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  • After his wife died from cancer in her late sixties, Rabbi M. began to take a few days here and there, away from his pulpit, to explore different cities. My friend, one of his four kids, remembers numerous family vacations – all six of them piled into their old station wagon to tour somewhere in the sprawling, inviting USA. The stout, devout Rebitson (his wife) did not share his love of the road, so the trips ended when the kids grew up and left home.

    One day, I found out from his son that he’d be in San Francisco, about an hour north of where I live. I contacted the Rabbi in St. Louis before he left and we agreed to get together when he was in town. We enjoyed each other’s company. He knew I took a pass on observing Judaism, but that never came up between us.

    I drove to the City and per his request, we went for a walk in Golden Gate Park, an urban oasis of woods, meadows, and ponds dotted with cultural outposts like museums, a band-shell, a Japanese tea garden, playgrounds and a magical carousel. In those days, homeless people pitched sleeping bags amidst the bushes throughout the park and one approached us for a handout as we walked. He was twice the size of Rabbi M., even barefoot as he was. In his accented English, Rabbi M. asked him if he could look at the necklace of shells the 20-something Pacific Islander was wearing and soon we were all walking together. The Rabbi asked him to recite one of the poems he said he’d written and we applauded when he did so. The Rabbi encouraged him to make something big of his life.

    After the barefoot poet parted ways from us, Rabbi M. told me he was very curious about all the homeless people we have in San Francisco – an unfamiliar sight in suburban St. Louis. The first night in San Francisco after he’d settled into his downtown hotel, he took a walk and purposely sat on a bench next to a couple of homeless men, eager to hear what they were talking about. He was disappointed by their dialog that focused exclusively on wine and getting drunk. He arose and continued his evening walk along the busy downtown streets taking in the myriad of faces and the endless stream of locals and tourists on the move past the department store windows, eateries, banks, and souvenir shops.

    He stopped in his tracks when he spotted an old man sitting on a curb reading what appeared to be a Yiddish newspaper. He approached and confirmed that it was Yiddish indeed. “Lantsman!” he called out to the man, “Vas machsta?” How are you doing?” The man lowered the paper, his bedraggled, matted hair belying his homeless status. He answered in Yiddish and Rabbi M. took a seat next to him on the curb. The two older men speaking Yiddish curbside barely raised a glance from the hundreds of people walking by them.

    It turned out that the newspaper reader was from a town in Poland not far from the one that Rabbi M. came from. Like the Rabbi, he’d escaped death by the Nazis and made his way to the U.S. Rabbi M. had jumped off of a death train enroute to a concentration camp and made his way on foot to Russia, eventually landing in St. Louis, America. Each of the survivors made their way across borders, hiding when necessary, pushing down grief and memories of exterminated family members, clinging to their life force in pursuit of safety and a new beginning – a tragic heroes’ quest known by refugees across the globe. Borders are just one item in a daunting list of challenges to be surmounted. A border crossing is followed by the imperative to find work, to learn a new language and build a new life. The homeless man had made it to New York, America and worked many years as a tailor. He said he had a daughter who no longer spoke to him.

    Two lifelines running in parallel from Poland to America, but one path led to the life of a beloved Orthodox rabbi and engaged father while the other led to a grimy stretch of curb on an urban street, a lonely old man, an estranged daughter.

    There was a brightly lit McDonalds near where they sat and Rabbi M. told the man that he’d go and get him a “sandwich” and coffee and return right away. The homeless tailor was taken aback, his face twisted by a sudden rage. He shouted at the Rabbi. “I’m not eating ‘traife’ meat! I keep kosher. What kind of person do you think I am?!”

    Rabbi M. rubbed his hands together and said, “that’s great because I brought salami and rye bread in my suitcase. I will be back in twenty minutes with sandwiches. Just wait here.” The homeless tailor said he would like a coffee from McDonald’s with seven sugars in it as well. When Rabbi M. returned with the coffee and sandwiches the old man was nowhere to be found.

    I’ve walked around downtown San Francisco streets a thousand times and I’ve never once seen a homeless man (or woman) reading a Yiddish paper. What are the odds that a tourist on a four-day vacation would see that – let alone the discovery that the reader came from a town in Poland close to his own?

    I’m not saying that Rabbi M. had super powers, but he came to San Francisco and found a needle in a haystack. He’d absorbed many of fate’s poison-tipped arrows and survived them. What he had to show for it was ever more love in his heart and curiosity in his eyes. That’s some powerful alchemy. I couldn’t say if that’s a matter of karma, luck, or willpower, but I’m so glad I had a number of years to watch him in action.
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