As one of my last columns, I reprint a submission of memory that appeared in this space on March 27, 2002.
Most of his life the tailor sang songs in minor keys. The melodies sprang from the traditions and the folkways of his home, which, in the first two decades of his life, had been in a small village at the end of a dirt road little travelled in eastern Poland.
In later years, he would test the range and power of his voice with other kinds of song. When he was alone, working at his sewing machine, he would sing like a tenor at La Scala.
In his prime, the young man’s voice was a musical blend of the resonant emotions of a Richard Tucker and the more sonorous, earthy stability of a Jan Peerce. And in an uncanny coincidence of nature, he even resembled the two, in hybrid, combining Peerce’s short, stocky, barrel-chested stature with Tucker’s warm, inviting eyes, dark wavy hair and melting, mischievous smile.
As he fed the material under the driving needle of the spindle, the tailor sang to the heavens, transformed by the privacy of the moment into a starry-eyed Jewish Rudolpho, his passion suddenly awakened by the beautiful Mimi standing before him in the doorway of his cold, bohemian’s attic studio. Che Gelida Manina, How Cold Your Hands Are, he sang to her with the passion and the purpose of a man deeply in love.
Or, as he pushed on the pedal of the motor, he imagined himself alone on the stage, a virtuoso soloist under the thin spotlight in the vast, darkened theatre. He sang Pagliacci’s sobbing, sorrowful, heartbroken lament, his will to live ebbing, seeking the strength merely to don his costume, to smile, to walk off the stage in dignity.
The tailor’s performances were always flawless. The audience, of course, was wildly, if respectfully appreciative, sustaining its applause much longer than it took him to sew pockets into a pair of trousers or alter a sleeve in a misshapen sports jacket.
It was hardly surprising that he sang arias in which he detected traces of chazanut, arias that touched the inner core of his soul, the part shaped by the happiness of the family that had nurtured and sustained him so very long ago.
But now the tailor lay in a hospital bed. He could no longer sing; he could no longer even speak. His eyes were closed. Machinery, it seemed, as much as man were striving to save his life. Tubes and plastics helped him to breathe; filaments and wires helped his heart to beat.
It was the Sabbath, nine days before Pesach.
Three days earlier, in the hopeful beginnings of a new spring, he came to the hospital complaining of digestive discomfort. Yet, even in his initial distress, he still sang quietly to himself the familiar tunes of the approaching holiday. Before too many hours passed, however, he was no longer able to bring forth any melodies.
Less than two miles away from the hospital, four of the tailor’s grandchildren sat around the Sabbath table in their home, waiting for news but afraid to hear what they dreaded. Their hands were joined, completing a circle in whose intertwined connections, they found strength.
They were four curly-topped young girls, none of them out of their teens, one of them not yet into her teens.
They were home alone. Their parents were at the hospital, at the tailor’s bedside, where they had been, without interruption, for four days.
When the sun began its final descent into the western sky, the young sisters lit the Sabbath candles. They could no longer wait for their parents, though they ached to have them home, the family whole again, all sadness averted.
But they knew their parents were not coming home soon.
Holding back tears even as they held onto each other, they blessed God with the multiple blessings for his instruction to bring light into the Sabbath home, for creating the fruits of the vine and for bringing forth bread from the land.
But they ate very little, nibbling at the food more out of respect for the Sabbath than out of appetite.
They knew their grandfather, the apprentice, soldier, survivor, shopkeeper, tailor, was now in the penumbra where this world and the next world meet. His life was slipping away.
Against their will, tears came anyway.
And they determined to sing. Yedid Nefesh, Companion of My Soul; Lecha Dodi, To You My Love; songs of the prayerbook; songs of Jewish eastern Europe; any songs that he might have once sung, too, because they knew how much he had loved to sing and how he had loved to hear them sing. They sang loudly. They sang fiercely. They sang the choking songs of farewell.
To this very minute and always, when I reflect on the final instant on Earth of the soul of the tailor from Bodzentin, I imagine it soaring upward and high into the deep invisible blue of the pathway to heaven through a corridor of his grandchildren’s song.
And it was surely noticed among the angels that the harmony the young sisters created for their grandfather’s ascending soul, like the love they felt for him, was pure and sweet, an eternal, lasting testament to the goodness of the man they would never see again. – MBD