L'Chaim to Life
By Larry Fine
Many many years ago when I was still a young man, I would frequent a certain quaint synagogue which I found that had a special old-world character both in the old almost dilapidated building structure and in the uniquely interesting group of elderly gentlemen that regularly came to pray there.
The synagogue, or as many call it: the shul, was housed in a large old building on a main street. It had no particularly distinguishing features on the outside to differentiate it from the various businesses and stores on that street with the exception that there was no large sign or show window. It had only an old and drab paint job in which the original reddish color had turned brown, and told all that it had not been painted in years. On the door there was a small sign telling who ever actually peeked on this weathered paper that this was indeed a synagogue and what were the hours of the daily services.
Inside there was little to change my opinion from the outside impression. The lighting was dim and dreary, not all of the lights were turned on, why waste electricity? Books were crammed into book shelves that looked like they came over with Columbus. The Holy Ark was once a master piece of old work craftsmanship but was at some point repainted by someone with a taste for bright colors that rendered the fine wood carvings grotesque in their out of place brilliantly assorted colors. To the left of the Holy Ark was the Rabbi's podium, the sthdender, a giant wooden conglomeration of wide wooden boards and too many coats of dark brown paint. It was on this ancient relic from the old country that the rabbi would pray, quietly and softly as if he were in a world to himself.
The rabbi fit in nicely with the furniture. He wore a very wide stiff black hat that had a circular shape. To his credit, his long black coat that came down near his ankles was a perfect match for his hat. All together, his synagogue and its furnishing fit perfectly his dress style, yet the twinkle of happiness and love of life that reflected in his eyes and his giant rosy cheeks that stood out from his long grey-white beard like a Technicolor drawing with a black and white background, intrigued me and drew me into this synagogue. He was a quiet soft spoken man that rarely engaged in the normal petty niceties, preferring his books to common social interchange.
But what I enjoyed the most about that 'shul' were the old men. Each day they would come to pray, mumbling something at a rapid pace as they turned the worn pages of their prayer books. In a less than a half hour they were finished with their prayers and then began the most interesting part of this story.
Mr L. was the "gabbai" or beadle; he was in charge of the shul and at 88 he did not move very fast. He, as were all of the old men, was clean shaven; clean shaven meaning he did not have a beard, but not that he shaved every day. Every couple of days he would shave. But every morning after the morning prayers he would set the table for the men. A bottle of 'booze' together with some fish left over from last Shabbat's Kiddush, and some horrid cookies that I believe they called "kiklach" or "kiglach". While the rabbi attended to his books the men would sit down at the table and begin eating, drinking a l'chaim and arguing they never talked, just argued.
It did not matter much what was the topic of discussion. What were important was that there was a bottle of whiskey and those terrible dry cookies. They would pour a 'l'chaim' and dip these dry tasteless cookies into their small glasses of whiskey and pass the time arguing about things that did not seem to matter except to them.
Mr. G. took a liking to me. He was in good shape, he told me, because he did exercises each day. He was in the war, you know, he said, World War I! Then whispering to me, half laughing, he said, "I was on the other side!" Later in life, he told me, he emigrated from Germany and made his living working in various trades. He was fond of me and tried to get me to join in their discussions. I never picked up Yiddish, so I could not really understand much. Sometimes they spoke in English, sometimes in Yiddish, but always they made a l'chaim and argued.
Down the street was a small rest and retirement home. Every other day one particular man would come into the synagogue and put tephillin on his head and arm. The tephillin box is supposed to sit in the center of the head, but this octogenarian seemed to have a unique manner in balancing it from different points on his head that gave me the distinct impression that he was not all there, which he wasn't. He too would mumble his prayers at a rate that gave the impression that he could only finish in such a hurry if he skipped several pages, that is if we assume that he actually looked into the prayer book.
The men were wise to him. They knew that in the rest home whiskey was in limited supply if at all available. Finally one day when he came in very late for the prayer service and zipped through the prayers at a rapid pace with his tephilin strapped on in an original manner, the men took offense. When he tried sitting down for the customary l'chaim they objected to his presence.
"Get outta here, you just come here to drink!" Mr. L. warned him. But this old gentlemen was not frightened off by Mr. L.'s sour face and pushed passed him to get a place at the table. When the rest of the men chimed in with Mr. L. telling this old fellow that he should get out and stay out, Rabbi G. came running over exclaiming, "Please Mr. L. give him my l'chaim!"
Mr. L. was forced to relent. The rabbi never drank during the week day but of course he was certainly entitled to a shot of whiskey. "Let him have my l'chaim," he repeated smiling. Of course the men relented and the old gentlemen took his rightful place at the table and poured himself a l'chaim.
It has been more years than I care to count since I moved away and found other synagogues that were more in keeping with my youth and group affiliation, but every once in a while I muse about that wonderful 'shul' which came out of the previous generation of old men who had a love and zest for life.
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Just recently I happened to see something that reminded me of that old shul and the old men. I was reading a book "The Harvard Medical School Guide to Men's Health" and was shocked at what I read. Interestingly enough according to a Health Professionals Study which compared drinkers to abstainers, light drinkers, meaning one or two drinks a day enjoyed a 28 percent reduction in heart attacks, by-pass operations, angioplasties and cardiac deaths. Moderate drinkers, (two to three drinks a day) had a 48 per cent reduction in risk. More drinking than that, however, caused problems and was not recommended. The book observed that most physicians did not recommend that their patients take up drinking because of the fear of alcoholism.
When I read that I remember those old men. They were all in their mid eighties and they were all active - no they did not play tennis, but they came to the synagogue by themselves and were able to live a life that included shopping, walking and doing their own house work. With the exception of that one slightly senile gentleman, they all enjoyed a good daily argument each trying to out wit the other indicating a degree of mental alertness.
I am not a medical man, and I am not writing this as medical advice, but I have seen with my own eyes the mental and physical alertness of these old codgers. Perhaps in our life of stress and fast changes, a little social 'l'chaim' like those old men did would help us reach a lively old age.
And perhaps when we Jews drink four cups of wine on Passover, and a cup of wine each Shabbat, or wish each other a 'l'chaim' at a wedding or bar mitzvah, perhaps we are actually doing just that, wishing each other a good and long life.
Disclaimer: This article is not to be taken as medical advice. Consult your personal doctor.
from the March Passover 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine