Happy holidays, everyone. Today we present another wonderful story by Darlene Campos, a writer who’s been featured in both our chapbook and this website. We’re sure you’ll enjoy it.
♦ ♦ ♦
The Bar Mitzvah of Solomon Robatzki by Darlene Campos
Levi Robatzki, the rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom, was scurrying around his Lower East Side neighborhood to run pre-Shabbat errands. As usual, he was continuously being stopped for questions.
“Rabbi, how often should I pray?”
“Rabbi, how often should I read the Torah?”
“Rabbi, which bakery has the best challah bread?”
“Which bakery has the best challah bread?” Levi gasped to his crowd of followers. “Any good rabbi would know it’s the one on East Houston Street!”
After buying a loaf of challah bread from the ‘good rabbi’ bakery on East Houston Street, Levi remembered he had to buy candles for Shabbat and a Bar Mitzvah gift for his now 13 year old son, Solomon. He saw members of his rival congregation at the market and overheard them criticizing him.
“He’s always late for Shabbat service.”
“I saw him buying meat that wasn’t Kosher.”
“I heard he even trims his beard.”
“I don’t trim my beard, Mrs. Fritz, my razor does,” Levi stepped in.
“God said in the Torah ‘you shall not round the edge of your head, nor shall you destroy the edge of your beard.’ You’re always late to Shabbat service at your own synagogue, so you probably skipped that part.’” Mrs. Fritz answered.
“Speaking of beard trimming,” said Levi. “You could use it yourself, Mrs. Fritz.” He paid for his candles and quickly disappeared to another section of the market.
Solomon soon caught up with his father by the fruits and vegetables, demanding to know what he was getting for his Bar Mitzvah.
“You really want to know, Sol?” Levi asked. “A yarmulke.”
“Papa, no, not again!”
“No? But you love getting twenty of those every year for your birthday,” Levi said and examined an apple with his hand. “I’ll get you something nice. Go get changed into your good clothes and meet me at the synagogue at sundown.”
“Don’t be late. The other congregation calls you Rabbi Late-vi.”
“It’s better to be late to God’s judgment so that He runs out of punishment ideas when it’s your turn. Now go get changed! Honor thy father and thy mother is–”
“Stated in the Torah in Deuteronomy and Exodus,” Solomon sighed. “God believes it is so important, He said it twice.”
“Good,” Levi said. “See you later, Sol.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Levi stopped by the apartment to put his tallit prayer shawl over his shoulders and his fur shtreimel hat over his yarmulke, though he was no longer married. The last time he wore his shtreimel was in Russia, a day before Ruth died. Their three daughters and son also succumbed to tuberculosis. Levi and newborn Solomon were the only ones left in the house until the czar’s pogrom struck them in March 1906. He kissed the knotted strands which hung from his tallit and headed out the door.
“Papa, you made it!” Solomon said when he saw his father rushing to the bimah platform in the center of the synagogue.
“Shabbat started fifteen minutes ago, Rabbi Robatzki!” called out Mr. Glatstein.
“Shabbat started in Russia hours ago and I don’t hear them complaining!” Levi answered and took his place at the bimah. He lit the Shabbat candles, chanted the Torah blessing and then sat beside the podium, listening to Solomon’s Hebrew pronunciation. After Solomon made two mistakes, Levi interrupted with, “Say the words like you’re going to spit, Sol! You spit in the street all the time!” Solomon wiped the sweat off his forehead and shakily finished the week’s Torah portion.
“Papa,” Solomon said as he and his father sat in the empty synagogue after the service. “Do you like being a rabbi?”
“Sol,” Levi said while patting his son’s back. “God said it is a sin to lie. So, no.”
“Then why are you a rabbi?”
“Because I get free yarmulkes for you.”
“Papa!” Solomon laughed.
“I loved being a rabbi,” Levi went on as he readjusted his tallit. “Until your sisters, brother, and mother died. And then, the czar burned our house and synagogue down. Let’s go home. We’re already behind on Shabbat.”
“We always are,” Solomon reminded him.
“Quiet, Sol. If we hurry, we can accomplish everything we have to do by tomorrow’s sundown and He won’t notice.”
When Shabbat was over the next evening, Levi sat in his chair, reading the New York Times. The second he saw an anti-Semitic cartoon, he tossed the newspaper into the fireplace. Solomon slept away on the sofa, wrapped in his brand new tallit. Levi smiled at his son and put his coat on to catch some air outside. The mezuzah on the doorframe was falling off and showing its age, since it was the same one from the Robatzki house in Russia. A mezuzah contained verses from Deuteronomy to remind a Jewish household it was always in the presence of God.
“I really need to fix that,” Levi thought. “But not today.”
At breakfast the following morning, Solomon asked his father where his Bar Mitzvah gift was. Levi turned pale and told his son to keep quiet.
“But Papa,” Solomon said.
“Honor thy father and thy mother is-!” Levi shouted.
“Stated in the Torah in Deuteronomy and Exodus. God believes it is so important, He said it twice. But really, Papa, where is it?”
“Good, you know the Torah well!” Levi said. “Keep eating and I’ll get your gift!”
“But I already finished eating!”
“Solomon, honor thy father and thy mother! If I tell you to eat, then you are to find something and eat it!”
Levi went to his bedroom and looked around for something of value. He passed on his silver menorah and golden Kiddush goblet. He couldn’t believe he had forgotten about Solomon’s Bar Mitzvah gift.
“Mazel Tov,” Levi said when he returned to the breakfast table. Solomon opened the shoebox his father gave him and stared closely at the item it contained.
“Papa,” Solomon said with a frown. “You’re giving me leather straps?”
“What do you mean I’m giving you leather straps? It’s my tefillin, Solomon! I used to wear it at our first synagogue in Russia. You wrap the leather straps around your head and arms when you pray. Here, I’ll show you.”
Levi knelt down and taught Solomon the proper ways to wear tefillin. Then he said a prayer to God, asking Him to bless Solomon’s new life as a Jewish man.
“It’s too tight,” Solomon said of his tefillin.
“Nonsense,” Levi retorted. “How many times do I have to tell you to honor thy father and thy, wait a minute, your fingers are purple.”
♦ ♦ ♦
At the next Shabbat, Levi and Solomon were on their way to the synagogue ten minutes after sunset. Levi stopped for a moment and looked at the doorframe. He quickly tightened the mezuzah’s screws and kissed its cold surface. When Levi looked up, he saw Solomon running down the dark avenue with his tallit nearly falling off his shoulders.
“Sol!” Levi shouted. “I am right behind you! Let me catch up with you! Please don’t go without me!” ♦