Words are amazing things. I've always liked words more than cricket or rugby balls. Recently I learnt a new, hot sounding word which will probably become a favourite: impotence. You might think that's a biggish word for a just turned fourteen year old, but I'm bright. And when my friend Roy said I didn't een know what it meant, I told him it means you can't get a hard on, which shut him up straight away. Roy's avourite words are 'cool' and 'awesome' and 'wicked' and another word which I'm not allowed to write here. My dad's favourite words are 'right' and 'wrong'. There's a right way to do something, he always says, and a wrong way.
Dad seems to believe what he says, that there's always a right way to do things, and what's more, he thinks he always knows what that right way is. So when he said " we think you should go to King David instead of a government high school", I automatically agreed. And when he said "Jake, you'll have your bar mitzvah at Pine Street Shul" I didn't really think if I liked the idea or not, I just found my head nodding in agreement.
My family doesn't go to shul mutch. maybe five times a year. But ten months before my barmitzvah I strated going every shabat - that is, every Friday night and Saturday morning. (I'll explain these things in case someone who is not jewish ever reads my diary and doesn't understand what the hell I'm talking about. At first they forced me to go, but then I kind of started enjoying it and went of my own accord. I suppose going so often made me feel comfortable there. I liked sitting in the back row with all the other barmitzvah guys, and and singing. I learnt all the tunes of the different prayers. When we weren't singing we told rude jokes about sex, or teachers, or exagerated the strength and destructive power of various soccer players. After the morning service everyone in shul wished each other good shabbos or shabat shalom, and then meandered over to the little hall next to the shul, where there was a brocha, with cake and cooldrink and chopped liver and herring and kichel. I avoided the yukky stuff and just went for the cake and cooldrink.
One Saturday afternoon, when we were driving to ten pin bowling in Northcliff, I saw some people walking down Louis Botha, just opposite the BP garage, past the old Putco stop which is now a taxi rank. The men were wearing black hat's and black coats, and they had beards. The women wore long skirts and thick blouses like the old Western school teacher in 'Little House on the Prarie.'
"Who are they?" I asked.
"Chassidim" said dad."fanatics who like to pretend we're not living in the 20th century."
Once I knew they were called chassidim I often noticed them. Something about them irritated me. Their clothes were so out of date, and their hair lookd greasy. They always stared straight ahead, as if tghey didn't see the traffic on Louis Botha, or notice the Africans waiting in a queue for the mini-bus. It worried me that they didn't realise they were odd. Roy told me that I always saw them walking on Saturday because their rabbi wouldn't allow them to drive on that day. That also seemed strange to me. The rabbis I knew ( and really I only knew Rabbi Zukerman at Pine Street) joked a lot and wished people mazeltov when they had a baby or got married. Some of them wore a funny black yarmulke on their heads in shul, that stood up on their head. They never said anything nasty or, for that matter, anything interesting. I couldn't imagine a rabbi who told people what to do. I certainly couldn't imagin a rabbi who cpuld tell Dad what to do. I know Dad was on the committee which kicked the last rabbi out. And Rabbi Zukrman couldn't even get us to listen to him, never mind the dads. He had to write notes to our parents which read 'please ensure your son attends bar-mitzvah classes REGULARLY and practices his portion, else I cannot guarantee he will be ready.'
Roy, who was in the U14 soccer team, and was almost as bright as me, was having his Bar Mitzvah in March. But he was having his at Temple Beit Ale. He didn;t have to learn all the stuff about milk and meat, or lay tefillin, or learn how to say the Amidah.
"Why can't I have my bar mitzvah at Temple Beit Ayl?" I asked Dad, "its much easier there."
"Because that's Judaism light" said Dad, "you can't just change the tradition when you feel like it. We've always been a proud Orthodox family."
When I told Roy what my dad said he just shrugged his shoulders.
"They hand out lunch bars on Friday night" he said, "and there are some hot chicks in the choir."
I wanted to go with Roy to his reform temple, to see what it was like, but Dad said he thought it wasn't a god idea, which translated meant I shouldn't go. For the first time in my life I disobeyed Dad, and went without telling him. There was an organ in the corner of the temple, but it wasn't used. They used to use a long time ago, Roy explained to me, but then some people complained that it made it too much like a church, so they stopped. There was a lot of English in the service, which was different from our shul where it was all in Hebrew. Another big difference was that the women, instead of sitting upstairs, like in our shul, sat right next to the men. It hardly seemed Jewish to me. I much preferred our shul.
On Monday I went to speak to Rabbi Suisa about the reform temple, and about the chassidim who weren't allowed to drive on Saturdays. Rabbi Suisa was the head of Jewish Studies at our school and came from Israel. He was not very old, and had a brown neatly trimmed beard.
"It's not their rabbi who forbids it, it is forbidden from the Torah" he said, and took down a bible. He opened it up, looked through the pages, and then showed me a line in it.
"here" he said, "read that aloud...."
"...you shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on Shabat" I read, peering at the tiny print, "what's that got to do with cars?"
"well, chazal - the rabbis of the talmud -explain this verse eans many things. One is that driving a car involves lighting a fire of a sort, inthe engine, and that's why its forbidden."
"So its written in the Talmud that you can't drive on shabat?"
"Not exactly. When the Talmud was compiled 1700 years ago they didn't have cars. But they made general rulings, from which we can learn about...um, which we can apply to modern situations."
About this time I learnt another new word. Hypocrisy, I started suspecting that everyone at my shul were hypocrites because they drove to shul.
"Are we hypocrites" I asked.
"Of course not" said Dad.
Ma didn't say anything.
"But apparently the Torah...I mean the Talmud, says you're not supposed to drive. Its a very serious crime to drive."
"We're not fanatics," said Dad. "The main thing is to be a mensch. Besides, we live too far away from shul to walk. At least the car enables us to get to services."
"Not that we ever go" I said.
"I hate smart alecs" said Dad.
Meanwhile time didn't stand still. One by one the guys in my Hebrew class at school were having their barmies. Each Monday we'd compare notes. Were you scared? Did you sing well? Did you get a lot of gifts? How much cash? Was it fun? And all the time the shabat thing was still worrying me. I asked Rabbi Suisa about it again. He said youwere definitely not allowed to drive, but not every Jew knows as much about their religion as he should. Some people just didn't know it was wrng to drive.
Exactly three months before my bar-mitzvah I got up th courage to speak to one of those chassidim. I waited on a corner of Louis Botha, and when one who had a nice face went past, I stepped up to him and asked if I could speak to him for a moment.
"Certainly," he said, in English which sounded exactly like mine, "what can I do for you?"
"Oh" I said, "you speak English very well."
"Why shouldn't I" he laughed, "its my mother tongue. What did you think I spoke - Portuguese?"
"I thought maybe Hebrew"
"No, not Hebrew. The Holy Tongue is for prayer, and studying the holy books. That's why its called loshen hakodesh - the sacred language."
"Oh" I said. "So you're a kasid?"
"Chasid yes...we're chabad chasidim. What's your name?"
"Michael" I told him.
"Michael" he said, "what a beautiful name. One who is like G-d. Well Mee -ka - Eyl, would you like to come to my house and have some cake and something to drink? We don't live far from here."
He seemed very friendly so I went along with him. I met his wife and children, all five of them, all younger than me, and all dressed in a funny old fashioned way, the girls with white lace thingies on the end of their long sleeves. His youngest child was a boy, who I thought was a girl, because he had very long hair, down below his shoulders.
"He looks like a rock star" I joked, to cover my embarrassment that I'd called him a girl.
"Yes, he's our star, allright" said his mom.
She offered me some cake and cooldrink, and I politely said no, but she brought me anyway, so I ate and drank. While I was eating I asked him some questions about his rabbi.
"The Rebbe" he said, "is a very great man. That's him there." He motioned to a big coloour photograph on the wall, of an old man with a grey beard and a big hat on his head, whose eyes were narrowed into little slits. It was an impressive face, and I gazed at it with interest.
After a while I got bored and said I had to go home for lunch. But as I walked home I was thinking about this rebbe who so many people - the chasid told me tens of thousands - listen to.
When I got home I told ma all about it. She was busy painting her nails. I told her that the chasid used the word "HaShem" for G-d, and had she ever heard of such a word. She said she wasn't sure, but she ws pretty sure she had heard some distant religious cousins using it. She said she thought it meant "The Name."
"That's funny" I said, "calling G-d the name. I wonder why they do that?"
Ma said she wasn't sure. I told her I had decided to walk to shul next shabat, t0 see how it felt.
"That's nice Micky", she said, and blew on her nails to dry them.
Rabbi Sweesa also seemed to think so when, two months later, and after a few more visists to Jeffry Krengel's house - that was the name of the chasid - I went and told him that not only had I started walking to shul, but that I had stopped driving anywhere on shabat afternoons. He gave me a big pat on my shoulder and told me I was becoming an authentic Jew. I wasn't 100% sure what he meant by that, but I know from his smile and his shouldre pat that he was proud of me. I wondered if the rebbee in the picture would also be pleased. I imagined he would be. The ony one who didn't sem to b epleased was dad. Especially whhen I said that I wasn't planning on forgetting my new habit on the day of my bar-mitzvah.
"Don't start getting all religious on us" he said in his irritated voice.
"I thought you wanted me to keep the traditions. Isn't that what my bar-mitzvah's for?"
""Within reason, but you don't have to go crazy. Besides, how will you get to shul on time if you walk?"
"I'll get up at six, and walk. I'll get there long before anyone else."
"You. Getting up at six!?"
"You'll be exhausted" said mom.
Parents. What are they good for?
"Let him be an idiot if he wants to" said dad, with a wave of his hand, "the problem is getting to the reception at one."
"I'll run there."
"Don't be ridiculous" he shouted.
I ran to my room and slammed the door. You'd think the man would give me a little bit of space, but he came bursting in after me - he never knocks - and carried on shouting. His face was red (mine was white.)
"We're an orthodox family but we're not fanatics. I'm not going to have you come to the reception three hours after the guest arrive."
He lowered his voice to the low menacing tone he reserved for 'his final word'
"Either you come with us in the car, or I call the whole thing off. I've got plenty of other things we can use the money for."
Then he slammed the door. I lay on my bed sobbing. I was hurt that ma hadn't stood up for me, and even more hurt by him. I hated him for not letting me try this interesting new possibility, that didn't harm anyone.
I even considered asking G-d to drop a bomb on him, but I decided not to risk it in case it came true. Instead I asked for his car to breakdown so that we would all have to walk. "Please G-d", I mumbled, "I mean please Hashem, at least make him sorry that he's forcing me to break shabat."
I wanted to tell Rabbi Sweesa what had happened, but he was in Israel that month. At my next bar-mitzvah class I stayed behind when everyone else went. I told Rabbi Zukerman about my problem.
"So what do you want from me" he said.
"Couldn't you speak to Dad, you know, explain to him that I'm only trying to do what a Jew is supposed to do."
"Let me think about how best to approach this" he said.
"So you'll help" I said eagerly
"I'll do my best."
I felt reassured. But I should have known he'd be useless. The next time I saw him and asked him what was happened he launched into one of his round about stories.
"Shalom bayit" is very important, he mumbed, "peace in the home. Your commitment to yiddishkeit is commendable. I've given this a lot of thought, and I don't think you should make changes too quickly. Give your dad a chance to get used to you being shomeyr shabat."
The only other person I had to discuss it with was Roy.
"My dad" I explained, "wants me to do one thing, and HaShem wants me to do another."
"Why" said Roy, "don't you just do what you want to do?"
"Well...I want to do what HaShem wants me to do."
Roy didn't have an answer for that. Not straight away. But two days later, at break, he came up to me where I was standing outside the tuck-shop munching a cheese roll, and said he had an idea.
"Look" he said, "How do you know that HaShem doesn't want you to drive on Shabat?"
"Its not just ME He doesn't want to drive, its all of us. He doesn't want you to drive either."
How do you know that?"
"Rabbi Sweesa told me that its written in the Bible and the Talmud."
"What is the Talmud?"
"I'm not sure exactly" I admitted, deciding to play safe, "but its some kind of big book, similar to the bible."
"Anyway" said Roy, "I phoned up my rabbi, and he says not all the rabbis agree that you mustn't drive on shabat. He said those laws were made in a different time and place, and aren't always good for us now. He says its like someone who's become used to drinking water from the tap. If you give them water from a well in the ground, like they used to drink in the old days, they'll get sick. He also said it is written y0u must honour your father and mother. That means you should try and make them happy."
"But not when they tell you to do something that is against Hashem's will. That's what Rabbi Sweesa said that verses are saying. When its us humans against what HaShem wants then there's no competition."
"As I see it" said Roy, "its what Rabbi Sweesa wants against what your dad wants. God, your Mr HaShem, doesn't even come into the picture."
I moved a little distance away from Roy. I was furious that he should question HaShem's laws like that. I didn't talk to him for a few days after that. I didn't talk to dad either, although he warned me to stop sulking or the "consequences would be very severe indeed." But I wasn't at all prepared for his reaction when, at the endof the week, I told him that I had made my decision and he should cancel the whole thing. I was expecting an explosion. I had already planned my excape route. But you know what he did?! He didn't say a word. Instead he went over to the sofa, sat down ,a nd burst into tears. It was unbearable. I didn't know where to look r what to do. I felt like my insides were being cut up by a very sharp razor. I wanted to gover and pat him on the shouldre, even though we were still supposed to be angry at each other. And I was still angry. What was he doing crying? I was the one who should be crying, not him. And ow he was crying and I had to comfort him. Crap! But there was no way I could look at him doing that. I had to get him to stop. So I gave in. But I wasn't happy about it.
I drove with them to the reception. I had to shake hands and smile at a lot of people I didn't know, and I got lots of gifts - books, records, some pens, and best of all - cheques. I put some of it in the bank and gave a third of it away to the Wildlife Trust. I had to do that secretly because ma and dad would probably have stopped me. I'm speaking to dad again, but really things aren't quite the same. Not that he's different - he hasn't changed at all. But I don't believe in him as much as I used to. I think he's a hypocrite, and I think his crony Rabbi Zukerman is impotent, although of course I haven't said that to their faces. Roy says if I don't tell them what I think then I'm the one who's impotent and a hypocrite. I dunno. I think Roy and I won't be friends for much longer. Either way I hope I don't grow up to be like them. That would be terrible.
(Written in South Africa about 1992)
For other short stories seehttp://manofestoyomi.blogspot.com/2009/06/someone-short-story-from-yeoville-1994.html
Bar Mitzvah - rite of passage around the time of puberty, a boy becomes, in the eyes of halacha or Jewish law, an adult
Yiddishkeit - Judaism
Adon Olam and Yigdal
mensch - decent human being
"You know how they do it" said Roy, "they do it through a sheet, with just a tiny hole for their cock"
I believe in HaShem. At least I think I do.