Yossel's Journey

By Robert Hersowitz


            Yossel Rosenberg took a deep breath. The wind had died down. Gan Sacher was ablaze with light. There were thousands of people in the arena waiting to hear him sing. There were separate sections for men and women and one section for a mixed audience. Everyone had come to hear him. The compere began to announce the next act. His name reverberated around the stadium and a huge cheer rose from the crowd who began to sway and clap.
          “Yo-sell, Yo-sell.!” They shouted. He still could not believe that this was happening to him. He took a deep breath as he remembered the day when it had all begun. It was during the month of Kislev when Jerusalem was shrouded in fog. A silvery wetness had settled on the streets. It was Channukah and young Yossel could not sleep. He lived with his family in the Batei Varsha in Mea Shearim. He was squashed up against his younger brothers, Mendel, Avromi, Yechiel and Shraga. He was the eldest boy just 17 year old. He knew better than to disturb his brothers. Once they were awake, there would be no peace for him. They would jostle and prod each other and squeal and cry and wake the whole household. He kept perfectly still and began to dream. He dreamed that he could escape from the house, from the Mashgiach in the yeshiva who yelled and swayed and lurched at him when he was not concentrating during the Shiur. He wanted to see what it was like outside of Mea Shearim. The night before, hundreds of Menoros had lit up the windows like heavenly lanterns in every street and in the cramped alleyways. It was a time for dreaming.
          "I will leave this house and make a success of my life." he liked to tell his brothers. Often he was silenced by the stern looks from his father.
          "Eat your chulent and stop talking nonsense."
          Yossel saw his life as one big constraint. There was no choice but to accept his existence.
          “Kop af  kop” was the expression that he heard his mother use. It meant head upon head. That's how the folks lived in Mea Shearim. He had heard about his mother's family who were "Frei". This meant that they were not like the Rosenberg family. They called themselves “frum” but did not wear the Haredi garb. They wore American clothes and went mixed swimming. His mother called it a “shande” - a disgrace - but she had once lived that way. She had not grown up speaking Yiddish. There was a time when they had not been so “frum” when they lived in Ramat Eshkol. Of course they were shomrei mitzvoth.
          Those were the days when Yossel had been a member of the Jerusalem Pirchim, a very well known boys’ choir. There was a time when he had been the star performer with his angelic soprano voice. He was often asked to sing solo on the stage just outside the Jaffa Gate at the entrance to the Old City. But that was before the tragedy when his youngest sister, Miriam was knocked down and killed by a bus in the city centre. His parents had never recovered from this incident. It was then that hIs mother stopped smiling. She threw herself into the housework and kept urging the family to recite Tehillim and to daven with kavonah. The house and the neighborhood began to feel oppressive like a prison.
          His parents’ response to the tragedy was to become more and more religious.
          “HaShem  was clearly sending us a message.” His mother said. Yossel did not understand what she meant by this. It was then that they moved to the cramped
accommodation in Mea Shearim. His mother deliberately tried to cut herself off from her roots. Her name was Laura but she referred to herself as Leah Sorre. She always spoke English to her children, telling them that it was important for their "future". He did not understand what she meant by this, however he hoped that it meant a different future or even a return to the life they once knew in Ramat Eshkol. His mother rarely spoke of her past in America. He remembered his Bobbe and Zeide. They were also "Frei" and came from Brooklyn, New York. His maternal Zeide spoke Yiddish but he dressed like an American in a colored shirt and grey trousers and he wore a knitted Yarmulka. They had brought gifts - clothing for all the children. But they were never allowed to wear the clothes. These were not clothes for frum people, his Tatti told them. His mother sold them to the Russian Olim. As Yossel was nearing his time to learn in Yeshiva, he longed to go back to his Pirchim days. He would stand outside the music shop in Rechov Mea Shearim and listen to the jubilant sounds of Avram Fried and Mordechai Ben David blaring out of the loudspeakers. His most favorite time of year was during the festival of Sukkos when the city erupted into a cacophony of song with klezmer bands and groups of singers dancing around the squares and street corners. He would go to a nearby parking lot and try to remember and practice some of the tunes when no one was around. Despite his curiosity about the outside world, it seemed that his future as a Yeshiva Bocher had already been decided. He did not want to become another pale faced bony youth whose skin never saw the light of day, who “shokkeled” from Shacharis to Maariv and fidgeted with his “peyos”. He did not want to live kop af kop with prying neighbors and screaming children. It wasn't that he disliked Yiddishkeit. Indeed he had a very special relationship with his paternal Zeide, Rabbi Simcha the Scribe. Yossel loved watching him work with his quill on the Torah parchment, on tefillin and on the mezuza klaffim. Occasionally his beloved grandfather would let him work on a single Torah letter. He loved the smell of the drying ink. These were precious moments for Yossel when he had his own time and space where he did not have to compete with his brothers and sisters. Zeide Simcha was one of the few members of the family who appreciated his singing and encouraged him to sing some of the Nigunim. But then one day Zeide Simcha died of a heart attack. He was found crouched over a Torah scroll.
          That morning Yossel lay quietly staring up at the ceiling. He began to hatch a plan. He decided that he would find a way to leave Mea Shearim for just a day or a night to explore the world outside. His father Reb Mordechai learned in Kollel and arose each morning to visit the mikve followed by Shul and the recitation of the Vasikin prayers – at the earliest time one could pray. His mother was the breadwinner. When she wasn't attending to the children or doing the housework, she was in the basement of the house selling sheitels. She was known as the sheitel macher (the wig maker) and had established a business through her connections with New York. Every few months a consignment of sheitels arrived at the Post Office. His mother would be up late into the night, preparing the sheitlach. Since little Miriam had died she did not care much about her own appearance. But she needed to make a living. Her husband Reb Mordechai did not bring in much money. Women from the Har Nof and Shaarei Chesed neighborhoods would call on her in the basement.
          Yossel decided that he would find an excuse to go into the city. The Kosel (Western Wall) was the most magical place. It was where one could see the world in all its splendor. Yiddin and Goyim came there from the far reaches of the earth with their strange clothing and exotic accoutrements including cameras and phones. There was always something happening at the Kosel. He loved the music and the festivities around the Chaggim. He had even watched the ceremonies of the soldiers being sworn in during Chol HaMoed when the torches were lit at night. The Kosel and the plaza in front of it were bathed in gold. The air was filled with the sounds of trumpets. Yossel longed to be like the soldiers who wore knitted yarmulkes. He dreamed of going to the army, of becoming a Gibbor like Gideon in the Tanach or King David or Yehoshua bin Nun who led the Israelites into battle. But this was not to be - like many Haredi youngsters, his family successfully applied for his exemption. He was soon to be shadchened off to a young girl and after marriage, he would have to learn in Kollel like his father. He did not want this. He wanted to live in Eretz Yisrael like a normal religious Jew.
          Yes! Yossel thought. This would be his way of getting out. He would find a reason to go to the Kosel. His parents had no idea of his secret yearnings. They simply saw him as a yeshiva bocher, soon to become a Bridegroom. They hardly had time to spend with him. The only day he really got to spend time with them was on Shabbos when he ate with the whole family and accompanied his father and brothers to Shul.
          Today, he was quite sure he would not be missed if he went to daven at the Kosel on his own. The Yeshiva was in recess because of the Channukah holiday.
          Yossel knew that his mother had fallen out with her family. It had something to do with her becoming so religious and marrying his father. It hurt him to think that there were close relatives out there with whom his family had no contact. After all, the Torah commanded that a person should not bear a grudge. Recently they had a received a Channukah card from the family in Long Island. It was as if they were trying to end the machlokes. But his mother had ignored the gesture and thrown the card in the garbage.
          "They must get on with their lives and we must get on with ours." she told him. He knew that the family owned an apartment in Rechavia, one of the fancier neighborhoods of Jerusalem. It was very close to Sharei Chesed where a lot of Haredim lived. He decided that in addition to davening at the Kosel, he would pay a visit to his Mishpocha. He was very curious to know more about his mother’s sister and her family. He had once managed to coax more information from his mother.
          "Her Yiddishe name is Gittel" she told him. "But her American name is Georgia!" She had a pained look on her face as she spoke. The rest of the story came out in riddles - something about a very wealthy husband called Chuck whom she had never met. There had been an argument about inheritance money. He knew that he also had first cousins. It seemed that the whole family would come over from America for the Yomtovim and sometimes during Channukah.
          Yossel was intrigued by the story. Despite an initial feeling of guilt, he managed to retrieve the Channukah card from the garbage. An address was scribbled in Hebrew on the back. The apartment was on Alfasi 14 and the family was called Greenspan. The information provided him with additional inspiration to undertake the journey.
          Yossel announced that he was going to daven Shacharis at the Kosel.
          "You better wrap up warm!" his sister called from the kitchen. "It's going to be very cold today."
          He disappeared down an alleyway and climbed the hill to Rechov HaNeviim where he waited for the bus.
          There weren't many people at the Kosel that day. It was too cold and wet. He found a Chassidische Minyan in the covered section and davened fervently. He prayed that the Ribbono Shel Olam would give him fortitude and mazel so that his endeavors would be rewarded in the world outside Mea Shearim. He fought off the feelings of the Yetzer Hara - the evil inclination that assailed him. He was doing nothing wrong. He had told no lies to his parents or his sisters. He was simply on a mission. Like Yosef his namesake, he was leaving his father's house to find his brethren. He was unlikely to meet with any misfortune, especially if he davened well.
          Yossel continued his journey on foot up Rechov Agron towards Rechavia. The day was still dull, wet and gloomy. He had a vague idea about where he was going. He had been to daven at the Gra Synagogue in Shaarei Chesed with his father on several occasions. He decided to walk past the Kings Hotel on Rechov Ramban. Everywhere around him the Jerusalemites were going about their business. They hardly noticed him. In fact the sight of a young Charedi man dressed in a long black jacket, black Fedora and peyos was not at all uncommon. Rechavia was turning Haredi. More and more Olim from Brooklyn and Paris had begun to colonize the neighborhood. Shuls were being revived and renovated and new Yeshivos were being opened.
          He eventually arrived at Rechov Alfasi. It was one of the most prestigious streets in Rechavia tucked away behind the pine trees and surrounded by greenery. The apartment buildings were interspersed with private villas. Number 14 was a particularly new construction consisting of just eight apartments surrounded by a very pleasant garden, high walls and electronic gates. Yossel stood on the opposite side of the street and marveled at the sight. It was so different to the congested alleyways of Mea Shearim. There was no washing hanging from any of the windows and the pavements were clean and devoid of people. He crossed the road and studied the array of hi-tech video-entry phones. He searched for the name of his Mishpocha. He looked for the name Greenspan and found the silver circular button and pressed it.
          "Who is this?" A woman's shrill voice demanded. It sounded like his mother's voice for a moment. "Is that the Sofer? I thought you said you would come Erev Shabbes?"
          Yossel panicked. He did not know how to answer and then a strange force gripped him and put words in his mouth -- English words in a strong Yiddish accent.
          "I was just passing by and thought I would see if you were in this morning."
          "Ok. Wait a minute let me talk to my husband." The entry phone went dead for a while. "Ok!” The shrill voice returned. "I guess we might as well deal with it now. Let me buzz you in."
          The buzzer sounded a harsh trumpet-like noise that made him jump as the gates opened. He walked into the courtyard and heard the voice calling from the entry phone behind him. "Take the elevator we are Apartment Five on the third floor."
          At this point Yossel began to regret what he was doing yet something propelled him forward until he reached the apartment. The door opened. A woman stood at the door. She was in her late fifties. She had a striking resemblance to his mother. She was a shorter and thinner version of her and her head was uncovered. But her face with the high cheekbones and blue penetrating eyes were just like his mother's.
          "Sholem Aleichem. Don't be shy. You can come in. I am not alone. My husband is here. Don't worry young man – I won’t eat you! What's your name? You look familiar to me."
          Yossel cleared his throat. He kissed the mezuza and hesitated before he answered. "Yossel." He almost whispered.
          "Chuck!" She yelled. "The Sofer is here to check the Mezuzot."
          He was about to correct her when a large well built man sporting a red and blue knitted Kippah and dressed in jeans and an American T-shirt came hurtling towards him.          
         "Shalom Aleichem Reb Yid we weren't expecting you until tomorrow. I am Chaim Greenspan." He thrust his hand out and Yossel shook it limply. He found himself twisting his peyos nervously. Once again he attempted to speak but his "uncle" interrupted him. "I've got everything laid out in the dining room. Maybe you can also check my teffilin? By the way, I don't remember discussing the price. How much do you charge?"
          There was total silence as Yossel shuffled into the dining room.
          "Please sit down." he gestured to Yossel. "Forgive me Reb Yid, I don't remember your name."
          "I'm Yossel." He stammered.
          "Are you a Rabbi? Do you have Smicha?" The questions came from his Aunt who stood at the door looking at him suspiciously. Her arms were folded across her chest.
          "Take a look at this Klaf." His uncle interrupted.
          "You did not answer my question!" His aunt snapped.
          "Cool it Georgia you are making the man nervous! "
          Yossel froze and kept his eyes focused on the Klaf that had been handed to him.
           "I bought this in Boro Park in New York from a Sofer called Plitnick. Did you hear of him? I paid a sach gelt for it. I'll bet you it is still perfectly kosher."
          Yossel studied the Klaf and lifted it towards the light. He placed it on the table and leaned forward lowering his head to a level of maximum scrutiny.
          "I'm afraid it's Posul!" he announced quietly. "You can see the Shin has faded, here and here." He pointed with the fingernail of his baby finger.
          "Georgia. Bring a magnifying glass."
          His aunt duly obeyed and Chuck Greenspan studied the Klaf under the magnifying glass. "You're damn good. You know that? Where did you learn your craft?"
          "In Mea Shearim." Yossel answered quietly. By now he had broken into a cold sweat.
          "If you don't mind me saying so," his Aunt chirped from the doorway. "You do seem very young to be a Sofer."
          Before Yossel could answer his uncle said, "The fella's pretty good. He knows his stuff. So will you take a look at the other stuff?"
          Yossel nodded.
          "Here. You can use the magnifying glass."
          Yossel shook his head. "I can do it without the glass."
          For the next half an hour, Yossel found himself going through each Klaf. He realized that he had learned a great deal from his late grandfather – Zeide Simcha. He had never before been put to the test in this way.
          An hour later Yossel had finished checking everything. He found two more klafim that were Posul and not kosher.
          "How much do we owe you?"
          Just then the buzzer sounded. Three young teenagers dressed like their father with their tzitis hanging out of the tops of their jeans burst into the room. "These are our sons, Josh, Gavriel and David. This is Yossel the Sofer who has done an excellent job on the Mezuzos. Halevai you guys could have such outstanding Lomdes!"
     The three boys stared at Yossel. He put his hand out and said "Sholem Aleichem" to each of them. They kept staring at his peyos.
           "Maybe you guys want to get your teffilin checked too?" Chuck asked them.
          "No. I cannot. I have an appointment." He looked down at his shoes as he lied.
          "Then how much do we owe you?"
          "Nothing at all. It was my pleasure and a zechus to help you."
          "Nonsense." His uncle remonstrated. "Please don't insult us. You didn't even have a cup of coffee. Here I am giving you one hundred and fifty dollars." He pushed a wad of notes into Yossel's hand. It was useless to argue. He found himself moving towards the door.
          His Aunt called out. "Good, I'm glad you took the money young man. Now please come into the kitchen, at least have a piece of cake and some coffee with us. We're a hundred percent kosher and shomer Shabbos. The cake is from a bakery in Geula."
          He tried refuse but could not resist. His Aunt had the same persuasive manner as his mother and he found himself making a brocha sitting at the kitchen table wolfing down the delicious yeast cake. The rest of the family gathered round as he gulped down the coffee.
          "Do they sing Channukah songs in Mea Shearim?" his cousin Josh asked provocatively.
          "Of course." He nodded and a broad smile broke across his face.
          “How about Hatikvah?” His cousin David goaded. “I bet none of you know how to sing Hatikvah!”  
        Yossel looked at him curiously. Was this some kind of test? He paused and
then began to sing. His voice rose and fell in sweet melodious tones. The boys broke into spontaneous applause.
          "Wow! Not only is he a great Sofer, he's also a damn good Chazzan!” Chuck exclaimed.
          “And he’s a Zioni! “ His cousin yelled. “Sing us something else!. Come on! Don’t be shy Reb Yossel!”
          Yossel responded with an Avram Fried tune from the Hallel prayer. The family was hushed into silence as they listened.
         “You’re good Yossel”, his uncle proclaimed “You should get yourself an audition!”
          Yossel shrugged, his face beaming with pride.
          By the time he left Rechov Alfasi, it was lunchtime. His head was filled with excitement. He was bursting to tell his family about his adventure. But then another feeling overcame him. It was a feeling of shame and dejection. He had lied - misrepresented himself. He tried to rationalize things within his own mind. Yosef the Tsardikos had done the same to his brothers when they came to Egypt to buy their food during the great famine. He too had not revealed his identity. But then a voice cried out within him -- you Yossel are not Yosef,  you are Yossel Rosenberg!
          At Minchin that afternoon he beat his chest when he recited Slash Lana. He almost wished it wasn't Channukah so that he could recite the penitential prayer of Tatiana.
         That night as he greeted his mother, he decided to confess.
         "I have something for you Mamma."
          "What is it Yossel?"
          "I have some gelt for you Mamma." He deposited the wad of dollars in her hand. She counted the money.
          "Ribbono Shel Olam! There’s three hundred dollars here! Where did you get this money?"
          “It’s not three hundred - it’s one hundred and fifty.” He answered in Yiddish.
          She tried to control her voice. "Don’t lie to me! I counted it – it’s three hundred American dollars! Where did you get this money?” She shouted.
          “There must be some mistake.” Yossel wailed.
          “Where did you get this from Yossel?" she began to shriek.
          "I earned it Mamme."
          "How? Yossel. Tell me the emmes, HaShem. Where does this money come from?"
          "I met a family who asked me to help them to check their Mezuzos. I checked them and found three that were Posul. The rest were OK. I checked 12 Mezuzos and a pair of Tefillin. I refused to take money, but they insisted. I didn’t even count the money."
          "That’s obvious. This is pure gneivus. You might as well have stolen the money. You must take it back! "
          "Its not gneivus. I worked hard for the money." He was on the verge of tears.
          "You told them you were a Sofer. You lied to them. That is the same as gneivus!"
          "Its not the same thing." He looked at her angrily.
          "You will return this money first thing in the morning. For your sake we will not tell Tatti about this. He doesn't need the agmas nefesh. I am surprised at you."      
          Yossel remained silent. Then an idea came to his head.
          "I need you to come with me. I am afraid they might call the police. The people were very rich. They will not look at me with any sympathy. My English is no good."
          "So they were Americans? Tourists. Noch erger! That you should have misled them like this!!"
          "I did not mislead them. They asked for my help and I did a mitzvo. I told them that I wanted no money. The man insisted."
          "OK. I will come with you. I will have to lose an hour or work because of this! Now go and daven Maariv and ask Hashem to forgive you!"
          Yossel did not sleep very well that night. He was anxious and afraid of what might happen the next morning when his mother and his aunt found out the truth. The night dragged on endlessly. He woke early and went to a minyan in a nearby Shul where nobody knew him. He davened with such fervor. His lips moved and he shokkeled from side to side and backwards and forwards almost knocking over the shtender in front of him.
          He walked with his mother in silence. They traveled by bus to Rechavia. It was Erev Shabbos. Everyone was out on the streets buying provisions for Shabbos. They passed Heimishe Essen - the glatt take-out store on Rechov Keren Kayemet. His mother muttered something about the ridiculous prices that only people in Rechavia could afford.
          Eventually they arrived at Alfasi. Yossel knew that his mother had never visited her sister in her new home and that she would not recognize the house. They approached number 14. Yossel reached up and covered up the names with his hand.
          "Which apartment is it? Do you know the name of the family?" she spoke to him in English, a sign that she was not ready to forgive him. He did not want to tell lies and kept silent. He pushed the buzzer. He prayed that his uncle would answer.
          "Who is it?"
          "It's Yossel." He answered meekly.
          "The Sofer, the Chazzan! Come in. I knew you’d be back? Who is that with you?" The voice rang out.
          "My mother." Yossel replied.
          "I'll buzz you in.” The buzzer sounded and the gate opened. Leah Sorre pushed her son forward. She looked up to see two people coming towards her. She peered ahead and recognized her sister.
          "Gottenyu! Georgia.... Is it you?"
          Georgia Greenspan nodded and ran forward throwing her arms around her sister. Both women burst into tears. The two women held each other rocking from side to side. In the background Chuck's voice could be heard.   
          “I don’t believe this is happening. Georgia your Mishpocha have found you!”
          “This is my Mamme.” Yossel murmured. “We came to give you back your money.”
          “There’s no need for that..” Chuck implored. “You are our own flesh and blood.”
           “But I did not tell you the truth!” Yossel’s voice wavered.
          “Are you kidding! You never uttered a word of  a lie. We just didn’t let you get a word in and besides, the minute you walked into our house we knew exactly who you were!”
           “How did you know?” Yossel asked, his voice subdued.
          “You look exactly like your mother looked when she was your age.” Georgia replied.  “I had to run out of the room when I realized it was you.” Her eyes welled up with tears.
          “So what happens now?” Laura asked. “Will you take back the money please?”
          Chuck turned to her. He spoke quietly and averted her gaze. “It is very clear to us that you guys are not having an easy time.”
          "We are not poor!" Laura retorted. "We don't need a life of gashmius."
          "I know that.” Georgia answered. “And believe me, despite what has happened in the past, we respect you for this. Our parents would have been very proud of you.” She pleaded with her sister.
          There was silence then Chuck spoke.
          “You think that it’s coincidence that we have met like this today? This was all meant to happen. It was bashert - part of HaKadosh Baruch Hus plan.” He paused and waited for Laura to answer. She lowered her head and nodded. “At least let us help Yossel. He is so talented!” Chuck continued.
          The next day the story went round the Batei Varsha neighborhood.
         “Leah Sorre has been reunited with her sister and her mishpocha!
          All this had happened five years previously – before Yossel completed his Yeshiva studies and had married his basherte. It was also before his uncle had introduced him to Mendy Finkelstein the New York impresario who launched the careers of some of the great Frum Jewish singers and Chazonim. It had been a long journey.
          It was now time for Yossel to go on stage. He knew that his beautiful Kala, Shifra was in the audience together with her parents, both his parents, his brothers and sisters and his new Mishpocha - the entire Greenspan family! He whispered a short Tefilla. The spotlight caught his shiny black kapotte as he came on stage to tumultuous applause.

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