Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Lessons From a Man of Clay

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In the Old Country, my father was called "Berko" and "Dov-Berel," names meaning "bear." I imagined his parents taking one look at him and concluding that he would grow up a bear of a man. Before he left Poland, the other kids began calling him "Berel the Golem," because he defended them against hatred and brutality that always targeted kids who were weaker, more bookish and from the wrong religion or nationality.

Whatever the numbers against him, my father waded into the gangs that taunted, bullied and beat up those who were different and vulnerable.

Of course, my parents chose not to tell my brother and me about Dads youth spent in heroic combat. They'd seen enough war and had watched flags over their village change almost weekly. Now that they were living in a new world, they refused to talk about the pain and violence of their lives in the Old Country. Those stories had to wait until Dad died, when people came forward with that hidden history.

Crossing the Atlantic transformed my fathers given name into Bernard but his nickname remained with him on the Immigrant Street where he spent seven days a week in hot, humid summers and unforgiving cold winters selling socks, handkerchiefs, gloves and other mens accessories from an ancient, tottering wooden stand that hugged the curb of the cobblestone central street in a crowded immigrant market.

The first time I heard him called Berel the Golem, I couldn't understand why people compared him to a clay robot Judah Loew of Prague had fashioned to protect his community during the 16th century. In my mind, people speaking of my father as a golem were saying he was big and strong but not very intelligent. At best, a golem performed menial labours and suffered nobly, accepting every hardship, pain and indignity with the stoicism of the Earth itself.

I suppose my father really was like the patient Earth. He worked seven days a week, rising and leaving the house by six in the morning, returning at seven in the evening, depending, of course, on the weather and public transportation schedule.

The only time this pattern varied was Sunday nights, when Dad came home a couple of hours earlier and the evenings were marked by a special ritual. Dad would announce that "it was time" and he and I -- and sometimes my younger brother -- would go to my parents bedroom. En route, Dad would pick up his coat from the closet near the front door to the apartment. It was a moment wrapped in solemnity; only later did I understand it was fashioned out of sheer exhaustion.

In the bedroom, out of a coat pocket, Dad would extract a white paper bag -- the same one in which the sandwich hed eaten for lunch had been wrapped. Two or three other white paper bags would then be collected from the dresser. Then, out of those bags, Dad drew cash -- bundled bills and coins that constituted the week's sales. Carefully, he would pile the bills by denomination and set the coins aside. Quiet surrounded this task, which required accuracy if the next mornings bank deposit was to be free of errors. Making a profit of a few pennies on each pair of socks and other items, Dad paid for food, rent, clothing and transportation. He even set aside 10 cents a week as my allowance, which I spent on a comic book or, occasionally, a sweet treat.

The Sunday night a few days before my ninth birthday was different. There was only one white paper bag. It was stained and crumpled, unlike any of the other bags I'd seen during the four years since my dad had invited me in to watch him tally his weeks gross receipts.

Without a word, Dad drew out several bundles of bills held together by elastics. There were $100 bills -- a denomination I had never seen before -- and also a slip of yellow paper at the top of one bundle of bills. Dad counted the bills, looked at the yellow paper, and announced, "Yes, that is $7,992.40." Then, pulling up the yellow slip, he added, "Yes -- exactly $7,992.40."

I sat on the edge of the bed. My father could not have sold enough merchandise to bring in that much cash.

Dad, who had been standing, sat down next to me at the foot of the bed and showed me the yellow paper. On it were written the names of another merchant and of his large men's clothing store.

"Today I did things differently," my father said. "I wanted to come home to be with you and your brother, not to prepare my deposit for the week. So I brought everything from this week's sales with me and, at the end of the day, went to the delicatessen. At a table in the back, I put today's money and the money from the rest of the week together, made out the deposit slip, and took it to the bank. I put my bundle in the night deposit slot. As I began walking away, I looked down and saw this paper bag in the snow. When I saw what it was, I brought it home.

"Now I will ask you: what should I do with this money I have found?"

From time to time, Dad talked about the struggle to earn a living and to do better. The amount in that white paper bag was almost four times what Dad made in a year. He'd taken me into his confidence on my promise that I would never speak to anyone about how much he earned. It helped me understand why we had very few toys, no car and lived in a very modest apartment.

The kids I played with always had more money to spend -- a comic book, a couple of candy bars or licorice and strips of coloured candy buttons and enough left over for a Coca-Cola or even an ice cream.

But it was never enough. Some of them stretched their allowance by shoplifting; the store owners, they explained, were rich and wouldn't miss the merchandise hidden in their coats and pants.

When I had shared this tidbit with Dad, he asked me whether I wanted to be in the company of people like that. It was difficult for me at first, and I defended them: "But they're my friends and they just want more."

My father replied. "You need to be more careful about people."

Now we were sitting at the foot of the bed with a white paper bag full of more money than I'd ever seen. Dad asked, "What do you think I should do with this money?"

I thought about it. "We could do a lot of things with that money."

"Yes, we could, but the man who dropped it worked very hard to make that money. Believe me, I know, and he's worked a long time to be able to have such a successful business."

I said, "It's not ours."

Dad didn't respond directly. "Tomorrow," he said, "I am keeping you out of school and taking you to work with me. Your mother will understand and approve."

The next morning, we trudged to the bus stop. The bus was crowded with people standing in the aisle still half-asleep, their winter coats heavy on their limbs. A woman offered me her seat, but my father, with an almost imperceptible shake of his head, prompted me to decline the offer with a polite "No thank you, ma'am."

When we reached the street, my father and I walked to the store named on the yellow slip of paper and Dad spoke with the owner.

"I am guessing that you and your business had a good week, no?"

The owner nodded.

"And because I am a psychic, I sometimes can guess how good. Was it a week for $7,992.40?"

The merchant's eyes widened.

"And how would you know that?" he asked, his voice edged with surprise and a hint of anger over the impropriety that my father should know his business.

"You need to pay closer attention to what you are doing when you are tired," my father said and, without another word, pulled the soiled white paper lunch bag filled with cash from his pocket.

The owner fell upon my father's shoulders when he realized what had happened.

I have thought about that Monday morning many times over the years -- how my father used his good fortune to teach a bouquet of lessons with a white paper bag he'd found in the snow.

Now I understand what it means to be Dad's kind of golem, guarding the thick tissue of ethics and decency that enable us imperfect human beings to live with each other -- to answer in the affirmative the question posed in the Book of Genesis -- to say yes, I am my brothers keeper.

 

Lawrence Pinsker is associate rabbi at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 31, 2011 A15

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