This story was inspired by Avshalom Katz, the music teacher at the Ariel School in Raanana. Several of my grandchildren were inspired by his graciousness, love for music and love of children.
Williamsburg in Brooklyn in 1958, and a few old Jews were gathering outside the Alter Kobriner Shul. A funeral was scheduled at 10am; not unusual in this aging and decaying community. What was unusual was the word circulating that the world famous cantor Moshe Gruber from Temple Bnai Brith on Eastern Parkway was going to officiate. No one quite understood why. The deceased, Avshalom Schwartz, was the long-time bar mitzvah teacher from the lower East Side, who had passed away the previous night in a local nursing home.
It was 6am and Moishele was already out on the street. Anything was better than lying on the cold tenement floor on a mattress shared with one brother in a room that also accommodated his seven other siblings. He didn’t resent it. As a child of Jewish immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century, it was his world and the only world he had, in his 12 years, ever known.
The street was already crowded, noisy and challenging. Old men, bearded, stooped over on their way to minyan. Chunky balabustas carrying wicker baskets, determined to get to the fishmonger while the fish were still fresh. Horse-drawn wagons, overloaded, slowly wending their way among the filth, the crowds and the stalls. Moishele pushed his way down Rivington toward Delancy where, as was his daily habit, he would meet Sammy and Izzi and collectively they would decide how to spend the day.
There they were. Not surprising. It was already 6:30am and they were eager to leave their crowded tenement apartments and explore what excitement the new day would bring.
“Hey, Moishele, you’re late! We’re waiting already five minutes. You got a smoke?”
“Yeh, yeh, I got smokes, but I haven’t eaten yet. Have you guys eaten yet?”
“No. We haven’t eaten yet. Let’s go boost some eats and go under the bridge.”
“Sammy, you snatch some rolls; Izzi you get the fruit; I’ll do the appetizer, pickles, olives, maybe even some cheese. Meet back here and after breakfast, we’ll have some smokes.”
They went their separate ways. This was their life; sometimes public school in the morning, more unusual heder in the afternoon;the core of their existence was the street. They were good kids but thrown into the cacophony of New York at the turn of the century, and having parents who were greenhorns and few role models, they were struggling to find their way.
“Moishele, today you’re going to heder. It’s three months till your bar mitzvah and you’re going to learn to recite the parsha. This I insist on. I have already paid the teacher for the special lessons. You’re going; you’re not going to disgrace me and your mother in front of the family and the community.”
Moishele commiserated with Izzi and Sammy. “What could I do? He already spent the money. My father spent money and I’m going to waste it? I’ll get killed. I guess I’m going to study for my bar mitzvah.”
He went to the heder and that’s where he met Mr. Schwartz, the bar mitzvah teacher, for the first time.
“Moishele, do you know any songs?”
“Songs, Mr. Schwartz?”
“Yes, songs, Moishele.”
“I know some lullabies that my mother used to sing me but that’s from a long time ago.”
“Let me hear one, Moishele, sing me a sweet one.”
Moishele scratched his head, searched his memory and, in Yiddish, was able to sing Rosinkish und Mandlin.
Mr. Schwartz was staring. “Moishele, you have an amazing voice – amazing! Tone, pitch, even the phonation was fantastic for an untrained voice. Are you going to make your parents so proud!”
“Reb Schwartz,” Moishele responded, “I want to do what I have to do in as little time as necessary. I have to meet my friends. How quickly can we get this done?”
“Moishele! I understand. I do. Come, come here by the piano. I want to show you something.”
Schwartz sat by the piano and beckoned Moishele to sit next to him. “Moishele, this is a game. I hit a note and you try to match the note with your voice. You get all of them right you get a candy.”
Schwartz ran through a full range including flats. Moishele matched each note over a range of five octaves; and all that was effortless. Schwartz turned to him on the piano stool. “Moishele, you earned your treat. You’re going to get your candy, but I want to try one more game and you’ll maybe get an even better prize. Uptown on 14thStreet there is a new company that makes music in the theater. They have a new singer. He’s new in New York, he’s from Italy, his name is Enrico Caruso.
Singer Enrico Caruso
Tomorrow night he is singing on 14thStreet at the Academy and I have two tickets. I want you to come with me.”
“Me?” questioned Moishele. “Me? To the theater - you’re making a joke from me?”
“No, no!” responded Schwartz. “No, no, I’m serious. I want you to hear and I want someone with whom to discuss the singing. I think you’ll enjoy.”
“You’ll have to ask my Papa,” Moishele responded. “He’ll decide.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Gruber, your son has a beautiful voice. He has a natural ear. He is gifted. We have to develop that gift. It’s G-d given but it has to be developed.”
“Dear G-d! Did I not tell you Shmuli? The boy is wonderful. This comes from my side. My Tata always loved to sing,” enthused Mrs. Gruber.
“Be quiet, woman,” barked Shmuel Gruber and turning to Schwartz he asked, “And how much is developing this gift going to cost me? Certainly you’re going to be charging for the lessons?”
“Just for the bar mitzvah,” replied Schwartz, “just what you’ve already paid me. No additional charges for the music lessons. We can’t let such a talent go to waste.”
“Nu, why not, better than he’s hanging out in the street with those bums.”
“And,” added Schwartz, “tomorrow night I want to take him to the Academy of Music on 14thStreet to hear a singer, Enrico Caruso. I want him to hear beautiful music. I want him to see how it can be.”
“All right,” responded Gruber, “but I don’t want him to be a bum, to be a theater singer, I want he should be a chazan, a cantor. He should lead the prayers.”
“He’ll lead the prayers,” reassured Schwartz.
“Guys, guys, come quickly, come quickly, you have to see the fire on the river”.
“What, are you crazy Izzi?” cried Sammy. “There can’t be a fire on the river, shmuck. Even you have to realize that water don’t burn. It puts out fires. What’s with you and fires burning on the river?”
“I swear, I swear. There’s a big fire burning. It’s on a boat, a boat filled with people and it’s burning, right near the island!”
“It looks like The General Slocum, the river boat, dat's da one dat does cruises. Oh my G-d, it’s burning. All dose people, quick let’s run. Let’s go see.” Moishele shouted.
They dropped their cigarette butts and started to race upriver. The sky was filling with smoke that was drifting downstream and shouts which were filling the sky. Desperate shouts, the shouts of women and children out for an excursion and now facing destruction by fire or drowning.
They raced uptown accompanied by horse-drawn ambulances, fire wagons and police vans. “Imagine, we’re racing with the police vans instead of away from the vans.” Moishele interjected. “What are we running for? We won’t be able to help. What can we do? Those people are going to die.”
“Who knows?” shouted Izzi, “For sure there’ll be things to snatch, things that wash up. That’s a big boat.”
“Fifteen hundred people, that’s what I heard!” replied Sammy. “Let’s keep going.”
They reached a point on the East River opposite the burning Slocum. It was hell. Flames and smoke filled the sky. The shouts and screams were heartrending. The life boats never got launched and the life preservers were faulty and sank. The three boys stood on the riverside frozen and immobile. A baby’s body drifted by; only the sharpest observer might have noted the misty eyes and the lonely tear flowing down Moishele Gruber’s cheek.
“Guys, I have to go now. I’m meeting my Bar Mitzvah teacher, Mr. Schwartz. He’s taking me to the theater to hear music. I have to go now”, declared Moishele.
“Go! Go already,” chimed Izzi and Sammy, “Go, we’re staying. We’ll see you tomorrow, Moishele.”
And Moishele left.
Moishe met Avshalom Schwartz as planned, at the corner of Avenue B and 14th Street. It was unusual for Moishele to be so far north; the Academy of Music was several blocks to the west.
“Moishele, so good to see you,” exclaimed Schwartz, his face breaking out in a broad smile. It took but a second for him to realize that something was not right with his young student. “Moishele, what’s wrong, what’s bothering you?”
“Ay, ay Mr. Schwartz! Today, what happened on the river, the General Slocum, I was there. I saw it. I saw the bodies – babies!”
“Oh my G-d,” declared Reb Schwartz. “You were there, you saw it. Oh my G-d, so terrible, so terrible.”
“Mr. Schwartz, how can we go to the theater after what’s happened? How can we go on listening to music as if there was no tragedy, no evil in the world? How do we go on?”
Mr. Schwartz wrapped his arms around the boy. “Moishele,” he whispered, “today you saw the world. The real world you saw in all its harshness and its ugliness. Yes, but there is also beauty. There is beauty in the world and that’s what it means to believe. To believe that the beauty outweighs the ugly. That’s what I believe. Tonight we’re going to hear heavenly music. The timing is perfect. I want you not just to hear but to experience the beauty. Then we will talk. Come, let’s go, Mr. Caruso is waiting.”
As they entered the Music Academy, Moishele felt uncomfortable. It was an uptown crowd. They stood outside the main entrance watching the cream of NYC society enter; Mrs Vanderbilt, Alice Roosevelt, The Duchess of Lancaster (b. Elsie Zimmerman from Cincinnati), they were all there, ensconced in the most beautiful and fashionable gowns of the period. Moishele turned to Mr. Schwartz. “Rev Schwartz, we can’t go in with them. Look how we’re dressed. We have no finery. People will laugh.”
“Don’t worry Moishele. Where we are going to be seated up near the ceiling, people don’t dress so elegantly, but believe me, for the music it makes no difference. The music will soar to every nook and cranny of that gigantic auditorium, and where we are sitting, up near the roof, we will hear it just fine.”
Moishele sighed in relief as they handed in their tickets and started to climb the stairs. They climbed, they climbed and they climbed, only to appear at last at the very last row in the hall.
“Sit back Moishele, relax, soon you will experience the beauty of music.”
The lights dimmed. The curtain parted. On the stage a pianist sat at a grand Steinway; then to thunderous applause the great Caruso emerged onto the stage. He paused, looked around the auditorium and commenced one of his favorite arias “Una Furtiva Lagrima”.
The effect on Moishele was immediate. One could see his body tensed, his fists gripped tightly, his eyes focused on the stage and on the solo figure of the great Caruso. As the voice soared and filled the auditorium, the Italian language of “Una Furtiva Lagrima”, rich in vowels and vowel combinations, emphasized the variety of color in the great singer’s tones. His projection, his pathos, his very stage presence imbued the song with feeling and significance which Moishele experienced without understanding a word of the aria’s Italian. Mr. Schwartz noted Moishele’s bated breath, bodily tension and the mistiness in his eyes and he knew that their outing was a success.
Walking home that evening, Moishele looked up at Mr. Schwartz. “You think someday I can sing like that?”
“Only the Holy One knows the future, Moishele. I know you have the potential. You have the ear. You have the voice. You have natural talent, a G-d given gift. The rest is hard work. Hard work and help from the Almighty. Moishele! We’re going to start preparing for your bar mitzvah and then ……. and then we’ll see.”