The Human Spirit: Just a plug

Forgoing hair cuts, entertainment, eating meat, swimming - even fasting - are meaningless if our hearts are inundated with intolerance

Dennis Turner, 63, died in Jerusalem two weeks ago. He was a devoted reader of this newspaper and a frequent interlocutor of its columnists. I met Dennis when he was still healthy, a Californian surfer and IBM mathematician who sprinted up our stairs for an occasional Shabbat dinner. A virus in his spinal cord made him a paraplegic, and caused multiple medical complications. You might have noticed him in his last years in his electric wheelchair, parking at the Aroma Cafe on Rehov Emek Refaim, always with his laptop computer. A handful of Dennis's friends, including a white-robed Arab grandfather who'd once saved his life, and the cousin who bought him the laptop, were at the Givat Shaul cemetery for his funeral. There would be no shiva: His parents and brother had died before him. The short ceremony didn't feel like enough. Someone suggested we return to the graveside in a week, but instead we decided to gather for a memorial breakfast at Aroma. For those among us who dine only where a kosher certificate is displayed, this decision was made easy because the popular eatery has moved across the street, now closing on Shabbat and officially kosher. ASSI, THE cafe manager, helped us organize seating, even though the cafe is packed full with Friday brunchers. In addition to tables, we need space for wheelchairs. Aroma was Dennis's second home. His first home was a specially adapted studio apartment on Rehov Shimoni, where an old Jewish Agency tenement was transformed by the energy and fund-raising efforts of Jerusalemite Miriam Freier, one of those extraordinary angels of hesed, loving-kindness, who inhabit our city. Miriam, not a usual cafe sitter, is there for breakfast. So are a number of Dennis's fellow residents from the hostel. Others were regulars at the Yakar synagogue. They knew Dennis from their caring Shabbat visits to the chronic-care facility on Rehov Tel Hai where Dennis spent several years. Yakar congregants chipped in to buy his electric wheelchair, and kept in touch when he joyfully moved to his own place. Said a physician friend who often pitched in to help: Dennis was a touchstone to allow us to express hesed. It was easy to help him because he was appreciative and did what he could to reciprocate. Concerned that all those who'd helped him would feel comfortable in his home, Dennis decided to keep his kitchen kosher. OUR TABLES at Aroma fill with tall coffee mugs, shared salads, dark bread and cheese, and we tell Dennis stories. Tamar credits Dennis, called "The Wizard," for tutoring her through the computer part of her graduate degree. Brondi says her then-teenage son liked visiting Dennis to sharpen his political debating skills. Rachel, a pretty young neighbor in the hostel, recalls how Dennis invited her out for coffee a few times. We discover that each of us assumed we were Dennis's exclusive sub-rosa supplier of prohibited chocolate and cookies. The guard, staff and patrons of Aroma express their sympathy, too. Dennis was part of their daily life. Assi, the manager, joins us to tell his story. Dennis came early each day that he was well, drank two cups of coffee and stayed most of the morning. "A cafe isn't just chairs and tables," Assi says "It's not the coffee, either. A cafe is the patrons. We were privileged to have Dennis here waiting when we opened in the morning." I LISTEN in awe, wondering how many managers in voguish cafes on trendy streets would have been so delighted to have a scruffy, wheelchair-bound customer as a regular. Not only was Dennis welcome in Aroma, but Assi tells us how a special electric socket had been installed where Dennis liked to sit so that he could plug in his laptop without relying on a battery. Brondi and I get teary-eyed. "It was just a plug," shrugs Assi, embarrassed. I think of how many negative vibes were sent toward Aroma then on the northern side of the street, open on Shabbat and seemingly a symbol of secular assertiveness in a city that is becoming increasingly strident in its religiosity. I thought of the tongue-clucking and shaking heads of all those who passed. No one would have guessed that at the heart of Aroma was such an expression of human kindness: an electric socket just for Dennis. Religion isn't simple. If it were, we wouldn't have lost two Temples in this center of intense spirituality. A few days before our memorial breakfast, in the Old City, I was startled when a teenager literally ran after a distinguished elderly woman and ordered this guest to cover her arms. The tourist, not even close to the designated Western Wall Plaza where it's long been accepted that woman cover up, hastily pulled out the shawl she'd brought with her on this particularly hot day. But her interest in praying at the Wall was extinguished by the rude encounter. No, religion isn't simple. This week, we've begun a period of intense remembrance for those Temples. But forgoing hair cuts, entertainment, eating meat, swimming - even fasting - are meaningless if our hearts are inundated with intolerance. If you have a gripe, try arguing it out over a mug of coffee. Dennis, this one is for you.