Of Angels And Poinsettias
Angels can be created by human beings. My father taught me how.
My father did not believe in angels. He could not be bothered with spiritual notions or metaphysical concepts. But when he died, and I stood beside his sheet-covered body in the mortuary's refrigerated room, I was overwhelmed by the sense that legions of angels were surrounding my father and escorting his soul to the next world. And I, his ardently spiritual daughter, stood there envying his place in the world to come.
According to Judaism, angels can be created by human beings. Every good thought, word, and deed gives birth to a positive force in the universe, which is called an angel. These angels are eternal. They hover around us throughout our life, and accompany us to our reward after our death. Conversely, every evil thought, word, and deed creates a bad angel, or demon. They also hover over us until, in the heavenly court, they become our accusers.
I could recognize the faces of many of the angels that filled that cold, white-tiled room in Bershler's Funeral Parlor. One whole contingent was born on those rainy mornings when my father, driving to work, would pull over to the bus stops along the way and offer a ride to anyone going to Camden.
And over there was the angel of the black eye, which my father got when he accosted a big, black man he caught shoplifting in his drugstore. A policeman who happened in to the drugstore at that moment arrested the man, but my father refused to press charges. Instead, he offered his assailant a job in the store, so that he could earn money to pay for the items he had tried to steal.
He offered his assailant a job in the store, so that he could earn some money.
I recognized another angel, born at the end of a cold winter day, when I was catching a ride home from the drugstore with my father. My father daily delivered prescriptions to the homes of people who were too sick to come in for them. I was in a hurry to get home that day, but my father assured me he had only one delivery to make. He drove up to a dilapidated house in the ghetto which Camden, New Jersey, had become, and disappeared into the house. By the time he emerged fifteen minutes later, I was rabid.
"What took you so long?" I scolded him.
My father, who never explained himself, but who did not want to listen to my harangue, answered simply, "The house was ice cold. No wonder the woman is sick. So I tried to call the coal company to order her a load of coal, but their line was busy until a minute ago."
Hovering close to my father's body were the poinsettia angels. Christmas was a rare day off for my father, since the drugstore was open six days a week, and Sunday he invariably went in for a few hours to finish work from the previous week. But instead of relaxing on Christmas, when he, as a Jew, had nothing to do, my father would fill up the back of his station wagon with gift poinsettias. Most of these poinsettias he delivered to the poor black and Puerto Rican women who lived in the neighborhood of his store.
When my brother Joe was a teenager, he usually did the footwork of taking the poinsettias into the houses. Many of the women, without husbands and with a brood of children to tend to, told Joe that this poinsettia was the only thing of beauty they received all year long.
Among the regular poinsettia recipients was a woman suffering from M.S. (multiple sclerosis) who lived in a nursing home. Every year Joe would bring the poinsettia into her room, place it on the table, and mumble, "Merry Christmas," while the paralyzed woman would follow him with her eyes, unable even to nod a thank you. Finally one Christmas, Joe asked the nurses at the nursing station who this woman was. They told him that she had been a wealthy daughter of a fine family, engaged to be married, when she contracted M.S. Her fiancé broke the engagement, her money was used up in doctor and care bills, and eventually even her family dropped all contact with her. In the course of a year, the nurses told Joe, the only card, letter, or gift this woman received was this poinsettia from my father.
After Joe went away to college, my father did all the poinsettia deliveries by himself. Overweight, with varicose veins from standing in the drugstore since 1925, stricken with the arthritis which made it increasingly painful for him to move his legs, my father delivered these poinsettias until he retired from the drugstore at the age of seventy-five.
One corner of the mortuary room was filled with library angels.
One corner of the mortuary room was filled with library angels. After my father retired, he volunteered for the local library to deliver books to shut-ins. Leaning on his cane and limping from his arthritis, he often had to climb flights of stairs to reach the desolate apartments of people, usually younger and sometimes less incapacitated than he, who had run out of reasons to get out of bed.
My father involved himself with the plight of each one. Did this man suffer from aching back pains? Then and there, without an appointment, my father took him to his own orthopedic doctor. Had this woman lost all sense that she counted for anything? My father arranged to pick her up on Election Day to take her to the polls, convincing her of the importance of her vote.
My father lived in a world without strangers. He could not stand in a supermarket line nor sit at a restaurant table without striking up a conversation with the person next to him. I was always terribly embarrassed by his utter disregard for personal space. Perhaps the young Irishman at the adjoining table would rather converse with his family than with this bald-headed Jew with whom he had nothing in common.
Invariably, however, my father found a point of connection. Either the Irishman had an uncle who was a pharmacist, or had an aunt who had graduated Camden High with my Aunt Mamie in 1929, or he used as his children's pediatrician Dr. Hanson, my father's old friend, or he had once summered in the same Poconos resort to which my father once took us. By the time the waitress brought our check or we reached the cashier in the supermarket line, the erstwhile strangers were always smiling as warmly as if they had found a long-lost uncle. Didn't my father know that in the latter half of the 20th century, alienation was the pervasive mindset of society?
In fact, although my father lived all of his eighty-six years in that century, he was never a 20th century man. When I was a psychology major at Brandeis University, arguing with him once about some sociological issue, he stunned me by announcing that he did not believe in sociology or psychology. I was flabbergasted. Was sociology some nebulous religious system that one could choose to believe or not believe?
When, in the late 60s, fired up by my leftist political convictions, I inveighed against the oppression of the lower classes, citing statistics of starvation in affluent America, my father retorted angrily, "Ridiculous! If someone in Camden is hungry, all they need to do is come to me or to the minister in the church on Stevens Street."
That there could be societal problems that could not be solved by a kind and generous neighbor was beyond my father's comprehension. Now, more than thirty years later, I wonder whether he was right.
At Brandeis, I belonged to the radical leftist Students for a Democratic Society. I had taken my stand with minorities and oppressed Third World peasants against the bourgeoisie conservative establishment of America. Thus, I was mystified, on one of the occasional times I entered my father's drugstore during my college years, to see a black teenage girl whispering to my father that she wanted to see him privately.
If I perceived him as the enemy, why didn't she?
When I later asked him what she had wanted, he answered matter-of-factly (for it was apparently a routine occurrence) that she thought she had venereal disease and was asking him what to do. Why should a black teenager, in the age of the Black Panthers, be confiding in this middle-class, white, Republican, Jewish pharmacist? If I perceived him as the enemy, why didn't she?
Another time, I came into the store with him one summer morning. Five or six matronly black women, who were sitting at the soda fountain, greeted my father with cat-calls and complaints: "We ain't talkin' to you no more, Mista Levinsky."
"You's in trouble in our book, Doc."
I wondered how my father's characteristic gruffness or fiery temper had hurt or insulted these women. He ignored them, and went directly back to the prescription counter. I, however, was concerned with their plight. I approached and asked them what my father had done to them.
One of them replied, "Yesterday afternoon he done told de ice cream man to give popsicles to all de kids on our block ‘n he would pay for ‘em. Us mamas had to spend all afternoon pickin' up popsicle wrappers. No, we ain't talkin' to him no more." And they all roared with laughter.
When, in the early 70s, race riots wracked America's cities, Camden's business district, too, was ravaged. Starting at one end of Broadway, the main street, rioters burned or looted virtually every store. They set fire to the jewelry store next to my father's drugstore, razing it to the ground. Then it was the drugstore's turn. According to an eye-witness, one of the rioters shouted, "Don't touch that store. He's our friend." The angry mob bypassed my father's store, going on to break the windows and pillage the shoe store next door. A chilling tribute to "Doc," as they called my father: When the smoke cleared the next day, his drugstore was the only store on Broadway that had emerged completely unscathed.
My father was not a rich man, but he gave and lent money as if he had it. During the Six Day War, when the American Jewish community rallied to Israel's emergency need, my father, with two children in expensive private colleges, found he had no money to give to Israel. He went to the bank and borrowed $4,000, which he donated to the Israel Emergency Fund. Later, when the local Jewish community was collecting money for a geriatric home, my father took out a second mortgage on his house in order to have a proper sum to contribute.
He went to the bank and borrowed $4,000, which he donated to the Israel Emergency Fund.
My father regularly lent money to any of the drugstore customers who asked him. Most of these loans were never repaid. When we were sitting shiva for my father, Carl, the Italian pharmacist who had bought the drugstore from him, told us how, when my father was transferring the store over to him, they came upon a one-inch-thick notebook, filled with entries. Carl asked what it was. My father replied that this was his record of outstanding loans. Carl asked how much it was worth. Tossing the book into the wastebasket, my father shrugged, "It's priceless."
Born to my grandmother just a year after his parents immigrated from Odessa in 1902, my father was barely 17 years younger than his mother. I remember seeing him in his 60s, a big, six-foot-tall man, his balding hair completely gray, waiting on his 80-year-old mother with filial solicitude. Many times I watched in awe as my father mutely accepted my grandmother's petulant scoldings. My father paid for his mother's two-bedroom apartment plus full-time help. When he finished his ten or twelve-hour workdays in the drugstore, almost daily he went to check on his mother and made sure she had everything she needed. My mother used to wait to serve our dinner until Dad came home after 7:00 PM.
My father also assumed responsibility for Nana, my mother's mother. When my parents built their dream house in the suburbs, they included a room for Nana, who was stricken with Parkinson's Disease. While my mother did the labor of dressing, bathing, and caring for her mother, my father took care of her expenses as a matter of course. At Nana's funeral, the rabbi paid tribute to my father's unstinting care of his mother-in-law. My mother, in tears throughout the funeral, said later that at that point she had felt like standing up and applauding.
My mother, in tears throughout the funeral, said later that she had felt like standing up and applauding.
When Carl bought the drugstore, his lawyer and my father's lawyer drew up a purchase agreement. After it was signed, as Carl and his lawyer walked to his car, the lawyer said to Carl, "You just wasted your money."
Carl gulped. The lawyer continued, "With that man, a handshake would have been sufficient."
The day after my father died, his rabbi came to talk to the family in preparation for the funeral. Of course, he knew my father well, for Irving (Israel) Levinsky had been a pillar of the synagogue and had accompanied my mother to Shabbos services every week. Nevertheless, the rabbi asked the various family members gathered in the living room if there was anything special we wanted him to include in his eulogy.
An amazing scene of revelation unfolded. As each family member recounted the tales of my father's acts of kindness that he or she had personally witnessed, the rest of us learned of it for the first time. My father never talked about anything he did, not even to my mother. A gruff man with a short temper and a big voice, his shortcomings were as obvious as his merits were hidden. We knew that he was generous and that he had helped many people, but not even those of us closest to him knew the extent of the money he had loaned, the jobs he had found, the individuals he had rescued.
My father did not believe in life after death, nor in the world to come. He expected no rewards for giving people rides in the rain or for finding jobs for the sons of his ghetto clientele. How amazed, then, he must have been to find himself ascending to the next world, escorted by legions of familiar angels. Standing meditating over his body in that chilly mortuary room, I found myself saying, "Surprise, Dad!"
But there was also a revelation for me in that angel-thronged room. I saw that deeds are what primarily count. Although I had been practicing Torah for five years, and I knew that Judaism is a religion less of faith than of action, of performing concrete mitzvot, I preferred to live in the ethereal realm of the mind and the spirit. Standing beside my father's body, gazing at his luminous face, I was shocked to realize who he had become by virtue of his deeds alone.
My father's road to heaven was paved with poinsettias and popsicle wrappers. And if there was a gap created by the faith he did not hold, or the mitzvot he never learned to do, I saw that it was spanned like an immense bridge by that book of loans he had tossed away.
I, who had spent my 42 years wrestling with profound concepts and lofty aspirations, had nothing in my entourage as significant as my father's coal order for the sick lady. So, I could feel my father winking at me, his religious daughter, from his honored place in the next world, saying, "Surprise!"
Written for the aliyat neshama of my father, Yisrael ben Yosef Yehuda, on the occasion of his 31th yahrzeit.