ON SUNDAY, THE RABBI LIT UP
By Maury Z. Levy
The first time I almost died was March 23rd, 1959, the day I put on tefillin. I came of age in an old white house on Bustleton Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia, where boys were bar mitzvahed and girls were frowned upon.
“My god,” said the rabbi,” with a look on his face as if the Red Sea had just closed back up. “You can’t put on tefillin that tight. You’ll cut off the blood supply to your brain.” It wouldn’t be the last time someone would tell me that.
I was mortified. All the other boys looked at me with disdain. This is what happens, they thought, when you grow up on the gentile side of the Boulevard. My face was red, but my arm was as white as my yarmulke.
Each Sunday, for the two months prior to our right of passage, we would meet in the back of the sanctuary, sitting on folding bridge chairs, at shaky aluminum tables, eating bagels that were rubbery and cream cheese that was watery, learning the faith of our fathers.
It was the first time in my young life that I had eaten lox outside the home. In our house, lox was a delicacy, purchased only when company came, eaten only at times of celebration or sympathy. I knew full well that, if I could live through the rigors of tefillin club, we would soon be serving celebration lox, as I would become the first boy in my immediate family to become a man.
The rabbi didn’t seem to share my epicurean joy. “No, no,” he said, “holding my head in his hands. “You’re not supposed to wear it like a baseball cap. The tefillin must always be positioned in the spot that begins at your hairline, above your forehead. Now move it down below that pompadour.”
I was worried and confused. Would the rabbi notice that I had gotten some Wildroot cream oil on the back of my box?
“And your arm is all wrong,” the rabbi said, “the lowest point for tefillin begins where your biceps muscle starts to bulge. The tefillin must never pass below this point!”
Oy, how was I ever going to read from the torah if I couldn’t get some simple straps straight?
“This tefillin is too big for you,” the rabbi said, “that’s part of your problem. Where did you get tefillin so big?”
For what seemed like an hour and a half, I sat in silence. My grandfather had given me these tefillin. They had been his. He was so proud to see me have them. He said a special blessing over the blue velvet bag before he handed it to me. My grandfather was an Orthodox man. These tefillin meant the world to him.
“Who is picking you up today?” the rabbi demanded.
“My father is, rabbi,” I said with a whimper.
“You tell your father I want to see him,” the rabbi said.” With that, he walked away.
I was sick to my stomach. I couldn’t eat another bite of bagel. What if the rabbi made an example of me? What if he told my father that I couldn’t be bar mitzvahed because I couldn’t put on tefillin right? I looked at the big clock on the bema wall. My father would be here in less than ten minutes. I had to do something quickly.
With the courage of the damned, I got up from my bridge chair and walked to the front of the shull. I had to find the rabbi. He had to give me a break. As I approached the bema, I smelled something strange. It smelled like my Aunt Anna when she was nervous. It smelled like smoke. And so it was. When I got to the back of the bema, there was the rabbi, dragging on a Lucky Strike.
Quickly, my jaw dropped. You weren’t allowed to smoke in shull.
“What are you doing here?” the rabbi said, as he tried to cuff the butt in his hand. I couldn’t speak. The words just didn’t come. I had caught the rabbi committing a sin. What would Moses do?
“You go back to your table,” the rabbi said, “and you don’t tell anyone what you saw here.” There was a long pause. “Oh, and you don’t have to bring your father back. You just go home.”
I smiled and said nothing. It would be two more months before I would be bar mitzvahed. But it was that Sunday morning that I came of age. I had known for a while that it was God who wrote each of us into the good book. That morning, I learned he had an eraser.
WE’RE NOT OTHER PEOPLE
It was a long walk to talk to God. In the fall, when the wind drove the rain, we trudged, my father and I, to synagogue, where we celebrated the holiest of the high days. On those cold October mornings, while others sat in the comfort of their cars, we walked 2.3 miles to ask for forgiveness.
Along the way, well-dressed men and newly dyed women, would pass us in their Pontiacs. The brazen would pull up right in front of the shul. The timid would find parking a block away and walk from there.
“How come we never drive?” I asked my father, on a day when my blue serge was particularly soggy.”
“You can’t drive to shul on holidays or Shabbos,” he said.
“Other people drive,” I said.
“We’re not other people,” he said.
“Who makes these rules?” I asked.
“God does,” he said. “It’s in the Bible.”
That was the thing. I could never figure out where in the Bible it said you couldn’t drive on Saturday. Genesis? Exodus? I read them all. Not a word about driving. But my life and my house were full of such rules. We couldn’t turn on the air conditioner on Rosh Hashanah. We couldn’t watch the television before sundown. My mother wouldn’t play her piano until it was dark. I lived in a house where everything was forbidden. On Saturday afternoon, when the Phillies were at home, I would fake a stomach ache and go to my room, where I would cup my transistor radio to my ear and listen to the gospel according to By Saam. I was almost certain that the Bible didn’t say anything about baseball.
Who then makes up these rules? And are the rules law, as they were in my house, or merely suggestions and interpretations? To find out once and for all, I visited the Ohr Somayach Institute in Jerusalem. Visited in the digital sense. I went to their “Ask the Rabbi” section. I was particularly attracted to their rulings on games:
“Let’s start with Scrabble,” writes Rabbi Moshe Lazerus. “Does the forming of a word by placing letters next to each other on a Scrabble-board transgress the prohibition against ‘writing’ on Shabbat? Also, since people keep score when playing Scrabble, would that make it prohibited to play because one might come to write down the score by accident? I showed Rabbi Chaim Pinchus Scheinberg, shlita. He acknowledged that some Poskim forbid it, and others permit it. He ruled that it is permitted, but that great care must be taken to ensure that the players do not forget that it’s Shabbat and write down their scores.
“Now for Monopoly. Monopoly is a game that mimics business transactions. Rabbi Scheinberg, shlita, says that technically it is permitted, but playing a business-oriented game on Shabbat is not conducive to a proper attitude about Shabbat.”
So much for fun and games. But what about driving? Here’s what the rabbi says:
“Jewish law forbids driving to synagogue, or anywhere else, on Shabbat. Going to synagogue is certainly a good thing, but not at the expense of one of the Ten Commandments!
“Let me tell you a story: Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky and a friend were walking one Shabbat morning when a car pulled up to ask for directions. “Good Shabbos,” said the driver, thus identifying himself as Jewish. He then asked for help finding his destination, to which Rabbi Kaminetsky gave detailed directions. The driver said thank you and drove off.
“Rabbi Kaminetsky’s friend was surprised: ‘Surely we must help others whenever we can,’ he said. ‘But are we allowed to help a fellow Jew to violate Shabbat?’
“’On the contrary, I helped him avoid violating Shabbat. If he gets lost, he will drive around looking for his destination, thus violating Shabbat much more. By giving clear directions, not only did I help him get straight to his destination, but I helped him do so with less Shabbat desecration.’”
WAITING FOR ELIJAH
Muhammad Ali was nothing. He was big and brown and buff and he scared the life out of anyone who would meet him in the ring. But that didn’t bother me. “I don’t get it,” I said to Ali, after he invited me to spend a couple of days with him at his training camp in Deer Lake. “You look too nice,” I said, “you look too pretty.” Ali just laughed. Then I climbed into the ring next to him and pulled on a pair of big red boxing gloves. I leaned over the top rope and glared at a photographer, who snapped a Polaroid. Ali did the same. Then we compared pictures.
“Now, be honest with me,” I said, holding the photos up to his face. “Which of these guys would you be more afraid of in the ring?” He looked at the photos and pointed to mine. “I’d be afraid of this guy,” he said. “I’d be afraid I’d kill him.”
Someone asked me what the most frightening moment of my life was. I have covered the war in Northern Ireland, where my hotel was blown up. I have been in the pits at the Indy 500 and watched cars explode as fireballs in front of me. I have been threatened at gunpoint by the Black Panthers. But the scariest moment of my life? None of the above.
The scariest moment of my life took place one dark and stormy night in April, 1954. It was in the living room of my Aunt Lizzie’s house on Farnsworth Street, a room packed with people I knew and loved and feared. I had experienced these nights before. They were endless and torturous. I would try to follow what was being said, but I just couldn’t read the strange symbols. I was sweating, I was nervous, I was scared. And then I heard the most frightening words of my life so far.
“Maishie,” my grandfather said, “it’s your turn to read the Four Questions.”
No, not me. There had to be somebody younger than me in the room. I quickly looked around. My cousin Morton from Brooklyn, a full ten months older, was smiling like the Dodgers had just won the World Series. Everyone in the room had realized it before I had. I was the youngest male. I was the one who would have the most important role at the seder.
I had been going to Hebrew school for all of eight months. I knew a few words here and there. But read from an Haggadah? No, that wasn’t going to happen.”
“Maishie,” my grandfather growled. “we’re all waiting for you.”
My heart was pounding. Just as I was ready to cry, I felt something poking my left hand. My father was handing me something under the table. I looked down at my lap. And there it was. Salvation. My father was handing me an Haggadah that had a transliteration of the Four Questions. I started to breathe again.
With my grandfather’s book in my hands and my father’s book on my lap, I pushed on. My voice quietly quivered. “Ma nishtanah halailah hazeh,” I said. I looked up just long enough to see my grandfather smiling. He never said a word. But he didn’t have to. That night, at age eight, I became a man.
The other four hours of the seder didn’t matter. I ate things I’d never eaten before. My Uncle Harry pounded me on the back so hard I almost lost some teeth. “That a boy,” he said. “You were great.” He turned to my father and shook his hand. “You did good,” he said, “you raised a good Jew.”
I looked around the room. Everyone was eating, everyone was laughing. Then I looked at the empty chair that was closest to the door. It didn’t look so empty anymore. That night, I knew Elijah had come.
Copyright: Maury Z. Levy, 2010. All rights reserved.