Artwork by Daniel Kabakoff
Reb Moish, by Ken Kapp
I’m a firm believer that we can always learn from people who are different from us; like me from Sol. We work together in the same office. Sol’s Jewish; I’m not. And while I’ve seen many Jews wearing hats I’ve not seen that many with strings dangling from their hips. On Sol, I usually don’t notice them since most of the time we’re sitting at our desks staring at a computer screen and talking on the phone. I asked Sol and he told me the strings were wool and tied with special knots on the four corners of a religious undershirt. He had a long untrimmed beard and I think he pinned the bottom under his chin to keep it from running away.
Sometimes we go out to eat at a kosher walk-up in the diamond district on 49th Street.. Sol tells me some of the diamond merchants still do business with a handshake. “If you’re religious a good name is worth more than diamonds.” I told that to my kids. My wife Mary drives in to pick me up late one afternoon. My girls want to eat in Little Italy and the first guy they see with a beard and a long black coat they roll down the windows and want to shake his hand. “Dad, he’ll give us a diamond!” I told them that’s not how it works.
I rented a cabin for the family in the Catskills for August, planning to join them on weekends. It wasn’t more expensive than a month of summer camps for two kids. I’m 41 but it feels like I’m getting old and can no longer go 24/7. A load of work drops on my desk Friday at one in the afternoon and I can’t get away for the weekend. I call Mary and tell her I’m stuck here. Sol hears me. He needs to leave three hours before sunset just in case the IRT trains stop running. (He was in by six this morning.) He comes over, gives my shoulders a squeeze.
“Sorry to hear, Ted. Look, you’re stuck here but still need to eat. You’ve been promising to come over some Shabbos. Why not take a break, join us tomorrow for lunch. No need even to call. My Essie always prepares extra for guests.”
I think about it for an hour. Why not? I go over and tell him. Sol suggests, “You want, come early. We’ll walk over to my little shul on President Street. You can park in my driveway. We can’t drive anyhow until after sundown. White shirt, dark pants, and a straw hat and you’ll pass for a modern Orthodox Jew. People will think you’re coming to Crown Heights to check out the Hasidim. Ten, ten-thirty is fine. We’ll be back to eat by noon.”
I must have been nuts or just overwhelmed and said I’d come. We meet on the corner of President and Utica as arranged; Sol says he wasn’t waiting more than five minutes. We cross, passing the Community Council office tucked behind a corner grocery, and come to what was once an attached brick triplex. Sol explains that his shul has taken over the first floor and basement.
There are boys playing tag, climbing all over the front steps. Their shirts are no longer clean and I see, out of four or five, at most one shirttail still tucked in. The door opens and a bearded man steps out, yells, “Mendel, get in here. Ashrei in two!” Three of the boys stop and one reluctantly runs to his father. Sol explains, “Ashrei – it’s a prayer, starts with Psalm 84 verse 5, and continues with Psalm 145, saying how happy are the people that dwell in God’s house.”
I come in and it’s bedlam. Seems everyone’s muttering some prayer a mile a minute as loud as he can. Young boys, not running around outside, are scampering between black coats and long beards playing tag. Every thirty seconds someone is going “Shush” and banging on the table in front of them trying to bring about some decorum. Sol did warn me Hasidim pray differently. I could only think, and how! He goes to a bookcase stretching to the ceiling, traces with his finger down a couple of rows and pulls out two books. “Here, Ted. This one has some English.”
Sol turns and threads his way to a windowsill, removing his prayer shawl from an embroidered bag. He mutters and wraps it around his head. Then he drags me over to a bench against the wall, and his fellow travelers in this madness shove over and make room for us. No sooner have we sat down than someone slams three times on the platform in the center of the room. Suddenly it’s quiet, the men stand, and Sol lifts me by the elbow. Two kids help an ancient man to his feet and he shouts out,
“Adonoi Melech, Adonoi molach, Adonoi yemloch l’olum voed.”
There’s a plaint, almost a cry, that echoes around the large room. Then he sits down and the bedlam resumes.
The service continues and they take out a Torah scroll. Sol tugs me to the front so I can see the letters. Even I can tell that it’s beautiful calligraphy. Sol whispers that it’s written on parchment and takes a man-year to write. “Man-years” we understand; comes with our job.
When the service is over 40 minutes later, Sol explains that there’s always a Kiddush, a reception, some gefilte fish, herring, wine, vodka, etc. etc. “Don’t worry, my Essie’s got plenty and home we can sit.”
Sol lives a couple of blocks west on President Street. We cross Utica and then Schenectady thankful for the large sycamores providing shade. Sol waves at a couple of friends across the street and greets a few blacks as they come towards us. “This is a mixed neighborhood. We’ve African-Americans and other blacks from the Caribbean. Lot of the local stores are owned by Haitians. My wife thinks they have the best fruit and vegetables.”
They own a duplex and live on the second floor. He knocks loudly and one of his kids, he’s got five, runs down to open the door. He reminds me that they can’t carry things outside on the Sabbath. Everyone is waiting. He introduces me to his wife, Essie, who then acts as a traffic cop getting all the kids and a couple of their friends to their seats. Sol has me sit on his right, joking, “We can talk baseball.”
I’m prepared. Sol’s gone through his Shabbos menus several times at work. From the homemade gefilte fish, chicken soup or cholent – “but not in the summer, too heavy or too hot,” Israeli salads, crisp baked chicken, egg and/or potato salad, or sometimes both if there are vegetarians coming, and “a healthy dessert to go along with the cookies and cake.”
At lunch, after the wine and bread, fish and Israeli salad, I ask Sol about the old man shouting shortly after we entered the shul. He explains, “That’s Reb Moish. He’s a survivor. The rest of his family perished in the camps. He’s telling everyone to keep the faith. Those words mean, ‘God is King; God was King; God will be King forever and ever.’ He’s not giving up on that.”
Sol confesses he doesn’t know too much about Reb Moish other than he lost all his immediate family in the Holocaust. “The Rebbe when he became Rebbe in 1950, learned about Reb Moish, that he was stuck in a bureaucratic nightmare, despondent and struggling to stay alive in Poland. The Rebbe was able to cut through and brought him here to Crown Heights. Reb Moish works with the boys in the Yeshiva on Eastern Parkway a block away from 770. “Mendel had him for Talmud one year. Mendel, what was Reb Moish like?”
Mendel put his fork down, he was having seconds on the fish and salad. “He was awesome. I mean, we were sometimes too loud, and he’d just sit at his desk in front, looked like his eyes were glazed over, but if we got stuck in a passage, he’d come over, take a quick look at the page and then quote the sentences, point to commentaries on the side, rattle them off without looking, and then maybe give another reference or two. It was gevaltig – strictly awesome. I can’t imagine learning like that!”
An hour later, after three more courses and dessert, lunch is over and grace is said. I’ve opened my belt at least once. Sol’s kids and their friends run off. Essie excuses herself, saying she’s glad that I finally was able to come for Shabbos. “Sol says you make a good team at work.”
Sol invites me into the living room, first picking up a plate of circle cookies from the kitchen and a bottle of scotch from a shelf in a bookcase that stretched across one wall. As we sit down, he says, “Essie borrowed from everyone on these cookies. Sort of like Italian taralli but she makes them tighter and uses lots of cardamom.”
He pours generous amounts into two glasses, and toasts, “L’chaiim. May the walls between people come tumbling down and may people everywhere become friends.” He tosses his down and begins to softly sing a song, “Lo yisa goy el goy cherev, lo yilmadu od milchama – may nations no longer pick up a sword against one another, may they no longer learn to make war. Yes, peace would be nice!”
I sip from my glass and, nibbling on a cookie, nod that I agree. Then thinking of the conflicts in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq-Iran for starters, finish the rest of my drink. Sol pours again and we begin to talk about the general situation of the world. That’s what I like about Sol, he’s not all work and religion.
We finish the second drink and by this time we’re both coming up with solutions for all the world’s problems – I’m realizing that they were very generous drinks. Sol looks down at his empty glass. We listen to the air conditioner in the window struggle with the August heat and humidity. He says, “Random acts of kindness; we should do random acts of kindness. That’s what the Rebbe says.” He continues, rolling the empty glass on the coffee table, but I’m not following.
There’s a pause and Sol frowns as if he too doesn’t understand what he has just said. His eyes roll up and, shrugging, he mutters, “Well, whatever.”
He struggles to his feet, says that it’s nap time. “Shabbos is not Shabbos without a nap. You can have the couch. No one will bother you. I’ll put a throw over your legs. I close the sliding doors and you’ll have privacy. The kids know not to go in when the doors are closed. I’ll wake you in an hour when Essie gets me up. She’s got a built-in clock.”
I am feeling sleepy and readily agree. An hour later, Sol wakes me and asks if I’d like tea and a nosh before rushing off. I decline, thinking there’s not another notch left on my belt.
It’s a long drive back to Rockville Center where I live and all the time I’m thinking of Reb Moish and what he must have gone through.