by Larry Peterson
My father has been dead for many years but he is still teaching me how to be Catholic. He is doing this by living in my mind via memories of his personal Christianity in action. The Feast of All Saint’s Day flips a switch that turns on one of these memories. That is also when I began to embrace the fact that the vast majority of the first Catholics were born and raised Jewish .
I remember that Friday night long ago. We lived in the south Bronx in a five-story walk-up on Sherman Ave. There were eight of us in a four-room apartment and we never even considered that it was small and cramped. The neighborhood was the same for all families except for those living up on the upscale Grand Concourse. That’s where the “money” people lived in buildings with courtyards and sometimes the courtyards even had fish ponds in the middle.
It was still September and summer had not yet left. Back then no-one had air-conditioning and everyone kept their windows open praying for a breeze. The screaming started a little past midnight. It filled the back alleyway and floated unmercifully upward and into the open windows. Our apartment was directly above the window from where the screams were coming and on this night they seemed exceptionally close and blood-curdling. Pop got up and my brother, Danny, whispered from his bed, “I think he’s going down there.”
We watched as Pop left our apartment and headed down the stairs. We followed and quietly sat on the upper landing stretching our necks so our heads would make a right-angle turn to see down and around the landing below. We watched our father, who without hesitation, walked over to the apartment door and began banging on it with his fist.
This was the apartment of Leo and Sophie Rabinowitz. Leo was the landlord and he owned the building. No one dared complain to the landlord about noise coming from his apartment even if it was about midnight screams that curled the hairs on your neck. But Pop was not going down to complain. He was going to see if he could help. He had this way about him and sometimes he was uncommonly instinctive.
The door opened and Leo poked his head out. Pop started talking to him and, incredibly, Leo just stood there listening. The man was short, maybe 5’2″, he had a droopy mustache that needed tending and his sagging shoulders said he was obviously worn out. He held a pipe off to the side of his head and his face seemed to be saying, “Please help me.”
Pop continued talking for a minute or so and suddenly Leo Rabinowitz, the “feared” Jewish landlord, buried his head in my father’s chest and began crying unashamedly. Danny and I were stunned. Then Pop, his arm around Leo’s shoulder, disappeared into Leo’s apartment.
We both went back into our apartment and lay there conjecturing away at all the possibilities that may have caused this unexpected union between a landlord and tenant, a Jewish man and a Catholic man, between two people who were neighbors but were not really except for location and who had nothing in common.
Within fifteen minutes Bobby, Johnny, and Carolyn had joined Danny and I in the conversation and by the time our five imaginations extrapolated each other’s ideas, we “knew” that Leo Rabinowitz was a communist spy and he had somehow killed our father and disposed of his dismembered body in the coal furnace down in the basement.
As we plotted our course of action Pop came back into our apartment. It had been a few hours, or at least it seemed that way. Pop just walked through our bedroom and headed to the back room moving ever so slowly. When he paused by his workbench he sat on the stool, lowered his head into his upraised fingers, took in a deep breath and sighed. Then, ever so quietly, he pulled his beads from his pocket and started praying the rosary. None of us interrupted and I think we all just fell asleep.
We found out about those screams the next morning. Sophie was having nightmares all right, nightmares of her two boys, ages 12 and 9, being clubbed to death with rifle butts by the Nazis, who also insisted that the boy’s mom and dad watch as they killed their sons. To this day I cannot imagine what those moments in their lives were like.
They were loving parents and were rendered helpless as godless people murdered their children, enjoying inflicting their heinous butchery on innocents. The ultimate torture distributed by the Nazis was allowing Leo and Sophie to watch. Sophie’s screams told that story night after night, year after year after year. How ghastly and cruel those memories had to be.
All Saint’s Day is celebrated on November 1. The gospel reading for the day is from Matthew 5:1-12, The Beatitudes. When the priest reads them the switch will flip and I will go back to that Friday once again. It always happens. I hear #2, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted”; then #5, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy”; and #7, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
Pop lived all three of those Beatitudes that Friday night long ago. He mourned with his Jewish neighbors, he was merciful to them and he brought a sense of peace into their lives. My gift was being able to remember how a Catholic man reached out to his Jewish neighbors and how they became friends. I also remember that because of that friendship Leo and Sophie Rabinowitz became friends with other folks in the building and in the neighborhood.
My final lesson in all of this was when Pop told me to get out my missal and read the Roman Canon. I did and began reading., silently. “Out loud”, he said. I paused for a moment and looked at him. He said, “Just do it.”
I did until I got to the part that read, “whose memory we venerate, especially the glorious ever-Virgin Mary—, and blessed Joseph, her spouse—“, etc. “Okay, stop,” he said. “Tell me about all those people.”
“What about them?” I don’t understand.”
“Never ever forget that almost all of them were Jewish, including Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Our roots are deeply embedded in Judaism. We Catholic/Christians and Jews are joined at the spiritual hip “in perpetuity”. Leo and Sophie Rabinowitz are our brother and sister too. Never forget that.”
I never did.
copyright©Larry Peterson 2014