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Isaac Rosenbloom

When I was ten years old I was in love with my after-public-school, Sunday-Tuesday-Thursday, Hebrew teacher, Isaac Rosenbloom, soon to be Rabbi.

The school room was in the building of the conservative temple, r ighteously named Beit Elohim, The House of God.This was an old, Gothic-style building, built after the Civil War for a prominent Bronx family.In 1914, the year of my father's birth, it metamorphosed into a house of prayer.The synagogue itself was on the ground floor; opposite it was the Rabbi's office.On the second floor was the schoolroom and above that was a mysterious attic to which there seemed to be no access.From the street, through the arched windows, a light had never been observed in that attic.There were whispered speculations amongst the Hebrew school attendees that a golem was in repose there, like the one rumored to be in the Prague synagogue.

Isaac Rosenbloom was a chunky man of the Raymond Burr/Perry Mason variety who wore a grey pin-stripe suit, white shirt, never really properly ironed, and a dark tie, never really properly fastened.While he didn't have Perry Mason's penetrating gaze, he possessed other endearing traits, such as sputtering when he was annoyed or sliding his fedora hat backwards and forwards over his skullcap as though it were oiled, often times letting the hat cover his eyes and sit on his nose while he waited for the correct answer to a question.

My mother kept the Sabbath by lighting candles, not switching lights on, not writing or tearing open packages.Pious enough.But, no problem.My father, fondly nicknamed the Shabbos goy, did these things for her.We lived in a two-room apartment, a difficult family, more don'ts than do's.I loved Hebrew school, the Hebrew language, the biblical history as taught by Isaac Rosenbloom.I discovered that by going to synagogue services on Shabbat morning I would not only please him, but my parents could not disapprove, as they did of most everything else, though they never went to synagogue themselves except for Yom Kippur.My beloved Hebrew school teacher was not there – he didn't live close by and did not travel on the Sabbath.Rabbi Ostroski officiated at the services. His bulk was accentuated by flowing black robes and a tall hat that looked like a chef's toque, only black.The cantor, Mr. Gross, a rotund man, a marvelous tenor, dressed similarly, but his hat was less impressive.

One Shabbat morning around the time of my bat-mitzvah, I had an important but not memorable question for Rabbi Ostroski, a stern and normally unapproachable man. So I sat on a chair near the door and awaited his arrival.After a long time he charged in as though blown by a hurricane, gown bellowing. He was absorbed in a heated conversation with the cantor.Without missing a step or faltering to ponder the sinfulness of the act, he flipped on the light switch, proceeded to his desk and plopped down on a huge chair worthy of his bulk.It was Shabbat, for God's sake.Even I didn't turn the lights on on the Sabbath.I was so shocked that I jumped up from the seat without being conscious of doing so. As neither of the men seemed to notice me, I left, a confused eleven-year old trying to figure religion out.

The more I studied, the more I enjoyed it.Especially the Hebrew, at which I was becoming quite proficient.After my bat-mitzvah I would teach bible stories to small children every Sunday morning. No pay, of course.And the more my puppy-love for Isaac Rosenbloom grew: I loved his quirky mannerisms, his pin-striped suit, his shoes, his hands, his sandy hair.I discovered he was ten years my senior.An enormously forbidden obstacle when you are twelve and the man you love is twenty-two.

Then I came across a newspaper article extolling the virtues of this very same age difference.I cut it out, carefully placed it among my school papers and planned to leave it on his desk one day, some day, when he was distracted, because, after all, I was bashful.

Someone else worked in this House of God, the Shamash, the caretaker, Mr. Schwartz, a very short old man.He and his wife lived directly above our fourth floor apartment on Bryant Avenue.The building was six stories tall, red brick like all the others in the Bronx, one elevator which got stuck between floors more frequently than it ran smoothly.Wary of the elevator, I preferred to run up and down the stairs.Mr. Schwartz and his wife both had white hair and were very quiet people.Rumor had it that their only son had drowned one summer afternoon in the distant past, while swimming at Orchard Beach.

Mr. Schwartz's duties at the synagogue were to make sure the building was warm in winter, keep prayer books in order, lock up, open up, clean up.One day after Hebrew class, Rosie Fishbein, a plump little girl, and I, stayed behind.Mr. Schwartz emerged from the attic, a sight that was both frightening and exciting.Rosie was in the classroom and I was in the hall, waiting to leave with her.Mr. Schwartz approached me, grinned as he put both hands on my not-yet breasts.I ran downstairs.Rosie followed me, but not until he had cornered her and touched her, too.

Children have a survival instinct that dictates what they may tell their parents and what they must not.Especially ultra-strict parents as mine were.My crush on Isaac Rosenbloom was never to be disclosed – to anyone – but Mr. Schwartz's indiscretion was a question mark.There were so many implications: Would they believe me?Would they blame me?Would the Temple collapse and crumble of shame because I had been the one to reveal the nasty nature of their Shamash, poor man, grieving father?Should I just let it pass and disappear into life's experiences?Finally, that night, I did tell my mother, who certainly told my father, who probably spoke with the rabbi, who surely spoke with Mr. Schwartz, who then disappeared from the synagogue.No one said a word to me, no one questioned me.After that I saw him only once more, entering the elevator of our building, seeming smaller than I remembered him, but maybe I'd grown.

Rosie and I speculated for a while that he might be the golem, heartless, soulless, mechanical.But golems, we reasoned, are not particularly interested in little girls' breasts.And then he was forgotten, the forgetting accelerated by other events in the synagogue, for around this time Rabbi Ostroski left too.It seemed as though the very foundations of The House of God were shaking.In his place the Temple hired a young rabbi from Israel, a slight, casually dressed, almost bald man who spoke English with the most marvelous Israeli accent.Avraham."Call me Avi!"He was bright, cheerful and sarcastic, came with wife and small baby girl and lived in the apartment house adjacent to ours.His wife had thick black hair, dark brown eyes filled with homesickness, and while she smiled, she never spoke to me.

Rabbi Avi had a passion for stamp collecting, as did I, so, on many a Sabbath I'd go to his house after services and we'd trade stamps."I really shouldn't be doing this on Shabbat" he'd mutter to himself every time, pulling out the stamp albums none-the-less.I learned a lot of Hebrew from Rabbi Avi.And the congregation mumbled with rebellion at Rabbi Ostroski's replacement, but continued to come every Shabbat to hear a Sabra rabbi, of whom they were actually quite proud.The State of Israel was only five years old, the holocaust a fresh, raw memory.

Isaac Rosenbloom was an ordained rabbi now, and had secured a position with a congregation in Denver, Colorado, as far away from the Bronx as the planet Venus.Now was the time to present him with that newspaper article about the virtues of ten-year-age-difference marriages.Surely, upon reading it, he would declare his love for me, wait six years, and then we would marry.But I couldn't find it.Again and again I went through my books, school papers, briefcase, everything.It was gone.And Isaac Rosenbloom left for Denver without ever knowing about my adolescent crush on him.

Strangely, I did find the article some years later, right where I had been looking all along, pondered how the Universe has a way of arranging things as they should be, not as we think they should be, and was grateful for the spared humiliation.

Shortly after Rabbi Rosenbloom left for Denver, my family moved from the three-room apartment in the Bronx to another three-room apartment in Queens. This one, recently built, was so poorly insulated you could hear the neighbors dialing their phone through the bedroom wall.All the Bronx neighbors followed suit in a mass Jewish exodus, many moving into our new apartment building.It was one of these neighbors who, a few years afterwards, found my mother dead of heart failure, and another, whose husband had died the year before, married my father eleven months later.

Whereas we never locked our doors, not even at night, not in the Bronx and not in Queens, every building on Bryant Avenue now had iron guards on the windows and multiple locks on all doors.The Bronx had quickly become haunted by crime, a drug dealer's delight, a prostitute's paradise. The Beit Elohim synagogue became a church.

At seventeen I moved to Israel, drawn by the modern and biblical images Rabbi Rosenbloom had assured me would be there.

The only memento I have left today is a black and white photo of Temple Beit Elohim on a winter's day, roof white, Gothic window ledges dusted with snow. Perhaps our golem still sleeps in the attic, unbeknownst to those now attending the church two floors below. 



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Monday, 24 June 2024

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