Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Back from Israel

I just got back from a four days in New York followed by a week in Israel. As usual, in retrospect, I waiver between wondering
"How odd
of God,
to choose
the Jews,"
and amazement at the deep, indomitable and immutable spirituality I that is evident in each and every Jew I met, which reminds me of the rejoinder to that line--
"It's not
so odd:
the Jews
chose God."

I have advice for anyone making a purchase in Mei'ah She'arim. Be tentative. Don't commit yourself too deeply. I wanted some work done on my talis, and I found a hole-in-the-wall store in Meah She'arim. No address, no name, nothing but a pile of tallis bags in the dirty window and a little sign that said "Rekimah." Embroidery. It is located near one of the Yad Sheni'ahs, second hand furniture stores, and approximately across the street from number 65. I stopped in, and asked the elderly man behind the counter if he could embroider my name on a corner of my tallis. He said yes; we agreed to do it in white thread, and when I asked about silver thread, he said "No changes! You decided, and that's it." After arguing for a few minutes, he agreed to do it in silver, and told me to pick it up in two hours. Since I was walking back from Vasikin at the Kosel, I decided to leave my tefillin there too, so I shouldn't have to carry them around.

I came back later that day, at three PM, and the store was locked and dark, like Yerichos, sogeres u'mesugeres. To make a long story short, I waited there for three hours. No exxageration. I waited the first hour because I was told by the neighboring storekeepers that he would open later, after his siesta, or lunch, or whatever it was. But after an hour passed, and he did not show up, I began to fear that he was gone for the day, and that he would not open on the next day, Friday, and I would be stuck without my tefillin for three days. So the next couple of hours were spent running around, with burgeoning anxiety, trying to find out how I could get into the store.
By six PM, I learned the following items:
1. Since the glass was broken next to the door handle, I could put my hand into the store. But the door was locked with a key from the inside, and I couldn't turn the inside handle without a key.
2. His name is Reb Alter Kohen.
3. His father's name was Hillel Kohen. (Later, he verified this fact. But he told it to me in the present tense, "Yah, main tateh's nomen iz Hillel." If his father is alive, he must be around one hundred and fifty years old. I like the idea of referring to his late father in the present tense. His has a father, and his father's name is Hillel; that his father is not alive doesn't change those facts.)
4. He davens Mincha in Shul X, down the street and upstairs.
5. He davens Maariv in Shul Y, also down the street.
6. The two shuls I was in looked like wrecks from the outside but were magnificent on the inside. 7. Ominously, Alter did not show up for Mincha or Ma'ariv.
8. Alter lives in a house off a courtyard not far from the store. (I went to his house, but he wasn't home, either.)
9. His sister sometimes opens the store, and she would have the key.
10. His sister works in a restaurant called Mis'adat Simcha, which is on Rechov Sima, so if I go to Misa'dat Simcha, I could ask her for the key and get my tefillin.
11. Mis'adat Simcha closed two years ago.
12. His grandmother had a dream that the Alteh Rebitzen gave her lekach, and his great-grandfather told her it meant she would find a shidduch. A Lubavitcher bochur came by that day, and she married him.
13. He is a big meyuchas in the Yerushalmi and Lubavitcher pantheon, but the names he told me didn't stick.
14. If you like your bread handled and squeezed by lots of people, among whom are several who haven't washed their hands since scratching places we don't talk about on a family blog, then you should buy it at one of the bakeries with piles of pita outside the store.

Reb Alter came back at six, told me he was in the hospital all day having blood work done and that he has ten heart bypasses, he showed me the bandage on the inside of his elbow, and the tallis was ready, and he had done a fine job.

Silver lining: It was an immersion experience. I learned a great deal about Meah Shearim and its shuls, houses, courtyards and denizens.

While I was wandering around Meah She'arim that day, I bought a silver ring for my wife with the letters gimmel zayin yud, for gahm zeh ya'avor, which she once expressed an interest in. I had to have it custom-made. It came with the letters gimmel daled yud, Gedi, a goat. No, the storekeeper told me, that's not a daled, that's a zayin! So far, I have been able to convince my wife it's a zayin. But it's a daled. Still, a Gedi ring is better than the ugly shmatteh rings a different store showed me, with sloppily written letters, and costing three times as much. While I was looking, one guy asked me whether I wanted the ring in connection with Obama's election.

One bookstore in Geulah was selling stones from Har Sinai, with brachiate images on them, allegedly looking like branches of a bush, with a reprint from the Arvei Nachal that alludes to these images. Given a choice between that and money falling out of a hole in my pocket, I would go for the hole in the pocket. Better in my pocket than in my head.


  1. As usual, in retrospect, I waiver between wondering
    "How odd of God, to choose the Jews,"
    and amazement at the deep, indomitable and immutable spirituality I that is evident in each and every Jew I met

    Perhaps your initial reaction is a response to the first four days of your trip while the later reaction is a result of the following week of your trip.

    Just a thought.

    Either way, welcome back and in case you are one of those that bench gommel after flying, let me just say mi shgomalcha tov, hu yigmalcha kol tov selah.

  2. Lkwdguy, I hear the svara to be mechaleik.

    On the way back to the airport, the chiloni sefardi driver remarked that, just out of sakranut, curiousity, he had gone to the Chatzer of the Belzer Beis Medrash on, as he put it, Yom Kippurim, because someone told him that you could hear the Rebbe daven, and that you could hear the Rebbe crying when he davens.

    Thanks for reminding me about Gomel. I takeh forgot about it.

  3. While your were gone I repeated your point about Yosef from VaYigash. Very good Mussar for our generation. To paraphrase-don't throw out the baby with the bath water. I found this very inspiring.

    Secondly, I tried calling your house to wish you a belated Mazal Tov on the Siyum. Your Shiur should only grow in all ways.

    Thirdly, I wear a cloth Yarmulke when I Daven. This keeps my Talis clean. The seude Yarmulke makes the Talis over the head a dirty proposition.

  4. Thank you; I know I shouldn't have written about suede and knitted yarmulkehs. Since writing it, I have been looking around more carefully, and I have learned that my prejudices are outdated.

    The phone service to my house has been broken for four weeks, on and off. Thanks for trying to call.

  5. Lets talk Torah how about you do a piece on saying gomel when you put yourself in Danger? I would rather a parsha piece but i figure you are in the Parsha anyway and by the way does everyone agree you have to make a brocho every time there are ppl who fly like ppl take cars granted its a Nes every time but so is a car WHATS THE DIN?

  6. Ok, Reb Anonymous. Let's talk Torah. You wanted to talk about Birkas Hagomel, and brought up two subjects.
    I. Does a person make a birkas hagomel when he is saved from a danger into which he put himself.

    II. Why make hagomel for flying more than for driving.

    Regarding I, you know that this is a machlokes achronim, discussed in the Minchas Eluzer and more thorougly in the Tzitz Eliezer. I actually do have an opinion on this matter, but it is more in the way of hashkafa than psak. Maybe I will write about it later.

    Regarding II, this, too, is discussed in the achronim, for example Reb Moshe in the Igros.