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Jewish World / Meet Canada's biker-friendly rabbi
Avrum Rosensweig, founding director of Canada's 'Ve'Ahavta' Jewish humanitarian organization
Last update - 14:41 11/08/2008
One day, my father came home and introduced us to Linda, a Jewish woman whose boyfriend rode with the Satan's Choice, a Hell's Angels-style bikers' club. He wove a story of great drama on how he had rescued her from this band of thieves.
As he told it to me, he entered their hideout by crossing a dirty threshold strewn with garbage and trash. Once inside he let the vagabonds know "the place was surrounded" and Linda would be coming with him. Was it true? It doesn't matter. As a kid my father was my hero and like the children's story of the owl who told his wife a questionable account about having to fight off an eagle in pursuit of a field mouse, I was proud. My pride was my reality.
Despite the fact we lived in a small house on Lydia Street with no air conditioning and three bedrooms for the seven of us, Linda became part of the family. One Friday night, as we sat around the Shabbat table, somewhere in the middle of Shalom Aleichem, a song to welcome in Shabbat, we heard a great roar of motors growing louder and louder. My father stood up, walked over to the window and looked outside. Satan's Choice was parked in full force on our driveway, grass and walkway.
We had grown used to crazy situations including death threats being the rabbinical family in Kitchener, Ontario, a city which had once been called Little Berlin because of the large population of Germans who had settled there after the Wars.
"I recall, as a five year old boy, having just started kindergarten being called a "Christ-killer", and chased and threatened by excited young children of anti-Semites, I guess young anti-Semites. On the last day of kindergarten, six and all grown up, I came home from school, looked way up at my Father and said, "Dad I'm not wearing my kippa (skull cap) to school anymore. I can't." He said, "Okay."
"A couple of years later, my best friend Helmuth and I were having a childish tiff about the hamsters we had just bought, or something. He got pretty riled up, turned to me and said, "Hitler was right about you Jews. He should have killed you all." Damn. We were eight. His parents told him it was wrong what he had done and insisted he apologize. He did. I never felt as close to Helmuth again. My once 'Stand by Me' buddy reminded me I was a Jewish emissary whether I wanted to be or not - and always would be. Young Helmuth also taught me the truth behind author, Bernard Malamud's words, and "If you ever forget you're a Jew, a Gentile will remind you!
We heard a knock at the door and my father opened it. A very tough and unpleasant thug filled the frame, backed by one of his henchmen, and announced his name was 'Little Joe'. He said he had come to discuss Linda's whereabouts and her return to the Satan's Choice. My father looked squarely in Little Joe's eyes and said, "My friend, if you want to come in, you'll first take off your leather jacket and boots. This is a respectable home." (My mother tells me, Little Joe's assistant was carrying a knife and she commanded him to put it away. The woman is fearless.
Little Joe seemed to have a begrudging respect for my father's position as a cleric, the way mobsters do with for their priest, and complied.
What happen then depends on the narrative you choose to listen to, my mother's, my sisters' or mine. My mother tells me that my sisters and I had police protection. I don't remember that, but I do recall the Shabbat lights flickering, and the spirit of that holy day surrounding us, while my father, who appeared in my eyes to be eight feet tall with the guts and bulk of the Hulk, refusing to budge on Little Joe's request for Linda's return.
Eventually the 'Choice' revved up their Harleys for the entire neighborhood to hear and tore off into the Kitchener night. My father told me later, charges were pressed against Little Joe for various crimes, and the biker went to prison. The kicker was it was the jail my father would visit every Friday and the story as he told it too me included the colorful fact that Little Joe would often see my Dad as he passed his cell and yell out to him, "How are you Rabbi? It's good to see you". No doubt my father returned the salutation. He believed manners were important.
Sometime when my parents were at a local celebration, perhaps a Bar Mitzvah or wedding, Linda would babysit us, her boyfriend Wayne would come by and give us all rides on his Harley, helmet-free, the wind blowing through my seven year old hair. Linda lived with us for two years, and showed her appreciation by absconding with my parent's credit card and loading it up with $2,000 in expenditures.
But taking Linda in was a mitzvah, a fulfillment of the Jewish value to help the needy among you and my Father never stopped bringing them home, and my mother never stopped taking care of them. This was their way and this is what I was witness to growing up. It was quite something. "Without a love of humankind there is no love of God," as Sholem Asch expressed it.
A rabbi, rebbetzin, a biker and Helmuth. They were all part of my upbringing and there was nothing boring about it. It wasn't all good, as you could imagine. Ask any rabbinical child if they had enough privacy as children and the answer will likely be "no". I didn't. Ask them if they were able to just be, show their character including the blemishes and the not so holy stuff, to come down off the high pedestal the community can put you on, and the answer will likely be "absolutely not". I wasn't.
But my parents were the real rabbinical deal and my childhood was crazy, kooky and full of adventure. Today I recognize clearly, those wild early years were extraordinarily meaningful. They taught me in abundance about courage and empathy and introduced me to the many faces and expressions of humankind that one day might just tap on my door. And I learned that when I would hear that knock, it would be incumbent on me as a Jew, to answer.
Avrum Rosensweig is the founding director of Ve'ahavta: The Canadian Jewish Humanitarian & Relief Committee ".Founded in 1996, Ve'ahavta is Canada's only Jewish organization dedicated to ensuring a Jewish response to world humanitarian disasters. Veahavta is committed to ensuring that Jewish people fight back against atrocities in the spirit of tikkun olam, repairing the world and to actualize the words of Rabbi Akiva: "Everything depends on deeds.