From Tiny Acorns Grow
By Keith Bloomfield
Nothing in Henry Neumann’s life was done impulsively. He began each day at a downtown shul that still enjoyed a minyan each and every morning. Its members were there for him after the death of his wife and he continued to return the obligation. The park bench he sat on each morning after davening was just a few blocks from his apartment. He selected it only after trying other benches throughout the tiny fenced-in plaza. It was close enough to the entrance to make it easily accessible, yet far enough away to keep it out of the mainstream of pedestrian traffic. It was near the playground where nannies gossiped and watched their tiny charges on swings, slides, and jungle gyms. A canopy of tall trees provided protection from the sun throughout the year and a windbreak that offered shelter on all but the most blustery mornings.
He could have easily purchased his morning cup of coffee at any of several boutique shops nearby. He preferred a deli on a side street a block from the shul where the proprietor made more money from lotto and scratch-off cards than from food and drink, yet his passion for cafeh was legendary. He roasted the beans in the back room, filling the shop with their exotic aroma. He prepared the beans in a hand-cranked grinder and insisted on allowing an old percolator, burnished with age; work its magic on each pot-full. Henry emerged from the shop each morning with a “cup-of-joe,” cream with two sugars, and a seeded roll, spread with sweet butter.
His newspaper of choice was selected after sampling every English language publication on newsstands for three blocks around the park. He chose one that expressed the antithesis of his political opinions. “I can get the news from the TV. What I need in the morning is intellectual stimulation,” he reasoned.
Henry Neumann was a creature of calculated habit. He prepared for his day seated on his favorite bench, with his breakfast at his side, reading his favorite newspaper, before attacking the challenges of a man enjoying his retirement years. Why this morning was to be different, defied explanation.
He had seen the man from a distance, seated on a bench sometimes looking around and sometimes staring in his direction. As Henry glanced over his newspaper, there he was again, at a distant bench. Henry read on and in a few minutes, he looked for the stranger and saw him seated upon a bench that was closer than before. As the minutes wore on, with each glance, the man was closer and closer to the bench where Henry sat, until a hand reached over the top of his newspaper and pressed down on it at the fold revealing the face of the stranger directly in front of him.
“You’re a Jew,” said the stranger.
Henry was afraid, but he could not let the stranger know it. In his eighty-odd years on the planet, he had never been confronted like that. “And what if I am,” he said slowly.”
“I know you are,” said the stranger matter-of-factly. “I have a nose for Jews,” he replied, tapping one nostril with a nicotine-stained finger. “What’s your name?”
Henry hesitated. “My friends call me Chaim, you can call me Henry. And you?”
The corners of the stranger’s mouth curled into a smile. “It’s Bill, and you can call me Bill. That was very funny. No wonder so many of you are comedians. You like to make people laugh.”
“No, it keeps us from crying,” replied Henry.
“And what do you have to cry about? I’ve been watching you for weeks,” said Bill, now seated beside Henry on his favorite park bench. “You still haven’t answered my question.”
“Yes, I am a Jew,” he bellowed directly at Bill’s face. The pigeons feeding on crumbs and crusts thrown on the cobblestone path heard the sound and flew to the security of the trees above. The toddlers on the swings and slides turned to face him. The nannies deep in conversation with other caregivers looked up in Henry’s direction.
“There was no need to yell at me,” said Bill. “Of course I knew you were a Jew. I told you I had a nose for you people. I merely needed to hear it from you.”
“And why is that?”
“Because I have a question I wanted to pose. In my mind, Henry, it’s a very important question. Would you mind if I ask it?”
Henry’s eyes narrowed and he cocked an ear in Bill’s direction. “All this for a question?” he thought. Henry’s first inclination was to punch him in the face and begin running, but he was curious about what question was so important, to Bill, that he had spent an incalculable amount of time ensuring that he was the right one to ask. “Why me Bill?" What have I done to warrant the honor of being asked your question?
“You’re not the first person I have asked, Henry. I’ve asked other Jews the same question. I’ve just never been satisfied with their answers. I’ve watched you Henry and I think you’re different.”
“You’ve been stalking me?”
“No it’s not like that. I haven’t followed you down the street and hid behind parked cars and mailboxes so that you wouldn’t see me. I haven’t stared into your windows. I haven’t stood outside your apartment building waiting for you to leave so that I could search through your trash.”
“Then what do you mean?”
“If I see you in the neighborhood, walking down the street, going into or coming out of a store, I guess I watch what you do and whom you talk to a bit more closely than other people.”
“And because of all this, you think I am the right person to ask your question?” Henry crossed his arms in front of his chest and nodded. “And why is that?”
“Because from my observations, you are comfortable being a Jew.”
Henry was actually pleased with the result of Bill’s scrutiny. He sat up straight and folded the newspaper on his lap. He took a large swig of coffee from the cup on the bench and moved it to the blacktop beneath his bench. Maybe he had slackened off on his level of observance. While he generally attended minyan morning and evening during the week, he did not attend Shabbat services as often as he had before his wife passed away. He and Carol were the first to arrive and the last to leave. After services they attended the shul’s tiny Kiddush of fish salads and pastries. Then, they would kibitz with their friends until well into the afternoon and walk back to their tiny apartment, arm in arm. Henry truly missed those days. Without Carol, it just did not seem as important to him. He worked hard to fill the gash left in his life by her death. Despite it all, he was pleased that Bill still thought that he was exemplary. “Alright Bill, I’m ready for your question.”
“Before I thought of actually asking a Jew this question, I did considerable research. I read books and articles in magazines and journals I had never heard of. I waded through thick texts and commentaries and every time I thought I had the answer, something did not ring true. I asked experts and people that the experts told me were experts and time and again, the answer was just out of reach.”
“Did it ever occur to you that you had the answer all along and were too blind to see the truth?”
“Yes it did, but each time I concluded that the truth was just past the end of my fingertips. With your help, I think that I am closer than I have ever been before. Can I continue?”
“Go right ahead,” said Henry.
“Why are you still here?” asked Bill, his tiny slate-colored eyes seemed trained directly at Henry’s forehead waiting for his response.
At first, Henry thought the question was directed specifically to him. It sounded like something Abbot would ask Costello or anyone would ask the brothers Howard and Mr. Fine only to find them staring at each other dumbfounded and then making a hasty retreat knocking over the questioner and something expensive or important along the way. Beneath its naïve simplicity, lurked an answer that Henry had spent much of his life trying to answer as well.
The Jewish bible, the Tanach, even when read at it most superficial level tells a remarkable story. Beginning with the five books of Moses, that comprise the Torah, and onward through the Prophets, and the other writings, the rise, the fall, and the sojourns of the Jews continues to defy the odds. Civilizations appeared, flourished and disappeared like a field of wildflowers. The Akkadians, Minoans and Dacians are civilizations that reached their zenith in the ancient world and are now names known only to those who study extinct cultures. In the Americas, the Olmecs, the Incas, and the Toltecs are but a few of the peoples whose impacts are still felt today, but about whom so very little are known. The Jews are a people that refused to go away.
Henry repeated Bill’s question in his own mind: “Why are you still here?” He tried to remember other people who had been the target of such grandiose plans for extinction. He could not. On the grandest scale, he thought about the Amalekites and Egyptians, the Inquisition, and the Nazis, for thousands of years the Jews were their chosen targets for annihilation. On a smaller scale, Henry thought about Haman and the Jews of Persia and the siege of the plateau at Masada. One ended in the death of the villain and his family, the other in the sacrifice of the Zealots to avoid capture by the Romans. Each was another attack in a very long line of assaults against the Jews.
Henry studied Bill’s face before he began to answer. He no longer saw him as a wild-eyed stalker, but as a researcher, truly interested in answering a question that seemed to have deep meaning to him. Henry was not certain why. “It’s a wonderful question, Bill. Five simple words, so very charged with implication. It’s a question that some of us ask all the time and some are afraid to ask for fear that our luck will change – if you can attribute it to mere luck.”
Bill leaned back on the bench, while Henry picked up his cup and sipped on the now tepid beverage. “Why?” whispered Bill, not even bothering to complete the question.
“Because it’s our destiny. It’s our reason for being here in the first place. It’s a solemn privilege that each of us is offered, but not necessarily accepts. Do you remember the story of Abraham and the agreement he makes with G-d?”
“Do you mean the original covenant?”
“You really have done your homework.”
“I told you that this is very important to me,” replied Bill.
“The Lord’s offer was substantial, but it wasn’t without a price. You can read about the price paid by all of the Torah’s matriarchs and patriarchs, but it’s a drop in the ocean. No matter what our fellow man has thrown at us, we survive to demonstrate that the covenant is still in force and that the Lord keeps a promise.”
“But how can you continue to believe in that promise after all that you Jews have been through?”
Henry crossed his arms in front of himself and smiled at Bill. “It’s the heart of your question. We believe, because we are still here. Every attack and every loss is painful, but we are still here. Our presence continues to be felt disproportionate of our numbers. We survive, because above all, it is what we do best. We are here to be a thorn in the sides of those who want us eliminated from the face of the earth. Do they challenge us so that we can rise above them, again, and again, and again? I don’t know.”
“Why did you leave your homeland?”
Henry began to laugh. “Go back to your books Bill. It usually wasn’t our idea. The Lord gave us a land, but not everyone was in agreement that it was ours to keep. We left, were expelled, or more often were slaughtered. Many of us left and moved into the Diaspora. The Galut, as we say in Yiddish. In time we were all across the face of the earth, until we were pushed out again or exterminated.”
“That’s what I cannot understand. But why are there still so few of you compared to the population of the rest of the world?”
“Look down Bill and tell me what you see.”
Bill gazed down at the asphalt and the cobblestones and the grass that surrounded their bench. As far as he could see, the surface was strewn with acorns. Some were intact, but most were crushed under foot or beneath the wheels of bicycles or baby carriages or the trucks that entered the park to remove the garbage. Some had been munched on by squirrels or pecked on by birds. Few were visible wearing the scaly pointed caps that once held them fast to the limbs they fell from “They’re just acorns, or what’s left of them.”
“Now look up and tell me what you see.”
He stared toward the sky, but his gaze was blocked by the thick overgrowth above them. “I’m not a naturalist,” said Bill. “I can’t tell you what kind of trees these are just by looking at their leaves.”
Henry worked hard to suppress a chuckle. “Now what’s that old saying? Giant oaks from tiny acorns grow.”
Bill shook his head. “Silly me, how could I have forgotten?”
Henry bent down and scooped up a handful of acorns. Some crushed beyond recognition, others in pieces, and one or two that still resembled the fruit of the oak. “Before each of these fell from the bough it was attached to, it held the promise of becoming a tree as large and imposing as any of the ones surrounding us. But not every acorn is destined to become a mighty oak. If that was so, we would be drowning in a world of oak trees. Jewish communities in the Galut are like the saplings that grow from a Giant Oak; or in our case, little Israel. Our existence sustains Israel and Israel’s existence gives meaning to our lives. You can’t see the strings, but we are firmly attached. Not all Jews living in the Galut will make aliyah and return to our homeland. We’ve made other lands our homes. We’re still waiting for the arrival of the messiah – the mosiach, and one of the conditions for his arrival is that all Jews will be reunited in one area. The last time that happened, was probably in the death camps of Europe. Now, I suppose that would be Israel, though there are still more Jews in the Galut. When or if it even happens, I do not know. But until it does, Jews will still see Israel as a beacon for their individual lives and for us as a people. How’s that Bill?”
“Thank you Henry. That’s the best answer I’ve ever heard. You have pulled a veil from in front of my eyes. I see you and your people in an entirely new light. Do you think there’s any hope for the rest of us?” Bill’s eyes were softer now then when they had first met and from the corners of his eyes, Henry could see tears beginning to form. It was clear that Bill thought his future was tied to the future of the Jews. It was a nice thought and one that could have changed the world if others agreed with it. History saw the Jews as a threat; a blight that could be wiped out. Each time Jewish existence peered down into the abyss of oblivion, something happened.
“There is always faith,” said Henry. “We’ve been nurtured by faith for thousands of years. When all seemed lost, at least we had faith.”
“And it seems to have stepped forward each and every time,” noted Bill.
“It certainly took its time during the Shoah,” said Henry.
“But you’re still here and that’s what I can’t understand. When your end is clearly in sight, something stepped in and saved you.”
“We’ve had the faith that something would. Some of us would like to think that it was G-d.”
G-d intervened in Poland and Germany; outside of Israel, well at that time, outside of Palestine,” observed Bill.
Henry took another sip of coffee and put the cup on the ground in front of him. He leaned forward toward Bill. “And why not? He made a promise, a promise for all time.”
Bill sat up straight. “You can still say that even after everything that has been done to you.”
Henry nodded slowly. “More so than ever, because so much of what’s been done to us was the work of man and not G-d. If anyone has broken any promises, it’s us, and we’ve done it time and time again.
“And G-d let it happen?”
“It’s for us to stop not for G-d. G-d intervenes in his own way and on his time schedule. Remember Bill, we are still here. That was your original question. Most of the horrors perpetrated on the human race were done by other humans. I’m not proud of our behavior in the death camps, but as you were so quick to observe, we’re still here.” Henry rocked forward until his nose and Bill’s nose were nearly touching. Henry had a large nose with the kind of “hook” characteristic of Eastern European Jews and Bill’s nose was small and slightly pinched with nostrils that flared as he spoke. “Do you really want to know why I think we are still here?”
“Yes,” replied Bill. ”More than anything.”
“I’m not sure you’re going to like me to answer, but it’s the best that I can do. The answers are scattered throughout the Torah. You’ll find them in Exodus and in Leviticus. G-d is holy and he expects us to be holy as well. We’re special Bill, but not in a way that most of us fully understand. He repeated that message all over the Torah. He gave us laws and codes to live by to remind us through the years. We developed an understanding between us and G-d - a covenant, from the days of Moses and in place to this day, no matter how stubborn and stiff-necked we become. Until something happens to bring on the Mosiach, we are here to show the world that it can be done and that there is a G-d in Heaven. It hasn’t been easy Bill. But it’s our role on the grander scale of life, one that we appear to have accepted, despite its challenges.
“You’re here to be an example,” sighed Bill, leaning back slowly.
“I think so,” said Henry. “It’s a cloak that we’ve worn with a great deal of discomfort, but we’ve worn it all the same and tried to be accountable for what it means. At least as best as we could.”
“Are you a poet Henry? I knew I made the right choice.”
“I’ve been called a lot of things in my life Bill, but never a poet. Why would you even think that?”
“You have a way of expressing concepts that no one I’ve asked the question of before can even come close to.”
“Bill, it’s hard to think that you haven’t spoken with people more eloquent that I.”
“It’s not just that. I think that you really believe what you say and that’s what’s most refreshing.
“So I’m not telling you anything you haven’t heard before?” asked Henry.
“No, that’s not what I mean. I’ve heard many of the same words, but I didn’t believe them. When you speak, I know that you believe them too and that’s what’s most important. I knew I chose well this time.”
“Then what do you know now that you didn’t know before?” asked Henry.
Bill crossed he arms across his chest and rested his chin on one hand. “Nothing,” he smiled. “But now you’ve made me sure of what I do know. Your survival is not an accident, but an expensive agreement that you have with G-d. It’s an agreement that has cost you dearly throughout the centuries and one that I don’t think you would change if you had the chance to. Your success baffles much of the world and their wonder translates to hatred. If only they understood what it really meant, they would have no reason to hate you, in fact they would approve of your mission; as I do.”
“You are very welcome, Bill. And please call me Chaim.”
Two strangers sat beneath an awning of green working hard to be strangers no more and in some small way settling the differences that divide civilizations. In the weeks that followed, there were many more cups of coffee and newspapers and Bill and Chaim took pleasure in watching an acorn become a young sapling, joining the other trees in the park.
from the July 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine