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

life.

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

dilemma.

“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.

“Nope!”

“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
5/29/07

3 comments:

Ashleen said...

:)

Alan aka Avrum ben Avrum said...

Dear Ash,

Thank you for the wonderful smile which is, I think, worth a couple of thousand words at least.

Alan

frumhouse said...

Great post, Alan! I love the way you tell your stories.

Thanks for sharing!