On Baths and Dinosaurs

A Tyrannosaurus rex toy

The teacher came in, sat down. The student was already there, waiting for the teacher.

The teacher said, “Today we will continue working on your essay. Last time we were writing about… now, remind me…what was it?”

The student, a twelve-year-old girl, said, “Amber”.

The teacher nodded, drummed her fingers on the table.

“Amber. That’s right. The essay on amber. You were supposed to fix it at home. Have you done that?”

“I didn’t get around to it.

“You didn’t get around to it?

“I didn’t get around to it.

“That was your homework. And homework is homework. It’s not the last thing to do. It’s the first thing to do. You do understand this, don’t you?”


“Homework isn’t something you don’t get around to.”


“Alright. Take out your essay. We’ll fix it in class.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright.”

“But I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright, I said. We’ll work on it here.”

“I’m sorry but I don’t have it.

“You don’t have it?”

“I’m sorry.”

“What happened to it?”

“I left it at home.”

“You forgot to bring it?”

“It’s not that.”

“It’s not what?”

“I showed it to my mother.”

“That’s good. I encourage students to share their work with their parents.”

“My mother said–”

“I’m sure she loved it.”

“She said something about amber.”

“Good. A thing like this can start discussions. Mother-daughter kind of thing.”

“She said it’s not right that amber was formed millions of years ago. And this thing about dinosaurs. She said that was wrong too. There were no dinosaurs.”

“Well, maybe…just maybe…your mother doesn’t know everything.”

“And in school too. In school they tell us there were no dinosaurs.

“Well, you see… your school…how shall I put it? It has a certain…well, a certain…slant…a certain way of looking at things, shall we say… a certain worldview of which dinosaurs aren’t a part. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Mother says dinosaurs are just toys. They’re toys that are so popular, they are even making movies about them. That’s what my mother said. People like these toys so much they want to believe there really were such creatures. And so they make up stories about them.”

“What about the stories your mom believes? And your teachers? I shouldn’t be telling you this, but if I were to speak to you as grown up to grown up, I’d say those are just stories too.”

“Do you believe in God?

“Well… it’s a…”

“Do you believe that God created the world in seven days?”

“…it’s a complicated question. Whether I believe or not, it’s…no, I can’t answer this question just like that.”

“But why?”

“As I said, it’s a complicated question. And I don’t want to discuss it with you in class.”

At this point the school library teacher walked in. She said, “Sorry to burst in on you just like this, but we need a few extra chairs. What is this complicated question you’re not supposed to discuss?”

“She asked me if I believe in God.”

The library teacher bent towards the student and whispered gently: “I’ll explain this to you later.”

The English teacher turned to the library teacher, “You see,” she said, “I’m not part of this school. I’m from the city. We city teachers are not allowed to discuss religion with our parochial school students. Separation of church and state, you know.”

The library teacher said, carrying away two chairs. “Well, so long, and thanks for the chairs. Sorry to have interrupted you.”

The teacher coughed. “So. Where were we? The essay. We were talking about your essay.”

The student said, “Do you do baths?”



“Baths? What baths?”

The student was a little shy. “Well, you know. Baths.”

“Sure, I take baths.”


“Mikve? Oh, is it–? Oh, yeah. No-no, I would never– I think it’s terrible. Humiliating. Really. And you know what? I’ll repeat what I said to you before: we shouldn’t talk about this. What I mean is, I don’t want to talk about it.”

“You should have a baby!”


“If you had a baby, you wouldn’t mind talking about mikve.”

“Open your notebook.

“How old are you, Miss Rosner?”

“I said, open your notebook.”

“You’re thirty-six years old, you told me so yourself, you have a husband, but you don’t have a baby. How come you don’t have a baby?”

“Not every woman has to have a baby.”

“But you want one! I know you want one.”

I sat up in my chair and said sternly, “Young lady, you’re forgetting what we’re here for. We’re here to learn.”

“Ha! Don’t pretend to be strict, it doesn’t suit you.”

I tried to speak more sternly. “I will consider this lesson finished, unless you open your notebook and start writing at once.”

The student cried eagerly, “You can still have a baby! Even though you’re thirty-six, you’re not too old yet!”

“I appreciate your tender concern, Chana. But I repeat, this isn’t what I’m here for.”

“I know I’m going to have a mikve before my wedding!”


“This is how we do it in our community.”

“I’m glad this is how you do things in your community. But we’re not discussing your community. We’re not discussing any community. We’re here to write. To write well enough to graduate from high school.”

“But this is not just any high school!”

“Of course not! It’s a very good high school. One of the best.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“If that’s not what you mean, then it’s not what you mean. What you mean is that it’s a yeshiva, isn’t this what you mean?”


“And, in order to remain one of the leading high schools, the yeshiva needs every student to–”

“To do mikve.”

“I’m not here to have you finish my sentences for me, young lady.”

“You’re Jewish, aren’t you?”

“In a way.”

“You’re either Jewish or you’re not. You can’t be something in between.”

“You see, Chana… when you grow up, you might notice that there isn’t just one opinion about this or that. There’re two opinions, or three, or four…as many opinions as there are people…”

“All other opinions are wrong. Period.”

“We’ve just heard Chana Michnik’s opinion at this particular point in her life. Meanwhile, I propose that we get back to our dinosaurs.”

“But there were NO dinosaurs, ever!”

“Even if there were no dinosaurs, let us proceed on the assumption that there were.”

“I could report you, you know. I could get you fired.”

“And amber. Let us proceed on the assumption that amber was formed millions of years ago.”

“But I’m not going to do that.”

“And as we proceed on these assumptions, it occurs to me, Chana, that it would be valuable, indeed necessary for me to see your essay. If you haven’t got it, I’m afraid you’ll have to–”

“I’ll be kind to you if you’re kind to me.”

“–recreate it now. Open your notebook.”

“I said if–”

“Open your notebook and start writing.”

Reluctantly, the student opened her notebook and spent some time staring at an empty page while chewing her pen. Complaining to no one in particular, she said, “They make us do too much writing!” She looked at the page, at her teacher, then back at the page.

“Let me see what you’ve written so far,” she said.

The student covered the paper with her hand. “I haven’t finished it yet.”

“You can’t leave here until you finish the assignment, Chana.”

“You can’t make me.”

“You know perfectly well that I can, Chana. I’m your teacher.”

“You’re not the school teacher. I heard what you said to Mrs. Labich. You’re from the city.”

“A teacher from the city is still a teacher.”

“But you’re not one of us.”

“One day you’ll learn, Chana, that the world is bigger than a parochial school. It’s a big, big world and–”

“And everybody in this big world is trying to kill Jews!”

“That’s not all they do. What I mean is, that’s not what most people in the world have on their minds most of the time, Chana.”

“They killed us two thousand years ago. They killed us eleven hundred years ago and nine hundred years ago and eight hundred years ago. They killed us in Europe. They killed us in Russia. And they’re still killing us in the Middle East.”

“If that’s what interests you the most–”

“It doesn’t interest me. It happens to be the truth.”

“Ok. So it’s the truth. But there are many truths in the world. Which do you think is more important to you for writing this essay–the dinosaurs and how amber formed millions of years ago–or this?”

“I already told you. Why you asking me again and again?”

“So dinosaurs and the formation of amber, that’s not true. But that Jews were killed and are being killed, that’s the only truth that —

“That’s the truth that concerns me. Even if dinosaurs existed, what’s that to me? Nothing. But one day I might be killed for being a Jew. That’s real. That’s true.”

“What I mean is, if this is what you are interested in, then why don’t you write an essay about it. Forget the dinosaurs. Forget amber. Write about this. How your identity as an observant Jewish person does not allow you to believe in dinosaurs. And since the kind of essay I want you to write must have comparisons and arguments, you can compare your Jewishness to mine and construct an argument that would prove yours is more correct even though it limits you in so many ways, not only in not letting you learn and understand natural history, but in many other ways too, and you can list the ways. And you can argue that your teacher’s Jewishness is not correct, even though it does not limit her learning about the world. You can try to construct the argument, juxtaposing these two kinds of Jewishness and see where this takes you.”

Needless to say, the essay remained unwritten.


About the Author
Nina Kossman, born in Moscow, is a bilingual poet, memoirist, playwright, translator of Russian poetry, and artist. She lives in New York where she edits EastWest Literary Forum, a bilingual literary magazine in English and Russian.