Prior to that night, I remember Davy mainly for his cuff links, which had gold horseshoes affixed to a buffalo nickel. The rest of him was invariably hidden behind a racing form. Uncle Davy was a fixture at family occasions, but a silent one. My aunts said he was shy. He wasn't. Some judged him misanthropic, saying he liked horses better than people, but that wasn't so either. Davy's silence was, as I would come to know, a corollary to a life spent outside the law. Once when we were alone, I asked him an indiscreet question. He looked around the empty room, put a finger to his lips, and whispered, "Bobby, don't trust your shirt." But that snowy Chanukah night, Uncle Davy broke his silence and held us as spellbound as if he were Sholem Aleichem himself. From then on, whenever I could, I stuck to him like glue. My Aunt Celia used to say, "When you leave school, your shoes take you out looking for a job. Where they stop, that's where you spend your life." My shoes took me to Uncle Davy.
Davy, or Dovid Itzhak as my grandparents named him, was born in the winter of 1905 somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean, aboard the Siciliana, the ship that carried my grandmother from the old world to the new. Davy was Chava's first child. When she met my grandfather, she was a widow without children. Accordingly, the yentas of Brusilov believed her to be barren and, as such, a perfect match for my zeyde, Zussman, who was a widower, and a father of four. They were married in 1904, just before Zussman left for Canada. Nine months later, wearing a great coat to hide her pregnancy from shipping company officials, Chava sailed from Liverpool to join him. Eight days out, Davy was born. When the captain of the Siciliana heard the news, he descended to the steerage deck to offer my grandmother his congratulations. He gave her a gold piece. The coin was spent as soon as she reached Toronto; the story was told for years.
In Toronto, Zussman worked as a glazier, carrying on his back a wooden box &tools and panes of glass. He took up paper-hanging, a lighter trade, and then carpentry, until a nail broke under his hammer, flew up and blinded him in one eye. He then became a junk dealer. His growing family lived above the store. (Alter Davy, six more children were borne by my formerly barren grandmother.) The wolf never left the door. According to my Aunt Celia, this was because any time there was an extra dollar, Zussman gave it to the shul, of which he was a founder. There was already a perfectly good shul in Toronto, but as the saying goes, a Jew needs two shuls, one in which he prays and one in which he wouldn't set foot if it was the last place on earth.
Emigration changed Zussman's and Chava's world utterly; it changed their lives only somewhat. Chava, for instance, cried for joy when, in 1940, Davy gave her a refrigerator, but she soon moved the food back to the icebox.
It was Davy and his brothers and sisters who became Canadians. Sometimes the transition was comic. The boys took to playing baseball, much to the chagrin of Zussman for whom play had ended when he learned to walk. "But Pa," the boys explained to him, "Babe Ruth makes $50,000 a year."
"For doing that?" Zussman replied.
At other times, the conflict was brutal, and Davy, the first-born Canadian son, bore the brunt. Davy had little use for old-world Judaism, or for new-world Judaism for that matter. Zussman's broad workman's belt could do nothing to convince him otherwise.
What a disappointment his Dovid must have been to Zussman. Davy was, by all accounts, smart as a whip, with a genius for numbers. As a boy, he sold newspapers at the corner of York and Richmond. One of his regular customers was a fabled Toronto gambler of the day, who noticed the ease with which the boy made change, and challenged him to calculate payouts on bets laid at different odds. Davy answered instantaneously. Before long Davy, now known as Davy The Punk, was handicapping horse races. Eventually he would facilitate exchanges of startling amounts of money, reputedly drawn on the bank of Al Capone. Over the years, he became familiar with Toronto's courtrooms, but to the great frustration of the Crown, he boasted a lifelong, unblemished record of acquittals.
Davy's notoriety did not escape Zussman. The beatings the old-world father inflicted on his incorrigible new-world son, and later, the fights between them were legend. Davy left home early, never to move back. But he never left the family. He returned home every Friday for shabbas dinner. (He also stopped in frequently to access a locked trunk he kept under his mother's bed. Davy kept no bank account.) Uncle Davy never missed a family occasion, even if he rarely put down his racing form while he was there. Until the night of the snowstorm.
IT WAS SNOWING heavily when l awoke that morning, and so it continued through the day. Still, it was Chanukah, and for those who could get there, a rump version of the annual family celebration went ahead at my Uncle Avram's house in Forest Hill. We dug out our Pontiac, slipped and slid through Toronto's mute white streets, parked with the assistance of some broad-shouldered passers-by, and marched like Wenceslas to the beckoning porch light and frosted windows of Uncle Avram's. There we added our galoshes to the collection in the front hall and joined the small company in the rituals of Chanukah. The menorah was lit, blessings chanted, dreidls spun, children humoured and latkes consumed.
After supper, my parents rose to say goodbye, but the Aunts insisted we wait for the arrival of the snowplough, which was on its way courtesy of an associate of Davy's at the Department of Public Works. (If there was anything Davy couldn't procure courtesy of an "associate," I never heard about it.) So there we sat, Uncle Davy with the racing news, and the rest of us locked in the desultory conversation of snowbound relatives. Eventually my cousin Ish, who was 20, took the opportunity to introduce his favourite subject, the Baal Shem Tov. For once, nobody stopped him.
The Baal Shem Toy, or Besht as his name came to be abbreviated, was an eighteenth-century Jewish mystic, part St. Francis, part Timothy Leary. Traditional Judaism is a scholarly, authoritarian and generally dry business. The Besht exhorted the People of the Book to leave the study hall and go out into the woods and meadows. God, the Besht said, is everywhere, seek Him in the world. Turn on and tune in. The appeal of the Besht to the young has continued through centuries; and like Jesus or Elvis, so have his sightings.
Taking full advantage of the unaccustomed platform, Ish spoke passionately and at length, during which time Davy slowly folded his paper. When Ish finally ceded the floor, the ensuing silence was broken by an altogether unfamiliar sound.
Uncle Davy spoke.
"Your grandfather met the Baal Shem Toy," he said. Ish took Davy's comment as oxygen for his flame, thus missing that the significance of the moment lay less in the words than in the speaker. "That's impossible, Uncle Davy" he said, " The Besht died in 1760."
"Look who knows everything," Davy said, and picked up the paper again. But by then there was such rapt and surprised attention directed at Davy's easy chair that even Ish fell silent.
Slowly, Davy lowered and folded the paper. Uncle Davy was as much a master of timing as of odds. As near as I can recount it, this is what he said.
IN AMERICA your grandfather had a junk store, but in Brusilov, he was the baal tefila, he led the services at the little shul. If he had been from a rich family, he would have made a hell of a rabbi.
Well, one year, right about this time, two strangers arrived in Brusilov. That was unusual of itself, but, even more remarkable, they were Sephardim, Jews from Africa. Their names were Jacobo and Malka and they had travelled all the way from Tunis. Why they came to Brusilov, I don't know. Maybe it was just too cold to go farther. But they were good, pious Jews, and at the first opportunity, Jacobo headed for the shul.
As the only Sephardi, Jacobo was a little uneasy. Remember, the Sephardim didn't speak Yiddish like the Ashkanazi. Still, Jacobo followed the service more or less, even when at the end, Zussman offered a blessing for Chanukah, "venn Gotgibt undz latkes." The men all smiled and nodded, and Jacobo did too, but what he understood was not "Blessed is Chanukah when God gives us latkes," but "Blessed is Chanukah when we give God latkes." Close but, as the saying goes, sometimes a little knowledge is worse than none.
The minyan broke up and Jacobo went home to Malka.
"So how was it?" she asked him.
"The Ashkanazi have some strange customs," he said.
"What do you mean?" she said.
"At Chanukah they give God latkes."
"That's ridiculous," she said, "God doesn't eat. Does the Holy One have a mouth? Are we goyim that we make offerings?" And then, and this was a mistake, she said, "Jacobo, are you sure you heard right?"
Well. If Jacobo wasn't sure before, now he was very sure indeed.
"Malka," he said, drawing himself up, "I heard what I heard."
"Fine," said Malka, "I will make latkes for God. But you deliver them."
"Fine," said Jacobo.
So the day passed, and as it did, Jacobo grew less confident about arriving at the shul on shabbas, carrying a plate of latkes. But when Malka presented him with the latkes, and a skeptical look, the die was cast. Jacobo set aside his doubts. He would take the latkes to the shul. But he would take them first thing in the morning, when the odds were good no one would be there.
The next morning, as the sun rose over the frozen town, Jacobo wrapped the latkes in a cloth and walked to the shul. But when he got there, he realized that making deliveries to God was not so easy. He could leave the latkes on the synagogue steps, but what if a beggar or a dog or a pig came along and took them? So he went inside and would have left them on one of the benches, but then he thought the shammas might find them and throw them away when he cleaned. Jacobo stood in a quandary, trying to think of a place where no one would beat God to the latkes. The answer, he realized, was right in front of him: the Ark. What other place was so close to God and so untrammelled? So he opened the intricately carved latticework doors and reverently placed the latkes at the base of the Torah. He uttered a silent prayer, closed the doors, backed away from the Ark, and left the synagogue.
Minutes later, the shammas arrived to make sure everything was ready for shabbas. As he always did, he stopped in front of the Ark to say his own little prayer. "Oh Holy One, blessed be Thy Name, it is me, Mendel The Shammas, who has the great honour of caring for your house. I do so with a glad heart even when, as now, I have had no pay for weeks and weeks. I am not complaining, boruch ha-Shem, but my family is hungry, so maybe you could spare just a little miracle for me? Oymain." With that, Mendel began his last-minute rounds, making sure the shul was spotless. And as always, the last thing he did was check that the Torah was scrolled to the correct passage for the shabbas service. He opened the doors of the Holy Ark and, Praise to the Almighty, his prayer was answered.
What went through Mendel's mind as he hurried home breathing in the scent of onion and fried potato, or what his wife thought when he got there and presented her the latkes, is hard to imagine. "Where did you get these?" she asked, incredulous. Mendel told her. "Mendele," she said, "I am your wife. To me, you can tell this. But don't tell anyone else."
Meanwhile, across Brusilov, Jacobo had arrived home as well. "How did the God of the Ashkanazi like His latkes?" asked Malka. Jacobo mumbled a reply. "Jacobo?" she said, sensing his discomfort.
"I took care of it," Jacobo said. "How did you take care of it?"
"No matter. I took care of it."
"Jacobo," she said, laying her hand on his shoulder, "what did you do with the latkes?"
In the hesitant voice of his boyhood, Jacobo told her, "I left them in the Ark."
"In the Ark?" Malka's voice trembled, then mounted in pitch and volume. "You left them in the Ark! Jacobo! Are you crazy? The rabbi is going to open the Holy Ark to take out the Torah in front of everyone, and what is he going to find? Latkes!"
Jacobo and Malka made their way to the shabbas service in silence. Malka took her place in the balcony and Jacobo chose a seat at the back, by the door.
The prayers began. Jacobo did not feel well. When the time came for the Torah reading, he mopped his brow. Malka squeezed her prayer book tight. "Ki mitzion taytze torah," Zussman chanted--Out of Zion will go forth the Torah. Zussman opened the doors of the Ark and--boruch haShem!--the latkes were gone. Every crumb. Malka's eyes were like saucers. Jacobo sank back in his seat in joyful gratitude that the Master of the Universe had accepted his offering. When Malka looked down to where he sat, he was a picture of sanctity and humility.
So. A year went by, and once again, it was Chanukah. Again, Malka prepared the latkes and again Jacobo placed them in the Ark. Once again Mendel the Shammas came in, and repeated his prayer. Then he opened the Ark, and--another miracle--God provided for his faithful caretaker. And so it went for a dozen years.
Finally a year came when Jacobo slept a little later. He walked to the shul a little slower. He lingered a little longer. And as it happened, that same morning Zussman couldn't find his eyeglasses. He went to the shul to look for them and got there just in time to see Jacobo standing in front of the Ark. "Jacobo," he said, "You are here early." Then he noticed the doors of the Ark were ajar. There, beside the Torah were the latkes. "Jacobo?" he said.
"It is as you say, Reb Zussman, blessed is Chanukah when we give God latkes."
"Jacobo, Jacobo," Zussman shook his head. "We don't give God latkes, God gives us latkes."
"What God gives us, what we give God, I don't know," said Jacobo, "but every year I bring the latkes, and every year you take out the Torah and there are no latkes." Zussman and Jacobo were pondering this phenomenon when they heard footsteps. Zussman motioned, and they quickly slipped into the shadows. In came Mendel, who said a perfunctory prayer, and reached for his latkes.
"Mendel!" Zussman called out, stepping out of the shadows.
The shammas jumped, clasping the latkes tight to his chest. "Reb Zussman!" he exclaimed, feeling caught, though he was not sure at what. But then, with the relief of one at last unburdened of a long-held secret, he turned to Zussman and said, "Reb Zussman, it is a miracle."
And there the three men stood when Zussman began to hear laughter. He turned and saw, or thought he saw, in the dim light by the door of the shul, a small man with a cherubic face rimmed with white curls and a white beard, wearing the floppy felt hat and gabardine cloak that Jews had worn a century before.
"Reb Zussman," the man said, stilling a chuckle, "the shammas is right, it is a miracle. In fact it is one of His favourites. Every year He summons His angels to Brusilov just to see. 'Watch,' He tells them, 'it is a true mitzvah. This one gets what he needs on earth, that one gets what he needs in Heaven, and they give Me all the credit.'"
Zussman stared into the gloom at the back of the shul. Then Jacobo said, "Reb Zussman, what did you say?"
Zussman looked around at Jacobo, at Mendel, and at the shul which stood empty. He repeated what he had heard. Jacobo shook his head. The shammas examined the floor beneath his shoes. Zussman too paused in thought, but no thoughts came. Then, once again he heard the voice of the Baal Shem Toy. What he heard, he repeated. "My friends, we have been blessed with a miracle. And now we are blessed a second time to see how it was done." Zussman pressed his fingers together and awaited eagerly what he would say next. "So. What are we to do?" He turned to Jacobo. "Good Jacobo, next year once again you must ask your Malka to make the latkes for the Holy One. And again the year after that, and the year after that. But from now on, bring them straight to Mendel, nu?
"And Mendel, faithful shammas, next year, and all the years after, you must continue to praise Him for His miracle but, for the latkes, thank Malka and Jacobo.
"I will see you at shabbas."
When Jacobo and Mendel had left, Zussman walked to the Ark and shut the doors. Then he sank down on a bench and closed his eyes. The Baal Shem Tov sat beside him. "Such good people," the Besht said "but, my good baal tefila, you must leave them. Your work here is done. You have a journey to make. It will be long and difficult, but your children will be many, and each will find his own way to God." Now at that time, Zussman had no thought of going to America; that would come with the pogroms of 1903. So Zussman was sure his time had come. He bowed his head, folded his hands and began to sing the kaddish. He rocked and chanted and prepared himself to see the face of the Blessed One. But he didn't. So he continued to chant, but he gradually lost steam. He didn't feel like he was dying. In fact he felt good. He finished the kaddish and stopped. He opened one eye and then the other. He looked around the empty, familiar shul. He shook his head, stood and, only then, noticed that, there on the bench beside him, were his eyeglasses.
There Uncle Davy stopped. Whole seconds passed. Then the silence was broken by the roar of an engine. A blue light danced on the ceiling. As if on cue, the snowplough had arrived.
IN ALL THE TIME I spent with Davy, that was the most I heard him say about my grandfather. My aunts and uncles liked to tell stories about the zeyde, particularly how he could unbuckle his belt and strike like a cobra. They talked about him with admiration, if not warmth. According to Uncle Chaim, when Zussman died in 1936, his funeral was attended by hundreds. "He must have been well liked," I said. "No," he said, "but he was well respected."
I never again heard mention of the Besht's foretelling of our emigration to America. We are a pragmatic bunch. Canadian. Assimilated. But that one night, snowbound in Uncle Avram's living room, as far from Brusilov as a family can travel in half a century, Davy had told Zussman's old story from the shtetl. Of all people to tell it, it was Davy, Davy the Punk, who had endured the worst of Zussman's crude effort to hold back the Canadian tide. I don't know if the marks inflicted by thezeyde's belt eventually faded, or if Davy carried them to his grave. Did those two tough old Jews ever make peace? I wish I had asked, but it was not the sort of thing you talked about in those days. So I like to think that Davy's story that snowy night was itself a reconciliation, a gold coin, long-since spent but bequeathed in the telling.
As for Zussman, my Aunt Celia in her old age told me this: One afternoon late in his life, she and Zussman were walking along York Street, when an old man called out, "Sholom aleychem, Zussman."
"Aleychem sholom," Zussman answered as was the custom, but then recognizing the man, he added excitedly, "Moishe? Es is du?" The men embraced like the long lost friends they in fact were. They spoke animatedly in Yiddish. Zussman asked his old friend about his children, and he answered proudly that this one was a lawyer, this one a doctor, this one an accountant.
"And your boys?"
"Gut," Zussman said, "Avram is making movies in Hollywood. Chaim is a schreiber for the Star."
"And Dovid?" asked Moishe.
"Ah, Dovid," said Zussman. He paused a moment, stood straighter and informed his old friend, "Dovid is an expert on horses."