Mendel Letters 16: Negotiating Judaism (1)

FDNY Engine 92 / Ladder 44 is still there on Morris Avenue in the South Bronx. Historians believe the author of the Mendel letters’ mother lived in the building just to the right of the fire house in the 1940s.

Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.

January 30, 2021

Dear Mendel,

Looking back, you had a very eclectic view of what it meant to be an observant Jew. You followed traditions, tempered by reason. I was thinking about this because in both Israel and the New York metropolitan area there has been controversy as orthodox Jewish sects refuse to abide by COVID-19 restrictions. One ultra-Orthodox rabbi, when asked by followers how they should respond to the pandemic, reportedly told them “Read the Talmud.”

My grandmother broke her hip before my January 1963 Bar Mitzvah and was in a wheelchair. The problem was that it was almost two miles up and down hills from her home on Grant Avenue and E. 169th street to the synagogue on Nelson Avenue and W. 174th Street in the Bronx and she refused to ride in a car on Shabbos. You and I went with her to see her rabbi at on old shtetl schul on Morris Avenue near the firehouse. The rabbi told her “Of course it is okay to travel by car to your grandson’s Bar Mitzvah, even though it is Shabbos, because you are in a wheelchair.” When we left, you thought everything was settled until she told you “No! He’s not a real rabbi” and refused to discuss it again.

You usually had no patience for religious crazy, but this time you gave in. On the day of the Bar Mitzvah, my uncle, your brother-in-law, ended up pushing her in the wheelchair from home, to the synagogue, to the reception, and home again.

By the time I was sixteen I was a committed atheist and dismissed all the Jewish religious rules as idiotic. You got angry once when I spouted, “Do they think God is stupid and doesn’t know what they are doing?” Later it became clear you didn’t believe in God either, you just believed in being a Jew.

Your son