| A Gift Passed Along |

A Lesson Half-Eaten

For the life of me, I could not fathom what was so distressing to Rabbi Friedman

Y

ears after graduating elementary school, I was still haunted by the image of my principal rummaging through the lunchroom garbage.

Tall and imposing in his immaculate navy suit, silver hair combed precisely to the left, Rabbi Dr. Armin H. Friedman had an impeccable appearance and formal demeanor that were vestiges of a European upbringing. Most striking was his impossibly erect posture, so straight that as a child, I imagined an invisible book perpetually balanced on his head. Which made the lunchtime ritual all the more incongruous.

Midway through the chatter and laughter of lunchtime at HALB, Rabbi Friedman would stride in, quietly surveying the tables packed with his young charges. Then, almost as an afterthought, he would approach the massive wheeled garbage bin dominating the center of the room, bend to a right angle, and begin to sift through the layers of discarded food.

Usually it was a half-eaten sandwich callously tossed, or a succulent apple rejected after the second bite, that caught his eye. At this point, sensing the inevitable, the rowdy lunchroom plunged to near silence as we waited apprehensively for Rabbi Friedman's response. Holding the spurned food high above his considerable height, guttural voice ringing clearly through the vast space, he would declare: "Whose mother packed them a good lunch and they threw it away?" Or, "Who threw away a good apple?!"

 

His tone communicated disbelief, disappointment, and perhaps just a trace of bewilderment. Sometimes he would unearth an entire lunch bag, its carefully packaged sandwich and snacks only half full. Peering at the name inked on the outside of the brown paper bag, he would call the child out by name, demanding they answer for the crime of discarding food. “Why didn’t you bring the rest home to your mother?” he asked, incredulous. We quickly learned to tear the name off our rejected lunch bags before depositing them in the offending receptacle.

For eight long years of elementary school I thought it perfectly normal for a school principal to sort through the garbage, rescuing foodstuffs from an ignominious end at the trash heap; I assumed it was common practice at all grade schools. And although I knew our principal was a Holocaust survivor, my privileged 1980’s childhood was so disengaged from the notion of privation and want that I neglected to connect the dots. Like most of my youthful contemporaries, for the life of me, I could not fathom what was so distressing to Rabbi Friedman.

Over thirty years later I am re-reading “I Have Lived a Thousand Years,” a Holocaust memoir written by Livia Bitton-Jackson, Rabbi Friedman’s younger sister. And although I have read this book countless times throughout childhood, this time when I reach the encounter between Livia and her brother at the Mühldorf concentration camp, the dissonance haunting me all these years clears and my heart contracts with remorse.

The sky is dripping tears the night Livia and her mother meet my revered principal at the barbed wire fence, determined to sacrifice their soggy bread ration. It’s been over a year since they left him a healthy teenager, and they are utterly unprepared for the shuffling apparition on the men’s side of the fence. He is a hunched and hollowed skeleton with a limp, translucent skin stretched across a severely bruised face. Even his resonant voice, such an embedded piece of my childhood, is reduced to a breathless rasp. Reaching for the small chunk of bread tossed over the fence, my principal stumbles and falls into a puddle of muck. He finally rights his unsteady frame and shuffles away clutching the bread, his stooped form dissipating in the mist.

I close the book as understanding merges with regret, and deep disappointment claws at my throat. How had I missed this, the laden implications of a survivor educating the third generation? I wonder at this man who, day after day in the lunchroom, retaught sacred values to children who would never truly understand because they had not smelled the smoke or heard the screams.

And although I am a decade too late, I want to thank Rabbi Friedman for teaching us coddled American students who were his source of both immense joy and immense residual pain.

(Originally featured in A Gift Passed Along, Special Supplement: Pesach 5780)

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