Story of a Jewish Boy Growing Up

            January 2014    
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Grown Up At Nine During World War II: A Story

By Norman Chansky

Days after Pearl Harbor I became an orphan. Not from the war. My father, an attorney for HIAS, was too old to be a soldier. After arriving in America, he worked as a day laborer and attended night school until he passed the bar. His was an accidental death. The crowded MATTAPAN Street Car, that's the one with the wimple roof, swerved off icy tracks, hurtling passengers against and through windows. Dad was thrown against broken glass.

When I first got the news about his death I was sure it was a mistake. My mother sobbed, "no mistake," her tense, tortured face clouded over. Then I thought it was a bad dream. It was not that either. It was real. I still remember how it felt when Rabbi Cohen took a knife and made a gash in the only jacket I owned. It was like slashing my heart and making my soul bleed. He mumbled some words of comfort. "Death is inevitable. Get used to it boychik".

As a nine year old, I had to come to terms with loss and how it changed me and my family. I had made fun of my father's Yiddish accent a few times, too many times. His death, I told myself, was my punishment for dishonoring him, for violating the fourth of the ten commandments. 'My fault' for ridiculing my dad. My dreams were a seething overflowing river of rage and guilt. For one month night demons ravaged my sleep, wriggling , snapping, crackling, hissing like a snake, and shouting obscenities. Firecrackers exploded; lightening spikes crackled; automobiles collided; Nazi planes dropped bombs. People screaming for help taunted me and accused me of unimaginable crimes, my heart throbbed and pounded. I'd sweat profusely and grow weak. A river of rage flooded my rattled brain.

My gloomy night companions agitated my sleep and saturated me with a melancholy that I tried to hide from my mother. She had enough grief without adding mine to it. I found solace in reciting the kaddish, much against the advice of my rabbi. I was just praising God not for my father's death but for the greatness of Creation I would daily notice: the sun in the morning and the stars at night as the song went.

I had argued with the rabbi to allow me to recite the mourner's prayer. He just threw up his hands in disgust. "A nine year old is too young to recite kaddish. It does not count because you are too young to be a part of the minyan. You are wiser than me, your rabbi? You are just a small fry," he sneered, red in the face.

How could my mother support us? That question was always on my mind. What she knew was how to cook, clean, and sew. So she hired herself out as a maid to a rich Jewish lady in Brookline. She would take trolleys and busses early in the morning and come home exhausted after eight o'clock. I had to fend for myself. That's when I learned to cook, clean, and sew. That's when I grew up.

Of course, I had my studies, too: Hebrew School and public school. Friends' mothers would take pity on me and would invite me to dinner. I was reprieved from meal preparation every now and then but I could not do it too often as there was much to do at home. Much was expected of me and I fulfilled my obligations.

One day a tall elderly man knocked on my door and asked if he could rent a room. His posture was erect and he spoke English elegantly like a Shakespearean actor. His voice was robust but gentle. His eyebrows were white as snow. His nose was symmetrical. His suit was tailored and well cared for. His shoes reflected a high shine.

I called my mother at work and told her about the visitor. She was wary. "Is he in his forties or fifties? " she asked. I sized him up. "More like his late seventies," I said. "Does he want kitchen privileges?" she asked. I turned to the visitor and asked.

"Yes," he replied.

"He cooks for himself."

"Does he keep kosher?" she asked. I looked at his skullcap. I did not need to ask him. We settled on rent and the next day he arrived with boxes of books in Hebrew, English, French, and Italian. He asked if I would help him carry them in. I did. Otherwise he did not have much to say. We had no extra bookcases at the time so his books remained in cartons with the bindings showing.

That night he helped me prepare supper. He had exquisite recipes for preparing eggs. He prepared what he called 'omelette au fromage plus'. I grated cheddar cheese and cut up peppers and onions. I never knew that omelettes could be so tasty. My mother never fried onions or peppers. The spicy aromas surged through the kitchen. How I savored them. When she came home I introduced her to Mister Gorvich, the new lodger. She eyed him suspiciously but greeted him with the tired smile she now always wore. Mister Gorvich would never be considered a suitor. I knew that. He was not looking for companionship. What he wanted was a room and that's all.

That night my father's ghost loomed in my dream, dressed in the shroud he had been buried in. He spoke to me in fluent English just like Mr. Gorvich. In Heaven he had lost his accent. "Son," he said, "My death was a vehicular accident." He still spoke like a lawyer. "It was fate and not your doing." I felt absolved. There were no more bad dreams.

One Saturday, Mister Gorvich asked me if I would join him at the synagogue. I agreed. We looked like Mutt and Jeff as we walked past the heavy oaken door embossed with a Star of David. He was this tall, grand, imposing man and I, a short pip squeak. Unlike other men at the synagogue he was not one to schmooze. In fact, he had little to say most of the time. I was curious, though, what he was doing in Dorchester, the jewel in the crown of Boston's Jewry, as well as where he got the money to pay for rent, food and the like.

Immediately before the service ended, the men were removing their prayer shawls while singing Adon Olam. Singing? I mean bellowing. Mister Gorvich waited until the hymn ended before removing his prayer shawl. He was invited to have a schnapps and a küchel. He politely declined and we strolled home. As we were leaving the rabbi and his cronies were downing schnapps, sing- shouting Sabbath hymns and rhythmically pounding the table.

My mother had prepared a cholent for lunch. She never worked on the Sabbath. We sat very quietly and ate the potatoes and carrots soaked in meat gravy. She asked him where he came from. His answer was evasive. "Here and there, now from here."

"Do you have plans while you are here," my mother inquired.

"We'll see," he said. After the meal he recited the Grace silently and retired to his room. In time he and I became more comfortable with one another. One Saturday afternoon he invited me to his room. I was stunned. All of the books that had been in cartons were now in a bookcases. He showed me copies of The Bible in different languages. I knew enough Hebrew to recite words but not understand them. In time I looked at the Hebrew and then the English. That's how I learned to translate.

My friends asked me if the tall man I sat with at the synagogue was a relative. I should have said that he was "a lodger" but I was starting to feel an almost familial bond with Mister Gorvich. I said he was my grandfather. "Why don't you call him Zaydeh then?" they asked. I said " because he prefers to speak English to me and his English is more elegant than any of my teachers and the rabbi combined."

One day he told me that he earned his money as a translator. "Were you always a translator?" I asked him when I felt at ease with him. "No, no," he replied. "I've been a chef, a waiter, a shoe salesman, and a lumber jack."

"A lumberjack?" I asked in disbelief. Then I, shamefaced, told him that I lied to my friends that he was my grandfather. He just guffawed. He put his arm around me and said that God will forgive my little transgression. Then chortling he said that since he never married, his being my grandfather would really make me illegitimate. "But," laughing louder he added, "that will be our little secret."

Mister Gorvich was the kindest of men. Soft spoken. He would talk to the flowers, to dogs, and to the animals in the zoo. When he saw a child cry for an ice cream that a mother would say she could not afford, he would buy it and watch the child lick the dripping cone and would smile. And when he parted his lips his gilded tooth glinted in the light.

When I was twelve I was of an age when my friends would start training for a bar mitsvah. I reminded my mother of this one Friday evening. She said that we could not afford the expense of a tutor or a party. Mister Gorvich asked if it would be all right with her if he taught me for free. My mother, always proud, said she would never accept charity. Mister Gorvich said it was not out of charity that he made his offer but because he was fond of me. It would be because of our friendship.

Reluctantly my mother agreed as long as there would be no party afterwards. That was fine with me. I just wanted a bar mitsvah; I just wanted the privilege of reading from the Torah and to be counted in the quorum. More than anything else I wanted to be counted. Mister Gorvich gave me lessons every Saturday afternoon. I found the cantillations he sang were not in the style I heard at my synagogue. I told him that. He said it was a Yemenite vogue."

But I am not Yemenite," I said.

"Neither am I," he smiled. "It is important to know that there are many acceptable Jewish traditions. We must broaden our outlooks."

I never told my mother for fear she would disapprove. I kept that secret, too. So I studied. My bar mitzvah portion was from Isaiah. Although the speech I was to give was in Hebrew I introduced the gist in English:

A tempest rose from Babylon tossing fire balls across the fields, Turning Israel's homes to ashes and melting David's shields. Our stomachs ached with hunger; our dreams and hopes were dashed. Our heroes fought with courage; their efforts, though, were smashed. Hearken to me Zion, sapphire in God's Sacred Crown, God Returns to Comfort you and you will not walk alone.

Triumphantly march to Jerusalem! Triumphantly declare God's Name! Triumphantly light Torah's torch and bless Its eternal flame.

Mister Gorvich never scolded me if I made a mistake in cantillation or in pronunciation. He would just say that was good, voice the correct sounds and say, "look how close you were." That was so different from my friends' teachers who would bang on the desk with a ruler and call them "stupid idiots" or "chamore", jackass.

The evening before my bar mitzvah my mother entered the dining room. She had been to the beauty parlor that morning and her long grey hair was cut and styled in waves. Her face was lightly rouged, her lips painted ruby red. She wore a tartan skirt and a black satin blouse. Around her neck was a strand of pearls, a gift from my late father. Before addressing the candles she recited a prayer.

During our weekly odyssey seeking serenity storms brew; clouds scud; waves crash. As we approached Shabbat The storms abate; the clouds clear; the sun radiates warmth. Behold on the horizon is Shabbat, a sanctuary, resplendent with golden daffodils and releasing the scent of attar of roses. Glorious healing calm infuse sour souls.

Then her wrinkled hands circled the candle sticks she had inherited from her mother. They had been brought to America from a small village outside of Vilna. Her blessing completed, she smiled and kissed my forehead. Next to the candlesticks was a vase of fragrant red roses. She brought to the table a browned capon decorated with small, new potatoes, beets, and florets of broccoli. Parsley sprigs garnished the serving plate. For desert she served a homemade apple pie. We were all stuffed.

Before the Grace we sang Sabbath hymns. I had never before heard her sweet, alto voice. "Thanks to you and to Mr. Gorvich," she whispered, "we are beginning a new time in our lives." There was a broad smile on her face. "Amen," Mr. Gorvich answered. So did I. What contentment reigned that evening. It was genuine Shabbat peace.

The next day, I was called to the Torah. I noticed the sun streaming through the stained-glass window, irradiating the ten commandments. It was a hot August morning and the windows were open, inviting several flies and a wasp that buzzed around a cup of wine placed on the reader's desk.

Mister Gorvich strode to the altar, shooed away the insects and stood by my side. He urged me to chant in slow, deliberate phrases. That would create a dramatic effect. It would make the day ever so meaningful in my memory. I recited the blessings. As I began chanting a tumult erupted. A young man in his late teens ran up to the bimah, took out a gun, and shot the eternal light. The glass shattered. Several congregants hid beneath the benches.

"Hand me the gun," Mister Gorvich demanded. "Don't take one step near me old man," the intruder yelled. "Because of you kikes my brother died on D-Day."

At that moment the women in the Lady's gallery ululated and flung bags of hard candies they had been saving for me. Pelted by bags of candy, the intruder was stunned. Mister Gorvich grabbed the intruder's arm so tightly that the gun dropped. When he scrambled to the floor to retrieve the gun, Mister Gorvich stepped on his hand.

"Let me go you crazy Kike," he screamed, "Yur hurting me."

Mister Gorvich stepped on him all the harder. I recognized the man as the one who beat me up on Good Friday because he claimed that I had killed JC, his god.

Someone had sneaked out of the synagogue and phoned the police. After the police came and took the man away, the rabbi announced "In light of the events that just transpired, we'll skip today's service and go home."

Then in a voice I have never heard Mister Gorvich use before he shouted, "this boy is to become a man today. He will chant his haftorah." The rabbi was petrified. He imagined he heard the Voice of God.

Mr. Gorvich nudged me to begin chanting. Then I began to sing the haftorah the way Mister Gorvich had taught me. Aaron Goldfarb, the undertaker, stood up and shrieked that mine was not a kosher rendition. He added that I was a shaygetz.

Then a small voice rose from the Women's Gallery saying, "the boy's rendering was of the ancient way. There is no one way to be Jewish." It was my mother.

Fuming, Goldfarb stomped out of the synagogue. "Good riddance," a voice of the "angel" called out from the Women's Gallery. At the conclusion of the service the rabbi shook my hand and asked me if I would teach others the Yemenite cantillation.

Mister Gorvich and I walked home together arm in arm. "Where did you get the gumption and strength to stop the intruder," I asked. He reminded me that he had been a lumberjack and was not afraid of anything or anybody.

Then my mother ran over to us and thanked him for all he did for me. Beaming, he just shrugged his shoulders.

The next day I showed him the headlines in the newspaper: "COPS FOIL KILLER IN SYNAGOGUE." Mister Gorvich just smiled and went to his room to study.

Norman Chansky received a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1958 and is Professor Emeritus Temple University. Books Published: Essence of the Psalms (Wipf and Stock) 2008; Shabbat Odes (Poetica Press) 2011; Old Testament Lore (Wipf and Stock).2011


from the January 2014 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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