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The Human Touch

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Have reached the age when names familiar to me appear with disturbing frequency in the obi#uary columns. One day it is a #anaging editor with whom I used to brush elbows while walking along a narrow passageway between two rows of desks; another day it is a famous poet who used to read his poems along the highways and by-ways of America in return for bread and lodging and who paid me an only visit in order to bespeak the work of a much younger poet, and then I read that this much younger poet, too, has passed along. Another day, it is of the death of the editor of one of our smartest magazines, who paid well and said little. These are men whom I have seen and dealt with; there are those others, those that pass away before one has had an opportunity to exchange a word with them; George Moore, for example, a legend before his death, and John Galsworthy, hard as nails in refusing an interview, but a great artist.

It isn’t as if I wished to strike the mournful, the elegiac, note at a time not entirely brimming over with good cheer, but it does seem to me that when one begins to recognize familiar names in the obituary columns—there was a time when I paid no more attention to the obituaries than to the stock market quotations—one begins that slow preparation, that quiet induction of the mind into the compulsory acceptance of the necessity of death.

Curiously enough, it is the obituary notices about Josef Rosenblatt, the great cantor, which prompt these reflections. Because cantors, as cantors, mean next to nothing to me. And this is not said in snobbishness, either. I resist the temptation of saying that some of my best friends are cantors. After all, my father was a cantor. And after his death—of which my recollection is extremely vague, because it occurred when I was too young to realize its import—the only synagogue to which I ever went willingly was the one in which Josef Rosenblatt sang.

We were living in Harlem then, long before it was discovered by the Negroes but not before they had begun their invasion of it. First, on 111th Street, just west of Seventh Avenue, and, later, on St. Nicholas Avenue, at 114th Street. I went to the nearest synagogue, which happened to be on West 116th Street, that of the First Hungarian Congregation Ohab Zedek, which, I was informed, had moved up from way downtown. It was then and there that I heard the glorious voice of Cantor Rosenblatt and during that period at least, my most orthodox mother never had occasion to ask me, in that ironical questioning way of her’s, whether the synagogue services from which I sometimes pretended to have returned were not conducted by the dumb cantor. (Certainly he was no “shtoomer chazan”.) I think that Cantor Rosenblatt made the services of the synagogue not only tolerable, but glorious, for quite a number of young men who, normally, would not have relished synagogue services. I think it used to be said by many of the unaesthetical orthodox members of the congregation—without any reproach being intended for the Cantor—that many came to the synagogue as to a performance of music rather than as to a religious service.

Josef Rosenblatt was always Yosselle Rosenblatt to my mother, and, I dare say, to tens of thousands of others of her generation. Years after we had moved from Harlem and years after he had left the synagogue to recoup the fortune he had lost in a publication venture—not to mention the debts which had been heaped upon his sturdy shoulders—my mother used to ask me for tidbits of information about Yossele, and to avidly swallow any gossip about him that I could bring her from the world outside. She knew about his goodness, and his greatness, about his invulnerable orthodoxy, which no sum of money could compel him to betray, about the generosity which made him sing at a benefit performance for an old Jew who wished to raise a dowry for his daughter—at least that was the story.

Iquote the following anecdotes from the foreign press:

There was a man in a little village who was known for his indifference to the Hebrew law and ritual, but at the holiday known in English translation as the Rejoicing of the Law this fellow danced so gleefully with the Torah-scroll that there was a general lifting of thick eyebrows. One of the more strict members of the congregation approached the gleeful one and asked him:

“Why are you so glad that God gave us the Law since you pay no attention either to its commands or to its prohibitions?”

“Why, that’s the reason: I rejoice that God gave it to us; had he given it to the police, we would have had to obey it.”

Perhaps you will like this better:

When the wife of Rabbi Chaim Potlaporoff passed away, and after a decent interval of mourning had been observed, the Rabbi expressed the desire to marry again, taking his eldest son into his confidence. The son, a prim fellow and one not particularly eager to be stepson to any woman, went into what a wrestler might call an intellectual headlock with his father, and pointed out that when Rabbi Ezekiel, of blessed memory, who lived in the neighboring village, lost his wife, he refused to re-marry, and had declared himself married to the Torah.

“Well, my son,” answered the Rabbi, “do you want me to covet another man’s wife?”

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