Memory lost and recovered

A teenager discovers the inner world of a cognitively impaired rabbi.

juha shavuot 88 298 (photo credit: Illustration by JUHA)
juha shavuot 88 298
(photo credit: Illustration by JUHA)
'My Lord in Heaven - is the rabbi reading?" The two Jamaican-born nurse's aides at the Hebrew Home for the Aged at Riverdale strained to peer into the room, maintaining a discreet distance so as not to cause a distraction. From the wheelchair next to his bed, Rabbi David Boros traced the lines of the Mishna with his index finger and enunciated softly and slowly: "Rav Joshua says [the Shema prayer] may be recited until the third hour of the morning, for princes still rise at the third hour." How much had he understood? I often wondered. Rocking back and forth in short epileptic spurts, he retained his focus on the page, silent and without expression. "He does not do this for us," one of them commented to me in a distinctly West Indian lilt with a slight tinge of jealousy in her voice. "It is only when he reads the holy book with you that we ever hear him speak." She approached the rolling table in front of him, crouched at his side and rested her hand on his. "Rabbi," she said gently, "do you like reading the holy book?" In silence, the gentle rocking continued uninterrupted. There was no change in his gaze. She simply was not there. The momentary portal into the vestiges of the rabbi's persona had been closed. I never quite knew what to expect each Shabbat afternoon when I entered Rabbi Boros's room, with its colorful, immaculate floor and bucolic view of barges meandering slowly up the Hudson River. During the two years we studied Mishna together, I would usually receive a greeting, but it was never a verbal one: he would look up at me from his soup, raise his eyebrows high above the rim of his glasses and gaze at me with a wide-eyed stare. His lower lip, unnaturally protruded because of his stroke, would protrude even further. His hand was unsteady, and there was often a little soup dribbling down the right side of his mouth onto a bib. His wife was invariably there by his side. "Darling, look, Josh has come to learn with you," she would say, resting her hand on his shoulder. Her attention and devotion to him were unstinting, and I felt badly for her: she got little more response from him than did the nurse's aides. We had matching copies of Tractate Brachot, one which I brought with me and one which I left in his night table. Sitting opposite him, I'd open both volumes and show him the place. He always registered this, placing his finger on the sentence. I WAS STUDYING at the Ramaz School in Manhattan, and Hebrew studies for me had been just that - in Hebrew, and thus it seemed only natural to me that our study should be conducted in Hebrew. I would review the material we had read the week before, and invariably I would receive that same characteristic response - the eyebrows high over the rim, the wide-eyed gaze. I would ask him if he understood and then I would get a really wide-eyed look and a very quick nod of the head of confirmation. "Rabbi," I would say, "why don't we begin from here," and I would show him the place. "You read." And read he did. He read beautifully. His voice was clear: "Rav Nehunya ben Hakana used to recite a prayer upon entering the house of study, and another one upon exiting. 'What are the prayers that you recite,' his students queried? 'As I enter, I pray that I should not err in my study, and as I leave I give thanks that Torah study has been my lot.'" The commentary that we were using was printed in unpointed Hebrew, the type of Hebrew that you cannot enunciate properly unless you understand what you are reading. There were times that he would pause in the reading, as if to digest the point, and I would have to do a double take: at those moments he seemed so unimpaired. He would read a line or two and I would explain. I know that something clicked, because invariably as I would mention the names of the venerated rabbis - Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Akiva - or the familiar halachic concepts - the Shema, the kiddush - he would give me that wide-eyed stare. Sometimes tears would begin to well up in his eyes. After some months I noticed that the cover of his copy of the Mishna was creased and bent, and that a page inside had a tear in it. His wife confirmed for me that during the week he would open up the Mishna and read it on his own. But there were also times that went less smoothly, and the severity of his impairment was fully revealed. I noticed sometimes that his right forearm was strapped in a restraining brace, and I had occasion to understand why. "On the produce of the ground, one recites the blessing '[Blessed is He] Who hath created the produce of the ground (adama),'" he would read. Rabbi Boros would look up at me and repeat the last word of the sentence, "adama," tapping out the syllables of the word on his table: "a-da-ma." And then again, even louder: "a-da-ma!" Now banging on the table, and then again, even louder, pounding his fist: "A-DA-MA!" MY ACNE cleared. My afro thinned and receded. The beard I eventually grew is today flecked with silver. More than 25 years have passed. It was in January of this year that suddenly, in an intense and sustained way, I began to recall vivid memories of Rabbi Boros. Ariel Sharon had been in a coma for more than a week following a stroke. On the news each night, the talking heads assessed his chances of recovery. The gloomy prognosis of the ubiquitous "nightly neurosurgeon" was that were he to awaken, there would likely be a degree of "cognitive impairment." Perhaps for aesthetic reasons, they never did spell out just what that impairment might entail. The images came flooding back to me. What they were suggesting was that he would awaken with an eyelid that drooped; that he would need a bib to catch the barley falling off his chin; that he would display uncontrollable fits of anger while confined to a wheelchair and the acrid odor of his own incontinence; that, in short, the prime minister of Israel could check into the hospital as Ariel Sharon and check out as Rabbi Boros. That was a horrifying thought. The thoughts of Rabbi Boros were not in the least horrifying. But the thought of Sharon becoming Rabbi Boros was. Not because of any political leaning, but because I, as a common citizen, "knew" Sharon, or at least the public image of his potency. It was hard to fathom that the "before" of his stentorian voice, dry wit and seeming calm could be reduced in an instant to an "after" that was the epitome of infirmity. In early February it was reported that someone had managed to "sneak" a photo of Sharon with the help of a mobile phone. I never wanted to see that photo; the chasm between the "before" and "after" was too great. My thoughts of Rabbi Boros elicited no such revulsion because my experience of him included no "before"; only the impairment of a prolonged "after." The revulsion I felt at the visual thought of an infirmed Sharon made me realize that the same honor was due Rabbi Boros. Nobody should be remembered as their infirmed selves. When the edifice of Rabbi Boros's cognitive abilities had collapsed, a single structure had remained intact: his love for Torah study. Surely this must attest to something that was at the very core of his being. I felt duty-bound to discover Rabbi Boros - "before." But I didn't want to know about him. I wanted to know him. RABBI AND Mrs. Boros had been childless, and I had no human source to contact. I began to search the Web, and in short order received an anecdote from Michael Aigen of Endicott, New York. "At Temple Beth El in Endicott there were some Saturday mornings when the sanctuary was empty, except for myself and Rabbi Boros," Aigen wrote. "While we waited for a minyan, he would sometimes tell me anecdotes from his Holocaust experiences." "Once upon a time we were marching," Boros told Aigen one Shabbat morning. "It was winter, towards the end of the war. We had been in forced labor under the Hungarians, digging trenches along with criminals, Gypsies and others. One man I worked with was a convicted murderer, and yet he seemed like a decent person and I told him so. He stopped digging, turned to me and said 'Just don't get me angry!' The conditions of forced labor were harsh, and you could never tell how a person would act under such circumstances. There were some, even with university education, who were reduced to cannibalism. If an outsider wandered into their area at night, he was killed on the spot and cut up for food. "On this particular march, three of us were walking together. We were all 'lansmen': we came from the same village in Czechoslovakia. Two of us were helping the third. It was routine on these treks that stragglers were shot dead on the spot by the SS. We stopped to help our friend lighten his backpack. He was complaining of stomach cramps, probably as a result of eating rancid cheese or something. Even those of us who had previously kept a scrupulously kosher diet were now digging for snails and worms on the side of the road. We consoled ourselves in the fact that it was a mitzva to do so - pikuah nefesh - an extraordinary measure to remain alive. "An SS guard saw the three of us standing there. 'What's going on here?' 'Our friend is feeling a little ill. We're helping him.' 'Helping. Very good. That's very good,' he taunted. 'Now move!' We started walking, but we had to support our friend so that he wouldn't fall over. The guard came again. 'You two walk on ahead,' he barked, and then walked away. We stopped to take leave of our friend. We tried to convince him to lighten his pack, to discard his useless treasures. Then he asked us: 'Do either of you have an extra pair of gloves? My hands are freezing.' His condition was helpless, and we surmised that he probably wouldn't last the day. "It was then that I remembered something my father once taught me. My father had been a civil servant, a notary public in our native town in Czechoslovakia. Each morning he spent time engaged in Torah study: Mishna, Mussar, Midrash. Over breakfast, he would summarize for me what he read. Among the lessons he taught me was that a person should never be left to feel himself hopeless. "I had only one pair of gloves, which I desperately needed. But if I didn't give him the gloves, we would be, in effect, confirming his worst fears. I gave him the gloves and put my hands in my pockets. He thanked me. "The guard returned. The two of us walked ahead. Shortly thereafter we heard a shot. We didn't see our friend after that." I WOULD LATER discover that Rabbi Boros had received a general and Judaic studies education as a child - just as I had; that he had written his doctoral dissertation on biblical interpretation - just as I had; that in spite of the enormous difference in age, we had even both heard lectures from some of the same scholars. But on those Shabbat afternoons overlooking the Hudson River, doctoral dissertations on biblical interpretation were as remotely a part of his past as they were but distantly a part of my future. I entered his room one day with a small bottle of wine and some sponge cake. Today was the day we had been anticipating for months: we were about to conclude our study of Tractate Brachot and we were going to make a siyum - a celebration marking the conclusion of a body of talmudic literature. As Rabbi Boros read the final line of the Mishna, I rose, in customary fashion, to recite the Aramaic prayer, marking the conclusion of the study: Hadran alach masechet Brachot vehadrach alan - "May we return to you O Tractate Brachot and may you return to us! May we not forget you, O Tractate Brachot, and may you not forget us!" The tears began to well up in his eyes, and then to stream down his cheeks. I poured out some wine for him in a small plastic shot glass. L'haim! We both raised our cups, but overwhelmed, he could not drink. As Rabbi Boros cried and cried, I realized that the ancient Aramaic prayer had been answered. For at that moment, and in the most profound way, he had returned to the text and the text had returned to him. Rabbi Dr. David Boros was born in Czepa, Czechoslovakia, in 1914. After the war he studied at Jews' College, London, and received his rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva Merkaz Hatorah in Montreal in 1954. He held rabbinical posts in Ontario in Kirkland Lake and in Belleville, in Milleville, New Jersey and in Oswego and Endicott, New York. He passed away in 1988. Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman is a member of the Bible Department of Bar-Ilan University, and a fellow at the Shalem Center, Jerusalem.