Categories
FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Orthodox in New York: A Journey Through the Year 5738 

During the past year I’ve spent a great deal of time in New York City’s Orthodox Jewish communities — particularly on the Lower East Side of New York. It has been a wondrous voyage through time. Now, whenever I get off the F train and walk down East Broadway, I am sud­denly in the Jewish calendar year of 5738. I am in the pious world of my European ancestors. 

I felt drawn to that world in 1972, when I spent months on the Lower East Side, writing about the poverty of elderly Jews there. I talked about my feelings with some of the younger Orthodox people I met then — men and women — who had managed to integrate their religious traditions into their American lives. But the bearded, black-garbed older sages seemed unapproachable. They reminded me of my assimi­lation — of my ignorance of the basic Hebrew blessings, of most holidays that marked the cycle of my ancestors’ years. I feared they would either treat me as an irretrievable outcast or demand that I embrace their ways. So, for the most part, their world seemed off limits. 

Once, several years ago, though, I did spend an afternoon in the Munckaczer talis (prayer shawl) factory close to the Wil­liamsburg Bridge. David Weider­man, 72, born in Hungary, was weaving the exalted garments on a clattering 50-year-old mechanical loom. His father, who had taught him the trade, had died in a concentration camp. Now Weider­man, isolated from his past in that small, noisy store, tried to uphold the careful tradition of religious crafts­manship he had absorbed when a boy. His prayer shawls were made only of pure Turkish wool. He was scornful of the “cheap, mixed talisim” imported from Israel, made of wool diluted by rayon. “Let the others do what they want,” he said. “It’s not my business. I’ll do it the way it has always been done.” 

How proud he was of that ancient trade. For a moment, I saw him as guardian of an irrecoverable past. 

That night I described David Weiderman to my father. Fascinated, he urged me to continue exploring what I’d glimpsed that afternoon. 

I was surprised by his interest. Until then, I’d always seen my father and mother as committed-but-not-religious­ Jews. Like most of their generation, they had been deeply affected by World War II. They insisted that my brother and sisters and I remember our kinship to the six million dead. In dozens of dinner-table conversations they imbued us with the principle that our history of oppression should make us sensi­tive to injustice; we fought for civil rights in this country and fought to end the war in Vietnam. 

Yet my father had changed his name from Cohen to Cowan because he hated his embittered, unloving Orthodox father. In my parents’ house, we celebrated Christmas, not Chan­nukah. My brother and I attended Choate, an Episcopalian prep school, where I learned stately Christian hymns and lita­nies by heart. I don’t remember knowing anyone who kept kosher or observed the Sabbath when I was growing up. Those acts seemed archaic customs to me. I assumed they did to my father, too. 

In recent years my feelings about Judaism continued to change. By 1976 I was fasting on Yom Kippur. And my wife, Rachel, who is not Jewish, had become even more convinced than I that simple aspects of worship — holding Passover sed­ers in our apartment, fasting, gathering in close as we lit the Sabbath candles — would enrich the fabric of our family’s life. 

I told my father we were fasting. To my astonishment, he said that were he in better health, he’d join us. He had fasted every year until he was 30, he said. He had never told me that. 

We talked of other religious traditions than Yom Kippur. A few weeks earlier, I had learned of a Jewish law that says holy books must be buried, for to throw them out profanes the name and works of the Lord. My father believed that all books were sacred. He said a friend of his had searched the Talmud and found the wording of that injunction. Now, my father wanted to hang a typed copy of it in his study. 

When would I get around to writing my article on religious Jews, he asked. 

On November 18, 1976, my parents died in a fire. This piece began as a form of mourning — and of carrying out a wish of my father’s I didn’t fully understand. It came to be even more. It helped me recover a part of my own lost past. 

=✡︎= 

I was lucky to find a teacher, a guide — Rabbi Joseph Sing­er, 62, born in Poland to a family of rabbis, the 10th-genera­tion descendent of Gershon Kitover, who was the brother-in-­law of Baal Shem Tov, founder of the hasidic movement. 

He is both a rabbi and a social worker. When I first met him in his office at a social-service agency, the United Jewish Council of the Lower East Side, he was in his cubicle, talking on the phone to an elderly woman who refused to have her phlebitis checked at Beth Israel Hospital. His dark gabardine coat hung over his chair. He was pacing back and forth, shouting, joking, cajoling in a rapid mixture of Yiddish and English. His phone had a hold button on it. As soon as he finished with the first call he answered one from a man in Brighton Beach who hadn’t received a Social Security check in six months. How could he deal with city officials, the man asked Rabbi Singer? He always felt afraid in the presence of such powerful people. Rabbi Singer tugged at his beard and toyed with his payes (the sidelocks tucked neatly behind his ear) as he listened to the desperate voice. He arranged to go out to Brooklyn the next day and accompany his frightened client to the Social Security agency. 

From that first encounter Rabbi Singer has never called me by my American name. To him I am Saul (Sha’ul). Once or twice, at first, he railed against the Biblical Paul, an early per­secutor of the Jews. Now he intones my Hebrew name in such a fond, natural voice that I no longer worry that he is judging my identity. Instead, I feel he’s helping me enrich it with a new, special one. 

Every day, at about 6 a.m. and 4 p.m., he goes to his old shul on Stanton Street, across from a rubble-strewn lot, to make sure the men who pray there will be comfortable. He boils a large pot of water for coffee and tea and always has a bagful of cookies in the refrigerator. On a winter day, when the congregants come in early to warm themselves, to savor a cookie or two and a few minutes of fraternity, those things are especially important. 

Some of them love to sit for 15 minutes around a spare wooden table with Rabbi Singer, studying a portion of the Talmud in honor of the dead. Others grow impatient. Soon, someone urges the rabbi to begin the daavening, the praying. He smiles back — they’ve been doing that for years. 

Then Rabbi Singer ties a black prayer belt, a gartel, around his waist. That ornamental garment shows his respect for the Almighty; it ensures that the passionate juices of the lower half of his body won’t interfere with the purity of his prayers. 

Once the gartel is on, he walks up to the ark, where the To­rah is kept, and intones prayers as he rocks back and forth with controlled dignity. Sometimes, during the services, members of the congregation talk with each other — about their health, or the merits of a housing project. The shamesh, the sexton of the shul, wheels toward them and shouts for silence. Rabbi Singer continues praying at his own unhurried pace. 

After the service, he is teasingly gentle with the congre­gants. He feels a deep, unquestioning affection for them. He wants them to see the shul as a home. 

[related_posts post_id_1=”716655″ /]

Soon after we met, during a very cold week, the syna­gogue’s pipes broke. Rabbi Singer asked me to go with him to fix them. We hurried to the shul. He huddled inside his frock coat against the freezing Manhattan winter wind as we walked down Essex Street — where Rabbi Moses Eisenbach, the scribe, was correcting letters on the flowing parchment page of a Torah; past the tiny basement shop where three women bent over their sewing machines, making yarmulkes; past the cavernous old market near Pitt Street, where the sho­chet, the ritual slaughterer, honed his knife to be sure the chickens squawking in their wire cage would be killed quick­ly and mercifully in accordance with Jewish law. Those peo­ple were all his friends just as they would have been in the hein, in Galicia, where he was raised. But he couldn’t stop to talk with them now. He wanted the shul to be clean before anybody arrived for services. 

On the way over, he reminisced about the Europe of his youth — “where the air was, holy” and “a town without a rab­bi was like a wedding without music,” about the Thursday nights he and his schoolmates stayed in heder, in religious school, praying, fasting so they could study harder, reading from the Torah so that the holy word would echo through the night. 

He’d loved the feeling of Friday morning, when everyone went to the market to buy fish or milk for the Sabbath and the town square was filled with Jews from the countryside come to get their chickens killed by the shochet; when the tradesmen stopped their work to go to the mikva, the ritual bath, then to pray; when the entire town was already half-bathed in the lovely amber glow of shabbos

Once we entered the shul we quickly began to mop the floors in the freezing bathroom. Then Rabbi Singer got out a stepladder and held it while I replaced some bulbs in the vestibule.

As we worked I wondered aloud what I was doing there. But I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather have been than in that shul, performing that mitzvah, that good deed. Why did I — why did someone as Americanized as I — feel that way?

Rabbi Singer answered instantly. Sometimes, he said, when you have an ancestor who was a rabbi or a scholar, his piety creates a spark that smolders through the generations until it burns again. 

My parents had never talked much about their European past. My mother’s German-Jewish ancestry was too remote. My father wasn’t sure which Eastern European country his paternal forbears had come from. But one of his cousins had given me the name of a great-uncle in Chicago who knew a little family history. I called him after I talked to Rabbi Sing­er. In the course of our long conversation he told me that Ja­cob Cohen — my great-great grandfather — had been rabbi in the province of Gradno, Lithuania. He’d been a Cohen, a member of the Jewish priestly caste. I realized that wasn’t so miraculous. Every Jew must have a few holy people in the family tree. Still, the news delighted Rabbi Singer And it de­lighted me. 

Several days later, while walking down East Broadway, I heard someone call out the name “Sha’ul.” I looked around. 

Rabbi Singer was hurrying toward me. “Did you really hear the name Sha’ul?” He asked the question several times. As­sured that I had, he beamed at me through his ginger-flecked gray beard. “You see. That name is somewhere in your subconscious.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”725859″ /]

So. I was Saul Cohen with Rabbi Singer and his friends, Paul Cowan in my own world. I began to feel as if I were leading a double life. When I was on the Lower East Side, in the year 5737, I always put on a yarmulke. For a while I told myself I was doing so as a sign of respect, an attempt to conform to long-established traditions. But that didn’t explain the pleasure I took in pinning the skullcap on my head. Wearing it was like fasting on Yom Kippur: not a duty but a way of reclaiming part of my identity. Sometimes, when I got on the subway at Delancey Street, I would pause before I took the yarmulke off. I alway’s removed it, though, always emerged from the subway bareheaded. Uptown, in the year 1977, it felt uncomfortable and a little misleading to wear it. I wasn’t an Orthodox Jew; I was still in flux, still at the begin­ning of a voyage whose destination was not yet clear. Rachel and I were trying to figure out how to observe the Sabbath, but in a way that blended the realities of our highly mobile, multi-cultured life with our desire for peace and ceremony. All I knew was that I wanted to find my place in the tradition that Rabbi Singer and my great-great-grandfather, Jacob Co­hen, represented. 

I began describing those feelings to friends. Many, to my surprise, were involved in similar searches. Others seemed confused by my new interest in religion. Some, I’m sure, thought I was seeking solace. The truth was that my parents’ death only  intensified a feeling I had harbored for years. 

I am one of history’s orphans. I love the variety, the mobil­ity of this country; much of my journalism is an effort to re­discover frontier dreams. But I have never been able to shake a feeling of personal disorientation. Because of the holocaust I can’t go back to the Jewish sectors of those German and Li­thuanian towns my ancestors came from. They don’t exist. There are no long-memoried bards or yellowed documents or even old libraries or cemeteries, to acquaint me with the Eu­ropean ghosts that still inhabit some part of my personality. There is no way I can find out even the barest details of Rabbi Jacob Cohen’s life; no way I can discover why his son Moses came to America or why his grandson Jake, a terrible failure at business, clung to the forms of Orthodoxy with the reflexive ferocity that made my father equate religion with rage, Or what it meant to my family’s psyche that, after all these years, we were Cowans, not Cohens, that we were lawyers, writers, historians, entrepreneurs who had succeeded at worldly activities but were utterly ignorant of the intimate details of our own heritage. 

There were so many relentless, subtle pressures in Ameri­ca that conspired to rob people of their pasts. There were the careless immigration officers who might mangle your name at Ellis island. The landsmen — the countrymen who had been here for a year or two and saw your side-locks, your gabardine coat as a sure sign you were a greenhorn. The friendly ac­quaintances in the shop, or the boss himself, who told you you’d “look like a Yankee”, if you just shaved off that beard. The wealthy German Jews, “Our Crowd,” the uptowners, who were ashamed of the Eastern Europeans, who called them “kike” behind their backs who established settlement houses and sent forth stump speakers to convert them to the view that it was un-American to adhere to Jewish traditions here. The public-school teacher who ridiculed a kid for speaking Yiddish in the classroom. The friend or lover, or the college or business or law firm that might accept a Co­wan, but not a Cohen; a Livingston, but not a Levi. 

Telltale details, perhaps, but add them by the hundreds, spread them among people who are thrilled to be free of the economic and intellectual confines of the shtetl, who are mortified by the suggestion that they are different from main­stream, melting-pot America, and, miraculously, a collective identity seems to vanish in less than a century-a wink of time in the thousands of years of Jewish history. 

[related_posts post_id_1=”720434″ /]

=✡︎= 

Rabbi Singer. There is a legend in the Jewish tradition that the world exists because there are 36 just men in it. No­body knows who they are, or what their faith is. But I have come to believe that Rabbi Singer is the kind of man who could be one of the lamed vovnik — one of the just. 

He is immensely proud of the legacy he has carried from Pilzno, Poland, where he was born, to Stanton Street, New York; of his blood relationship to the early hasidim, whose personal warmth, whose ecstatic religion, kindled a passion­ate piety that swept through the shtetls of Eastern Europe in the 18th century. 

It was a world in which people “felt the way of the Al­mighty in their soul. They felt every little thing was from the Almighty.” And that spirit endured in Pilzno, a town of about 250 Jewish families, about 1000 gentiles, located near the Vistula River. To almost all the Jews who lived in the ramshackle wooden houses that lined the town’s rutted streets Rabbi Singer’s grandfather — Rabbi Gershon Singer­ — was a man who could use his faith to make miracles. Rabbi Singer’s mother used to reminisce about his holy feats in later years — after the family had moved to another part of Galicia during World War I. 

Once, a boy from the city of Lemberg, who had married a girl from Pilzno, disappeared without a trace. According to Jewish law, the girl couldn’t remarry unless she had a get, a writ of divorce. “They looked for him, right and left,” Rabbi Singer says. The girl’s relatives advertised in newspapers in Lemberg and Cracow to see if anyone knew his whereabouts. But he seemed to have vanished. 

Nearly two years went by, and the girl and her parents were desperate. “Her mother bothered my grandmother, and my grandmother bothered my grandfather,” Rabbi Singer says. At first Gershon Singer demurred — he thought a more noted csaddik, holy man, in a nearby town, was better equipped to help. He didn’t like to promise to aid people if he wasn’t certain he could keep his vow. 

Then, one night, he came home from the bet hamedresh, the study house, where he’d been daavening minha and ma’a­riv, afternoon and evening prayers, to find that the girl had fainted in his living room. “She wasn’t making believe. She was heartbroken and she couldn’t take it anymore.” So the rabbi and his wife gave her some smelling salts, and they talked late into the night. At last he told the girl, “Go home, rest, sleep. It’s ot going to be long before your husband re­turns.” She was calm at once, Rabbi Singer says, for every­one in Pilzno believed that if his grandfather made a promise, it would come true. 

[related_posts post_id_1=”719109″ /]

“Two months later a man came to town in a covered black coach — a carriage that was much finer than the horse-and-­carts in which most Pilzno Jews traveled — and he went straight to my grandfather’s house. When he got out, people saw that he was a young man with a high hat, like the fancy people used to wear. They thought he was probably a well-to-do person, maybe a German Jew.” They soon learned that he was the missing husband. 

“He and my grandfather had a long talk. He said that when he’d left his wife he had gone to Paris. He didn’t like living in a small town like ours. He had made up his mind never to come back. 

“He started a business in France and he made out very well. He met a woman, and he fell in love. He was very hap­py. But, then, during the past two months, everything he did was unlucky. His life became lull of tsouris,” a series of relentless problems. “His business went down. One day he was in a forest near Paris. He felt like his head was spinning. He fell and broke his arm. 

“He had bad dreams. He couldn’t sleep nights. He became very sick and had a nervous stomach. 

“He dreamed about Pilzno, and he saw that his wife was crying. When his tsouris began, he started to feel her tsouris. She was alone, she couldn’t get married, she had nobody. 

“He decided to make her feel better, so he came back to Pilzno. And my grandfather didn’t let him off. He called in the sofer, the scribe, and, within two days, the get was arranged.” 

After that, the husband went back to Paris, and he sent back letters and pictures, which showed that he was living a fine, prosperous life. But the wife was still sorrowful. 

“She wondered if she would ever marry again. One day she began to cry, even though she had the get. Then my grandfather called her by name and said, ‘My daughter, you’re going to be very happy. You’re going to meet a good person.’ She met a fine man, a wonderful man. He was a bookkeeper and a scholar. The children and the grandchildren had such a hap­py life. I knew them when I was growing up,” Rabbi Singer said. 

He was reluctant to tell many stories like that. “The Torah likes mitzvahs better than miracles,” he says. One of the mitz­vahs Rabbi Gershon Singer used to perform in Pilzno 100 years ago symbolizes the qualities Rabbi Joseph Singer seeks to embody in New York. 

Every Thursday night, the Rabbi of Pilzno would walk past all the Jewish houses in town accompanied by his sha­mesh. Their mission? To inspect the chimneys of the congre­gants. They looked for houses where there wasn’t any smoke. Those families couldn’t afford enough kindling to heat the Sabbath meal. So Gershon Singer would fetch a chicken for the shabbos

But the mitzvah must never be discovered. The rabbi must remain anonymous. The people who received the food must never be embarrassed by the knowledge that he was aware of. their poverty. 

So, between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., when the Jews of Pilzno were asleep, the rabbi and the shamesh would pile the chick­ens and some kindling into a wheelbarrow and place them in front of the houses. Then they would hurry away, before their goodness could be detected. 

=✡︎=

Rabbi Singer was the youngest son in a family of six boys and two girls. 

His father, David, a rabbi, a rav, a scholar in Jewish law, lived in Pilzno until the middle of World War I. He had a house with two large rooms on one of the town’s main streets. In one of the rooms a large section of the floor was set aside for any traveler who needed sleep. “All my father’s seforim, his books, were in that room, and a table for study, and a To­rah, too, in case there was bad weather on shabbos and wet couldn’t go to shul.” 

During the day the town’s Jews formed a noisy line in the back of the room and waited to consult the rav. He would de­cide whether a tiny blister on a chicken’s gizzard meant the meat was kosher or treyfe; or whether Talmudic law instructs the pious man to respect his elders by keeping a mean-spirit­ed mother-in-law in the house or to preserve his marriage by banishing her. 

Once, when the rav was coming home from shul he saw a child crying. Why was the boy so sad, he asked. Because an older man, a fisherman, had slapped him. The rav decided to see whether a wrong had been committed. When he got back home, he told the shamesh to summon the fisherman. Then he bade the child and the adult tell their versions of the inci­dent. After concluding that the boy was telling the truth the rav fined the man to guilden — the money being very important, as the child came from a poor family. “That story went all around Galicia,” Rabbi Singer says. “Everyone was im­pressed that my father gave so much attention to a little boy.” 

Throughout Eastern Europe, the turn of the century was a difficult time for rabbis, for the laws and customs that had governed the shtetls for centuries were losing their force. Many young people were beginning to lose their faith alto­gether. They embraced new creeds — Communism, or a so­cialist brand of Zionism. They would sneak copies of Marx or Herzl into heder and study the heretical literature behind the cover of holy books while they intoned the familiar Talmudic chants. 

So, when Rabbi Singer was growing up, the shtetl was the scene of a cold war between believers and non-believers. “Our parents” — religious parents — “were afraid the children would mix. Of course, religious people argued among themselves — there were always great disputes about whether this kind of meat was kosher; that kind of meat was treyfe. But those people were against religion basically, against its foun­dation. I cannot say we hated them. But we were afraid of them. And we looked down on them because they were open­ly against the Almighty. There was a hydrogen curtain be­tween us.” 

Besides, technology — in the form of cars and trains and steamships —was transforming the once-isolated shtetl. America beckoned. But it also threatened. Each time a pros­pective immigrant left home his family and friends accompa­nied him to the railroad station, often wailing with grief. They’d never see him again. He’d be robbed of his piety by the lures of the new world: 

“We knew that in the United States people were free — too free. When they came back to Europe they had different opinions, different ideas. They left the religion. They left the life they had always known.” 

[related_posts post_id_1=”728992″ /]

There wasn’t much sages like Rabbi Singer’s father could do about that. Still, to solve problems that arose in the shtetl, they had to span the ancient world and the modern one: to scour Talmudic commentaries, written in medieval Europe, in an effort to understand how to use an invention like elec­tricity. Rabbi Singer’s father wrote a major work on a prob­lem he encountered several times during World War I. Mod­ern governments had sent young men from Pilzno to fight a war few of them understood in places — like Russia and It­aly — that few of them could even imagine. Often, the soldiers never reappeared in town. And an indifferent, inefficient army bureaucracy failed to tell the families whether their sons or husbands were alive or dead. Were the women who were left behind widows, free to remarry? 

It was an extremely difficult problem in Jewish law. Rabbi David Singer, after months of study, decided that every man who was going to war should apply for conditional gets — con­ditional divorces-once they were drafted. If they came home, the gets were canceled. If they didn’t return, the di­vorces took effect. 

The rabbi’s commentaries were read in Yeshivas through­out Europe, according to Rabbi Singer. “But his writings are all lost now. Some were destroyed after World War I, and Hitler took care of the rest.” Recently, Rabbi Singer learned that a student of his father, now a rabbi in Israel, had pre­served one of his pronouncements. It is still circulating among scholars. “That was a miracle.” Someday he hopes to go to the Holy Land and recover that scrap of his precious legacy. 

It is one of the few things that remains of his youth. To­ward the end of World War I his family, like many people, fled from the turbulence that surrounded them in Pilzno; his father resettled in Kashow; an eight-hour train ride away. David Singer’s health deteriorated. “He didn’t eat the right foods. He didn’t get enough sleep,” his son says. In 1925, he died of lung problems. 

In 1934, life in Pilzno seemed normal enough for one of Rabbi Singer’s older brothers to return, to resume his fami­ly’s role as rabbi of the town. At the age of 20, Rabbi Singer accompanied him to serve an apprenticeship — to prepare himself for a life very much like that of his father and grandfather. He had never even contemplated another profession. His entire family consisted of “rabbis, not businessmen,” he says proudly. 

But, “as soon as Hitler took over Austria we were afraid.” One day, he and his brother went to Tarnow, a large city near Pilzno. It was noontime and they were walking down the Main Street, which was filled with Jews. Some gentiles started harassing them — jostling them, taunting them, knocking off their hats. 

“That used to happen on the side streets, or at night. But in broad daylight, in a place that was lull of Jews? That was something new. 

“We knew that a terrible war was coming. The earth was not sure under us. 

“Until then, the great rabbis in Europe didn’t want you to go to the United States. But, at that time, when Hitler came, they said, ‘Go, go.'” 

Soon he and a brother — now a rabbi in Borough Park — left for America. “We were the runners.” But four brothers — all of them rabbis — and two sisters, remained behind. “I don’t know exactly where they were killed. Maybe at Auschwitz.” 

“After the war I dreamed of those times always — about someone I knew, someone who got lost. I saw him and I said, ‘You’re alive? You are not alive. This is a dream. 

“How can I forget what happened? It was my memories, my childhood. I cannot forget.” 

[related_posts post_id_1=”718717″ /]

Before he left Europe, he decided to settle in a small Amer­ican town — the equivalent of a shtetl — and “be an all-around rabbi. I don’t like the rush, and I thought that in a village I could be a Jew in a European way. I’d be a rabbi. I’d be a scribe. If they needed a shochet, I could be a shochet, too.” 

But when he got here in 1939, he realized that was impossi­ble, since most Jews who lived in small towns had assimilated to the point where they didn’t even know what a shochet was. He had to stay in New York and New Jersey, in the few Orthodox communities that existed during those years. 

Earlier, when Americanized Jews had returned to visit Eu­rope, the fact that they were clean-shaven was taken as one inaication they’d strayed from the faith. It wasn’t exactly a religious necessity. “A lot of fine, wonderful people in Eu­rope cut off their beards,” Rabbi Singer says. Nevertheless, “if someone had grown up with a beard and payes and cut them off in America, that could be harmful for him. He cut not only his beard. He cut other things too. He cut his reli­gion.

“I was 24 years old when I came to the United States. I didn’t want to cut off my beard. I didn’t want to change. I had a big beard — much bigger than it is now — and it was fiery red. When I got on the subway the whole train looked at me. And everybody — even religious people — thought I was an old man because of it. 

“Once, right after I came to America, I made a speech in a big synagogue in Paterson, New Jersey. Afterward, one of the gabbaim, the officials, came up to me and said, ‘Rabbi, the people say you are an old man. But I can see in your face that you arc young. These Americans don’t know — your beard makes you look old to them.’ 

“I was so happy that one person knew I wasn’t an old man. So I said, ‘How old do you think I am?’ 

“‘Rabbi,’ he said. ‘Let me say exactly. You are 40 or 42.’ Probably the other people in the synagogue thought I was 60.” 

Young women were perplexed by the beard, too. “In those days the girls were afraid of it. Maybe because it was old­-fashioned; it wasn’t stylish. I wanted to be old-fashioned. I’m still old-fashioned. But the girls took it differently. And the Torah says, ‘Don’t do things that make you look strange in the eyes of other people if they are not against the religion.’ So I took the beard off. As a matter of fact, my cousin, he should rest in peace, an old rabbi, told me I should cut it off, I had no choice. ‘But,’ he said, ‘make a condition, before you take it off, that you’ll grow it back again. After a while my wife said okay, I could grow it back again. And I did, too, a few years after I got married,” he said with a chuckle. 

In 1940, when he became the rabbi of a synagogue on the Lower East Side, he began to hear stories that told him just how difficult it had been for the early immigrants to remain religious. “Jack, the gabbai, had been here 30, 40 years. He was in the garment business. He had Jewish bosses, but he had so much trouble keeping the shabbos, I cannot tell you. He would say to the bosses, ‘Oh, you’re working shabbos.’ And the bosses would say, ‘Get out of here. I’m a good Jew, and I still work shabbos.’

[related_posts post_id_1=”727098″ /]

“Jack was a good cutter. Finally, he got a job where they said he could be religious. But on Friday afternoons they only let him leave at 4 p.m., a few minutes before shabbos. Summer, it was okay. The days were big and he could get home in time for supper. But in the winter he had a terrible tsouris. The day was short. He daavened minha in the shop and walked home. When there was snow on the ground he’d get to his apartment very late. His wife would still be waiting to light the candles.”

Experiences like Jack’s were so different from what Rabbi Singer had left behind, from the Fridays he loved, when the entire shtetl bustled to greet the shabbos. And his own life was so different from anything he, or his forbears, had imagined. “In Europe, a rabbi was a power. Here, your president is a power. A rabbi is on a much lower level. Besides, a lot of them don’t care as much about religion as they did about making money.” 

Those things disappointed him deeply. “In 1943 and 1944 there was a boom in diamonds and a lot of rabbis went to work in the diamond district. I did, too. I didn’t give up my shul, but I made my living in diamonds, as a cutter. 

“Why did rabbis go in there? Because diamonds is a Jewish line. You have no trouble with the shabbos. Most of the work is on contract, so you can come in whenever you want to. It is hard to be religious and punch a clock. If you want to go to the mikva, or if you daaven slow, you don’t always have time for holiness since you have to get to work by eight or nine in the morning. But in diamonds, if I went to the mikva and finished daavening at 10 o’clock, I could come in at 10 o’clock. And when I wanted I could always work late, since there were enough men to form a minyan.” 

After World War II, the boom in diamonds ended. Rabbi Singer abandoned his dream of settling in a small town, an American Pilzno. He decided he could carry on his ancestors’ traditions on the Lower East Side of New York. 

In Pilzno there had always been the noisy group of people waiting for advice in his father’s back room. Now, his cubicle at the United Jewish Council is as crowded and noisy as his father’s house must have been. 

Scores of pink messages, some in Yiddish, some in En­glish, are strewn all over Rabbi Singer’s desk. This man wants a safer apartment. That woman wants a new mattress. The congregation at a nearby shul is involved in a bitter quar­rel over the proper form of daavening. A cardboard box is piled high with similar requests. “You think he’s a holy man,” a co-worker said one day. “He’s really running a bookie joint.” Rabbi Singer heard the joke and laughed. 

But “every little piece of paper is a trouble,” he says. And a mitzvah that echoes back through the generations.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721095″ /]

=✡︎=

Itzhak Hirsch, strong and raging at 75, is a Jew without money. Hirsch has no family or friends — no human contact to connect him with his past. His universe consists of the splintered tables and chairs, the chipped paintings and broken phonograph records, the mounds of tattered old clothes, old newspapers, old magazine and girlie photos that fill his apartment. 

The management of the housing project where he lives has charged that Hirsch’s home is a health hazard and has threatened to dispossess him. Desperate, he called on Rabbi Singer for help. But he is disoriented by the isolation of his life in that fetid room. Wrath has become the sole filament of his human relations. His emotions, his memories, the meager remains of his personal history reside in the litter he must get rid of. Rabbi Singer, his salvation, is also his enemy. 

Although temporarily appeased one day when Rabbi Singer told him his goods would go to charity — that he would res­cue others, not himself — Hirsch nevertheless raged at the rabbi and five young co-workers when he saw them sorting through the possessions in his rooms, placing those things he wanted to keep on one side, stuffing the others in garbage bags. Still, he let the grimy work go on. 

Soon, though, he began shouting Yiddish invectives. He was watching his life vanish. Each bag of trash contained the ruins of some half-forgotten dream. He stood near the dirt-streaked window, in front of an old, scavenged steamer trunk, looking like a sentry. Itzhak Hirsch pointed two fingers at Rabbi Singer, as if to shoot him. 

“All right, Hirsch, we’ll go,” Rabbi Singer said. “And to­night you’ll sleep in all the garbage in the East River. How many times have I come here to help you, Hirsch? Five? Six? You’re tearing my heart out. Listen, my voice is just a whis­per. I don’t even know if they’ll hear me in my shul tonight.” 

With a laugh that was almost a caress, the descendant of the Baal Shem Tov kissed his own fingers and stroked Itzhak Hirsch’s taut, quivering hand. Hirsch’s fingers remained cocked. His invective turned to obscenity. Several days ear­lier, he had cuffed Rabbi Singer on the shoulders. Now he threatened to hit him again. 

Rabbi Singer, in a gesture of intimacy that none of the younger people could ever duplicate, cupped his hands over Hirsch’s ears, then over his own, and glanced at the old man. 

Moments later, still shouting, Hirsch stepped away from the trunk, giving us tacit permission to open it. 

Occasionally during the next hour, he even pointed out some of the garbage bags he wanted us to remove. Hirsch never was dispossessed. 

[related_posts post_id_1=”720871″ /]

=✡︎= 

One morning last spring Rabbi Singer wanted Rabbi Moses Eisenbach, the scribe, to help him perform a mitzvah

A few days earlier, he had found some battered tefillin (the phyllacteries religiously observant Jews place on their arms and head when they say morning prayers) in an abandoned shul on Henry Street. He wanted Rabbi Eisenbach to repair the scrolls inside the tefillin so that he could give them to some immigrants from the Soviet Union — Jews just learning about their faith — in time for Passover. 

When we entered his shop, Rabbi Eisenbach, an old man with a long gray beard, was bent over a Torah, a handwritten flowing scroll made of sheets of parchment sewn together by thread spun from the sinews of a kosher animal. He was repairing damaged letters — with a razor blade, a turkey-feather quill, and a special black ink blended of gall-nuts, copper­-sulphate crystals, gum arabic, and water, whose formula had been in his family for decades. 

He was performing one of the holiest of religious deeds: in­scribing the words of the Almighty for the human race. The Talmud says that sofrim, scribes, must labor for the love of the Lord — not for wealth. Hence, in Europe, they were paid subsistance wages. Their fee was for their presence, not their output. It allowed them to labor patiently, lovingly, over each Torah, mezuzah, pair of tefillin. 

In appearance, Rabbi Eisenbach, a whisper of a man, seems to fulfill the Talmud’s injunction. 

We waited in silence while he worked, for the task involves enormous physical and spiritual concentration. According to Talmudic law, if a sofer makes a mistake in writing the name of the Lord, or has a malicious or carnal thought while work­ing, he must remove the entire parchment sheet, put it aside for burial, insert a fresh sheet, and begin anew. And each morning the sofer cleanses his spirit in the mystically holy, purifying waters of the mikva, and goes to shul to daavan shaharit. When beginning his labor he intones the ancient He­brew blessing that says he is making the scroll in the holiness ol the Lord’s name. Then, once again, he prays until his mind is free of any impure thought. 

At last he finished his work and made his way to his office, a tiny desk in the back of the store. Rabbi Singer squeezed by the Torah scrolls and handed him the slightly charred tefi­llin — leather thongs and small boxes that contain four injunction, to remember the Lord one of which is from Exodus:

And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and a symbol upon your forehead that with a mighty hand the Lord freed us from Egypt. 

The two men completed the transaction in Yiddish and then, because I was there, switched to English. Rabbi Eisen­bach, very reserved, talked a little about himself. He learned his craft in Jerusalem 50 years ago, and his years in the Ye­shiva there still seem like some of the sweetest in his life. He came to the United States in 1946, when tensions between the Arabs and the Jews began to wear on his nerves, when he found “it was hard to run a business with all those troubles.” Now, much of the time, he wishes he had remained in the Holy Land. He feels lonely in America, convinced that the environment here is so contaminated that it is difficult for a sofer to work in the proper way. 

[related_posts post_id_1=”715893″ /]

An entire body of religious law dictates that scribes must shape their letters perfectly, that their letters must not run together, that they must be written in straight lines. In Rabbi Singer’s Europe, Orthodox Jews heeded that law strictly. They would travel for hundreds of miles to trade with a sofer who was also a tsaddik, who would fuse holiness and crafts­manship. 

But it is different here, where many people who consider themselves religious disregard the rules Rabbi Eisenbach learned in his Jerusalem Yeshiva. They don’t know — or care — about the way the letters inside a tefillin or a mezuzah must be formed. 

Long ago, Rabbi Eisenbach decided, quite simply, that he would never risk taking on an apprentice who was born in this country. It is not only a matter of calligraphy but also of faith. You can have a knack for making alephs and bets, and still not love the Lord enough to be sure that all the hours of your day are holy, that all the works of your hands are per­fect. 

And, according to Rabbi Eisenbach’s reading of the Tal­mud, a sofer‘s responsibility is awesome. If he makes a flawed tefillin or mezuzah or Torah, it is likely that no one will know except himself and his Maker. Certainly, the unaware cus­tomer is not to blame. Nonetheless, he may suffer. The mezu­zah, for example, is a small case attached to the upper third of a doorpost in a religious home and contains a small rolled piece of parchment that expresses love of the Lord and love of the Torah as a way of life. Religious Jews believe a mezu­zah affords a family spiritual protection. But if the words on the parchment are lettered imperfectly, the household may not be protected. The family could thus suffer for the scribe’s mistake. So his error could become his curse, his lifelong burden, a sin that will haunt him in the afterlife. 

Rabbi Eisenbach once did decide to train an American. But the younger man was hesitant to make a correction with­out asking the scribe’s approval and, eventually he decided to leave the pressured sofer‘s life and go into the diamond busi­ness. 

I asked Rabbi Eisenbach if he ever worried that something might happen to his own highly trained hands. “What can I do?” he asked ruefully. “Insure them? Put them in a bank?” Then he went back to work. 

Rabbi Singer and I stood in the store, watching him. He took such care over every letter. I could hear the traffic out­side on Essex Street, but in his shop the stillness was broken only by the faint scratching of his turkey quill, the faint chip­ping of his razor. 

There was a red light when we got to Grand Street. Rabbi Singer took my arm to prevent me from lunging ahead. He told me that the traffic light itself was a mirzvah, a reminder that it was a blessing to protect yourself. And, when you paused and said a brachah, a prayer, for such small things, you reminded yourself to be thankful for the enormous, won­drous gift of life. 

=✡︎=

It was nearly Passover, and Rabbi Singer was reminiscing. 

In Pilzno and Kashow, before the holiday, 10 or 15 fami­lies would gather in the rare house that had an oven and, ac­cording to hasidic custom, sing Hallel, the Psalms of David, while the men baked the matzot. As the holiday drew near everyone in the shtetl would search their homes for hametz, leavening — the removal of which serves as a reminder of the Jews’ hurried flight from Egypt. They would remove every trace of it. 

Such traditions had been preserved in Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Borough Park, where thousands of hasidic Jews had settled after World War II. The traditions are observed by religious Jews all over America. They are ob­served on the Lower East Side, too, though many people have forgotten all the details of the faith that pervaded their parents’ lives. 

Rabbi Singer felt a special responsibility to those people —­ especially to “the elderlies,” who would have commanded so much respect in Europe and who were often abandoned here. For the past five years he had used a modern, spacious syna­gogue near East Broadway to hold free Passover seders for about 200 of them. The United Jewish Council has paid for and helped arrange them. 

Still, he trusts no one but himself to supervise the exhaust­ing search for the hametz. During the days before the Passov­er he takes off his black jacket, rolls up the sleeves of his white shirt, and mops the floor, scours every pan, squats in from of the synagogue’s oven with an acetylene torch to be sure that he’s burned away all traces of bread crumbs. 

“I know most of the people who are coming to the seder don’t care about those things. But I do. I care for me and I care for them.” There was more than a hint of loss in that wry remark. 

Shortly before Passover, Rabbi Singer left the hurly-burly of his neighborhood to perform a special, personal mission in the placid, Orthodox milieu of Williamsburg. A hasid he knew, a rebbe from Galicia, had promised to give him two of the especially holy round brownish shemurah matztot. Like the Jews in Pilzno, the rebbe had planted and harvested the wheat that was in them. He had ground it on a stone mill he kept in his basement, secure in the knowledge that no water or heat would cause fermentation, chanting prayers as he la­bored. 

[related_posts post_id_1=”717729″ /]

Children were playing tag outside the rebbe’s house, their sidelocks flying in the breeze. But, inside, the mood was sol­emn. The rebbe’s wife and daughter, whose aprons enveloped their long, chaste dresses, were scrubbing the house as they would have in Europe a century before. They told us the rebbe was upstairs in his study

He must have heard our voices, for he summoned us to the room where the holy book he was reading lay open on a long wooden table. Moving slowly, he greeted Rabbi Singer climbed on a chair, and reached to the top of a cupboard where some white boxes containing the  special matzot were stored.

The two old friends began to talk in Yiddish. Soon the rebbe, looking somewhat puzzled, was staring; at my clean shaven face, my tweed cap, my tan windbreaker.

“He wants to know how you came to me,” Rabbi Singer said. “I told him our grandparents were connected.”

Earlier that day, he had described a place in Williamsburg where hundreds of hasidic Jews would be baking shemurah matztot and chanting psalms. My religious imagination was still half-conditioned by all the services I had attended Choate’s Episcopalian chapel, and, particularly, by the solemn hymns we had sung as Easter approached. So I visualized the hasidim in a staid, solemn frieze — enacting a Good Friday in Yiddish.

Instead, the place was  huge and bustling, alive with throngs of men and women in traditional hasidic garb, kneading dough at separate tables. It was all done very rapidly, since Jewish law insists that the matzot must be baked and all the utensils washed within 18 minutes, before fermentation can begin.

Groups of Yeshiva students kept arriving. There was soon no room for them at the tables. Some stood in corners while others elbowed their way through the crowd to find a where they could begin their baking. Meanwhile, those who had been there a while raced from the oven to the main room carrying boxes full of finished matzot high above their heads

Some people standing near us chanted Hallel as they worked. Rabbi Singer’s ancestors had praised the Almighty by chanting Hallel when they baked matzot in Galicia, More than. 2000 years ago the Kohenim, the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem, had chanted Hallel on the afternoon before Passover, to commemorate the Exodus, the miracle that brought the Jews to that hallowed place:

Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.

“Did  you take it all in, Sha’ul?” Rabbi Singer asked later. “You’ve had, a little taste of Europe now.”

He took my arm. As we walked to the subway, people kept glancing at us. What an odd-looking pair we must have made.

 Once we were on the train he held the white box close him so the shemurah matzot — sacred in themselves, so full of precious memories — wouldn’t crack on the short, jarring ride back to the Lower East Side.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718960″ /]

=✡︎=

Rabbi Singer was heading toward shul when Frieda Provda appeared in the window of the Masaryk Cake Box near Delancey Street and rapped on the place, summoning him gently. A woman who had lived in the nearby Masaryk Towers had died of bone cancer the night before, and her only relative, a brother, lived in Los Angeles. The Masaryk Cake Box had been Anna’s second home during her last year. Most days, at noon, she’d leave her radio — her closest companion — and come down to gossip with friends or take care of the customers children. Now, Frieda Provda and her friend Betty Fried, feeling the responsibility of surrogate kinship, had to arrange the funeral, which, according to Jewish law, must occur as soon as possible. 

Frieda Provda was dressed for the 1970s: She didn’t wear a wig or a long, modest skirt as the women of Williamsburg. She was an Americanized businesswoman — “be kind to the next person, that’s my Judaism.” But she’d chosen to work in a bakery where the shabbos was observed, and she had no doubt about her deepest religious loyalties. “I’m not Conser­vative or Reform,” she told Rabbi Singer proudly. “I think she should be buried as one of us.” 

So she had chosen an Orthodox funeral home and asked the director to comply with age-old traditions: to be sure there were women from a hevrah kadishah, a burial society, to make a taharah— to purify the corpse by cleaning it — and to watch it through the night. He didn’t exactly refuse. But, she said, there was an unsettling hint of reluctance in his voice. 

Passover was a busy season at the bakery. But Frieda Prov­da was worried. What if the funeral director decided to save $100 or $200 by omitting the taharah? What if he were too busy to bother calling a hevrah kadishah? The widow’s broth­er was coming to New York that day. What if the funeral di­rector convinced him to assuage his grief by purchasing an expensive coffin, not the simple pine box in which Jews are supposed to be buried. That would be sacrilege! 

What luck that she had glimpsed Rabbi Singer’s gabardine coat as he rushed by. He would help her ward off the greedy bureaucrats of death. 

This was a mitzvah he was glad to perform. He’d hated the Jewish funeral business ever since he’d come to America­ — hated the morticians who cared more about today’s profits than about the afterlife. For, traditionally, death has been the most egalitarian part of Jewish life. Before a funeral, the dead, both rich and poor, are dressed in simple white shrouds — shrouds without pockets, to show that one’s soul, not one’s possessions, are important to the Almighty. All are buried in a simple pine casing, or on a bed made of natural substances, so that the body and its casing can decompose naturally and return to the earth. 

Rabbi Singer raged while he waited for Frieda Provda to phone the funeral director: 

“Who would have thought that Jews would hold funerals in a chapel — that they’d take a fancy-smancy custom, a non-­kosher custom, that they wouldn’t make a taharah, but put a fancy-smancy suit on the body — just to make money? 

“In Europe, a funeral was a holy thing. It belonged to the community. The community was the boss of what happened. And if somebody passed away, everybody helped out, every­body knocked a nail in the coffin. Everybody pushed to do that. It was an honor and a mitzvah, not a business. Who thought about a business then? 

“Well,” he said, answering his own question, “sometimes a rich man passed away and he’d be very stingy. Then the ke­hilla” — the Jewish community council — “taxed his family. The community used the money to pay the rabbi, the sha­mesh, to fix the shul, to fix the mikva, to help the poor on shabbos. When the community took money from such a per­son it was 100 per cent right to do so. But otherwise? A busi­ness? Bah! Here a chapel is a business. There it was a sign of deep respect, of deep feeling, to go to a funeral, to help a family.” 

[related_posts post_id_1=”594812″ /]

At last, the funeral director was ready to talk. Rabbi Singer edged past the case of almond macaroons, of marble cake mixed with matzoh meal — the sweets the Masaryk Cake Box was displaying for Passover — and transformed himself into a religious diplomat as he began to issue gentle, steely orders over a pay phone. 

Of course, the funeral director would pay the hevrah kadis­hah. Of course, there would be a simple pine box and a shroud. And he’d see that a few flecks of earth — preferably earth from Israel — were placed on the corpse, in conjunction with the biblical phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The funeral was scheduled for nine o’clock the next morning? Fine. Rabbi Singer or his cousin, who had a synagogue in Washington Heights, would be there … just to help out. 

When he hung up, Frieda Provda was smiling with relief. But Rabbi Singer, still angry, reminisced about his past bat­tles. “Once I had a funeral uptown. It was in a fancy place. They wanted to sell the family a casket for $1500 or $1800. I told them, don’t take it, don’t be meshugenna. Buy one for $150. The owners of the chapel were so angry they began to chase me. They wanted to hit me. 

“Do you blame them? Do you know how much I cost them? Most chapels hate me like poison. I spoil their busi­ness.” 

That dusk, we left Rabbi Singer’s shul. As always, a police car was waiting outside, to take the rabbi home. He’s on ex­tremely good terms with the officers. Sometimes they attend services — a policewoman sat in the basement one night when we daavened; an Irish cop joined the congregation as it booed the evil Haman during Purim services. Rabbi Singer invited several policemen to attend his daughter’s wedding. 

That night, though, he felt like walking; three of his con­gregants rode with the cops. As we cut across Pitt Street we passed a bodega where three Hispanic kids were drinking Cokes. They’d seen Rabbi Singer before. In a joking voice, one of them looked at him and hollered out “La barba de Fi­del” — the beard of Fidel. When I translated, Rabbi Singer smiled back. 

Suddenly, a bareheaded middle-aged man emerged from a hardware store and ran toward Rabbi Singer, hollering in agi­tated Yiddish. When he caught up to us he grabbed the rab­bi’s tie and held it tightly. Then he and Rabbi Singer both signed a handwritten piece of paper. 

He was selling his family’s hametz — all the alcohol and medicine and cosmetics that contained leavening — with the understanding that the rabbi, in turn, would sell the hametz to a gentile who wasn’t bound by the laws of the season. The transaction was a legal construct, a link to the Exodus. It in­volved an exchange of paper, not a transfer of property. He would seal the items with hametz in a closet until Passover ended, then buy them back from the rabbi and use them again. When he signed his name to a piece of paper, and touched the rabbi’s garment, he was heeding a Talmudic in­junction, a guarantee that the contract was sealed. 

Afterward, he walked back to the hardware store. Rabbi Singer glanced after him, brushing some dust off his gabar­dine coat. Then he touched the beard that would have been so typical in Pilzno or on the streets of Williamsburg, which had caused him so much trouble when he first came to Amer­ica. His coat and beard seemed to contain almost magical properties for many Jews on the streets of the Lower East Side. 

“When they see me, they remember who they are,” he said. “If they didn’t see me, they might forget.” 

[related_posts post_id_1=”718477″ /]

=✡︎= 

It was a Thursday night between Passover and Shavuous, and Rabbi Singer had invited me to his home for dinner. In a few hours he would show me a modern-day reenactment of the Thursday nights in Poland, when his grandfather deliv­ered chickens to Pilzno’s poor. 

His wife was waiting for him when we got to his apart­ment, with its lovely religious objects, its pictures of the fa­mily’s European ancestors. It’s not always easy to be a tsad­dik‘s wife, to wait for him while he’s out performing mitz­vahs. In their traditional marriage, she concentrates a great deal of energy on home life-talking with and helping her neighbors, making plans with her children, taking care of the grandchildren. Rabbi Singer is loathe to describe to her the problems he sees every day, loathe to inflict his clients’ grief on her. So her conversation is rich with the details of her community, of weddings, births, bar mitzvahs; of her friends’ triumphs and their losses. She’s an engaging woman who loves to discuss the news she’s heard on the radio, the ar­ticles she’s read in the newspapers. And, sometimes, to sup­plement Rabbi Singer’s reminiscences with stories from her own childhood in Hungary. 

She had fixed a delicious meal of chicken liver, matzoh-ball soup, roast veal, kidney beans, and potato pancakes. We washed our hands, according to ritual, and then said the motzi, the traditional blessing over the bread. For a while, Mrs. Singer talked about a relative who was just getting her doc­torate at Yeshiva University. Then Rabbi Singer began to prepare me for our trip by describing Gershon Singer’s atti­tude toward charity. “He didn’t want to be a show-off. Of course, sometimes it’s all right to be a show-off because if you give, others give, too. But the highest point of charity is ano­nymity. The taker shouldn’t know who gave the gift and the giver shouldn’t know who took it.” 

After dinner he took me to a brightly lit garage on a tree­-lined residential street in Brooklyn. Inside, about 50 hasidic men were filling grocery boxes with chicken, fish, wine, bread, and vegetables, and loading them into cars on the street outside. Soon they would distribute the cartons to needy Jews. They would drive away before the recipients could see them. 

In one corner of the garage a stocky young diamond cutter had replaced his black suit with a blood-flecked butcher’s apron and was cutting up a carp. Three more hasidim, still dressed in gabardine, wrapped the fish in plastic bags and placed the bags in boxes. Then a young man whose father had died several weeks earlier came in. They’d been waiting for him to arrive before they daavened ma’ariv: they would provide a minyan for him to recite a mourners’ kaddish. 

All work stopped. Everyone picked up their siddurs — their prayer books — and, lacing the Eastern wall of the garage­ — symbolically, facing Jerusalem — they rocked back and forth, praying. Toward the end of the service they said kaddish. A few minutes later the labor resumed. 

[related_posts post_id_1=”589698″ /]

The organizer, middle-aged European-born, a civil serv­ant, stood by the shelves full of packages. Writing in Yiddish, he inscribed each box with the addresses of the people who would get them. But not with their names. To spare the recipients any embarrassment, even the drivers who deliv­ered the food would remain ignorant of their identities. 

My presence made him uncomfortable. Some younger people argued that I could provide the organization with some publicity, that my article could help with fund-raising. Nevertheless, he made me promise not to mention the organ­ization’s name — or even the area of Brooklyn it worked in. He kept telling his colleagues that the principle of anonymity meant more to him than the prospect of contributions. 

Outside, Jacob, 25, an air-conditioner salesman, almost skeletally thin, with a teen-ager’s wispy beard and sidelocks, sat in his sleek 1977 Mercury. He was testing the CB radio he would use that night when he and his friends drove to Wil­liamsburg, Borough Park, Flatbush, and the Upper West Side, making surreptitious deliveries in time for shabbos. 

With Rabbi Singer and me jammed in the front seat, boxes of food jammed in the back, he tooled his Mercury down Brooklyn’s streets. He would yell out greetings whenever he saw a friend. Once he speeded up, then slowed down, to throw a scare into a man he’d known from Yeshiva. Then he congratulated the pedestrian on the birth of his new niece. He flicked the switch of his CB and began to talk to a friend with his space-age patois. “Breaker, breaker,” he began in faintly accented English. “The handle here is Gumshoe.” Then he switched to Yiddish, but his conversation was punc­tuated with phrases like “10-4, guy” and “negatory.” 

Jacob was on a tight schedule, for the recipients knew just when the packages were due, and what number to call if they were late. While Rabbi Singer and I watched, he hoisted a box out of the back seat, whisked it into the lobby of a build­ing, and rang the apartment number that was written on the package. Then he hurried down the street — a black wispy beard in the murky light-and gunned the car down the block, toward the neighborhood’s main street, where he’d meet some friends outside a kosher pizza parlor. 

Rabbi Singer had to leave. Every Thursday night he and his son David read passages of the Torah and some commen­taries together-just as Rabbi Singer’s father and grandfather had done, over candlelight, in Pilzno. This week, as the holi­day of Shevuous approached, he would sit at a table in Da­vid’s comfortable Borough Park apartment, rocking his two­-week old granddaughter who was strapped in a bassinet be­side the seforim, the holy books. He’d read to his son from a commentary that discussed the mysterious days in the desert when Moses descended from Mt. Sinai and transmitted the Lord’s commandments to the people who were still bewil­dered, still weary, from their flight out of Egypt. 

As we stood near the pizza parlor, waiting for a bus, Rabbi Singer bent forward to show how his grandfather had looked when he pushed the wheelbarrow full of food through Pilz­no’s dark, winding 3 a.m. streets to make his clandestine shabbos-eve deliveries. Then the bus came, and he hurried of! to study Torah into the night. 

=✡︎= 

A few days later I went back to Brooklyn to visit a friend of Rabbi Singer’s, Mrs. Dora Shapiro, the wife of a mohel, a cir­cumciser. She lives on a quiet street in Flatbush, among members of the hasidic sect she grew up with in Poland. Ev­erything else she knew as a child has perished: Dubie, her tiny shtetl, her friends, the rest of her family of nine. 

Like thousands of survivors she is a kind of living yarzheit (memorial) candle. She doesn’t burden you with her grief. At times she was even merry as we sat at her plain dining-room table. I was dressed carelessly in a slightly tattered blue and white yarmulke and my casual American clothes. Mrs. Shapi­ro looks neat and tidy in her long, modest dress and reddish bridal wig. We developed our own special language, a blend of Yiddish and English. Whenever she translated a word, she’d look at me with a smile that spanned the chasm of lan­guage and say, “There, you see how each one helps the oth­er.” 

She lives to protect the memory, and the strict religious culture, of her dead. She was just 16 in 1937, when Hitler’s emissaries came to Dubie and ordered the 35 Jewish families who lived there to destroy the town’s old wooden shul. “Even my father had to do it, and he was the rabbi. We worked from 6 in the morning until 6 at night, when everyone went home. It took many days, but we couldn’t fight back. The Nazis guarded us with guns.” 

When the job was done all the Jews were transported out of town. Mrs. Shapiro escaped to the ghetto in Cracow, where she worked as a nurse. The Nazis arrested her father. Then they promised him his freedom. Then they took him to a cemetery and buried him alive. Mrs. Shapiro didn’t learn of his fate until she met a cousin in Cracow a year later. 

In 1942, the Nazis evacuated the Cracow ghetto. Mrs. Sha­piro was sent to Leipzig, a concentration camp that was ad­ministered out of Buchenwald. There she witnessed a scene that would haunt her and inspire her for all the days of her life. 

Chaim Zelig was one of the few Jews who remained openly religious at Leipzig. He always wore a yarmulke, in defiance of the Nazis. Although there was never a minyan, he would put on tefillin and pray everyday. 

One morning a guard, searching the barracks for the faith­ful, caught him worshiping. The next dawn all the 10,000 Jews at Leipzig were told to gather in a large plaza to watch as Chaim Zelig was punished. Nazi guards stood behind them, bayonets ready. A firing squad waited for Chaim Zelig on the hillock above the hushed crowd. 

Despite the Nazis precautions he hid his yarmulke under his shirt. He put it on his head as soon as he began to walk. 

Mrs. Shapiro, who was one of the 10,000 below, remem­bers the thrill she felt when she saw that skullcap, that sign of bravery. She could just make out Chaim Zelig’s lips moving in quiet prayer. As he climbed the gentle slope the Nazi guards jostled him so relentlessly that the yarmulke fell off his head. When he stooped over to get it, they pushed him on the ground and lashed him with their rifles. 

[related_posts post_id_1=”721901″ /]

His two sons were in the crowd, watching. 

Before Chaim Zelig reached the top of the hill he managed to put the yarmulke back on his head. He resumed bis prayer. 

Then someone from the firing squad handed him a shovel and ordered him to dig his own grave. 

Then he was killed. 

It was 8 o’clock in the morning. 

The Jews had to go to work directly after that. Mrs. Shapi­ro’s job was sewing uniforms for Nazi soldiers. 

In 1945, Leipzig was liberated by the Russians. Very little news had filtered into the camp. She had no knowledge of the full extent of the holocaust. So, like thousands of Jews, her first instinct was to return to the shtetl. That, after all, was the traditional pattern. You, were chased out of town during a pogrom, you were allowed to return in calmer times. But, as she crossed the Polish. border and began her voyage to Cracow, she began to learn what the Nazis had done.

Then when she got to Lodz, “Other Jews began to tell me that the Poles still hated us. They made a pogrom in Chelm after the war. There was still a Nazi underground. A friend of mine was in Cracow, in shul, daavening on shabbos, when the Poles attacked. They yelled things like, ‘Hitler shoul have killed you all’ and “We don’t want you back here.’ They threw rocks at the Jews. It was even worse in the shtetl. There they killed the Jews at night.”

In Lodz, she realized that her father’s fate was a typical one. “I went back to Poland to find my family, but I had no family left,” she recalled, coughing. “There was practically no one from my part of Poland left.”

Mrs. Shapiro had to leave the room to compose herself. When she came back, moments later, she brought some seltzer for us both. I said the blessing Rabbi Singer had taught me to utter before beginning to drink. She was still coughing, still upset, but she smiled approvingly. They she continued to reminisce.

In Lodz, she said, she and her friends decided, as a matter of principle as well as faith, “that all of us should get married and have as many children as possible. We should try to bring back the six million, to be sure the Jewish nation wasn’t reduced.” Like many survivors, they decided to use the Jewish tradition of naming children after those who had died as a way of commemorating the victims of the holocaust.

Mrs. Shapiro has seven children and 20 grandchildren. One of her sons, a Yeshiva student, bears Chaim Zelig’s name. He and his brothers and sisters know that one of Chaim Zelig’s sons — who’d stood in the Leipzig courtyard that long-ago morning — nearly went mad with tormented grief after his father was killed; that finally, after 20 years, he settled in Jerusalem, married an Orthodox woman, and began to live a productive life. They know the entire tale by heart.

Mrs. Shapiro met her husband in Germany, in one of the camps established by the American government for wandering, disoriented survivors. He’d been a mohel before the war, a revered figure in his shtetl. He had a wife and two children when the Nazis came to town. On the day the Jews were to be shipped away, he carried one child toward the transport truck, his wife carried the other. A German soldier asked if he were the father. His wife answered before he could talk. “No,” she said, “he’s just a man I met.” Then she snatched the youngster from his arms. A family woman, she was sent to Auschwitz. An able bodied bachelor, as far as the Germans knew, he was sent to a labor camp and survived.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724316″ /]

In the postwar years, the Americans gave him a chauffeur and a car so that he could travel from one D.P. camp to the next, circumcising the survivors’ babies.

He was older than Mrs. Shapiro. When their marriage was arranged she was in awe of him. It was only after they’d had three children and moved to America that she could bring herself to drop the respectful third- person singular that her mother had used with her father in Dubie (“would the mister like”) and address him with the simple, intimate “you.” 

To many hasidim, in those years, Israel , with its brash, So­cialist pioneers, seemed like a nightmare of secularism, a hor­rible perversion of the Messianic dream. So the Shapiros de­cided to come to America, despite the warnings against this country that had resounded through shtetl shuls and study houses ever since the Eastern European immigration began. 

Hasidic survivors like the Shapiros decided to make assets out of the very details of dress, language, and custom that earlier generations of immigrant Jews had found so onerous. There were tens of thousands of hasidim and they constituted the first wave of militantly Orthodox Jews ever to come to this land. They owed a debt of blood and spirit to martyrs like Chaim Zelig. They decided to build themselves a wall of spiritual segregation and, by doing so, preserve a pure Torah life for themselves and their young. 

The size of their communities guaranteed that the huge Yeshivas they erected in Williamsburg, Borough Park, and Crown Heights would flourish and seal their children off from the assimilationist dangers of public school. In some neighborhoods, they went even further than that and estab­lished an informal ban on television sets, movies, secular literature — anything that would bring the allurements of Amer­ica into their homes. Sometimes, they bought entire apartment buildings and reserved them for Orthodox Jews. 

There were so many of them that they could create a self-sufficient urban economy; in the diamond trades and huge electronics and camera stores that are run by hasidim; in the glatt kosher restaurants and butcher shops that you now find in every Jewish neighborhood in New York. 

Mrs. Shapiro is proud of that strategy of isolation. When I told her that the drab clothes hasidim wear still look strange and uncomfortable to me, she laughed with unexpected satis­faction and said, “That’s the way we want it to be. Our garb is like a mask over us. It doesn’t let us go many places. If peo­ple see that you’re Orthodox, they don’t come up to you with dirty intentions. Our clothes help prevent us from feeling temptation.”

Once, a decade after the Shapiros had settled in New York, Mrs. Shapiro bought her oldest son a bicycle. A few weeks later she wandered past a sale of used clothes and picked up a striped short-sleeved polo shirt for the boy. That Sunday her husband saw his son peddling down Eastern Parkway, his polo shirt furnishing a striking contrast to his black pants and sidelocks. 

Mr. Shapiro was angry enough at the bicycle, for it would allow the boy to leave the block, leave the neighborhood, and roam uncontrollably through sections of New York the Sha­piros could barely imagine. But the polo shirt seemed even more dangerous. If the boy acquired a wardrobe of similar clothes he might be exposed to the worldly contacts his parents found so perilous. Shortly afterward they sent him to Yeshiva in Israel. Two years later he rerurned to America. Now, still a hasid, he has a job in the diamond district. 

Mrs. Shapiro says she’s constantly thankful that her lapses of judgment were countered by the unflagging piety of the man she married, whom she still reveres. 

That attitude, with its roots in the safe, orderly world of Dubie, fills her with a kind of pity for the assimilated, Ameri­canized women who, for their part, define her role at home and in synagogue as unbearably slavish. 

[related_posts post_id_1=”721942″ /]

She feels freed, for example, not constrained, by the segre­gated seating pattern in synagogue. In fact when she sits in the balcony of her shul “I always push myself as far back as I can so that my husband, on the ground floor, can’t see me. I couldn’t cry if I thought he was looking at me. I’d be ashamed. And when you daaven you want to open up your heart to the Almighty, you have so much to say. But if I sit with men, or even see them, I worry that I’ll look like a fool. I cover myself and act like I’m in a shell. If I’m alone with other women I feel very free, very open to cry.” 

Doesn’t it bother her, though, that the piety she respects so much in her husband makes him begin each day by utter­ing a prayer in which he thanks the Almighty he’s not a wom­an? 

She says she’s “not resentful”; she, in turn, thanks the Almighty that she is a woman. She accepts the premise that, in his universe, her role is to stay at home while her husband’s is to function in the world. “But he has all 613 mitzvahs to do, and a woman has only three main mitzvahs. There ‘s the cook­ing and the preparation for shabbos. But the main mitzvah is that she should bring up the children in the Yiddishe way.” That she should transmit the religion and traditions to them. “What else, in life, is more imponant than that?” 

The children: a tribute to the dead. Nothing fills her with more anger — and more sorrow — than the idea of birth con­trol. “These modern Jewish families! They don’t want to be bothered with babies. They don’t want to worry about diaper rashes and earaches, like my daughter did last week. Her child had a very high fever. She’s all right now, thank the Lord, but think of the sleepless nights. 

“These American men and women want all the good things in in life instead of the problems. But l feel sorry for them. They’re shortsighted and stupid. When they’re old they’ll feel useless, as if their lives bad no meaning. They don’t know how lonely they’ll feel.” 

It wasn’t a sermon. It was a warning — and a description of the sense of loss that never leaves her. 

As we talked she fingered a ripped, faded photograph of her father, the only one that had ever been taken. The photo­graph stirred her memories of the shabbos afternoons in Du­bie, where her zeydt, her grandfather, would gather all the children around him and give them candies and cookies and tell tales of his boyhood, and of the hasidic tsaddikim, the holy men and wise men, who kept his own faith so strong. Those rich, indestructible memories have more to do with her Jewishness than anything he had ever read in a book. 

It was the week before Shavuous when we talked and she reminisced, lovingly, about the beautiful spring afternoons in Dubie when she and her brothers would gather weeping wil­lows and flowers and fill their synagogue and their home with those simple treasures. The men would stay up all night, studying the Bible, in commemoration of Moses’s ascent up Mt. Sinai, the act that marked “the marriage between the Torah and the Jews.” In the morning, she remembers, “we’d give them plates full of cheesecake and kreplach andjish. My husband and I try to do that here, but we worry about Weight-Watchers. Anyway, Dubie was a little town where everyone was alike. It can’t be like that here.” 

Then, sadly, she adds that “when you meet someone from the hein, from home, that is all you talk about. You talk about what it was like. 

“But as much as I try to tell my children, it is difficult. They don’t have much in common with us. The main thing is that the children should know what they bad and what they lost. In Dubie, we could turn to my grandfather for that. But here the children have no zeyde. I miss that more than anything. When the Nazis killed my father they killed my fami­ly’s past.” 

[related_posts post_id_1=”567425″ /]

=✡︎=

Once a hasid, a tsaddik, was asked why Jews don’t prosely­tize. He answered, simply, that a candle glows without mak­ing an effon to give light. Religion should do that too, he said. 

Rabbi Singer doesn’t proselytize. Still, by his example, he helps to close the gulf that Mrs. Shapiro, in her ceaseless grief, thinks is unbridgeable. It will be years before I under­stand the religious lessons — or the degree of religiousness­ I’ve absorbed from my travels through 5737 and 5738, or how to incorporate them into my life: how to integrate Paul Cowan and Saul Cohen. But I know now that Rabbi Singer has helped me recover some of what I lost. He has brought me closer to my past — and, in doing that, helped me glimpse a kinder, more peaceful future. ❖

Categories
FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Holy War in West Virginia: A Fight Over America’s Future

Charleston, W. Va. — The turbulent textbook controversy that has crippled schools here is more than a simple fight over the adoption of 325 first through 12th grade supplementary English textbooks. For the 229,000 people who live in the coal and petrochemical-rich Kanawha Valley it is not an isolated battle, not some rustic re-run of the Scopes trial, but a microcosm of a basic conflict in our culture. It is nothing less than a fight over America’s future. 

This fight has taken place in many different localities, over many different issues. Its themes are the same as those that were echoed in New York City’s fight over community-controlled schools, in Boston’s battle over busing, in the black militant attempt to establish a New Africa in Mississippi, and in the Chicanos’ attempt to drive most Anglos from administrative jobs in Crystal City, Texas. Can America’s mainstream culture, made pervasive by the electronic media, absorb all the diverse groups that live here, that are passionate about maintaining their identity? 

To me, the protests here are a fresh sign that the melting pot — with its dream of a single, unified American culture — is largely a myth. I don’t believe we have ever been united except during times of national crisis like wars and assassinations — and as consumers. I think that, to an unrecognized extent, we are a collection of religious, ethnic, and generational tribes who maintain an uneasy truce. We had to conquer this continent in order to exploit its vast resources. But we were never able to conquer our own atavistic hatreds and loyalties, to live comfortably as a single people. 

[related_posts post_id_1=”728992″ /]

The battle in Kanawha is a cultural revolution, in the strictest sense of the term: an effort by the rural working class to wrest schools — the means of production of their children — away from the permissive technocrats who now control them. 

It is a holy war between people who depend on books and people who depend on the Book. 

And it may be a harbinger of fights that will flare up during the next few years as the Depression, the Mideast war, and the rise of conservative Christianity cause people to lash back at the cosmopolitan elite (the “educated fools” or “upper-class Communists,” as they’re called down here) they blame for their problems. If the textbook controversy is a harbinger, then education is likely to be a more important battleground than the media or pornography, though those issues kindle the same profound wrath. You can turn off your TV set, avoid movies or massage parlors, but you must send your kids to school. 

Most of the people who Live in Kanawha County’s hollers see the textbooks as a collection of skeptical comments about God, of four­-letter words and salacious stories, of subversive essays by black revolutionaries like Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X. The books symbolize the horrifying 1960’s culture which the schools are inflicting on their young; the infection that began on liberal campuses has spread to Kanawha County and now threatens to turn their kids into sex maniacs, drug addicts, and Manson-like killers. So they want to cleanse America of its filth if they’re strong enough; seal themselves off from the plague if that’s their only alternative. For the moment, that means they’ve turned their backs on upward mobility. They feel that if their children establish any friendly contact with the corrupt forces that run the nation’s institutions, their characters are certain to be corrupted. 

Here the fight is between the “hillers” and the “creekers.” The “hillers” tend to support the textbooks: They are the doctors, lawyers, mine managers, and petrochemical engineers who live on Charleston’s luxurious South Hills. They read the Times and The Wall Street Journal just as avidly as the Charleston Daily Mail or Gazette. Many take the United Airlines flight to New York City so often that it’s almost like a commuter trip. They make regular vacation trips to Atlanta or Miami or, if they’re genuinely rich, to Europe. They regard the books as crucial ingredients of the kind of contemporary school system that will let their kids keep up with their peers across the country — that will help them get into Harvard or Haverford instead of Morris Harvey or West Virginia Tech. 

[related_posts post_id_1=”716615″ /]

The “creekers” live in the rural towns and hollers — Big Chimney, Cabin Creek, Cross Lanes — that dot this sprawling, windy, moun­tainous county. They work in the mines, or in fetid factories like the duPont plant in Balle, or, if they’re lucky, as truck drivers or construction workers. Most of them have never been on an airplane in their lives. Many went to cities like Chicago, Dayton, or Cleveland during the Appalachian migration of the 1960’s, but they found those places alien and hostile and returned to their own tight-knit communities. Their reminiscences are laced with the same bitterness they display toward the textbooks. 

In September, the books were introduced into the schools. There was so much violence in the county that the board of education decided to withdraw the books from the schools for a thirty-day review period. During that time, there were exchanges of gunfire, school rooms were dynamited, school buses shot at, cars and homes firebombed. One night, someone put fifteen sticks of dynamite under Charleston’s board of education building and demolished part of it. It was clear that most of the county felt some sympathy for the protestors. In November, a Charleston Gazette poll showed that just 19 percent of the community wanted all the books returned to the schools. Nevertheless, in mid-November, the board of education voted 4-1 to return most of the controversial materials to the schools, though they ruled that some of the most controversial grade school books would remain in the library. The sporadic violence continued. And, as in any war, attitudes kept hardening. 

Susan Bean, 35, who lives in South Hills, was a member of the committee that reviewed all the textbooks. She’s the wife of a landscape architect, the mother of three grade school kids. She was born in Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee, where her father was a member of the John Birch Society. In his small construction business, he sys­tematically underpaid all the blacks who worked for him. He whipped Susan whenever he caught her reading unorthodox books, whenever she disagreed with him. At 17, she ran away from home, got a job as a typist at Sears, and worked her way through the University of Georgia, where she was an English major. 

[related_posts post_id_1=”715757″ /]

Interestingly, it is Susan Bean’s conservative background that has made her a fierce supporter of the books. Indeed, she is glad that her children will study the religious unorthodoxies that her father despised. One day, I told her I thought we were witnessing a class struggle, and she responded, quite tartly, “Sure it’s a class struggle, but not in the way you outsiders think. You come from a liberal background. You can’t imagine how much the opportunity to give my kids unlimited freedom means to me. It’s a way of making sure that I, and my kids, rise above my past.” 

Nell Wood, fortyish, the English teacher who selected the text­books, is the daughter of a Fundamentalist railroad engineer from a rural county in West Virginia. Now she teaches an honors English class for seniors at the prestigious George Washington High School, nestled in the midst of South Hills. Though most of her students come from wealthy, sophisticated families, she is still a practicing fundamentalist. She never smokes or drinks, feels uncomfortable when people take the Lord’s name in vain, and has to ask her team teachers to read whatever four-letter words crop up. 

It’s possible that her support of the textbooks comes from her special classroom experience. There are teachers who argue that if she had to face a classroom full of rural work­ing class kids each day she might feel more ambivalent about the issue. But she is a woman who loves books and wants to share that pas­sion with her students. She refuses to weed out stones and attitudes that other fundamentalists consider blas­phemous because I can’t  bear the thought of standing in front of a group of kids and telling lies by omitting ideas I know exist.” Just as many protestors have quotations from the Bible 1n their homes she has a quotation from the Areopagitica in her spare. tiny cubicle behind the George Washington High School Li­brary. “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature. God’s image: but who kills a book kills reason it­self.”

But thousands of people here say they’d die fighting the blasphemy that Nell Wood believes is freedom. Emmett Thompson, 55, a riverboat engineer from Nitro, West Virginia, lives quite comfortably in a neat red brick house which is larger than Susan Bean’s white frame house on South Hills. His oldest son is a trim, impeccably dressed short-haired man who has just graduated from the Lynchburg Bible College. Thompson, whose bushy cinnamon­colored moustache makes him look a little more dashing than his boy, is what people here call a “Wednesday nighter” — so devoted to the local Calvary Baptist Church that he at­tends it twice on Sunday, once on Wednesday. He considers the intro­duction of the books “moral geno­cide.”

“It’s an insidious attempt to re­place our periods with their question marks,” he says, and he thinks it has to he fought. In a county where coal miners are experts with dynamite, where every rnan and boy is a hunter and every house 1n every holler has plenty· of guns and plenty of ammu­nition. he longs for a “return to the spirit of the Boston Tea Party,” “revolution of righteousness.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”724707″ /]

Skeeter Dodd. the manager of radio station WKLC, is the sort of person who might help lead that revolution. A chunky, sturdy man in his mid-40s. Skeeter is an early morning disk jockey. whose taste in country music, in syndicated jokes from the “Funny Wire,” and in imaginary dialogues with the fic­tional hillbilly “grandad” has made him a favorite with “creekers” throughout the county.

“If they don’t wake up to me. they ain’t gonna wake up that day,” he says in his exaggerated West Virgin­ia accent, his genuinely hearty laugh.

Though KLC is Charleston’s third largest station, Skeeter spends much of his time worrying about collecting bills from advertisers and finding new sponsors who will keep his sta­tion afloat. But he is also a patriot who, like Emmett Thompson, sees the textbook struggle as a salvo in a war to “restore the faith of our fathers. Look at it this way, friend. They tax us for the schools, but the schools don’t represent us. Isn’t that what them dumb hillbillies and creekers was fighting about 200 years ago?”

He not only despises the books, he believes that they are part of a communist plot hatched in Dusseldorf, Germany in 1917 to destroy democracy. He showed me a replica of this curious document which proposed, to corrupt the people. get them away from religion. Make­ them superficial. Destroy their rug­gedness.” And, like thousands of people here, he believes in the existence of an upper-class conspiracy to bring Communism to America. Most people equate Communism with de­cadence. and argue that because rich people want to legalize drugs. legitimize pre-marital sex. porno­ graphic movies and massage par­lors, they are subversive. But Skeeter’s reasons are more person­al. His dad worked on an assembly line, he says. “Neighbor, you better believe that under a system like socialism this old creeker’d still be back there.”

He’d been in Navy intelligence during the Korean War. and now saw himself combating Communism in Kanawha County. He carried a citizens band radio in his car so that other movement leaders could alert him if there was trouble. He was “Boots” in a cb network that includ­ed “Kojack,” “Blue Flag,” and “Money Man.” Late on a chilly fall night, wearing his battered black overcoat as he slumped over his mike and exchanged information on the small radio. he looked like a weary, dedicated member of a nascent band of freedom fighters, the nucleus of an army which wants to cleanse America, to restore it to the paths of righteousness.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718343″ /]

From the Holler to the Space Age
In a sense, this is the story of an idea whose time never quite came. The idea was that educational planners could reach into America’s ghettos, its hollers, and its tradition-­bound ethnic communities, like Can­arsie and South Boston, and coax people there into the “melting pot.” That was the principal rationale be­hind bussing. It was also the reason that states like West Virginia mandated “multi-cultural, multi-ethnic” programs in their classrooms.

The theory is clearly stated in a funding proposal for the training of teachers, dated 1970, signed by West Virginia’s Superintendant of Schools. According to the document, teachers are supposed to be trained to “induce changes … in the behavior of the ‘culturally lost’ of Appalachia … The setting of the public school should he the testing ground. the diagnostic basis, the experimental center, and the core of this design … The most important ingredient of social change is the change agent” — the teacher.

You have only to look at the textbooks to see how they fit in with that theory. Though I personally found many of them quite appealing — the sorts of books I would like my two children to study —I  could also see how their sheer physical appearance would shock parents who had been brought up on Dick and Jane stories, on the six point type of the King James Bible, and on the rigid belief that education meant rote memori­zation. Now their children are using post-linear paper-backs where car­toons, photos, and gaudily colored pages dominate the print; where you don’t read about Evangeline or the Courtship of Miles Standish but about sports heroes, rock stars, and street gangs, where achievement doesn’t rest in a child’s ability to repeat a lesson accurately, but in her capacity to answer the provocative, questions at the end of each sec­tion.

And the stories do, as Emmett Thompson said, “attempt to replace our periods with question marks.” Reading them I could see, for the first time, how a theist, who was still embittered because the Supreme Court had outlawed school prayer, could believe that the relativism and humanism that I have always cherished as the highest kind of open-mindedness represents a dogma of its own whose very skepti­cism embodied religious values.

For example, there is one exercise which asks students to compare the biblical story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den with the tale of Androcles and the Lion. To conservative Chris­tians the question itself is blasphemy since it suggests that something they take to be revelations is nothing more than myth. Similarly, the books include writings like Mark Twain’s “Adam’s Diary,” which shows God’s first offspring as a bumbling upstate New York house­holder and includes a New Yorker-­style cartoon of a naked Adam and Eve peeping out over some bushes. The books invite students to invent their own gods, an exercise which suggests that God himself might be an invention.

[related_posts post_id_1=”729257″ /]

The idea behind the books is the classic liberal assumption that a child who learns to question himself and his surroundings will grow beyond the confines of his culture. But, apart from the religious heresies, that means the books are also filled with a set of assumptions that many West Virginians regard as secular blasphemy. For example, some of the exercises encourage kids to tell each other about their dis- agreements with their parents, their reservations about authority. They ask whether it is ever legitimate to steal. They contain a great many four-letter words (whose use, in many Appalachian households, would condemn kids to severe beatings. ) They suggest that standard English may be one of many dialects spoken in this country, that rules of English are relative, that ghetto English might be a legitimate form of speech. Some of the high school textbooks include writings by revo­lutionaries like Eldridge Cleaver.

Now, it’s easy to see how a profes­sional educator, who has learned, almost as a matter of dogma, that schools were always the vehicles by which working-class kids achieved a level of success that was beyond the wildest dreams of their parents, could have thought that “multi-cul­tural. multi-ethnic” textbooks could bring kids into the “melting pot.”

But it’s probably too much to de­mand that a countyful of people make the spiritual journey from the holler to the Space Age in less than five years, especially when the trip forces them beyond the furthest barrier of their belief. It makes them the victim of a sort of psychic overload. Sometimes they submit in confusion. But in Kanawha County they found leaders who could articulate their fury at the annihilation of every value they revered. They fought back.

Alice Moore is the lone dissenter on the school board. Her husband, a Church of Christ minister, had parishes in Tennessee and Meridian Mississippi before he was station­ed in the lower-middle class town of after St. Alban’s. In 1970, two years after her arrival in Kanawha County, Alice Moore decided that she’d run for the board to symbolize her opposition to sex education in the schools. She was elected.

She is a stunningly beautiful, intelligent woman who adopts a Southern belle’s flirtatious style when she argues with the four male school board members.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725686″ /]

But it’s clear that when Alice speaks thousands of people in the creeks and hollers listen. She’s in the newspapers nearly every day now, on TV nearly every night: a Joan of Arc, witty and resolute in her battle against the male “hiller” majority of the school committee. Whenever she appears at board meetings or at public rallies she is greeted with jubilant standing ovations, with cheerful choruses of “we love you, Alice, oh, yes, we do,” with clusters of flowers and placards that read “Alice Moore for President.” In place like Big Chimney and Kelly’s Creek — towns the hillers can barely find on their maps, let alone in their cars — her name inspires the same kind of glisteningly popular response as Huey Long’s did in the back­-country parishes of Louisiana.

When the textbooks came up for only adoption last spring, she was the only school board member who read them thoroughly. She was enraged by their emphasis on she calls “situational ethics” — the heathen creed that encorages kids to believe that any set of actions can be jus­tified by sociological conditions.

I could see her anger during a long interview one afternoon when she told me about a teacher training program she’d attended. her tone alternated between Andy Griffith­-like wonder and fundamentalist wrath. She was particularly amused by an instructor who’d tried to show how the concept of camouflage could be conveyed by hiding some green toothpicks in grass. He failed because the grass was so brights that the toothpicks were visible at once. Then, angering quickly, she talked about another education expert who sought to prove there was a cultural justification for Eskimo mothers who put their babies outside to freeze. “You know,” she said, “I was the only only person there who argued she was wrong.”

With my longish hair, my credentials from an urban liberal newspaper, I must have suddenly seemed like the enemy. She was courteous, and her lovely southern voice never lost its slight hint of conspiratorial laughter. But: “You just don’t understand what you’re doing to us,” she said. “How can any school board force me to send my kids to a school that teaches God is a myth, that justifies mothers who kill their young?” 

“But how could I send my kids to schools that outlawed those textbooks?” I asked. “I bate censorship as much as you hate blas­phemy.” “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe there’s no school system in this country that can provide for your kids and mine. Maybe we Americans have come to a parting of the ways.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”721942″ /]

The Parting of the Ways: “Don’t Educate Them Above Their Rearing”
Maybe the parting of the ways has already come, and the only question is how many people are on each side. Certainly many conservative Christians in Kanawha County feel the frustration, the sense of isolation, that Alice Moore describes. They are so appalled by the America the textbooks represent that they’d rather forego the idea of college altogether, the dream of upward mobility, than risk the infection of relativism. 

Many young people are as passionate about the holy war as their parents. I spent a great deal of time interviewing the elite students at George Washington High and the working-class kids from Campbell’s Creek who attend duPont and East Bank. There is no communication between them-only mutual stereotypes, mutual contempt. 

Many students from George Washington are aware that their wealth spawns resentment, that the fact that they go to GW creates an almost insurmountable barrier of resentment. And some wish, wistfully, that the gap could be bridged. But even though there are many “creekers” at GW, not a single one of the fifteen “hiller” kids I interviewed had ever visited them or invited them home. And, though they’re theoretically aware that “those kids are angry because they think our parents have money,” it never occurred to them that their freedom to leave school in their family car, to gather at Gino’s Pizza for a pleasant lunch, rankled the kids from the hollers, who had to stay in school all day and eat their meals in the cafeteria. 

During an interview, one girl asked me, sharply, “why anybody would want to visit people like those coal miners.” When I asked some other students to describe the textbook protesters, they used phrases like “closed-minded and violent” people “who want to protest corrup­tion, but don’t even know how to use the word,” “Wednesday nighters who carry clubs.” Three students gave me an issue of The George Washington Pride, the school’s underground newspaper, which con­tained a long satire about the conflict in which the protest leader’s name is “the Rev. Rodney Necc, but my friends call me Red,” who has come to a demonstration sponsored by “the Christian and Righteous Association of Parents … to show my deep dedication to upholding CRAP.” 

[related_posts post_id_1=”728457″ /]

I felt completely at ease with the kids from George Washington. But many “creekers,” and their children, were quite suspicious of me as an outsider, particularly because I was a reporter. At one of their rallies they had beaten up CBS’s Jed Duval. When I went to the “anti­-textbook headquarters” in Campbell’s Creek, two separate groups of people insisted on frisking me, on examining the documents in my wallet. A woman who saw that I had a pocket-sized Sony tape-recorder accused me of bugging them all. After a while, many of them became friendly, but they still warned that “they’d come looking for me” if I wrote an unfavorable story about them. 

That afternoon, at a small white Baptist Church, off a windy dirt road in Campbell’s Creek, I met with about 10 teenaged children of coal miners, truck drivers, construction workers, and ministers. They didn’t feel as free with me as the kids from GW had, so their comments were more cramped and restrained. Still, some were scornful of the hillers. They talked about their wild, dope-filled orgies where maids had to lock themselves in their rooms for fear of being beaten; of their rich, reckless parents, who were too busy to take care of their kids; of the ease with which they could bribe the police when they got in trouble. And of their hedonistic atheism. “They’re rich people who think they know everything,” said a coal miner’s daughter. “But they haven’t been taught right. They don’t have any common sense. They don’t really care about God.” 

Other kids sounded genuinely wounded by the “hillers'” insen­sitivity. “I can expect someone who doesn’t believe in God not to see anything wrong with the textbooks,” said one minister’s daughter. “But they can at least respect our rights, since it does say something about our God. We’re not asking that they teach Christianity in the schools. We’re just asking that they don’t insult our faith.” 

[related_posts post_id_1=”725008″ /]

The truck driver’s son had a more practical objection. He was afraid that the books would hurt his chances of earning a living. He wanted to go to West Virginia Tech, to be an engineer, and felt he needed a “good basic education.” 

“I mean, they could teach English in school without going to this ghetto language or some of this slang,” he said. “lf they drop that standard, then society’s just going to go down. Until now, we’ve always been taught to make speeches in front of class, to write letters with correct punctuation. But in this new set of textbooks, they say, whatever sort of speech is common in your area, well, that’s all right. But if you move out of state, it will be just like going to a foreign country. How will you know what other people’s meaning is? And, I know from my father”s experience-if you look for a job and can’t talk the right English, they won’t hire you.” 

Of course, for many protestors the issues are far more general and ominous than the practical questions of grammar and employment. Many students from duPont and East Bank arc already into rock music and dope: the parents-and more chaste kids-are scared that the heretical ideas in the school-sanctioned textbooks will rid them of their last vestiges of social control. 

At meeting after meeting, I heard complaints about kids from Kanawha County who’d gone to college and come home acting like aliens. The conclusions? “Don’t let them be educated above their rearing.” “I was going to send my boy to college,” said the wife of a food salesman from St. Alban’s. “But I’ve changed my mind. It was a difficult decision. In my husband’s profession, now, you need a college degree. But I’d rather see him become a coal miner or a construction worker than know he was risking his soul.” 

[related_posts post_id_1=”720727″ /]

If the Christians Fight Back
Of course, religious controversy is not new in these parts. Nor is separatism. The ancestors of the miners and teamsters who live in Cabin Creek and Big Chimney were Anglo-Saxon yeomen who settled here 200 years ago because they were dissatisfied with Virginia’s upper-­class Tidewater planters and their moribund Anglican church. They were inspired by the first Great Awakening, the national fit of religious ecstasy which, with its stress on holy fervor and personal salvation, swept westward from New England in the eighteenth century. Even now, in the small Baptist and Pentecostal churches that dot the landscape, thousands of Baptists and Pentecostals scourge themselves by listening to sermons that sound Like replicas of Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” 

For generations, the Fundamentalists were sure that some version of their creed was America’s dominant faith. Then, without warning, they found themselves waging a defensive war against the heathen idea of evolution. The Scopes trial was a watershed: Between Clarence Darrow’s courtroom tactics and H. L. Mencken’s scathing prose, they suddenly ceased to be America’s conscience and became its laugh­ingstock. Though they clung to their faith, sometimes defiantly, many of them felt a private, lingering shame. It took decades for that shame to vanish. Now, their church is likely to become militant again. 

If Kanawha County’s army of Christian soldiers ever decides to wage all-out war, life here will be unbearable. This fall’s rash of dynamiting, firebombing, and shooting has terrified educators all over the county. Protest leaders deny responsibility for most incidents, blaming some on stoned-out kids, others on the books’ supporters. Still, the violence has merged with the Fundamentalists’ ardent support of censorship to make each teacher feel like a potential target. For example, during the weeks the books were out of the schools, English teachers all over the county were scared to teach anything but grammar in case any work of literature, even Shakespeare, goaded some hotheads to bomb their buildings. 

[related_posts post_id_1=”725977″ /]

Late one Wednesday afternoon, someone threw three sticks of dynamite into a first-grade classroom at the Midway School in Campbell’s Creek. The teacher whose room was bombed had spent a decade collecting books and toys for kids whose families couldn’t afford them. Now, all that was destroyed. The room itself was littered with the debris from a waist-high partition-bookshelf that had been shat­tered by the blast. Hundreds of books were scattered on the floor. From the outside, all you could see was four shattered windows, the traces of some tables and chairs, a brightly lettered alphabet attached to the blackboard, and an American flag that still perched above the whole room. 

The Wet Bridge Elementary School in Cabin Creek, the most rural part of the sprawling county, is even more threatened than Midway. In October, someone tossed two sticks of dynamite into the building. The afternoon I visited it, just eight of 300 enrolled students showed up for classes. “Each day seems like it’s two million hours long,” said one teacher. 

One of the older teachers at the school has taught most of the parents of the boycotting children. The fact that they won’t trust her to use the books responsibly has robbed her of her self-confidence. In a community where hundreds of people are functionally illiterate, where they are ignorant of the rudiments of personal and sexual hygiene, she is now afraid to offend them by instructing them. 

“Soon we won’t be able to teach anything,” she says. “It’s as if those parents and ministers are staring over our shoulders, waiting to get us for saying anything that sounds immoral. I’m afraid that if this boycott ever ends, I won’t see the children as students. I’ll see them as spies in the classroom.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”722130″ /]

So We Are Two Nations…
I have rarely covered a story that left me feeling as emotionally conflicted as this one has. For it seems to me that some of the pro­-textbook people — the northern educators and bureaucrats who devised them, not the local people who adopted them — are involved in a kind of cultural imperialism. But some of the protestors, who may be able to gain control of the county through the courts, through elections, and through threats of violence, are capable of outright totalitarianism. 

I know that the people who designed the textbooks believe that the children of Fundamentalists (and, to a lesser extent, of the white working class in general) have to be freed from the narrow-minded influence of their parents in order to become functioning members of twenty-first century America. But is it ethical or prudent to confront them with textbooks they regard as blasphemous, to use their class­rooms as “testing grounds,” to train their teachers to be “change agents”? To me, that is, quite literally, a way of telling kids “we have to destroy your culture in order to save you.” I’ve interviewed some curriculum reformers and textbook authors, and it’s clear that they see the “creekers” in the same derisive terms H. L. Mencken used during the Scopes trial. They regard the objections of people like Alice Moore as problems to be dealt with, not opinions to be respected. 

Their intentions are probably benign, but isn’t their policy a fresh example of the arrogance of power? You can invite a person into your culture. But I don’t believe you can impose your culture on another person without risking unforseeable psychological harm.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716624″ /]

If the trip is voluntary, as Susan Bean’s was, then the person is likely to maintain a sense of identity and pride. But if it’s an imposed journey to a totally unknown destination — as it would be for many children in Kanawha County — then it could produce considerable psychological harm. It could set them adrift, with no reliable traditions, no moral compass, in an agnostic, post-linear, multicultural, multi­ethnic Space Age world which bas no connection at all to their familiar hollers.

You cannot outlaw, school prayer and still pretend that secular humanism — momentarily our national creed — does not carry its own deep assumptions about religion. Why not recognize that both attitudes are dogmas, and try to develop an educational system that’s flexible enough to furnish federal funds to schools that base their curriculum on theism as well as to those that base their curriculum on relativism? 

Most outside journalists who have come here to cover the textbook controversy have become fascinated by the relatively novel kinds of injustices I’ve been describing. As a result, many have tended to glorify the protestors a little, to explain their excesses by arguing that they are victims of a class struggle. But I think they are sentimentalizing a potentially dangerous movement. 

The last scene I witnessed in Charleston is the one that grates most painfully on my imagination. It was a protest rally the day after the textbooks were restored to the schools. It wasn’t in any of the rural churches or parks where the movement was nurtured, but in the cavernous c1v1c center, one of the most modern buildings in Charleston. 

The audience of 2,500 was in a fervent mood. Most of them wore large stickers which asserted “Jesus Wouldn’t Have Read Them.” As they sang “Amazing Grace,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and “God Bless America,” more than half of them swayed back and forth, waving their right hands in the air to show that they were born-again Christians. The podium was bathed in lights from the TV cameras. On the right side, a stern, trim youth held the American flag aloft through the two-hour program. On the left side, an equally rigid young man bore a Christian flag, with a silky white field and a blood-purple cross as its emblem. The flags, and their martial bearers, framed each speaker.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721901″ /]

The main speaker was the Rev. Marvin Horan, who is supposed to be one of the more moderate protest leaders — more moderate, say, than the Rev. Charles Quigley, who wore army fatigues that day and who’d shocked the county a few weeks earlier by issuing a public prayer that God would strike the pro-textbook school-board members dead.

As Horan spoke, his voice rolled with righteousness; the audience applauded nearly every sentence. He held a Bible in his right hand, two textbooks in his left and, shaking both arms angrily, he cried, “Which are we going to stand for, the word of God or the filth in these books?” Then he threatened his audience — “the Bible says not to use the Lord’s name in vain or the person who does so will not be held guiltless at the seat of judgment” — and read several blasphemous sentences from Catcher in the Rye, a text which he, at least, had clearly studied quite carefully. For he told his audience that “out of all this book, almost three hundred pages, there’s only twenty pages that don’t use the Lord’s name in vain.” Then, waving Catcher in the Rye aloft, he asked, “Do we surrender or do we fight?” 

Behind me someone yelled “burn ’em,” and hundreds of people began to applaud. 

Now Horan was talking about the importance of maintaining the school boycott. “The board of education may think we’re yellow, but our real colors are red, white, and blue … If we stand unified, we can rid Kanawha County of these filthy books and the people who put them there.” 

It wasn’t just platform rhetoric. Though the school boycott wasn’t nearly as successful as Horan had hoped, and the county became outwardly calm after another week of sporadic violence, the influence of the anti-textbook movement has spread to other states. The series of textbooks that started the controversy here has been rejected in Georgia and Texas. There are similar disputes in Virginia, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Indiana. The League of Decency, an antipornography organization from California, attaches enough impor­tance to the fight here to let its chief spokesman. a former TV personality named Robert Dornan who’s paid $42,000 a year, spend most of his time in Charleston. 

[related_posts post_id_1=”595776″ /]

The school board’s decision to put most of the books back in the classrooms has been a Pyrrhic victory for the county’s liberals. Last week, the board adopted a set of guidelines — most of them proposed by Alice Moore — which would probably have caused this English series to be rejected if it had existed a year ago. From now on, Kanawha County textbooks can’t contain profanity; they can’t intrude on a student’s privacy by asking personal questions about his family or his inner feelings; they must encourage loyalty to the United States; they can’t defame any of America’s heroes; they must teach that traditional rules of grammar are essential for effective communications. 

It’s still possible that the English books will be withdrawn from the schools. Last week, some protesters filed a lawsuit charging that the adoption might have been illegal because the school board first voted for the books on April 11, instead of the state deadline of April 1. If that doesn’t reopen the issue, then the adoption of a new set of social studies textbooks, slated for next April, could kindle an even more disruptive set of skirmishes. 

Meanwhile, protestors from rural Kanawha County, which includes towns like Cabin Creek and Campbell’s Creek, are urging people in their region to secede from the rest of the county. 

Maybe the prominence of the Christian flag at Reverend Horan’s rally awakened my own tribal Jewish fears, but the experience left me deeply unsettled. The Reverend Horan, and the countless conservative Christians who identify with him, are absolutists. My question marks are sacred to me. Each attitude is a dogma, but the difference between them is vast. I would like to think that there is plenty of room for people like Marvin Horan in my America. But I don’t believe there’s room for me in his. ❖