The front door to the Chaim Nachman Bialik Folk Shul, the Hebrew school I went to, located in a storefront on 16th Avenue, was locked that Sunday, and no one had the key. So my friend Jay and I, who were twelve years old and studying the old Hebrew or Aramaic Haftorah we had to memorize—the singing as well as the words themselves—to perform at our forthcoming bar mitzvahs, decided that the only thing to do was to go around the block to the back, climb over a fence, walk through an alley, and pry open the back window. Then we could unlock the front door from the inside.
With us was our Sunday teacher, a small, thin retiring man, perhaps in his early forties. He’s the one who taught us the text, all the stuff to say--actually, to sing--at the ceremony where we would be transformed, just like that, from boys to men. He didn't want to wait at the front door; he wanted to come with us.
After scaling the small fence, we had to climb over various obstacles to get to the back window: wooden crates, one or two garbage cans, tossed household goods. Not to mention all the rubbish on the ground. It was easy for me and Jay, but I bet it was not easy for the teacher. Because, after all, he was getting old, in his forties.
I pried open the window, and scrambled inside. Then I looked out the window at him and asked, in a kind of boastful manner, if he had ever been able to climb over stuff like this before. Or if this was the hardest thing he had ever done in his whole life. Which I was sure it was.
He smiled at me, standing there in the refuse-strewn alley. Then he pushed up the sleeve on one of his arms. He showed me a strange tattoo. It wasn’t anything like tattoos are supposed to be, like a heart or a dragon or a girlfriend’s name. It was nothing but numbers. Small blue numbers, all in a row. I just looked at it, wondering at such a weird tattoo. Also, tattoos were supposed to be only for big burly guys, not little guys. So I looked at him, questioning with my eyes.
“I escaped from a Nazi camp,” he said, softly. “This alley isn’t so hard for me.”
Then he climbed through the window, and thanked me and Jay for opening up the shul so we could study Haftorah.
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