Abba didn’t just belong to us, but to everyone
From a young age, I learned that Abba didn’t just belong to us, but to everyone in the neighborhood who needed a rav. Sometimes it felt like the whole neighborhood had Abba’s number. Rarely did we make it more than a few seconds after Havdalah without his phone beeping with another sh’eilah, another situation, another emergency. When we’d sit with him — to do homework, to learn together, for guidance — he’d flip his phone over and ignore the messages, but I could hear the buzz, the little vibration against the table that signified another question for him.
Today, his phone is clipped to his belt as we crawl through the attic. It’s a low-ceilinged room, tall only at the center where the roof arcs upward, and there are so many boxes stacked throughout that it’s a bit of an obstacle course. I’d offered to sort out the attic myself, but Abba refused. He takes a savage kind of pleasure in throwing out old things, buried in the attic because one of us (Ima, always Ima) couldn’t bear to throw out a useless, forgotten memento.
Now, though, the attic must be emptied. My parents are moving to Eretz Yisrael. I push aside a box of clothing that’s marked “Boys two to three years” — my parents haven’t had a three-year-old boy in three decades — and squint at the next box. It isn’t labeled, and I have to open it to see what’s inside. Manila folders, carefully organized and stacked in the precise way I know must mean they’re Abba’s. “Hey, check this out.”
Abba scoots a little closer. I glimpse his phone for an instant before he tucks it away. Should be fine. Just rinse before adding to the soup, says the last message he types, and I breathe a sigh of relief on behalf of whichever hapless cook just made a kashrus mistake. “Look at this. Are these old lawyer files?”
“I don’t hold on to those. They’ll be at my firm’s office even once I’m working from abroad.” Abba peers at the first folder, opens it, and glances at the first paper. “These are rabbinic.” It’s an official-looking document, written on the letterhead of a medical facility, but there is a scrawl across it, a name and phone number that I recognize immediately. Rabbi Weishaut, and Abba’s phone number.
Abba gazes at it, an absentminded hand moving to stroke his beard, and he says, “I remember this man. Dr. Friedler. He was a cardiologist who lived on the other side of town.”
“I’ve never heard of him. He was part of the shul?” Granted, I’ve been living away from home for many years by now, but I’m back often enough that I think I’d recognize the name of a congregant.
“No.” Abba considers the paper. “He was treating a patient with a very frightening infectious disease one day. Very dicey situation, a lot of doctors present, when an accident happened, and he was pricked by the same needle he’d just used on the patient.”
I can imagine it clearly — the moment of absolute terror, Dr. Friedler’s entire life and future flashing before his eyes. Abba said, “Back then, it would be about ten days of testing before he’d know if he was infected. It was a shattering experience. Another doctor gave him my number, and he called me.
“When I spoke to him, he wasn’t even willing to tell his wife about the possibility. We worked through that first, and then there was more. For days, he’d call me repeatedly. He began to attend my shiurim, and we sat in the shul for hours, discussing topics of emunah and hashkafah. I’ve never seen someone so driven to change and grow, to transform into a better version of himself.” Abba sets the paper back into the folder.
There is a strange sort of symmetry between Abba right now and Dr. Friedler, the two of them standing at a crossroads that would end their lives as they knew it. Whatever had happened next to Dr. Friedler, whatever results would have returned, he’d gone in strong, forever transformed.
Abba tucks away the papers and the box. “I don’t think I’ll need to take this with me,” he says. “Though a lot of these documents are confidential. They’ll have to go into storage.” He moves the box with some effort, putting it close to the ladder entrance that will take us out of the attic.
I stare at him, dissatisfied with his abrupt change of subject. “Wait. What happened to Dr. Friedler?” Abba speaks about him in the past tense. How many levayos had Abba attended over the years, while I’d been oblivious, at school or work? How much grief and loss had he witnessed?
Abba lifts his shoulders in a shrug. “The results came back negative. He was fine.” He drums his fingers against the side of the box. “We never spoke again. I see him at simchahs sometimes, and he walks past me like he doesn’t know me.”
“I think I must remind him of a time in his life he’d rather forget. It’s an uncomfortable thing that happens when you see people at their most vulnerable moments,” Abba murmurs. “When they emerge from the darkness, they want little to do with the people who’ve helped them.”
There’s a certain weight to how he says it.
I’ve always thought I’d gotten the helper gene from my parents. When I meet someone in crisis, I feel a compulsion to jump in, to put aside any discomfort and inconvenience, and take immediate action in any way I can. But when the emergency fades, I become less reliable, less involved, and I drift on to the next person who needs it.
Abba can only ever be steady, can only ever remain open to every stranger who might need him again someday. They’re the ones who pull back, who leave the story unfinished, and Abba is only one guide for these travelers along the way. The writer in me sees the poetry in that, but I quail at the incomplete endings.
When I say that to Abba, he just laughs and moves on to the next box. “People are incomplete, Leah. We’re forever changing, forever growing. That’s the beauty of it.”
There are so many relics in the attic, ancient pieces of a time that seems so distant to me. Today, I have two siblings living across the world, one two hours away, and only one local, and it’s strange to see our boxes packed up together in a house we haven’t lived in together for 15 years. “I’ve tried to send some of these things home with you,” Abba reminds me when I push a box full of books across the attic with some effort.
My house couldn’t come close to supporting the volume of books I’d have to bring back. “Maybe I could donate them,” I say hopefully.
Abba scoffs. “I remember having this exact conversation six years ago.” My memory is faltering as though I’m double my age. Abba, actually double my age (Not quite! I can hear him reprove me in my mind), has a memory like a steel trap.
He told me once that when he was younger, a school rebbi told him that he was the perfect example of the tam, the Simple Son. Maybe it had been a dig, but Abba recounted it with gratitude, with a wholehearted appreciation for the rebbi’s words. “The tam doesn’t know, and he knows that he doesn’t know. He just wants to learn it all, drink everything in and learn it for the first time. That was me. I knew nothing, and I wanted to know everything.”
Abba was born in a neighborhood of mostly traditional Jews, people who might have attended a synagogue as a social affair once in a blue moon. There was a local Modern Orthodox school that serviced more religious folks, of whom his parents were not. His father had a vague memory of first-grade cheder and a high esteem for frum Jews, but that was about it.
Abba’s grandfather passed away when Abba was five and about to be enrolled in the local public school. His father had second thoughts. Day after day, he would go to the local shul and slowly pick through the words of Kaddish for his own father, and he came home one day and made the decision: Abba would go to the Modern Orthodox yeshivah for first grade, just long enough to learn to read Hebrew. “So you can say Kaddish for me one day,” he informed Abba.
The first day was rough. Abba walked into a class full of kids who’d grown up frum and was immediately lost. He didn’t know a thing: not the words of Modeh Ani, not to wash his hands before bread, not a bit of the terminology the other kids took for granted. He was a sharp kid, and it was a shock to spend so much time in a culture that was alien to him.
The principal of the school was Rabbi Steinberger, a Holocaust survivor who had better things to do than check in on a first grader. But he must have known Abba’s situation, because he came to him at lunch and asked him how his day was going.
Abba had no idea who the older man was, and he was honest. “I’m not coming back tomorrow. I feel stupid here.”
Rabbi Steinberger didn’t pause. “How about this?” he offered. “You come to me for ten minutes of lunch every day, and I’ll teach you everything that you need to know to fit in here.”
And he did exactly that. Every day, Abba would sit with the principal at lunchtime, and Rabbi Steinberger walked him through it all: the alef-beis, the davening, Yom Tov, kashrus, and everything else a frum first-grader might know.
For the next seven years, Rabbi Steinberger persuaded Abba’s parents to keep sending him back. “We’ll work out the cost. He’s doing so well, try it for another year.” Abba stood out in his class, neck and neck with Rabbi Steinberger’s own son, and he was able to strengthen his Yiddishkeit during each year that followed. He took on more and more mitzvos as each year passed, growing up frum despite his surroundings. He likes to tell us about how he walked to his own bar mitzvah celebration, over an hour away from home, in a treif restaurant where he couldn’t eat.
In his house, his family treated his movements toward frumkeit with a healthy mixture of skepticism and respect, but they took pride in Abba and in his place in the yeshivah as the years passed.
“My father wasn’t a religious man,” Abba tells me now as I flip through a box full of old photo albums. I never knew my grandfather, but I remember my grandmother well, the way she’d come to shul with a little doily on her head and glow with pride when she heard her son’s voice on the other side of the mechitzah. Is that him? she’d ask us, her whisper always a little too loud to be proper. Is that my boy? “But my father had such a strong appreciation for rabbanim,” Abba continues. “He used to dress up in his best suit for every meeting with Rabbi Steinberger, and he respected him just as much as everyone in yeshivah.”
I’ve always been proud to be the daughter of a baal teshuvah. My son is named for Abba’s father, and he shares his namesake’s blue eyes and Abba’s intense focus for learning. My niece is named for Abba’s mother. Last year, my niece completed a school assignment that asked for the origins of her name. In her native Hebrew, she’d written, I was named for my grandfather’s mother. She was not frum, but still sent her son to yeshivah, and he grew up to be a rav in a shul in America.
When Abba started working at a law office, there was another first-year associate there, named Sammy Tantzor. Abba’s yeshivah education had started in first grade; Sammy’s had ended halfway through second. His family wasn’t frum, and neither was he, but Abba was able to talk him into learning with him during their lunch break in one of the office conference rooms.
I was a toddler who would come along occasionally, on the days when my playgroup was closed. Abba would have an English Rambam and a yarmulke for Sammy. Sammy would stroll in, sometimes with a sandwich in hand. “Is it okay if I eat my lunch?” he asked.
“Turkey?” Abba asked warily.
“Ham,” Sammy corrected him.
“You know, I’m going to draw the line,” Abba said. “No eating ham sandwiches while you’re learning the Rambam’s Hilchos Teshuvah.” Sammy conceded. He was respectful and loved to learn, though he had no interest in taking it further.
Over time, though, he became vaguely more interested in Yiddishkeit. We had him and his wife, Jennifer, over for Shabbos and Yom Tov. My brother Daniel and I would play with his kids while Abba learned with him after the meal. Sammy was a great guy. Abba was pretty sure he’d gotten nowhere with him.
He moved back to Florida to take over Jennifer’s family business. Then he called Abba about eight weeks after he’d moved and said, “All right, you can put another notch in your belt. I just finished my first month of putting on tefillin every day.”
He asked for more materials. Abba sent him magazine articles and seforim and found someone in Florida for him to learn with. He’d check in with Sammy every few months as he progressively — and his wife gradually — became more and more frum.
Two years later, he’d decided to finally take the leap and become shomer Shabbos. I still remember how he phrased it. He’d say, “I’m Sammy. For the Satan, I’m a big prize. So I knew the Satan was going to make trouble for me.” Ima always liked to say that he got ten nisyonos, same as Avraham.
On his very first Shabbos, Sammy got a call in the middle of the night. Jennifer picked up the phone. “Sammy, it’s the fire department. Our factory’s on fire. They need you to come down immediately.”
Sammy didn’t budge. “Shabbat,” he reminded her. “It’s a trick.”
“It’s not a trick!”
“It’s a trick,” he said, very certain.
“It’s the fire department! It’s not a trick!”
Sammy shook his head. “There are other people on the call list,” he reminded her. “Tell them I’m not coming to the phone.”
“Sammy,” Jennifer said, frustrated. “It’s my father’s business. Sammy. Enough with the Shabbat.”
“Nope,” Sammy said. “I knew it’d be something.”
They called the next person on the list, who went down to the factory and discovered it was a false alarm.
Sammy one, Satan nothing.
He would walk to shul each Shabbos for three miles and struggle to learn the parshah each week. And he continued on. There were more crises to follow, more tests and mishaps. On the third Shabbos, his son got hurt and had to go to the emergency room. On the seventh Shabbos, Jennifer was ready to join him.
Shabbos Number Ten came immediately before Hurricane Andrew, one of the worst hurricanes in American history.
The forecast was clear. He lived right in the projected direction of the storm. Most of his block had evacuated by Friday afternoon. His parents and in-laws both showed up Shabbos day to warn them to leave. “Forget the Sabbath. You’re not going to make it through Sabbath if you don’t drive out now.”
Halachically, he should have left, but not knowing better, Sammy didn’t budge. “Absolutely not. I’ve learned that whoever is shomer the Shabbat, the Shabbat will be shomer him. I’m not going anywhere.” He sat on his porch and watched his neighbors boarding up their houses and evacuating, all of them tossing sidelong disbelieving stares at him. The roads were closed by the time Shabbos had ended, and Sammy and his family were trapped right at the epicenter of the storm.
The storm was set to come on Sunday. On Motzaei Shabbos, he ran from hardware store to hardware store. The few that were open had nothing left. He couldn’t even get wood to board up his house. The most that Sammy and Jennifer could do was put masking tape on the windows, hunker down in a doorway, and daven.
The storm shot over them like a roaring freight train, vicious and unrelenting. For hours on Sunday night, they listened to furious rumbling all around them, sounds of destruction and chaos outside. The children fell asleep on the floor of the doorway under a heap of blankets. Sammy and Jennifer couldn’t sleep. There was no relief, no good news from their radio, and nothing standing between them and the hurricane but their trembling, fragile house.
Finally, after what must have been an eternity, the sounds of the storm began to die down. When the sun came up on Monday, light flooded the room, and Sammy realized they’d survived.
He stepped gingerly outside to scope out the damage. Three of the houses on his block had completely lost their roofs, the second floors open and visible from the street. The windows in every house were cracked and destroyed. The trees were spindles, stripped of branches and leaves. And his own house was untouched. Not a single broken window, not a tile missing from his roof, not an iota of damage to his property at all.
We listened on speakerphone in the kitchen as Sammy told us this story on Monday afternoon. He described it as though it was perfectly normal. “What do you mean?” he said to our disbelief. “I’m a shomer Shabbat now, so I get this. This is how it goes.”
Abba could barely get out the words through his wonder. “This is incredible. You have to write this up, share this story—”
“Why? This is the way it works, right?”
None of us responded.
Sammy’s voice rose. “Hey, look. I’m not that far into this, remember?” He sounded suddenly wary. “If there’s something I’m supposed to know that no one told me yet, I need you to tell me.”
A quiet awe settled inside of me like a brand-new, precious certainty. In our kitchen, we exchanged glances. “No,” Abba said for us all. “You got it right. We got it wrong.”
I recognize the bag of school uniforms tucked into an attic box like an afterthought. Abba scoffs when I hold them up. “I can’t imagine that Bais Yaakov still has the same uniforms now. You can probably get rid of those.”
“You’re right,” I concede. “It’s just… these aren’t mine or Dassi’s or Talia’s.” They had been, once, but I remember the day I’d climbed into the attic to sift through old uniforms and bring them downstairs for the Fein girls.
I’d been 15 or 16, long out of elementary school. I didn’t go to shul every Shabbos then. There was too much pressure to look perfect, to roll out of bed with perfect hair and makeup, somehow, and wear something different every week. I hadn’t liked how I looked back then, had been self-conscious enough that I’d daven at home instead.
Still, I’d built up a decent rapport with the women of the shul, and I knew them well enough to recognize that Lisa Fein was a stranger. I nudged Ima and raised my eyebrows toward Lisa. Ima shook her head. She didn’t know her, either. Lisa stood with two little girls who whispered to each other and took turns pointing at the alef-beis on the page.
It wasn’t unusual for strangers to come to the shul for a week, never to be seen again. Lisa slipped out at the end of davening before Ima or I could speak to her, but she was back the next week with her daughters.
That’s the thing about Ima, renowned introvert. She’s always been leery of settling into the role of rebbetzin, of making the ezras nashim into her quiet realm (“I’ll give out the candy to the kids,” she decided once, and established no authority beyond that), but she’s someone who exudes goodness and affection nonetheless. She looks out for strangers, and is quick to welcome them to the neighborhood. (Although, every now and then, she’ll encounter someone who is expecting a very specific sort of rebbetzin. “Have you ever been here before?” one infamous newcomer asked her in response to Ima’s greeting.) One smile from Ima as they enter the shul, and women would keep coming back just to see it again. Lisa was no exception.
I mentioned her at the table on Shabbos. “Maybe she just moved in nearby.” Now our neighborhood is a thriving hub of Jewish life. But back then, everyone seemed to live at least 15 minutes away, and new neighbors were always exciting. “Abba, do you know their last name? Have you met her husband yet?”
Abba’s brow crinkled as he thought back to shul. “I don’t think there is a husband.”
A single mother, then. Our shul was always one that supported single mothers and looked out for them. It was even more important now that we figure out this stranger.
Lisa was a mystery, someone no one seemed to know, someone who avoided any connection at first. But it was the kids who were the key, on the third Shabbos. They discovered the group of children who would drift down to the kiddush room during davening, expertly managed by my little sisters, Talia and Dassi. Dassi reported what she’d gotten from the kids. “They have a father at home, but they seemed confused when I asked where he davens.”
We were determined to speak to Lisa. Ima found an excuse to linger in the driveway near the end of davening the next week. This time, she was able to strike up a conversation and piece together the details of what had brought Lisa to us.
Lisa and her husband had been baalei teshuvah, just starting out on the path, when they married. Over the course of the next year, her husband had decided that it wasn’t for him. Lisa had forged forward, and was raising her children frum alongside her non-religious husband.
Her husband wasn’t hostile to frumkeit — he’d drop by for our Shabbos meals after a morning run and would chat with my brother about Torah or sports. He was pleased to have his kids growing up in a community-oriented environment that he saw as safe and intellectual. Lisa was incredibly sincere and committed, and she wanted that for her daughters as well.
When she first moved to the community, she enrolled her daughters in a more modern school to avoid any extreme culture shock for them. But within a year, it was clear that she wanted a frummer environment. Abba was left with a dilemma, though: How would he persuade Bais Yaakov to take these children with a complicated home life?
My elementary school menahel was a longtime acquaintance of Abba’s, someone known in the community for being both honest and upstanding. He didn’t play games or prioritize wealthy sponsors in his school. The currency Abba used with him was favors, and they’d cash in from time to time, for the good of Abba’s kehillah or the menahel’s school.
But Abba knew that this particular ask was going to be tough. Bais Yaakov was jam-packed with students, especially in the younger grades, and it was nearly impossible to get a new student in, even without Lisa’s background. Even I hadn’t been able to get into the school right away; my parents had to call on every connection they had, and Talia and Dassi had still been forced to wait a year before being accepted. Lisa’s daughters didn’t stand a chance on their own.
Still, Abba finagled an interview and prepared an arsenal of arguments in favor of Lisa. Lisa brought her daughters to the school, and she was upfront about their unique situation.
Abba called the menahel the next morning. “I know that you met Mrs. Fein,” Abba said. “And you’re aware that her husband isn’t frum. Listen, I’m going to throw my weight behind her application, and I understand all that’s involved—”
The menahel cut Abba off. “I don’t understand what you’re asking me.”
“I’d like you to take these girls.” Abba could already tell from his reaction that this might be a losing battle, but he was determined to see it through.
The menahel said, “What’s the question?” He sounded bewildered. “Did you see that mother? Did see the strength that she has, the dedication to see this through? I’d never let those girls go anywhere else. You don’t need to persuade me of anything. I immediately processed their paperwork. They’re already in.”
Abba and I sort through memorabilia in the attic, throwing out most of it with a callousness that would have appalled Ima. This afternoon, we’ll have to account to her as to why we tossed out Talia’s old camp awards and a finger painting I made when I was three. For now, I take real joy in watching the bag of recycling get fuller and the box of papers get smaller.
The box of sheimos is growing, too. Why an entire booklet of photocopied pages of Chumash had made it into the attic, we’ll never know, but it reminds me of another old story. “Remember the seforim slasher?”
Abba shoots me a knowing look. I’m like a hungry fiend in the last few hours before Yom Kippur, seizing up every last story as though I might not have any more very soon. I’ve begun collecting them, writing them down as Abba shares them, and I ask for them surreptitiously with every day spent in the attic. Soon, Abba will be across the ocean that I can see from my bedroom window, sharing his stories with my siblings’ families instead. Soon, I will no longer have unfettered access to my parents, will be bound to a phone, and time differences, and I want everything that I can get.
“There isn’t much of a story there, Leah,” he points out. “Talia was wandering the shul when she came across a woman upstairs raving and tearing out pages from siddurim. We found them near a number of shuls in the area. No happy ending, just a woman who needed help.”
“Were you able to help her?” Usually, the good stories end with that, but Abba shakes his head.
“Let me tell you about Jake Leiber,” Abba says, the change in topic answer enough. Not everyone can be helped.Not every story culminates in a happy ending. “You remember the yeshivah that used to be in the shul?”
There had been two, but I immediately know which one he means. It had been a yeshivah for boys who’d been going through troubles of their own. They’d been a belligerent presence on the block for years, throwing snowballs at us as we trudged home from school or riding our toy cars like scooters down the sidewalk. I’d taken it with preteen aplomb, more often amused by their antics than afraid or irritated.
I remember Jake Leiber as an older boy who’d been at our Shabbos table a few times, stealing Slinkies from the playroom and tossing a ball over the candles to his buddies across the room. Spiky blond hair, a careless face.
“So Jake comes into shul one morning when I’m learning. No yarmulke, of course. I give him one and he tosses it back at me.” Abba shakes his head, amused by Jake’s nerve even years later. “I tell him that he can either stay in the shul with the yarmulke on or leave with it off. And he puts it on! I should’ve known then that he was going through something.”
“Hiding from the cops?” I guess. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
Abba laughs. “Nothing like that. He makes conversation, wanders off, and I didn’t think much of it. A few minutes later, I found him in the back of the women’s section, having a stare-off with his tefillin.” Abba sets down the old preschool project he’d been inspecting, his eyes going distant as he remembers. “He told me he’d decided that he was done with them.”
He was going to throw them out.
Abba spreads his hands. “Obviously, there were some kids from that yeshivah who missed tefillin all the time. But it wasn’t a big moment for them. With Jake, I could see that this meant something to him, and that was my chance.”
“What did you do?” I already have my phone out, recording Abba as he talks.
“I told him that he might not be in a place for tefillin right now. ‘Listen,’ I said. ‘Maybe one day you’re going to change your mind, come back to this, and you’ll regret all the days you went without putting on tefillin. How about I keep your tefillin here for now? You can drop by every day, put on tefillin, head back out and do whatever you want. Either you’ll be happy you did it one day, or you’ll stop caring. No harm done.’ And he agreed.”
Abba balls up the project and tosses it into recycling. “He used to come in every single day for years. Sometimes it’d be early morning, sometimes it’d be four p.m. I never asked what he was up to for the rest of the day. But he would show up, take his tefillin from my cabinet, put them on, and then leave again. No one pushed him to do it. But it was a thread to frumkeit that he wasn’t willing to break.”
“Did he come back eventually?” I try to think back to my last memory of Jake Leiber. I remember him at the Shabbos table, the spiky blond hair tucked under a yarmulke as he’d slipped extra candy to a five-year-old Dassi. We hadn’t known much of anything about the boys at our table when we’d been little, hadn’t differentiated between the ones who’d come to the meal as a kiruv opportunity and the ones who’d been bochurim who just needed a meal. I had argued with all of them with the nerve of a little girl who’d seen them all as substitutable big brothers.
“One day, he came into shul and took his tefillin,” Abba says, and he turns over the box and empties out the last few things directly into the garbage. “He was ready to bring them home. He eventually transferred to the other yeshivah, got married, sends his kids to the same schools your kids go to. There’s your happy ending.” He leans over to speak more clearly into my phone. “Four years off on his own path, and he still came in every day to put on tefillin. That kid? He wasn’t ever really gone.”
Today, the attic is nearly bare. The boxes have all been cleared out, most of the remaining ones already driven to the storage unit, and there are just a few more items left. An old crib mattress, a stack of ancient encyclopedias, a garbage bag full of musty coats from last century. We’re almost done, and I can’t help but feel a little wistful about it.
“Don’t worry,” Abba says, eyes twinkling. “We still have to clean out the garage.”
I shudder. “I think I’d rather you got on the plane today. We can just tell the new owners that there is no garage.” But it’s a relief to know that there’s more to do, as time-consuming as it is. I’m getting to know my father all over again during this process.
I’ve brought up lunch for Abba, just some crackers and yogurt I’d found in the almost-bare kitchen. He says a brachah and then laughs. “I just remembered….”
“Yes?” I say eagerly, reaching for my phone’s recorder.
He gives me a look. “The encyclopedias,” he reminds me. “I’ll tell you this one while we finish up.”
I stack encyclopedias and carry them down the ladder four at a time, my voice recorder still running near Abba. “A number of years ago, I received a phone call late at night from a frum businessman I knew, Dovid Taub. He was in trouble.
“He used to work for a prominent company that made glatt kosher ready-made meals. Frum company, frum man in charge — Yanky Grossman. He’d left the company and signed a noncompete agreement for a few years. A year later, the Red Cross hired him to make a line of MREs for them.”
MREs are meals that are ready to eat, a meal in a bag to be distributed to victims of various natural disasters. “This was right before Hurricane Katrina and a few other disasters. The Red Cross wound up ordering thousands of Dovid’s kosher-style MREs, and he made well over a million dollars on them.
“And Yanky was suing for breaking the non-compete agreement,” I guess. “Because he wasn’t supposed to sell the same kinds of products. He needed you as a lawyer?”
“He needed me as a rav,” Abba says ruefully. “He had a lawyer, and he had a federal court case that they were losing terribly. Yanky’s side had proven that he had started the process of the deal very close to when he’d left the company. They wanted the profits of Dovid’s deal, they wanted damages against him, and Dovid was stuck. He didn’t have that kind of money — didn’t even have much of the profits anymore — and he was looking at this moment like his life was about to fall apart and he needed guidance.”
That’s Abba — he’s the spiritual EMT, the one who gets called in once it’s impossible to avert the crisis, once the worst of it is underway. “I don’t get it, though,” I say, hoisting the mattress down the ladder. Abba guides it through the narrow opening, curling the sides so it’ll fit through the hole. “They aren’t in competition. Glatt kosher meals aren’t the same as kosher-style meals. How did Yanky have a case?”
“The judge and the jury didn’t understand the significance of that distinction,” Abba points out. There are only a few scraps left in the attic, and he passes them to me, one at a time. “It must have seemed so minute to them, and they were just about ready to call the case in Yanky’s favor.”
He puts an old baby swing, yellowed with age, into my hands. It must have been put away in my childhood for grandchildren, then abandoned in favor of a brand-new electric one that now sits in Dassi’s living room. “This is it,” he says suddenly, “we’re done.”
He climbs down the ladder, slowly and carefully. He’s not as young as he used to be, I realize suddenly. I still think of my father, in his sixties, as strong and capable of anything. The years have crept past, Abba’s beard has grayed, and I have restructured in my mind, with every year gained, exactly when old age might come.
It really is time for him to have some peace, a quiet future with Ima in the land of our people. I can’t begrudge their going. “You can never move away,” I remember one member of the kehillah telling me once, “you’re the only ones keeping them here.”
Now, it’s time to let them go.
I’m feeling melancholy as we carry out the last few items to the curb. “I’ll order a pickup for tomorrow,” Abba assures me. “Maybe we can have the kids come and help with the garage so it goes a little faster.”
He thanks me for my help today, and I remember my phone, still recording. “Wait. What happened with Yanky and Dovid?”
“Oh.” Abba laughs. “I had an idea. The next day in court, as they debated kosher vs. kosher-style, I had Dovid’s lawyer bring out one of the kosher-style MREs and a fork and offer it to Yanky. Yanky’s lawyer objected, but the judge was so tickled at the concept that he allowed it.”
Over a million dollars on the line, and the ticket was a single meal. “And Yanky refused to eat it.”
“Yanky refused to eat it,” Abba affirms. “He settled the case instead. Do you see? Mi k’amcha Yisrael.”
“What a story.” I love it, can’t wait to retell it to everyone I know, to huddle down on my couch with a laptop and write it all up. “It’s amazing.”
“All of my best stories are the ones where I don’t save the day,” Abba says, a little self-deprecating as always. We used to like to tease him about that, but I don’t think it’s true today.
I frown at him. “Of course you were the hero of this one. You had the brilliant idea.”
Abba scoffs. “No,” he says. “The hero of this one is Yanky. You know, Dovid’s lawyer asked him after the trial if he’d thought about eating the meal. And Yanky said he did, for a split second. But he couldn’t bear the horrendous chillul Hashem of eating that meal in front of the judge and jury.” He shakes his head. “And my whole plan is me, just counting on this guy to make the right choice.”
“You have real belief in people.”
“That’s the yesod,” Abba says. “You can’t be a rav if you don’t believe in the people.” We’re out in the driveway now, and he leans against my car as I load up a few things to take home. “Every now and then, I’ll get someone at the shul who will tell me, ‘You know, Rabbi, I’m really going to make it to minyan this week. I’m really going to get to the shiur this week,’ and one of my balabatim will lean over after he leaves and offer me fifty-to-one odds that he’s not showing up.”
My phone is nearly dead, but I keep recording, because this is important. This is who Abba is, in plainspoken words, more than any story or derashah will ever reveal. “He always says, ‘The rav has no choice. He always bets on the people.’ And it’s true. Sometimes I’m wrong — I’m often wrong — but I don’t have a choice.
“That’s what it is, to be a rav. You’ve got to bet on Klal Yisrael.”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 871)
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