Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Boy's Story: Old Traditions, New Traditions

Fiction Sunday

This excerpt is part of a novel, Jack Miller's Story, which I started writing more than fifteen years ago. It has undergone many changes since then, but now is in a form that I find suitable for publication. It contains biographical elements, no doubt, but it is not biographical by any means. Memory, unlike mathematical operations, does not always produce the same result.

In Part 3, Jack's young mind tried to reconcile the world of his parents marked by Jewish traditions and community and those of his peers at school and surrounding neighborhood. One thing, however, he already knew. He loved learning and acquiring knowledge, which opened up a large world to him.

Where could Jack fit in? Not with the Orthodox Jews on Fairmont or Hutchinson with their peyes, and black caftans, even worn in July, who always seemed to walk with great urgency, as if on a special mission. They seemed to have a vibrant purpose and a community. But it was not Jack’s mission. His parents rarely spoke about religion.

Mom said her family was Orthodox while growing up, first in Romania, and later in Montreal; and said Dad’s family came from a line of rabbis. Mom said she believed in G-d; Dad was silent on the subject. He never spoke against religion, but never spoke for it either. It was Yiddishkeit and Jewish culture that defined him. His purpose was to make the world better through hard work and social justice.

Jack had often seen the Orthodox Jews when he went with his father to get bagels on Saint-Viateur. He was fascinated by their Old World appearance, out of a painting or a photograph from a book of ancients. Their world was bound by time and old traditions, living by the same rules that were given at Mont Sinai by G-d to Moses to the inchoate nation formed in the desert. At Har Sinai, as the Jewish people called it, Moses handed the people a set of laws and obligations to bring the Jewish people to a higher order directed by G-d, so as to give the new nation light, to give the nation comfort and to give the Jewish People dignity.

Besides the ten commandments, there were many other laws that governed their lives. These laws were initially handed down in oral form, and passed from ear to ear, from generation to generation, then codified and interpreted and re-interpreted by the sages and rabbis in light of new knowledge and changing conditions and circumstances. These mitzvahs, which now numbered six hundred and thirteen in total, guided their steps and gave order and a sense of meaning to their lives.

On Shabbat, for example, the weekly Sabbath that the Jewish people had been celebrating for thousands of years on Saturday, certain restrictions were in place, called the 39 melachot. Creative activities were prohibited on the Jewish sabbath, linked by tradition to the building of the Temple.

For Jack, such restrictions would have meant no watching Saturday morning cartoons on TV, no putting on the lights and no going to buy comic books at the corner wooden kiosk or taking in a matinee at the Rialto down the street on Park Ave. Jack’s family were not outwardly religious, but did keep the laws of kashrut, buying kosher meat, and observing the yearly festivals. As was common with many Jews who survived the War, and all its horrors, Jack’s father directed his energies to making the world a better place through social action and social justice. Such described the new traditions of tikkun olam, repairing the world through actions, by doing good.

One time his mother was reading a book, This is My God: The Jewish Way of Life by Herman Wouk. “Jackaleh, you asked a very good questions about the chosen people. Now, I am not sure what that all means, but here’s something I’ve been reading by a famous Jewish writer."

She read aloud to Jack, who was the closest to his mother, or at least that is what Jack's heart felt:
But this idea of salvation limited to one group never had place in the Jewish faith and has no place in it today. In Judaism right conduct is the path to God. This path lies open to Jews and non-Jews.
While Judaism was often defined by slicing a space from time, with its weekly Shabbat rest and a cycle of yearly festivals, Jack’s world was bounded by geography, by places he went, and those that he did not dare go to. There was a defined boundary just as rigorous as the laws of the Torah.

Jack’s world was defined by his parents and the territory they resided in, which was no greater than what they could transverse by foot, an area no greater than one square kilometre: Pine Avenue to the east, Bernard Avenue to the west, Saint-Laurent Blvd to north and Hutchinson St to the south. Within its confines was Fletcher’s Field, with its baseball diamond, the swings further down near Rachel Avenue, and playing all day on what was known as the mountain. All was within walking distance. They sometimes took the bus, no. 80 or 129 on Park Avenue, no 11 or 97 on Mont-Royal and no 55 on Saint-Laurent, affectionately known as the Main. But that was only when they were schlepping bags.

Their lives, to a great degree, revolved around the Main, shopping for fresh chicken at Tucker’s, for groceries at Warshaw Supermarket, for rare treat of a smoked meat on rye with fries and Cott’s black cherry soda at Schwartz’s. Then, there were bagels hot from the wood-fired oven from St-Viateur Bagel, for a Wilensky’s Special from Wilensky’s on Fairmont Avenue. Sometimes, they would go to Lester’s on Bernard Avenue for a smoked meat, “for a change,” as Mama would say.

Jack and his brothers would also go to the Rialto Theater on Park Avenue for a Saturday matinee, and buy comics at the wooden kiosk at the corner of Park Avenue and Mont-Royal. They would sometimes go to Dusty’s on the opposite corner for breakfast, but not often. And it was a treat to go to the Dairy Queen directly across the street from their house. Usually it was for a plain cornet, sometimes for a cornet dipped in chocolate, and a rare treat was a sundae. Even a greater rare occurrence, almost as rare as a blue moon, was a banana split with loads of whipped cream. That was one of the ultimate treats on a hot summer day in July.

As was playing in and around the back alleys of Park Avenue. Or playing at Fletcher's Field on the nearby mountain. There was rarely a loss for things to do. One time Jack and James collected Popsicle sticks from the sidewalks of Park Avenue, walking from Mont-Royal all to the way to Bernard, about ten blocks. After people, mostly kids, finished their Popsicles, they threw the wooden sticks on the ground. It was a sweltering hot day in July, about 90 degrees, hot enough to fry an egg on the asphalt. So be it.

This bettered the chances they would collect a sufficient number of sticks for their building projects. Both were not disappointed. Each collected hundreds of sticks, which they carried home in brown paper bags. When Jack got home with his load, he washed them and placed them out to dry on their backyard balcony. After which, he used them to build a house, held together with his dad’s white carpenter glue. It was a wonderful project.

When his father came home from the Arbeiter Ring, The Workman's Circle, meeting at 10:30 that evening. Jack was waiting up for him, as he always did during the summer when he went to bed later than during school nights. He knew that his father would follow a routine and a ritual as fixed as any observant Jew. He would put the kettle on the stove to make a glass of piping hot tea with a slice of lemon.

While he was waiting for it to boil hot, very hot, he would carefully peel an apple. He would eat the apple with great enjoyment and drink the tea, both slowly. After, he would go into the living-room and watch the 11 o’clock national news on CTV.

Jack came out of his room and proudly showed his handiwork to his Dad, who looked at it, and noticing the white glue drips on the sides, said, “Why did you use my glue on this?”

Jack, although disappointed, said: “Dad, because I wanted to build something, like you said you did back in Europe when Mom said you used to build nice furniture for people.”

His father waved his hand dismissively in a downward motion and said, “Jackaleh, it’s not the same here. The most important thing is to do well at school. Get a good education, and then you can be something. A professional. A doctor. An accountant. A professor. That’s very important." He moved toward Jack and gave him a pat on his head, and said. “Next time, ask me if you can use my glue, Farshteist?”

“OK, dad, I will.”

His father gave him a kiss on his cheek and said “A gute nakht, Jackaleh.”

Jack did the same. His father walked away, went into the living-room, and turned on the television to watch the national news at 11 pm, as he did every evening. It was late and Jack got ready to go to bed. He would grow up to be someone. And his father would be proud of him.

To be continued.
Copyright ©2011. Perry J. Greenbaum. All Rights Reserved.

Publisher's Note: This is a work of fiction. While the author might have been inspired by some true-life events, names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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