Jewish Story

            June 2013    
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The Old Rabbi

By Lewis Brett Smiler

Matthew Ross was only twelve years old, but he could already see himself as a champion. He loved martial arts and had won more sparring matches than he could possibly count. This year Matt was hoping to earn the coveted black belt, an honor given only to top warriors, but he would soon find a serious obstacle standing in his way. It was called a bar mitzvah.

The bar mitzvah was a mandatory event for all Jewish males when they turned thirteen. Every bar mitzvah boy was required to read a portion of the haftorah, the book of prophets, in the ancient Hebrew language. It did not seem to matter that Matt hardly knew Hebrew. He was required to study the haftorah like all the other Jewish boys his age, and there was no way out. Matt would have less time for martial arts and sparring matches, less chance to earn the black belt he badly wanted. He found there was nothing worse for a warrior than being Jewish.

The redhead was sure his Korean sensei would agree with him but, to his surprise, the sensei was very much in favor of the bar mitzvah. He said it was a wonderful ritual for becoming a man andcould not wait to attend. The sensei saw the bar mitzvah as a great chance to explore Matt's Jewish culture. There was just one problem. Matt realized that Jewish culture was not his culture. It was almost as exotic to him as it was to his sensei.

Matt's family had been living an American life, not a Jewish life. Usually, his parents were too busy to even think about being Jewish. Matt's father often complained that seven days in a week was not enough time to get things done. His mother could never remember her obligations from one minute to the next. She used to enjoy baking but was much too busy now. Their lives had become stress, stress, and more stress, and it was getting worse every year. Was this what being an adult was about? It was certainly not the life Matt wanted. But as he continued to struggle with the Hebrew language, he was becoming just as stressed as his parents.

It was a Friday after school, and Matt badly needed a break from his studies. He climbed onto his bicycle and rode to the park, wanting to enjoy the weather while it was still nice. Matt began to practice sparring and imagined that he was now a black belt, fighting in his first international tournament. Nobody would have ever guessed that he was once a bullied little boy, too afraid to go to school. His reflexes had become so fast, even the world champions would have been impressed. It was these champions of martial arts whom he wanted to emulate. He wished they were watching him, but his only spectator was a little old man, looking more than a bit frail. The yarmulke on his head suggested he was Orthodox.

"You're quite the athlete," said the old man. "We didn't have karate when I was your age." Matt just nodded his head. He was not sure what to say.

"Let me introduce myself," the old man continued. "My name is Rabbi Shuster. I'm visiting from New York."

"And I'm Matthew Ross. I live a few blocks from here."

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Ross. I'm glad you're not fighting me. I wouldn't stand a chance." Matt gave a nervous laugh. "Perhaps you can do me a favor. I'm supposed to be at someone's house right now, but I'm not sure where. I'm wondering if you can help me."

"What is the person's name?" asked Matt.

"I can't recall . . . Maybe you can show me to the nearest shul? Somebody there might be able to help."

"I go to a shul about two miles from here . . . Are you sure you don't know the person's name?"

"I just can't remember," said Rabbi Shuster. "Maybe if I saw the house, I would recognize it . . ." Matt was not sure what to do. Should he call the police? He was not going to leave the old rabbi by himself. There must be a place in the neighborhood where Matt could bring him. He wondered what his parents would do. Suddenly, a thought came to mind.

"Are you related to Sam Shuster?" asked Matt.

"Yes. He's my son. Do you know him?"

"Not well, but I think I know where he lives. I'll take you to his house."

"I really appreciate your help," said Rabbi Shuster. "You're giving your time to help a stranger in need. That's important."

"It's not a big deal," answered Matt.

"But it is important . . . Giving your time to help others is the key to a strong community. No community can stay strong unless we all help each other out."

Matt took a look at his bicycle, still chained to the bicycle rack. He would have to leave it there.

"What day is it today?" asked the rabbi.

"It's Friday."

"Friday! It's almost time for Shabbat. I can't believe that I forgot . . . Our minds get so filled with all the pressures of life that we often forget things. But Shabbat is the one day that we can relax and spend time with the Jewish community. Everyone needs a day of peace and quiet. I'm sure your parents must look forward to Shabbat after a long week." Matt felt awkward. The word Shabbat was rarely ever mentioned in his house.

"I remember Shabbat as a child. We would start preparing Thursday. That used to be Market Day . . . I would go with my mother to the town square to buy chickens. We didn't have those big supermarkets back then." Matt nodded his head. "Every Friday night, I used to look forward to my mother's gefilte fish. It was very sweet and juicy, not like the fish everyone buys now. All the mothers used to make gefilte fish, and the aroma would follow us all the way to school. It was such a treat . . . Do you like gefilte fish?"

"It's okay," said Matt. "We have it every year on Passover . . . "

"But you've probably had one of those store brands." Matt nodded his head. The only gefilte fish he ever knew were the store brands. It never occurred to him that people could make gefilte fish at home.

"You're going to have to come to Shabbat at my place sometime," the rabbi continued. "You'll have a very splendid Friday evening . . . Everyone raves about my wife's home cooking, and I know you will, too. We have guests over from the Jewish community almost every week and spend hours chatting on all sorts of exciting topics. You can get a good education on Shabbat. Do your parents have any guests coming over tonight?"

"No, not tonight." Matt took a deep breath. "We don't really observe Shabbat . . . we're not Orthodox."

"You're Jewish," the rabbi said firmly. "I don't believe in Orthodox, Conservative, or any of the other groups. When Hitler brought us to the camps, he didn't know any difference. He killed my family because they were Jewish. It didn't matter what type of Jew they were. We are all part of one Jewish community, and we need to stick together." Matt was feeling overwhelmed. He was familiar with the Holocaust, but he had never talked to an actual survivor.

"I don't think you realize how lucky you are today. You can be Jewish and not worry about anyone going after you. When I was your age, we were running from the Nazis. We paid a family to hide us for a few months, but we were discovered. My parents, three brothers, and two sisters all died in the camp. I was the only one in my family to survive. It's a miracle that I'm here today . . . my parents had six children, and I was the only one to survive Hitler." The redhead remained spellbound as the rabbi spoke in great detail about being a prisoner in Hitler's camps. There was no way Matt could have handled an ordeal like this.

"When you have your challah this Shabbat," said Rabbi Shuster, "just think how fortunate you are. Your mother will have it ready for you right on the table. When I was at the camp, I had to steal bread just to survive. I'm alive today only because I stole food." The rabbi seemed to forget that Matt's family did not observe Shabbat.

"That house over there," asked Matt. "Is that where your son lives?"

"I'm not sure," answered the rabbi. "It might be . . ." The front door opened and a heavyset man wearing a yarmulke stepped out. Matt was sure it was Samuel Shuster.

"Why, Dad, there you are! We were worried sick about you."

"This nice young man found me and walked me here," said the rabbi. "That was a real mitzvah. I'm hoping he can get to New York sometime . . . I invited him for Shabbat at my home . . . He's going to love your mother's cooking . . . "

"You don't live in New York anymore, Dad. This is your home now. You moved here three years ago." The rabbi looked befuddled. "I'll take you up to your room. You gave me quite a scare . . . I told you never to go outside . . ." The rabbi's son escorted him upstairs, leaving Matt by himself in the living room. He was not sure if he should stay or leave.

Matt looked around the Shuster house and saw shelves full of Judaic books. There seemed to be a mezuzah on every door. Apair of silver candlesticks caught his eye. There were two candles there, ready to be lighted when Shabbat came. Matt remembered his great-grandmother. She had a nice set of candlesticks that she brought over from Europe. Now that she was gone, Matt had no idea where her candlesticks went. He never thought about it until now.

Sam Shuster reappeared in the living room.

"I want to thank you for bringing back my father," he said. "He loses his way sometimes."

"No problem," replied Matt. "He is quite a man."

"Yes," said Sam. "Would you like a ride home? It's the least I can do."

"No, that's okay. I can walk." After Sam wished Matt a good Shabbat, he walked back to the park to get his bicycle. There was no way Matt could get Rabbi Shuster out of his mind. The rabbi was clearly a frail old man in great need of care. However, he only reached old age because he fought hard to survive. Matt thought about his sparring victories and all his trophies. The rabbi faced challenges beyond anything that Matt could ever imagine. If he saw Rabbi Shuster again, he would bow to him. It was the way a warrior showed respect.


from the June 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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