This story happened a century ago, at the time when bubbies and zaidies were but young children skipping along the streets.
The place was Woodridge, a tiny village nestled in the foothills of the Catskills. Beautiful mountains looming above it and deep valleys spreading panoramas below, Woodridge was a rural village, the kind of place where the air was fresh and life was quite simple.
Many newly arrived Jewish immigrants settled in Woodridge and the outlying hamlets, trying to make their way in the great country of America. As more and more Jews moved into the area, the Jewish community in Woodridge became stronger and stronger. First the shul was erected, a beautiful building with stained glass windows. Then a mikveh was hand built by the members of the shul, brick by brick. Every day after work, a few devoted congregants would hurry to the mikveh site, trowel in hand, all set to help construct it. And, of course, a cheder was organized for the children.
Now, money in those days wasn’t so easily made, and many people struggled to make ends meet. Sometimes, no matter how hard one struggled, ends did not meet.
The London family was just one such family struggling to get by from day to day. Little Moshe London was the right age to start cheder, but no money was available to pay his tuition. How Moishele wanted to learn. He yearned to be able to daven, to say a dvar Torah on the parsha, chazer a little chumash…but money doesn’t grow on trees, and without money, cheder was out of the picture for him.
As the hot summer neared its end and children put away rolling hoops and balls and pulled out notebooks, the London family still did not have enough money to pay for cheder tuition.
The leaves were falling in bright colors and a cool gentle wind rippled through just-combed hair as the town boys started school, swinging their books in jaunty book straps. Off to a side near the cheder stood a little bare-foot boy in dusty overalls, his eyes jealously following each cheder-goer, his big toe stubbing the ground dejectedly.
The town boys chattered like excited magpies, exchanged punches and shoved each other as they filed in through the new cheder door. As the last two boys straggled in, the rebbe gently closed the door. But still Moshe stood there on the deserted street staring at the closed Cheder door. A hot tear welled up in his eye and slowly made its way down a grimy, chubby cheek. A small head dropped dejectedly on shoulders too young to carry worries and pain. With a sigh and a last glance at the cheder, Moshe turned around and started walking home, dragging leaden feet in the dry sand.
Three steps and Moshe turned again to look at the cheder. Another few steps and again Moshe looked back at the cheder. His lip was quivering as his feet took him farther and farther away from learning. Suddenly, he stopped in his tracks, lifted his head up, and a thoughtful look crossed his face. He turned around once more and carefully looked at the cheder building. He cocked his head, finger on chin, pondering his new idea.
Then he was off like a shot, streaking towards the cheder building. Face flushed with excitement, Moshe stood in front of the cheder and carefully scanned the street. No one was in sight. A sigh of relief rolled out of his pounding chest. Stumbling a bit in his eagerness, Moshe tiptoed across the cheder lawn, wincing at the crunching sounds his feet made on the dry leaves.
At the side of the building was a window at ground level. Moshe dropped to his knees and took a cautious peek. In front of him was a roomful of cheder yingalech swaying back and forth, chanting the alef-bais. Moshe sat down, leaned forward and pressed his nose close to the cool glass, eyes sparkling. Back and forth the little boy swayed, whispering softly, “Alef, bais, gimmel, daled, hay…”
Fall swirled away from Woodridge with cold gusts of wind. Mr. Frost started touching his icy fingers here and there, freezing the ground solid in preparation for his brother Snow. And still, day by day, a little boy sat, nose pressed against a cold cheder window, swaying, chanting softly, “kumutz alef uh…”
Woodridge was now a frozen fairyland bedecked in glittering snow and icicles. People wrapped coats tightly to their bodies as they hurried through icy winds, their cheeks and noses bright red from the cold. But, every day, without fail, a little boy sat outside the cheder at a window, his breath making snowflake patterns on the glass. His burning desire to learn kept him warm as he swayed back and forth, chanting, “Breishis- – in der uhnfhang…”
So what happened to this little boy you’d like to know? I knew him when he was already an old Zaydie. Did you ever hear of the term grizzled? That’s the only word I can think of that aptly described Reb Moshe as I knew him. Carelessly dressed, thickset, with white stubble on his chin, Reb Moshe shuffled through town, his cane his only support, doing mitzvah upon mitzvah. He was caretaker of the shul, surrogate mashgiach of the yeshiva, chesed committee of Woodridge, babysitter extraordinaire and a free loan society to boot.
Did he know how to read? Did he just! Every Shabbos, the song Yom Zeh Mechubad was Reb Moshe’s solo when he visited with us. As I would listen to his raspy voice singing the words off-key with love, when I would see his eyes sparkle with devotion, I closed my eyes and saw a little boy sitting determinedly outside a cheder window, swaying gently in tune to the alef-bais.
[I’m not exactly clear on this, since my father is not around anymore to remind me of the exact date of his Yahrtzeit. But, the last Shabbos Chanukah of his life, Reb Moshe spent with my family in, of all places, Kiryas Yoel. He was tickled pink by the Chassidim and the thousands of curly-payos boys he met. And the Chassidim were enthralled by this old Yankee who learned Kriya on his own. A couple of week’s later, Reb Moshe went to show off his Kriya to the Heavenly Court. His yahrtzeit is about now, and I didn’t want to miss acknowledging this giant of a Jew’s impact on my life and share his determination with others. May his memory be a blessing.]