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.
This is an excellent article, Gordon! Thanks for sharing the experience with us. Next, I hope you will find the man, and talk to him, and then preserve his story for us here!
Just a matter of working up the courage to ask and accepting the possibility that he may not want to share his story! 🙂
A beautiful article. I needed to read this. So often we get caught up in the trivial parts of our life – unimportant things that frustrate us and cause us discomfort. I try to think of those who have survived extreme, unimaginable conditions in their lives and I learn to be content, satisfied and truly thankful for all my blessings – safety, comfort, warmth, freedom. I don’t ever want to be one who takes those things for granted.
I enjoy reading your posts as I have always had an interest in Judaism, I am learning so much from the glimpses you share with us in theses posts.
I can understand how you would feel intimidated approaching this man. In time perhaps you will.
Thank you, TNP! It’s like when you think that you’re having a bad day because something seemingly significant happened, and then you turn a corner and see a man that had both of his legs amputated and you think, “Wow. Why did that poppy seed bagel bother me this much?”
Your username makes me a little sad because I imagine the Beatles singing it sadly.
Don’t be sad. My user name comes from my love of transforming (twisting) found objects into something different from their original purpose. It also comes from my love of music (rock, punk, indie) and though I am generally a happy person, I get sad at times so sometimes I twist 9to a great song) and sometimes I pout.
But now you made me think of an emo band might put their own spin on the Beatle’s version. 🙂
That’s beautiful! Thank you for the education on your name.
Your welcome. It actually helped me as I have been trying to find a way to convey this in my About page on my blog. Instead of having a blank page. 🙂
I have a question: In following the teffilin link I noticed the letters “o” are omitted from Lord and God in all the quoted verses. Why is that?
Good question. Basically we try to avoid writing the name of G-d whenever possible, out of respect.
Oh, thanks so much.
You’re very welcome! 🙂
Muh appreciate the sharing of your daily rituals – I too hope you manage to engage this man in conversation.
Believe it or not I have you to thank for this. I was inspired by some of your recent articles about things you do and your new home and it made me think, what about my life?
that is a comliment coming from you . I am learnng much from you as a writer and now I am learning about your faither as well – double bonus.
Awe thank you 🙂
Wow. I love that you could see the quiet strength in him even before the day he rolled up his sleeve. What an inspiring presence in your morning routine.
Indeed! It is quite a good thing to behold in the morning!
I love this story! I wonder what it would be like to sit down and have a lengthy conversation with this gentleman? Not to pick his brain necessarily, but to just sit and admire his wisdom and experience with you.
Thank you, Brielle. I’d have to convince him to take a break first! 🙂