Monday, October 02, 2006

With Apologies To Jennifer Bleyer

Motzai Yom Kippur ebbs away and I’ve eaten but I haven’t bentched. Andy Statman plays Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, as I write. On the stack table next to this laptop sits the World Jewish Digest, open to page 58. The headline shouts; Jammin’ Genius by JON KALISH. I guess the article about Statman inspired me to put Andy in my CD player – even though I readily listen when he doesn’t make the headlines, which is - sadly - most of the time.

I was once at a Chanukah extravaganza at Nassau Coliseum, not sure why – but I was. And before the Miami Boys and other featured Las Vegas show tune styled acts came out Andy Statman did a couple of numbers. It was tragic – witnessing one of the world’s greatest living musicians being ignored. Matt Glaser is quoted in this new article as commenting that “Andy has an internal sense of doing whatever would guarantee that he would not be commercial.” That only makes me like him more.

On a seemingly unrelated note we turn now to an apology that I feel that is owed to two men who’s names elude me. I’ve been thinking about these men all through Yom Kippur. Every year of my childhood these two men appeared on Yom Kippur in the row in front of me in Shul. My father (HSLABW) always told me to say hello to Mr. So and So and Mr. So and So and to shake their hands (to this day I always move from sitting towards standing as I shake someone’s hand because my dad taught me that it was the correct thing to do). I always looked a bit askance at these men, as not from ours, as “the other.” They were once a year Jews. Who were they kidding? These thoughts filled me, not in words, but in a sensation than ran naturally through my bloodstream. What I remember most vividly is that the one who sat directly in front of me used to always finish Shmoneh Esrei quickly and then take off his Tallis and step outside for a few minutes. That made an impression, drove home to me how unserious he was.

I’m not sure why that man stepping out after every Shmoneh Esrei on every Yom Kippur of every year so resonates with me, but does it ever. I’m going to type until I figure it out. I think it’s coming to me… You see I’m no longer a little boy who thinks that energy never fades and that if we want to we can all live forever. I no longer think that if you’re hair turns white it means you’re old, or that if you need to step out of Shul because your tired or your stomach is acting up or you feel cramped or stifled or even bored that you deserve to be looked down upon. I now believe that these reactions are part of being human, for the simple reason that I‘ve experienced every one of them. And as I feel the need to step out of Shul. On Yom Kippur or on Shabbat of the week of Parshat Tzav, I think of myself pretending like I wasn’t noticing that old man every time. Sometimes I feel the need to step out for a minute or longer, and I feel myself being watched by young eyes, while they deny it even to themselves.

“Can you imagine old age? Of course you can’t… Not even a false image – no image. And no-body wants anything else… Understandably, any stage of life more advanced than one’s own is unimaginable…” So writes Phillip Roth. And it’s not just old age but different mindsets as well. Till we think or feel a certain way ourselves we can’t believe that anyone would ever be like that.

So here I am understanding that some people come to Shul only on Yom Kippur. And though I never did or never will know the names of most such people, they exist. They are as real as I am. These strangers are never as strange as they seem, once you give them some attention. Maybe that’s why we’re warned more times any other exhortation in the Torah to be kind to the stranger – usually with the reminder that we were strangers too. And we will be again. I have felt and will feel again many of the same things that that Yom Kippur Jew that I wanted to disassociate from since I was six felt as well, both in and out of Shul.

While I’m recalling Yom Kippurs past in that blue faced building on 215th Street I think of the time my brother turned to the young man of around our age one row back. It was after the break and my brother looked at the fellow’s shirt and asked him what the stain on it was from. “Tomato juice,” replied said fellow, in the most even keeled tone I’ve ever heard. Conversation over. But for about thirty years now I’ve wondered about the unstated. Did he go home during the break and guzzle tomato juice? Or was this a spot from before the fast? And why does this incident plague me? I guess because it’s another example of how little we really know or understand of the life of the guy sitting on either side of us in Shul. There are specs of hints that announce themselves to us like tomato juice on a clean white shirt. But in the end only G-d knows.

Jennifer Bleyer wrote of her first time in The Carlebach Shul: “I had grown up in congregations where the aisles were used as catwalks during the High Holidays. Here, worshippers were freaks, geniuses, outcasts, and eccentrics—more like members of the tribe to which I imagined myself belonging. One was a former yeshiva student who now favored various Hindu gurus, but still kept Shabbat. One was a Kahanist alcoholic from Transylvania. One got arrested for aiding a runaway teenager and other congregants rallied to help bail him out of jail. Reb Shlomo referred to all of them as "holy schleppers."

My nearest and dearest are all holy schleppers. Years ago I told a friend of mine how there are the guys in Yeshiva who are known as the masmidim, and the guys who are known as the illuyim, then there are the guys who sit and struggle. They learn a little, they get up, leave the beis medrash and go tho the water fountain they return and find someone took their seat, so they get another one, then they go get a tissue… She used to ask me to repeat the description to her and never tired of hearing it. One day she asked me plainly – don’t you realize that I relate to that because I feel that I‘m that person? I didn’t. And I’d never mentioned that my description was based on experience rather than theory.

As Andy's Ramble plays I'm very close to believing that even the most put together person on the catwalk, in or out of Shul, is a secret holy schlepper. As atonement congeals, I pray that we be blessed to be at one with ourselves and each other. As we prepare to schlep through another year, if G-d will grant it to us, let us commit to being gentle in our judgement of schleppers - for we were shleppers in the land of Egypt.


Blogger Jack Steiner said...

I enjoyed this post.

October 3, 2006 at 2:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Me too.

October 3, 2006 at 10:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

me three

October 3, 2006 at 4:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A nice post.

Your description of people in shul reminds me of how I am in art class sometimes. There are just those times... I drop my pencil, then my sketchbook, then I sneeze, then my papers go flying off the easel.... But when I finally settle down to drawing it goes great.

Sometimes energy is just scattered all over the place and it takes a while to land.

October 4, 2006 at 12:31 AM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Thank you Jack, Maayan, Bob, and Miriam. I'd like to thank my agent and Jack Nicholson. I'd also like to thank Miriam for using her real name.

I'm actually happy with how ths piece spilled out, so the feedback is meaningful to me.

October 5, 2006 at 2:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The description of the beis medrash shlepper is something I struggle with all the time (and even more so when I was in Israel).

October 8, 2006 at 10:27 PM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Dear Josh,

I have a lot of thoughts on this subject from the point of view of a student and from the point of view of a teacher. The non brilliant (or even the brilliant who don't flaunt their brilliance by talkng smart, or may not know how bright they are) are best.

If you'd like to talk more about this struggle, off blog - let me know.

October 8, 2006 at 10:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Great post.

It's amazing what people remember. It's also sad to think that the men who came to shul twice a year are far more typical of American Jewry than you are. Also sad to think about how unlikely the children and grandchildren of these men are to come to shul even on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Sigh.

October 10, 2006 at 12:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read this and really enjoyed it a lot - especially the part about the "holy schleppers"!

October 10, 2006 at 1:09 PM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

There's a book called The Talmud and the Internet and the main essay in the book compares and copntrasts these two (lehavdil)phenomenon. Sometimes when I put points that are important to me here in the middle of comments I think about that book, and how Talmudic it feels, hiding added comments away like this.

Memory is a fascinating thing, what people remember, and what people don't remember and how differently people recall things. I hope to write more about that soon - please G-d.

One of the things that I'm forever grateful to my parents for is the Jewish education they provided for me. It wasn't just a matter of sending me to Yeshiva, it was that and more. It was going to Shul and then sittinhg down for meals, and being taught by example to afford the proper respect and attention for Judaism. Today I see kids being left on their own much more than I was left on my own in shul as a young child. Sitting next to your father regularly in shul is an irreplaceable treasure that I thank my father and My Father for affording me with.
Just some of the thoughts you sparked for me, anonymous one.

Anonymous two, thanks. I named the piece what I dd, because the author of that piece really provided the foundation of this piece.

October 10, 2006 at 1:22 PM  
Blogger rr said...

wow, this is an amazing piece. it's interesting that the once a year jews are the ones that i have strong memories of from my youth.

September 23, 2007 at 3:12 AM  
Anonymous Elie said...

me four

September 27, 2012 at 12:57 PM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

thanks elie - that my words were meaningful to you six years after i wrote them means a great deal to me.

September 27, 2012 at 8:53 PM  

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