The House of David

The House of David[i]

By

Ricky Rapoport Friesem

 

I was raised for greater things.

I don’t recall Mameh[ii] or Tateh[iii] ever saying, “We expect great things from you." They didn’t have to. It was the basic tenet of our household. Rapoports were better. A chosen people within the chosen people. It never occurred to me as a child to ask, "If we are so special, how come Uncle Srulke is a milkman? And Zeide[iv] earns his daily bread as a Shochet[v]? And Tateh’s income is not enough for me to have a new outfit for the beginning of the school year?" I didn’t have to be told that the Rapoport elite had nothing to do with money. On the contrary. It had to do with not having money. Money was crass. Rapoports didn’t aspire to financial gain. We were born to seek fulfillment on a higher plane. We were born to excel in the realm of the intellect. After all, we were descendants of the house of David. Noblesse oblige.

That’s what I understood at the age of eight. And I didn’t question it, not until much later when the pieces fell into place. Being a Rapoport meant being in a secret society. Of course, you couldn’t talk about it to your friends. It was a secret you could share only with other Rapoports, a select group, your uncles, aunts and cousins. And with them, and only with them, you could indulge in the naches of yichus, the joy and satisfaction of taking pleasure in the recognition that we were special. Only with them could you share a conspiratorial “No wonder, he’s a Rapoport” when one of the clan excelled. Within the family, a "Don’t forget, you’re a Rapoport" was enough to remind us of the high expectations that were both our burden and our distinction.

My initiation into Rapoportism began early, and appropriately, in the synagogue. It was the time of the high holidays. For me, already a time of complex, conflicting emotions.

There was the excitement that any Jewish holiday brought to our   secular household. Tateh had a way of seeking out and nurturing the ‘yomtovdikeit’ the elevated holiday spirit, in any Jewish holiday. Looking back, I think it stemmed from his own rebellion. From his breaking ranks with the generation of observant Rapoports and stepping boldly into the world of secular socialism. He had lost his faith, but he was determined not to renounce his peoplehood. He would not break what he called ‘the goldene kait ', the golden chain of Jewish tradition, the ethics and music and literature and folklore that bound us to all that had come before. For Tateh, holidays were a challenge. A time to demonstrate that Jewish secularism didn’t mean a barren, hollow existence. That he could succeed in kindling the light of an elevated spirituality, without belief.

It was Erev Rosh Hashanah[vi], September 1942. Outside 708 Spadina Ave, the first chill winds of the Canadian fall were rustling the leaves, already tinged with autumn colors. The gray day gave no hint of renewal. Winter, decline, was in the air. Far away, across the ocean, a war that I was only vaguely aware of was raging. But inside, our house glowed with the freshness of a new year. Mameh, who was anything but a punctilious housekeeper, had ironed our clothes to crisp perfection. Tateh made a big ritual out of polishing shoes, carefully selecting just the right color polish from among the jumble of brushes, and rags in the old cardboard shoebox that served as his polishing kit. He loved to bring out the shine, especially in his own shoes. Tateh was a dandy, that is, as much of a dandy as he could afford to be, given the circumstances of a teacher in the Jewish school system. Mameh had even waxed the wooden floors, a formidable task in our old Victorian house. I loved the smell of the wax, the burnished patina, and I was anticipating the moment with no grownups were around, when I would test the beckoning surface by taking off on a run and sliding down the length of the hallway.

In the dining room, the large oak table that served us everyday was transformed by the white linen cloth, wine glasses and the gold and red trimmed service that Mameh brought out only for the holidays. I had polished the silver candlesticks myself and gone with Mameh to the Harbord bakery to choose a round challah.

“For a complete full year, a cycle of good fortune”,’ Tateh made sure that I understood the symbolism. The table’s crowning touch was the cut-glass salt and peppershakers that I had helped Tateh select at Woolworths.

“Something new for our house for every holiday.” was a ritual of his own making, one that I anticipated with barely containable excitement. It had been difficult to choose among all the beckoning gadgets and ornaments in that palace of delights. But I was sure we had made the right choice. The salt and peppershakers, with their faceted surfaces sparkling in the candlelight, were perfect.

I could picture us later on that evening, around the festive table. There would be a few guests, Mr. Greenberg, the upstairs boarder who called me’ mosquito’ for reasons I could never explain, Gittel Comay the Arbeiter Ring Jewish School secretary who didn’t seem to have a husband, chained smoked and exuded an air of weary worldliness, and maybe Fishel and Sara Silberberg and their son Motel. A motley clutch of rationalists yearning for the light of the irrational.

 

Earlier that day, in school, I had gone through a ritual I loathed .Every holiday it was the same.

Mameh, you have to write a note telling the teacher that I’m going to be absent because it’s a Jewish holiday”

And Mameh would carefully compose a polite letter, tracing the unfamiliar English words carefully with an unsure hand. The Parkinson’s that was to invade her later, already evident in the uneven script.

I dreaded the moment when I had to go up to the front of the class and present Mameh’s note to Miss Young, a prim unsmiling matron who definitely was not young and, in my opinion, could never have been young. She took the note without a word, read it, looked up at me, raised an eyebrow in what I took to be disapproval pursed her narrow lips and with a “That will be all, Rebecca. Take your seat,” sent me scurrying, shame-faced and miserable, back to my bench.

But the greatest embarrassment of all was walking with Zeide to the synagogue, to shul. Tateh insisted we attend every holiday

“Nothing Jewish is strange to us,” was how I heard him explain the seeming paradox of demonstratively secular Jew attending services. And for us children it was all part of the holiday excitement that he created. But that year, Zeide met us as we made our way through the Toronto streets, bustling with the ordinariness of a regular weekday. And, oh the shame of it! Zeide strode down the streets, in broad daylight, a black-coated bearded Jew with a velvet yarmulke on his head, and, worst of all, an enormous prayer shawl draped around his shoulders and streaming behind him like an unfurled flag. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me.

Tateh and Zeide walked ahead, deeply engaged in serious discussion, and oblivious to my agony. I scrambled along behind them. As we approached the shul, I could hear the mumbled chanting. A loud hum, rising and falling, like the chorus from an assembly of angry bees.

“What were the neighbors thinking,” I cringed.

The Apter Synagogue stood on a lower middle class residential street. An ordinary three story brick house with a broad wooden porch in front. The kind of house that so many of the immigrants who had taken the first step up the economic ladder lived in, usually with boarders on the second and third floors. It had been taken over by the congregation of Apt (Opatow), the Polish town whose Canadian remnants Zeide served as a rabbi.

Tateh took my hand. I pulled back. I didn’t want to go in. All around the house, children in holiday finery were playing tag and hide and seek, kicking up the piles of newly swept autumn leaves. Their parents hadn’t made them go in. Why me?

 

“Rivkele," come just for a moment. Then you can go out to play,” Tateh begged.

I never could refuse my father. I followed him through the door, taking refuge behind his back. Zeide strode ahead into the swaying, chanting, mass of prayer shawl bedecked men. A wave of thick foul air greeted me. The perspiration of the overdressed crowd, mixed with the perfume and smelling salts of the women, tucked into their curtained, separated niche in the back of the room. I looked up at Tateh questioningly. Would I have to go to the back too? Bobeh had stayed home. Mameh had stayed home. I didn’t know anyone back there. Tateh pulled me along confidently.

“You’re just a child. You can stay with me.” And he pushed through a row of vigorously swaying worshipers, dragging me along to an empty seat. I stood meekly beside him. All around, swaying men towered over me. I looked down. A row of dark trousers and polished shoes. Knees bending ever so slightly as their owners punctuated their prayers with a subversive genuflection. Some moved backwards and forwards, others from one side to another. Each to a different rhythm. Their mumbled prayers taken together rose and fell with the regularity of a fervent fugue.

I looked up, searching out Zeide. He had taken his place in the front row. He stood tall, his large squared-off yarmulke sat like a crown on his white head. The prayer shawl, transformed from a badge of shame to a royal mantle. I could feel the aura of power he exuded, the respect he commanded. Suddenly, as I stared at him, the hall fell silent, and my grandfather disappeared under his talit. I looked around in panic. The swaying in the room had become frantic. There was a commotion. A shuffling of chairs. A few men pushed to the front of the hall raising their prayer shawl over their heads as they joined Zeide. They all moved a few steps forwards, distancing themselves from the congregation. A row of tent- like apparitions, bent in silent prayer, their backs turned.

I tugged at Tateh’s arm.

“Go, go to Zeide," he whispered and gave me an encouraging nudge. It was probably out of the quasi-anthropological interest he took in the proceedings, which he wanted me to experience to the ultimate degree. The force of his nudge made it clear to me that I couldn’t return to his side.

I wasn’t sure at first which of the apparitions was my Zeide. All the men in front had large, ivory-colored black-striped prayer shawls. Their faces, heads and hands were completely covered. I identified Zeide by his shoes. I edged closer, gathering courage, and dove under the tent. Zeide greeted me with a quizzical sidelong glance and continued the whispered prayers. His hands, holding the talit up over his head were extended in an unnatural formation. Thumbs together and the remaining four fingers--two on each side-- on both hand divided in the middle to form a V .It was stifling under the heavy woven wool fabric. I could feel my heart thumping madly. If I dodged out, would Tateh be angry? Would Zeide be insulted? I stood transfixed with terror and indecision. It seemed like an eternity.

And then it was over. Zeide lowered the talit[vii]. The air, so smelly just a few minutes ago, seemed cool and fresh compared to the stale heat in the talit tent.

Zeide responded to my perplexed expression.

Mir duchenen” he said cryptically.

Duchenen?” I later asked Tateh. What does duchenenn mean?

“It’s the priestly blessing, Tateh replied.

 I was even more confused.

“We’re Kohanim, Rivkele”, Tate continued.” We Rapoports are the descendents of the priests of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Direct descendants. As a matter of fact, we can trace our lineage back to the House of King David.”

“You mean, we’re royalty?” I was breathless with excitement. Images of the begowned and bewigged nobles in my fairy tale picture books swept through my mind.

"In a way, yes. But not in the way you think.” Tateh could read my mind. He continued, but I wasn’t listening.

"Ha. I’m royalty, Miss Young I’m royalty” I was thinking. “A direct descendent of the house of David. What do you think of that?”

“Tateh, Tateh. One more thing. Why was Zeide holding his fingers like that?” I struggled to make the sign.

“That’s the sign of the Kohanim. Only Kohanim can make their fingers do that.” I struggled even harder, using my chin to pry the fingers into the proper position.

"See Tateh," I said jubilantly. "I can do it."

"Yes, mein kind[viii]. Its our secret."

Somehow I understood then that this wasn’t information I should pass on to old Miss Young.

I walked home that Rosh Hashanah Eve on a cloud. Like a princess.

Mameh, didn’t have the same veneration for the Rapoport clan. Even though she too was a Kohan. Before she had become a Rapoport, she had been a Katz. And Katz, she explained meant Kohan Tzadik, a saintly Cohen. So she had nothing to be ashamed of. But that’s not what the Rapoports thought. They were not too happy about Tateh marrying his beautiful young student from Pruzana. Her father may have been a Katz, but he wasn’t a scholar. He was a mere soicher. A merchant/farmer, and an unobservant Jew to boot. Rapoports were supposed to marry into scholarly families. True, Zeide’s son, my father, Shabse, had strayed and taken up with socialist/Zionists. But he could still be saved. What he needed was a pious wife from a rabbinic family. Mameh said that the Rapoports never let her forget that she wasn’t of their social standing. And I’m sure she wasn’t exaggerating, because I saw with my own eyes how Bobeh[ix] and Zeide treated my aunt Nesha.

Treated is not exactly the word. Because they never mentioned Nesha’s name. And I don’t recall ever seeing my Aunt Nesha, my Uncle Srulke’s wife, at my grandparent’s table. Once, only once, I went with Mameh, surreptitiously, to visit Aunt Nesha. She and my uncle and their three sons lived in a flat above a furniture store on College St., one of the main thoroughfares in the section of Toronto where the Jews lived in the 1940s. She was a striking woman, with a head of shiny auburn hair arranged smoothly in a neat roll around the back of her head, as was the style in those days. She had fair skin and an imposing bust. She looked perfectly alright to me.

“What’s wrong with Aunt Nesha?” I whispered to Mameh when we left. ‘Why don’t Bobeh and Zeide like her?”

“Its because she lured Srulke away from home before he finished his studies. He was only sixteen, and she was fifteen. They fell in love and ran away to get married. I’m not sure she can even read and write,” she whispered. "At least that’s what Bobeh and Zeide say.”

Even my own mamishee[x] couldn’t hide the little note of disdain that crept into her voice. ”And after all Srulke is the eldest, Zeide had counted on him to study for the rabbinate.”

Instead the young couple had been banished to Canada where Srulke made his living delivering milk.

Clearly it was all Nesha’s fault. I felt the burden of Rapoport-hood settling heavily on my shoulders.

Over the years, the burden grew even heavier as more and more of the Rapoport lore was transmitted to me. Rapoports were descendants of the Shach. Rav Shabtai Hakohen, one of the great Talmudic commentators, and of the Shir, another revered Talmudist. And we were one of the four Jewish families with a family shield. Two cherubs, two black ravens, and the Kohanic sign of the outspread hands.

“It means the ravens of Porto, Tate said,” But I don’t think it was really meant to be ravens", he hastened to add. Ravens are rappe, in Italian, and Porto or Opporto is somewhere in Italy, I think. The rappe is probably from Hebrew, maybe rebbe, a rabbi or ropheh, a doctor.”

“And you know, we’re a family of rabbis and doctors.” He looked at me knowingly. The implication was clear. I was slated to be a doctor. Nobody thought of women as rabbis back then. It was obvious that my father, deprived of sons, expected me to be, at the least, a doctor.

 

The clinching argument for Rapoport exclusivity proffered in our Toronto clan was that we Rapoports, Rapoports with 2 p’s and 2 o’s were the only Rapoports of any spelling in the Toronto Phone book in the 1940’s. There it was in black and white. Rapoports, a rare and uncommon family. My family.

The first cracks in the Rapoport armor of my special childhood appeared when I was a fifteen. Tateh had died that year. I had become increasingly active in the Zionist youth movement, a refuge from a house empty of Tateh's elated existentialism. The movement sent me to New York to a leadership seminar. I stayed with an Aunt in Washington Heights. The corner grocer there was named Rapoport. The optometrist on the Grand Concourse was named Rapoport, the bicycle repair shop was a Rapoport. There were Rapoports everywhere. With 2 ‘p’s and 3 ‘p’s , with 2 ‘o’s and an ‘a’ and an ‘o’. . New York was full of Rapoports.

And so, I discovered years later, was Tel Aviv.

The House of David was getting too crowded. It was time for me to move out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal Winter 2010 Volume 7 Number 2

ISSN 1209-9392

© 2010 Women in Judaism, Inc.

 

All material in the journal is subject to copyright; copyright is held by the journal except where otherwise indicated. There is to be no reproduction or distribution of contents by any means without prior permission. Contents do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors.



[i] Women in Judaism First Annual Writing Competition, First Place winner in Essays.

[ii] Editor’s note: Mother in Yiddish.

[iii] Father in Yiddish.

[iv] Grandfather in Yiddish.

[v] Butcher in Hebrew and Yiddish.

[vi] Eve of the Jewish New Year in Hebrew.

[vii] Prayer shawl in Hebrew.

[viii] My child in Yiddish.

[ix] Grandmother in Yiddish.

[x] Mommy in Yiddish.



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