Monday, September 17, 2012

The Rabbi and the Tunnel

The year 5773 in the Hebrew calendar starts today for millions of Jews around the world as they celebrate Rosh Hashana, provoking memories in one of a faith never followed as an adult observer but deeply involved in his moral character.

Rabbi Slutsky was a white-haired Jehovah pointing angrily at an ant heap of sinners, a Deity who had turned in his flowing white robes for a baggy serge suit smelling of camphor and herring.

Every weekday afternoon, in an airless basement, he drilled a platoon of soon-to-be Bar Mitzvah boys in ancient Hebrew declarations of submissive belief. Our bodies bursting with pubescent juices, we were learning to ape the dry old men who nodded and chanted their way through every Sabbath’s respite from hard labor.

My mind would wander to the playground down the block, alive with games and girls, but I kept my head down to track endless lines from right to left.

Slutsky held a ruler to mark the text, and every once in a while, eyes blazing, he slammed it down on the arm of an errant reciter. I avoided his blows because my mind was agile enough to declaim aloud what my eyes were barely seeing.

I sat next to the wall and, while my right hand stroked through the Testament, my left hand was on a mission of its own, jabbing a pencil into dried plaster. Day by day, week by week, concealed by the bolted-down desk and seat, the opening I gouged got larger and deeper. I burrowed in secret, even while nodding my head and chanting prayers.

By the time I was ready to take the vows of Jewish manhood, I had left behind not only the fearsome Slutsky but, for his future victims, the beginnings of an escape tunnel to the world outside.

My Bar Mitzvah was a bogus triumph in which language skills were mistaken for a religious calling. I gave speeches in Hebrew and Yiddish, read from the Torah and greedily grabbed envelopes of cash from relatives who attended. But my life as a practicing Jew did not last long. My heart was not in the daily devotions and one morning I put away the yarmulke, talis and phylacteries for good.

What years of Slutsky’s forced march to piety could not accomplish, however, was done later by those who despised Jews enough to inspire special words for their slaughter--pogrom, genocide, Holocaust--and by those with euphemisms for killing the spirit, if not the body: “restricted” and “gentlemen’s agreement,” and those on the streets and in barracks where the expressions were raw but honest--kike, sheenie, Hebe, Christ killer.

They made it clear I belonged to a people fated to be despised and driven, their names their crime, the shape of their noses their destiny. Faced with such hatred of a religion I could not feel in my heart, it would have been unthinkable to stop being a Jew or calling myself one.

One of my grandsons spent this summer at school in Israel, not out of piety but in serious study of his roots. Like me, he will surely be shaped by them even if he is not devout.

To those who are, a heartfelt gut yor.

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