Sunday, March 22, 2009
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Shabbos Mincha with Reb Isser (to be published by Horizons Magazine, Summer 2009)
Reb Isser knew intuitively something was wrong. Truth be told. I didn’t know what to do. My marriage was in jeopardy. My children felt conflicted. I wanted to become more Jewishly observant. My wife and children did not. Our family had suffered a near meltdown on Erev Pesach over kashrus in our home. Whatever shalom bayis still remained was crumbling fast.
I hurried to shul Shabbos afternoon to greet Reb Isser at the front door. “He’ll know what
to do,” I reassured myself. In the two years since I had first wandered into his minyan, he
became my mentor, confidant and proxy zayde.
I began helping Reb Isser prepare shalosh seudos every Shabbos afternoon. We draped the folding tables with white plastic table cloths, set out twenty-five place settings and served as much tuna fish, chopped fish balls, herring, cake and soda pop as we could find left over from the morning Kiddush. The minyan would file down the narrow stairwell after mincha, line up around the kitchen island to wash and make “ha motsi” over the challah buns we had placed in a wicker basket to the left of the sink.
“Nu, Mr. Busch. What’s on your mind?” Reb Isser finally inquired as I had hoped he would. I guess he noticed how preoccupied I must have appeared. “Well … uh, trouble at home, Reb Isser. My wife … you know,” I responded, searching for the right words but hopeful I would not have to explain too much.“No, I don’t know. You want to tell me?” “My wife is very unhappy with me.” I hesitated to continue.
“Go on,” Reb Isser encouraged me, as if he had some familiarity with this problem. “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.“She wants to go out with me in the early evening, you know, a movie, maybe something to eat.”
Reb Isser reflected for several “interminable” moments. Waiting nervously, I hoped his would be a sympathetic decision. “Mr. Busch,” Reb Isser spoke softly. He removed a single photograph from his shirt pocket. For someone as forthright as Reb Isser usually was, he seemed reluctant to speak. “I’ve shown this picture to no one in fifty years since I came to America,” he confessed,
handing it to me. “Reb Isser, you don’t have …” “Mr. Busch,” he gently interrupted, “Yes, I do.” I was afraid I knew where he was going with this. I fell silent. “This was Rivkale, aleah hashalom,” he said, pointing to a pretty, slight woman with delicate features. Her hair was put up in a bun, her long flowery dress seemed very appropriate attire for what appeared to be a family picnic. “And these,” he continued, his forefinger trembling, “are mein kinderlach …” He blinked repeatedly, trying to hold back the tears. “Reb Isser, please don’t,” I pled. He handed me a tissue. “Forgive me, Mr. Busch, but you need to hear this. This is Yossele,” he pointed to the older of his two children, a boy who looked to be about six years old. “I used to curl his peyos around this finger,” he recalled, holding up the same forefinger with which he had pointed to Yossele in the picture. “And this, this …” he began to sob. “This is … is Chavaleh ...” whose shoulder length red hair her mother specially fashioned into ringlets for this picnic, Reb Isser tearily recalled. “Do you see this spot?” he asked me, pointing to the hem of Chavaleh’s white dress. I nodded. “It’s a grass stain. She fell running in the park that day.”
I couldn’t look any more. I turned aside and began nervously dividing up the herring among several paper plates. “Mr. Busch,” he patted my hand. I released the fork. “My wife felt I was working too much. She told me many times that our family time together was much more valuable than the few extra zlotys I was bringing home. I was a druggist, you know. In those days, you had to make up the prescriptions by hand, took a lot of time so I stayed after hours. Did I tell you that story?” I nodded again. “But did I listen to her? No, I was young, a pisher, like you,” he smiled ever so faintly, handing me another tissue.“Thank you.” “But by the time I realized she was right, the Germans came to our village. The men they rounded up. The women and children ... they took away, gone. We never saw them again. Mr. Busch, I never saw them again! Understand?” I handed him back the picture which he returned to his pocket. “Go home to your family.” His words seemed plain enough, but he stopped short of advising me any further.
My wife and I had indeed arrived at a fork in the road. Whether I would keep Shabbos at home by myself, well … that he left to me. I had only to choose the path I would travel. From the stairway, a voice beckoned. “Reb Isser? … Ashrei!” I followed him upstairs for minyan.
I did as Reb Isser had advised. I could no longer ignore my problems at home, hoping they would simply disappear. The decision I made to keep Shabbos by myself-though difficult-was one I felt I needed to make. The experience not only did not weaken but, in fact, strengthened my resolve to live more observantly. We did try marriage counseling, but I am certain we both knew ours was a case of too little, too late. If nothing else, counseling delineated our differences so sharply that our irreconcilability became a foregone conclusion.
“I feel this emptiness in my gut,” I confessed to her. We were out one summer evening and had stopped to pick up some ice cream. The kids were home. There wasn’t much time to talk things over. It was just around sundown. I noticed several cars hurriedly pulling into the parking lot of the shul just across the way from where we had parked the car. “I want to be part of that,” I said, pointing to the shul. “But we’ve not lived that way. It’s too much. We didn’t raise the kids in a kosher home. I just don’t get why you cannot be happy with where we are.” “Jan,” I turned and looked at her, “I don’t understand it myself, but I know in my heart it’s real.”
We headed back home. “You’re sure about this?” she turned to me, “because I can’t go with you.” “I know that, I really do,” I smiled at her understandingly. “What about the kids?
Jan asked. “Tonight, we’ll tell them tonight.”
“Your mother and I love you unconditionally,” I began. I looked at her, the mother of my children and wife of twenty-four years, as if to get the final go-ahead. She nodded approvingly. “But Mom and I have decided … “ Zac, our youngest, wept a little boy’s tears. Ben, our oldest, was incredulous at the announcement but had known something was not right between us for a long time. Kimberly, our middle child, had just completed her freshman year at the university. Her mother drove down and told her on the way home.
I moved out of my house soon thereafter to a nearby apartment. Our children remained
at home with their mom, but I tended my bonds with them unfailingly. I trod the path of
Jewish observance, at times very clumsily, I feared. Unaware of its many stumbling blocks, I
often felt uncertain I fully understood the map before me.
Alan D. Busch