Thursday, April 05, 2007

These Are the Lives that Have Touched Mine...

Isser ben Avrum, Z’L, was a gibor, a lion of a man though small of stature and slight of frame.

I met Mr. Parker in his second lifetime.

He became my first formative teacher in the ways of Yiddishkeit. At the time, I was around forty years old and, Mr. Parker, my teacher in his late seventies or early eighties. For reasons I really do not know, he took me under his wing and taught me the basics of siddur, tallis and t’philin.

"ukshartam l'os al yadecha v'hayu letotafos bane einecha.” (wear the phylacteries as a sign on your hand and for frontlets between your eyes)

Thus reads the leaf I dedicated to his memory on the Etz Chaim in my synagogue.

Isser ben Avrum, who had been trained as a pharmacist in Poland in the years pre-dating WW2, was not, I suppose, an untypical Jew of his day-not a yeshiva bocher by education, no great chochem of Gemara-but as a boy had gone to cheder and graduated a mensch.

A prototype of chesed and menshlichkeit, there were few in number who did not like him, many who loved him, but most indisputably of all, there was no one who did not respect him.

He carried moral weight and was the living proof of the ageless truism that a new pharaoh arises in each generation to destroy us.

How does one dispute such a man or turn away from his invitation to impart something from the old world, of which he had been part in a previous lifetime?

Like others of his generation, his life as a Polish Jew changed irreverseably when-in the weeks following the first day of September 1939-the Polish cavalry, as gallant as I am sure it was, proved no match for the German blitzkrieg!

Mr. Parker immigrated to America after the Second World War in the early 1950s. Although he survived Mauthausen, his wife and children did not, but a handful of souls among the incalculable kedoshim.

Beginning his life anew once resettled in America, Mr. Parker remarried and raised a second family.

***

It was just before Shabbes mincha.

Mr. Parker and I were downstairs in the shul kitchen preparing shalosh seudos. I had begun to feel close to him by then.

He would have the answer. I felt reassured about that.

We chatted while preparing the several plates of tuna fish, left over cake and other assorted left-overs and fishballs. The occasional use of that blasted industrial-sized hand crank can opener, bolted to the counter, and the barely tolerable untidiness made working in that kitchen challenging at times.

It was as good a time as any, I reasoned, to seek out his sympathetic ear.

I told him a summary version of the whole story. I figured he could fill in the rest. Lending a polite ear for several minutes, he sho back without any equivocation: "Go home to your wife!" in thickly-accented "yinglish" which reminded me of Myron Cohen. Hecould not have said it more plainly. I should have deferred to the advice of an older man. Guess I had been hoping for a different opinion.

I did not acknowledge her growing exasperation. I balked at the patently obvious truth. They were no empty threats to file for divorce. Her feelings had was only a matter of time before she became desensitized, her feelings hardened into an irreversable resentment.

She wondered aloud pleadingly: “Why … tell me why are you doing this?" I recall that clearly.

“So I’ll have something to do when I’m an old man,” I responded, having Mr. Parker in mind.

Later, when I reminded her, she could not recall my having said that.

***
A tougher yet gentler soul I had never met at whose strength and sheer grit I marveled. Assisted by the One Above whose ways-though mostly unfathomable-are sometimes clearly manifest in certain individuals such as Mr. Parker.

Otherwise, the amazing stories of seemingly ordinary people like Isser ben Avrum-whose perilous survival and reincarnation should leave us dumbstruck-would be utterly inexplicable unless reliance on "blind luck" appeals to your sense of inquiry.

How often do we think about where the other person was just yesterday? What may have happened, what amalgam of forces, circumstances combined to bring that person into our lives today and tomorrow?

***

My family and I were in St. Louis for the bar mitzvah of my cousin’s son Jeffrey, the grandson of my Aunt Iris and Uncle Marvin. Taking place at the same shul I had attended as a boy when my brother and I expressed great unhappiness after our mother had enrolled us in an orthodox school, the Epstein Hebrew Academy, my mother, at Uncle Marvin’s urging, transferred us to his shul, Anshes Sholem Knesses Israel, where I attended its religious school for several years.

I recall with fondness Rabbi Benzion Skoff, the first rabbi I ever met-a short, stocky man whose physical shape always reminded me of a boulder and whose voice was as startlingly powerful as a thunder clap that awakens you on those stormy, sultry summer nights.

We arrived at the shul that morning about thirty minutes before the start of Shabbat morning services. It was nice returning to this place of which I had such fond memories of religious school and Rabbi Benzion ‘the boulder’ Skoff who, as it happened, was there that morning. Amazingly he had not changed at all, the same tzur gadol of a man whose thundering voice was tempered by his pleasant and sweet tone when you had his attention one on one, but get him angry and look out!

One morning, many years before, he became angry with us kids and I tell you, the roof beams quaked. Whatever I may have learned that day in class, I frankly do not recall but indelibly engraved in my memory was the wisdom of not angering Rabbi Skoff!

My cousin Jeffrey did incredibly well. I was even honored with hagbah but the highlight of the morning was his ending brachot over the haftorah when his voice reached a high melodic pitch " ... mekadesh ha Shabbat."

It seemed so perfectly executed that everyone was b’simcha upon hearing his final boyishly sweet note. It was the last taste of the morning that endured throughout the day-not unlike the matzah of the afikomen which, when eaten, should endure as the last taste of the meal.

Looking back, it was as if the combination of heavenly forces, Jeffrey’s bar mitzvah and the melodic and
sweet chazzanus of the cantor’s tenor were converging to steer me along a particular path.

If yiddishkeit were a train, it was speeding right past me lest I fail to leap aboard, grabbing hold of the caboose. I resolved to find a like shul back home where the sounds would be the same as those I had heard that Shabbat morning.

***

I walked into B’nai Emunah, Mr. Parker’s shul, for the first time after we returned home from St. Louis.

As a newcomer, I attracted the attention of several members of the minyan, as did every new face-but especially starved for youth as the minyan was. I bought a membership and stayed two pleasant and invaluble years.

The first contact was with Harold Stern. We chatted for a few minutes before I mentioned I had attended Rabbi Skoff’s school in St Louis. I had a feeling he’d know Rabbi Skoff, a prominent member of the conservative rabbinate.

As it happened, he did.

What a relief! To have made a connection with no one less than the Rabbi Emeritus of the synagogue!

I sat in the back row inconspicuously for as long as I could, but I soon realized anonymity was not only impossible but ill-advised for someone who had come to learn.

Other than the few shelves containing finger-worn siddurim and chumashim, there were no other books in the chapel. It was not a beis medrash, but a simple cozy room adjacent to the rabbi’s office.

We sat on benches rather than individual seats. Near the stained glass but facing the benches was a reading table for the Torah services and which served as an omed for the ba’al t’filos. The aron kodesh was plainly-fashioned and set into the northeast corner of the chapel housing one Sefer Torah.

We had no mechitzah though moot ordinarily because few women came to services. It was a warm, cozy place wherein I made many new friends-most of whom were old enough to be my grandfather.

That was its selling point. I had always related easily to older folks from whom I recognized there was so much to learn.

Without sounding boastful, I had derech eretz toward elderly folk well before I even knew what it meant. It just seemed to come naturally to me.

A tiny group, the minyan was comprised mostly of elderly “minyonaires” several of whom were Holocaust survivors. The three services were held daily in this small chapel separate from the main sanctuary. As closely-knit as were its friendships, the minyan offered me the haimish learning environment I sought that helped me along the path to a higher level of observance. I knew I could not have gotten that from the culture of the main sanctuary.

Were you fortunate enough to spend some great times in your childhood with your grandpa? Well, this is what this minyan meant to me, an opportunity to learn the basics from ten “grandpas” at once! The minhag of the chapel minyan tended away from conservative practice but was still quite distant from orthodox rite although many of its regulars had grown up in orthodox homes.

Though we did have to make calls sometimes when short a man or two, helping out on the phones afforded me the opportunity to earn my stripes from Mr. Parker. “Making a minyan” was a necessity every day. It was that simple.

I gravitated toward Mr. Parker.

He took a liking to me. Perhaps he saw in me a fledgling having fallen from the nest or I may have reminded him of someone he had lost in his first life. Frankly, I do not know, but I remain grateful to this man and his memory.

He bore an uncanny resemblance to my maternal grandfather, Harry Austin, a man I dearly loved but who had left my grandmother to raise my mom and Aunt Iris by herself. Aunt Iris never forgave him whereas my mom did to a certain extent.

I loved him in part because I felt bad for him. He had made it very hard on my grandma, aunt and mom in their earlier years, but he was always good to me as well as to his other grandsons. I know he sensed that I loved him. Of his five grandsons, he bequeathed his diamond ring to me.

***

My friendship with Mr. Parker may have seemed odd to some, I suppose. I brought him home one afternoon to meet my family with such great excitement it was as if I were bringing home a new school chum.

While sipping tea in the kitchen, I showed him a photo of my grandpa Austin whose uncanny resemblance to himself stunned him.

Like my grandfather, Mr. Parker placed a sugar cube or two, which I happened to have in the pantry that afternoon, in his mouth between his lower lip and gum where it functioned as a filter through which the tea passed on its way down. I was more than amused by this custom because I knew it represented nothing less than a sweet fragment of an old world, that of our grandfathers and grandmothers.

As the gabbai of the traditional minyon, it was he who chose the baal t’filos for which ever service it was at the time. If he gave you the nod, off you went to the omed. There was no second guessing or arguing with Mr. Parker.

He spoke with authority.

We speak of the school of hard knocks. Mr. Parker not only attended and graduated but survived to tell about it. An elderly man when we became friends, his posture was bent over more than what seemed typical even for a man his age due to the beatings he suffered at the hands of the thugs at Mauthausen during the war. His broken nose, apparently never reset properly, became permanently misshapen by the same perpetrators. The tip of his nose was out of alignment with its bridge somewhat. His left eye appeared as if he were looking at someone else when, in fact, he was looking at you-a condition which made it necessary to focus on his straight eye.

A broken man?

By no means.

The gentlest lion you would ever enjoy the privilege of knowing.

Isser ben Avrum, Z'L passed away on the eve of Rosh Ha Shanah, 2000.

3 comments:

frumhouse said...

I understand the kinship you feel with older people. My grandparents were a large part of my life and upbringing. My maternal grandparents were and continue to be my heroes and inspirations, though they are now both long gone.

Alan aka Avrum ben Avrum said...

Dear Frumhouse,

Thank you for your comment and on-going readership. A good moed and a good Shabbes.

Alan

p.s. I've revised it slightly since you read it.

Ashleen said...

Alan, I so enjoy your writings, however, I must admit, this one sent me to Google many times, as I struggled with the Hebrew words :)