Wednesday, July 15, 2009

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Our Future Began In Our Past

Certain childhood experiences are like good teachers.
And good teachers are like road maps. They show you
the several ways to travel from point “a” to point “b”.
The route you choose, well… that’s left up to you.

There are always, as everyone knows, certain stopping
points along the way. Whether it is to rest, eat or
appreciate the beauty of the scenery, we come away
feeling that we are qualitatively better off than
before, perhaps even indelibly impressed, reinvigorated,
ready to go on until such time when we need we pull off
the road again.

Unlike the certainty and convenience of small towns
strung along the interstate-there is no map we can
consult to find the next rest area point while cruising
life’s spiritual highways, The time and distance interval
between any two points may be brief or it may happen,
as it did in my case, that years pass before we reach the next
point on the map. What we do know, however, is-no matter how bizarre
or pedestrian the stopping off points may seem at
the time of their occurrence, their great value lies in the
life-long impressions they imprint upon our memories
and values. Only when we retrace our steps do we
realize how very fortunate, albeit unaware, we were to
have experienced what we did at the time.

“v’al titosh Toras imecha” (adhere to your mother's instruction)

The year was 1959. Everything about my parents’
divorce happened quickly. Just days before we had
been a “regular” family: father, mother, children.
Suddenly, my brother and I found ourselves living with
our mother and maternal grandmother in Olivette,
Missouri. My father remained in Chicago.

For reasons not entirely clear either then or now, my
mother enrolled us in the Epstein Hebrew Academy,
the first Orthodox Hebrew day school in Missouri, soon
after we arrived in St. Louis. It was, in retrospect, a good
beginning. My mother told me she “had grown up in a
fine home” that my grandmother Jean worked hard to
provide for herself and her two daughters, my mom and
her sister Iris. “But without any Jewish atmosphere except
on the high holidays,” she added.

“I thought it would be good for you boys,” my mother
explained when I asked her about her decision to enroll
us in the Epstein Academy. And looking back, my
mother was right. It was a good idea. Problem was we
felt like fish out of water. My brother and I hadn’t
received any prior Jewish training either in school or at
home, and I don’t recall having any personal Jewish
awareness at the time. To me (and Ron) it seemed a
scary, unfamiliar world of which neither of us wanted
any part. My sole memory of the Epstein Academy was
of the alphabet chart on our classroom walls about
which I complained to my mother. The letters were
unrecognizable, looking nothing at all like the “abc (s)”
I had learned before we moved to St Louis. Naturally
but unbeknownst to us at the time, we had been
looking at the aleph-beis, the Hebrew Alphabet.
We complained so bitterly that within a week our mother
enrolled us in public school.

As a result of my “close encounter” with Torah
Judaism, I grew up a Jew who knew virtually nothing
about his Judaism-its richness eluding me and countless
other Jewish children whose attachment to Jewish life
was and would remain cultural rather than Torah-based.
My life would probably have been different had I
not disliked the Epstein Academy so passionately and
pressured my mother to withdraw our registration.
But I learned later-when I embraced my faith as
an adult-things happen as they do for the best. There is
no second guessing the ways of The One Above, despite
the many cynically “rational” voices to the contrary.

My upbringing didn’t lack the threads of Jewish life
(although there were many we were missing) as much
as we lacked its fabric. We celebrated the holidays in the
dining room of Aunt Iris and Uncle Marvin’s house.
Our one annual Passover seder, always replete with
ample supplies of machine matzah and a fabulous meal,
was the most memorable. Aunt Iris (whom we
nicknamed Aunt “I”) was a great cook. 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.

My First 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 who lived fifty yards from
their synagogue Nusach Ari B’nai Zion, they were a
quaint, picture-perfect couple of old-fashioned dignity,
each crowned with snow white hair. I felt drawn to Reb
Moishe and Chava who spoke the blend of Yiddish and
English that author Leo Rosten dubbed “Yinglish”.
There was 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 attending public
school and living outside the observant Jewish
community, it was 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 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, Sabbath candles,there was
no other light to be had.

We sat down with them in a state of virtual bemusement
for several moments until Harold, his patience exhausted,
rose from his seat.

"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 , but
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 could have seen this!)

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

After a half hour, we drove back home to Friday night
leaving behind the fascination of Erev Shabbos. Though
I was only eight years old at the time, its mystery had
definately piqued my interest.

A Lifetime Later

The return road to explore that mystery upset many lives:
those of my family, my children, my job, my marriage.I could
not have imagined the danger that lay ahead

“I feel this emptiness in my gut,” I confessed to my wife..
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 nearly
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 understandingly.

“What about the kids?" she wondered.

“Tonight, we’ll tell them tonight.”

“Your mother and I love you unconditionally,” I
began with our youngest. 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 navigated the path of Jewish observance, at times very
clumsily, I feared. Unaware of its many gaping potholes
which surely lay ahead, I felt uncertain I understood the
road map before me.

Alan D. Busch

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