Please read this story in conjunction with my other story about Reb Isser, Tefilin and Teacher (2nd revision accepted for publication).
Shabbos Mincha with Reb Isser Reb Isser knew intuitively something was wrong.
Truth be told, I didn’t know what to do. My marriage was in jeopardy. My children felt conflicted. I wanted to become more Jewishly observant. My wife and children did not. Our family had suffered a near meltdown on Erev Pesach over kashrus in our home. Whatever shalom bayis there still remained was crumbling fast.
I hurried to shul Shabbos afternoon to greet Reb Isser at the front door. "He'll know what to do," I reassured myself. In the two years since I had first wandered into his minyan, he became my mentor, confidant and proxy zayde.
I began helping Reb Isser prepare shalosh seudos every Shabbos afternoon. We draped the folding tables with white plastic table cloths, set out twenty-five place settings and served as much tuna fish, chopped fish balls, herring, cake and soda pop as we could find left over from the morning Kiddush. The minyan would file down the narrow stairwell after mincha, line up around the kitchen island to wash and make “ha motsi” over the challah buns we had placed in a wicker basket to the left of the sink.
“Nu, Mr. Busch. What’s on your mind?” Reb Isser finally inquired as I had hoped he would. I guess he noticed how preoccupied I must have appeared. “Well … uh, trouble at home, Reb Isser. My wife … you know,” I responded, searching for the right words but hopeful I would not have to explain too much.
“No, I don’t know. You want to tell me?”
“My wife is very unhappy with me.” I hesitated to continue.
“Go on,” Reb Isser encouraged me, as if he had some familiarity with this problem.
“I spend too much time in shul, she thinks. By the time I get home Saturday night, now with spring and summer, it’s too late.” “For what?” he asked.
“She wants to go out in the early evening, you know, a movie, maybe something to eat.”
Reb Isser reflected for several interminable moments. Waiting nervously, I hoped his would be a sympathetic decision.
“Mr. Busch,” Reb Isser spoke softly. He removed a single photograph from his shirt pocket. For someone as forthright as Reb Isser usually was, he now seemed reluctant to speak.
“I’ve shown this picture to no one in fifty years since I came to America,” he confessed, handing it to me.
“Reb Isser, you don’t have …”
“Mr. Busch,” he gently interrupted, “Yes, I do.” I was afraid I knew where he was going with this. I fell silent.
“This was Rivkale, aleah ha shalom,” he said, pointing to a pretty, slight woman with delicate features. Her hair was put up in a bun, her long flowery dress seemed very appropriate attire for what appeared to be a family picnic. “And these,” his forefinger trembling, "are mein kinderlach …” He blinked repeatedly, trying to hold back the tears.
“Reb Isser, please don’t,” I pled. He handed me a tissue.
“Forgive me, Mr. Busch, but you need to hear this. This is Yossele,” he pointed to the older of his two children, a boy who looked to beabout six years old.“I used to curl his peyos around this finger,” he recalled, holding up the same forefinger with which he had pointed to Yossele in the picture.
“And this, this …” he began to sob. “This is … is Chavaleh ...” whose shoulder length red hair her mother specially fashioned into ringlets for this picnic, Reb Isser tearily recalled.
“Do you see this spot?” he asked me, pointing to the hem of Chavaleh’s white dress. I nodded. “It’s a grass stain. She fell running in the park that day.”
I couldn’t look any more. I turned aside and began nervously dividing up the herring among several paper plates.
“Mr. Busch,” he patted my hand. I released the fork. “My wife felt I was working too much. She told me many times that our sholem bayis was much more valuble than the few extra zlotys I was bringing home. I was a druggist, you know. In those days, you had to make up the prescriptions by hand, took a lot of time so I stayed after hours. Did I tell you that story?” I nodded again.
“But did I listen to her? No, I was young, a pisher, like you,” he smiled ever so faintly, handing me another tissue.
“The Germans came to our village. The men they rounded up. The women and children ... they took away, gone. We never saw them again. Mr.Busch, I never saw them again! Understand?” I handed him back the picture which he returned to his pocket.
“Go home to your wife and children.” He could not have said it more plainly. From the stairway, a voice beckoned. “Reb Isser? … Ashrei!” We hurried back upstairs.
I had some hard choices to make. I began thinking about how I could become more observant, even if only incrementally, but without putting my family at risk. Fairly certain I knew what the right path was and where it led, I did as Reb Isser had advised Though I was worried that I might be coming home too late, I realized The One Above sends molochim into our lives when we need guidance to make the right decision. This was one of those instances.Reb Isser taught me there is a makom for every man. For the now, mine would be at home where I needed to repair the foundation of my family’s sholem bayis. By so doing, my children would have the opportunity to learn the invaluable lesson of which the Germans had denied Yossele and Chavaleh.
Alan D. Busch
mincha-the afternoon prayer
reb-yiddish expression of respect shown an older man
erev Pesach-the eve of Passover
Kashrus-kosher dietary laws
kiddush-meal served with grape juice or wine after the morning prayer
shalom bayis-peace at home
shalosh seudos-the third Sabbath meal eaten after the afternoon prayer