Two and a half years ago, when my former office moved locations from midtown Manhattan to the DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) area of Brooklyn — which increased the length of my commute from about twenty five minutes to nearly an hour — I had to find a new place to pray in the morning so that I would make it to the office on time.
I found a small synagogue with the help of friends that started their morning prayers fifteen minutes earlier and finished about half an hour earlier — the fifteen minute discrepancy being due to their going at a moderately faster pace. I found a place to put my things and started going every morning and found that it was a pleasant environment. I started noticing one of the regulars was an older gentleman, probably in his early to mid-eighties if I had to guess.
I observed how he always seemed to be the first one there in the morning and was extremely prompt about leaving when the morning prayer was over — he did not stick around for coffee in the kitchen, something I occasionally enjoyed when I had a few extra minutes in the morning.
I found out that he worked in midtown Manhattan and had been working the same job for the majority of his working life, or at least since he moved to the States. I sometimes wondered why he was not, at his age, retired — I certainly hope that if I reach my mid eighties I will be spending more time reading and writing and less time rushing to an office. It was nevertheless quite inspiring to see the drive and determination with which he moved in the morning.
One morning I was earlier than usual and I happened to watch as he put on his tefillin — the boxes that adult Jewish men put on their arm and head for morning prayers. Usually, he already had them on along with his tallis by the time I got there. I happened to be looking just when he rolled up his sleeve and caught a glimpse of an unmistakable tattoo — a series of numbers that marked him as a survivor of the Holocaust.
I was, and remain, far too intimidated by him to say anything other than a friendly “Good morning!” — I assure you that he has a presence about him that leaves no question that one would be wise not to upset him — and so I asked people who knew him better if they could tell me anything about his time during the War.
He was a boy of about ten or eleven when he was taken and endured hard labor, near starvation, and a semi-regular inspection. He and others were lined up in a row and higher ranking officers walked up and down the row and scrutinized the prisoners and determined, based on their appearance, whether they were fit to continue working or were going to die that day. As I heard this I shuddered, thinking about how it could possibly feel to have someone look at you and judge whether you would see another day or not — to have your life in their hands.
After I learned all of this, I gained much respect and suddenly understood why he so often walked around with such a grim face and was all business, almost all of the time. He stared death in the face every day and survived. Now he is a respectable and successful businessman — and he certainly won’t let anyone try to slow him down or hold him back! There are some mornings when I have just had a rough night — I won’t name anybody but sometimes I am up late at night — and I see this gentleman and I know that no matter what, I can make it through the day because he certainly has had his share of rough days and made it through them all.