A Look Back
Contemporary portraits of two generations ago
By Dr. Gershon Kranzler
Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
He lived right across the street, in a battered old brick house. From our front window I could look into the barren room that was his study. A wooden table served as his desk and at all hours I would see him stooped over a well-worn volume of the Talmud or some other tome. Now dont get the impression that my neighbor, the Rebbe, had a special room set aside for his hundreds of books. No large oak shelves lined his study from the floor to the ceiling, as befitted a man of his scholarship and standing. The books, pamphlets, and brochures of all sizes and descriptions were piled up in every corner of his apartment; on chairs, chests, and chifforobes, or beneath beds.
My neighbor, the Rebbe, would not waste a room on a library or waste money for shelves. Just think how many homeless people could sleep in the space that might have been taken up by a library. Nor were his windows covered with curtains to lock out curious spectators. Nothing ever happened in these rooms that could not bear inspection. Besides, so many more meals for the hungry poor could be purchased for the price of expensive drapes.
He was so humble and simple, my neighbor, the Rebbe. Anyone could see him at any hour of the day or the night. When he took his daily stroll through the busy streets he was not accompanied by an array of arrogant assistants. Nor was he lost to the humming life about him, as he walked slowly past rushing and hurrying people. He greeted nearly everyone, and the smile and kindness written all over his face pierced the drab, hard shell of the busy men in the street. They returned his smile and carried it with them, long after they had passed my neighbor, the Rebbe. The Italian iceman, the shoemakers delivery boy, and the old black woman who dressed chicken in the window of the butcher shop -- they too loved and respected him. His best friends, though, were the children who played their games with little concern for what went on about them. My neighbor, the Rebbe, would stop and talk to them. He always had some extra change, handkerchiefs, and sweets in the wide pockets of his shiny black kaftan. The children loved him almost as much as he loved them, as could be seen from the looks of appreciation in their shining eyes. My neighbor, the Rebbe, did not look for gratitude. Once I saw him carrying a heavy package for an old woman. At her door she turned around to thank the old man with the grayish beard who had helped her with the heavy load, but he had already disappeared around the next corner. For a long time the woman looked after him. The lines and furrows that had tightened her toothless mouth to a narrow slit smoothened and some of the bitterness that had marred her aged face disappeared -- if only for a short while.
My Rebbe seemed to live for these flickering moments of beatitude on the faces of the people about him. I dont know whether he ever ate a full meal, but there was always a cook in his house who provided the guests of my widowed neighbor with food. And they came at all hours of the day and night. They came without being invited, for they knew that they were always welcome in the battered old brick house of the Rebbe, my neighbor.
Once I returned from a banquet late in the night. Another man, too, was still up. He had drunk himself into a stupor and he had lost all control of himself. From the saloon at the corner of our street, he had forayed into the empty street like a bellowing animal. Near the house of the Rebbe he had bumped into a lamppost and fallen, sprawling into the gutter. As I rounded the corner, the Rebbe emerged from his house, bowed down, and wiped the foam of drunkenness from the face of the fallen man. Then he gently eased him up and half-dragged him into his house. Later, when I looked out of my window into the study of my neighbor, I saw the Rebbe sitting at the table with the drunkard whose distorted features were wreathed in a smile.
He was a great musician, my neighbor, the Rebbe. Few people knew it. Measured by professional standards he probably was a mere mediocre amateur. But to me, and to all those who had the privilege of listening to the melodies that poured forth from his fiddle, he was a true master. When he played in the silence of the night, I would wake up with the feeling of awe one experiences when unexpectedly confronted by a scene of breathtaking beauty. His tone was mellow and mature, full of wisdom and compassion. The notes formed into motifs, and the motifs into melodies. They were original, different. To me they seemed holy and full of pious enchantment. They gave me the sensation one experiences only in the star-hours of life.
My neighbor also created niggunim, happy and sad or speculative melodies that charmed the people who frequented his tish.
They sang them Friday evenings, all through Saturday, till late in the evening when the Melaveh Malkah candles held the reflection of the passing holiness. My neighbors Chassidim were not rich and respected leaders of the community. They were a motley collection of poor, shabby, bearded elderly men. Yet as they sat about the table, eyes half-closed, heads cocked to the side, as if listening to loftier music, with the forlorn look that stems from getting lost in the depth of a melody, they were transformed. Their voices were uncouth and hoarse. Yet as they sang, their chorus seemed enchanted, and expressed more than all the coloraturas of an opera star.
Strangers would often stop to stare into the room where the Rebbe held his tishen. They would laugh and turn away, ridicule written all over their faces. They had expected silken chalats, rich fur shtriemels and patriarchal, well-nourished faces. They did not know that my neighbor was not that kind of a Rebbe. He preferred the company of peddlers and paupers. He drank in the joy of their faces, as they became transfigured by his niggunim. Then their rags looked like royal purple, and their wretchedness changed into majestic poise. What more did he ask of life?
The Rebbe died as he had lived. His sick, worn heart gave out as he left his house one day for another mission of mercy. The ceremonies of his burial were as simple and as lacking in pomp as his battered, old brick house and his life in its bare walls. The huge crowd of mourners who followed his bier looked shabby. They did not even simulate the usual gloom of mourners. Then -- and no one knows who and how it started -- suddenly hundreds of voices were humming the favorite niggun of the Rebbe. The melody seemed to fill the air. A thrill ran through the crowd. Backs straightened up and eyes were shining, as they had been at the Rebbes tish. Their steps quickened and it was almost a dancing rhythm that turned his burial into a demonstration of the happiness he had wrought in life.
I miss my neighbor, the Rebbe -- of blessed memory. And so do the plumbers, delivery boys, and children with whom he had exchanged smiles, a hearty handshake, and a kind word as he passed them on the street. I am sure that, could he choose, he would prefer the company of his ragged, pauper Chassidim to the Round Table of the Saints. He would exchange a look of heaven in their eyes, for his own bliss in the better world. I do miss my neighbor, the Rebbe.
Published in Orthodox Jewish Life, February 1947.