If you looked just at his back you would have said that in the old country he'd have been a water carrier. A man who hurried to and from the well all day with a yoke on his back, at the bidding of merchants and housewives.
Certainly his back looked broad enough never to bend under the weight of any yoke. Sometimes, when he stood in the synagogue praying, the crossbeam of the roof itself, with a window of watery light hanging from each end, looked like a great yoke set upon his shoulders.
But when he turned around and you saw his face, the gray-green eyes that seemed to listen as well as to see, the smile that understood that no deed must be left unfinished, and his short, stiff beard, a little thing, like silence, but capable of withstanding much that is windy in the world, then you saw that God had given him a deep mind as well as a strong back. Then you understood why he was that wisdom carrier, a teacher.
Mr. Bernshtein was a widower, with no children and so for him to teach was, as he said, "to have my portion of being a father." And it was with a father's care that he taught his subject, philosophy, to the best students at the high school, going over book after book of the great thinkers with them till every book was in their hearts.
I wasn't old enough to go to high school, but Mr. Bernshtein lived next door to us, and so I took advantage of the good fortune. Always when we'd meet I'd ask a question or two. And he'd give me wisdom.
"Why don't you drop the 'h' from your name, Mr. Bernshtein? Wouldn't it be easier to say then?"
"Easier maybe, but sadder. The 'h' is so quiet. And why shouldn't the quiet souls among us be heard too?"
"Mr. Bernshtein, why does a mouse have a tail? What does he need it form ?"
"For the same reason some creatures have horns, Davie. Life isn't easy. We all need something fanciful to lift our spirits. So the mouse has his tail, and we human beings, well, we have our imagination."
When he was almost 60 years old, a great woe befell Mr. Bernshtein. A bond issue to pump more money into the ailing budgets of the schools failed, and he was one of the teachers let go.
To fortune he gave a sad, deprecating smile for waiting till he was no longer young to oust him like this. But fortune's mind, he said, had long needed improving, and he would begin the task by showing it that a teacher is always a needed, young or old.
Such an effort he made to find a new position, the one he would have had to make truly to lift the yoke of the synagogue onto his back, it could not have been greater. But nothing came of it. He could not even find a job sweeping floors, doing to dust what once he'd done to ignorance. I didn't ask him questions anymore when we met. His head was bowed, and the worry had sunk even into his shadow.
One morning on my way to school I saw him go into a low, gray building. It was that place of last resort, the food stamp office.
I went over and peered in a window. Some people were sitting in the few chairs provided, and many others on the concrete floor, filling out voluminous forms. Mr. Bernshtein stood in line with others waiting for forms. His back, that once had looked so strong, now looked as if it had itself become a burden too heavy to carry.
When he got his forms, he went over to a corner and sat down on the floor. I stared, my heart pounding with shame to see him there. In school we were taught to pick up books that had fallen on the floor and put them back where they belonged. It wasn't right that even the pride of a book should be scorned. But here was a man on the floor.
Running home, I grabbed a chair from the kitchen table and I carried it back to the building as fast as I could. Mr. Bernshtein was still sitting in his corner, filling out forms. I took the chair over and set it down next to him.
At first he just looked at it, as if he'd forgotten what it was for. But then, as I helped him up, tears of recognition, of the chair and of the bringer, filled his eyes, and he sat down. He was going to be all right now, I knew.
He knew it, too. "So, Davie," he said, "it isn't true that I deserve to sit on the floor?"
"You told me once that only love is the truth, Mr. Bernshtein, and everything else is a lie."
Such a smile he gave me then, I wish the world could have seen.