was making an emphatic point in a lesson on psalms, his false teeth fell out. Because I sat front-row center, the false teeth fell near me, but I failed to catch them. They dropped to the floor.

The room was silent.

Old Shekel bent down, picked up the teeth, and placed them in his mouth without dusting them off.

A boy at the back of the classroom called out, “Teacher, at least clean them first!”

Old Shekel waved away the suggestion. You don’t last so many decades in the teaching profession worrying about your false teeth falling out in front of your students, or how clean they are when you put them back in.

Lah. Lo chashuv. It doesn’t matter,” Old Shekel said, and continued with the lesson.

I, though, started laughing. It was a lengthy laugh; a laugh I didn’t want and couldn’t stop; a painful laugh; a laugh that hurt my stomach and caused my eyes to tear; a laugh that made me ashamed.

I turned around, so at least I wouldn’t be laughing in Old Shekel’s face, and saw that all my classmates were calm and composed.

Old Shekel went on teaching and I went on laughing, and the room was otherwise silent.

I lacked the words to apologize to Old Shekel. Later, my classmates asked how I could have laughed.

“How could you laugh?” they asked.

“How could you not laugh?” I replied.

And so it is with so much of life: We find humor where we can, despite ourselves.

Based on Shai Afsai’s poem “Old Shekel’s Teeth,” this aired most recently as an essay (“Finding Humor”) on NPR’s This I Believe — New England, on July 20, 2021. For more poems and stories by Shai Afsai, visit here.

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