The shul was in Boston, my home town. The rabbi, just arrived from Russia, was invited to the home of the president of the congregation for the Friday night meal.
Following the meal, the rabbi suggested that the president's son, a twenty-something- young man, lead them in Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after food.
"He's a bum," the president said to the rabbi. "A bum. Then, all the more so, he should lead us in the blessing." The rabbi misunderstood the word to be an honorific. The rabbi was thinking of the phrase from the Shema, "Veshinantam levanecha vedibarta bum" - You shall teach them (God's words) diligently to your children and you shall talk about them (bum). "Rabbi, you still don't understand. He doesn't know how to lead us in the blessing. He's a bum." And that was the rabbi's first word in English.
Generations come and generations go. American-born rabbis took the place of the Eastern European ones and English became the first language of the Jewish community. The new rabbis were perhaps less scholarly than their predecessors, but they were also more worldly.
They became community leaders, administrators of large congregations, fine orators. But what happens to a rabbi when he retires and must give all that up? This is the story of one such rabbi who retired from his congregation in New York and moved to Florida.
The rabbi was absolutely miserable. He had nothing to do. Besides coming to shul on Shabbat, his week was absolutely devoid of activities. A fellow congregant, a rich Jew who owned a factory, took pity on him. "Rabbi, you know I own a battery factory. I see how miserable you are in retirement. Can I offer you a job?" The rabbi was overjoyed. "Come on Monday morning and you can start."
And there was the rabbi, on Monday morning in the factory, content in his retirement. Standing at the end of the production line, as each new battery passed him by, the rabbi would wish it a long life.
One afternoon, in New York, I turned on the radio and by luck caught the last few minutes of an interview with the celebrated Jewish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer. Singer was talking about someone and referred to him as a schlemiel.
The interviewer interrupted. Being a good showman, he saw an opening. "Oh, Mr. Singer," he said, "I'm sorry to interrupt you but you used the Yiddish word schlemiel. Can you inform our audience what the difference is between a schlemiel and a schlimazel?" This was not to Singer's liking. Every Jew knows the difference - that a schlemiel is the one who spills the hot soup and a schlimazel is the one on whom it spills. Singer was not one to repeat old saws.
So he said to the interviewer, "You know, that's an old joke. And I'm afraid to tell old jokes. You know why Cain killed Abel, don't you?" The interviewer responded, "Please tell us." "It was because Abel told old jokes," Singer replied.
Over a lifetime we hear so many funny stories and anecdotes. These, for me, have stood the test of time.