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? Read the rest of this entry »