Sunday, 1 April 2007

A Passover Story

I may not be blogging too much in the next while due to overload of work and family committments, but as some of you may or may not know, I write in my spare time. As it is passover coming up I thought I would share something I wrote back in '04. It's some personal reflections on the rise of anti-semitism in Toronto. Will be back to normal blogging mode in a couple weeks.

My Uncle Benny: A Passover Story

My uncle Benny was religious man as opposed to my socialist and atheist grandfather Leo, whom I never met as he died before I was born. In general, Himel men were a strong breed with thick bodies, thicker minds and a stubbornness that seemed tied directly to their DNA. Benny displayed this on a daily basis with his strangely wonderful sayings. For example, when he found out I was living with someone out of the Jewish faith, he patted my head, looked sadly at me and said, “A cart that pulls in two directions goes nowhere. But a cart that pulls in the same direction goes further faster.”

Benny had a clothing store on Dundas St. that had a permanent ‘Going Out Of Business’ sign in its window. “Better for business,” he told me. “People want to feel like they are getting a deal.” Having opened his store in the early part of the century, 60 years later he had some of the same stock: beautiful silk gloves from the thirties, real woolen stockings and pillbox hats that could have been bought and worn by Jackie O. I remember being in his store when a costume designer from the CBC came in to buy some of the old stock for a period piece. I was laughing as this poor woman tried bargaining with Uncle Benny. “But Mr. Himel, this clothing is over 50 years old. You can’t be serious about your prices!” He looked at her with a smile, probably thinking, what an amateur. “My dear,” he said to her in his heavy Yiddish accent, “if you think you can find it somewhere else for cheaper, go ahead, but that is my price.” And with that, he gave me a wink and she in turn, gave him a large wad of cash.

Benny attended synagogue every day, continued to hold court giving free advice in his store to the local Portuguese ladies and, for years, argued with the same man over the price of a chicken once a week in Kensington Market. That was just my Uncle Benny.

I woke up the other day listening to the news, as I always do, only to hear about the over-turned gravestones at Bathurst Lawn Jewish Cemetery. It was one of those moments in life. When you realize that the past is not so far in the distance and that your heritage will always be part of who you are.

The last time I was at Bathurst lawn was when my Bubie died at the age of 91. After the coffin was lowered into the ground our family, mostly the younger generation now, slowly and quietly began putting pebbles on the top of the gravestones of our deceased relatives as is the tradition. It was then that I noticed Benny walking by himself in another direction. I slowly followed him and watched as he walked to where a groundskeeper was doing some gardening and grooming on a number of graves. My uncle went over to him and put a pebble on the gravestone right where the man was standing and began talking. “That is my Bella right there,” he said to the groundskeeper as he quietly pointed towards the mound where the man was standing. “That is my Bella,” he said to him again. “My sweet Bella,” he continued, “who I spent most of my life with.” And then this big, thick Himel man wiped away a stream of falling tears. The groundskeeper barely noticed, and with what I believe was unintentional disrespect, awkwardly and uncomfortably moved off the mound and continued to the next to finish his daily work.

My uncle Benny is buried there now, alongside his Bella. As is my Uncle Izzy, Auntie Margaret, my grandfather and my Bubie.

Passover is coming soon. My family used to go to Benny’s and have a true Pesach Seder that lasted way too many hours. But now we are a mishmash of religions, a cart pulling in almost every direction with Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran Christians, Buddhists, Agnostics, Humanists, Atheists and Jews; a true Canadian crew with the privilege to bring together such a wild and diverse group to celebrate the Exodus of the Jews out of Egypt.

I wonder if the rise of anti-Semitism will be a subject that we will talk about, or terrorism, or the angry state of the world. But for me, someone who is hardly religious, I will see this as a time to give thanks and remembrance, not only for my Jewish ancestors of the ancient past, but for my Uncle Benny too. And Bella and Izzy and all the other individuals who led important and rich lives that deserve the respect of the living as they try to stay peacefully and quietly at rest.

1 comments:

AE6RT said...

Well said.

Mark

 
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