Untergelumpert . . .
It is my mother's onomatopoetic Yiddishism meaning "wearily weighted down." Untergelumpert is what I feel whenever I walk the streets of New York. The squalor, stench and din through which one must slog while traversing Manhattan promptly puts me in a state of untergelumpert from which even my modest hotel room seems a refuge.
For a moment, though, the gabblers and boomboxes fall silent. Rancid air turns sweet, lustrous. And, right there at the corner of 80th and Broadway, two 50-pound sandbags of untergelumpert instantly drop from my frame. An old man, stooped and frail, shuffles across my path, shopping cart in tow. I would not have recognized him, save for a white mustache that still bristles like a toothbrush.
"Are you Dr. Carmilly?" I caress his shoulder, hoping not to frighten him.
He lifts his head in acknowledgment, eyes sparkling. Crystal blue and that toothbrush mustache. And for a sweet, delicious moment, I am released from the burdens of a life half-spent, and years melt away.
"But who are you?" he asks.
My name, as I expect, brings no recognition. I explain that 43 years ago I was a student in his Bible class at Yeshiva University. Then I reminisce about lessons he taught. And his surprise at the clarity of my recollection is outdone only by my own.
Mea Culpa. Truth be told, I had not thought much about Dr. Carmilly since 1966. What I remember most is how I tried as a young yeshiva student to avoid his tutelage. Those were days not unlike these, when absolute doctrinal purity was the sole criterion of religious legitimacy, and mean-spirited zealots would assassinate by innuendo those teachers whose convictions were suspect. Dr. Carmilly was one such subject. Ironically, his own doctoral thesis had been on the censorship of Jewish teachings in medieval times. That irony was wasted on us.
Swept up in my own nascent orthodoxy, I did not choose his class; I was remanded to it. Despite my resistance, something of his instruction must have touched me deeply, awareness I attain only 34 years later on the corner of 80th and Broadway.
He taught us the book of Lamentations, a formidable, spirit-sapping task, especially for a Holocaust survivor. He would weep openly as he read to us, the words no longer an ancient chronicle, but a mirror of his own tormented soul. In our sophomoric smugness, we would mock his tears and the plaintive edge to his voice as he bore witness.
But that was 1966. Now, on an otherwise squalid Manhattan afternoon, the memory of those tears envelopes me, overwhelms me. I remind him of a Hebrew commentary he would often cite to elucidate the text. Its title, Lechem Dim'ah, derives from a passage in Psalms, "You have fed them tears as their daily bread."
"Yes," he says, it brought me great comfort."
Then I recall a story he told of how he eluded the death camps by masquerading as a German gentile through much of the Holocaust. One day during an air attack, he was herded into an underground shelter. As the bombs exploded above, a woman next to him wailed, "God, make the bombs fall on Breslau!"
"Why Breslau?" he asked.
"Because I have no relatives there!" she replied.
Her prayer was an abomination, I remember him telling us, for human redemption begins only when the suffering of strangers becomes as unbearable as the suffering of those we hold most dear.
Hearing me recall this story, Dr. Carmilly's crystal blue eyes grow wider and more radiant. "You remember that?" he asks me. And he tells me that he has lived to see that which he could not have known about me in 1966: that I was a good student and that I had grown to be a good man.
As his shrunken form is engulfed by the Broadway crush, I beg my newly-ordained physician-daughter that the pathos of this delicious moment not be wasted on her. No, I tell her, there was nothing chance about this encounter. No, no, I tell her, this was an opportunity seldom replicated to offer gratitude for gifts that have shaped our highest aspirations, gifts we are able to cherish only after we have wept our own share of tears as our daily bread.
A part of me, I realize, shall never again be quite so untergelumpert. For, despite a life riddled by self-doubt and recrimination, once upon a time on the corner of 80th and Broadway, an honorable man and faithful teacher told me that I was a good student who had grown to be a good man.
And he cried. And I cried. And I wonder, could any tears in the world possibly taste so sweet?