Sunday, October 02, 2005

The two greatest Jewish Moments of my life, part two

The two greatest Jewish Moments of my life, part two.

Ok, so I agreed to go to the synagogue.

And I don’t want to overstate the decision making process because to be frank, I am sure that somewhere in my soul I wanted to. I don’t think that this is belief per se, but more likely it is more an “aliyah”, a mission, a necessity for my soul. And, I had got the feeling that this more than anything is what I have been fighting for ever and ever.

So I went. And it was nerve wracking to be sure. Yes, Moishe greeted me warmly. “Excellent.” He said as I came through the door in my black hamburger hat. “Yea, I came.” I said in return. But I had no clue how to follow the service or what was going on. A couple of the “councilors” from the school kept checking in with me and switching the pages in the prayer book to the one we were currently reading from. But I was lost. My eyes were wide trying to make sense of the details. But it was ok too. There was a small turnout, mostly boys from the school and the councilors and a few old retirees. Those pensioners had actually given me a hard time when I came to the doors. Who are you, where are you from, what are you doing here? Are you Jewish, what took you so long to come here, do you speak Hebrew, do you speak Russian? I tried to answer as quickly as I could and even throw in a few jokes. And they weren’t really such hard characters as they appeared at the start. I think I might have been the first interesting thing that had happened in a while.

But then after temple I got invited to go with the kids from the school for a meal at a kitchen about a kilometer from the school. I got placed for some reason at the head table. I felt relieved to sort of remember the prayers over the wine and bread. Frankly I was a nervous wreck. And after we ate, Moishe made a speech, or maybe it was a sermon. It was in Russian of course and I tried to follow along. He speaks really quickly, of course, like he does everything. And I noticed for the first time that his Russian syntax is sort of English. I guess this is understandable all things considered, but it was also noticed by the kids who occasionally raised their eyes at his grammar. This is not to say that they do not love or respect him, they do, but also there is something in there that keeps reminding them that he is from some other place and not from Belarus. And then at the end of the speech he threw me a curveball and asked me without breaking stride if I knew what was going on in Texas. I blinked a few times, not really understanding the question. And of course the embarrassment was there because immediately all of the boys were thinking that I didn’t speak Russian. But what was really the problem was that firstly the question came out of the blue (Moishe is good for this as you will see) and secondly, there is a phrase in Russian “Do Tech Pour” which basically means for all times, and so I thought he was asking what happens all of the time rather than what is happening in Texas. But then he said it again in English and even then it took me a moment to realize he was talking about the storms and such. It was a little embarrassing to tell the truth.

But sitting right next to me at the table was a young English orthodox named Ely. Ely is about 18 or so (“How old do you think I am? Really, you would think I am older, don’t you?”), and is working as a councilor at the school. Very, very nice guy, and a very open fellow as well and we got to talking about the school and the kids and his particular deal. He has been at the school for about a year, though he has made several flights back and forth to England and to Israel. He has hopes to be in business someday and enjoys the connection that he has. I really enjoyed talking to him and his energy and the life that he had about him except for on thing: His pomposity made me want to punch him in the nose. Now alright, I learned a lessen in tolerance long, long ago that people are what they do. And so of course, if your life is about keeping 11 to 17 year old boys in line, setting a good religious example and knowing the ins and outs of Judaism better than you, then this is what you are going to get. And I was ok with this and had decided that his encyclopedic knowledge of his own personal world was ok too. That is until the word potato came up.

I think it was Moishe again actually who started this. He of course knew about the dacha and our growing our own potatoes and he mentioned that the cost of potatoes at the market was going for about 300 rubles a kilo. I said something that this was pretty normal and that last year was a freak year that had really low prices because of Belarus’ refusal to send potatoes to Russia, and thereof creating a potato glut and so the prices reflected this process. This year’s 300 rubles were more akin to 2 years ago, well, that is if you don’t count the inflation. In any case they are cheap especially if you are trying to make money selling them.

But all of this aside, the best thing that this potato moment had to offer was that Ely didn’t know a damned thing about it. Nothing. “Ah’m frum Lundon. Whu om oye supows ta naow abou’ flippin pota’os? Vey gro’ in’na groun’ roit?” Right. But the thing is, you have to know potatoes if you hope to know Belarus. And not just how to BS about it either. Every boy in that room understood potatoes and what growing your own food is about. Every last one of them has spent the whole entirety of their lives dealing the endless economic catastrophe, the pennilessness, the questionable ethics. Oh, I had him here. What do you mean you don’t know anything abut potatoes?

And so I told him about the dacha and about how you are supposed to figure out how to live on $130 bucks a month and how you definitely have to give up pretty much all of that kinetic ego neurosis that only satisfies from buying things. He said some things trying to depict himself as the humble sort but a pasha is a pasha and his secret was out. About the life: He didn’t understand it or how it was possible. I explained to him that nobody can and that it isn’t but that it doesn’t really matter if it is possible r understandable; we do it anyway. He didn’t get the paradox either.

But you know, after this little house burning, he turned out to be a pretty cool guy to talk to. In fact, I was really enjoying his company and after the final prayers, we walked out together. Actually we followed Moishe who Ely lionizes. Ely as he does was hanging on Moishe’s ear waiting for a chance to talk to the man. Moishe was putting his three-child caravan together and we all got bogged down in the corridor of the kitchen together. Suddenly Moishe turned to me: “Listen Adam, I have a concrete business offer for you.”

“Do you mean concrete as in real or concrete or…” I stamped my foot on the floor, “as in concrete?” He looked worried at the answer. It was Texas all over again. “No, yes…” I was stammering, “Please yes, I am interested. Business is good. But you know for sure, I have time but no money.” This got me only a sad face in return. Yes… You have to know potatoes. He said we would talk after the Shabbas.

What a night. My first time in forever at a synagogue, I make several new friends and in the end, someone, well not just someone but the rabbi says that they want to do business with me. What do you say? Thank G-d?

I walked home with Ely and we talked back and forth the whole time. My mind was flying. At the corner across the street from my house we stopped but never broke the conversation. We tried to break it but we couldn’t. So many subjects, so many things to talk about. I was jazzed. It was such great energy. It was exactly like that day at Durnapeka’s office. And we must have been there for over an hour when two young, drunk kids passed us on the street. And of course, one of them had to take a moment to laugh at Ely’s dress; black on white, bowler hat, a scissor-less beard and the tassels from his talus dangling below. We both tensed as they passed and they were a few paces up the street when one of them turned and asked if I had a light. I told him I don’t smoke and he caught my accent. He started back towards me.

“What do you mean you don’t have a light?”

“It means I don’t smoke.”

“You don’t smoke?”

“No, never.” He thought that this was funny too, said a few things about my mother and turned and left. But then he stopped and asked if I was polish. Again, maybe it was my accent that made him ask, but for my part, well, you know how I feel about this sort of question and I gave him the same answer as I did about the cigarettes: Never, I am never Polish and I emphasized the syllables of never, ni-kog-da, so as to make the point. And of course this got him mad because if you know anything about Belarus, you know that the only oppositional political party available to anyone’s consciousness is that damn UCPB which at its heart represents ethnic poles living in Belarus. And of course if you are a worthless young teenage punk and you are looking for any and all chances to rebel, you gravitate to the UCPB the way Americans go to say… Marilyn Manson- or some such analogy. At any rate, he didn’t like it and by way of proving that he was in fact a Polak, he took a couple of wobbly yet aggressive steps our way.

I tensed for the fight. I looked at Ely and he was white. Now, how did I get into this mess? Luckily, the drunk’s friend was calling him to stop and come back to where he was. It took some convincing as the drunk’s ego was jammed solidly into gear and unlocking of course was a problem to his sense of necessary self destruction, but he did. Again, thank G-d.

But it did occur to me that I had better walk Ely back to the Internat. You can argue all you want about how little anti-Semitism there is or isn’t out here in the former Soviet Union, but this little demonstration was enough bad energy for me to fear for my new friend.

And so we walked together. He was definitely a little freaked out and the conversation was scattered. But then, just as we got to the apartment buildings where the boy’s dorm was, he told me that he might have to go in through the window.

“Why is that?”

“We have got an electric door.”


“Well, it’s the electricity. It is the Shabbas and all. I can’t go through the door.”

“Ah yea, right.” Right. Such subtleties, yea? There are a lot of things you can and can’t do on the Shabbas. It’s the Lord’s day, the day of rest, the day of contemplation. It’s the fourth commandment; on the seventh day G-d rested. And I was thinking about this as we made our way to the first floor window. And then the thought struck me: I probably was not allowed to help Ely through the window. Its the inside and the outside, don’t you see? The first tract from the Talmud specifically talks about this. I had read into it when all of this started. There are rules regarding the transfer of objects over the dividing line of adjoining premises, based on biblical statutes. This was MISHNA I:

A mendicant stands outside and the master of a house inside. The mendicant passes his hand into the house (through a window or door) and puts something into the hand of the master, or he takes something out of the master's hand and draws it back (toward him). In such a case the mendicant is guilty (of transfer) and the master of the house is free. If the master of the house passes his hand outside and puts a thing into the hand of the mendicant, or takes something out of the mendicant's hand and brings it into the house, the master of the house is culpable and the mendicant is free. If the mendicant extends his hand into the house and the master takes something out of it, or puts something into it which is drawn to the outside by the mendicant, they are both free. If the master of the house extends his hand outside and the mendicant takes something out of it, or puts something into it which is drawn to the inside by the master, they are both free.”

It had occurred to me that in cupping my hands to use as a foot hold so that I could help boost Ely through the window, I would probably be guilty of passing an object (Ely) from the outside to the inside and therefore would be guilty of transfer; I would be committing a sin. And at the same moment Ory Schtilman was on the inside and was apologizing that he could not hand me a glass of coke for exactly the same reasons. It was a great moment. I understood. Certainly it was nothing but a subtlety, but it was a subtlety that only a Jewish person might be aware of or even care to consider. And that I was aware, and that apparently I did care, even if it was only over something silly, was one of the two greatest Jewish moments I have ever had in my life.

And the second was to come the following night.