I knew that Wednesday would be a really tough day. For the first time in 38 years, school would start without me. I would not be standing in front of a class – not live, not virtually – not at all. After 12 years of teaching high school and 25 years teaching elementary and middle school, opening day wouldn’t even find me in the bleachers. Things would go on without me.
Eighteen months of hormonal treatment, punctuated by surgery and radiation, had wrestled my advanced prostate cancer to a stalemate. It lay low for a year. But last spring, as I was completing my teaching year, my PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen test, which indicates a possible relapse), became detectable. My oncologist put me back on the hormones, and the side effects were not far behind. By late July it was clear that I’d have to take the semester off. And that’s how it was conceivable that school would start without me.
I knew that, G-d willing, it was only temporary. The pills would drive down whatever is brewing and I’d be back. But I’d have to get through opening day.
Then on Tuesday, G-d sent me a post on Facebook.
He didn’t exactly call himself G-d but in His offer gave Himself away: A Free Jewish Book.
Let me tell you about me and Jewish books. I could show you the first Jewish books I asked my father to buy me on the Lower East Side when I was eight years old. I could tell you who gave me which books for my Bar Mitzvah and identify the first set I purchased from the Yeshiva University annual book sale as a ninth-grader. I could tell you the source of acquisition of just about any of the thousands of Jewish books in my library. By “my library” I mean the room with sliding bookcases that used to be misleadingly called “garage” (to be distinguished from the numerous bookcases and surfaces filled with books throughout the house). How many Jewish books are enough, you ask? Ah, but thereby you reveal the depths of your lack of discernment. Do you ask how much air is enough to breathe, how much sunshine suffices for a spring day? Does a fish quibble when you add water to its tank? I have colleagues who proclaim, “I’m not buying any more; I’m reading the ones I have.” When you hear me say that, you may have me measured for burial shrouds.
So, when I saw a post from someone who’d received a slightly damaged copy of a book and was told by Amazon to keep both it and its replacement – would anyone like the damaged copy for FREE – I knew it was really G-d practicing His ventriloquist act for America’s Got Talent. All I had to do was pick the book up in Brooklyn. Did I mention that the book was by a scholar I had invited to speak to my congregation on more than one occasion? And that he had published this book one week ago? This is golden buzzer stuff.
That’s how the first day of school found me not in a classroom, but in Midwood, Brooklyn. After making the pickup, I asked the book’s former owner, oh, so casually, “Are there any Jewish bookstores nearby?”
“Actually, Israel Mizrahi’s used book store is five minutes away,” he replied, in the same tone with which one would offer a drink to an alcoholic.
Three entire floors of books in piles and on shelves, aisles optional. That is Mizrahi Used Book Store. “What are you interested in?” asked the young High Priest of the stacks. I forced myself to come up with something, but then confessed, “I really just want to browse.” What I didn’t say was that I think that there is Divine guidance for those who browse among holy books, but I think he knew.
In positive psychology, a flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. (Wikipedia)
I was in the zone. It did not matter that I could not even enter most of what passed as aisles and could only nibble at the edges. Browsing and conversing with Mizrahi led me to remember books I had been seeking for years. One such volume was a collection of essays by Leah Frankel, a young woman who taught in Israel in the 1960s and died of cancer before fully realizing her promising career. She was the student, then colleague, of two of my favorite writers, Nechama Leibowitz and Professor Meir Weiss. There were not one, but two copies of that book. I bought both. With Divine guidance, Mizrahi asked me if I was interested in a particular grammatical genre, which happened to be exactly what my son had requested two days before, and, as it turns out, had been the subject of a five-volume set by a distant relative of ours.
Most of our experience of G-d is personal and subjective. Laugh if you wish, but G-d spoke to me through these books. While I was in that store, I was pain free. Time did not exist, and even my bladder behaved. Instead of feeling sorry for myself and looking backward to where I had been for 38 years, I was energized, looking forward to taking home new worlds of words and ideas to explore. G-d had spoken to me in my own language…as he had done to my father 83 years ago.
In 1939, my father was a penniless Polish teenager, fleeing the Nazis together with his yeshiva. Because the city of Vilna (Vilnius), Lithuania, was still independent, its chief rabbi, Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, invited all yeshiva groups to find refuge there, and took personal responsibility for providing them with food, lodging and money. As small stipends were distributed to the refugees, Rabbi Chaim Ozer circulated and conversed. He asked my father the name of his city of origin, to which my father responded, “Riki.” Rabbi Ozer responded, “Riki? Even the least of its citizens is as full of good deeds as a pomegranate is filled with seeds.”
Let me unpack that answer. The short response of the Rabbi is based on a pun made by the Talmud connecting two words (rakatech and rekanim) with similar sounds. It assumes knowledge of the Talmudic passage and its methodology, as well as the verse being examined. The sound happens to be r-k, which appears in the name of my father’s town of Riki and in both of the other words. Thus, Rabbi Chaim Ozer was punning a compliment to my father, which only a student of Talmud and wordplay would appreciate.
How did he know that my father was an inveterate punster in multiple languages? He likely did not, but he had an intuitive understanding of how to put people at ease and make them feel valued. In my father’s case, he used a pun to bridge the distance between a chief rabbi and a lowly student, between a respected leader and a destitute wanderer. He communicated that the two of them played in the same fields of Torah and could share a private joke together. In the years that followed, my father fled from Vilna across Asia to Vladivostok, and then to Japan and Shanghai, before finally arriving in America. That pun warmed him along the long journey. He retold it proudly for the rest of his life, and rightly so. It was G-d speaking to him in his own language of wordplay, using Rabbi Ozer as His agent.
One of the requirements for being a member of the Great Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of Judaism, was to be familiar with 70 languages, the number assigned to the known languages of the time. Officially this was in order to hear testimony without the need of an interpreter. But it is more. The high judge must emulate G-d. G-d speaks the language of every soul, whether that language be books or puns or Harry Potter. To emulate Him, we too must seek to connect to people and set them at ease, to remove barriers and reduce distances with whatever language it takes.
Because every day is someone’s toughest.
This piece originally appeared in Ketoret, a free newsletter about Jewish thought at rabbirosenberg.substack.com.