It was early in my American adventures, still forming the bond with the land. I was jobless and borderline homeless.
It started when I reached out to a Jewish community center where a guy who managed a hardwood flooring company promised to help. He soon discovered I was of little use as a carpenter, so he brought me and my cheap suitcase to the gated Seagate community in Coney Island and showed me to an empty house that was under construction. Floors were being worked on so I wondered where exactly I could sleep. He showed me an old cot in the closet, told me to call if I needed anything else and left. It was late, so after a brisk stroll around the neighborhood in which I managed to almost lock myself out by exiting the Seagate perimeter without proof of residence, I came back and went straight to my collapsible bed.
I woke up in a cheerful mood – at least I had a roof over my head. In the daylight it became clear I was in a multi family duplex, and other parts were already occupied. I was delighted to meet my neighbors – a mother and daughter, and we began conversing in Russian. It turned out my carpenter-benefactor was their landlord, and not very accommodating to put it mildly. The women complained that they still didn’t have hot water or heat, which was sorely needed in the already cold December of 1990 in Brooklyn. As they spoke I felt that part of their disgust with the landlord was getting projected onto me, so I had to reassure them I was on their side and was just as appalled by my benefactor’s lack of care as they were.
I asked if I could help. They told me all he had to do was to turn on the boiler, but he wouldn’t. I promised swift action and made a call to confront the very man who gave me shelter the night before.
His wife picked up the phone and said he was unavailable. I framed my message as an ultimatum – if he didn’t show up this very day to turn the boiler on I shall break into the boiler room and do it myself. She threatened to call the police but I firmly told her to simply relay the message and hung up.
There were many unknowns in my threat, from not knowing where the boiler was, or how to break in and turn it on, to handling likely consequences, but my indignation must have been convincing enough because my benefactor showed up.
He unlocked and disappeared into the utility closet while I kept guard outside, re-emerging shortly with a large bag of potatoes. He reassured me the boiler was now on, and announced that we had more pressing matters to discuss and no time to waste. He was going to find me a place to stay and a job, and he was going to do it all tonight, so I had to gather my belongings asap and get in a car. I grabbed my suitcase and we went outside. I got into an old Cadillac that was loaded with some stuff already, while my benefactor and his associate I had never met before tried to attach the oversized bag of potatoes to the roof with a rope.
We started moving, the bag fell off the roof, we stopped and they reattached the bag. We hit the speed bump at the gate, and the bag fell off again, but this time we went on leaving a bewildered guard with potatoes scattered all around his station.
I silently instructed myself to savor every second of this. On a Sunday night I was in a still foreign country traveling in an antique car with almost complete strangers, one of whom I knew to be a compulsive liar, who promised to find me a home and a job.
At that moment under the Brooklyn starry skies I was completely free – at least I had no possessions or concerns that could limit my being. This was life at its best, life as a theater, and I did have a front row seat. Better yet I was on stage in an unknown play that was about to unfold.
The associate, a young energetic fellow that looked like a Russian film version of an American Wild West cowboy, but in a yarmulke for the cowboy hat, asked me how I was doing. Still fresh off the boat I took the question seriously and proceeded to truthfully describe my transcendental state using my extremely limited vocabulary. He interrupted my linguistic struggle exclaiming “You speak like a professor!”, wished me the best of luck and left the car at the next intersection.
My benefactor kept on driving, I quietly looked around.
We parked somewhere in the predominantly Jewish Borough Park neighborhood. I got my suitcase and we walked a few blocks to an apartment building. “Do you see the windows on the third floor? The ones without the light?” the carpenter asked. I nodded. “The guy who agreed to take you in is not home, but no worries. Let’s leave your suitcase in the building.” We went to some apartment he had keys from, perhaps his own, and I left the suitcase there.
“Alright then,” he said as we traveled on foot. “For now, let’s find you a job.” It was dark and it was getting late, but I promised myself to enjoy the show no matter where it takes me. We knocked on some doors but there was no one there.
Another door. “Yeah, right,” I thought to myself, “first dark windows, then closed doors.”
He knocked again, this time stronger. As my hope gradually dissipated, my admiration for my benefactor’s acting skills grew stronger. To my utter surprise that door actually opened. I could not see who opened it.
“Remember – you don’t speak. Let me do the talking.”
We entered a dimly lit place of worship. A Jewish man was praying. We patiently waited.
Soon the man was done praying and we approached. He had confident manners, and my benefactor looked up to him. They spoke in Yiddish for a few minutes, then my prospective employer looked at me a few times.
“Do you speak English?” he asked. I kept quiet as instructed.
“He speaks as a professor!” exclaimed the carpenter.
“Do you now?” asked the employer with a smile.
“Yes sir.” I replied.
He explained the terms of working in his warehouse, and I eagerly agreed. I agreed to be there at 8 am, thanked him and followed my benefactor out to the street.
“See? I kept my word!” said the benefactor. “Now on to a place for you to stay.”
We went to another synagogue, this one much larger, crowded and well lit up. A lively prayer was in session. We waited, I was drifting away with the voices of the congregation. I had just about as many experiences packed in one day as I thought I could handle, but the day was far from over.
When the wave of voices subsided the prayer concluded, a shift change ensued. As people were leaving, the new members started coming in.
My benefactor introduced me to the rabbi. We shook hands. He told me he was from Poland, not far from where I was born, and that he’d gladly take me but he, his wife and their five children were already cramped into a studio at the back of the synagogue.
He showed us his humble abode as if to dispel any doubts in my mind. It was even smaller than I imagined and I knew he was being genuine.
Seeing my disappointment he quickly reassured me he still had some tricks up his sleeves.
New tide of prayers was about to begin. My benefactor thanked the rabbi in Yiddish and left to bring me the suitcase. I drifted off in the corner, letting the voices lullaby me to sleep. Since I was living a dream, my nap was dreamless.
I woke up when the rabbi started vigorously shaking coins inside a metal jar, collecting money for the temple and passed by my seat. He whispered to me that since I did not speak Yiddish, the language of European Jews in which most interactions took place, I was to stand up when he pointed at me.
The rabbi had a properly powerful voice, able to carry equally well in prayer, song or motivational speech. It was time for the latter. He spoke to his congregation, telling them a dramatic story I could not understand a word of, but could feel deeply, and then he pointed at me. It was my cue to stand up and stand up I did, adding an improvised bow.
All eyes were on me, a loud discussion began that lasted a short while. Then everyone left, except for the rabbi and a slender hippy-looking Jew praying in a far away corner.
Third shift of worshippers came and went, the rabbi really put his heart into my story this time, but there we were – my new friend rabbi with my homeless situation still in his hands, my benefactor with my suitcase in his, and the hippy Jew who was still wrapping up the prayer marathon.
“The hope is not lost,” whispered the rabbi. “He is our best bet!” We waited a while. Finally the hippy Jew crossed the finish line and looked at us with curiosity and refreshed vigor. The rabbi began his speech for the last time and it looked like it might have been his best, but the hippy interrupted him gently with a decisive agreement. All four of us, the unlikely team of Jewish musketeers, couldn’t be happier. The hippy took my suitcase as if inviting me to follow, the benefactor handed him some money and left in a hurry, the rabbi gave us blessings and we stepped outside.
It must have been a full moon. The hippie pointed to it and said a short prayer. The prayer was in Aramaic, another language I didn’t speak, but he translated it as a gratitude to the Lord for making the moon shine. He then mounted my suitcase on top of his bicycle. I had to laugh to myself – I expected a car, maybe a pumpkin carriage to match the day, but I did not expect a bicycle. And it was a perfect illustration for the chapter of my life I was in – a huge moon, a suitcase on a bike and a prayer.
We said a few more prayers along the way – we praised the Lord’s wide and deep heavens above, we asked stars to brighten our path, and we humbly requested the Sun to come up on time tomorrow, lord willing. As an astrologer, and as someone no longer sure they are still awake, I sincerely prayed with him.
Thanks to frequent prayers we finally reached his house safely, and this was where we had to come down to earth for a while.
“Shh!” he whispered. “Follow me.”
He parked his bike, took my suitcase and started climbing squeaky stairs to the second floor of the house.
I thought we looked like a pair of thieves from a popular cartoon.
“This is my father-in-law’s house and he does not approve of the ways I serve my master in heaven!” my new hippy friend reassured me.
The door opened. I saw his sleepy wife who didn’t seem to share his passion for helping strangers. I saw his children, five or six, fast asleep on several beds. He carried them off gently to another room. He asked me if I was hungry, but I just wanted to drink something and go to bed so I can be ready to start my working life in the morning. We washed hands and prayed, he poured me some grape juice but before I could reach the glass he stopped me with another prayer.
“When should we set an alarm for?” he asked. “Your place of work is just 5 mins from here.”
I thanked him for all he’s done and said I wanted to get up at 7:30am. We wished each other good night with a short prayer.
I just closed my eyes and… he woke me up at 6:30am, an hour earlier, so I can read a long prayer from the prayer book he found especially for me to start the day properly.
The good book had a Russian translation added, so I could finally speak to my lord in language we both understood well. However this morning prayer required a special setup. The hippie carefully put a little tefillin box around my upper arm and tightened it up. He asked if the tension was right, but I already jumped into the prayer like a cheetah after his prey. I never knew that my arm contained so many sensitive points, and that a simple act of tightly wrapping it with a tourniquet could wake me up instantly. I sped up through the prayer, blurring Russian words together so that only god almighty could untangle them.
Never in my life, before or since, did I want to get to work on Monday morning with such passion and unyielding resolve. And I did.
The heavens heard my prayers and that day I was informed that other kind Samaritans offered me a rent free stay in their finished basement. After my shift ended I stopped by the hippie’s place to pick up my belongings and say goodbuys. Once again I thanked the hippy telling him he was indeed a man of god if there was one, and left thinking we would never see each other again.
We did meet once more, 6:30am the very next morning at my new place. Like Fate, the hippie was there with the prayer book, and the entire Samaritan family awoke and alarmed.
Still half asleep I felt my whole life was once again hanging in the balance. I told him to leave at once and never come back. It wasn’t my best moment, but it was the best I could do.
For whatever it’s worth, I still hold deep gratitude to all these people. May the moon, the sun and the stars lighten your every day!
Header photo by Menachem Weinreb on Unsplash