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Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Big Shot

I've met quite a few people via this blog over the years.  Some have remained in the virtual realm, and a few have made the transition into real flesh and blood friendships.

One of the real life friends I have made via treppenwitz is a gentleman (and later, his wife) from the US who began following my blog early on... and after becoming an avid reader, made up his mind that he wanted to make my acquaintance.

Now, lest anyone think this sounds a little stalkerish... let me assure you that it turns out we knew plenty of people in common, and he even had a relative living in our community.   But truth be told, making such a decision, and then quickly carrying it out, is actually quite typical of this gentleman.  He lives life almost entirely on his own terms. 

Which is how it came to pass as I was out puttering in our front yard one sunny day, that a stranger walked up to our garden gate with a big smile on his face, held out his hand and said, "Hi, I'm '______'... you must be treppenwitz".

I've never made any attempt to keep my identity a secret (much to my wife and kids' chagrin), so I didn't take this sudden introduction as any particular feat of detective work.  But I have to admit that the few times I've been 'recognized' (to mis-use a term normally reserved for criminals and celebrities), I've been completely stunned that anyone would bother.  

Our first introduction came about because he had been in my town visiting his relatives and had simply decided to walk the few blocks to my house and say hello.

Over the years since that day, his complete lack of reserve and almost child-like directness, have taken me, again and again, by surprise.  Although I knew relatively little about him, here was a well respected family man, several years my senior, who had sought me out and had repeatedly taken great pains to make me feel smart, eloquent and even important.

As we corresponded, visited one another on family trips and got to know each other better, I discovered that there was no bluster or bluff to his outgoing persona.  He is simply the most honest and direct person I think I have ever met.  And his wife, while perhaps not quite so direct, is every bit as open and genuine.

One of the things that I figured out as I got to know this couple better is that they have attained, (through hard work, mind you), a level of affluence that has allowed them to do many things that most people in my circles only dream of.

I'm not talking about palatial homes, fancy cars or flashy clothing.  Material possessions and the outward trimmings of wealth don't seem to be high on their agenda.  In fact, they make their primary residence in a community that is next door to several neighboring wealthy enclaves, but is not, itself, associated with affluence.  

Rather, they shuttle frequently between the US and Israel to dote on their children and grand kids... and are quietly generous with a wide range of philanthropic endeavors that few ever hear about.

In fact, even the one aspect of their life that struck me as a bit 'over the top'; owning a small private plane, turned out to be a hobby that allows this couple to take modest vacations around the US within their busy schedule, and as a highly qualified pilot, the husband is a frequent participant in 'Angel Flights', a volunteer organization of private pilots who provide free transportation for any legitimate medical-related need such as flying patients to and from distant hospitals for treatments.

A couple of years ago I was at the Israeli apartment they maintain to be able to be close to their kids' families when they visit, and I noticed a small photo of a Torah dedication ceremony.  The image caught my eye because the photo showed a room full of religious Jews in typical Haredi garb (black hat, dark suits and ties), but my friend, who is also quite observant, was wearing a black cowboy hat instead of the typical fedoras that the other people in the picture were wearing.

I didn't even have to ask to know a couple of things:

First, based on the composition of the photo, my friend (and his wife, obviously) had donated the new Torah scroll whose dedication was being celebrated in the picture. And second, that although he too was dressed in a dark suit and tie... the black cowboy hat was his playful way of saying that he marched to the beat of his own drummer.

The reason I shared this last part is that a few weeks ago Zahava and I received a letter from these friends inviting us to yet another Torah dedication ceremony, to be held on the fifth night of Hanukkah.  They had commissioned the writing of this new sefer Torah in memory of both their mothers who had passed in the previous two years.

For those who are not up on such things, a new Torah scroll is an incredibly extravagance.  Putting aside the intrinsic holiness of the scroll for a moment... the cost of the huge amount of parchment required, the decorated wooden spindles, exquisitely embroidered mantle, hand beaten sterling silver crown and accoutrements... and of course paying a talented scribe to work for a year (or more) doing nothing else but hand writing the Torah... well you can take my word that it would be financially easier to purchase a high end luxury car than to commission (and give away) a new sefer Torah!

But this is exactly what my friends had done once already, and were about to do again!

Two nights ago was the dedication ceremony where the last few letters of the Torah would be written and the scroll then marched in a celebratory parade to its new home in a fledgeling Israeli synagogue.

Sadly with Ariella in the army, Gilad busy with his mechina and Zahava incapacitated with her annual change-of-season migraine, Yonah and I were the sole representatives of the treppenwitz household to be able to attend.

When we arrived at our friend's apartment, we were greeted with hugs and warm handshakes.  I was amused to see that my friend was wearing his (now) trademark black cowboy hat with his modest dark suit, and that a pair of black cowboy boots were poking out from beneath his well pressed trousers.

On the drive down, Yonah had expressed some concern about attending the party.  He is a shy kid to begin with, but he has also never had any contact with the Haredi world, and wasn't quite sure how they would view him in his navy blue pants, white shirt and white knitted kippah (yarmulkeh).  I reassured him that he'd be fine, but in the back of my mind I was more worried about his sensitivity issues which make crowding, pushing and frequent jostling intolerable.

Have you ever been to a Haredi party of any kind?!  Their celebratory enthusiasm is rivaled only by their lack of awareness of personal space.

As soon as the room started to fill up, Yonah pressed himself to my side and held onto my hand like a drowning man.  As the crowd swelled, and adults and kids caromed off the furniture and one another, Yonah began to whimper.  When a couple of kids actually crashed into him while pushing their way to the refreshment table, Yonah pleaded to be taken home.

Just then my friend and his wife broke away from the people they had been talking to and joined us in the corner of the room where we had taken refuge.  I don't know if they had noted Yonah's body language, but they immediately engaged Yonah in conversation and asked him how old he was, what grade he was in, etc..  They spoke to him as though he were the guest of honor (something I would see each of them do to countless people all evening), with the result that Yonah not only was able to relax, but he actually began to feel like he belonged.

Once the scribe had arrived and seated himself at table on which the unfinished Torah had been placed, a crowd formed around him to watch the completion of the writing of the Torah.

One by one, bearded Rabbis and important members of the community were called to sit next to the scribe.  The last few lines of the Torah had had the letters carefully outlined by the scribe... but not filled in.  Each of the dignitaries was handed a feather quill dipped in the special ink, told to recite a brief statement that what they were about to do was for the holiness of writing a Torah, and then they filled in one of the remaining letters.

I explained to Yonah what they were doing, but because of the crowding and jostling, he was unable to catch a glimpse of what was going on.  Then he asked if I was going to write one of the letters.  

I had been to several Torah dedication ceremonies in the past, and had never been asked to write a letter.  And looking around at the long beards and learned friends and associates of my friend, I confidently responded that no, we were just there to celebrate the birth of this new sefer Torah and to escort it to its new home at the neighborhood synagogue.

Yet once again, as if he had overheard my quiet conversation with Yonah (an impossibility in that din), my friend suddenly shouted to me over the heads of the crowd and gestured for me to come take a seat next to the scribe.  I was suddenly excruciatingly conscious of the fact that I was the only adult there in Khakis and a white shirt (rather than the requisite Blues Brothers uniform).

Yonah and I made our way to the table as the crowd parted for us, and for the first and only time in my life, I actually wrote a letter in a sefer Torah.  And it may sound like the worst sort of conceit, but having one's ten year old son standing at your elbow watching as you sit at the center of a crowded room wielding a quill to parchment, is heady stuff.  For that moment, I felt like the biggest of big shots!  I doubt John Hancock felt any more important when he got to make his famous mark.

After I'd handed the quill back to the scribe and started to get up, I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes.  I really didn't want to make a spectacle of myself in front of these bearded strangers.  But I needn't have worried.  Once again my friend was there at my side extending his hand and thanking me!!!... as though I was the one who had done him a favor!!!

At that point I felt that both Yonah and I could use some fresh air, so we went out onto the balcony to enjoy the cool evening air and listen to the music from the gathering parade that awaited the new Torah out in the street.

Several people were handing out toys and candy to the kids, and Yonah was delighted to suddenly find himself in possession of both.  I explained that once the last few letters were completed, we would be going outside where the city police had closed off the street to traffic and several vehicles bedecked with flashing lights and loudspeakers were waiting to lead the crowd of men, women and children the few hundred yards to the synagogue where it would be taking up residence.

Nothing I could have said could have prepared Yonah for the bedlam of the parade.  Once my friend emerged carrying the Torah and surrounded by a dancing, singing crowd, the parade instantly swelled to the point where it looked like the entire town was there.  Older kids were handed lit torches to lead the procession up the street, and the rest of the crowd followed behind with the Torah being carried by my friend underneath a large canopy.

Almost immediately I saw my friend hand the Torah to someone in the crowd, and from then on he stood back and let each person take a turn carrying the sacred scroll.  

While most people's attention was on the Torah and whoever happened to be holding it at any given moment, I couldn't help watching my friend.  He stood off in the periphery with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye, enjoying the event he had created, but content to let others be at the center of it.

When the parade reached the synagogue and the Torah was escorted up the steps and inside to its new home, everyone was invited to stay for dinner.  Once again, my friend and his wife had planned things so as to ensure that the focus remained on the new Torah... on the memory of their departed mothers... on their extended family and their community... and on the various rabbis and dignitaries who spoke.  

But then my friend got up to deliver his remarks.  I suppose you can't throw a party like that without saying something, right?

As my ten year old son and I sat there like a tiny island of khaki and white in a great ocean of black hats and suits, my friend began by saying that in preparation for the evening's celebration, he and his wife had sent out many invitations.  He said that a response he'd gotten from a friend from Efrat had said "I wouldn't miss it for the world... you know how I feel about the 5th night of Hanukkah!".   He then went on to mention me by name and to describe my blog post from several years ago , (although he spoke far more eloquently than I had written).

When Yonah heard my name mentioned, he turned to me and blurted, "Abba, he's talking about you!", which attracted approving nods from of several of the people seated near us.  

Although startled by the sudden attention, I wasn't at all surprised that even in his own speech, my friend would focus his words on others.  I just wasn't prepared for the fact that some of them would be focused on me.  

Many times in old cowboy/western shows, a plot device is employed where a father is humiliated in front of his son by the bad guy.  It's a powerful plot device because the script writers knew that on some level, every son thinks his father is bigger, better and more important than anyone in the world... and by the same token, every father wants, at all cost, to earn and keep the respect and admiration of his son.

Yet, my friend, standing before an enormous crowd in his cowboy hat and boots, who should, by any standards, have been basking in the thanks and admiration of this religious community to which he and his wife had given such a monumental gift, instead turned the attention on someone else... and in so doing, had turned that well-worn 'oat opera' plot device on its head.  For the second time in one evening, he'd allowed me to be a big shot in front of my son... a gift almost as rare as the one the synagogue had received.

Many years ago, another friend confided in me that his one wish was that he could be wealthy enough that when it came time to marry off his children, he and his wife could make modest weddings.  He had gone on to explain that when you are poor and make a small wedding, people secretly feel sorry for you.  While if a wealthy person makes a small affair, everyone admires them for their restraint and modesty.

I've pondered that for many years, and have gone back and forth on whether I agreed with his thesis.  But I now realize that it's central flaw lay in the fact that it was completely based on the perception of others.  Why should anyone be so invested in with what others may think?!

This week I learned that you can't control how others make you feel.  But you can control how you make others feel.  And in that, this special evening was a master class on how to make others feel wise, respected, honored, important... and yes, like a big shot.

If you don't know who I've been talking about in this post, I can only suggest that you try to emulate him.

If you do recognize the person I've been writing about, you're likely smiling right now, because you know that the reason I haven't mentioned his name is that with all the good he and his lovely wife do for others... they would never want to draw attention to themselves.

Thank you, my friend, for making me feel like a big shot.

Posted by David Bogner on December 3, 2013 | Permalink

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Wow... what a wonderful, moving piece!

I'm so glad you had such a great experience, and even more glad that you shared it.

Thank you.

Posted by: cba | Dec 3, 2013 3:24:53 PM

That was superb. Thank you for sharing. Regret I have no idea who your friend is, but he's clearly a mensch. As are you for writing such a moving piece about it all.

Posted by: Ellis | Dec 3, 2013 7:18:16 PM

Thanks for reminding me of the fifth candle.

Posted by: QuietusLeo | Dec 3, 2013 9:05:02 PM

Wow...

Posted by: SaraK | Dec 5, 2013 3:03:50 PM

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