Monday, May 28, 2007

Dear Readers,

Below please find a revision to my previous post ...

“Untitled Other Than to Say A Sukkos Tale”

An epiphany can arise from the most unlikely of circumstances.

I had never before lived among observant Jews and, for the first time in

my life, almost all of my immediate neighbors were shomer Shabbos, an

experience that helped me to put a new face on Judaism, one which I

had never seen as a boy.

Hoping to gain their trust as both a neighbor and fellow Jew, I used

to read stories to the neighborhood children in front of my apartment

building. Imagine a garden of brightly smiling, hungrily eager children

sitting “Indian style” on the sidewalk religiously awaiting news of the

escapades of Winnee the Pooh or the fanciful prancings of Cassie and

Her Magic Flowers read to them on Shabbos afternoons and warm

summer evenings.

I initiated this modest undertaking, my own tiny gathering of story

lovers and good listeners-“Street School” as it came to be known-to

further the neighborhood’s friendly, familial nature. Emanating

primarily, I think, from the observant families onto whose path I felt

myself being drawn, they colored the neighborhood in shades of tangible

kindness and a purposeful joy of life.

The richness of Jewish life had somehow eluded me in my

childhood leaving me so unschooled that I could not even distinguish

between Shabbos and Shavuos or differentiate a siddur from a

chumash. Mind you, my youth had not been entirely barren of Jewish

experiences, such as they were. We gathered at my Aunt Iris’s house for

our one seder on the eve of Passover, knew enough to eat matzoh, read

the story of our exodus in the “Haggadah shel Maxwell House,” feasted

on the eve of Rosh Ha Shanah, broke the fast of Yom Kippur and my

my mother lit Hanukkah candles by plugging in an electric menorah.

My family did not lack the threads so much as it did the fabric of Jewish


We’ve all experienced defining moments. Much like points on a map,

they serve as markers along the way, charting our progress, as we near

our destination. Although typically brief, such moments leave permanent

impressions on our memories.

When the Goldmeyers invited me to attend the bar mitzvah of their

first-born son, I felt excited but equally intimidated. The occasion would

mark my first time in an orthodox synagogue. Shabbos morning arrived.

I delighted in walking to shul like everybody else and remember distinctly

feeling as if I were part of something really important. That feeling

changed when I became lost in the seeming mayhem of orthodox shul

dynamics. Overhearing others comment that the crowd was larger than

usual due to the many guests, the shul was resultantly agog with

simcha, its atmosphere resounding with a delightful cacophony of

sounds. There was just so much to see, a treasure trove for a people

watcher like me.

Frankly, I did not have a clue what to do or what was going on. So I

took a seat in the back, opened the siddur I had found on my chair,

looked at it for an instant and realized it would do me no good (it was all

in Hebrew.) The seats on either side of me were occupied so I placed the

siddur on the floor under my chair. I think it was the gentleman to my

right who-before I even knew what he had done-reached under my chair

to retrieve the siddur. “This is yours?” he asked rhetorically, waving

it gently but a bit too closely in front of my nose.

“Well, I … uh,” I stumbled inarticulately, sensing I had done something

wrong but not quite sure what.

“This book contains God’s name. We don’t put it on the floor,”

reproaching me pleasantly but, I imagined, incredulously.

“Thank you,” I softly muttered, grateful he had been discreet enough that

nobody’s attention was diverted. It had been a slap on the wrist really,

but an important one nevertheless. I would learn the ropes eventually, I

told myself, in time.

A pattern began to emerge. Every Friday night, I heard Dr. Hirsch, my

next door neighbor who also lived on the second floor, singing the

same melodies. Unknown to me then, I much later realized he was

welcoming the Sabbath Queen with the melodiousness of his erev

Shabbos z’miros. Although not yet incandescent enough to show

me the way, I realized the poignancy of his song had sparked my barely

aglow pintele yid. At the very least, I felt justified in believing I had taken

a tiny step out from darkness.

Not too long thereafter, Dr. Hirsch knocked on my back door one

rainy Shabbos afternoon.

“Larry, you’re soaked,” I said, stating the ridiculously obvious while

puddles formed beneath his feet.

“Is Tal here? I thought she might be playing with your kids,” looking a

tiny bit concerned but well short of frantic.

“Tal? No, she’s not here. Is there a problem?”

“No, no. Boruch Ha Shem! It just occurred to me you might

have moved Street School inside, you know, given the weather,” he said,

turning aside just enough to remind me of the day’s inclemency.

“Larry, I wish I knew, but I …” sputtering my concern.

“Don’t worry. She can’t be too far,” reassuring the both of us.

‘Larry,” I probed, “Where for God’s sake is your umbrella?”

“Precisely!” he retorted, grinning broadly. “It’s Shabbos. I can’t carry.”

“Oh … yea,” sounding dumber than a rock and looking very sheepish,

I’m sure.

“Hey, we’re going to hear Rabbi Kahane speak tonight after Shabbes at

B’nai Rueven. Wanna go?” he announced invitingly.

“Sure. Sounds great!” I leapt back as if I hadn’t misspoken.

We went to hear Rabbi Kahane that night. The Hirschs made aliyah

soon thereafter, and not until many years later did I see him again at a

Jewish arts festival. I understand now that his invitation to hear Rabbi

Kahane speak was a real rachmones.

One afternoon after finishing a story, I chatted with five-year old

Sholem, Rabbi Twersky’s son:

“So, tell me, what does your father do?”

“He learns,” he returned the response as if there could be no other.

“He does what?” my curiosity piqued by the mystery of that deceptively

simple response.

“He learns,” he repeated, as matter of factly as the first time.

“Such an odd expression,” I reflected, muttering words to myself that I

kept from reaching Sholem’s ears. Never had I heard the verb “learns”

used in that fashion, but it intrigued me. Ever an avid student of

language, I entered it into my lexicon of life experiences.

“He learns”- a two-word sentence, barely existing, a subject and verb

having no stated direct object. What I didn’t know was the direct

object needn’t have been articulated. Everyone that is but me seemed to

know what it was, even five-year old Sholem. I would have loved to chat

more with him. Having so many more questions, I determined to find out

more about these Jews who “learned.” However, the constraints of my

family life prevented me from venturing out too far into those waters.

That would come in time, I reasoned to myself, but for the present, I

would have to be content with testing the temperature of the water with

my toes. As it happens, my neighbors: the Goldmeyers, the

Hirschs, the Twerskys and the Eichensteins were pretty much doing the

same thing. We were, in effect, taking the most cautious of steps in the

shallow waters of each others’ lives.

It’s an old and often frustrating truism that the tracks of progress

can be traced not so much in leaps and bounds but in the tiniest of

baby steps. The Shabbos of Chol HaMoed Succos while I sat reading on

my back porch, I happened to divert my eyes from the page momentarily

to espy Rabbi Twersky walking in the alley.

“Where is he headed? Wonder what’s up?” having never seen him before

in the alley. Something, I thought, was clearly amiss. Donning a black

kaftan and streimel, he appeared to me to be deeply troubled by the way

he was fiddling with his peyos. Inching along, his characteristic stride

replaced by a scraping shuffle, he seemed to take two steps back for

every one forward.

“He’s coming over here. He really is!” barely managing to calm myself.

Not one to engage in idle banter and certain Sholem had already brought

him up to speed on “Street School”, I watched as he entered through my

back gate. Frankly nonplussed, but eager to lend a hand, I went down to

greet him.

“Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi,” extending my hand in Shabbos courtesy,

anticipating his reciprocity.

“Good Shabbos. Mr. Busch, I have a problem,” he confided in me,

reaching out his fingers rather placidly in a manner not untypical of

many orthodox men.

“How can I help you, rabbi?” I offered enthusiastically, but unclear how I

could be of any assistance to a scion of a rabbinic dynasty!

“Some sechach has fallen from the roof of my sukkah onto the

floor, and I am forbidden to touch it on Shabbos,” he explained, tilting

his streimel back from his forehead, clearly frustrated.

“Some what?” I asked blankly.

“Sechach, an evergreen branch,” he clarified.

“Oh, no problem rabbi. I’ll pick it up,” thinking I understood his


“No! he exclaimed. “You are a Jew. You may not touch it either.”

“Oh wow! Okay,” I burst out. Backing off somewhat to compose

myself, I couldn’t help but feel enormously flattered he had

acknowledged my Jewish identity.

“But I do know someone who can. I’ll take care of the problem, rabbi,”

I assured him, my voice trailing off as I turned and ran up the stairs.

Pausing momentarily on the first landing, I looked back to see that his

countenance had brightened noticeably. Secure in my promise, he

turned and left for home.

Unbeknownst to him was that working in my apartment was a young

man, a non-Jew, crouched in the bathtub reglazing its surface. Feeling

somewhat foolish, but hoping to sound credible, I summoned what few

diplomatic skills I possessed and went in to talk to him.

“Uh, Tom, d’ya have a minute?” I queried, squatting down to see him eye

to eye.

“Sure. What’s up?” wiping away an errant bead of perspiration with the

back of his hand.

“Well …” scratching my head as if at a total loss of words, “you see I’ve

a neighbor with a problem and of all people you can fix it. Interested?”

“Sure, but …” he quickened to probe, but I preempted him before he

could change his mind.

“It’s this way,” feigning a reliable explanation of this Jewish conundrum

… “and the rules forbid a Jew to touch it on the Sabbath.”

“So you can’t …?” he wondered, just to be sure.


“Then it’s not a problem,” he reassuringly intoned, raising my spirits

enormously. How fortunate was I to have found Tom so agreeable, but

what a ridiculous irony it was! Here I was, a secular Jew, unlearned in

Yiddishkeit and halacha, employing a gentile on the Sabbath day-an act

which itself violated Jewish law-asking him to perform a kindness, one

forbidden equally to its intended beneficiary and me.

We strode through the alley to Rabbi’s Twersky’s sukkah wherein he

eagerly awaited our arrival. Pushing aside the blue plastic entranceway, I

stepped aside inviting Tom to enter. I followed. The slightest hint of an

esrog’s scent tickled one’s nose. Gourds and dried fruit dangled

overhead. Aged portraits of rabbinic sages aside child-like depictions of

the Kotel graced the four sides of the sukkah while caricatures of the

ushpizin beckoned us to feel at home. Amidst all the festive decorations,

sat Rabbi Twersky, bent slightly forward, his fingers pouring over an

ancient Talmudic folio.

“Rabbi, this is my friend Tom.”

“Boruch Ha Shem,” he exclaimed with a broad smile, his glasses having

slipped down to the tip of his nose.

“Tom,” I said, indicating the mischievous sechach with my finger. “There it is.”

Stepping up cautiously on a folding card table chair lest it collapse, he

reached up and replaced the branch atop the latticework.

“Okay, got it,” Tom announced, a faint smile peeking through as though

this had been a welcome, albeit bizarre respite from the drudgery of

bathtub reglazing.

In one of those much-touted “Kodak moments,” I watched Tom,

trying not to teeter atop the chair, survey the curiosity of this fanciful

tabernacle. Below him two Jews, one bearded, the other not, each

dressed as differently from the other as one could possibly imagine but

ready both to catch him should his balance begin to waver. Although I

don’t know what Tom was thinking, I imagined it very unlikely he’d soon

forget the afternoon he helped me to help Sholem’s father.

And with that tiny tikkun, the world was set aright. Tom had

done a good deed, Rabbi Twersky could resume the joy of the Sabbath

and I … I had peeked into his world and it was good. I realized years later that within Rabbi

Twersky's sukkah had I found my own pri etz hadar.

From that day forward, Rabbi Twersky, when in need of a “tsenter,”

would call me to make a minyan. Though I did not know how to daven or

own a siddur and too embarrassed to tell him, I would take along

a volume of Jewish writings and, while nine davened “Ashrei,” I read

Chaim Nachman Bialik’s “The Fountain”-an incomparable poem.

The next morning, the neighborhood hastened to Hoshana Rabba,

arba minim in hand. Watching from my apartment’s front bay window, I

wondered how many more doors there would be left to open.

Alan D. Busch

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Dear Readers,

This is a revised and expanded post from several weeks ago. I would appreciate a few minutes of your time.
Thank you in advance.

“These Are the Precepts … Escorting the Dead”[1]

We stood at the edge inches from the void’s cold depth, a
terrifying finality beyond which there is neither earthly appeal
nor redress. Our eyes dare not glimpse the depth of the void.
Nearby awaits a mound of dirt, a reminder of the temporal
nature of the void. Mourners wait patiently to grasp the
shovel. While some onlookers may think it a morbid custom,
tradition regards it as a mitzvah
[2] to bury the dead, an expression
of love to be performed b’ chesed.

We swayed at the edge with our arms linked together in the hope we might strengthen each other. I don’t remember if we provided any chairs for the mourners. Just beyond the innermost arc of mourners, a throng gathered as it had at the funeral home, a measure of the many lives Ben touched.

Turning away to leave is both an end and a beginning. His essence accompanies us in our hearts. Though we may feel his presence, we can neither touch him nor he us. The soulless body occupies the void of the grave into which loving kindness returns the mound of earth.[4]

When a Jew dies, our tradition regards it as a genuine kindness to

assist in his burial and the last act of decency any of us can do for the

deceased. He may have been the simplest of Jews, an ordinary man and

perhaps not the most outwardly pious, but who among us can peer into

the heart of man, of this man, of any man?

When a Jew dies, we have an opportunity to do for him the same

kindness we will want others to do for us when comes our last day.

Examine his deeds and weigh them on the scale of good deeds and

transgressions. If he lived his life like most of us have, there probably will

be an approximate equilibrium between his acts of goodness and

those found wanting. What if-once the scales are still-there is an

exact balance, neither the good deeds nor the bad exceeding the other?

He spoke kind words to comfort the bereaved or he served innumerable

hours as a volunteer at the hospital. How many patients might he have

enabled to feel better by a smile or a few words of encouragement? Or

perhaps he attended prayer services regularly, the much sought after

tenth man to make a minyan.
[5] Yet, mortal being he was, for every

positive, a negative cancelled it out-not the effect of the good deed itself,

but its impact on the count. If we could perform but one more

meritorious deed to tip the balance of the scales in his favor, shouldn’t

we do that for him? We should and can, but how?

We escort him to his final resting place.
[6] By so doing, we invoke His

abundant mercy. Friends and family gather in an act of remembrance,

putting aside any and all controversies while focusing on the positive. Is

there a Jew about whom there cannot be remembered any good?

We gather at the graveside to say the Mourner’s Kaddish
[7] in his

memory just as he enabled others before him to do the same. We recite

psalms so that his soul ascends and from which we too are invariably

reminded that his life, our lives are as blades of grass, fragile and

fleeting. Yes, I suppose it would be better if we could gather for

joyous occasions only, a birth more preferable than a burial, but we

must tend to life at both ends.

The other day, a long-time friend of my synagogue passed away. He

had been very ill for quite a while and his dire physical condition was

exacerbated by a host of family problems. In the time between his

death and burial, there was some reasonable doubt there might not be

enough mourners at the graveside service to say the Mourner’s Kaddish

for which a minyan is required. Thankfully, there were, but he seemed to

be a marginalized individual about whom there was some reasonable


As a precaution against this unfortunate possibility, I joined with

several members of my synagogue to attend the funeral . I had the

time, I was available, but beyond these simple facts, I believe it

incumbent on the living to provide or assist in the provision of a

decent Jewish burial both as a debt and a true act of kindness we owe

the deceased. No Jew should suffer the tragedy of dying alone or, as

Rabbi Louis says, the indignity of one’s body being treated shabbily.

The funeral procession lined up. We took our place. A modest

gathering of thirty mourners assembled at the graveside service. Once

there, it became quickly apparent that well over half the original number

of mourners who had attended the chapel service left after its conclusion.

It was an inclement day, a slushy mixture of rain and snow. A tent

over the gravesite was erected. Together with Rabbi Louis, his sons, and

two other men-one of whom had been a good friend of the deceased-we

stood at the back of the tent while the family and close friends gathered

closer to the edge to witness the lowering of the casket. Something

though did not seem right.

“Rabbi, where is the dirt?” I wondered aloud but not loudly.

“I don’t know,” he responded, appearing somewhat perplexed.

Typically the mound of dirt sits atop a few sheets of plywood close to the

edge of the grave but opposite where the mourners are seated. Stepping

out from under the tent, Rabbi Louis looked about, but couldn’t spot it.

Though the several rows of mourners obscured our view, we were

certain the dirt, wherever it might be, was not inside the tent.

When the sarcophagus was secured, the funeral director invited the

mourners, should they wish to participate, to sprinkle a few particles of

earth from the Holy Land into the grave. With that it became readily

apparent there would not be a full closure of the grave by the mourners.

In its place, the funeral director had provided two buckets of sand with

garden trowels thrust inside. Before their final goodbyes, some mourners

took hold of a trowel, thrust it into the bucket and tossed the sand atop

the casket. When the last of the mourners finished, the funeral director-

having already earlier informed them about when and where they could

make condolence calls-concluded the service..

Rabbi Louis approached him.

“Would you mind if we filled the grave?

He was a friend of ours,” petitioned Rabbi who, when a situation requires

delicacy, is the consummate diplomat.

“Not at all! Fine. Please,” blurted out the young funeral director who

seemed not to have anticipated any such request.

The mound of dirt? We hadn’t noticed earlier, but there it sat in

the back of a cemetery flatbed about thirty feet from the tent. The funeral

director called the driver who then proceeded to inch the flatbed clumsily

in reverse toward the grave. With the bed elevated, the dirt slid out onto

the plywood into a heap. Grabbing five shovels, one for each of us, we

began the act of kindness we felt we owed the departed.

All in all, it took us about twenty minutes. It just feels so right, an

easy choice to make when you consider the alternative of having the

heap dumped ignominiously onto the casket. The damp, dark finality of

burial is a difficult reality, isn’t it? No longer an issue of the pain and

suffering of the departed, it becomes a reflection of our anguish.

Is it less painful for mourners if they leave after the casket has been

lowered? Is it better to leave the closure of the grave to the cemetery

workers? Like the old saying: “Out of sight. Out of mind!” On the other

hand, it seems so evasive, impersonal and undignified.

What more can we do? What one last gesture can we make that says:

“Thank you” or “We love you”? How does one extend a hand to another

who cannot reciprocate? How do we hug him who cannot hug us back?

The answer is we take it upon ourselves to blanket the casket with earth

until the grave has been entirely refilled. And who better to do this than

those who knew and loved the departed? The effect of that act benefits us

too. We experience genuine closure when we refill the grave.

May all Jewish mourners recognize it as an act of loving-kindness.

After all, do we not owe the departed at least that much?

Alan D. Busch
Copyright @2007

[1] Excerpted from Talmud
[2] Commandment; a good deed
[3] “with kindness.” Jewish tradition regards the burying of the dead as an obligation. It is my view that it be done as gently as if one were carrying a baby.
[4] Excerpted from In Memory of Ben
[5] A minimum of ten Jewish men required for a prayer quorem.
[6] The Talmud, the “Oral Torah” provides for this as an act for which benefit will accrue in the World to Come.
[7] A declaration of faith recited by mourners after burial to offset succumbing to apostasy.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Dear Readers,

You will find it helpful for the reading of this essay that you first read the one directly preceding it. If you do not, you may be mystified by the reference here to "Rabbi Skoff."

I was once a teacher.

Like all people who enter that profession-no matter the subject matter or the age of his students-each of us is afforded the enviable opportunity to achieve a species of immortality if we can but change one life for the better. A wise man, I think it was Henry Brooks Adams, historian, who put it rather well though, by its very nature, his aphorism is appealingly, even enticingly open ended: " A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. "

He was the most generous civics teacher in the 9th period though not the first of several teachers whose person made and left an indelible impression on my personal and working life nor would he be the last, but for reasons almost inexplicable the picture I retain of him occupies one of the finest frames in the panoply of people whose lives have touched mine. At the end of the day, Mr. Salvatore Gallo, my eighth grade civics teacher, was a mechaya. I can only speak for myself naturally when I say that if a student did not look forward to his class, even though tired and worn thin by the day's business, that that alone would constitute serious prima facie evidence of something seriously amiss with that particular individual. Or maybe it was just me, but as far back as I can recall, I have always been attentive to our oft-hidden human faces. In other words, I have an eye for special people. As for the why, it occurs to me that from a very young age I was given more to quiet observation of others than ever having been much of a chatterbox. There was good reason for that, I can assure you! As a boy, when only about five years old, I became a stutterer, for whom speaking could at times be as arduous as clearing the height of the bar newly raised by one's coach.

A man who looked like Rabbi Skoff, whose middle section was shaped uncannily like a boulder, he also exemplied the same simple wisdom and kindness. He was a man driven to punctiliousness and whose severe regimen of assignment protocol was such that, should one not follow it, he would be penalized anywhere from one to five points. For example, each student had to draw with the precision of a budding engineer a one inch square box in the upper left hand corner of his notebook paper into which Mr. Gallo would pen that person’s grade. Mind you it had to be a neat square, with no overlapping lines at the four corners. To counterbalance what an outsider might regard as a mishegoss, Mr. Gallo practiced a unique and rather unorthodox generosity. He once brought a piece of cake to class probably in size no more than six regular servings, and so scientifically cut it up that each child in the classroom received an exact equal portion. Its precision was as if it had been cut by a bakery template, clearly a case of having made much from very little.

As with Rabbi Skoff, get Mr. Gallo mad and look out. Unlike my other classrooms, Mr. Gallo's had an adjacent coat closet that was as deep as the classroom itself. We had a student in our 9th period class, one David, on whom misfortune fell one afternoon after pushing Mr. Gallo's buttons once too many times. A mere twit of a lad whose mouth was bigger than his person, he suffered that day the fright of a one on one, a nose to nose with Mr. Gallo in the coat room. When that door opened after what seemed to the rest of us like an insufferably interminable length of time-but in fact was no more than three minutes - though no one had heard a word between them nor would Mr. Gallo have lain a fingertip on him, David emerged looking more than a wee bit rattled. I doubt he ever forgot that.

Mr. Gallo's face was one of those only a mother could love, a big bald head, with rather unhappy teeth but a smile like none other. His nose, broad and flattened as if it had known the impact of too many fists in his youth, lent a certain rough veneer to his otherwise gentle manner. If you have had a "Mr. Gallo" in your life, step back and count your blessings for not everyone has enjoyed such great fortune.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Dear Readers,

In Pirkei Avos, we are each bidden to acquire for ourselves a teacher. Please follow this link to read of mine. Though a bit lengthy, you will benefit from having learned about Reb Isser ben Avrum, my teacher ...

Thank you,

Alan D. Busch