May 13, 2024
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May 13, 2024
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The High Holidays are considered by most people to be the ideal time for contemplation and reflection on how we lead our lives. Frankly, any time of year might do equally as well. In recent times, with scandals of infinite variety, moral, financial, and otherwise, we have almost unlimited opportunity to confront age-old dilemmas of righteous deeds going unrewarded and evil-doers seemingly profiting from their antisocial activities. While reviewing the daily goings-on in this realm might push one to cynicism and then shortly to clinical depression, I recently recalled an apparently minor episode in the life of one of my friends that leads me to conclude that things are in fact seldom what they seem, are often ambiguous; so don’t worry too much if you don’t have all the answers. You may not be seeing the whole picture!

Spring 1967 was a time of uncertainty. On a macro level conflict in the Middle East was reaching a climax, the world anxiously awaiting the resolution of the then current Egyptian existential threat to the State of Israel. On a personal level, more mundane events were taking place, of most significance was my friend Isaac’s upcoming graduation from yeshiva high school in Manhattan. The years he had spent as a student at various Orthodox Hebrew day schools followed by four years at a yeshiva high school were coming to a close at a time of great turmoil and change in Jewish and American cultural history.

Since childhood, Isaac had been completely absorbed by one Torah ritual above all others: reading the weekly Torah portion in the synagogue. He was obsessed by every aspect of the process, the repetition of the cantillation notes, the memorization, the recital itself. He approached the best readers in the synagogue and asked them to teach him special methods of reading and any techniques they had mastered that would help him perfect his style. The consequences of Isaac’s zeal for reading soon became apparent. Unlike the norm, once his bar mitzvah celebration had ended in 1962, Isaac immediately set to work teaching himself new parshiyot to read. His zeal for the performance of this mitzvah unwavering.

Soon, out of his love of Torah reading (and a growing, adolescent need to supplement his allowance), Isaac expanded into teaching others their bar mitzvah portions. The process began easily enough. First, he taught his cousin, Mark, two years his junior, to read his portion, then Mark’s classmate and another neighborhood boy. For the then handsome sum of $100, Isaac would work with the prospective bar mitzvah for six months or so, preparing him to read both parsha and haftorah. It should be noted that around this time Orthodox, West Side bar mitzvah boys began to celebrate their reaching the age of mitzvot at weekend galas in Catskill hotels. Isaac was invited and accompanied several of his students to these festive events. Finally, by 1967, Isaac added high-tech to his training methods and materials. He began to record the required readings on a state-of-the-art, portable cassette player to enable his students to review the readings at their convenience. Isaac was comfortable in his routine and his ritual. All seemed perfect to our youthful bar mitzvah teacher.

That is, until Isaac met Mr. Roth of West End Avenue. Roth was a close friend of Isaac’s Uncle Manny. Roth’s son, David, a rather slight boy of 12, was in need of a bar mitzvah teacher. It was early 1967 and David’s bar mitzvah was scheduled for mid-summer. Isaac met with Mr. Roth, told him his price, and Roth agreed to Isaac’s terms. They worked out a mutually convenient schedule for the coming months. As usual, Isaac prepared a tape recording of the required portions.

The lessons and months of teaching passed quickly. Global events likewise passed like a blur: the Six-Day War, the long-awaited reunification of Jerusalem, events far-reaching and of truly historical import; on a personal level Isaac graduated from high school and dreamt of starting college, self-absorbed teenager that he was.

Danger was in the air, but Isaac was unaware. Isaac had been carefully reviewing David Roth’s progress at their weekly meetings and David was doing well, so well that Isaac turned his attention to finding additional opportunities for summer employment. But no job could be obtained at this late date and Isaac was forced to face a summer “devoid of life”–his term. In mid-July, however, Isaac received a phone call from his father telling him some remarkable news. Another of Isaac’s uncles–this time Uncle Alex–was inviting Isaac to accompany him on a three-week trip to Israel. They would be staying in Jerusalem, visiting the Kotel, Beit Lechem, and Hevron. All the holy sites Isaac had dreamed of visiting appeared suddenly, unexpectedly within reach.

“Do I want to go with Uncle Alex?” “Are you kidding?” Isaac thought to himself. “My first trip to Israel!” “Was there any question?”

There was, however, one problem: the Roth bar mitzvah! Mr. Roth was furious when Isaac told him he was accepting his uncle’s travel invitation and not only that:

“You’re coming to the weekend bar mitzvah for Meir. It’s on August 5th and we expect you to be there!”

“– but I’ll be in Israel then,” Isaac meekly protested.

“Our agreement was that you’d attend the weekend bar mitzvah.”

“We never really discussed this…”

“We want and expect you to attend!”

Isaac kept his disagreement with Mr. Roth to himself. Isaac left for Israel at the end of July. David’s bar mitzvah took place in the Catskills as scheduled. Mr. Roth for his part never again spoke to Isaac after their confrontation. He also never paid him the $100 Isaac thought he owed him nor any part of it. Since Roth was a good friend of Isaac’s uncle, Isaac had limited options to protest and, ultimately, Isaac despaired of ever being paid.

Over the ensuing years Isaac would occasionally catch a glimpse of Mr. Roth walking on West End Avenue or Broadway and a twinge of anger (and maybe some feeling of guilt) would come over Isaac. Even though Isaac had not attended the bar mitzvah celebration, he felt entitled to some payment for his months of effort. But the pull of Israel had been too great and Isaac had in fact failed to appear at the hotel as required. The moral ambiguity of Isaac’s situation became clearer to him. He had made his choice–possibly not the right one–-and would have to live with it.

Isaac soon turned to more important things, becoming a lawyer, marrying, moving to the suburbs, and raising five children. Soon Isaac was charging more than $100 an hour to his law clients and had almost forgotten the $100 that Mr. Roth hadn’t paid him–at least until the events that took place below. I got the story second hand, but I’ll repeat it exactly as I heard it from a mutual friend who heard it from Isaac directly:

“It is May 1997. Isaac and his wife are driving to the Spitz bar mitzvah at the Homowack Lodge in upstate New York. They pull off exit 114 on NY17W. It is Erev Shabbat. They are arriving in the late afternoon, hurrying to complete their pre-Shabbos preparations. Soon Isaac’s wife lights the candles and they head to the combination shul/beit midrash. Isaac sits in the front row of the main section, facing the Aron Kodesh and opposite a long table at which sit rabbis, family members, and other dignitaries. Isaac is waiting for Mincha to start when he notices a short, vaguely familiar man sitting facing him, no more than ten feet away. Next to that man sits a younger man in a charcoal grey suit.

At that moment Isaac’s friend Gene sits down next to him. Gene knows the extended Spitz family better than Isaac does. Isaac whispers to Gene:

“Do you recognize…do you know the name of that short man sitting across from us? Is it by any chance…Roth?”

Gene nods yes. Very briefly the thought of that unpaid $100 bill crosses Isaac’s mind. Roth has noticeably aged. He must have been in his late seventies.

“What about the other guy?” Isaac continues, referring to the fellow in charcoal grey.

Gene’s words send a chill up and down Isaac’s spine. “Oh, that’s his son, David. He’s considered the best Torah reader in all of Queens!”

I’m not exactly sure how Isaac took Gene’s revelation. But it is safe to assume Isaac was finally at peace with the matter of his “unrewarded” efforts. There was no report whether Mr. Roth or his son recognized Isaac after all the years that had passed or, if they did, how they felt about him!

© 2014 Redmont Tales

By Joseph Rotenberg

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