Monday, July 21, 2008
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His clothing caught my attention.
Something about it just didn’t seem right. There was no crease in his pants and his pale yellow knit golf shirt and cap were perspiration-stained. He had the look of not being well cared for.
"Good evening, Sir,” I greeted him cheerfully, an elderly man sitting alone in the shul’s social hall. He looked troubled, even sad.
"Good evening," he responded, a faint smile overtaking his noticeably chapped lips.
“I was worried we would not have a minyan. It's nearly 8:00 o’clock now, and I've yahrzeit for Maariv.”
"Oh," I was quick to reassure him. "We'll have a minyan. Please don’t worry about that. Your name is, Sir?” He watched my mouth as if lip reading. “He’s probably a bit hard of hearing,” I thought.
"Talisman, Irving Talisman.”
He almost said "Yitzhak," but stopped short. Maybe he thought I wouldn’t understand. I focused all of my attention upon him.
“Reb Talisman, for your wife, your parents you have yahrzeit?” I asked, inverting subject with predicate, common in Yiddish-accented English. I was trying my best to say in so many words: ‘Hey, I care about you’.
He twisted his left arm with his right hand a quarter turn, revealing six subcutaneous green numerals. He looked up at me from reddened, moistened eyes. Their dark shadows seemed as indelible as that tattoo.
"My parents.” he tearfully whispered, removing a soiled hanky from his pants pocket.
I wanted to take care of this man, to do for him what the rabbis call “ma’asim tovim’, good deeds that help to fix the world.
I figured if I could help just one grief-stricken Jew, make him less sad-or even better, happy for a moment-well, isn’t that what it’s all about?
"This way, Reb Talisman.”
I accompanied him down the hallway to the Rabbi Aron & Rebbitzen Ella Soloveitchik Beis Ha Medrash. We both grasped hold of the door handle. He paused.
"Should we enter? Looks like a bar mitzvah lesson going on."
Indeed there was.
The evening was an especially busy one at shul. The sisterhood was hosting a speaker from the Skokie Park District who spoke about local conservation efforts. The junior minyan was learning mishnayos with the Rabbi’s son.
Rabbi Louis looked grumpy. A long day of meetings no doubt. And to add insult to injury, a ballast had blown out in the shul’s high ceiling. Though ordinarily of good cheer, he looked as if he were about to blow up too.
Reb Talisman and I quietly entered. Seeing that I was escorting an elderly gentleman to minyan, Rabbi saved his upset for the next two hapless fellows who followed us in after we had shut the door.
"Close it!” Rabbi barked at them.
"Abba, it’s 8:05, time for Mincha. We have a minyan," announced Rabbi’s older son who, as it happened, was one of the two who came in after we had. His four mishnayos talmidim followed him in.
I directed Reb Talisman toward the one chair I thought he’d like. It was a comfortably cushioned seat, distinctively but peculiarly pink in color.
It had been the favorite of Reb Helman, the late father of the Rebbitzen.
But when I turned to check on him, I saw he had chosen to sit by the “omed” opposite the Ark.
“No problem,” I thought, “as long as he’s comfortable.”
"Ashrei yoshvei v'secha,” the minyan intoned, marking the start of the afternoon service.
I looked over to Reb Talisman. Seemed fine. One or two recited the Mourner’s Kaddish. Rabbi does too for those who ask him or cannot say it themselves.
During the brief interval between Mincha and Ma’ariv, we learned about the halachos of the 'nine days. Tisha b'Av was just around the corner.
My focus had begun to wane by the start of Ma’ariv. I had been thinking of "Kallah", my bride of fifteen months. We had recently separated. She filled my head though certain I’d arrive home to an empty house. I closed my siddur.
"Maybe she'll pass by," I mused, staring out of the window “or drop in to see me."
I turned to the doorway thinking I had heard a feminine voice.
“Oh … just one of the younger guys,” I mumbled to myself.
"Amen. Yehey shmey rabba …”.
The beis medrash emptied.
I escorted Reb Talisman to his car.I wondered about what I'd say to him or if I'd say anything.
"Good night, Sir," I smiled.
"Good night," he said.
I touched his arm comfortingly and watched as he got in his car and drove off.
I fumbled for my keys, turned on the ignition and fantasized about seeing my wife's car parked at home. I pulled into my driveway, only a block away from shul. Her car wasn't there. I wasn't surprised. I sat in my car for several moments.
“How nice it would have been to share this story with her tonight,” I lamented, "but there has got to be a lesson here."
I opened the car door.
“Maybe I’ll see her tomorrow.”
That was a difficult and lonely time in my life.
It soon became clear to me, however, that The One Above had sent Reb Talisman to remind me others are grieving too and for reasons for more serious than mine. I could do a lot of good if I could but step away from my own tsorris.
An act of chesed brought some comfort, friendship and the faintest of smiles to an elderly Jew. It had been a "yom tov".
Alan D. Busch