By Irwin Benjamin
Last week my wife received a call from a Mose Chaimowitz, who said he was a childhood friend of mine, asking for my cell number. He called and we spoke.
Now, although I had not seen or heard from him in a very long time–68 years, to be exact–I remembered just who he was: a big bully who once destroyed my best toy. His father, on the other hand, I remembered with great admiration and affection. He was a tall, large man who was one of the first Orthodox Jews in the New York City Police Department. I was so very proud of him, because he was a frum Jew, yet also a feared policeman who protected the wellbeing of the entire neighborhood. In those days I was very sensitive to how frum Jews appeared in the eyes of the world. I guess I still feel the same way. He was always nice to me. On Shabbos, he used to take his gun to shul and place it on the seat next to him. From time to time he even let me hold some of his bullets. But that was Mr. Chaimowitz, not Mose.
When Mose called, the first thing he said to me was that he did not go under the name of Mose Chaimowitz any longer. He had changed his name, and today he is Martin Chasen. He had taught in the New York City public schools, and the students had a hard time pronouncing his name, thus the change.
I did not recognize his voice or demeanor. He was two years older than me, the same age as my best friend, Chaim Kessler. The three of us together were a real threesome. I tried to figure out what he would look like now, but couldn’t conjure up any image at all. Time could be hard on some men; they tend to age in the blink of an eye–young and virile one minute, wrinkled paper the next.
He sounded a little slow, but of course he was now 80, so it sort of comes with the territory. A few things he said, though, piqued my interest and curiosity. He told me he lived in Monsey, and I asked him whether he would like to get together and meet in the city. He said he never ventured into the city, that it was too much of a hassle with traffic and parking. I suggested we first talk about a date to meet before we talked about where to meet. He thought we should meet after the yamim tovim, because everyone was now busy with yom tov.
I felt differently. I felt that since nothing happens by chance, especially during Elul, I was anxious to discover the meaning of his unexpected and unusual call. And secondly, I couldn’t wait; I was very anxious to see how the long years had treated him, and, I have to admit, was curious to compare how he fared during those long years vis-Ã -vis myself. He agreed to meet with me before yom tov.
He suggested we compromise on the place. Since he lived in Monsey and I was in the city, he figured that a good halfway meeting place was Teaneck, New Jersey. I was agreeable. I also said that I preferred dairy; he said he did, too. I gave him my e-mail address, and since I did not know any places in Teaneck, and he obviously did, told him to pick the place.
He e-mailed me soon thereafter that we should meet at Shelly’s, a fish and dairy place. I immediately answered that his choice sounded great and that I was excited about meeting with him. His e-mail gave further evidence to my suspicion that he may not have been a hundred percent, because he wrote the entire e-mail in the “subject” space, and wrote “Teaneck, NY,” not “NJ.”
However, after meeting him, all my suspicions were proven totally wrong. At the appointed place and time, as I walked into the restaurant, a well-dressed, nice-looking man approached me.
“Irwin?” he asked.
“Mose?” I countered.
We both said yes at the same time and shook each other’s hands. Mose–or Martin, as he is now called–was a fair-sized, well-trimmed man, a shade under six feet. He wore a paisley print sport shirt, gray flannel pants, and loafers. He had a full head of silver hair that was neatly combed, with a small, knitted blue yarmulke held on with a clip.
Since it was early evening, the place was still empty. The proprietor approached us, seated us, and explained that tonight they had buffet-style dinner–all you could eat for $25 and you help yourself.
As we both tried to get comfortable in our seats, we couldn’t help but stare at each other, trying to take it all in. I decided to break the awkward silence.
“Mose, we have a lot of catching up to do. At least 68 years’ worth, by my count.”
The first thing he asked was about our mutual friend Avraham Chaim Kessler, or “Abie.” I told him he now lived in Ramat Gan in Eretz Yisrael, and I filled him in on his not-so-wonderful life. But then I said to him:
“You go first. Tell me about your life.”
He said, “Why don’t we first go up and fill our plates, and then come back and talk.”
I complimented him on his procedural choice, and with that we both arose and made a beeline to the buffet table. It was all very appetizing. They had at least three varieties of fish: tilapia, perch, and salmon. I took a little of each. There were all kinds of salads and pasta, french fries, and baked potatoes. They even had a tray with pizza. It all looked delicious.
Our colorful plates were piled high as we brought them to the table. We again awkwardly stared at each other. I said to myself that this was going to be quite an interesting evening. Sixty-eight years. A lot of catching up to do!
He began by telling me about his family. He had three children–a girl and two boys. At that point a waitress came over and brought us piping hot vegetable soup and a plate of toasted baccala bread. Mose stopped his narrative to take a couple spoonfuls of soup.
While having the soup, I asked him, after all these long years, what prompted him to call me at this time. He told me he just bought a computer two months ago and was still learning how to use it. He Googled a lot of the names he remembered from the old days, and mine was obviously among them. That fully explained his ineptness regarding the e-mail, and my jumping to a misimpression about his mental competence.
He continued by telling me that he had nine grandchildren, all of whom he was very proud of. I interrupted him to ask that he tell me first about how his youth played out, what schools he went to, the jobs he had, and so forth.
He told me that he finished Torah Vodaath, the same yeshiva I went to, and then went on to Ner Yisroel, and at the same time got a master’s degree in education. He retired at the age of 58, but is still a part-time teaching consultant. He told me that every day he takes his ArtScroll and goes to a daf yomi shiur.
He continued telling me about his children. His daughter, he said, was exceptionally pretty, and even today, at the age of 49, when she walks into a room all eyes turn. He had a son in Texas, who worked for a large accounting firm, and then told me about the other son, whose profession I don’t remember.
Although “only” a schoolteacher by profession, he seemed like he was definitely a man of means, perhaps even considerable means. Whether he made money in the stock market or in real estate, I do not know, nor did I ask.
“Now, tell me about you,” he said wide-eyed. “How did a person like you wind up in one of the famous Five Towns?”
Right off the bat I decided that I was not going to best him on the number of my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, or all the things I had done in my life. I decided to only give him a smattering. But before I began, I gave him a copy of my new 600-page book, To Climb the Mountain.
His jaw dropped. He could not believe it. “How could it be?” he kept saying. “I know how poorly you did in YTV, and you only went to Eastern District High School for one year. Your family was not that frum. How did you stay frum? In fact, none of the families wanted their children to associate with you. My father said that you were a sweet boy, but your family was in a shambles. You had no father, your mother was always sick, you were on welfare, and you stayed out until all hours of the night with no supervision. You were a street urchin, for goodness’ sake! You must have had a ghostwriter write the book for you. You couldn’t have written this yourself.”
I interrupted him to say, “And I love you, too!”
He pretended he did not hear that, and continued: “And you now live in Lawrence, which is not cheap, and you’re still frum. How were you able to accomplish all of that?”
Although I did not want to brag about what small successes HaKadosh Baruch Hu bestowed on me, I did feel I was obliged to at least tell him something.
I told him about my tour of duty in the army during the Korean War, during which time I received a high school equivalency diploma and learned how to type. When I got out of the army, I married and studied court reporting. It became apparent that I had an unusual ability for court reporting, and I wound up with a relative degree of success, finally opening my own agency, and working it up until I had a fair-sized business. I told him that I finally sold my firm to a public company and retired at the age of 62. That was about all I said.
I said little about my family. I did tell him, however, about my mazel in meeting someone of the character and stature of Rabbi Eliyohu Rominek, who took me in hand and made somewhat of a ben Torah out of me. I also told him about my good friend and mentor Rabbi Shmuel Fishelis, shlita, who had always encouraged me to stay on the straight and narrow.
We spoke and spoke. We talked about the State of Israel, about our views on Zionism, and about our old friend Meir Kahane, zt’l. We spoke about Florida, our wives, the pros and cons of kollel learning, and, of course, what people our age are usually consumed with–our health.
The time was getting to be about 7 o’clock and it was nearing Minchah time. Since I was in an unfamiliar place, I had no clue where I would be able to find a Minchah minyan. So I told him that it was about time to bentch, which we did.
Before we got up, we asked each other how it was that although we had been such good friends, we had stopped seeing each other. He said it was because his family moved to Keap Street from Rodney Street, and although it was only one block away, he got a whole new group of friends and never saw me again.
I told him that I remembered it vividly and distinctly–and very differently. It was about a toy. I was very poor, and toys were not easy to come by, but I had this one precious toy, a wooden rifle that I guarded with my life and was so very proud of. I remembered that we had a fight about something, I don’t remember now what it was about, but then out of frustration, he grabbed the gun out of my hand, ran to the corner, and threw the rifle down the sewer. At that moment I only saw black. I saw my whole world come crashing down before me. I thought I would faint. My whole world was gone. My best toy, gone forever. I remember sitting on the curb, putting my head on my lap and crying my poor little heart out.
Mose listened and was obviously touched. He said that he did not remember this, but if that’s what happened, he was very sorry and asked me to be mochel him, especially since it was just before Rosh Hashanah. I told him that I surely would.
It was then that I knew the true meaning of our “out of the blue” meeting in Elul. And I was sure it was hashgachah pratis that we decided to meet before yom tov and not after.
As we both stood, I thought I saw indistinct shadows that seemed to cover the entire interior of the restaurant. We hugged each other in the middle of the restaurant, and as tears rolled down my cheeks, I again told him that I forgave him.
I was sure I could hear rusty hinges creaking as the gates of teshuvah opened wide at the strange sight: in the middle of Elul, in the middle of Teaneck, New Jersey, in the middle of someplace called Shelly’s, two old Jews, after a period of 68 years, hugged each other and cried for mechillah.
The author can be reached at Irwin.firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Irwin Benjamin