A Man Of The People


His eyes were beautiful. A bright sea green breeze crinkled his smile. Rafel always smiled. The simple Rafel came once a week. He bought eggs from Shiffer and took money for the burial society. He kept his accounts in a small dog-eared notebook. He’d pocket the money and scribble with a stub of an ever- dull pencil. Sat by the kitchen table, he made mum laugh. They gossiped about everyone and everything. Rafel was everywhere. He knew everything. Rafel told his tales. Rafel was our Shammas. He was the caretaker, head cook and bottle washer of the Leeds Polish synagogue. The over-weight, always perspiring Rafel was always the same. He wiped his brow with a dirty hanky. He always wore black worsted, creased, and stained black garb. His large hat set at a jaunty angle. Chanukah celebrates the miracle of making oil last eight days. Rafel’s stubble lived in a similar time dimension. Rafel, no matter what day of the week, had a three-day-old ginger growth. Our Yiddisher bumble bee went from one Jewish garden to the next. Spreading and gaining pollen along the way. The itinerant raconteur and his audience spoke a lingo from Praszka. The conversations were gossip about the Leeds Jewish community. The words were pure Yorkshire. My mum knew the rules -- ‘to get you have to give.’ She gave enough information. Mum paid her subscription fees. She gave a hint here, a nod there, added a few shrugs and cocked her head at different angles. Deep in West Yorkshire, the thorough-bred Polish Jewish princess resorted to type. She held an audience. Rafel’s role amongst the women was well understood and never defined.

The male population had no problem determining Rafel.
His status
is best told in a joke. ‘At Yom-Kippur, the president of the Synagogue threw himself on the ground, “forgive me, oh Lord, I am a mere nothing.” The Shammas and the Rabbi help the president up. Then it is the turn of the Rabbi. He recants with the same words. They help him up. Then, in the same manner, comes the turn of the cantor. The Shammas then prostrates himself and utters the same words. The Rabbi turns to the president, “Look at who says he is nothing.’”
Rafel was at the bottom of the totem-pole.
The Leeds Jewish totem pole had two heads. The heads pointed in opposite directions.
Shiffer represented one head. Our intrepid poultry merchant was the chair of all the presidents of all the synagogues. Common consent appointed him. Shiffer considered this an act of God. The anointment conferred the right to speak in God’s name. Shiffer pronounced fiery visions and redemption. All we had to do was to live a life of purity. Shiffer defined what that was. His fiery fearsome eyes blazed at those who dared not to yield.
The other head
defied Shiffer. The other head was the hook-nosed Semitic looking face of left wing politics. The dreamer’s eyes are seeing visions of a utopia. A utopia where Jewish ethics merged with Marks and Engel. A dream of freedom from fear. We need to fix the world—Tikun Olam. Both heads on the totem pole tried to answer one problem. How did we live with the goyim? Shiffer’s answer was to ignore them. Jews, circle your waggons and believe. The dreamer's answer was complicated. To live with the goyim, you had to change. You also had to change the goyim. More than that, you had to change humanity. Repeated failure heightened their endeavours. Nothing worked. They were cut off from reality and the community.
Only Rafel was amongst us. Rafel, a man of the people, bumbled around.

In our previous perambulations, we lost the ark of the covenant. We did not lose the totem pole. We brought it to Israel.

The faces are the same. The one proclaims with the same messianic fervour. In the name of God, whom they represent, we can ignore the goyim. Through their mouths’ we hear the same guarantee of immunity and salvation. We should be patient. We must believe.
Here in Israel, as it was there in Leeds, nothing changes. We circle the same waggons and say the same prayers.
The other head is still deep into Tikun Olam. We mouth phrases only we believe and hope ‘they’ will too. We adopt the same naïve condescending manner. We tell the world and the Palestinians everything will be
fine if---. Here and as it was there, the formula fails time after time.
With each failure, each head becomes more resolute. With an unequalled enmity, they blame each other. Each head rules to be replaced by the other. They fail time after time. And they grow ever distant from the people.
A freak accident occurred. Rafel became Prime Minister.
A man of the people with Rafel’s smile and love ruled us. He made peace. He brought alms to the poor and the needy. He rehabilitated the weak areas. The distinctly not pro-Semitic Daily Mail possibly represents the goyim. They eulogised that unique PM : ‘We didn’t like you, but we certainly admired you.’ That's the best we'll ever get from 'them.'
Rafel Zilberman and Menachem Begin, I miss you both so much.
Where are you now? We need you.