Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Dear Readers,

This is the piece I hope soon to be published.

"He Learns: A Story of Z'man Simchasenu"

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. They sat “Indian style” on the sidewalk while I read of the

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

Her Magic Flowers on Shabbos afternoons and warm summer evenings.

Our gathering became known as Street School.

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 said, as if there could be no other response.

“He does what?”

“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 knew what it was that he

learned, even five-year-old Sholem, everyone, that is, but me.

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.”

I suppose you could say I was curious in an intellectual sense. For

the present, I was content to dip into the very Jewish lives of my

neighbors: the Goldmeyers, the Hirschs, the Twerskys and the

Eichensteins.

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. We gathered at my Aunt Iris’s house for my family’s one

seder Erev Pesach, knew enough to eat matzoh, read the story of our

exodus in the “Haggadah shel Maxwell House,” feasted on Erev

Rosh Ha Shanah, broke the fast of Yom Kippur, and 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.

I felt pretty much at ease in my new neighborhood, but when the

Goldmeyers invited me to 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 I remember 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.

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 did- had reached under my chair

to retrieve the siddur. “This is yours?” he asked, 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 G-d’s name. We do not put it on the floor,” he

reproached me pleasantly but, I imagined, incredulously.

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

nobody’s attention was diverted. Okay, no harm done, I thought. A

gentle slap on the wrist was all it was, and my slightly hurt feelings were

assuaged. I would learn the ropes in time, in the same way a historian

would peruse a primary document or an archeologist examining a

potsherd, enthusiastically but dispassionately. For the now, I was an

outsider looking in, simply and pleasantly curious. Nothing more.


It’s an old and 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 reading on

my back porch--I happened to espy Rabbi Twersky walking in the alley.

I wondered where he was headed. I would never have imagined seeing

him walking in the alley, but there he was. Something 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.

“He’s coming over here,” I said to myself in disbelief.

I watched as he entered through my back gate. Frankly nonplussed,

but eager to lend a hand, I flew down the steps to greet him.

“Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi,” I said, extending my hand in Shabbos

courtesy, feeling slightly annoyed with myself for not even having

a baseball cap on. Then again, better this way, I supposed, for he

would know me for whom I was and wasn’t.

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

(‘Rabbi Twersky has a problem and he coming to me,’ I uttered to myself,

silently bewildered.)

“Uh, … how can I help you, rabbi?” I offered, still incredulous

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 said, tilting

his streimel back from his forehead.

“Some what?” I asked.

“Sechach, an evergreen branch,” he clarified.

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

his dilemma.

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

“Oh wow! Okay,” I backed off. I was a little taken aback by his

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

acknowledged that I too was a Jew.

“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

steps. 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 in my apartment a young

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

Summoning what few diplomatic skills I possessed, I went in to talk to

him.

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

to eye.

“Sure. What’s up?” He wiped away an errant bead of perspiration

with the back of his hand.

“Well …” I scratched my head, nearly 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 …”

“It’s this way,” I interjected, before he changed his mind.

Without a great deal of time for thoughtful reflection, I tried to

concoct some explanation of the legalities of Shabbos that would sound

reasonable to Tom. It was a case of the blind leading the blind, the

existential absurdity of an “am ha aretz” leading a “shabbes goy”.

Based entirely and perhaps irrationally upon hope and, as nervous as I

was, I felt confident that everything would go well once inside the

sukkah.

“ …and so the rules forbid a Jew to touch it on the Sabbath,” I ended.

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

“Nope!”

“No problem,” he said. “I’m glad to help out.”

We strode through the alley to Rabbi Twersky’s sukkah. I couldn’t

help but marvel at the ridiculous irony of the situation. 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 this deed for the rabbi, forbidden to both him and myself.

“If Rabbi Twersky only knew how I happened to have easy access to this

agreeable non-Jew,” I thought, managing to make myself more than a

tiny bit nervous. To this day, I am curious as to what he might have said,

but at the time, it was the very last thing I wanted to know.

I was just about ready to push aside the blue plastic entranceway to

Rabbi’s sukkah.

‘Well, are you ready? I checked in with myself. “And poor Tom, what

must he be thinking of all this?’ I took a deep breath, about to plunge

right into a world so strange, so foreign, even to me. I stepped in and

beckoned Tom to follow. As soon as we were inside, 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 glasses slipped down to the

tip of his nose, his fingers pouring over an ancient Talmudic folio.

“Rabbi, this is my friend Tom.”

“Boruch Ha Shem,” he exclaimed with a broad smile, and, as I had

hoped, extended his hand.

“Bruchim habayim. Uh … welcome!” shot out the translation.

I breathed an enormous sigh of relief.

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

is.” He picked it up. Watching Tom perform this simple act, I at once

admired and felt bad for him. I suspect he was more than just a tiny bit

nervous, as was I. Holding it as if it were an article of kedusha,

Tom stepped up cautiously on a folding card table chair lest it collapse,

reached up and replaced the branch atop the latticework.

“Okay, got it,” Tom announced proudly.

“Boruch Ha Shem! spouted Rabbi with a gleeful smile and tone that

made me think of five-year old Sholem, his son. Tom seemed genuinely

pleased to help out and enjoy a few minutes respite from the drudgery of

bathtub reglazing, but ultimately, I suspect, befuddled how something

so pedestrian could produce so much joy.

I watched him, trying not to teeter atop the chair, survey the

curiosity of this fanciful tabernacle. Below him two Jews, ready both to

catch him should his balance waver, but a more startling visual contrast

one could hardly imagine: one bearded per the Torah, having

left the corners of his beard unshorn whereas the other had simply

instructed the barber to make it short, clean and neat; one dressed in

the Shabbos finery of a chassidische rebbe, the other in cut off jeans and

tank top; one with the kesser of a black velvet kippah and streimel atop

his head whereas the other, well … the other bore no sign that The One

Above was the one above.

Although I don’t know what Tom was thinking, I imagined he must

have thought it all quite bizarre, and understandably so. As for me, as

soon as I stepped into Rabbi Twersky’s sukkah, it ceased being bizarre

because it was no longer unknown. The need for that one small act, of

restoring the sechach to its proper place which, to the undiscerning eye,

might have seemed trivial, revealed, in fact, how very complicated the

world can be at times. With that tiny tikkun, I felt 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. It

only became fully apparent to me years later that there in Rabbi

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

I thanked Tom for his generous assistance that had been like a

bridge enabling me to cross over into Rabbi Twersky’s world

for the snippet of time required to replace the branch. Though not a

religious Jew at the time, I had always felt a strong connection to

Jewish identity, but was neither ready nor able to move from my corner

of the un-Jewish Jewish world to his world. I instead took a rain check

that day I would redeem many years down the road.

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

would call me to make his mincha/ma’ariv minyan. Though I did not

know how to daven and was too embarrassed to tell him, if and when he

called, I would race over to make myself really count as the tenth man!

Grabbing one of my favorite anthologies of Jewish writings-I did not have

a siddur-I could be in Rabbi Twersky’s front room in thirty seconds. The

shuckling I picked up on quickly and while nine davened “Ashrei,” I

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

What effect did Rabbi Twersky’s acknowledgement and act of

inclusion have on me? It fortified and added to my Jewish identity to the

extent that I no longer felt myself to be as much the outsider looking in

as I had been when new to the neighborhood.

But that next morning as the neighborhood hastened to Hoshana

Rabba, arba minim in hand, I thought about the path of my Jewish

future. Watching from my apartment’s front bay window, I wondered

how many more doors there would be left to open.



Alan D. Busch

8/8/07

2 comments:

Dag said...

I broke out laughing when you said, "Haggadah shel Maxwell House" and then the part about the lectric Menorah your mother plugged in.

I have to say, that this would be a book that everyone will be interested in, because these people affected so many others as well and that is what makes people interested in hearing/reading the stories, a shared memory.

Alan aka Avrum ben Avrum said...

Dear Dag,

Thank you for your generous remarks. You brought a big smile to my face when u mentioned the haggadah shel starbucks oops, maxwell house and the "lectric" menorah. your hopes for a successful book one day i share. many thanks for a bright spot in the day!

i miss ur smile and your baudy laugh.

Alan