Wednesday, August 08, 2007

These Are the Lives that Have Touched Mine

NOTE: This is a focused look at my late friend and teacher whom i believe was one of "Lamed Vuvniks" of this generation. If life has blessed you with such a friend, teacher, spouse ... count your blessings. Remember that all three roles share one essential feature ... that to be truly a friend, teacher or spouse, one needs be a giver.

Mr. Parker, Isser ben Avrum, Z'L


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 and

friendship I would forever cherish. Outside the tiny, at times picturesque

refuge of the minyan, he was called Mr. Irwin Parker. Though

small of stature and slight of frame, he 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 formative teacher in the ways

of Yiddishkeit when I was forty years old and he in his late seventies or

early eighties. For reasons he never explained, he took me under his wing

and taught me siddur, tallis and t’filin.

“ … ukshartam l'os al yadecha v'hayu letotafos bane einecha.”[1]

So reads the leaf I dedicated to his memory on the Etz Chaim in my

shul. Though I would have preferred to be taught 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. Why was I fortunate enough to

receive this gift? Perhaps he saw in me a fledgling 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.

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. Neither a yeshiva bocher by education nor a great chochem of

Gemara, he did attend cheder and graduated … a mentch.

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 I did 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, you would have concurred

that his was a "yiddishe kop" but never a swollen head.

How does one dispute such a man or turn down 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 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. They were but a handful of souls among the

incalculable kedoshim[2]. Even the most cursory examination would reveal

that Mr. Parker bore the weight of moral authority-in whose person

resided indisputable proof of the ageless truism a new pharaoh arises to

destroy us in each generation. 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 that you look at his right eye.

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.

He was the handiwork of The One Above whose unfathomable ways

are sometimes revealed 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

inexplicable.

Were you fortunate enough in your childhood to spend quality

time with your grandfather? Well, this is what Mr. Parker, the most

important of all and, by extension, the other gentlemen of the minyan

meant to me, an opportunity to learn the basics from ten grandfathers

at once!

That was its selling point. I had always recognized how much we

could and needed to learn from older folks. 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 that expression

meant. To rise up before the “hoary head” was what one did.

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 must have seemed as if I were showing off 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 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 right 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. The children sided largely with their mom. 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 in

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

We were in the shul’s downstairs kitchen getting shalosh seudos[3]

ready. I had begun to feel close to him by then. I decided I would ask

Reb Isser for his opinion and advice about my troubles at home.

“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, we only occasionally needed to use the institutional

hand-cranked can opener, loosely bolted to the counter but when

combined with the barely tolerable general untidiness, made working in

that kitchen quite the challenge.

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

“Nu, Mr. Busch. What’s on your mind?” sensing something was up.

“Eh, trouble at home. My wife, … you know,” I responded, hoping he

would.

“No, I don’t. You want to tell me?”

“My wife is very unhappy with me. I spend too much time in shul, she

thinks. By the time I get home Saturday night, now with spring and

summer, it’s too late.”

“For what?” he asked attentively.

“She wants to go out, you know, a movie, maybe something to eat.”

Mr. Parker reflected for several moments. Hoping for a sympathetic

ruling, I waited.

“Go home to your wife!” he rendered in his thick “Yinglish” accent

reminding 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, it was Mr. Parker who designated the "shleach tzibur"

for whichever service it was at the time. Among the "minyonaires" were

several fine voices. When they led the davening, one could hear the faint

echoes of history.

A tiny group, the minyan was comprised mostly of elderly gentlemen

several of whom were Holocaust survivors. Minyonim become

creatures of habit by the daily association of each individual with the

same cast of characters. Acceptance, as it were, by such an insular body

leaves one indelibly impressed. Its charm and secret lay in its

haimishness-the very environment I sought that would nurture me along

the path 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, only 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.

Its minhag 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, an exchange I

witnessed:

“Mr. Begouin, are you okay?” inquired Mr. Goldberg, concerned that he

had seen Mr. Begoiun leaning forward resting his head on his left

forearm, as if dizzy or fatigued. Unresponsive to his inquiry, Mr. Goldberg

reiterated, his voice slightly louder and tone noticeably urgent:

“Mr. Begoiun, is everything alright?”

“ Yes, thank you. I’m fine. I was davening Tachanun,” raising his head

finally, looking slightly bemused.

One summer Shabbat morning by the time of mussaf I looked

around and saw that every member of the minyan had fallen asleep

except the chazzan and me although I think I was more awake than he. I

scanned the room and determined there would be enough men for a

minyan if I left. And so I did.

I needed fifteen minutes to arrive at my destination even at a feverish

pace, but I knew happily where I was going as much as where I wanted

to be. Past the white ranch house, up the driveway a few paces, I passed

though a wooden archway just to the right of the garage. There was no

place else to go but down the steps leading to the basement where I

hoped to find the shul.[4]

“This has ‘gotta’ be it,” I muttered to myself.

As I soon discovered, I had entered upon a place oozing with

the hospitality of Avraham Avinu. Peeking inside, I espied a red-bearded

man with an infectious smile, his cape-like tallis[5] afloat in the breeze of

his eager gait, tzitsis[6] flying, heading toward me invitingly.

“Come in. Come in. Bruchim Habayim,”[7] cajoled Rabbi Louis’s song of

greeting. That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Mr. Parker would not leave his post at B’nai Emunah, but I had

decided it time for me to move on. We did go to Rabbi Louis’s shul

together on occasion, but I think we recognized our time together was

nearing its end. A tough, gentle soul, he 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 8/8/07




[1] Wear them as a sign upon thy hand and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes.
[2] Holy martyrs who died sanctifying His name.
[3] The third and last meal of the Sabbath; Hebrew: Seudat Shlishit.
[4] Beth Ha Medrosh Kesser Maariv Anshe Luknik
[5] prayer shawl
[6] ritual fringes looped through the four corners of the tallis
[7] Welcome!

2 comments:

Dag said...

I really like this article a lot.

Is this the one you published or is being published?

Alan aka Avrum ben Avrum said...

Dear Dag,

Thank you very much. Your readership inspires me truly.No, this one is not published yet. Coming out in September for the High Holidays in the JUF magazine will be chapter 1 of In Memory of Ben and I am told by the editors of HaModia that they are "seriously considering" my piece called: "He Learns: A Story of Z'man Simchasenu" in its Sukkot edition.

Getting ready for shul now after which I will chill at Starbucks on Dempster. With respect due your privacy I'd love to see you. Promise as your friend. Persistent fellow that I am.

Alan