Monday, September 19, 2016

Kee Tavo: The Shammas's (Synagogue Sexton's) Tale



Kee Tavo: The Tale of Mr. Haimowitz, Our Shammas

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

“Now, if you obey the LORD your GOD, to observe faithfully all His commandments…[then] all these blessings will come upon you and take effect….But if you do not obey the LORD your GOD…all these curses will come upon you and take effect….” –Deut. 28:1-2, 15.

“It became the custom, when the annual cycle of Torah readings would reach this chapter, to call up a volunteer for the curses (sometimes the synagogue’s contract with the sexton included his objligation to ‘volunteer’”). …The chapter itself would be read…in a low voice, [reflecting] an old fear that, if one spoke too loudly of possible adversity, it might in mysterious fashion, be allowed to happen.”

 –Rabbi Gunther Plaut, Ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary. NYC, NY: UAHC Press, 1981.

I remember the Shammas, the Sexton, Mr. Shulem Haimowitz, in the shul of my childhood, a humble Synagogue-Hebrew Day School on the Lower East Side of New York City. I had begun attending the kindergarten of the East Side Hebrew Day School, when my not-yet-Orthodox parents placed me into its dual program (Hebrew in the morning, Secular courses in the afternoon) of the Day School because I had been born in the early part of my birthyear, and they wanted me to begin school early, rather than wait for the fall of the following year, as the local NYC Public Schools would have required. Of such seemingly minor decisions are children’s futures made; it certainly contributed to my becoming a rabbi.

It was not a bad thing to study with a smaller parochial school class. Indeed, most of the children from my kindergarten continued with me through the years, and we all graduated together from the eighth grade. We separated, finally, to attend different public schools (I alone went to Yeshiva University High School, but that is another story.).

Itzik Haimowitz did not go the entire route with us; he was Mr. Haimowitz’s eldest. We were not friends, because Itzik and I were in competition for “least athletic boy,” back in those early years. Neither of us could punch a pink-rubber Spalding ball (pronounced “Spall-DEEN” in NYC argot) sufficiently hard to get on base; we could not hit a penny to make it dance and spin over, nor flip baseball cards sufficiently well to win a Roger Maris, let alone the coveted Mickey Mantle. We were inevitably the last two chosen for a game of frozen tag, ring-a-leevio, or dodge ball.

This prejudice against us did not make us friends. Itzik may have been ashamed of his father Shulem (Yiddish for “Peace”), whose position as Shammas of the Shul, or lowliest temple functionary, did not exactly grant his eldest son any unique social standing among our classmates. Mr. Haimowitz was a simple man, with few teeth, but a ready smile. He was always happy to do whatever our forbidding Rabbi Nunberg commanded—it was the Age of the Imperial Rabbi, whose word was law, particularly in Orthodox shuls.

The problem was that there was not all that much of which Mr. Haimowitz was capable. True, he could set up chairs, and perhaps count the pennies from the pushka, the charity box that stood on the shtender, the central pulpit facing the Holy Ark, from which laymen led services—the advantage to an Orthodox shul is that many, if not most, congregants are capable of doing so; they have at least a command, if not an understanding, of Hebrew.

Mr. Haimowitz, as I say, was always at Rabbi Nunberg’s beck and call, but, beyond smiling and greeting visitors to the shul, he seemed unable to do much more. Folks said that, back in Europe, he had been a talmid chacham, a learned scholar, but, fleeing the War as a refugee, losing everything, there were rumors that he had been beaten severely by street thugs, and that this had done something to his mind. We would never know.

It was his simple piety and devotion to God that made him an attraction to us children, and the congregants, as well. It was not unusual for the laypeople of the congregation to seek him out for his eitsa tova, his “good counsel,” rather than the dour, forbidding rabbi, who chain-smoked Pall Malls and could most often be found in his office, frowning over the account-books, while drawing fanciful angels and Jewish symbols on scraps of foolscap paper—he had once been an art student at the Sorbonne, but returned home at the outbreak of World War II.  

“If I cannot help you,” Mr. Haimowitz would smile, “I can listen. And if I cannot understand your problem, I will speak to God for you; He understands everything. And then, I will read Tehillim, His most holy Psalms, on your behalf, and God will find the solution in His universe, no matter how well-hidden. So come, and we’ll talk. I will make tea.”

He and his family—there was a Mrs. Haimowitz, too, but we rarely saw her; she had her hands full with the enormous Haimowitz brood, of whom Itzik was eldest, and he only an elementary schooler—lived above stairs. The Hebrew School-with-a-Shul-Attached had originally been a brownstone, which was later converted to a three-storey apartment house. When Rabbi Nunberg’s father-in-law, Rabbi Weinbaum, had purchased or inherited the building—the details were fuzzy, as were details surrounding many a holy site in the Old Neighborhood—he had converted the basement and first floor to classroom and prayer-room spaces, but had left a lone apartment on the third floor.

That was where the Haimowitzes lived. Once, when Rabbi Nunberg had combed the entire school level and was unable to find his semi-faithful gofer, Mr. Haimowitz, his eye lit upon me, a likely messenger, and he sent me up the creaking stairway to the third floor to summon him. Awed and more than a bit frightened, I climbed the mysterious stairs, finding the light fading as I mounted higher and higher. Strange smells, of boiled cabbage, onions, garlic, and an overcast of chicken soup, assailed my young nostrils.

As I reached the top step, a lone yellowish light bulb did its best to pierce the darkness, which was almost smoky in its impenetrability. A tall, greenish-brown-painted door, with a huge olive-wood Israeli-style mezuzah adorning the doorpost, stood before me. Somewhere inside, I heard a radio playing, and a baby—or was that two, or three?—crying.

Charged with my mission, I knocked on the door, timidly. I heard footsteps. A great sound of bolts and locks sliding and clicking, clacking and releasing. The door opened, and little Itzik stood there. Seeing me, he scowled.

“Whaddayou want?” he challenged me.
“The Rabbi sent me,” I answered, both justifying my mission and defending myself.
“Yeah, what’s it to ya?” Itzik went on; this was his turf, and I was the interloper, rabbi or no.
“He wants ya foddah,” I went on.
“Tell dat old goat dat Mr. Haimowitz is—is—busy. My dad’ll be down when he’s ready,” Itzik replied, smiling evilly, and then slamming the door in my face. I shrugged, and returned to give the report to the rabbi.

Rabbi Nunberg scowled: he was not pleased, but Mr. Haimowitz appeared shortly after, clattering down the ancient stairs from the upper level. The Rabbi took him aside, and clarified what he wanted: something about setting up chairs for Shabbos.

Is this what I risked my life for? I wondered, and ran home through the gathering darkness to my library books, and my mother’s cooking. It was cold, and the sun was setting over the Hudson. Shadows were growing longer.

That Shabbos was Parshat Kee Tavo, the Portion of the Blessings and Curses. As stipulated in his contract, Mr. Haimowitz, wearing a woolen tallis-prayer shawl that had once been snow-white but was now yellowed with age and neglect, stood up proudly to receive his less-than-desirable aliyah, his calling-up to the Torah—that is, to receive the questionable honor of having the List of Curses read for him (Deut. 28:15-69).

The congregation waited in anticipation. The Baal Koreh, or Torah Reader, was a tall, rail-thin young man, Rabbi Nachum, a teacher of slight erudition, whose principal talent appeared to be producing children. His wife was pale and short, and wore an enormous, mushroom-like shaitel (wig) which often threatened to topple her, and who rarely came to shul with her brood. Few of the young mothers were able to do so, because there was no eruv, or wire boundary of which the local rabbis would approve—each rabbi did his best to rule more stringently than the next, and so the tight lasso of Jewish Law grew narrower still, enforcing over the observant families of the neighborhood the least contact with the outside world.

We all looked on as Mr. Haimowitz mounted the bema, the podium, a beatific smile on his face. He wore a suit whose color had once been charcoal-grey, but was now a greenish-black; his shoes were shapeless and scuffed. One sock was brown; the other, gray. The Baal Koreh cleared his throat; he had been glancing sideways at a small volume of Talmud, which he customarily studied in between Torah portions, seeking to emulate a Gadol HaDor, the Grand Rabbi Mendel Fierstein, a Great Rabbi of Our Generation, who was known to never waste a moment’s devotion to Torah Study.

Mr. Haimowitz touched his ancient tallis to the Torah-text gently, and kissed it tenderly. Despite his being Shammas of the shul, he rarely received an aliyah—Rabbi Nunberg favored those of his inner circle who would make fat donations to the shul, and it was an open secret that, as proprietor and major employee of the ESHDS, he set his own salary. Still, this was Shabbat, no time for finance. Mr. Haimowitz chanted the blessings in a plain, sweet voice, and we all understood the honest joy and devotion he derived from this mitzvah, one of the greatest honors a prusteh Yid, a simple Jew, could receive: a small portion of Torah, even a tainted one.

As the Baal Koreh quietly began his chant of the “Catalogue of Curses,” I kept my eyes on Mr. Haimowitz.

“Though you take much seed out to the field, you shall gather in little, for the locust shall consume it….”

He smiled more broadly; perhaps, deep back in his damaged memory, he recalled the translation, and was forgiving God for His impatience with His erring creatures.

“All these curses shall befall you…because you did not heed the LORD your GOD and keep the commandments…that He enjoined upon you.”

I glanced at Rabbi Nunberg. He was sitting with his yarmulkeh sideways on his head, following the text, shaking his head, mumbling, Ai yi yi yi…. A sign of mourning. Was he affected by the deep drama of a God Who offered curses to His beloved people? And on Shabbos, the Holy Sabbath? Faces were cast down, all through the Sanctuary. It was a mournful reading, indeed.

Only Mr. Haimowitz continued to smile. And then, the reading was over, his aliyah done. He shook hands, all around, and moved to the side, as ritual required, to signify his reluctance to depart the Presence of the Holy Torah, Daughter of the King.

What was the secret that called forth his smile? I did not know then, but I believe I do, now. Mr. Haimowitz shared it with me, that day. Itzik did not know it, either, but I hope that his father, his poor, luckless father who yet loved God, taught it to him, by deeds, not words.

We come into the world, proud, feeling self-sufficient. But the world breaks everyone.  We suffer loss. We retreat; we mourn, we cry. We pray to God.

God will answer, “Your life will often be difficult, and I cannot always help you openly; you must first help yourself. Go—make the effort! Strive. Struggle. But if you reach out to Me, I will do My best to be your Source of Strength.”

Thank you, Mr. Haimowitz. You turned curses into blessings. You, the man who had so little, who worked hard to provide for his family, who faced defeat, yet took your setbacks in stride, taught us all how to survive. I did not know it then, but I believe I can understand it, now. All it took for you to teach it to us, was a smile. Thank you, and God rest your soul.