The time was 6:03 a.m., and I was already late for shul. My father had passed away in October of 2008, and I was saying Kaddish for him. Morning prayers began at 6 o’clock. I had to be there within four minutes or miss the rabbinic Kaddish. To worsen matters, I hadn’t taken my 3 a.m. Parkinson’s medications on time, and I had begun to feel a rise in what I call my “trembling index.”
I anticipated that my illness was going to make laying tefillin problematic. I hurried off to minyan, arriving in time to join the others in declaring: “Y’hei sh’mei rabba m’vorach le’olam ulolmei olmaya” – May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.”
The minyan was more crowded than usual. Two new fellows had shown up to my right. Our table, which ordinarily held three people, was now holding five. I felt cramped.
“This is not going to work,” I thought, as I tried unsuccessfully to don my tallis. Needing more room, I opened the side door to the main sanctuary. I found this private refuge helpful on mornings like this.
With enough light from the hallway, I managed to don my tallis and tefillin after ten minutes, while listening to the shliach tzibur recite the Yishtabach prayer. I checked my rosh (tefillin of the head) quickly and reentered the beis medrash in time for the Borchu prayer. When I came to the words “and you will bind them as a sign upon your arm and they will be tefillin between your eyes” my thoughts turned back to an incident that had happened 15 years earlier.
The first chapter of Pirkei Avos enjoins us to find a teacher. As it happened, it was Mr. Irwin Parker who first accepted me as his student after I had wandered into the minyan where he served as a gabbai.
An apothecary in training in pre-war Poland, Mr. Parker later survived the Mathausen concentration camp. His wife and four children were among the kedoshim (holy martyrs). Reb Isser, as I learned to respectfully address him, stooped forward as a result of the beating the Nazis inflicted on him in Mathausen. They had repeatedly broken his nose, which remained permanently misshapen. Other beatings had damaged his eyesight, causing his left eye to drift.
When I met him, Reb Isser was in his late 70’s. He bore the moral authority of one whose quiet tenacity in overcoming permanent injuries proved indisputably, that the new pharaoh had arisen but failed to destroy us.
I never asked Reb Isser why he had taken me under his wing. Perhaps he saw in me a fledgling fallen from the nest or the shadow of someone he had lost in his previous life. But to me, Reb Isser was a man I had always wanted to know … a person small in stature, yet a spiritual giant. A Jew who had been to hell and back.
As a boy, I had been taught to rise before the hoary head. Learning from such a man would be an experience I’d relish.
One afternoon, Reb Isser took out a small blue velvet bag from inside the portable bima. “Roll up your sleeve,” he nodded toward my left arm. “Slip your arm through this loop and slide it up to your bicep.”
“Like this?” I wondered, so nervous my legs were shaking.
“No, no. You see this knot? It has to be on the inside, facing the heart.”
“Okay, I got it.” We tightened the slip knot to my bicep and wound the black leather strap seven times around my forearm.
“Nu?” he waited. “Mach a brocho” (make a blessing)!
“Al mitzvas tefillin?” I asked reluctantly. “Wait, lehaniach tefillin! Right?”
“Yes. Now put on the rosh. Remember? Bein einecha. Between your eyes.”
“Okay, got it. How’s this?” hopeful that I had gotten it right.
“Ach, a Yiddishe man!” he kvelled. I felt like a kid.
I invited Reb Isser to my house one afternoon for tea and to show him a photograph of my grandpa Harry Austin to whom he bore a striking resemblance. He was nearly speechless when he saw his own likeness in the person of my grandpa. He then placed a sugar cube between his teeth and sipped his tea. Nothing less than a sweet fragment of an old world, it reminded me of what I had seen by grandfather do as a boy.
I watched him intently, this righteous man who often likened the tefillin shel yad to a telephone handset, and the shel rosh to a receiver. “Our prayers,” he said, extending his metaphor, “are long-distance calls. If you dial His number often, you get unlimited minutes for less money.”
Steam from his cup momentarily clouded the sparkle of his blue eyes.
“Like a Divine telephone plan, right?”
“You’re learning, Reb Avrum. Baruch Hashem!”
“More tea, Reb Isser?” He nodded. Happily, there were plenty of sugar cubes.
Now, as I stood in shul years later saying Kaddish for my father, I realized how, in “straightening the bent,” the One Above had enabled Reb Isser to teach me a critically important part of Torah.
I resolved that just as Reb Isser had overcome his afflictions which had bent him over, the inconvenience of Parkinson’s would not cause me to forsake the mitzvah of tefillin.
This was Reb Issser’s legacy to me.