Wednesday, September 27, 2006

 

The Shabbes Goy by Joe Velarde

hat tip Y


The Shabbes Goy by Joe Velarde

Joe Velarde became the fencing coach of Columbia University in the
1940's-50s and was an early advocate of civil rights in sports, eventually
retiring to California.


Snow came early in the winter of 1933 when our extended Cuban family moved
into the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. I was ten years old. We were the
first Spanish speakers to arrive, yet we fit more or less easily into that
crowded, multicultural neighborhood. Soon we began learning a little
Italian, a few Greek and Polish words, lots of Yiddish and some heavily
accented English.

I first heard the __expression Shabbes is falling when Mr. Rosenthal refused
to open the door of his dry goods store on Bedford Avenue. My mother had
sent me with a dime to buy a pair of black socks for my father. In those
days, men wore mostly black and Navy blue. Brown and gray were somehow
special and cost more. Mr. Rosenthal stood inside the locked door, arms
folded, glaring at me through the thick glass while a heavy snow and
darkness began to fall on a Friday evening. "We're closed, already", Mr.
Rosenthal had said, shaking his head, "can't you see that Shabbes is
falling? Don't be a nudnik! Go home." I could feel the cold wetness covering
my head and thought that Shabbes was the Jewish word for snow.

My misperception of Shabbes didn't last long, however, as the area's
dominant culture soon became apparent; Gentiles were the minority. From then
on, as Shabbes fell with its immutable regularity and Jewish lore took over
the life of the neighborhood, I came to realize that so many human
activities, ordinarily mundane at any other time, ceased, and a palpable
silence, a pleasant tranquillity, fell over all of us. It was then that a
family with an urgent need would dispatch a youngster to "get the Spanish
boy, and hurry."

That was me. In time, I stopped being nameless and became Yussel, sometimes
Yuss or Yusseleh. And so began my life as a Shabbes Goy, voluntarily doing
chores for my neighbors on Friday nights and Saturdays: lighting stoves,
running errands, getting a prescription for an old tante, stoking coal
furnaces, putting lights on or out, clearing snow and ice from slippery
sidewalks and stoops. Doing just about anything that was forbidden to the
devout by their religious code.

Friday afternoons were special. I'd walk home from school assailed by the
rich aroma emanating from Jewish kitchens preparing that evening's special
menu. By now, I had developed a list of steady "clients," Jewish families
who depended on me. Furnaces, in particular, demanded frequent tending
during Brooklyn's many freezing winters. I shudder remembering brutally cold
winds blowing off the East River. Anticipation ran high as I thought of the
warm home-baked treats I'd bring home that night after my Shabbes rounds
were over. Thanks to me, my entire family had become Jewish pastry junkies.
Moi? I'm still addicted to checkerboard cake, halvah and Egg Creams (made
only with Fox's Ubet chocolate syrup).

I remember as if it were yesterday how I discovered that Jews were the
smartest people in the world. You see, in our Cuban household we all loved
the ends of bread loaves and, to keep peace, my father always decided who
would get them. One harsh winter night I was rewarded for my Shabbes
ministrations with a loaf of warm challah (we pronounced it "holly") and I
knew I was witnessing genius! Who else could have invented a bread that had
wonderfully crusted ends all over it -- enough for everyone in a large
family?

There was an "International" aspect to my teen years in Williamsburg. The
Sternberg family had two sons who had fought with the Abraham Lincoln
Brigade in Spain. Whenever we kids could get their attention, they'd
spellbind us with tales of hazardous adventures in the Spanish Civil War.
These twenty-something war veterans also introduced us to a novel way of
thinking, one that embraced such humane ideas as 'From each according to his
means and to each according to his needs'. In retrospect, this innocent
exposure to a different philosophy was the starting point of a journey that
would also incorporate the concept of Tzedakah in my personal guide to the
world.

In what historians would later call The Great Depression, a nickel was a lot
of mazuma and its economic power could buy a brand new Spaldeen, our local
name for the pink-colored rubber ball then produced by the Spalding Company.
The famous Spaldeen was central to our endless street games: stickball and
punchball or the simpler stoopball. One balmy summer evenings our youthful
fantasies converted South Tenth Street into Ebbets Field with the Dodgers'
Dolph Camilli swinging a broom handle at a viciously curving Spaldeen thrown
by the Giants' great lefty, Carl Hubbell. We really thought it curved, I
swear.

Our neighbors, magically transformed into spectators kibitzing from their
brownstone stoops and windows, were treated to a unique version of major
league baseball. My tenure as the resident Shabbes Goy came to an abrupt end
after Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941. I withdrew from Brooklyn College
the following day and joined the U.S. Army. In June of 1944, the Army Air
Corps shipped me home after flying sixty combat missions over Italy and the
Balkans. I was overwhelmed to find that several of my Jewish friends and
neighbors had set a place for me at their supper tables every Shabbes
throughout my absence, including me in their prayers. What mitzvoth! My
homecoming was highlighted by wonderful invitations to dinner. Can you
imagine the effect after twenty-two months of Army field rations?

As my post-World War II life developed, the nature of the association I'd
had with Jewish families during my formative years became clearer. I had
learned the meaning of friendship, of loyalty, and of honor and respect. I
discovered obedience without subservience. And caring about all living
things had become as natural as breathing. The worth of a strong work ethic
and of purposeful dedication was manifest. Love of learning blossomed and I
began to set higher standards for my developing skills, and loftier goals
for future activities and dreams. Mind, none of this was the result of any
sort of formal instruction; my yeshiva had been the neighborhood. I learned
these things, absorbed them actually says it better, by association and role
modeling, by pursuing curious inquiry, and by what educators called
"incidental learning" in the crucible that was pre-World War II
Williamsburg. It seems many of life's most elemental lessons are learned
this way.

While my parents' Cuban home sheltered me with warm, intimate affection and
provided for my well-being and self esteem, the group of Jewish families I
came to know and help in the Williamsburg of the 1930s was a surrogate tribe
that abetted my teenage rite of passage to adulthood. One might even say we
had experienced a special kind of Bar Mitzvah. I couldn't explain then the
concept of tikkun olam, but I realized as I matured how well I had been
oriented by the Jewish experience to live it and to apply it. What a truly
uplifting outlook on life it is to be genuinely motivated "to repair the
world."

In these twilight years when my good wife is occasionally told, "Your
husband is a funny man," I'm aware that my humor has its roots in the
shticks of Second Avenue Yiddish Theater, entertainers at Catskill summer
resorts, and their many imitators. And, when I argue issues of human or
civil rights and am cautioned about showing too much zeal, I recall how
chutzpah first flourished on Williamsburg sidewalks, competing for filberts
(hazelnuts) with tough kids wearing payess and yarmulkes. Along the way I
played chess and one-wall handball, learned to fence, listened to
Rimsky-Korsakov, ate roasted chestnuts, read Maimonides and studied Saul
Alinsky.

I am ever grateful for having had the opportunity to be a Shabbes Goy.

Comments:
This is an incredibly beautiful article, showing so much soul and love. He obviously gives as much as he got and I am proud to be Jewish and to read that other Jews treated this young man with the respect and kindness that he so richly deserved.
 
What a gorgeous, eloquently written piece. I am completely happy when otherwise divisive lines are transformed into beauty in action.
 
A wonderfully moving article proving that Jews' being the smartest people in the world is actually a GOOD thing. The mutual love and respect between Jew and Gentile are a role model for co-existence for everyone. Is there an email address/website to contact Mr. Velarde!
thanks for posting!
 
The literal translation of Goy is nation. We are a Shabbos Nation, for our entire existence is geared for our Shabbos, both literally and spiritually. As our sages tells us , "he who toils on Erev Shabbos will eat on Shabbos"..in that case the world to come.

As such, this special Cuban was an invaluable factor in enhancing ours. In a sense this Goy helped us become the Nation (Goy) we strive for.

He is no ordinary Joe !!!
 
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