Monday, August 18, 2008
Where authors and readers come together!
Sorry to drag this out, but a fellow writer and editor pointed out a variety of flaws with the previous iteration, causing me to essentially rewrite the whole piece. It really is much better.
by Alan D. Busch
(revised: August 18, 2008)
His clothing caught my attention. Wearing wrinkled casual slacks with only the faintest hint of a crease, a faded yellow, perspiration-stained knit golf shirt, and a dirty beige, well-worn cap, he bore the appearance of neglect.
“Good evening, Sir,” I greeted him cheerfully.
Smiling as broadly as I could, I sat down and chatted with him for several minutes. It was simply the right thing to do and besides, I reasoned, it might even make me feel better too.
It had been a turbulent several months for me. Not only had I ridden an emotional roller coaster, but I was stuck at the highest peak of the ride. The summer’s heat was unrelenting and-to top it all off, we were in the “nine days” before Tisha b’ Av.
"Good evening," he responded, his mood perking up a bit, a faint smile overtaking his noticeably drawn face and chapped lips. An elderly man, he had been sitting alone in the shul’s social hall before I arrived, looking troubled and a great deal sadder than I felt.
“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 quickly reassured him. "We'll have a minyan. Please don’t worry about that.” I paused for a moment. “Your name is, Sir?” He seemed to focus on my mouth when I spoke as if lip reading.
"Talisman, Irving Talisman.”
He had begun to say "Yitzhak” instead of “Irving” but stopped short. Perhaps he thought I wouldn’t understand him or felt uncomfortable referring to himself by his Hebrew name. I really don’t know, but I resolved to give him my undivided attention.
“Reb Talisman, for whom are you saying Kaddish?” I asked.
He twisted his left arm a quarter turn with his right hand, revealing six subcutaneous green numerals. He looked up at me from bloodshot eyes. Their dark shadows seemed as indelible as his tattoo.
"My parents.” he tearfully whispered, removing a soiled handkerchief from his pants pocket. At that very instant, I felt tangibly closer to the Shoah than I had ever before. Sure, I had seen the tattoos but never close up enough to become part of a survivor’s life. That was about to change.
I was determined to take care of this man. If I could help to comfort one grief-stricken Jew, was I not obligated to do so?
"This way, Reb Talisman,” I invited him to accompany me down the hallway to our shul’s newly dedicated Beis Medrash. We both grasped hold of the door handle. He hesitated.
"Should we enter? It looks like the rebbe is busy with a bar mitzvah boy."
It was an unusually hectic evening at shul. Not only was the sisterhood hosting a speaker from the Park District who spoke about local conservation efforts, but the junior minyan was learning mishnayos with the Rabbi’s son. The Rabbi, a physically vigorous man, looked utterly exhausted. I had never seen him looking so worn out.
Reb Talisman and I quietly entered. Never too tired to do the right thing, Rabbi rose from his chair in an act of "kavod" to Reb Talisman.
“Shalom Aleichem, Reb Yitzchak,” Rabbi greeted him with a welcoming hand and bright smile.
“Aleichem sholem, Rebbe. Another year, eh?"
“Baruch Ha Shem,” Rabbi respectfully responded.
"Abba, it is 8:05. We have a minyan," announced Rabbi’s older son whose four mishnayos talmidim followed in behind him like so many goslings.
I escorted Reb Talisman to a special chair I thought he’d like. Unlike the several hundreds of stackable chairs we have in shul, this chair was more comfortably cushioned, peculiarly but uniquely pink in color, and always placed adjacent to the book shelves. It had been the favorite of the Rebbitzen’s father. When I turned to check on Reb Talisman, I saw he had chosen one of
the regular seats by the “omed”.
"Ashrei yoshvei v'secha,” the minyan intoned, marking the start of the afternoon service. I looked over again to see how Reb Talisman was doing. He seemed more at ease now that we had begun on time. The usual several minutes for Mincha flew by.
“Yisgadal veyiskadash shmey raba …”
Rabbi learned the halachos of the “nine days” with the minyan during the brief interval before the evening prayer.
“Al Yisroel v’al rabbonan …”
Rabbi designated one of the younger fellows to daven Ma’ariv. I should have felt good about how smoothly everything was proceeding for Reb Talisman. After all, he made it to minyan on time. I had helped him in my own small way, but somehow … it just wasn’t enough.I closed my siddur.
“V’hu rachum …”
I arose for “Borchu”, but I was already a world away.
I couldn’t help it, but I turned all of my thoughts to my “Kallah”. She had left
me two months before after only fifteen months of marriage. All that summer,
I struggled desperately to reconcile our differences, but she was adamant.
“I need to find myself,” she was fond of saying. I understood what she meant because I felt lost without her.
"Maybe she'll drive by and come in to see me," I mused while staring out the back window in the corner of the beis medrash where I customarily sit. I turned to the doorway thinking I had heard a feminine voice.
“Oh … just one of the younger guys,” I dejectedly muttered to myself. “Well,” I persisted in deluding myself, “She just might be there when I get home.”
Then I heard Reb Talisman’s voice. It brought me back. I had to finish what I had started.
"Oseh shalom bimromav …”
The beis medrash slowly emptied. “Six o’clock tomorrow morning gentlemen,” Rabbi announced while his younger son replaced siddurim and several volumes of Gemara back on the shelves. A few lingered to “schmooze” followed by the customary handshakes and “yasher koach(s)”.
I escorted Reb Talisman to his car. I wondered what I could possibly say to
this man on our way out, but then realized our concern for and love of a fellow Jew had already spoken to Reb Talisman's heart.
"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 and drove home. Her car wasn't parked in the driveway, but I expected as much. I sat for several moments.
“Maybe I’ll get to tell her tomorrow.” And I felt okay with that because I realized “The Aibishter” had taught me an invaluable lesson– one which, as a matter of fact, I had already learned but was prone to forget on occasion when I became too self-absorbed.
He sent Reb Talisman to shul not only to say Kaddish but to remind me how many other countless Jews grieve for losses far greater than mine. If I could but step away from my own "tsorris”, I could do so much good for so many.
An act of chesed had brought some comfort of friendship and the faintest of smiles to an elderly Jew. Our rabbis teach us that we do not know what degrees of reward await us in the next world for the faithful performance of mitzvos in this world. I like to think though that some reward may trickle down to this world.
Although it didn’t happen right away, some four months after meeting Reb Talisman, my Kallah called me. We made plans to meet for coffee, an occasion for which I had faithfully waited and prayed.
“I’m ready to come home,” she said. Maybe my reward had trickled down, but of one thing I was certain.
That day I met Reb Talisman inspired me, and it had indeed been a “yom tov".
Alan D. Busch
August 18, 2008