July 12, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Vayechi: The Butcher’s Blessings

Bernie Baumgarten was dying. Okay, so he wasn’t really dying. Actually, he had a very bad cold. Okay, it wasn’t such a bad cold. But he was definitely under the weather. And when Bernie got sick, the world seemed like it was coming to an end. His wife Bernice was ready for him. When Bernie started whining and saying things like, “I’m toxic,” or, “Just put me out on a rock somewhere and let me die in peace,” she had the hot water bottle, the vaporizer and the chicken soup ready to go. And although she wanted to strangle him, Bernice put on her most sympathetic face and did her best to put up with her husband. Forty-two years of marriage helps you cope with your spouse’s idiosyncrasies, no matter how annoying they are.

On the days that Bernie lay on his “death” bed, watching “The Price is Right” on television and going through multiple boxes of tissues, his business suffered. Bernie Baumgarten owned and ran Sir Glatt A Lot, the only kosher butcher store in Hoboken, and his customers loved him. Bernie’s assistant Mottie was an excellent butcher in his own right, but he didn’t have the gift of gab like Bernie (“So, Mrs. Schwartzbaum, how is that son of yours, Yankel? Is he still in dental school?”), and the customers sorely missed Bernie when he was out recuperating. But Mottie knew not to bother his boss when he was desperately ill, which occurred at least a few times a year.

On the third day of Bernie Baumgarten’s upper respiratory infection, he had a premonition that the end was near. His eyes were all teary, and he had used up three entire boxes of Kleenex with no abatement of his symptoms. Bernice was certain that Bernie was already much better, but she knew better than to argue with him.

“Bernice, come here.”

“What is it, honey? Do you need more tea with honey?”

“No, I’m too far gone to worry about earthly concerns like tea.”

“Did you lose the remote again?”

“How can you talk about television at a time like this? Can’t you see my time is almost up? Besides, the remote is right there on the nightstand. No, Bernice, I need you to call the boys and ask them to come home. I want to bless them one last time before the big one hits.”

“The big what?”

“You know, before I pass on to the big butcher store in the sky.”

“Again?”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, nothing,” Bernice said with a sigh.

“Call the boys home. It’s the least they can do for their old man.”

“Okay, but they’re not going to like it.”

And so Bernice called her sons on their cell phones and told them to return to their ancestral home in Hoboken to meet with their father one last time.

Bobby was the first to respond. He was on the trading floor of the stock exchange when his mother called. He knew his father was an outrageous hypochondriac, but he said he could be in Hoboken by six that evening. Truth be told, he could use a home-cooked meal.

Baruch answered his phone next. He was in his yeshiva learning with his chavruta, and he told his mother he could also be home for dinner that evening. Honoring one’s mother and father was a huge mitzvah—even if one’s father was a nudnick—and he would never pass up such a golden opportunity to fulfill a commandment.

It took Benjy a few hours to return his mother’s call. He had been in the university library studying for a final exam in Near Eastern Medieval Ontology—or something like that—and hadn’t noticed his phone vibrating in his knapsack. He also agreed to return to Hoboken for dinner. He had a duffel bag crammed with dirty laundry back in his dorm room, and his mother was his only source for clean, fresh-smelling clothes.

Everyone had arrived by six, and the meal began promptly at 6:30. Bernie left his sickbed to preside over the festivities. It wasn’t every day that all his boys were home. Besides, his sons couldn’t carve a brisket if their lives depended on it. They were bright as can be—each a scholar in his own right—but they all had two left hands.

When the meal was over, Bernie returned to his bed. He pulled the covers up tight around his neck and settled in for the final blessings. He felt weak, like his life force was slipping away. Also, he experienced a bit of heartburn. Perhaps he shouldn’t have eaten that third piece of brisket, he thought to himself. Or maybe only one helping of the apple pie. Boy, that sure had been good.

“Send them in one at a time,” Bernie told Bernice, “in birth order. And be quick. There may not be much time. Oh, and could you get me a Tums? I’m on fire down here.”

“Yes, dear.”

The first to come into the bedroom was Bobby.

“Hi, Pops,” Bobby said.

“Robert, come closer that I might see your face. For my vision has dulled, and you are so far away.”

“How about if I get you your glasses?”

“Oh, that might work, too.”

Bobby retrieved his father’s glasses and sat at the edge of the bed.

“Robert, you are the loin cut of the family. You lean more toward a sirloin than a tenderloin. You should never go past medium rare, and you will go far in life.”

“Thanks, Dad, now everything is perfectly clear,” Bobby said, and he stood to leave the room.

“I believe what your father means is that like a loin cut of beef, you are very valuable and very tender,” Bernice interpreted for her son. “The sirloin may not be as tender as the tenderloin cut, but it is much more flavorful. And it requires very little preparation, rarely cooked past medium rare. So what your father is trying to say is, you are always ready for any adventure on a moment’s notice, and you should never sell yourself short, for you are very precious.”

“Is that what you were trying to say, Dad?”

“Exactly.”

Bobby returned to his father’s bedside and embraced him.

“Thanks, Dad. You really do understand me.” And with that note of encouragement, Bobby took his leave of his parents.

Next was Baruch Baumgarten. He dutifully sat by his father’s side and clutched his hand.

“Baruch, my son, you are the chuck roast of the family. Though you may be a bit tough and fatty, and you may have your fair share of bone and gristle, you are best when cooked slowly over a liquid.”

“Oh, gee Dad, thanks so much,” Baruch said, a bit stunned, as he rose to leave.

“I believe what your father is trying to say is that like a chuck roast, you have the ability to sit and simmer on a subject for a long time, like a good talmid chacham should,” Bernice suggested. “And when you put your mind to something, you will come up with a creative and delicious solution to any problem. Is that right, Bernie?”

“Exactly.”

“Well, when you put it that way, it makes a lot of sense. Thanks, Dad,” Baruch said, as he warmly shook his father’s hand. He returned to his yeshiva with a new sense of pride in his abilities.

Finally, Benjy sat on his father’s bed. “What’s up, old man? Bless me, before I have to go back to school. The last bus is in half an hour.”

“Benjamin, you are the round cut of my offspring. From the rear end of the cow have you sprung, and from the rear end shall you be served. You are best cooked with moist heat, and you may be roasted but never overcooked.”

“Did you just call me the cow’s rear end?” Benjy asked, rather puzzled by his blessing.

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Bernice said, “but I think your father is suggesting that, like the round section of the meat, which comes from the nether portions of the cow, though you may be tougher and leaner than other cuts, you are well exercised and seasoned with experience. Your brothers will always turn to you for advice and value your judgment. And you bring new life to any conversation, like moist heat, or an open flame.”

“Is that what you meant, Dad?”

“Exactly.”

“Well, thanks. I never really thought of myself that way before. You truly have insight, old man. Thanks for the blessing.” And then Benjy raced off with his clean laundry to catch the last bus back to school.

“You are a brilliant interpreter,” Bernie said to Bernice.

“I’ve been married to a butcher for 42 years. It’s not so hard at this point.”

“You know, I think I’m feeling better,” Bernie said. Maybe I’ll go back to work tomorrow.”

“That truly is a blessing for all of us,” Bernice said. “And I’m not pulling your flank cut when I say that.”

“Oh, Bernice, you always know just what to say.”

Larry Stiefel is a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics.

By Larry Stiefel

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