The Tiny Man with the Numbers on His Arm
I rarely use my articles as an excuse to take my readers on a stroll down Memory Lane, but once in a while, I can’t help myself. This year, if you remember, Rosh Hashana began on a Sunday night. So you can imagine what the Machane Yehuda shuk in Jerusalem would have been like the Thursday before – probably like your market, wherever you are. I had done as much of my shopping as I could in advance, but there’s always something you need at the last minute. Right? The main item for me was a few pieces of salmon because there’s no way we’re going to do four ‘meat’ meals over the two-day holiday.
After ‘fueling up’ at Power Coffee Works, which is invariably the first thing I do when I’m going shuk-shopping, I made a few stops here and there, getting a little of this and a little of that. Next, I headed over to my usual fish store, first leaving my bags at Craft Pizza – across the aisle – telling the folks there that I would be back as soon as I could, having no idea how long it would be.
I started going to this one fish vendor because there always seem to be a lot of people – I mean A LOT – buying their fish there. A store having a lot of customers is normally a good thing, but, as we all know, too much of a good thing…….
That day, there were too many people milling about the counter facing the street, given the size of the place and the number of Arab workers filleting fish as fast as their fingers would allow. Unlike a lot of other places, none of the customers were trying to ‘cut’ the imaginary line; people were trying their best to wait their turn. One of the employees, whom I assume is from The States, kept calling out, Who’s next? Except…..that lady all the way on the other end of the counter, was she there ahead of me? I can’t remember. And everyone (except me!) had a big order, a very detailed order.
It must have been at least half an hour for me to get a small package of salmon that was sitting there all the while on a pack of ice and to stagger back to the pizza parlor, get my slice, sit down, and have a few minutes to bring back a memory from bygone Rosh Hashanas.
There was a time, forty years ago or so, when I was working as a Civil Servant in a building on Broadway, a few blocks south of Canal Street (NYC, if you don’t know). Every Thursday, I would slip away and head down Canal St to the real Lower East Side to do some food shopping. There were two stores that were part of my weekly pilgrimage: Leibel Bistritsky’s, a tiny store that, among other things, had every kind of kosher cheese available at the time, and Gertel’s bake shop, where I would pick up my weekly supply of challah.
Gertel’s was opened in 1914 by two Polish immigrants – neither of whom was named Gertel – and went through a number of owners before the original store on Hester St. was closed in 2007. During the ten or so years I was shopping there, the proprietor was a tiny man with some numbers tattooed on his arm; I never knew his name, and I never thought to ask. I just walked in, took my number, waited my turn, and walked out with my challah. No big deal.
Except for the week before Rosh Hashana, when thousands of Jewish men and women who had once lived or worked in the area made their annual pilgrimage back to the old neighborhood. And then there would often be a line around the block to buy holiday challot from Gertel’s.
And this is what our proprietor, whose name I never knew, would do. He would stand at the entrance to his bakery, letting in a small number of people at a time, greeting each customer with the cheeriest Gut Yuntif imaginable. The entire store (the size of a typical New York bakery) was filled floor to ceiling with round challot, some medium sized, some large sized, some with raisins, some without. There may have been some honey cakes and some tagelach for sale, but the main attraction was always the round loaves – hundreds of them – freshly baked, overflowing the shelves. For some people, the sound of the shofar every morning during Elul is the signal that Rosh Hashana was approaching. For me, it was always the sight of the challot and the people lining up around the block, waiting patiently to buy them. And I was one of them on the line. If you were to ask me to draw up a list of things that have happened to me in my life that are most memorable, one of them would be getting to shake the hand of this tiny man with the numbers on his arm, whose name I never knew, having waited patiently on line with everyone else to enter his establishment. May his memory be a blessing.
The Little White Bird
Putting up our sukkah was a lot easier when Natania was still living at home. I would carry all the parts down from where they were stored, and then I would be told to go into my office and play a few rounds of FreeCell, while my wife and my daughter put it together. These days, I have much more to do.
The schach, the bamboo mat that goes on top, is hidden away in our storage room, as are the cloth panels, the lights, and all the decorations. All of these I carry down the stairs. The pieces for the metal frame and the long wooden boards that hold the schach in place spend most of the year on top of the big aron, the free-standing closet in our bedroom. We have an extremely imaginative way of getting them down to the big merpeset, the large balcony off our dining room, where the sukkah is erected. Barbara gets up on a ladder and hands down the pieces, one by one, for me to line them up on the small balcony off our bedroom. Then she goes downstairs, and I lean over as far as is prudent and hand her down the pieces, one by one, from one balcony to the other. She reaches up as far as she can and takes them from me. To date, neither of us has fallen off our respective balconies – which is a good thing.
This year, we had a new wrinkle: a surprise guest. As I was about to go out to the upper balcony, Barbara mentioned that there was a bird sitting on the railing. Sure enough, there was a little white bird on the corner of the railing, right by where I would stand to do my ‘Be careful; here comes another one’ routine. Now you would expect, as I did, that the bird would fly away as I approached it. Certainly, as I started banging and clanging the metal pieces, it would get the hint and move to a quieter spot. But it did not.
There I was, making a G-d-awful racket about eighteen inches from where this little white bird was perched, and it was not moving – at all! Well, it moved its feet a little, but no more.
What’s with this bird? Was it tired? Barbara said it had been circling around our building for quite a while, so it probably wasn’t injured. Was it disoriented? Was it unwilling to fly now that it was dark outside and was waiting for the morning light? It looked to be one of a flock of white birds that perches on buildings across the street. Why didn’t it fly home? Maybe it was someone’s pet that got itself lost, and it was used to being around people – so it wasn’t scared of me? None of the answers seemed right, so I let my mind wander – all the while clanging and banging, handing Barbara the next piece.
What was the craziest idea I could think of? A little white bird: maybe it was the reincarnation of some person – or even some pet – that had been part of my life or Barbara’s life? And that’s why it was sitting on my balcony, as if it belonged there.
At any rate, we would have to keep the door to our bedroom balcony closed overnight. No sense in letting Lucky or Pooms out there; this Gilgul business would in no way impress them. Throughout the night, we kept peeking out to our balcony. The bird was still there, resolutely maintaining its position.
The morning came, and the bird was still there. Maybe it’s hungry or thirsty; not much for a bird to eat or drink on our balcony. Barbara, being the kind soul she is, went out to the porch with a bowl of water and some dry cat food. And then the bird flew away, without as much as a thank you for its overnight lodgings – leaving us to clean up after it. What it was doing there, we’ll never know.
How One Thought Will Inevitably Lead to Another – Whether You Want It To or Not
When my brother and I were lads, my mother – of blessed memory – would go about our apartment, singing a little tune to herself, and then, years later, she stopped singing it. She probably forgot about it; it was so long ago. But for me, the song is ended but the melody lingers on. What she was singing to herself, time and time again, were the opening bars of If You Were the Only Girl in the World, and I Were the Only Boy (note the correct use of the subjunctive; songwriters were literate back then), a number quite popular back in 1916, when my mother, then Lucille Jacobson, was all of thirteen years old. (For anyone curious, this beautiful rendition by Henry Burr is available on YouTube.)
I have the same idiosyncrasy, singing snatches of melodies to myself and anyone within earshot; there are a few favorite ditties that rattle around my brain and from time to time burst forth. One is the refrain from The Sidewalks of New York:
East side, west side, all around the town,
The tots play ring-a-round-Rosie, London Bridge is falling down,
Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O’Rourke,
We’ll trip the lights fantastic on the sidewalks of New York.
Barbara and I were sitting by ourselves the Shabbat before Sukkot, and I was saying to her for no particular reason (my conversation often has nothing to do with what came before) that I very much admired another example of what I call ‘inspired doggerel,’ Frere Jacques.
Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques,
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.
I especially like the pitch-perfect English version:
Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?
Brother John, Brother John,
Morning bells are ringing! Morning bells are ringing!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.
That’s a song you’re not going to hear very often around here, I opined.
Au contraire, mon mari, I hear that all the time. That’s one of the jingles the schools around here use to mark the divisions of the school day. Like Happy Birthday or Row, Row, Row Your Boat.
If they only knew they were using a song about oversleeping in a French monastery, they would be mortified, I supposed. It’s like the Hareidim in Jerusalem and the Christmas lights.
In addition to the mandatory stuff required for the holiday, vendors in the shopping areas in the Hareidi neighborhoods are well-supplied with Sukkah decorations, because most of us don’t like to stare at blank walls – even if it’s only for a week. Among the most popular items are sets of twinkling lights. Anyone who grew up in The States would recognize what these lights are for, smile, and walk away, but the typical Israeli Hareidim would be mortified if they knew that these pretty lights are made in China (or some such place) to be sold in America as Christmas decorations. Oh the horror!
I know what’s doing vis-à-vis Sukkot in the Hareidi parts of Jerusalem because every year I make a photographic pilgrimage to some of these areas where the ‘action’ is.
The morning after Yom Kippur, I head over to the Goodmans to pick up my pre-ordered lulav and etrog. Then I skedaddle back home, put down my species, and stuff my camera into my backpack. I take the bus into Jerusalem and get off near the Bukharin Market and wander around from there.
A few days before, I had been squeezing myself down a narrow street, one of the main thoroughfares in the Market, photographing as I walked. A young fellow – probably a teenager – came over to me all upset, insisting that I took his picture, which, I gather, he hadn’t wanted me to. I had no recollection of doing so, as I was quick to point out. We went back and forth in two languages without any resolution, until I just walked away. The young man approached me again a few minutes later, this time with a full-fledged adult in tow, who approached me quite respectfully. Somewhere, sometime, in his education he had learned the English word DELETE, which he repeated several times. We were getting nowhere, until finally, in exasperation, I yelled out LO ASSITI (I didn’t do it!). That stopped him in his tracks. He mumbled the Hebrew equivalent of ‘Oh,’ and the two of them walked away.
Full disclosure: Later that day, I downloaded my photographic haul from my Nikon to my 27” iMac and started editing what I had accomplished. Sure enough, there he was, our insistent young man – among a dozen or so other people in one not-so-great shot that I had taken, which even without all the hullabaloo, I would have deleted. Zap! Into the virtual trash can all the way on the lower right of the desktop.
There are a few questions I could have asked Mr. Delete and his young client, which I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t. It would have involved taking both of them by the scruff of the neck and walking them over to any one of the displays of rabbi posters, which folks in the Bukharin Market purchase to ‘decorate’ their sukkas. ‘Who’s that,’ I would have asked, pointing to a likeness of the late Chief Sephardic Rabbi, Ovadia Yosef. ‘Who’s that; who’s that?’ I’m sure that the young man could have identified these rabbis as easily as other kids in other places can identify the home-team players or the pop stars du jour.
‘What’s the deal? You’re frummer (more pious) than Rabbi Yosef; you’re more important? He could condescend to have his portrait taken, so some guy could make a poster of him, and some other guy could sell it for a decoration, so his visage could grace the interior of someone else’s sukkah. But if you just happen to be in one of my pictures – even though I didn’t plan for you to be in it – you’re going to get upset?
But, as I said, I didn’t ask. Even discounting the language barrier, I might have gotten as good an answer from our friend, the little white bird.
…and Nevo Is His Name, Sir!
Among the places that Barbara and I have made a point to visit, first with organized groups, and more recently with our friends The Levines, who have a car, are the wonderful wineries that dot The Land. Until recently, Barbara and I had been to about sixteen of them, with lots more to go.
Not so long ago when we were spending several days with our friends, there was a suggestion that we spend Fri. morning at the Jezreel Valley Winery, a little less than an hour drive away in Kibbutz Hannaton. Was I going to say no?
No doubt, if we had wanted a tour of the winery and its production facilities, we would have needed to call them first. Nah, we just wanted to sample some of their wares, and if they wanted to give us some sort of explanation as to what they’re doing, that would be icing on the cake.
Technically speaking, we didn’t get any icing or any cake – just some crackers. But we got to sample some first-rate wine. This winery is one of a growing number that specialize in making wine from grapes that grow and flourish in our region: Grenache, Syrah, Carignan, Argaman, among others. But, as Ms. Tom Ulman, the extremely knowledgeable and personable Visitor’s Center Manager, pointed out, these grapes are especially suited to the Jezreel Valley, where we happened to be.
She kept pouring and explaining what the winery is all about and what their wines are all about, and the four of us kept drinking and listening because there’s always more to learn. And then we bought some bottles, not just to be polite, but because we would have been kicking ourselves the next day if we hadn’t. When you come across a good thing, don’t pass it by. Saves wear and tear on one’s shins. Back to Har Halutz in time for Richard to put in some serious time at the monster grill on their patio. Shabbat was on its way!
Turnabout is fair play! Weeks later the Levines were down our way for part of Sukkot, and I suggested we head over to a tiny winery that I had heard good things about. I called up the winery and spoke to Sharon Zimerman, the Operations Manager. Our original plan was to show up at about 1PM Thursday, stay for a few hours and head back to Jerusalem in time for Carol and Moshe’s annual Sukkah party. However…… there was a Bar Mitzvah party scheduled for about then. Could we be there by 10:30?
One of my several guiding principles is ‘Beggars can’t be choosers.’ If that’s all they had, we’d take it, even though it was a tad on the early side. That’s how we got to the Nevo Winery in Moshav Mata and learned about Nevo Chazan, a self-described ‘man of the land’ – even though the man of the hour wasn’t even there, taking a few days off for a well-earned rest.
Maybe you’ve come across someone like Nevo in your life. Someone who’s totally focused on what s/he’s doing, who accomplishes far more than others who are only good at talking a good game, someone who is OK with the lack of recognition because s/he’s not in it for the glory. Nevo started out as a farmer and a truck driver, and then through a series of events, which you can read about on the winery’s website, got started making wine. Nevo is not the first person who started doing something as a ‘hobby’ (how I hate that word!) and got more and more into it as s/he went along, but few have the single-minded dedication of a Nevo. He had already taken a pre-used structure on the moshav and built a home for his family. Now he was going to learn everything he could about making wine, which meant studying with everyone he could, both in The Land and abroad, until he could make wine to meet his own exacting standards.
He commandeered a miklat (bomb shelter) as a place for the stainless-steel extraction vats that he purchased in Italy, reconfiguring them so he would be able to crawl inside and clean them. He drilled through the floor of the miklat so he could transfer the raw extracted juices into oak barrels in the basement. In 2015, the shmitta year when Nevo did not make wine, he turned his attention to creating a Visitor’s Center. Talk about hands-on! Plus all his effort planting and harvesting the grapes. All this effort to produce about 7,000 bottles of wine a year – a rather small percentage of the forty million bottles produced each year in The Land!
I can’t say enough about Sharon Zimerman. It’s not just that she was able to explain anything and everything you’d ever want to know about the Nevo Winery as she took us around. But she sat with us in the Visitor’s Center and poured us some super-gevaldig wine as if we were the only people in the world – even though all around us a catering crew was setting up for the Bar Mitzvah party and the guests were beginning to arrive. It goes without saying that we left with a few bottles each, even with the hefty price per. For some things, you’ll gladly spend the extra money. We’ll be back, perhaps with The Levines’ friend Leslie. And definitely when Nevo Chazan is around – even though it’s as if we know him already.
Make that eighteen wineries we’ve been to. Still lots more to go, but who’s complaining?