Monday, October 29, 2007

“Portrait of a Righteous Man”

In memory of my late friend and teacher Mr. Irwin Parker, Isser ben Avrum, Z'L whom I believe was one of the Lamed Vuvniks of this generation.

He stooped forward. The kapos at Mauthausen beat

him severely. The same perpetrators broke his nose

repeatedly. Never reset properly, his nose became

permanently misshapen, its tip out of alignment

with the bridge. Other beatings caused his left eye to

appear as if he were looking at someone else when, in

fact, he was looking at you, but for which one had to

look at his right eye.

Do we ever consider where the other person was

yesterday? What may have happened, what amalgam

of circumstances congealed to bring that person into

our lives today and tomorrow?

I did not meet him the first day I attended, but

within the minyan sat Isser ben Avrum whose

acquaintance I would soon make and friendship

I would cherish forever. Outside the tiny, picturesque

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

but he allowed me to call him Reb Isser. Though small

of stature and slight of frame, he was a lion of a man.

Like others of his generation, his life changed

irreversibly when the German blitzkrieg overwhelmed

the Polish defense forces in the weeks following

September 1, 1939. Although Reb Isser survived

Mauthausen, his wife and children did not, but a

handful of souls among the incalculable kedoshim.

He immigrated to America in the early 1950s and

began life anew, remarrying and raising a second


Our friendship may have seemed odd to some, I

suppose, but as a boy, I had learned to rise up before

the hoary head. I brought Reb Isser home one day to

meet my family as if he were a new school chum.

While we sipped tea in the kitchen, I showed him a

photo of my Grandpa Austin to whom he bore an

uncanny likeness. Like my grandfather, he too placed

a sugar cube or two 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.

Reb Isser, who had been trained as a

pharmacist in Poland in the years before 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 mensch. 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

accorded him and which he characteristically

rejected, you would have concurred that his was a

yiddishe kop but never a swollen head.

His middot were such that he naturally greeted

everyone with a smile and an extended hand. I

gravitated toward him like an iron filing in search of a

magnet. He became my 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. Though I would have preferred

to learn in private, what he may have lacked in

delicacy he more than made up in generosity.

One summer evening before Mincha, Reb Isser

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. I got it.”

We tightened the slip knot to my bicep, wound the

black leather strap seven times around my forearm

and recited the brocho. In comparison, donning the

rosh was much easier.

How does one dispute such a man or turn down his

invitation to impart treasures from the old world?

I was being shown the ways of our fathers by a

righteous man who had survived their worst travails.

How did I merit this gift? Perhaps Reb Isser saw in me

a fledgling fallen from the nest or a reminder of

someone he had lost in his first life. Frankly, I do not

know, but I remain grateful to this man and his


Even the most cursory of examinations would

demonstrate that Reb Isser bore the weight of moral

authority-in whose person resided indisputable proof

that a new pharaoh arises to destroy us in each

generation. He was the handiwork of The One Above

whose unfathomable ways are revealed in individuals,

such as Reb Isser. His amazing life of courage and

survival would be otherwise inexplicable. A tough,

gentle soul, he was, I believe, one of His original

prototypes of which there have been few copies.

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

So reads the memorial leaf I dedicated to his memory

on the Etz Chaim in my shul. Isser ben Avrum, Z’L

passed away on erev Rosh Ha Shanah, 2000.

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