Friday, January 31, 2014

Two Handy Jews: Bezalel, Builder of the Mishkan--God's Sacred Dwelling-Place, and My Uncle Izzy a'h

            While this week’s Torah reading, Terumah, does not mention him by name—indeed, he does not appear until Parshat Vayakhel, three parshiyote/Torah portions farther on—the Torah ascribes the building of the Mishkan, the Sacred Dwelling-Place for God in the Wilderness, to Bezalel ben Uri (lit., “Shadow-of-God son of Light of God”) of the Tribe of Judah, and Oholiav ben Ahisamach (“Tent of My Father son of My Brother will Claim/Lay Hands on”), of the Tribe of Dan. These men, primarily Bezalel, are considered to be artists par excellence, expert in all manner of plastic arts: not only carving and casting metal, but also weaving, carpentry, both rough and fine, architecture, and in organizing groups of people to work on a project—a lot harder than it sounds; ask any Brotherhood or Sisterhood Committee Chairperson. Hey, ask any Temple Board Member why it’s so hard to find someone to serve as Temple President. Any one of today’s synagogues would lay itself down at their feet to have Bitsy or Oho on staff, or even to hire them temporarily as consultants for a renovation project. So skilful was Bezalel, that there is, today, an Art School in Jerusalem named after him. (Poor Oholiav has faded into the mists of undeserved obscurity.)
            Who is Bezalel’s artistic heir? I choose to believe, not in the myriad ranks of Jewish artists, sculptors, or weavers of the past up to the present day—though they certainly deserve a great deal of kavod, honor—but those relatively few members of our tribe who are “handy,” this being a designation relatively few Jewish men or women possess. (I know; we may not know how to do the task, but we all “know a guy” who does—not that we rush to share his name with inquirers.)
            In the case of my family, the designated “handy guy” was Uncle Izzy a’h, who was married to my father’s sister Bea (names changed, due to family politics), the best cook in the family, having inherited her recipes from Bubbie, our Polish grandma—though Bubbie, truth to tell, was more of a thrifty cook than a good one—her particular talent lay in being able to purchase a mere pound of farmer cheese for Shavuote, the Dairy Festival, and, from it, bring forth cheese kreplach, cheese kugel, cheese blintzes, and cheese Danish—not that any of those delicacies tasted in the slightest like cheese. And don’t get me started on her gefilte fish—we knew there had to be fish in there somewhere, since a live carp had been swimming ‘round Bubbie’s bathtub for all of the previous week, prior to her dispatching it to Carp Heaven by means of an Indian club she kept in the closet—and how did an elderly Polish-Jewish lady acquire an Indian club? Don’t ask.
            Returning to Uncle Izzy—he was a dour man, about whom family legend told that he had been a mine detector during World War II, until comrades played a joke on him by removing the batteries from his mine-detecting apparatus. Luckily, he discovered this lack before going out on patrol. His own father had been a builder, from whom Izzy had learned to be “ah shtickle” (Yiddish, "a little bit of a") carpenter, locksmith, and electrician, among other skills. Professionally, he worked in the US Post Office, but family and friends knew that they could call upon him if they needed anything of a construction nature done.
            Having my own, decidedly non-handy father, and living in an apartment dwelling where, if anything mechanical went awry, Dad’s first reaction was, “Call Maintenance!” This became the mantra on which I was raised, so well that, when B and I moved into our first parsonage, and discovered a problem with the bathroom tile, I uttered those same, magical words. The problem was that subsequently, nothing happened: I had left the Maintenance Dept., along with so many other childhood comforts, back in NYC.
            Uncle Izzy’s dour nature taught us all that he required special handling. When B and I moved into our first apartment—a cozy little basement in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, just big enough for newlyweds—we decided that the doorknob-style locks on the two street doors were insufficient. Could Uncle Izzy come by one Sunday afternoon and install big, heavy Segal locks, the legendary burglary preventers? This entailed some family political negotiations.
            “When Izzy is done, B,” said my mother, “Ask him, ‘Uncle Izzy, are you hungry?’ If he says, ‘Yes,’ then give him a sandwich. Any kind of sandwich. Put it down on the kitchen table, with a cup of coffee and a napkin. He will sit down and eat it. Then, he will leave. I’ve already paid him for the Segal locks. That’s it.”
            “OK, Ma,” said B.
            She even rehearsed the line: “Uncle Izzy, are you hungry? Uncle Izzy, are you hungry?” Julie Andrews could not have done better.
            Uncle Izzy showed up, exactly on time, with tool box and heavy, brass-plated Segal locks in hand. He took a measured look around the apartment.
            “Welcome to our house, Uncle Izzy!” I greeted him.
            He looked at me and said nothing, but set immediately to work.
            When he was done, the locks gleamed strongly and efficiently against the wood; they made us feel safer immediately.
            B knew what to do next: “Uncle Izzy, are you hungry?”
            Uncle Izzy looked at her. Just looked.
            Again: “Uncle Izzy, are you hungry?”
            Izzy turned, bent down, gathered his tools, waved briefly, and left. We heard him tramping up the stairs.
            B turned to me, almost in tears: “What did I do wrong?”
            Eventually, the following week, the news trickled back via the family grapevine: Aunt B told my father, who told my mother, who told us.
            “You didn’t do anything wrong. Aunt Bea told us that B should have just made a tuna sandwich and put it on the table, and said, ‘Uncle Izzy, eat!’ That would have solved everything.”
            Tragically, B had learned the wrong line of monologue. It was years later before we found out what else Izzy had said.
            “Those locks are ridiculous,” he had told Aunt Bea. “The locks are great: solid brass Segal. But the doors are plain, hollow-core, as thin as paper. Any burglar who wants to get into that apartment can just kick them in.”
            I imagine that here, he had paused, taken a bite of his sandwich (the one that Aunt Bea had made him: the way he really liked; she did make a wonderful sandwich, Aunt Bea did) and a sip of coffee. Great coffee.
            “No one will rob those kids,” he said, “They’re newlyweds; they don’t have two nickels to rub together. They don’t have anything there a burglar would want.”
            I’d like to believe that Uncle Izzy and Aunt Bea are in heaven, now. Aunt Bea is helping the angels cook all types of wonderfully toothsome dishes for the Righteous who live in Everlasting Splendor. (No one gains weight in heaven, and there’s no cholesterol.)
And Uncle Izzy? He’s standing in front of God’s Throne of Mercy—the Throne God sits on most of the time (I hope), when He’s offering kindness and understanding to this tough, sad old world—not the Throne of Judgment: that’s where the tragic things come from.
            And Uncle Izzy is closing one eye, and squinting at the Throne, and telling God:
            “You know, God, that throne doesn’t look right. If You’d just get up a minute, I could take my saw and a power drill and some screws, and make it level for you.”

            And God is saying, “Izzy, are you hungry?”