Saturday, August 04, 2007

These Are The Lives That Have Touched Mine

Mr. Irwin Parker, Isser ben Avrum, Z’L

My family and I flew to St. Louis to celebrate a simcha, the bar
mitzvah of my cousin’s son Jeffrey, the grandson of Aunt Iris and Uncle
Marvin. Taking place at Anshes Sholem Knesses Israel where I attended
religious school as a young boy, little could I have expected that a riotous
adventure into both my past and future was about to get underway.

Years before, soon after my parents’ divorce, my mother, brother Ron
and I moved to St. Louis to begin life anew with Grandma Jean. My
mother enrolled us in afternoon cheder at the Epstein Hebrew
Academy. Greatly dissatisfied after only several days, I complained
bitterly to my mother that someone had taped something other than the
“abc(s)” on the wall of my classroom. Whatever it was, I could neither
read it nor did I want to. We cried terribly much, my brother and
I. Between us, we agreed that Epstein Hebrew Academy was not going to
be part of our present or future. My mother, for whom observant
Judaism was of little if any interest, acquiesced. That coup was one of
the few victorious joint operations of our childhood.

Upon the urging of my Uncle Marvin, my mother transferred us to
the religious school of his shul in which, after a hiatus of twenty-five
years, I found myself once again. We arrived there that morning about
thirty minutes before the start of the morning services. Dormant
memories of religious school and Rabbi Benzion “The Boulder” Skoff who,
as it happened, was in attendance awakened that morning. I recall with
fondness Rabbi Skoff, the first rabbi I met-a short, stocky man whose
physical shape reminded me of well … you know … a boulder and whose
voice could be as startlingly powerful as a thunder clap that awakens us
on those stormy, sultry summer nights. Amazingly, he had not changed
at all, the same “tzur gadol” of a man who spoke with a pleasant and
sweet tone ordinarily when you had his undivided attention, 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 lessons my
teacher may have taught us that day, I do not frankly recall or the reason
for his upset but indelibly engraved in my memory was the wisdom of not
angering Rabbi Skoff!

Jeffrey did incredibly well. I was even honored with hagbah, but the
highlight of the morning was the bar mitzvah boy’s ending brachos 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 - 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 to that time, 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 like 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, a conservative shul, for the first time
with some trepidation not long after we had returned home from St.
Louis. Having marshaled sufficient gumption to cross the threshold
between reform Judaism-of which I had grown tired-and a more
traditional Judaism that I was sure to find in this surrogate boyhood
shul, I found myself enticingly drawn in by the splendor of an artful
representation of the Aseres Ha Dibros carved into two columns of a
massive marble panel. Yet, some doubt gnawed at me that I may have
bitten off a wee bit too much. Was I ready for this aliyah, this act of going
up, of ascending the ladder of Jewish observance?

Mind you, it hadn’t always been that way. As a matter of fact, I was
at that time finishing two years of a ‘reform tshuva’, if you will. Having
begun to attend Friday night erev Shabbat services with my wife in a
reform temple at which she had been recently hired as executive
director, I looked forward to the sing song erev Shabbat liturgy led mostly
by the cantorial soloist, a lady well- versed in voice and sacred music.

I was on the ascent and had been for some while, but therein lie the
danger of which I was unmindful. Neatly summarized by the adage: “The
family that prays together stays together” I did not foresee what
grave consequences awaited me should I stay this course of
denominational leap-frogging having neither the shared participation
nor approval of my wife and children. Beset with anxiety by my
decision to leave reform, I felt … slightly overwhelmed and often alone.

New friendships and experiences of learning-while attempting to
apply an expression of Judaism that fit my yearnings-consumed me,
as if I were on fire, within a short span of time. I could not avoid
bringing it back home, and it was precisely there where I caused
the greatest disruption and upset. I became a crusader for z’manim.
Candle lighting on Friday night would have to take place at the right
time. No more of this lighting after sundown such as is the custom in
reform temples on Friday night. Well, a fiery furor ignited that erev
Shabbat in our kitchen followed by shrill voices and tears. The Sabbath
Queen must surely have left our home that night out of sheer disgust …
with me.

Not until after about six months had passed did I feel ready
to buy a full shul membership for $600.00, a bit pricey perhaps but I
assured myself that the eventual gain would far exceed the cost of the
investment. Meanwhile, conditions at home worsened.

My initial contact was with Harold Stern, a distinguished-looking
gentleman whom I later learned was rabbi emeritus of the shul, having
served from its pulpit for forty years. Sporting a suede kippah, he sat on
the bench in front of mine. Having noticed a stranger seated behind him,
he turned to me and broke the ice. I sat in the back row in the hope
I would remain inconspicuous 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. We had been chatting for a few minutes when I mentioned
I had gone to Rabbi Skoff’s school. I suspected he’d be familiar with
him. As it happened, he was.

Rabbi Stern, a man whose mien seemed locked in a grimace, was
not one to seek out new faces or grasp the hand of the newcomer. Chilly
and distant, I learned he was a bereaved parent, having lost his son
years before after whom the congregation named its school. We each
have our peckel into which we place and carry around our life concerns,
but grieving for a lost child, I could only imagine its enormity exceeded
the size of the peckel itself. So he walked around, Rabbi Stern, a
burdened man, bereft of his son and few if any smiles. Although I never
spoke to him about his loss, the knowledge he had suffered so softened
my perception of such a hardened face.

Though married man I was, I did not own a talis gadol, but rather
one of those questionably kosher tallesim that resemble a scarf
worn around the neck. It was all I had and, not knowing any better,
seemed to work just fine until one day during shacharis, when
seated just behind Rabbi Stern, he turned around and, with a look
befitting his last name, bespoke: “Mr. Busch, purchase a talit gadol for
yourself.”

Minyonim by their very nature become creatures of habit brought on
by the daily, intimate association of each individual with the same cast of
characters. Acceptance, as it were, by such an insular body leaves one
indelibly impressed. Rabbi Stern, though he regularly gave highly
regarded d’varim Torah on Shabbat morning and who sat with the
minyan, was not of the minyan. His tragic past, the loss of his son and
wife, was as if an enormous obstacle had fallen in his path like those
slabs of stone one encounters along certain highways created by civil
engineers whose best efforts leave the rest of us driving but ever mindful
of falling rocks. Rabbi Stern could not do as the psalmist had said:
“ …ivdu Ha Shem b’simcha.”

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

I did not meet him that day, but within that minyan sat one Isser
ben Avrum whose acquaintance I was soon to make, but whose
friendship I would forever cherish. Outside the tiny, at times picturesque
refuge of the minyan, he was called Mr. Irwin Parker who, though
small of stature and slight of frame, was a gibor, a lion of a man.

It warms one to be greeted by a smile and an extended hand. Such
middos were naturally characteristic of Mr. Parker, a man whom I met
in his second lifetime. He became my first formative teacher in the ways
of Yiddishkeit when I was forty years old and he in his late seventies or
early eighties who, for reasons I do not know, took me under his wing
and taught me siddur, tallis and t’filin.

“ … ukshartam l'os al yadecha v'hayu letotafos bane einecha.”

So reads the leaf I dedicated to his memory on the Etz Chaim in my
shul. 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 mentsh.
A prototype of chesed, there were a few in the congregation who did
not like him, many who loved him, but I dare say not a single soul who
did not respect him. Had you known him as did I and seen how he
interacted with other members of the shul, how he commanded their
respect-not by the arrogance of scholarship or the external, often
superficial signs of piety - but by the kavod they willingly accorded
him and which he characteristically rejected. His was a yiddishe kop but
never a swollen head.

How does one dispute such a man or turn away from his invitation to
impart treasures of the old world from his first lifetime? Like others of his
generation, his life changed irreversibly when the Polish cavalry-as
gallant as it was-proved itself no match for the German blitzkrieg in the
weeks following the first day of September 1939. Although Mr. Parker
survived Mauthausen, his wife and children did not, but a handful of
souls among the incalculable kedoshim . Even the most cursory
examination would reveal that Mr. Parker bore the weight of moral
authority and in whose person resided indisputable proof of the ageless
truism that a new pharaoh arises to destroy us in each generation. He
immigrated to America after the Second World War in the early 1950s.
Beginning his life anew once resettled, Reb Isser-as he allowed me to call
him-remarried and raised a second family.

Though we had to make calls sometimes when short a man or two,
helping out afforded me the opportunity to earn my stripes from Mr.
Parker. “Making a minyan” was a necessity every night. It was that
simple. I gravitated toward Mr. Parker to whom I was drawn like an iron
filing in search of a magnet. 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.

Though I would have preferred it had he shown me in private, what
he may have lacked in delicacy he more than made up in generosity.
One summer evening before mincha, Mr. Parker reached into the cabinet
below the reading table and pulled out a small blue velvet bag containing
an aged pair of t’filin.

“Roll up your sleeve,” he nodded toward my left arm. “Slip your arm
through this loop and slide it up to your bicep.”
“Like this?’ I wondered, my legs shaking.
“No, no. You see this knot? It has to be on the inside facing your heart.”
“Oh, okay. Got it.”

We tightened and wound, recited the brocho and donned the rosh.
Since that day, I have felt altogether different about myself, as
though I had been shown the ways of our fathers by a guide
genuine for having survived their worst travails.

He was undoubtedly the handiwork of The One Above whose ways-
while mostly unfathomable-are sometimes discernible in certain
individuals such as Reb Isser. Were it otherwise, the amazing stories of
seemingly ordinary people-whose tales of perilous survival and
reincarnation leave us dumbstruck-would be otherwise inexplicable
unless we relied on "blind luck" as an explanation.

Were you fortunate enough in your childhood to spend some great
times with your grandpa? Well, this is what Mr. Parker, the most
important of all and, by extension, the other gentleman of the minyan
meant to me, an opportunity to learn the basics from ten “grandpas” at
once!

That was its selling point. I had always related easily to older folks
from whom I recognized there was so much to learn. Without
trying to sound boastful, I had had “derech eretz” toward our
grandfathers and mothers-no matter whose they were- even before I
knew what it meant. To rise up before the “hoary head” was what one
did. A tiny group, the minyan was comprised mostly of elderly
gentlemen several of whom were Holocaust survivors. Its charm and
secret lay in its haimishness-the very environment I sought that would
steer me along the path to a higher level of observance. I knew I could
not have gleaned that from the culture of the main sanctuary.

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. Opposite the stained glass but
facing the benches was a reading table for the Torah services and which
served as an omed for the shleach tzibur. 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 ever came to services. It was a warm, intimate place wherein I
made many new friends.

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 been raised in orthodox homes. One of the minyan’s
more learned members was once asked by a concerned friend if he
felt ill. Seen with his head down resting on his left forearm as if he
were experiencing dizziness or a headache, he raised his head and
explained that he was davening Tachanun.

Mr. Parker 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 knew 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 we sipped tea in the kitchen, I showed Mr. Parker a photo of my
Grandpa Austin whose uncanny likeness to himself was remarkable. Like
my grandfather, Mr. Parker placed a sugar cube or two, which I
happened to have had 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. More than simply amused by this
quaint custom, I knew it represented nothing less than a sweet
fragment of an old world-that of our grandfathers and grandmothers.

It was just before Shabbes Mincha. I had been experiencing many
problems at home. My newly acquired “conservative observance” was
causing quite the stir in my family. My wife was furious at me for my
clumsy attempts to impose new rules on the family. She would have
none of it. Tension was high. Our difference of opinion became a yawning
chasm. Naturally the children sided with their mom for the most part.
Shrimp salad was just too good to give up. I had not acknowledged my
wife’s growing exasperation. I balked at the patently obvious truth. They
weren’t empty threats she had made to file for divorce. Her hurt feelings
concretized into resentment. I persisted in deludingly reassuring myself
everything would work out for the best. My wife wondered aloud,
pleadingly: “Why … tell me why are you doing this?” I recall that question
clearly. “So I’ll have something to do when I’m an old man,” I retorted
having Mr. Parker clearly in mind. Later, when I reminded her, she could
not recall my having said that.

We were in the shul’s downstairs kitchen getting shalosh seudos
ready. I had begun to feel close to him by then. I decided I would ask
Reb Isser for his opinion and advice. “He’ll have the answer,” I reassured
myself. We chatted while preparing the several plates of tuna fish, left
over cake from the main sanctuary’s Shabbat service, other assorted
leftovers and fishballs. Fishballs? You know those quasi-spherical
leftover bits and pieces from the gefilte fish factory. Thankfully, there was
only an occasional need to use the institutional hand-cranked can
opener, loosely bolted to the counter which together with the barely
tolerable general untidiness, made it a challenge to work in that kitchen.

It was as good a time as any, I reasoned, to seek out his sympathetic
ear into which I related a summary version of the whole story. I had
figured upon a favorable response. Listening politely for several minutes,
he shot back without any equivocation: “Go home to your wife!” in a
thick “Yinglish” accent which reminded me of Myron Cohen. He could not
have said it more plainly, and I should have deferred to the advice of
an older, wiser friend. Ignoring Mr. Parker’s advice, I stuck to my
path distinguished as it was by an appalling dearth of sechel. Guess I
had been hoping for a different opinion.

As the gabbai of the traditional minyan, it was he who chose the
shleach tzibur for whichever 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. An elderly man when we
became friends, his posture was bent over more than what seemed
typical even for a man of his age due to the beatings he had suffered at
the hands of the thugs at Mauthausen. His broken nose, apparently
never reset properly-became permanently misshapen by the same
perpetrators. The tip of his nose was not aligned with its bridge. His
left eye appeared as if he were looking at someone else when, in fact,
he was looking at you-a condition that required one to look at
his right eye.

A tough, gentle soul, Mr. Parker was, I believe, one of His original
prototypes of which there have been few copies.

Isser ben Avrum, Z’L passed away on erev Rosh Ha Shanah, 2000.

Alan D. Busch, Revised 8/4/07

1 comment:

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