THE REBBE AND THE SHAMMAS
Of course Rabbi Rosenberg would perform the bris. Who better to welcome the newborn son of Moses and Lily Richler into the covenant? Yudel Rosenberg wasn’t only the family patriarch, who happened to be both a rabbi and a mohel, qualified to do circumcisions; he was the rebbe, as much guru as leader of Montreal’s Hasidic community. They called him the Skaryszewer Illuy, the Genius of Skaryszew. He was a Ba’al Shem, a Master of the Holy Name. Scholar and author, teacher and mystic, Rabbi Rosenberg couldn’t walk down a street in the neighbourhood without people seeking a blessing for their child or a word of comfort for themselves. He couldn’t enter a synagogue without all present standing up out of respect. Nor could the seventy-year-old walk those streets wearing his long beard and fur hat, black coat and white stockings, without also being called a maudit Juif, a damn Jew—or muzhi Zhwiff, to his Yiddish-tuned ears—usually from a passing vehicle. Now semi-retired, the rabbi had suffered a stroke a year before. The illness hadn’t diminished his intellect at all or his stamina by much, but it had left him with muscle tremors.
Still, as far as his daughter Lily was concerned, no other mohel need be approached. Five years earlier the rabbi had had a dream in which an old teacher from Poland appeared and declared that Rosenberg’s daughter would bear a son, a child to be named after him. Lily had dutifully called her firstborn Avrum. The same thing happened during the latest pregnancy. Again, the rabbi’s dream prophesied a boy. Again, he should be called after the teacher who had visited Rosenberg in his sleep. This time the name would be Mordecai, known to all Jews from the holiday of Purim and the Book of Esther. Once more Lily agreed without hesitation. Her father was her instructor and idol; he and he alone held full claim to her heart. In effect, he was more than a rabbi and she was more than a respectful daughter. He was the rebbe and she the shammas, caretaker of her illustrious parent.
This despite his forcing her to marry a man she did not love, and now held in contempt. The code of Jewish law declares “an ignorant man should not marry the daughter of a priest.” Yudel Rosenberg had made a mistake and Lily Richler, née Rosenberg, was paying for his error.
But the bris was hardly the occasion to revisit old sorrows. It took place on Tuesday February 3, 1931, in the north end of the Jewish neighbourhood and in the hollow of the Great Depression. More than two-thirds of Montreal’s 58,000 Jews lived within half a dozen blocks of the Richlers’ second-floor walk-up at 5300 Esplanade. Approximately two miles long by a mile wide, the rectangular “ghetto,” as it was then called, ran from the eastern slope of Mount Royal to a few streets beyond St. Lawrence, a.k.a.“The Main,” and from Sherbrooke Street north to Bernard. A city unto itself, it was entirely immigrant and mostly poor. Sounds and smells, languages spoken and foods cooked, situated the district in some corner of Mitteleuropa, mysteriously transported four thousand miles. Even its appearance—the turrets and spires on its commercial buildings, the Byzantine arches of its synagogues, the citizens in black fur hats and ankle-length coats, curled locks and kerchiefed heads—was more likely to evoke Cracow or Kiev. East of it sprawled an enormous French city, also largely poor, with its own smells and sounds and its own priests and churches. To the west, over the wooded mountain, lived a group who happened to be the wealthiest, most powerful people not only in Montreal or the province of Quebec but also in the country known as Canada. Those people spoke English.
In west-of-the-mountain Westmount—as in behind-themountain Outremont, the enclave exception of French-speaking affluence just west of the ghetto—residents lived in brick and stone houses. Often these were grand edifices, with finished basements and backyards. Frequently they were mansions, complete with fairytale towers and Corinthian columns. Everyone else, especially in the tableland called “The Plateau,” lived in apartments. Singular to Montreal were block upon block of uninterrupted residential buildings, two or three storeys high. Each floor constituted a unit, similar in size and design. Outside staircases ran from the upper or middle floor down to the sidewalk; balconies, however small, overlooked the street, with smaller ones facing the back alleys. Shops clung to corners or clustered along commercial avenues. In the French streets, churches and convents of imposingly greater dimensions dwarfed the residences, sometimes consuming entire blocks with their rectories and gardens. In the ghetto, synagogues, mostly modest brick buildings, nestled amidst the apartments.
Fitting snugly into the duplexes and triplexes in both French and Jewish districts were families of half a dozen children or more. Decorations may have been sparse, but Plateau apartments were extravagant with people. “Be fruitful and multiply,” admonished the mitzvah. For Catholics, there were similar priestly commands, along with the undeclared turf politics of the province, played out using procreation as a tool. La revanche du berceau, it was called. The revenge of the cradle.
At 5300 Esplanade, the furnishings were modest. For Orthodox Jews, a circumcision is equal parts commandment and celebration. The ceremony, often conducted in the home, is simple. Candles are lit and prayer shawls donned. The baby is passed from adult to adult before being held by the sandek, the godparent usually chosen from among the elders. The mohel, not necessarily a rabbi, recites blessings in Hebrew and then performs the brief procedure. Now officially named and blessed, the child is declared brought into the covenant in order to live a life of Torah, full of good deeds, including a worthy marriage. The parents sip wine on behalf of their offspring to commemorate the rite of passage. A meal is laid out.
Moses and Lily Richler were the hosts. She was a petite woman, the second-youngest of seven full siblings, and had the Rosenberg family forehead and nose, the dark eyes and thin lips more naturally pursed than smiling. Glasses, thick-lensed and heavyrimmed, obscured her eyes, which were dark and angry—her most striking, if unsettling, feature. Though she had kept her black hair shoulder-length as a child, she now wore it short, parted on the side and often tucked behind the ears. There was no nonsense to her face or hair, or her plain dress. There was no nonsense to her person.
Moses Richler, age twenty-nine, was slim and narrowshouldered, slightly below average height for his time. His complexion was swarthier than his wife’s, and his sharp, hawklike features were distinctly of the Richler clan, who tended to have small noses and mouths and burning black eyes. In his father, and in many of his siblings, it was a fierce countenance, as though the bearer was always paying close, skeptical attention, always alert. But in Moses, despite his being the eldest of fourteen, the features transmitted nearly the opposite impression. He was meek and mild and had trouble holding gazes. He had little to say.
Unable to make the rent on their previous apartment, Moses and Lily Richler had fled it during the night, their belongings piled in the back of a Model T Ford. The sitting room at 5300 was furnished as befitted a family that might relocate again in haste. Relatives occupied any chairs left over once the four grandparents had been seated, or else stood in the doorway watching. Cakes and lemon tea were served. Conversation was in Yiddish.
If Lily’s mood was sombre that day, she had cause. She had borne a second son after a near-fatal miscarriage in 1929. Money, as much as health, had kept her awake with worry during this latest pregnancy. The fee for the obstetrician had been $50, which she had borrowed from an older sister, and she had no idea how they’d settle the bill with Dr. Burgess and the Montreal Maternity Hospital, where Mordecai was born. Moses was being paid irregularly for his work in the family business, and was taking odd jobs to supplement his income, including delivering 50-lb bags of coal up flights of stairs. Now she had two sons to look after, and a father who required her care. For his part, amiable “Moe” Richler may have tried countering his wife’s intensity with a few jokes, his sense of humour lively but odd. Then he would have retreated to where the children gathered around their zeyda. Rabbi Rosenberg loved his grandchildren as much as they loved him. He dangled his white beard over their faces. He made drawings of men with long beards to give as gifts. His own offspring, eleven in total, were grown up and gone—gone from their parents’ home, aside from the youngest, Abraham-Isaac, a rabbinical student receiving instruction from his own father, and gone, for the most part, from Montreal. Only Lily and her older sister Rifka, or Ruth, were still in the city.
Among the children surrounding the old man that afternoon would have been Lily and Moses’ older son, Avrum, and Moses’ youngest brother, David. Avrum was five, David three. The other grandfather, Shmarya Richler, far less warm-hearted or cuddly, was still more prodigious. Moses and David served as bookends to his fourteen, most of whom still lived at home.
The marriage of the eldest Richler boy and the youngest Rosenberg daughter had been arranged by their parents back in 1924. From the start the barter had been money for status, security for yiches, the connection with Talmudic lineage prized by Orthodox Jews. Shmarya Richler was a prosperous businessman. He and his younger brother Jacob had formerly co-owned a scrapyard in Griffintown, near the port, and had done with some of their profits what good Jews were supposed to do—support charities and Hebrew schools, and help fund the building and maintenance of synagogues. Jacob Richler in particular revered Rabbi Rosenberg, visiting him at home and quietly helping out with expenses. Believing it would benefit both sides, Jacob had suggested the match. The entire Richler family would gain yiches. In turn, the rabbi, who had migrated from Poland to Toronto and, more recently, to Montreal, lured by a congregation with promises of the income supplement gained by controlling the kosher meat certification process, could rest easy knowing he had secured stability for Lily. Shmarya Richler offered him verbal assurances that Moses, then employed as a driver at Metal Smelting and Refining, would soon be made a partner. He took his prospective daughter-in-law to a jeweller and purchased her a ring and pendant. He furnished an apartment for the couple in advance of the wedding, which he paid for.
In private, the bride had doubts. It wasn’t only that Lily was barely nineteen and believed herself in love with a law student who had given Hebrew lessons to one of her brothers. (Her father had sent the boy away.) It was Moses himself. He certainly wasn’t a likely soulmate for a bright teenager with a self-described tendency to chatter and a hunger for knowledge. She expressed her misgivings to her parents without threatening to disobey them. Her mother was certain that Moses would grow on her. The rabbi told his daughter that she could mould her husband into the man she wanted. Nothing about the wedding thrilled Lily more than her dance with her sixty-two-year-old father. People stood on chairs to watch the lucky girl waltz with the rebbe.
For families like the Richlers and Rosenbergs, the perceived options were limited. Orthodox Jews did not marry secular or Reform Jews and were reluctant to trust even Conservative Jews to live the faith, beginning with an embrace of the Torah as the literal word of God, handed down to Moses. The Decalogue—the first ten commandments, given to Moses on Mount Sinai—was only the foundation for the other mitzvoth, the codified rules for Jewish living. These numbered 613 in all, as found throughout the Torah, and while a couple of hundred of them were obsolete, an Orthodox Jew was expected to abide by the rest. That meant keeping kosher and observing the holidays. On Sabbath it meant abstaining from any labour, including riding in a car or bus, lighting a stove or turning on a light. Men dressed each morning for prayer: tefillin on the forehead and a kippah or yarmulke over the skull, the tallith around their shoulders. In public they wore black on black, to show mourning for the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 100. Hasidic men grew beards, long ones, and some of the wives shaved their heads and donned wigs, to ensure they would not be attractive to other men. (Lily’s mother, Sarah-Gittel, was one such wife.) There were rules about these matters, and rules about many of the rules. No compromises were allowed. There was only the covenant and those who honoured their faith, and their fathers, by keeping it. Orthodox Jews married other Orthodox Jews.
And so, following one uncompromising custom, the morning after the wedding Shmarya Richler barged into the nuptial chamber, intent on checking the bedsheets for blood. Lily was aghast. If he said anything, Moses probably tried swallowing his embarrassment with a quip. He was, and would remain, a gentle, passive man, fond of movies and cabarets and playing pinochle in the backrooms of local shops for a quarter-cent a point. His young bride was, and would remain, intense and difficult, a loner excited by music and paintings, a rabbi trapped in a woman’s body. Maybe the union brought happiness to their families and communities. For each other, it produced mostly the opposite.
The early years were at least secure. Lily had been wed into, if not actual prosperity, then an approximation of it. “Best Rosh Hashonah Greetings to our Jewish clientele!” read an advertisement in the Canadian Jewish Review from the distributor of the high-end Paige and Jewett sedan car. The date was September 1926, and among the clientele was “S. Richler, 55 Prince St (Metal Smelters Ref. Ltd).” Moses, resolving to strike out on his own, opened “Richler Auto Parts,” the East Coast distributor for Sieberling Tires, at 4226 St. Lawrence Boulevard, in the heart of the neighbourhood’s commercial district. It was a good business at a good address.
Overdue with Avrum earlier that same year, Lily and Moses had moved back in with her parents at 9 Esplanade, at the foot of the street. This was also a good address. An elegant brick mansion on the same block housed a social club and later the Jewish Public Library. The first proper retirement home for the community had opened up near Fairmount. Across the street sprawled Fletcher’s Field and the wooded east slope of Mount Royal, where Jews strolled along the promenade on Saturdays. With the red-brick Grenadier Guards Armoury at the corner of Rachel, the fields were filled with soldiers executing manoeuvres. Once Moses started earning money selling tires, they moved to another building on Esplanade, adjacent to the armoury. Avrum’s earliest memories were of parades, and martial music drifting through the open windows.
But the modest good fortune did not last. The Richler family finances experienced their own crash a few months in advance of October 1929. An investment involving cement blocks failed, leaving Shmarya cash-strapped, at risk of losing business and property alike. October 29, 1929, Black Tuesday, put an end to easy purchases of nearly everything for nearly everyone. Richler Auto Parts soon became one of the many empty storefronts along The Main, and Moses returned to doing odd jobs for irregular pay at the scrapyard on Prince Street. The family abandoned the lower blocks of Esplanade, with their views of the fields and mountain, their elegant buildings and respectable Jews, for the stretch of the street north of Mount Royal, where flats had less cachet and lower rents. Even with Moses bringing home car batteries to empty the acid and salvage the lead at the kitchen table, the couple could not manage. Collectors threatened to shut off the water and gas. Paying grocery bills meant not paying for the coal.
Lily’s parents, whose own survival was dependent on the grace of benefactors, sent them food packages. At her behest, the rabbi spoke with her father-in-law about the earlier promise of a partnership in the company for Moses. Shmarya Richler seemed to consider his eldest boy a natural menial; his younger son Joe was already showing more of a head for business. Lily’s distress at her marriage went from chronic to acute. How could her parents have done this to her? She vented anger and assigned blame. The elderly couple absorbed her disappointment. Though dismayed by the idea—the life of Torah precluded failure in marriage—Yudel Rosenberg began to be receptive to a divorce. But then Lily got pregnant again. Her mother tried cheering her up. “When a child is born, he brings with him his own destiny, his own ability and his own luck,” Sarah-Gittel Rosenberg said.
On this note was born the second child of Moses and Lily Richler; born to a mother who prayed at once that he would become a rabbi and a father who did not even wait at the hospital to learn the gender of his child, removing himself instead to the movies. Eight days later, at his bris, the baby was named Mordecai—no middle name, like his brother—and he was soon being called Muttle, a diminutive that would stick until supplanted, especially among friends, by Mutty. As a teenager he would answer to Mordy or Mort.
Ten days after the bris, the cover of the Canadian Jewish Chronicle featured a photograph of a distinguished gentleman in yarmulke and black robe, his side curls still dark but his beard, nearly down to his belly, the salt-pepper of a raccoon’s tail. The subject was shown at work, poised over the page of a book, quill in hand and ink pot on table. “Seventieth Anniversary of Rabbi Jehudah Rosenberg,” ran the caption. “Local Talmudist and Scholar.” The weekly Anglo-Jewish journal also ran a photo of the Rosenberg clan gathered in a hall on Hutchison Street to fete the patriarch on his seventieth birthday. In one corner stands Moses in a tuxedo, his son Avrum next to him, with Lily in the front row beside her sisters, her eyes pins behind those thick glasses. Absent is the newborn Mordecai, likely in the care of his other grandmother.
The coverage of Yudel Rosenberg’s birthday was especially meaningful for his daughter Lily. Despite her hapless husband and domineering father-in-law, and her entrapment in a poverty whose very avoidance had been the trigger for her union with the son of a scrap dealer, she now had two boys to mould. Both sons bore the names of her father’s teachers. Both were Rosenbergs at least as much as they were Richlers. With Yudel Rosenberg still alive, she could expose Avrum and Mordecai to his wisdom and culture; expose them to his Judaism, sophisticated and rich with the mysteries of the Talmud and tales of the Golem.
From the Hardcover edition.