The J Letter
By Martin Lindauer
Morrie crawled on the grass behind his mother, Rochel, while she hung up his newly washed diapers in the backyard. Mrs. Weinberg, next door, mumbled through a mouthful of clothespins, "My Sheldon walked at six months. Did you ever hear of such a thing?" Rochel hauled her chubby baby to his feet. He tottered, fell down, and played with his toes.
When Morrie was a bit older, the neighbors' stories shifted from motoric prowess to mental accomplishments. Toddling behind his mother as she picked her way through a bin of peaches at the grocery store, Mrs. Weinberg stopped squeezing the tomatoes long enough to proclaim, "Such high grades my Sheldon has in kindergarten, you wouldn't believe."
Rochel picked up two small peaches in one hand and asked Morrie, "How many do I have, Bubbala? One or two?"
A few years later, Morrie's father, Shmuel, passed along academic legends from the block. "Walking from the subway tonight," he recounted at the kitchen table where Morrie struggled over his fifth grade homework, "Ziegler told me, 'They're gonna' write up my Herbie's marks in the newspapers. He's smart like a crackerjack.' Then Kooperburg butted in. 'My Al's gonna' win a scholarship for his grades, but I'm not gonna' let him take it, no sirree. I don't need the money. Give it to a poor boy, I say. Just make sure he's Jewish, is all I ask.'"
"That's enough, dad," Morrie mumbled, licking the eraser on the end of his pencil and obliterating the dark and thick doodles on his geography assignment.
"Wait, there's more," his father insisted. "'Ya' wouldn't have to give any money to my boy, either,' Epstein bragged. 'My Melvin's gonna' win not one but two scholarships, one for grades, the other for athaletics.'
Kirsch from next door jumped in with his two cents. 'Yeah, well and good, but you're all talking about the future. My Herschel already won two prizes at school, one for attendance and the other for winning the most gold stars!'"
The yarns became more sophisticated in junior high. "I was talking to Heimie's father, Abe," Schmuel told his family over dessert at dinner,
"That's the Abe in the schmatta business," he clarified, "not Abe the shoe salesman." He turned to Morrie and explained, "Abe's a cutter in the garment district."
Rochel interrupted. "Heimie is Bertha's boy, not Abe's."
Shmuel waved his hand dismissively. "You're all mixed up, Rochel. Who's telling the story? Me or you?" Making sure he had his son's attention, Shmuel filled in the details. "Listen to what Abe told me.
'My Heimie's gonna' be a doctor, but not just a plain doctor. He's gonna' be a specialist for internals.'"
Rochel broke in again. "Heimie's mother told me he was going to be a dentist."
"Nah," his father objected. "You're mixing him up with the Swartz's kid."
"No, Swartz's boy is going to be a lawyer."
The two continued to argue. Morrie pushed his unfinished dessert away. "Gotta' go to my room and do homework," he muttered.
"I hoid from Phil's father," Shmuel shouted at his son's retreating back, "that his boy is going to be a 'soitified accountant.' What's 'soitified?'"
"An expensive bookkeeper, " Morrie barked over his shoulder.
"Ya' didn't eat your any dessert, Moishele," Rochel complained as her son left the kitchen. "Do you want I should get you some cooked prunes, maybe?"
Morrie pretended he hadn't heard and trudged grimly up the stairs. Trailing him was a fragment of another fairy tale about an up and coming star on the block. "This Jackie kid," Shmuel told his wife, "is gonna' be some big shot, mark my woids. His father, Jake, told me he's gonna' take him into the business after he graduates high school."
Rochel was impressed. "You think Jake'll make him a partner?"
Shmuel didn't answer, intent on contributing another fable. "I gotta' betta' story yet. 'Gus got an early admitting to the best Yeshiva in Brooklyn,' his father Bert told me. And listen to what else Bert said: 'He got a recommendation from the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem.'"
Morrie stopped at the top of the stairs, and winced at the latest fantasy floating up from the kitchen. My folks probably believe some kid on the street is the tooth fairy, too. Fed up, he leaped down the stairs, barged into the kitchen, and loomed over the table where his folks sat. "What happened to serving God and humanity?" he blurted out to his startled parents. "Why is it always about winning prizes, being first, getting awards, being a big shot, and making a lot of money? What happened to doing mitzvah's, good deeds?"
Rochel was stunned by Morrie's outburst. Shmuel froze for a second, recovered, and wagged his finger warningly. "Don't turn up your nose up at being a somebody and making something of yourself." He stood up for emphasis. "How else is the Rabbi going to be supported and the schul kept open on Shabbos?" he asked, referring to the small synagogue the family attended.
The fables didn't diminish when Morrie became a senior at Jackson High.
Filling out college applications at the kitchen table, Morrie ignored his parents' chorus of "ooh's" and "aah's" over one of the neighborhood kid's latest achievement.
"Harry and Jean's boy was accepted at Princeton," Rochel proclaimed.
"Do you know Einstein is studying there, too?"
Morrie bent his head and busily studied a college catalog, hiding his incredulity.
Shmuel cleared his throat, alerting Morrie to another cock-and-bull tale. "Louie's boy Milton won a scholarship to law school in Philadelphia. 'It's the best school in the whole country,' Louie told me."
Morrie fixed his eyes on a photograph of the library on the cover of the catalog.
Shmuel's voice lowered. "Louie's boy is going to have a problem, but I didn't have the heart to tell him."
Morrie looked up expectedly. Did Milty do something stupid? he wondered "What Louie doesn't know," Shmuel said," is that none of the shuls in Philadelphia are Orthodox."
Morrie slurped noisily from a glass of tea, drowning out further details, realizing the futility of trying to challenge the fabrications dreamed up by his neighbors and accepted uncritically by his folks. He could not discourage their belief in exaggerated rumors and embellished gossip. But he understood why his parents relished the "bubba meises," which in Yiddish literally meant, "stories from grandmother," and "bullshit" in English.
His father stopped going to school at age 10 in Poland to learn a trade. His mother, living in the Diaspora, too, wasn't permitted to go to either secular or religious schools. Both fled Europe as teenagers.
Shmuel worked Sundays to make up for spending Saturday, the Sabbath, in Shul, here he prayed he would make enough money to give his son the advantages he never had in the old country. His parents never discovered the promised gold in the streets of America, but hoped to find it through their offspring. It's just too bad, Morrie sighed, that their street of dreams has to detour through me.
Morrie kept these thoughts unsaid, not wanting to draw attention to his lack of academic success. The best I can do, he counseled himself, is to listen politely and say nothing. It's just as well I don't have any accomplishments to brag about, he rationalized. My folks would play the same phony-baloney games as the neighbors. Maybe Mrs. Weinberg will take my parents' silence for modesty over their son's hidden talents.
Rochel occasionally probed Morrie for a tidbit to share with Mrs. Weinberg. "How come you never bring home your work like you used to from that nice Miss Bloom," Rochel asked, thumbing through a collection of Morrie's report cards from elementary school. She paused to admire the array of S+'s under the headings of "Comes to school on time,"
"Raises a hand before talking," and "Brings a clean handkerchief to class every day."
Morrie began a complicated explanation of the grading system in high school and the way averages were calculated, but Rochel interrupted. "I'm not expecting such a thing as a newspaper with your picture in it, like Mrs. Weinberg's Sheldon. I told you, didn't I, he was in the Forvert for collecting the most money for the Jewish National Fund."
"That's a Yiddish paper, mom. It's not as if he were written up in The New York Times."
"So," she drawled, "all of a sudden you're too good to be in a Jewish newspaper?"
"Uh, got to get back to homework, mom," Morrie stammered. "I don't have time to talk."
Near the end of Morrie's senior year at Jackson High he came home with his first tangible sign of success. He stood in front of his mother in the kitchen and proudly held up a large felt letter "J" outlined against a lyre. "Ta-da," he announced. "Look at what I won for being a member of the high school orchestra for three years." He pointed to the lyre patch. "King David played on an instrument like this."
Morrie was fortunate that Mr. Rabinowitz, the conductor of the orchestra, believed every student should be allowed to join, no matter how feeble his talent. At his audition, Morrie played "Happy Birthday" in C, a scale unencumbered by tricky sharps or quirky flats. He was placed at the back of the second violins, close to the crashing tympany section, drowning out his squeals and squawks. For extra insurance, he was assigned to the inside chair, the page-turner for the slightly better player on his right. Morrie moved incrementally forward over the years on the basis of seniority, but always as a page-turner sitting on the inside chair. "We never see you when we come to a concert," his parents kvetched, complained.
But Rochel wasn't grumbling now, holding up his varsity letter and beaming with pleasure. "Show it to Mrs. Weinberg," Morrie quipped.
Ya' can tell her, 'There's another Yascha Heifitz in the house.'"
Rochel was too busy appraising the "J" to hear the sarcasm in Morrie's voice. "I'm not sure what sweater it'll look good on."
Morrie shook his head vigorously. "No sweater, mom. You'll make me wear the same one every day, even in summer. And don't ask if I can get a couple more letters 'for the relatives.' Just put it in the drawer, together with the report cards from grade school."
Rochel lay the letter on the kitchen table and ran her fingers over the J, smoothing a wrinkled corner. "I'm gonna' leave it here so your father can see it as soon as he comes in the door from work. It'll remind him I was the one who made you take up the violin instead of the other instrument you wanted to study. I never once saw a saxophone the whole time we went to your concerts."
Morrie laughed, came over to his mother, and gave her a big hug. "Too bad there's no 'J' in the Hebrew alphabet, mom. Otherwise you'd sew it on my Shabbos suit."
from the December 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine