During the past year I’ve spent a great deal of time in New York City’s Orthodox Jewish communities — particularly on the Lower East Side of New York. It has been a wondrous voyage through time. Now, whenever I get off the F train and walk down East Broadway, I am suddenly in the Jewish calendar year of 5738. I am in the pious world of my European ancestors.
I felt drawn to that world in 1972, when I spent months on the Lower East Side, writing about the poverty of elderly Jews there. I talked about my feelings with some of the younger Orthodox people I met then — men and women — who had managed to integrate their religious traditions into their American lives. But the bearded, black-garbed older sages seemed unapproachable. They reminded me of my assimilation — of my ignorance of the basic Hebrew blessings, of most holidays that marked the cycle of my ancestors’ years. I feared they would either treat me as an irretrievable outcast or demand that I embrace their ways. So, for the most part, their world seemed off limits.
Once, several years ago, though, I did spend an afternoon in the Munckaczer talis (prayer shawl) factory close to the Williamsburg Bridge. David Weiderman, 72, born in Hungary, was weaving the exalted garments on a clattering 50-year-old mechanical loom. His father, who had taught him the trade, had died in a concentration camp. Now Weiderman, isolated from his past in that small, noisy store, tried to uphold the careful tradition of religious craftsmanship he had absorbed when a boy. His prayer shawls were made only of pure Turkish wool. He was scornful of the “cheap, mixed talisim” imported from Israel, made of wool diluted by rayon. “Let the others do what they want,” he said. “It’s not my business. I’ll do it the way it has always been done.”
How proud he was of that ancient trade. For a moment, I saw him as guardian of an irrecoverable past.
That night I described David Weiderman to my father. Fascinated, he urged me to continue exploring what I’d glimpsed that afternoon.
I was surprised by his interest. Until then, I’d always seen my father and mother as committed-but-not-religious Jews. Like most of their generation, they had been deeply affected by World War II. They insisted that my brother and sisters and I remember our kinship to the six million dead. In dozens of dinner-table conversations they imbued us with the principle that our history of oppression should make us sensitive to injustice; we fought for civil rights in this country and fought to end the war in Vietnam.
Yet my father had changed his name from Cohen to Cowan because he hated his embittered, unloving Orthodox father. In my parents’ house, we celebrated Christmas, not Channukah. My brother and I attended Choate, an Episcopalian prep school, where I learned stately Christian hymns and litanies by heart. I don’t remember knowing anyone who kept kosher or observed the Sabbath when I was growing up. Those acts seemed archaic customs to me. I assumed they did to my father, too.
In recent years my feelings about Judaism continued to change. By 1976 I was fasting on Yom Kippur. And my wife, Rachel, who is not Jewish, had become even more convinced than I that simple aspects of worship — holding Passover seders in our apartment, fasting, gathering in close as we lit the Sabbath candles — would enrich the fabric of our family’s life.
I told my father we were fasting. To my astonishment, he said that were he in better health, he’d join us. He had fasted every year until he was 30, he said. He had never told me that.
We talked of other religious traditions than Yom Kippur. A few weeks earlier, I had learned of a Jewish law that says holy books must be buried, for to throw them out profanes the name and works of the Lord. My father believed that all books were sacred. He said a friend of his had searched the Talmud and found the wording of that injunction. Now, my father wanted to hang a typed copy of it in his study.
When would I get around to writing my article on religious Jews, he asked.
On November 18, 1976, my parents died in a fire. This piece began as a form of mourning — and of carrying out a wish of my father’s I didn’t fully understand. It came to be even more. It helped me recover a part of my own lost past.
I was lucky to find a teacher, a guide — Rabbi Joseph Singer, 62, born in Poland to a family of rabbis, the 10th-generation descendent of Gershon Kitover, who was the brother-in-law of Baal Shem Tov, founder of the hasidic movement.
He is both a rabbi and a social worker. When I first met him in his office at a social-service agency, the United Jewish Council of the Lower East Side, he was in his cubicle, talking on the phone to an elderly woman who refused to have her phlebitis checked at Beth Israel Hospital. His dark gabardine coat hung over his chair. He was pacing back and forth, shouting, joking, cajoling in a rapid mixture of Yiddish and English. His phone had a hold button on it. As soon as he finished with the first call he answered one from a man in Brighton Beach who hadn’t received a Social Security check in six months. How could he deal with city officials, the man asked Rabbi Singer? He always felt afraid in the presence of such powerful people. Rabbi Singer tugged at his beard and toyed with his payes (the sidelocks tucked neatly behind his ear) as he listened to the desperate voice. He arranged to go out to Brooklyn the next day and accompany his frightened client to the Social Security agency.
From that first encounter Rabbi Singer has never called me by my American name. To him I am Saul (Sha’ul). Once or twice, at first, he railed against the Biblical Paul, an early persecutor of the Jews. Now he intones my Hebrew name in such a fond, natural voice that I no longer worry that he is judging my identity. Instead, I feel he’s helping me enrich it with a new, special one.
Every day, at about 6 a.m. and 4 p.m., he goes to his old shul on Stanton Street, across from a rubble-strewn lot, to make sure the men who pray there will be comfortable. He boils a large pot of water for coffee and tea and always has a bagful of cookies in the refrigerator. On a winter day, when the congregants come in early to warm themselves, to savor a cookie or two and a few minutes of fraternity, those things are especially important.
Some of them love to sit for 15 minutes around a spare wooden table with Rabbi Singer, studying a portion of the Talmud in honor of the dead. Others grow impatient. Soon, someone urges the rabbi to begin the daavening, the praying. He smiles back — they’ve been doing that for years.
Then Rabbi Singer ties a black prayer belt, a gartel, around his waist. That ornamental garment shows his respect for the Almighty; it ensures that the passionate juices of the lower half of his body won’t interfere with the purity of his prayers.
Once the gartel is on, he walks up to the ark, where the Torah is kept, and intones prayers as he rocks back and forth with controlled dignity. Sometimes, during the services, members of the congregation talk with each other — about their health, or the merits of a housing project. The shamesh, the sexton of the shul, wheels toward them and shouts for silence. Rabbi Singer continues praying at his own unhurried pace.
After the service, he is teasingly gentle with the congregants. He feels a deep, unquestioning affection for them. He wants them to see the shul as a home.
Soon after we met, during a very cold week, the synagogue’s pipes broke. Rabbi Singer asked me to go with him to fix them. We hurried to the shul. He huddled inside his frock coat against the freezing Manhattan winter wind as we walked down Essex Street — where Rabbi Moses Eisenbach, the scribe, was correcting letters on the flowing parchment page of a Torah; past the tiny basement shop where three women bent over their sewing machines, making yarmulkes; past the cavernous old market near Pitt Street, where the shochet, the ritual slaughterer, honed his knife to be sure the chickens squawking in their wire cage would be killed quickly and mercifully in accordance with Jewish law. Those people were all his friends just as they would have been in the hein, in Galicia, where he was raised. But he couldn’t stop to talk with them now. He wanted the shul to be clean before anybody arrived for services.
On the way over, he reminisced about the Europe of his youth — “where the air was, holy” and “a town without a rabbi was like a wedding without music,” about the Thursday nights he and his schoolmates stayed in heder, in religious school, praying, fasting so they could study harder, reading from the Torah so that the holy word would echo through the night.
He’d loved the feeling of Friday morning, when everyone went to the market to buy fish or milk for the Sabbath and the town square was filled with Jews from the countryside come to get their chickens killed by the shochet; when the tradesmen stopped their work to go to the mikva, the ritual bath, then to pray; when the entire town was already half-bathed in the lovely amber glow of shabbos.
Once we entered the shul we quickly began to mop the floors in the freezing bathroom. Then Rabbi Singer got out a stepladder and held it while I replaced some bulbs in the vestibule.
As we worked I wondered aloud what I was doing there. But I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather have been than in that shul, performing that mitzvah, that good deed. Why did I — why did someone as Americanized as I — feel that way?
Rabbi Singer answered instantly. Sometimes, he said, when you have an ancestor who was a rabbi or a scholar, his piety creates a spark that smolders through the generations until it burns again.
My parents had never talked much about their European past. My mother’s German-Jewish ancestry was too remote. My father wasn’t sure which Eastern European country his paternal forbears had come from. But one of his cousins had given me the name of a great-uncle in Chicago who knew a little family history. I called him after I talked to Rabbi Singer. In the course of our long conversation he told me that Jacob Cohen — my great-great grandfather — had been rabbi in the province of Gradno, Lithuania. He’d been a Cohen, a member of the Jewish priestly caste. I realized that wasn’t so miraculous. Every Jew must have a few holy people in the family tree. Still, the news delighted Rabbi Singer And it delighted me.
Several days later, while walking down East Broadway, I heard someone call out the name “Sha’ul.” I looked around.
Rabbi Singer was hurrying toward me. “Did you really hear the name Sha’ul?” He asked the question several times. Assured that I had, he beamed at me through his ginger-flecked gray beard. “You see. That name is somewhere in your subconscious.”
So. I was Saul Cohen with Rabbi Singer and his friends, Paul Cowan in my own world. I began to feel as if I were leading a double life. When I was on the Lower East Side, in the year 5737, I always put on a yarmulke. For a while I told myself I was doing so as a sign of respect, an attempt to conform to long-established traditions. But that didn’t explain the pleasure I took in pinning the skullcap on my head. Wearing it was like fasting on Yom Kippur: not a duty but a way of reclaiming part of my identity. Sometimes, when I got on the subway at Delancey Street, I would pause before I took the yarmulke off. I alway’s removed it, though, always emerged from the subway bareheaded. Uptown, in the year 1977, it felt uncomfortable and a little misleading to wear it. I wasn’t an Orthodox Jew; I was still in flux, still at the beginning of a voyage whose destination was not yet clear. Rachel and I were trying to figure out how to observe the Sabbath, but in a way that blended the realities of our highly mobile, multi-cultured life with our desire for peace and ceremony. All I knew was that I wanted to find my place in the tradition that Rabbi Singer and my great-great-grandfather, Jacob Cohen, represented.
I began describing those feelings to friends. Many, to my surprise, were involved in similar searches. Others seemed confused by my new interest in religion. Some, I’m sure, thought I was seeking solace. The truth was that my parents’ death only intensified a feeling I had harbored for years.
I am one of history’s orphans. I love the variety, the mobility of this country; much of my journalism is an effort to rediscover frontier dreams. But I have never been able to shake a feeling of personal disorientation. Because of the holocaust I can’t go back to the Jewish sectors of those German and Lithuanian towns my ancestors came from. They don’t exist. There are no long-memoried bards or yellowed documents or even old libraries or cemeteries, to acquaint me with the European ghosts that still inhabit some part of my personality. There is no way I can find out even the barest details of Rabbi Jacob Cohen’s life; no way I can discover why his son Moses came to America or why his grandson Jake, a terrible failure at business, clung to the forms of Orthodoxy with the reflexive ferocity that made my father equate religion with rage, Or what it meant to my family’s psyche that, after all these years, we were Cowans, not Cohens, that we were lawyers, writers, historians, entrepreneurs who had succeeded at worldly activities but were utterly ignorant of the intimate details of our own heritage.
There were so many relentless, subtle pressures in America that conspired to rob people of their pasts. There were the careless immigration officers who might mangle your name at Ellis island. The landsmen — the countrymen who had been here for a year or two and saw your side-locks, your gabardine coat as a sure sign you were a greenhorn. The friendly acquaintances in the shop, or the boss himself, who told you you’d “look like a Yankee”, if you just shaved off that beard. The wealthy German Jews, “Our Crowd,” the uptowners, who were ashamed of the Eastern Europeans, who called them “kike” behind their backs who established settlement houses and sent forth stump speakers to convert them to the view that it was un-American to adhere to Jewish traditions here. The public-school teacher who ridiculed a kid for speaking Yiddish in the classroom. The friend or lover, or the college or business or law firm that might accept a Cowan, but not a Cohen; a Livingston, but not a Levi.
Telltale details, perhaps, but add them by the hundreds, spread them among people who are thrilled to be free of the economic and intellectual confines of the shtetl, who are mortified by the suggestion that they are different from mainstream, melting-pot America, and, miraculously, a collective identity seems to vanish in less than a century-a wink of time in the thousands of years of Jewish history.
Rabbi Singer. There is a legend in the Jewish tradition that the world exists because there are 36 just men in it. Nobody knows who they are, or what their faith is. But I have come to believe that Rabbi Singer is the kind of man who could be one of the lamed vovnik — one of the just.
He is immensely proud of the legacy he has carried from Pilzno, Poland, where he was born, to Stanton Street, New York; of his blood relationship to the early hasidim, whose personal warmth, whose ecstatic religion, kindled a passionate piety that swept through the shtetls of Eastern Europe in the 18th century.
It was a world in which people “felt the way of the Almighty in their soul. They felt every little thing was from the Almighty.” And that spirit endured in Pilzno, a town of about 250 Jewish families, about 1000 gentiles, located near the Vistula River. To almost all the Jews who lived in the ramshackle wooden houses that lined the town’s rutted streets Rabbi Singer’s grandfather — Rabbi Gershon Singer — was a man who could use his faith to make miracles. Rabbi Singer’s mother used to reminisce about his holy feats in later years — after the family had moved to another part of Galicia during World War I.
Once, a boy from the city of Lemberg, who had married a girl from Pilzno, disappeared without a trace. According to Jewish law, the girl couldn’t remarry unless she had a get, a writ of divorce. “They looked for him, right and left,” Rabbi Singer says. The girl’s relatives advertised in newspapers in Lemberg and Cracow to see if anyone knew his whereabouts. But he seemed to have vanished.
Nearly two years went by, and the girl and her parents were desperate. “Her mother bothered my grandmother, and my grandmother bothered my grandfather,” Rabbi Singer says. At first Gershon Singer demurred — he thought a more noted csaddik, holy man, in a nearby town, was better equipped to help. He didn’t like to promise to aid people if he wasn’t certain he could keep his vow.
Then, one night, he came home from the bet hamedresh, the study house, where he’d been daavening minha and ma’ariv, afternoon and evening prayers, to find that the girl had fainted in his living room. “She wasn’t making believe. She was heartbroken and she couldn’t take it anymore.” So the rabbi and his wife gave her some smelling salts, and they talked late into the night. At last he told the girl, “Go home, rest, sleep. It’s ot going to be long before your husband returns.” She was calm at once, Rabbi Singer says, for everyone in Pilzno believed that if his grandfather made a promise, it would come true.
“Two months later a man came to town in a covered black coach — a carriage that was much finer than the horse-and-carts in which most Pilzno Jews traveled — and he went straight to my grandfather’s house. When he got out, people saw that he was a young man with a high hat, like the fancy people used to wear. They thought he was probably a well-to-do person, maybe a German Jew.” They soon learned that he was the missing husband.
“He and my grandfather had a long talk. He said that when he’d left his wife he had gone to Paris. He didn’t like living in a small town like ours. He had made up his mind never to come back.
“He started a business in France and he made out very well. He met a woman, and he fell in love. He was very happy. But, then, during the past two months, everything he did was unlucky. His life became lull of tsouris,” a series of relentless problems. “His business went down. One day he was in a forest near Paris. He felt like his head was spinning. He fell and broke his arm.
“He had bad dreams. He couldn’t sleep nights. He became very sick and had a nervous stomach.
“He dreamed about Pilzno, and he saw that his wife was crying. When his tsouris began, he started to feel her tsouris. She was alone, she couldn’t get married, she had nobody.
“He decided to make her feel better, so he came back to Pilzno. And my grandfather didn’t let him off. He called in the sofer, the scribe, and, within two days, the get was arranged.”
After that, the husband went back to Paris, and he sent back letters and pictures, which showed that he was living a fine, prosperous life. But the wife was still sorrowful.
“She wondered if she would ever marry again. One day she began to cry, even though she had the get. Then my grandfather called her by name and said, ‘My daughter, you’re going to be very happy. You’re going to meet a good person.’ She met a fine man, a wonderful man. He was a bookkeeper and a scholar. The children and the grandchildren had such a happy life. I knew them when I was growing up,” Rabbi Singer said.
He was reluctant to tell many stories like that. “The Torah likes mitzvahs better than miracles,” he says. One of the mitzvahs Rabbi Gershon Singer used to perform in Pilzno 100 years ago symbolizes the qualities Rabbi Joseph Singer seeks to embody in New York.
Every Thursday night, the Rabbi of Pilzno would walk past all the Jewish houses in town accompanied by his shamesh. Their mission? To inspect the chimneys of the congregants. They looked for houses where there wasn’t any smoke. Those families couldn’t afford enough kindling to heat the Sabbath meal. So Gershon Singer would fetch a chicken for the shabbos.
But the mitzvah must never be discovered. The rabbi must remain anonymous. The people who received the food must never be embarrassed by the knowledge that he was aware of. their poverty.
So, between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., when the Jews of Pilzno were asleep, the rabbi and the shamesh would pile the chickens and some kindling into a wheelbarrow and place them in front of the houses. Then they would hurry away, before their goodness could be detected.
Rabbi Singer was the youngest son in a family of six boys and two girls.
His father, David, a rabbi, a rav, a scholar in Jewish law, lived in Pilzno until the middle of World War I. He had a house with two large rooms on one of the town’s main streets. In one of the rooms a large section of the floor was set aside for any traveler who needed sleep. “All my father’s seforim, his books, were in that room, and a table for study, and a Torah, too, in case there was bad weather on shabbos and wet couldn’t go to shul.”
During the day the town’s Jews formed a noisy line in the back of the room and waited to consult the rav. He would decide whether a tiny blister on a chicken’s gizzard meant the meat was kosher or treyfe; or whether Talmudic law instructs the pious man to respect his elders by keeping a mean-spirited mother-in-law in the house or to preserve his marriage by banishing her.
Once, when the rav was coming home from shul he saw a child crying. Why was the boy so sad, he asked. Because an older man, a fisherman, had slapped him. The rav decided to see whether a wrong had been committed. When he got back home, he told the shamesh to summon the fisherman. Then he bade the child and the adult tell their versions of the incident. After concluding that the boy was telling the truth the rav fined the man to guilden — the money being very important, as the child came from a poor family. “That story went all around Galicia,” Rabbi Singer says. “Everyone was impressed that my father gave so much attention to a little boy.”
Throughout Eastern Europe, the turn of the century was a difficult time for rabbis, for the laws and customs that had governed the shtetls for centuries were losing their force. Many young people were beginning to lose their faith altogether. They embraced new creeds — Communism, or a socialist brand of Zionism. They would sneak copies of Marx or Herzl into heder and study the heretical literature behind the cover of holy books while they intoned the familiar Talmudic chants.
So, when Rabbi Singer was growing up, the shtetl was the scene of a cold war between believers and non-believers. “Our parents” — religious parents — “were afraid the children would mix. Of course, religious people argued among themselves — there were always great disputes about whether this kind of meat was kosher; that kind of meat was treyfe. But those people were against religion basically, against its foundation. I cannot say we hated them. But we were afraid of them. And we looked down on them because they were openly against the Almighty. There was a hydrogen curtain between us.”
Besides, technology — in the form of cars and trains and steamships —was transforming the once-isolated shtetl. America beckoned. But it also threatened. Each time a prospective immigrant left home his family and friends accompanied him to the railroad station, often wailing with grief. They’d never see him again. He’d be robbed of his piety by the lures of the new world:
“We knew that in the United States people were free — too free. When they came back to Europe they had different opinions, different ideas. They left the religion. They left the life they had always known.”
There wasn’t much sages like Rabbi Singer’s father could do about that. Still, to solve problems that arose in the shtetl, they had to span the ancient world and the modern one: to scour Talmudic commentaries, written in medieval Europe, in an effort to understand how to use an invention like electricity. Rabbi Singer’s father wrote a major work on a problem he encountered several times during World War I. Modern governments had sent young men from Pilzno to fight a war few of them understood in places — like Russia and Italy — that few of them could even imagine. Often, the soldiers never reappeared in town. And an indifferent, inefficient army bureaucracy failed to tell the families whether their sons or husbands were alive or dead. Were the women who were left behind widows, free to remarry?
It was an extremely difficult problem in Jewish law. Rabbi David Singer, after months of study, decided that every man who was going to war should apply for conditional gets — conditional divorces-once they were drafted. If they came home, the gets were canceled. If they didn’t return, the divorces took effect.
The rabbi’s commentaries were read in Yeshivas throughout Europe, according to Rabbi Singer. “But his writings are all lost now. Some were destroyed after World War I, and Hitler took care of the rest.” Recently, Rabbi Singer learned that a student of his father, now a rabbi in Israel, had preserved one of his pronouncements. It is still circulating among scholars. “That was a miracle.” Someday he hopes to go to the Holy Land and recover that scrap of his precious legacy.
It is one of the few things that remains of his youth. Toward the end of World War I his family, like many people, fled from the turbulence that surrounded them in Pilzno; his father resettled in Kashow; an eight-hour train ride away. David Singer’s health deteriorated. “He didn’t eat the right foods. He didn’t get enough sleep,” his son says. In 1925, he died of lung problems.
In 1934, life in Pilzno seemed normal enough for one of Rabbi Singer’s older brothers to return, to resume his family’s role as rabbi of the town. At the age of 20, Rabbi Singer accompanied him to serve an apprenticeship — to prepare himself for a life very much like that of his father and grandfather. He had never even contemplated another profession. His entire family consisted of “rabbis, not businessmen,” he says proudly.
But, “as soon as Hitler took over Austria we were afraid.” One day, he and his brother went to Tarnow, a large city near Pilzno. It was noontime and they were walking down the Main Street, which was filled with Jews. Some gentiles started harassing them — jostling them, taunting them, knocking off their hats.
“That used to happen on the side streets, or at night. But in broad daylight, in a place that was lull of Jews? That was something new.
“We knew that a terrible war was coming. The earth was not sure under us.
“Until then, the great rabbis in Europe didn’t want you to go to the United States. But, at that time, when Hitler came, they said, ‘Go, go.'”
Soon he and a brother — now a rabbi in Borough Park — left for America. “We were the runners.” But four brothers — all of them rabbis — and two sisters, remained behind. “I don’t know exactly where they were killed. Maybe at Auschwitz.”
“After the war I dreamed of those times always — about someone I knew, someone who got lost. I saw him and I said, ‘You’re alive? You are not alive. This is a dream.
“How can I forget what happened? It was my memories, my childhood. I cannot forget.”
Before he left Europe, he decided to settle in a small American town — the equivalent of a shtetl — and “be an all-around rabbi. I don’t like the rush, and I thought that in a village I could be a Jew in a European way. I’d be a rabbi. I’d be a scribe. If they needed a shochet, I could be a shochet, too.”
But when he got here in 1939, he realized that was impossible, since most Jews who lived in small towns had assimilated to the point where they didn’t even know what a shochet was. He had to stay in New York and New Jersey, in the few Orthodox communities that existed during those years.
Earlier, when Americanized Jews had returned to visit Europe, the fact that they were clean-shaven was taken as one inaication they’d strayed from the faith. It wasn’t exactly a religious necessity. “A lot of fine, wonderful people in Europe cut off their beards,” Rabbi Singer says. Nevertheless, “if someone had grown up with a beard and payes and cut them off in America, that could be harmful for him. He cut not only his beard. He cut other things too. He cut his religion.
“I was 24 years old when I came to the United States. I didn’t want to cut off my beard. I didn’t want to change. I had a big beard — much bigger than it is now — and it was fiery red. When I got on the subway the whole train looked at me. And everybody — even religious people — thought I was an old man because of it.
“Once, right after I came to America, I made a speech in a big synagogue in Paterson, New Jersey. Afterward, one of the gabbaim, the officials, came up to me and said, ‘Rabbi, the people say you are an old man. But I can see in your face that you arc young. These Americans don’t know — your beard makes you look old to them.’
“I was so happy that one person knew I wasn’t an old man. So I said, ‘How old do you think I am?’
“‘Rabbi,’ he said. ‘Let me say exactly. You are 40 or 42.’ Probably the other people in the synagogue thought I was 60.”
Young women were perplexed by the beard, too. “In those days the girls were afraid of it. Maybe because it was old-fashioned; it wasn’t stylish. I wanted to be old-fashioned. I’m still old-fashioned. But the girls took it differently. And the Torah says, ‘Don’t do things that make you look strange in the eyes of other people if they are not against the religion.’ So I took the beard off. As a matter of fact, my cousin, he should rest in peace, an old rabbi, told me I should cut it off, I had no choice. ‘But,’ he said, ‘make a condition, before you take it off, that you’ll grow it back again. After a while my wife said okay, I could grow it back again. And I did, too, a few years after I got married,” he said with a chuckle.
In 1940, when he became the rabbi of a synagogue on the Lower East Side, he began to hear stories that told him just how difficult it had been for the early immigrants to remain religious. “Jack, the gabbai, had been here 30, 40 years. He was in the garment business. He had Jewish bosses, but he had so much trouble keeping the shabbos, I cannot tell you. He would say to the bosses, ‘Oh, you’re working shabbos.’ And the bosses would say, ‘Get out of here. I’m a good Jew, and I still work shabbos.’
“Jack was a good cutter. Finally, he got a job where they said he could be religious. But on Friday afternoons they only let him leave at 4 p.m., a few minutes before shabbos. Summer, it was okay. The days were big and he could get home in time for supper. But in the winter he had a terrible tsouris. The day was short. He daavened minha in the shop and walked home. When there was snow on the ground he’d get to his apartment very late. His wife would still be waiting to light the candles.”
Experiences like Jack’s were so different from what Rabbi Singer had left behind, from the Fridays he loved, when the entire shtetl bustled to greet the shabbos. And his own life was so different from anything he, or his forbears, had imagined. “In Europe, a rabbi was a power. Here, your president is a power. A rabbi is on a much lower level. Besides, a lot of them don’t care as much about religion as they did about making money.”
Those things disappointed him deeply. “In 1943 and 1944 there was a boom in diamonds and a lot of rabbis went to work in the diamond district. I did, too. I didn’t give up my shul, but I made my living in diamonds, as a cutter.
“Why did rabbis go in there? Because diamonds is a Jewish line. You have no trouble with the shabbos. Most of the work is on contract, so you can come in whenever you want to. It is hard to be religious and punch a clock. If you want to go to the mikva, or if you daaven slow, you don’t always have time for holiness since you have to get to work by eight or nine in the morning. But in diamonds, if I went to the mikva and finished daavening at 10 o’clock, I could come in at 10 o’clock. And when I wanted I could always work late, since there were enough men to form a minyan.”
After World War II, the boom in diamonds ended. Rabbi Singer abandoned his dream of settling in a small town, an American Pilzno. He decided he could carry on his ancestors’ traditions on the Lower East Side of New York.
In Pilzno there had always been the noisy group of people waiting for advice in his father’s back room. Now, his cubicle at the United Jewish Council is as crowded and noisy as his father’s house must have been.
Scores of pink messages, some in Yiddish, some in English, are strewn all over Rabbi Singer’s desk. This man wants a safer apartment. That woman wants a new mattress. The congregation at a nearby shul is involved in a bitter quarrel over the proper form of daavening. A cardboard box is piled high with similar requests. “You think he’s a holy man,” a co-worker said one day. “He’s really running a bookie joint.” Rabbi Singer heard the joke and laughed.
But “every little piece of paper is a trouble,” he says. And a mitzvah that echoes back through the generations.
Itzhak Hirsch, strong and raging at 75, is a Jew without money. Hirsch has no family or friends — no human contact to connect him with his past. His universe consists of the splintered tables and chairs, the chipped paintings and broken phonograph records, the mounds of tattered old clothes, old newspapers, old magazine and girlie photos that fill his apartment.
The management of the housing project where he lives has charged that Hirsch’s home is a health hazard and has threatened to dispossess him. Desperate, he called on Rabbi Singer for help. But he is disoriented by the isolation of his life in that fetid room. Wrath has become the sole filament of his human relations. His emotions, his memories, the meager remains of his personal history reside in the litter he must get rid of. Rabbi Singer, his salvation, is also his enemy.
Although temporarily appeased one day when Rabbi Singer told him his goods would go to charity — that he would rescue others, not himself — Hirsch nevertheless raged at the rabbi and five young co-workers when he saw them sorting through the possessions in his rooms, placing those things he wanted to keep on one side, stuffing the others in garbage bags. Still, he let the grimy work go on.
Soon, though, he began shouting Yiddish invectives. He was watching his life vanish. Each bag of trash contained the ruins of some half-forgotten dream. He stood near the dirt-streaked window, in front of an old, scavenged steamer trunk, looking like a sentry. Itzhak Hirsch pointed two fingers at Rabbi Singer, as if to shoot him.
“All right, Hirsch, we’ll go,” Rabbi Singer said. “And tonight you’ll sleep in all the garbage in the East River. How many times have I come here to help you, Hirsch? Five? Six? You’re tearing my heart out. Listen, my voice is just a whisper. I don’t even know if they’ll hear me in my shul tonight.”
With a laugh that was almost a caress, the descendant of the Baal Shem Tov kissed his own fingers and stroked Itzhak Hirsch’s taut, quivering hand. Hirsch’s fingers remained cocked. His invective turned to obscenity. Several days earlier, he had cuffed Rabbi Singer on the shoulders. Now he threatened to hit him again.
Rabbi Singer, in a gesture of intimacy that none of the younger people could ever duplicate, cupped his hands over Hirsch’s ears, then over his own, and glanced at the old man.
Moments later, still shouting, Hirsch stepped away from the trunk, giving us tacit permission to open it.
Occasionally during the next hour, he even pointed out some of the garbage bags he wanted us to remove. Hirsch never was dispossessed.
One morning last spring Rabbi Singer wanted Rabbi Moses Eisenbach, the scribe, to help him perform a mitzvah.
A few days earlier, he had found some battered tefillin (the phyllacteries religiously observant Jews place on their arms and head when they say morning prayers) in an abandoned shul on Henry Street. He wanted Rabbi Eisenbach to repair the scrolls inside the tefillin so that he could give them to some immigrants from the Soviet Union — Jews just learning about their faith — in time for Passover.
When we entered his shop, Rabbi Eisenbach, an old man with a long gray beard, was bent over a Torah, a handwritten flowing scroll made of sheets of parchment sewn together by thread spun from the sinews of a kosher animal. He was repairing damaged letters — with a razor blade, a turkey-feather quill, and a special black ink blended of gall-nuts, copper-sulphate crystals, gum arabic, and water, whose formula had been in his family for decades.
He was performing one of the holiest of religious deeds: inscribing the words of the Almighty for the human race. The Talmud says that sofrim, scribes, must labor for the love of the Lord — not for wealth. Hence, in Europe, they were paid subsistance wages. Their fee was for their presence, not their output. It allowed them to labor patiently, lovingly, over each Torah, mezuzah, pair of tefillin.
In appearance, Rabbi Eisenbach, a whisper of a man, seems to fulfill the Talmud’s injunction.
We waited in silence while he worked, for the task involves enormous physical and spiritual concentration. According to Talmudic law, if a sofer makes a mistake in writing the name of the Lord, or has a malicious or carnal thought while working, he must remove the entire parchment sheet, put it aside for burial, insert a fresh sheet, and begin anew. And each morning the sofer cleanses his spirit in the mystically holy, purifying waters of the mikva, and goes to shul to daavan shaharit. When beginning his labor he intones the ancient Hebrew blessing that says he is making the scroll in the holiness ol the Lord’s name. Then, once again, he prays until his mind is free of any impure thought.
At last he finished his work and made his way to his office, a tiny desk in the back of the store. Rabbi Singer squeezed by the Torah scrolls and handed him the slightly charred tefillin — leather thongs and small boxes that contain four injunction, to remember the Lord one of which is from Exodus:
And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and a symbol upon your forehead that with a mighty hand the Lord freed us from Egypt.
The two men completed the transaction in Yiddish and then, because I was there, switched to English. Rabbi Eisenbach, very reserved, talked a little about himself. He learned his craft in Jerusalem 50 years ago, and his years in the Yeshiva there still seem like some of the sweetest in his life. He came to the United States in 1946, when tensions between the Arabs and the Jews began to wear on his nerves, when he found “it was hard to run a business with all those troubles.” Now, much of the time, he wishes he had remained in the Holy Land. He feels lonely in America, convinced that the environment here is so contaminated that it is difficult for a sofer to work in the proper way.
An entire body of religious law dictates that scribes must shape their letters perfectly, that their letters must not run together, that they must be written in straight lines. In Rabbi Singer’s Europe, Orthodox Jews heeded that law strictly. They would travel for hundreds of miles to trade with a sofer who was also a tsaddik, who would fuse holiness and craftsmanship.
But it is different here, where many people who consider themselves religious disregard the rules Rabbi Eisenbach learned in his Jerusalem Yeshiva. They don’t know — or care — about the way the letters inside a tefillin or a mezuzah must be formed.
Long ago, Rabbi Eisenbach decided, quite simply, that he would never risk taking on an apprentice who was born in this country. It is not only a matter of calligraphy but also of faith. You can have a knack for making alephs and bets, and still not love the Lord enough to be sure that all the hours of your day are holy, that all the works of your hands are perfect.
And, according to Rabbi Eisenbach’s reading of the Talmud, a sofer‘s responsibility is awesome. If he makes a flawed tefillin or mezuzah or Torah, it is likely that no one will know except himself and his Maker. Certainly, the unaware customer is not to blame. Nonetheless, he may suffer. The mezuzah, for example, is a small case attached to the upper third of a doorpost in a religious home and contains a small rolled piece of parchment that expresses love of the Lord and love of the Torah as a way of life. Religious Jews believe a mezuzah affords a family spiritual protection. But if the words on the parchment are lettered imperfectly, the household may not be protected. The family could thus suffer for the scribe’s mistake. So his error could become his curse, his lifelong burden, a sin that will haunt him in the afterlife.
Rabbi Eisenbach once did decide to train an American. But the younger man was hesitant to make a correction without asking the scribe’s approval and, eventually he decided to leave the pressured sofer‘s life and go into the diamond business.
I asked Rabbi Eisenbach if he ever worried that something might happen to his own highly trained hands. “What can I do?” he asked ruefully. “Insure them? Put them in a bank?” Then he went back to work.
Rabbi Singer and I stood in the store, watching him. He took such care over every letter. I could hear the traffic outside on Essex Street, but in his shop the stillness was broken only by the faint scratching of his turkey quill, the faint chipping of his razor.
There was a red light when we got to Grand Street. Rabbi Singer took my arm to prevent me from lunging ahead. He told me that the traffic light itself was a mirzvah, a reminder that it was a blessing to protect yourself. And, when you paused and said a brachah, a prayer, for such small things, you reminded yourself to be thankful for the enormous, wondrous gift of life.
It was nearly Passover, and Rabbi Singer was reminiscing.
In Pilzno and Kashow, before the holiday, 10 or 15 families would gather in the rare house that had an oven and, according to hasidic custom, sing Hallel, the Psalms of David, while the men baked the matzot. As the holiday drew near everyone in the shtetl would search their homes for hametz, leavening — the removal of which serves as a reminder of the Jews’ hurried flight from Egypt. They would remove every trace of it.
Such traditions had been preserved in Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Borough Park, where thousands of hasidic Jews had settled after World War II. The traditions are observed by religious Jews all over America. They are observed on the Lower East Side, too, though many people have forgotten all the details of the faith that pervaded their parents’ lives.
Rabbi Singer felt a special responsibility to those people — especially to “the elderlies,” who would have commanded so much respect in Europe and who were often abandoned here. For the past five years he had used a modern, spacious synagogue near East Broadway to hold free Passover seders for about 200 of them. The United Jewish Council has paid for and helped arrange them.
Still, he trusts no one but himself to supervise the exhausting search for the hametz. During the days before the Passover he takes off his black jacket, rolls up the sleeves of his white shirt, and mops the floor, scours every pan, squats in from of the synagogue’s oven with an acetylene torch to be sure that he’s burned away all traces of bread crumbs.
“I know most of the people who are coming to the seder don’t care about those things. But I do. I care for me and I care for them.” There was more than a hint of loss in that wry remark.
Shortly before Passover, Rabbi Singer left the hurly-burly of his neighborhood to perform a special, personal mission in the placid, Orthodox milieu of Williamsburg. A hasid he knew, a rebbe from Galicia, had promised to give him two of the especially holy round brownish shemurah matztot. Like the Jews in Pilzno, the rebbe had planted and harvested the wheat that was in them. He had ground it on a stone mill he kept in his basement, secure in the knowledge that no water or heat would cause fermentation, chanting prayers as he labored.
Children were playing tag outside the rebbe’s house, their sidelocks flying in the breeze. But, inside, the mood was solemn. The rebbe’s wife and daughter, whose aprons enveloped their long, chaste dresses, were scrubbing the house as they would have in Europe a century before. They told us the rebbe was upstairs in his study
He must have heard our voices, for he summoned us to the room where the holy book he was reading lay open on a long wooden table. Moving slowly, he greeted Rabbi Singer climbed on a chair, and reached to the top of a cupboard where some white boxes containing the special matzot were stored.
The two old friends began to talk in Yiddish. Soon the rebbe, looking somewhat puzzled, was staring; at my clean shaven face, my tweed cap, my tan windbreaker.
“He wants to know how you came to me,” Rabbi Singer said. “I told him our grandparents were connected.”
Earlier that day, he had described a place in Williamsburg where hundreds of hasidic Jews would be baking shemurah matztot and chanting psalms. My religious imagination was still half-conditioned by all the services I had attended Choate’s Episcopalian chapel, and, particularly, by the solemn hymns we had sung as Easter approached. So I visualized the hasidim in a staid, solemn frieze — enacting a Good Friday in Yiddish.
Instead, the place was huge and bustling, alive with throngs of men and women in traditional hasidic garb, kneading dough at separate tables. It was all done very rapidly, since Jewish law insists that the matzot must be baked and all the utensils washed within 18 minutes, before fermentation can begin.
Groups of Yeshiva students kept arriving. There was soon no room for them at the tables. Some stood in corners while others elbowed their way through the crowd to find a where they could begin their baking. Meanwhile, those who had been there a while raced from the oven to the main room carrying boxes full of finished matzot high above their heads
Some people standing near us chanted Hallel as they worked. Rabbi Singer’s ancestors had praised the Almighty by chanting Hallel when they baked matzot in Galicia, More than. 2000 years ago the Kohenim, the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem, had chanted Hallel on the afternoon before Passover, to commemorate the Exodus, the miracle that brought the Jews to that hallowed place:
Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.
“Did you take it all in, Sha’ul?” Rabbi Singer asked later. “You’ve had, a little taste of Europe now.”
He took my arm. As we walked to the subway, people kept glancing at us. What an odd-looking pair we must have made.
Once we were on the train he held the white box close him so the shemurah matzot — sacred in themselves, so full of precious memories — wouldn’t crack on the short, jarring ride back to the Lower East Side.
Rabbi Singer was heading toward shul when Frieda Provda appeared in the window of the Masaryk Cake Box near Delancey Street and rapped on the place, summoning him gently. A woman who had lived in the nearby Masaryk Towers had died of bone cancer the night before, and her only relative, a brother, lived in Los Angeles. The Masaryk Cake Box had been Anna’s second home during her last year. Most days, at noon, she’d leave her radio — her closest companion — and come down to gossip with friends or take care of the customers children. Now, Frieda Provda and her friend Betty Fried, feeling the responsibility of surrogate kinship, had to arrange the funeral, which, according to Jewish law, must occur as soon as possible.
Frieda Provda was dressed for the 1970s: She didn’t wear a wig or a long, modest skirt as the women of Williamsburg. She was an Americanized businesswoman — “be kind to the next person, that’s my Judaism.” But she’d chosen to work in a bakery where the shabbos was observed, and she had no doubt about her deepest religious loyalties. “I’m not Conservative or Reform,” she told Rabbi Singer proudly. “I think she should be buried as one of us.”
So she had chosen an Orthodox funeral home and asked the director to comply with age-old traditions: to be sure there were women from a hevrah kadishah, a burial society, to make a taharah— to purify the corpse by cleaning it — and to watch it through the night. He didn’t exactly refuse. But, she said, there was an unsettling hint of reluctance in his voice.
Passover was a busy season at the bakery. But Frieda Provda was worried. What if the funeral director decided to save $100 or $200 by omitting the taharah? What if he were too busy to bother calling a hevrah kadishah? The widow’s brother was coming to New York that day. What if the funeral director convinced him to assuage his grief by purchasing an expensive coffin, not the simple pine box in which Jews are supposed to be buried. That would be sacrilege!
What luck that she had glimpsed Rabbi Singer’s gabardine coat as he rushed by. He would help her ward off the greedy bureaucrats of death.
This was a mitzvah he was glad to perform. He’d hated the Jewish funeral business ever since he’d come to America — hated the morticians who cared more about today’s profits than about the afterlife. For, traditionally, death has been the most egalitarian part of Jewish life. Before a funeral, the dead, both rich and poor, are dressed in simple white shrouds — shrouds without pockets, to show that one’s soul, not one’s possessions, are important to the Almighty. All are buried in a simple pine casing, or on a bed made of natural substances, so that the body and its casing can decompose naturally and return to the earth.
Rabbi Singer raged while he waited for Frieda Provda to phone the funeral director:
“Who would have thought that Jews would hold funerals in a chapel — that they’d take a fancy-smancy custom, a non-kosher custom, that they wouldn’t make a taharah, but put a fancy-smancy suit on the body — just to make money?
“In Europe, a funeral was a holy thing. It belonged to the community. The community was the boss of what happened. And if somebody passed away, everybody helped out, everybody knocked a nail in the coffin. Everybody pushed to do that. It was an honor and a mitzvah, not a business. Who thought about a business then?
“Well,” he said, answering his own question, “sometimes a rich man passed away and he’d be very stingy. Then the kehilla” — the Jewish community council — “taxed his family. The community used the money to pay the rabbi, the shamesh, to fix the shul, to fix the mikva, to help the poor on shabbos. When the community took money from such a person it was 100 per cent right to do so. But otherwise? A business? Bah! Here a chapel is a business. There it was a sign of deep respect, of deep feeling, to go to a funeral, to help a family.”
At last, the funeral director was ready to talk. Rabbi Singer edged past the case of almond macaroons, of marble cake mixed with matzoh meal — the sweets the Masaryk Cake Box was displaying for Passover — and transformed himself into a religious diplomat as he began to issue gentle, steely orders over a pay phone.
Of course, the funeral director would pay the hevrah kadishah. Of course, there would be a simple pine box and a shroud. And he’d see that a few flecks of earth — preferably earth from Israel — were placed on the corpse, in conjunction with the biblical phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The funeral was scheduled for nine o’clock the next morning? Fine. Rabbi Singer or his cousin, who had a synagogue in Washington Heights, would be there … just to help out.
When he hung up, Frieda Provda was smiling with relief. But Rabbi Singer, still angry, reminisced about his past battles. “Once I had a funeral uptown. It was in a fancy place. They wanted to sell the family a casket for $1500 or $1800. I told them, don’t take it, don’t be meshugenna. Buy one for $150. The owners of the chapel were so angry they began to chase me. They wanted to hit me.
“Do you blame them? Do you know how much I cost them? Most chapels hate me like poison. I spoil their business.”
That dusk, we left Rabbi Singer’s shul. As always, a police car was waiting outside, to take the rabbi home. He’s on extremely good terms with the officers. Sometimes they attend services — a policewoman sat in the basement one night when we daavened; an Irish cop joined the congregation as it booed the evil Haman during Purim services. Rabbi Singer invited several policemen to attend his daughter’s wedding.
That night, though, he felt like walking; three of his congregants rode with the cops. As we cut across Pitt Street we passed a bodega where three Hispanic kids were drinking Cokes. They’d seen Rabbi Singer before. In a joking voice, one of them looked at him and hollered out “La barba de Fidel” — the beard of Fidel. When I translated, Rabbi Singer smiled back.
Suddenly, a bareheaded middle-aged man emerged from a hardware store and ran toward Rabbi Singer, hollering in agitated Yiddish. When he caught up to us he grabbed the rabbi’s tie and held it tightly. Then he and Rabbi Singer both signed a handwritten piece of paper.
He was selling his family’s hametz — all the alcohol and medicine and cosmetics that contained leavening — with the understanding that the rabbi, in turn, would sell the hametz to a gentile who wasn’t bound by the laws of the season. The transaction was a legal construct, a link to the Exodus. It involved an exchange of paper, not a transfer of property. He would seal the items with hametz in a closet until Passover ended, then buy them back from the rabbi and use them again. When he signed his name to a piece of paper, and touched the rabbi’s garment, he was heeding a Talmudic injunction, a guarantee that the contract was sealed.
Afterward, he walked back to the hardware store. Rabbi Singer glanced after him, brushing some dust off his gabardine coat. Then he touched the beard that would have been so typical in Pilzno or on the streets of Williamsburg, which had caused him so much trouble when he first came to America. His coat and beard seemed to contain almost magical properties for many Jews on the streets of the Lower East Side.
“When they see me, they remember who they are,” he said. “If they didn’t see me, they might forget.”
It was a Thursday night between Passover and Shavuous, and Rabbi Singer had invited me to his home for dinner. In a few hours he would show me a modern-day reenactment of the Thursday nights in Poland, when his grandfather delivered chickens to Pilzno’s poor.
His wife was waiting for him when we got to his apartment, with its lovely religious objects, its pictures of the family’s European ancestors. It’s not always easy to be a tsaddik‘s wife, to wait for him while he’s out performing mitzvahs. In their traditional marriage, she concentrates a great deal of energy on home life-talking with and helping her neighbors, making plans with her children, taking care of the grandchildren. Rabbi Singer is loathe to describe to her the problems he sees every day, loathe to inflict his clients’ grief on her. So her conversation is rich with the details of her community, of weddings, births, bar mitzvahs; of her friends’ triumphs and their losses. She’s an engaging woman who loves to discuss the news she’s heard on the radio, the articles she’s read in the newspapers. And, sometimes, to supplement Rabbi Singer’s reminiscences with stories from her own childhood in Hungary.
She had fixed a delicious meal of chicken liver, matzoh-ball soup, roast veal, kidney beans, and potato pancakes. We washed our hands, according to ritual, and then said the motzi, the traditional blessing over the bread. For a while, Mrs. Singer talked about a relative who was just getting her doctorate at Yeshiva University. Then Rabbi Singer began to prepare me for our trip by describing Gershon Singer’s attitude toward charity. “He didn’t want to be a show-off. Of course, sometimes it’s all right to be a show-off because if you give, others give, too. But the highest point of charity is anonymity. The taker shouldn’t know who gave the gift and the giver shouldn’t know who took it.”
After dinner he took me to a brightly lit garage on a tree-lined residential street in Brooklyn. Inside, about 50 hasidic men were filling grocery boxes with chicken, fish, wine, bread, and vegetables, and loading them into cars on the street outside. Soon they would distribute the cartons to needy Jews. They would drive away before the recipients could see them.
In one corner of the garage a stocky young diamond cutter had replaced his black suit with a blood-flecked butcher’s apron and was cutting up a carp. Three more hasidim, still dressed in gabardine, wrapped the fish in plastic bags and placed the bags in boxes. Then a young man whose father had died several weeks earlier came in. They’d been waiting for him to arrive before they daavened ma’ariv: they would provide a minyan for him to recite a mourners’ kaddish.
All work stopped. Everyone picked up their siddurs — their prayer books — and, lacing the Eastern wall of the garage — symbolically, facing Jerusalem — they rocked back and forth, praying. Toward the end of the service they said kaddish. A few minutes later the labor resumed.
The organizer, middle-aged European-born, a civil servant, stood by the shelves full of packages. Writing in Yiddish, he inscribed each box with the addresses of the people who would get them. But not with their names. To spare the recipients any embarrassment, even the drivers who delivered the food would remain ignorant of their identities.
My presence made him uncomfortable. Some younger people argued that I could provide the organization with some publicity, that my article could help with fund-raising. Nevertheless, he made me promise not to mention the organization’s name — or even the area of Brooklyn it worked in. He kept telling his colleagues that the principle of anonymity meant more to him than the prospect of contributions.
Outside, Jacob, 25, an air-conditioner salesman, almost skeletally thin, with a teen-ager’s wispy beard and sidelocks, sat in his sleek 1977 Mercury. He was testing the CB radio he would use that night when he and his friends drove to Williamsburg, Borough Park, Flatbush, and the Upper West Side, making surreptitious deliveries in time for shabbos.
With Rabbi Singer and me jammed in the front seat, boxes of food jammed in the back, he tooled his Mercury down Brooklyn’s streets. He would yell out greetings whenever he saw a friend. Once he speeded up, then slowed down, to throw a scare into a man he’d known from Yeshiva. Then he congratulated the pedestrian on the birth of his new niece. He flicked the switch of his CB and began to talk to a friend with his space-age patois. “Breaker, breaker,” he began in faintly accented English. “The handle here is Gumshoe.” Then he switched to Yiddish, but his conversation was punctuated with phrases like “10-4, guy” and “negatory.”
Jacob was on a tight schedule, for the recipients knew just when the packages were due, and what number to call if they were late. While Rabbi Singer and I watched, he hoisted a box out of the back seat, whisked it into the lobby of a building, and rang the apartment number that was written on the package. Then he hurried down the street — a black wispy beard in the murky light-and gunned the car down the block, toward the neighborhood’s main street, where he’d meet some friends outside a kosher pizza parlor.
Rabbi Singer had to leave. Every Thursday night he and his son David read passages of the Torah and some commentaries together-just as Rabbi Singer’s father and grandfather had done, over candlelight, in Pilzno. This week, as the holiday of Shevuous approached, he would sit at a table in David’s comfortable Borough Park apartment, rocking his two-week old granddaughter who was strapped in a bassinet beside the seforim, the holy books. He’d read to his son from a commentary that discussed the mysterious days in the desert when Moses descended from Mt. Sinai and transmitted the Lord’s commandments to the people who were still bewildered, still weary, from their flight out of Egypt.
As we stood near the pizza parlor, waiting for a bus, Rabbi Singer bent forward to show how his grandfather had looked when he pushed the wheelbarrow full of food through Pilzno’s dark, winding 3 a.m. streets to make his clandestine shabbos-eve deliveries. Then the bus came, and he hurried of! to study Torah into the night.
A few days later I went back to Brooklyn to visit a friend of Rabbi Singer’s, Mrs. Dora Shapiro, the wife of a mohel, a circumciser. She lives on a quiet street in Flatbush, among members of the hasidic sect she grew up with in Poland. Everything else she knew as a child has perished: Dubie, her tiny shtetl, her friends, the rest of her family of nine.
Like thousands of survivors she is a kind of living yarzheit (memorial) candle. She doesn’t burden you with her grief. At times she was even merry as we sat at her plain dining-room table. I was dressed carelessly in a slightly tattered blue and white yarmulke and my casual American clothes. Mrs. Shapiro looks neat and tidy in her long, modest dress and reddish bridal wig. We developed our own special language, a blend of Yiddish and English. Whenever she translated a word, she’d look at me with a smile that spanned the chasm of language and say, “There, you see how each one helps the other.”
She lives to protect the memory, and the strict religious culture, of her dead. She was just 16 in 1937, when Hitler’s emissaries came to Dubie and ordered the 35 Jewish families who lived there to destroy the town’s old wooden shul. “Even my father had to do it, and he was the rabbi. We worked from 6 in the morning until 6 at night, when everyone went home. It took many days, but we couldn’t fight back. The Nazis guarded us with guns.”
When the job was done all the Jews were transported out of town. Mrs. Shapiro escaped to the ghetto in Cracow, where she worked as a nurse. The Nazis arrested her father. Then they promised him his freedom. Then they took him to a cemetery and buried him alive. Mrs. Shapiro didn’t learn of his fate until she met a cousin in Cracow a year later.
In 1942, the Nazis evacuated the Cracow ghetto. Mrs. Shapiro was sent to Leipzig, a concentration camp that was administered out of Buchenwald. There she witnessed a scene that would haunt her and inspire her for all the days of her life.
Chaim Zelig was one of the few Jews who remained openly religious at Leipzig. He always wore a yarmulke, in defiance of the Nazis. Although there was never a minyan, he would put on tefillin and pray everyday.
One morning a guard, searching the barracks for the faithful, caught him worshiping. The next dawn all the 10,000 Jews at Leipzig were told to gather in a large plaza to watch as Chaim Zelig was punished. Nazi guards stood behind them, bayonets ready. A firing squad waited for Chaim Zelig on the hillock above the hushed crowd.
Despite the Nazis precautions he hid his yarmulke under his shirt. He put it on his head as soon as he began to walk.
Mrs. Shapiro, who was one of the 10,000 below, remembers the thrill she felt when she saw that skullcap, that sign of bravery. She could just make out Chaim Zelig’s lips moving in quiet prayer. As he climbed the gentle slope the Nazi guards jostled him so relentlessly that the yarmulke fell off his head. When he stooped over to get it, they pushed him on the ground and lashed him with their rifles.
His two sons were in the crowd, watching.
Before Chaim Zelig reached the top of the hill he managed to put the yarmulke back on his head. He resumed bis prayer.
Then someone from the firing squad handed him a shovel and ordered him to dig his own grave.
Then he was killed.
It was 8 o’clock in the morning.
The Jews had to go to work directly after that. Mrs. Shapiro’s job was sewing uniforms for Nazi soldiers.
In 1945, Leipzig was liberated by the Russians. Very little news had filtered into the camp. She had no knowledge of the full extent of the holocaust. So, like thousands of Jews, her first instinct was to return to the shtetl. That, after all, was the traditional pattern. You, were chased out of town during a pogrom, you were allowed to return in calmer times. But, as she crossed the Polish. border and began her voyage to Cracow, she began to learn what the Nazis had done.
Then when she got to Lodz, “Other Jews began to tell me that the Poles still hated us. They made a pogrom in Chelm after the war. There was still a Nazi underground. A friend of mine was in Cracow, in shul, daavening on shabbos, when the Poles attacked. They yelled things like, ‘Hitler shoul have killed you all’ and “We don’t want you back here.’ They threw rocks at the Jews. It was even worse in the shtetl. There they killed the Jews at night.”
In Lodz, she realized that her father’s fate was a typical one. “I went back to Poland to find my family, but I had no family left,” she recalled, coughing. “There was practically no one from my part of Poland left.”
Mrs. Shapiro had to leave the room to compose herself. When she came back, moments later, she brought some seltzer for us both. I said the blessing Rabbi Singer had taught me to utter before beginning to drink. She was still coughing, still upset, but she smiled approvingly. They she continued to reminisce.
In Lodz, she said, she and her friends decided, as a matter of principle as well as faith, “that all of us should get married and have as many children as possible. We should try to bring back the six million, to be sure the Jewish nation wasn’t reduced.” Like many survivors, they decided to use the Jewish tradition of naming children after those who had died as a way of commemorating the victims of the holocaust.
Mrs. Shapiro has seven children and 20 grandchildren. One of her sons, a Yeshiva student, bears Chaim Zelig’s name. He and his brothers and sisters know that one of Chaim Zelig’s sons — who’d stood in the Leipzig courtyard that long-ago morning — nearly went mad with tormented grief after his father was killed; that finally, after 20 years, he settled in Jerusalem, married an Orthodox woman, and began to live a productive life. They know the entire tale by heart.
Mrs. Shapiro met her husband in Germany, in one of the camps established by the American government for wandering, disoriented survivors. He’d been a mohel before the war, a revered figure in his shtetl. He had a wife and two children when the Nazis came to town. On the day the Jews were to be shipped away, he carried one child toward the transport truck, his wife carried the other. A German soldier asked if he were the father. His wife answered before he could talk. “No,” she said, “he’s just a man I met.” Then she snatched the youngster from his arms. A family woman, she was sent to Auschwitz. An able bodied bachelor, as far as the Germans knew, he was sent to a labor camp and survived.
In the postwar years, the Americans gave him a chauffeur and a car so that he could travel from one D.P. camp to the next, circumcising the survivors’ babies.
He was older than Mrs. Shapiro. When their marriage was arranged she was in awe of him. It was only after they’d had three children and moved to America that she could bring herself to drop the respectful third- person singular that her mother had used with her father in Dubie (“would the mister like”) and address him with the simple, intimate “you.”
To many hasidim, in those years, Israel , with its brash, Socialist pioneers, seemed like a nightmare of secularism, a horrible perversion of the Messianic dream. So the Shapiros decided to come to America, despite the warnings against this country that had resounded through shtetl shuls and study houses ever since the Eastern European immigration began.
Hasidic survivors like the Shapiros decided to make assets out of the very details of dress, language, and custom that earlier generations of immigrant Jews had found so onerous. There were tens of thousands of hasidim and they constituted the first wave of militantly Orthodox Jews ever to come to this land. They owed a debt of blood and spirit to martyrs like Chaim Zelig. They decided to build themselves a wall of spiritual segregation and, by doing so, preserve a pure Torah life for themselves and their young.
The size of their communities guaranteed that the huge Yeshivas they erected in Williamsburg, Borough Park, and Crown Heights would flourish and seal their children off from the assimilationist dangers of public school. In some neighborhoods, they went even further than that and established an informal ban on television sets, movies, secular literature — anything that would bring the allurements of America into their homes. Sometimes, they bought entire apartment buildings and reserved them for Orthodox Jews.
There were so many of them that they could create a self-sufficient urban economy; in the diamond trades and huge electronics and camera stores that are run by hasidim; in the glatt kosher restaurants and butcher shops that you now find in every Jewish neighborhood in New York.
Mrs. Shapiro is proud of that strategy of isolation. When I told her that the drab clothes hasidim wear still look strange and uncomfortable to me, she laughed with unexpected satisfaction and said, “That’s the way we want it to be. Our garb is like a mask over us. It doesn’t let us go many places. If people see that you’re Orthodox, they don’t come up to you with dirty intentions. Our clothes help prevent us from feeling temptation.”
Once, a decade after the Shapiros had settled in New York, Mrs. Shapiro bought her oldest son a bicycle. A few weeks later she wandered past a sale of used clothes and picked up a striped short-sleeved polo shirt for the boy. That Sunday her husband saw his son peddling down Eastern Parkway, his polo shirt furnishing a striking contrast to his black pants and sidelocks.
Mr. Shapiro was angry enough at the bicycle, for it would allow the boy to leave the block, leave the neighborhood, and roam uncontrollably through sections of New York the Shapiros could barely imagine. But the polo shirt seemed even more dangerous. If the boy acquired a wardrobe of similar clothes he might be exposed to the worldly contacts his parents found so perilous. Shortly afterward they sent him to Yeshiva in Israel. Two years later he rerurned to America. Now, still a hasid, he has a job in the diamond district.
Mrs. Shapiro says she’s constantly thankful that her lapses of judgment were countered by the unflagging piety of the man she married, whom she still reveres.
That attitude, with its roots in the safe, orderly world of Dubie, fills her with a kind of pity for the assimilated, Americanized women who, for their part, define her role at home and in synagogue as unbearably slavish.
She feels freed, for example, not constrained, by the segregated seating pattern in synagogue. In fact when she sits in the balcony of her shul “I always push myself as far back as I can so that my husband, on the ground floor, can’t see me. I couldn’t cry if I thought he was looking at me. I’d be ashamed. And when you daaven you want to open up your heart to the Almighty, you have so much to say. But if I sit with men, or even see them, I worry that I’ll look like a fool. I cover myself and act like I’m in a shell. If I’m alone with other women I feel very free, very open to cry.”
Doesn’t it bother her, though, that the piety she respects so much in her husband makes him begin each day by uttering a prayer in which he thanks the Almighty he’s not a woman?
She says she’s “not resentful”; she, in turn, thanks the Almighty that she is a woman. She accepts the premise that, in his universe, her role is to stay at home while her husband’s is to function in the world. “But he has all 613 mitzvahs to do, and a woman has only three main mitzvahs. There ‘s the cooking and the preparation for shabbos. But the main mitzvah is that she should bring up the children in the Yiddishe way.” That she should transmit the religion and traditions to them. “What else, in life, is more imponant than that?”
The children: a tribute to the dead. Nothing fills her with more anger — and more sorrow — than the idea of birth control. “These modern Jewish families! They don’t want to be bothered with babies. They don’t want to worry about diaper rashes and earaches, like my daughter did last week. Her child had a very high fever. She’s all right now, thank the Lord, but think of the sleepless nights.
“These American men and women want all the good things in in life instead of the problems. But l feel sorry for them. They’re shortsighted and stupid. When they’re old they’ll feel useless, as if their lives bad no meaning. They don’t know how lonely they’ll feel.”
It wasn’t a sermon. It was a warning — and a description of the sense of loss that never leaves her.
As we talked she fingered a ripped, faded photograph of her father, the only one that had ever been taken. The photograph stirred her memories of the shabbos afternoons in Dubie, where her zeydt, her grandfather, would gather all the children around him and give them candies and cookies and tell tales of his boyhood, and of the hasidic tsaddikim, the holy men and wise men, who kept his own faith so strong. Those rich, indestructible memories have more to do with her Jewishness than anything he had ever read in a book.
It was the week before Shavuous when we talked and she reminisced, lovingly, about the beautiful spring afternoons in Dubie when she and her brothers would gather weeping willows and flowers and fill their synagogue and their home with those simple treasures. The men would stay up all night, studying the Bible, in commemoration of Moses’s ascent up Mt. Sinai, the act that marked “the marriage between the Torah and the Jews.” In the morning, she remembers, “we’d give them plates full of cheesecake and kreplach andjish. My husband and I try to do that here, but we worry about Weight-Watchers. Anyway, Dubie was a little town where everyone was alike. It can’t be like that here.”
Then, sadly, she adds that “when you meet someone from the hein, from home, that is all you talk about. You talk about what it was like.
“But as much as I try to tell my children, it is difficult. They don’t have much in common with us. The main thing is that the children should know what they bad and what they lost. In Dubie, we could turn to my grandfather for that. But here the children have no zeyde. I miss that more than anything. When the Nazis killed my father they killed my family’s past.”
Once a hasid, a tsaddik, was asked why Jews don’t proselytize. He answered, simply, that a candle glows without making an effon to give light. Religion should do that too, he said.
Rabbi Singer doesn’t proselytize. Still, by his example, he helps to close the gulf that Mrs. Shapiro, in her ceaseless grief, thinks is unbridgeable. It will be years before I understand the religious lessons — or the degree of religiousness I’ve absorbed from my travels through 5737 and 5738, or how to incorporate them into my life: how to integrate Paul Cowan and Saul Cohen. But I know now that Rabbi Singer has helped me recover some of what I lost. He has brought me closer to my past — and, in doing that, helped me glimpse a kinder, more peaceful future. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 9, 2020