Souls As Big
As Fingernails

Before leaving for Israel in 1992 I arranged to meet Sonny [an Israeli friend living in Montreal], just as I had done before my last trip. We were going to eat at Moishe's on the Main. Garish it may be, but it's a Montreal institution. While I waited for Sonny, a waiter came over to chat about the old days when we all lived in the same neighborhood.

"Remember Sid Horowitz?"

"I don't think so."

"Sure you do," said the man at the next table. It was Marty Hoffman, Baron Byng class of '48. Now sole proprietor of Pantalon Picasso --- Picasso Jeans. Made by prisoners in China. No strikes, no late deliveries. "Langer loksh Horowitz. He was with their Y basketball team the year they won everything."

"He came in here yesterday with his new wife," said the waiter, "a shiksa, Yolande --- maybe twenty five years old, she's already got a bun in the oven --- and he's wearing a rug. Hey, I had to be careful not to seat him next to an air-conditioning vent. Excuse me."

Marty asked, "Weren't you in Hashomer Hatza'ir with Schloime Scheiderman?"

"No, I was in Habonim."

"Pam achas bochur yatza," he sang, "bochur v'bachura. He was in from Toronto last week. He calls himself Cy Taylor now...."

Then the waiter was back with more names recalled from the good old days. Charna Rosen, Grepsy Sussman, Moish Barcovitch, who was doing time. Dr. Phil Gold, a credit to us. And Baron Byng's most famous graduate, William Shatner, Captain Kirk of Star Trek.

Foolishly, I tried to trump that one. "Do you know who used to live right around the corner from here on Napoleon Street?"

"Sure. The Kushners. They were in footwear. Retail."

"Saul Bellow," I said, "right around the corner. When he was a boy."

"Bellow?" the waiter asked, puzzled. "Now you've got me. What was his father in?"

"Oy vay," said Marty.

"Listen here," said the waiter, "who can remember everybody?"

Sonny, who had been caught in a traffic jam, finally arrived, offering apologies. Following his ritual denunciation of Shamir, Rabin, and Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, he warmed to his pet peeve, the haredim, the ultra-Orthodox. Haredi is Hebrew for "trembling" or "fearing" and the haredim are the God-fearing. "Our Ayatollahs," said Sonny. Then he rounded off his show of distaste for the haredim with an anecdote that betrayed an affection for their savvy.

"A few years ago," he said, "some of the boys I went to school with were putting up a hotel in Jerusalem. The haredim showed up every day and watched and waited but didn't make a move until the sixth floor had gone up. Then they paid the boys a visit. This hotel will have to come down, they said, because it is being built over a graveyard. Now tell me where you can build in Israel without bones underneath? The whole country's a graveyard. So what could be done? The boys were presented with a list of yeshivas and their financial needs. After some hard bargaining, the extent of the required donations was agreed to by both parties.

"But that wasn't all. To be permitted to build over a graveyard, the haredim said, they must drill holes in the foundation so that the souls of the departed could escape for fresh air. Of course, the boys said. Naturally. We should have thought of that in the first place. So the architects were called in. Building plans were unrolled. How big is a soul, the boys asked. Sometimes as small as a fingernail, they were told, but other times as large as a fist. The haggling went on for weeks and finally the number and size of the holes were agreed upon and construction was resumed."

Sonny inveighed against the two main political parties representing the haredim: Agudat Yisrael, the voice of the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim, Jews of Northern European descent, and Shas, the self-styled "Torah Guardians" of the Sephardim, some of them Spanish, but most of North African or Middle Eastern origin. Agudat Yisrael was founded at the turn of the century to combat the "Zionist heresy," a secular impediment to the coming of the Messiah. And Shas, so far as Sonny was concerned, had been formed in 1984 only to lobby for a shift of religious slush funds from the Ashkenazim, the traditional insiders, to the much less favored Sephardim.

Following Labor's electoral triumph on July 2, 1992, ending fifteen years of Likud rule, Yitzhak Rabin forged a querulous coalition that included Shas on the right and the Meretz [resolutely secular, and favoring a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians] on the left. The price paid to Shas, the appointment of Arye Deri as Minister of Interior, did not delight secular Israelis, and the announcement that Shulamit Aloni, a Meretz MK [member of the Knesset] would be the new Minister of Education made for frenzy among the haredim. Ms. Aloni's assumption of that portfolio, said Rabbi Schach, would result in over a million Israeli children being forced into apostasy, and that was worse than what had happened to Jewish children during the Holocaust.

The continuing quarrel between the ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis took another turn on October 5, 1992: MK Yael Dayan was photographed sunbathing in a bikini on a beach in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, which many haredim took as a deliberate provocation. Later in the month, Shulamit Aloni was accused of dining in non-kosher restaurants and of having held meetings on the Sabbath during an official visit to Germany.

Reading about the defiant behavior of Yael Dayan and Shulamit Aloni in the fortnightly Jerusalem report, I was spun backward in time, a thirteen-year-old again, eating my first toasted bacon-and-tomato sandwich, not altogether sure that I wouldn't be struck by lightning when I emerged from Horn's Cafeteria on Pine Avenue. My initial experience with hashish, on the terrace of the Cafe de Flore on Boulevard St. Germain, did not leave me nearly so guilt-ridden.

But it was one evening in Paris, in 1951, when I grasped how far I had strayed from childhood religious observances. I had offered to take a Texan friend, who had never eaten a Jewish meal, to dinner in a kosher restaurant. As we strolled along the Seine on the rive gauche, crossing the bridge to the Ile St. Louis, coming out in the Jewish quarter on the other side, I extolled the merits of gefilte fish, horseradish that made your nose tingle, stuffed derma, and boiled flanken. But the restaurant I favored was closed. It was Yom Kippur. A sign in the window, which I took to be a personal rebuke --- surely set in place by my paternal grandfather's ghost, a dybbuk in quest of winter quarters --- expressed the wish that all of the restaurant's clientele would be written down for a good year in the Book of Life: L'shana tova tikatevu.

--- From This Year in Jerusalem,
Mordecai Richler
©1994 Alfred A. Knopf

Go Up     Subscribe     Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH