By William Rabinowitz
I'm not sure what prompted me to talk to him, certainly no one else did. There was this strange appellation, something out of hundreds of years ago from Jewry's European past sitting in the Starbucks on Congress Avenue next to the Vitamins R'Us super store. I had stopped off for a Mocha Java Grande with extra Mocha and cinnamon. To be sure and stick to my diet I threw in two Nutra-sweets. He was sipping a glass of water from a plastic cup at a corner table. Sweat visibly thickened through his white long sleeve shirt buttoned at the collar. He had a long black coat, a bit dirty and flayed at the hem that touched the floor. His oversized black felt hat, with the extra large firm brim, lay on the table. His full grey flecked beard wiggled whenever his hand nervously readjusted his black yarmulke. Mendel's large gentle eyes cried his tired confusion. He was out of his element. It was 82 degrees outside, very bright and humid.
The last winter in Crown Heights was too much for Mendel, the snow the ice, the cold, the terrible pain of his arthritis, the oy vey's mir days. For 44 years he had lived just off of Brooklyn Ave. in a small third floor walk up apartment that overlooked the grey alleyway. There never was much sunlight. It was affordable. The two Pothos plants on his window sill did o.k. They were his family since he had never married. He named them Chaim and Shana. "That mamzer," Mendel borchered about his landlord. "He never turns on the heat until Nov. 15; not one day sooner or later, and the hot water - forget about it." As much as he complained, he complained so that his landlord never would hear it. A rent controlled apartment at $147.50 a month was impossible to find.
The years advanced, so did his arthritis. The swelling in his joints got worse, but for $147.50, he suffered to himself. This winter it took him a long, long time to climb the steps to his home. He even stopped going to the Crown Heights Brooklyn Public library because the extra flight of steps were excruciatingly painful to traverse. He missed the library, between the little bit of study he did at the Yeshiva, the books at the library were his only friends, other than Chaim and Shana.
Mendel made his living as a shames at the Torah Ohr shul three blocks over. It was a small building with two front doors and one large common stoop step. The door to the right opened to Torah Ohr and the one to the left opened to the First Abyssinian Church of the Holy Redeemer. The arrangement worked well as both communities were small and got along well. Mendel worked as the shames for the shul and looked after the church. He swept. He cleaned. He straightened. He watched to be sure that everything was where it should be so each could worship God. It made him feel good. He was content. He loved God in his own quiet non-flamboyant way. Anything that brought people to God was o.k. with Mendel.
Mendel was a Chassid. He worked at Torah Ohr and the First Abyssinian Church of the Holy Redeemer but he attended the Beth Dovid Chassidishe Shul on Empire Boulevard next to the Chicken and Chitlin Palace. He liked the people at Torah Ohr. He liked most everyone. Just because he liked the people it did not mean he worshiped with them. He preferred Beth Dovid. Mendel could sit quietly on Shabbes on the back bench near the window and dream or shuckle depending on his mood. No one bothered him and he bothered no-one. He was never offended even when there was schnapps after Shabbes services and sometimes they ran out just before it was his turn for a pour of L'Chaim. It was o.k. It was the arthritis that made his life so difficult now. The cold made his life impossible with pain.
Beth Dovid's Rebbe's eyes followed Mendel as he took his usual seat by the window. It was quite clear he was suffering. The Rebbe asked an aide to have Mendel see him in the afternoon. Rabbi Fuchs was a kind man and only wanted well for his flock. It troubled him personally to see any Chassid in any sort of difficulty. It pained him so much he could not stand to see it. Mendel too did not want to pain Rabbi Fuchs. After services Mendel did as he was asked. He sat with Rabbi Fuchs. He sat and they talked behind closed doors in the Rabbi's office. It was more that he sat and Rabbi Fuchs talked. An hour, maybe more, Mendel emerged, grimaced this time from more than the arthritis.
Rabbi Fuchs told Mendel that it was a sacrilege to spend the remaining years of his life in pain in the cold and wet of Brooklyn. God created a special Jewish haven for those that the cold had cursed Florida. Rabbi Fuchs went even further, his nephew Naphtali had researched Florida and discovered that the second fastest growing Jewish community in America was Boynton Beach were there were more Jews than almost Crown Heights. "Mendel", he said, "go to Boynton Beach, your life will be better there. God has told me you should go."
* * * * *
Swirling my Mocha Java Grande with extra Mocha and cinnamon, one eye glued on the brown wooden swizzle stick for splinters, I did something I haven't done for decades. Boldly I walked up to the apparition and said, "Hi, my name is William Rabinowitz. You look like you are lost. Can I be of assistance?" The hand went to the yarmulke, adjusting it in a circular motion, the beard twitched and his face sought mine.
"Thank you for asking, I am a not sure where to go tonight. The Rebbe sent me to Boynton to a friend of his. He recommended I go to the Days Inn on Boynton Beach. Is it a long walk from here? I have been walking a long time today. My name is Menachim Mendel Meyers. But Mendel is fine," he said.
It was then that I noticed his large suitcase under the table. "It is a long walk from here," I said.
"Is it very far?" Mendel asked. "Well, I would not recommend walking it and schlepping a heavy suitcase in this heat. It is at least another mile and a half east across 95," I responded.
The hand went to the yarmulke and nervously readjusted it one, then two more times. Mendel turned his head and looked out the window at the traffic flowing up and down Boynton Beach Boulevard. The sun shone brightly on the street, muted by the tinted window glass making it seem cooler than it really was. One of his long round payyot that was draped behind his ear slipped forward and dangled. He quickly, with a twist of the long earlock, pushed it back up behind his ear again.
"Tell me, Mr. Rabinowitz, is there a kosher restaurant or a grocery store nearby. I did not think ahead, being as I was told Boynton Beach is a very Jewish area, I thought I would be able to find something to eat easily here."
As a child, my mother had sent me to a Yeshiva in my home town. My father was absolutely against an orthodox education. "God did not listen anyway" he said. It was a waste of time." But on Yom Kippur he would go to shul. My mother was from the old school. She felt I needed a Jewish education founded in study of Torah and Talmud and Yiddishkeit. When my father died, there was no argument. My mother sent me to the Hebrew Academy half a day in Torah studies conducted in Hebrew and half a day in regular American subjects the three RRRs conducted in English. I was, without a doubt, one of the poorest products the Academy put out. Yet something of the meaning of being Jewish became part of my bones. I understood Mendel and respected his values though I did not actively share them with him anymore. He was hungry and he did not know where he could go to get a little food without violating his living link to God and to his people.
"There is a Publix grocery store caddy cornered to us on the other side of Congress," I said. "You could buy some fruit there." I felt guilty saying this. Mendel had something about him that was very non-threatening. He was not asking for anything but where can I get some food and how do I find a place to rest. Here was a Jew in need. I sat there with my Mocha Java Grande with extra Mocha and cinnamon a double helping of Nutra-sweet. Mendel had finished the water in his plastic cup. Something would not let me just get up and go. Something inside would not let me abandon a person in trouble when human contact has been made.
"Mendel, you know I have not had any lunch yet and could use a bite. There is a glatt Kosher restaurant a ways from here on 441. It is called Ben's," I suggested.
His face lit up a bit. "Ben's, of New York?" he asked. "Yes, the one and the same, complete with a hechshir from the Vaad d'Rabbanim of Palm Beach County. The Rabbis have certified that it is not just kosher but glatt Kosher. The certificate sits in their front window. You can read it yourself. It has the best corn beef sandwiches on fresh thick rye bread this side of New York" I told him.
Whether it was the best corn beef sandwiches or not was an exaggeration. What was not an exaggeration was that it was the only place for five miles that Mendel would be able to sit like a dignified human being, have a good sandwich and have his religious values respected.
"Would you like to join me? The wife is playing Mah-Jong this afternoon and I have no company for lunch. We can go to Ben's and I will take you to the Days Inn afterwards," I told him.
It was as if the bright sunlight of the Boynton Beach day suddenly basked the table in a warm white glow. It felt very good. What he said next was quite unexpected. "Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others? Thank you for being so sensitive." He reached across the table and touched my hand as he said this.
I never would have expected a Chassid, who looked like he came from an isolated 18th century Polish village, to have even been aware of Dr. King. For me, Mendel changed how I lived in the world. I only knew him for two years and few months. He made me see. He made me laugh at times to the point of tears. He was an extraordinary gift. There are many stories I can share about Mendel. Perhaps I will later. One of the first things he taught me was the value self respect and dignity.
* * * * *
Mendel was squared away in Boynton within a few days. The wife and I helped him find a small rental in Starlight Cove, about a fifteen minute walk to the Chabad Center. It had a postage stamp patio viewing the small lake bordered by the 7th hole of the adjacent Westchester Country Club golf course. Golfers would express themselves in truly creative ways whenever their shot, landed in the water hazard instead. Mendel never seemed to take offense. After one particularly colorful display of temper and bad language that we witnessed together, a frustrated red faced old geezer, wheezing, threw his club into the lake. He missed the dog leg landing area from the tee. I thought Mendel did not hear his outburst but he did. Lifting his face back up to bask in the warmth of the sun, Mendel said quietly, "Better to do something imperfectly than to do nothing flawlessly. Robert Schuller, the great American Evangelist, said that once William. He focused in his teaching on the positive aspects of . Rather than concentrating on condemning people for sin, he encourages Christians (and non-Christians) to achieve great things through God and positive thinking."
I looked up into the warmth of the blue sky and said nothing. I did not know what to say.
Mendel was not a wealthy man. He needed to find a job to help pay his way. Shames jobs, synagogue custodian jobs, in Boynton Beach are hard to come by. The Chabad center had no need for Mendel's skills, even the book straightening up was done by volunteers gaining brownie points with God as they passed time in his waiting room. Almost all of the synagogue communities in Boynton were reform Temples. Almost all of them used Ortega's Building Engineering Services Inc. for shames work. Ortega provided the largely illegal, non-English speaking service crews to clean and do. The Temples had no job for Mendel.
"I don't want charity. I want the opportunity to work, to make my own dignity and not be dependent upon others for it. "The Rambam, Moses Maimonides, wrote about charity and human dignity a thousand years ago," he said. "The lowest form of charity is giving money to the poor to make them go away. The highest form of human charity is to give a person a job so they can take care of themselves. A human with dignity can and will help others. We all can work to make this world a little better than when we first arrived. "
Wal-Mart balked at the Chassidic Jew with the beard, black hat, long coat, and dangling ear-locks asking for a job as a door greeter. We thought of service jobs such as Dunkin Doughnuts, after all they do sell bagels. Mendel applied but we both knew he would be rejected. "Picture this," he said laughing. "I walked in and asked the manager about a job. He's a nice young man. Jason is his name according to the picture on the wall. I think I scared him. His jaw could not move as he handed me an application. You will have to wear a beard net, a hair net, a special cover for those dangly things on the side of your head, the words came out. We don't allow hats, and
and". By this time we were both rolling with laughter griping our sides. Mendel did not get the job.
"Churchill said during the darkest hours of the Battle of Britain, Never, never, never give up." Mendel reminded me. I chimed in, "My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure," Abraham Lincoln.
We continued searching together. For awhile I thought about setting Mendel up in a little business at the biggest flea market in all of south Florida Sample Road. We hopped into my Chrysler convertible Sebring with the top down. Mendel sat with one hand holding his yarmulke down on his head so it would not blow away, his broad brimmed black hat in his lap. With a grin on both of our faces we took off for Sample Road. Mendel had no experience in retail. He did not know a balance sheet from a see-saw. Most people have no idea what a balance sheet is either except at the doctor's when you get on a scale and they balance how overweight you are. It must have been beshert meant to be.
I usually had my Sun Pass on my windshield to breeze me through the electronic toll booth at the entrance to the Florida turnpike to go to Sample Road. My Sun Pass had been stolen, maybe it was borrowed by a poor person on a fixed income who could not afford to pay the tolls on the Turnpike, I tried to reason. But no, it was simply stolen. We stopped at the pay cash and receipts part of the toll booth entrance. As I handed the toll booth operator in the bright yellow, green and brown Hawaiian shirt my dollar I saw the sign. Toll booth operators wanted. "Mendel, what do you think?" I looked over to my friend. His hand had already gone to his yarmulke twisting it three times to be sure it was o.k. "Why not," he responded. Being handed back my change I asked the operator where I can get an application for a job. "Have one right here, "she said. "If you should decide to work for the Turnpike be sure and mention my name on the application. I can get $25.00 if you do. My name is Lucy Centinelli. That is spelled C e n t i n e l l I," she said slowly. There were already six cars backed up behind us. We thanked Ms. Centinelli exiting the turnpike at the next opportunity. We headed back down Atlantic to Jog Rd. to my home. Mendel was excited, so was I.
Sitting at the kitchen table, I filled Mendel's personal glass cup with boiling water. He kept a small set of glass dishes and cups at our home. We kept everything separate from our own as we did not follow the level of observance he did. It wasn't that he was saying he was better than us, we instead were saying to him, we respect your values. A tea bag of Sweet Touchney tea, a lump of sugar and we sat down to peruse the application and the job description.
We had a small bundle of papers on the table, a job application seven pages long and a thirteen page job description certification. Applying for a job as a toll booth operator for the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority was more complicated than we had at first thought.
Being intelligent Yids, we knew there was no point in applying unless we understood if the job was suitable for the applicant and the employer. Attacking the thirteen page job description first we began interjecting our own concerns and questions.
South Florida Regional Transportation Authority
Job Title: Toll Booth Operator
To collect and record tolls in accordance with tariffs based on vehicle type, weight and number of axles.
1 Job knowledge
Know several work tasks and how to do arithmetic to collect and balance tolls and reconcile shift collections.
(We guess that means being able to read the cash register change display and chew gum at the same time.)
2 Mental demands
Judgment to select a known action in completing specific tasks to determine and collect appropriate tolls on the Florida turnpike, calculate exchange, apply to fare and reconcile discrepancies between receipts and deposits.
(We guess that means being able to read the cash register change display and give directions for where the on ramp is in front of drivers.)
3 Interpersonal communication skills
Tact required to exchange information related to toll booth duties and toll station and to answer general inquiries regarding highway conditions with travelling public and emergency services.
(We guess that means being able to read the cash register change display, call the office if there is a problem and let people know if it is raining so far so good.)
4 Physical coordination and dexterity
Some coordination and dexterity required to operate cash register to collect tolls.
(We guess that means being able to reach into the cash register after reading the cash register change display and make the correct change.)
5 Responsibility for work assignments
Guided by set routines, makes minor changes in known job tasks to collect highway tolls, operate cash register, issue change and receipts and reconcile receipts.
(We guess that means being able to reach into the cash register and make change if the power goes out.)
6. Responsibility for financial resources
Some financial responsibility to determine and collect appropriate tolls and balance amount.
(We guess that means being able to read the cash register change display)
7. Responsibility for physical assets/information
Minimal responsibility to operate stable equipment such as credit card machine, telephone, cash register and adding machines.
(We guess that means being able to operate the automatic cash register and change display.)
8. Responsibility for interpersonal time management skills
(We guess that means if you have a weak bladder do not apply for the job)
9. Responsibility for communication, public and emergency service coordination
(We guess that means calling an ambulance when the driver paying the toll has a heart attack, letting the road crews know if the bridge has fallen in because you were told before anyone else, a major crash has occurred and someone wants their toll back because the road is blocked and they can't get through, being responsible to direct traffic at the toll booth if the power goes out and drivers can not figure out if they go forward or backward, being responsible to tell people if there is a hurricane coming, about to come or is actually here and taking responsibility for their being on the turnpike during the hurricane. In the event a tourist is lost, confused or simply nasty telling them which way they can go and passing out job applications for people looking to be toll booth operators.)
The application was not too bad even if it was seven pages long. The usual requirements, name, address, phone number, have you ever been arrested, are you an illegal alien (but whose checking), are you currently employed, have you ever been employed, do you speak any other languages. For Mendel it was simple, he spoke English, Hebrew and Yiddish. Being as that 32.8% of the people going through a toll booth only spoke Spanish and another 2.6% only Haitian French, we had to spin it differently. Mendel was conversant capable with 64.6% of toll plaza customers. We estimated that he was actually conversant with another 1.3% that might speak Hebrew or Yiddish. Those that spoke only Yiddish probably should not be driving because of age but in Florida the American Association of Retired People permit even the nursing home restricted to keep their drivers licenses. Did he ever use drugs, was he a veteran and did he understand he might have to supply a urine sample were stated right at the top but not in those words. ed the application, Mendel and I felt pretty good about the job possibility. "There was only one more hurdle," I said. "Mendel a guarantee would be nice." He smiled back and grinned "if you want a guarantee buy a toaster. Luck is when opportunity knocks, and you answer. God has opened the door it is for us to go through it or not. What is the one more hurdle William, the job interview?" "No', I said,' it would have been nice if they had included the address where to send the application." A postage stamp later the application was in the mail.
We both knew, if he got the job, there would be challenges. What to do with Yom Tov, Shabbes, and women.
A week later the letter with the bright green return address of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority arrived. Mendel brought it over and we opened it together. At the top of the letter, in bold text as it was on the job application, was written
We are an equal opportunity employer and a drug/smoke free workplace. We consider applicants for all positions, without regard to race, color, creed, religion, sex, age, national origin, marital, disability, or any other legally protected status.
Good thing we read it slowly. It reassured us to know that they do not discriminate for any reason; that ruled out anti-Semitism. We thought about Mendel's prospects and our spirits picked up. All we were applying for was a job as a toll booth operator. It is comforting to know that a job applicant can be a blind, female Satanist, with fourteen wives, mentally disabled, illegal, struggling with severe emotional issues and not be required to read, write, or speak English. We were glad for other possible applicants who are covered under" other legally protected statuses" such as being a snail darter, spotted owl, or caribou mating underneath the environmentally dangerous Alaska pipeline because it was warmer there. We knew we had a reasonable chance of employment.
Mendel's letter requested he report to the Turnpike director of personal management, Ms. Chantelle Jackson, at the regional administrative office at the Atlantic Road Toll Plaza, Friday at 11:00am. Normally, Friday's are a bit of a problem. Mendel likes to go to the mikvah at the Chabad center on El Clair to bathe. He says that cleansing the body is an important preparation. It helps him orient his spirit for the holiness of the Sabbath peace and rest. I don't go to the mikvah. Mendel's spirituality is so sincere, so real, so, truthful I, feel guilty. I told Mendel how I felt. I just could not be as good and religious and spiritual as he. Mendel shared a famous Chassidic story with me.
"There once was, maybe there still is, a huge bird that lived on a desert isle and his name is the "Fah". The Fah was afflicted with painful and unseemly sores all over his legs. Sometimes he would look at his legs and sink into utter desperation because of the terrible sores and he would contemplate hurling himself in the sea. Finally he decides, he takes off into flight and prepares himself for his last moments before hurtling into the depths. As his last moment of life approaches, he all of a sudden catches a glimpse of his outstretched wings, skillfully maneuvering the air currents, their multicolored feathers glistening and glimmering in the sunlight. He feels unexpectedly revived, his desire for life surges through him and the Fah changes course, now soaring higher and higher into the skies with renewed enthusiasm and joy."
"So it is with us", R' Chaim of Sanz reflected. "When we look at ourselves and our deeds we can easily come to despair. How small and insignificant we are. How much potential have we wasted, how many precious hours and minutes have we let slip through our fingers with nothing accomplished. But when we tell stories of our tzadikkim and reflect on their lives and deeds, we become refreshed, we are reminded just what a Jew can become. We once again have hope!" 1
"William," he said. "I am no better than you. I know only what can be if you give yourself the freedom to see, to trust, to believe."
"Maybe, someday," I said, "maybe, someday."
Friday, the big day arrived. Mendel's hat and long black coat were cleaned, special. We even asked the seamstress to fix the frayed bottom of his coat so it would not look bad. He had a new white shirt, properly buttoned to the collar and his tallit katon, which he always wore outside his shirt, was freshly washed and ironed. We added black shoe polish to his canvas shoes to make them look darker. He combed out his long salt and pepper beard so it was extra neat. Mendel was very spiffy for his job interview with Ms. Chantelle Jackson. I drove him to his interview and waiting anxiously outside the glass doors.
Mendel was called in and took the chair in front of Ms. Jackson's desk. The glass doors were closed but I could see inside. As she looked up at Mendel her mouth involuntarily twitched without words, her eyes enlarged, extra wide open. She quickly regained her composure and extended her hand. Mendel smiled but declined to shake it. She seemed to be insulted. He could not touch her hand. It was improper for a man, certainly a Chassid, to touch a woman he was not married to. Physical intimacy, or as we might say today invading an individual's personal space, is an intimate private issue between man and wife. He smiled gently instead explaining his position.
I can't say exactly what happened there and Mendel never said very much about Ms. Chantelle Jackson afterwards but she seemed to be a bit upset. Mendel remained calm and smiled at Ms. Jackson throughout the 20 minute interview. What he did tell me afterwards was that she insisted he had to touch women's hands, he would be required to work on Saturdays, his beard was too long and would not convey the proper public image that the Turnpike had in mind for a toll booth operator. Mendel explained that he could use a collection plate, but would compromise by using plastic gloves to collect the tolls from the patrons. As to his beard, it was a religious requirement as was his respect for the Sabbath. Did not the application indicate that the Turnpike did not discriminate because of religious belief? Mendel asked her how many other Jewish toll booth operators worked for the Authority. She said "none". "Well," Mendel asked, "just because you do not have any Jewish toll booth operators, I am sure it does not mean you practice discrimination against Jews."
Perhaps it was Mendel's trilingual abilities in English, Yiddish and Hebrew, maybe it was his winning smile or the way he twisted his yarmulke for Ms. Jackson, Mendel got the job. He had to compromise of course. They required that he wear the uniform of the Florida Turnpike Authority toll booth operators the bright yellow, green and brown Hawaiian short-sleeve polyester shirt. Mendel did.
When working he did not wear his usual white shirt buttoned at the collar but did wear his colorful Turnpike Authority imitation Hawaiian uniform shirt with the tallis katon draped over the front and back so he could always see his tzittzits and be reminded of God. He wanted to be reminded that all of us are God's creations when it came to dealing with the public. He sat in his booth happily listening to Chassidic rap music or drashes from famous Rabbis while passing his pink plastic bowl out the window to women drivers for their change. He never worked on the Sabbath or Jewish holidays and endured the strange work schedule shifts he was given without complaint midnight Saturday night to 8:30 am then doubling back to work early afternoon to midnight. He covered extra time for those that needed to take their children to a doctor or a soccer game. He worked honestly and contentedly with a smile and without a complaint. The Boynton Beach Jewish Times ran a story about the Chassidic toll booth operator one week. Mendel's smiling face was there for all too see. We think that people used to hide their electronic Sun Pass fare counters just so they could pass through his toll booth and hear him say, Baruch Hashem, drive safely and have a wonderful day. For some it became a superstition of sorts that the Holy Rabbi Toll booth operator was blessing them; they needed all the blessings they could get.
Mendel was my friend. He never pushed his faith at me or anyone else. He led by example.
There are many stories about Mendel. I miss him, but those that are other stories.
William Rabinowitz lives in Boynton Beach with his wife and dog Norman He can be commiserated with at email@example.com
Jewish Word Definitions:
Chassid- An orthodox Jew whose approach to God is joyous, mystical and intellectual
Oy Veys Mir Oh my Gosh
Mamzer - bastard
Borchered grumbled, complained
Yeshivah religious school
Shuckle Pray while swaying
Shames synagogue maintenance man
Yiddishkeit Jewish culture
Tallit Katon One of two articles of religious vesture called tallit, the tallit katan ("little tallit") is a white undergarment worn, primarily, by Orthodox and Hasidic Jews as a fulfillment of the commandment in Numbers 15:38-39 to wear the garment as a "remember[ance of] all the commandments of the LORD." On the four corners of the garment are the Tzi-Tzits religious tassels. The tallit katan is worn for the duration of the day, even under the tallit gadol. It is not to be worn directly on the skin, but it is generally worn beneath one's shirt (yet above an undershirt) so as to conform to societal dress codes. However, chasidim tend to wear them on top of their shirts.
Payyot Temple hair sidelocks (ear-locks)
Yom Tov Holidays
Hechsir Kosher certification
Glatt Major Kosher oversight
Vaad d'Rabbanim Board of Rabbi
Mikvah ritual bath
Tzit-Tzits religious tassels - from Numbers 15: 37-41 http://www.hmisrael.net/TizTzitsVarious.html
Drash- Rabbinic lecture
Baruch Hashem Blessed is the Holy Name of God
from the December 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine