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A Rabbi’s Christmas

A shopping trip to Borough Park on Dec. 25 reveals a lesson about pious passivity and dignity—and the value of human relations

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(Collage: Tablet Magazine; cheesecake: Len Small/Tablet Magazine; hat: Shutterstock.com; Borough Park: Whit Andrews/Flickr)

Four years ago, my father, a rabbi, decided on Christmas Day to make his annual pilgrimage from Queens, where he lives, to Kova Quality Hatters, the landmark and institution in Borough Park, Brooklyn, to buy hats. Kova provides black hats, fedoras, homburgs, and other varieties of headdress to thousands of Orthodox Jewish men, and now that I’m well into my 40s, I have been going there with my father for decades.

While other precincts of New York City take on a tranquil, almost ghost-green glow on Christmas, Borough Park, the Hasidic enclave, teems with commerce and activity on this holy day. Its main drag, 13th Avenue, has the feel of an Asian city: Shanghai or Hong Kong minus the rickshaws and the pedicabs. Cars and pedestrians compete for room and air in narrow straits, and the street has the ambience of an urban bazaar, with chains and banks nestled next to mom-and-pop stores selling clothing, housewares, and just about everything else. The primary objective on our annual shopping trips was to buy a hat for my father, but the outing came with a number of blandishments and outright gifts for me: usually an article or two of clothing, and a post-shopping meal in a neighborhood restaurant.

My father is gimp-legged after he was hit by a car 30 years ago, but he lives a surprisingly nomadic existence in the greater New York area, often reaching all of the city’s five boroughs and many of its suburbs in a single day of rabbinical work. He drives a sporty, silver, late-model Cadillac, and frequently, at day’s end and too far afield to eat at home, he winds up in a kosher restaurant. One might think him to be a kosher-restaurant connoisseur, but he tends not to pay them any mind. In fact, my father’s dining preferences range from deli to dairy, and not much beyond that. My earliest memories of eating with him were in his haunts on the Lower East Side—Sam’s 999 on Essex Street, where he’d order pastrami and a Heineken, and Steinberg’s upstairs dairy restaurant, where he’d have smoked whitefish, coffee, and cheesecake for dessert.

On Christmas Day four years ago, after we had chosen the hat, we then had to choose a restaurant. Did we want milchig or fleishig, dairy or meat? We chose an upscale dairy restaurant. The restaurant was packed with late lunchers like us. There were mothers with strollers and finger-fed babies. Toddlers ate baked ziti, indolent children ate white rolls with butter, and businessmen nattered on at corner tables over lox and sable. My father and I stood for 20 minutes until a table opened near the swinging-door entrance to the kitchen. Then we sat there for another 20 minutes until service arrived. The waiter, who looked like an apparatchik for Josef Stalin, took our order.

My father took out his reading glasses to study the menu, even though he knew what he wanted. “Smoked whitefish,” he told the waiter.

“What else?” the waiter asked.

“That’s it.”

“That’s it?” the waiter said, incredulously.

“You have decaf?” my father asked.

“No. No decaf,” said the waiter.

“Mushroom barley soup?”

“No. Split pea only.”

“Potato salad?”

“No.”

“Tuna salad?”  I asked.

“We’re out.”

“Egg salad?”

“Blintzes only, with sour cream,” he said. “I have to get to other tables. Make up your mind.”

“OK,” I finally said. “Split pea soup and a vegetable omelet. Can you bring my father a seltzer?”

“No seltzer,” the waiter said.

A restaurant with no seltzer? I began to consider the idea that our waiter had traces of sadism. He was short and stout and had the air of someone who had been humiliated often, probably in a faraway land. I thought of him as one of those nondescript soldiers you see in newsreels from a forgotten conflict, like the Russo-Finnish war, perhaps a private in charge of the horses or the latrine. And to deprive my father of seltzer, if indeed he were doing so, was cruel. My father’s love for seltzer cannot be understood in purely physical or even gastronomic terms. It is simply part of him, long fetishized by his digestive track. Still, what was there to do?

We sat for another 20 minutes waiting for our food. It wasn’t a big deal: The restaurant was busy. My father and I passed the time in small talk. We made calculations on our napkins, refinancing our mortgage payments and family budgets. When our portions arrived, we ate silently and, in my father’s case, industriously—storing up glucose for whatever intellectual, physical, and monetary challenges lay ahead.

Then it was time for dessert. It would be cheesecake. Because we were sitting near the kitchen, I had a glimpse of a platter of store-bought cheesecake slices. There were regular, marbled chocolate, and blueberry cheesecakes. While I was in the restroom, my father ordered plain cheesecake. Upon my return, I urged him to reconsider, telling him the marbled chocolate cheesecake was much better, and he agreed. I called to the waiter. “My father changed his mind,” I said. “Instead of the New York plain cheesecake, he wants the marble chocolate cheesecake.” The waiter looked at us in disgust and said, “Once I put in the order, I cannot change it.”

He then spun away and returned shortly with a plate of the plain cheesecake. My father, who had spent his childhood in the Bronx, knew how to be grateful for food and to those who made it. His grandmother kept a carp in the bathtub to make gefilte fish for the Sabbath, and live turkeys occasionally appeared in their apartment to be slaughtered. But here, my father was surprised and annoyed that he was not permitted to have what he wanted for such a niggling and inadequate reason. Never one to make waves, though, he picked up the fork and ate the cheesecake like a boy fearful of offending his mother. “It was good cheesecake,” he said. “But not as good as the marble cheesecake would have been.”

The waiter brought the check, and my father again put on his reading glasses to study it. He took out his credit card. “Are you going to tip this monster?” I asked him. “Well,” my father said sheepishly, “not that he deserves any, but something I suppose.” I said that I wouldn’t tip him at all. My father considered this for a moment and then shook his head slowly. “Ich kenne nichts,” he said. “I don’t know. I can’t do it. I can’t take away his parnassah,” his livelihood.

Centuries of pious passivity had become the gravity that kept my father connected to his loved ones and to his work. His attachments were carefully sewn and cherished, sometimes overly so. To ask my father to withhold the tip was in effect to ask him to depart from a worldview that had kept him going for years. My father’s father was an immigrant house-painter who was both sustained and oppressed by slum lords, painting closets and hanging wallpaper for $20 a room. The fact that my father had ascended the economic ladder enough to drive a Cadillac would only intensify and amplify an indictment of his soul should he withhold the pay of a working man to teach him a lesson about courtesy and civility.

“But Dad,” I said. “This man mistreated us. He was abusive.”

“What should I tell you?” he said with the air of a man who had been asked to do something soul-damaging, like slaughter a calf or put a horse to sleep. “You’re right, but I can’t do it.”

In the face of mistreatment, my father could do nothing, as his father before him could do nothing when his clients decided cavalierly to pay him less than the agreed-upon fee. And standing there in front of my father, with a 150-year potpourri of Jewish piety and passivity—and of honor and dignity—between us, I too could do nothing but, in effect, turn the other cheek on Christmas Day.

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Michele says:

Good story, well told!

philip mann says:

` No seltzer ?` Very funny , very good.

Wonderful anecdote

David Ben ari says:

“Shanghai or Hong Kong minus the rickshaws and the pedicabs.”
Hold on: I’ve lived in Shanghai and Hong Kong for the past 21 years and have yet to see the vehicles described here. Editors, this is a stereotype of Asia and just not kosher fact checking …

Thank you – I felt like I was there!

A heartwarming article by a superb writer!

I never take out my irritation on service help either, no matter what transpired. It’s a hard job trying to satisfy everyone.
Great story.

Baruch says:

Wonderfully written, evoking for me memories of how my Yiddish-speaking parents would have given in to this abuse. I, over their objections, would have asked to see the manager. The author can still send the article to the owner. I wish he had hinted a little more as to which establishment this is. They do not deserve to be busy until they correct this. It would not hurt the place to have been named; frummies are not big fans of Tablet, the Forward etc. But keep me from stumbling into there on my very rare trips to Brooklyn (the Holy City, second only to Jerusalem).

Well-written story. The father sounds a lot more compassionate than the son. It is possible to tell your waiter in a civil tone that you were unhappy with the service, and that, in the future, you hope he will not take this out on his customers. At least, then, there’s a clear message and path for improvement. Withholding means of livelihood does not seem like the Jewish way.

This story was lovely and spoke well of the Rabbi, BUT it brought to mind a recent conversation I had had.

An observant Jew had been cheated by his contractor who had then gone out of business and reopened under another name. The observant Jew went to his Rabbi to ask what could be done. His Rabbi said that he could do nothing because it would effect the livelihood of the contractor. The result of this was that the contractor continued to cheat his way through the area, in effect stealing from his clients.

There is something very wrong when this type of conduct is condoned even if only by default.

People are responsible for their own actions and if one lies, cheats, steals or even if they just accept bad service they should not be exempt from any results.

In the case of the obnoxious waiter, it will be the restaurant owner whose livelihood will eventually suffer.

Howard Bernstein says:

I read “A Rabbi’s Christmas” and completely understand the father’s point of view. I am a Reform Jew and believe as the Rabbi does about civility and the right to the parnassah.

On the other hand, I think it would have been appropriate to share their feelings with the waiter, in private, as that too is part of civility. The waiter may have been having a bad day, or he may have cultivated that kind of an attitude because he was allowed to, since nobody shared their “feelings”.
I wonder, too, if the “pious passivity” would allow the Rabbi to go back to that restaurant in the future!

Rosalie H. Kaye says:

The waiter sounds like a typical waiter from the “old” kosher restauants ie: Ratners- very cantankerous to say the least. Brought back memories for me when my late father would take me to Ratners- I can still taste the wonderful onion rolls! Thanks for a good article. What a nice man the rabbi is- I think that I wouldn’t have tipped him!

The Father did the right thing.

The waiter most likely wasn’t a “monster” or a sadist.

Sounds like the restaurant was crowded, possibly short staffed in terms of both wait staff and kitchen staff (20 minutes to be seated, 20 minutes waiting to place an order, 20 more minutes until served, maybe there was a reason why the marbled cake wasn’t ready to be served other than the waiter’s temperament); the son had higher expectations of service than the situation allowed for on that busy day. Sorry it wasn’t a good dining experience compared to what you expected, but there’s no need to call the waiter names.

Reserve judgment when you don’t know all the facts.

Alissa Paige Joseph says:

I loved this story. Beautifully told. You should have this author more, I dont think I’ve seen him here before.

Particularly liked the line where he says the waiter had the air of someone that had been humiliated often.

Tehillah says:

All this for a cheesecake?

JCarpenter says:

Gentleness and general compassion in life and living is not passivity, but a conscious choice—father sounds like my own gentle and compassionate father, who stood up when it mattered, as in fighting in WWII, as in standing for others’ civil rights, as in opposing our opportunistic wars, etc. Mother was assertive enough for two—thanks for the story; I think I have twenty similar. God bless our parents.

James Bond says:

Good stuff about cheesecake, seltzer, cantankerous Jewish waiters, and the politics of tipping them. There is definitely an active aspect to the so called “passivity” — appearing so according to typical ethical standards. But when the higher standard of protecting livelihood is introduced as a sacred value (Jewish or Christian, I hope) then it is difficult for “the heart” not to tip. In contradistinction, Novelist/Nobelist I.B. Singer once said to his waiter at the venerable Famous Dairy (w.72nd st), “I’d like to tip you more, but my heart won’t let me.”

Frank J says:

An homage to the interplay of the sacred and the profane in the lost style of IB Singer- may your father live to 120.

Thank you for this wonderful slice of life piece; it’s as good as a piece of marble cheesecake!

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A Rabbi’s Christmas

A shopping trip to Borough Park on Dec. 25 reveals a lesson about pious passivity and dignity—and the value of human relations

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