Wednesday, July 08, 2009

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Darkness Can Enlighten

Certain childhood experiences are like good teachers. No matter that they may seem bizarre or pedestrian at the time of their occurrence, they often leave worthwhile, life-long impressions. Henry Brooks Adams, American historian, journalist and novelist put it best when he said: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops”, and so it is with
certain of our lives’ experiences, the importance of which we may only realize years down the road.

I grew up “Jewishly” but not religiously in the 1960 (s) one suburb west of the orthodox community, centered in University City, Missouri. My brother and I lived with our mother, a young, inexperienced divorcee who probably felt overwhelmed by the realities of single parenthood.

My maternal grandmother, Jean Austin nee Pick who lived with us for several years, worked as a professional buyer of women’s fashions and was, I think, a genuine rarity in an age when divorced, independently-minded women were far less common than even in my mother’s generation. She had been a “tough love” parent (a fact I learned from both my mother and my
Aunt Iris, my mother’s sister) who successfully combined hard work and an independent spirit to raise two daughters. “My mother provided us with a fine home,” my mom told me, “but without any Jewish atmosphere.”

I’m not sure why she did what she did or if she even understood it herself, but my mother enrolled my brother and me in the Epstein Hebrew Academy, the first Orthodox Hebrew day school in Missouri almost immediately after our arrival in St. Louis. It sounds like a good first step, right? Well, we hated it. My sole memory was of the alphabet on our classrooms’ walls
which, I recall with perfect clarity, was written in an unrecognizable script. Unbeknownst to us at the time, we had been looking at the aleph-beis posters. My brother and I protested vociferously to our mother. I don’t think we lasted more than several days before my
mother withdrew us.

As a result of my all too brief “close encounter” with Torah Judaism, I became a Jew who knew virtually nothing about his Judaism. The richness of Jewish tradition had largely eluded me and countless other Jewish children whose attachment to Jewish life was largely cultural rather than Torah-based. I suppose had I not disliked the Epstein Academy so passionately, things might have turned out differently, perhaps even better.

Then again, as Jews of faith, our bitachon reinforces our belief that while “things do happen for the best”, I look back upon my limited Jewish upbringing with a slight tinge of regret but with thanks as well. After all, my youth was not entirely barren of Jewish experiences. We
gathered at my Aunt Iris's house for our family's one seder with ample supplies of machine matzah while my Uncle Marvin led us through the redemption of our people, according to the Haggadah from Maxwell House. Shavuos and Sukkos were unknown to us. We celebrated Rosh Ha Shana and broke the fast of Yom Kippur with festive meals. We did not light candles, but
my mother did plug in an electric menorah each of the eight days of Chanukkah. It was not so much that my family lacked the threads of Jewish life (though there were many we were missing) as much its fabric.

My First “Almost” Shabbos

It was exceedingly difficult not to love Reb Moishe and Chava Grossman. The parents of Harold Grossman, my mother’s second husband, Reb Moishe and Chava became Morris and Eve upon their passage through Ellis Island. A tiny twosome, they were a quaint, picture-perfect couple of old-fashioned dignity, each crowned with snow white hair. Speaking a stereotypical
blend of Yiddish and English, dubbed “Yinglish” by author Leo Rosten and living within fifty yards of their shul, I felt drawn to Reb Moishe and Chava. There was just something about them I found so … charming, I guess.

When the sun sets on Friday afternoon, Erev Shabbos begins. For observant Jews, the Shabbos is kadosh, separate and holy, a reminder of the Creation. To me, an eight-year old Jewish boy living outside the observant Jewish community, it was just Friday night. I had no idea that another state of being, Shabbos, existed on a parallel but higher plane than our own. Harold, my mom and I stopped in one Friday night to visit his parents. Already several minutes after
sundown when we arrived, we found Harold’s parents-their feet barely touching the floor (actually Mrs. Grossman's did not), sitting quite properly on their plastic cover-fitted sofa, in total darkness as if nothing were amiss. Except for what little remained of the Shabbos nerot, there was no other light to be had. We sat down with them in a state of virtual bemusement for several moments until Harold’s patience ran out.

"Pa,” he pled incredulously, always the dutiful son but who had forsworn Jewish religious observance when he enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor, "You're ‘gonna’
sit here in the dark?! Lemme tur ..."

"Zol zein shtil, Herschele! 'Don' touch!” barked Zaide who did not pronounce the 't' in ‘don't’.

"But, but ... " Harold blurted out.

"But, but 'nuting'! Shah!" Zaide thundered.

"Ma!?" pled the son."It'll be fine tatele. Listen to your father," Bubbie counseled.

"Mom, why are we sitting in the dark?" I asked, absolutely intrigued by this most bizarre circumstance.

"Shah! Listen to Bubbie."

If only Mel Brooks had seen this!

To this day some forty-seven years later, I do not know if the Grossmans had set their timers which-for reasons unknown-failed to turn on or simply forgotten to switch on their Sabbath lights. It remains a fond albeit befuddled memory to this very day.

We did not stay much longer. Leaving behind the dark wonderment of Erev Shabbos, we drove back to Friday night. Darkness could and did enlighten me that night to the fascination of Erev Shabbos to which I returned years later. It turned out to be a difficult destination to reach as an adult, but at least I know that-as an eight year old boy-my spiritual odyssey began that
night in the apartment of Moishe and Chava Grossman, may their memories be for a blessing.

Alan D. Busch

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