Turning misery into song to get through the day

September 02, 1997|By Rafael Alvarez

STOVALL, MISS. -- I am standing on the spot where Muddy Waters lived before he quit Mississippi for Chicago, staring across a verdant sea from the splintered foundation that once held the great blues singer's plantation shack.

The landscape is serene, the moment surreal with the knowledge that Muddy's cabin is touring the world. And though it seems as if all the pain and beauty of Mississippi is within reach, my thoughts fly north to the Park Heights Avenue home of an 80-year-old rabbi.

Riddle me this: Is it possible that the blues will set you free?

A few summers ago, in a brutal Baltimore August where any reporter foolish enough to make eye contact with an editor could wind up asking innocent people if it was hot enough for them, I would quietly disappear from the newsroom to take down the history of this particular Hasidic rabbi.

It was a fantastic tale of painful and valiant faith -- ''He is a big, big book! A whole life for you to read,'' promised the rabbi's wife -- and I was keen to get it in the paper until the old man set down the rules.

I must give my word to either keep his name out of the article completely, or, when the writing was done, hide the story in a drawer until he had been dead for 10 years. It was, he said, a matter of modesty. I agreed.

And every time the temperature went above 95 degrees, I'd duck out of the office and make a beeline for the ramshackle Cape Cod-turned-synagogue for another installment in the tales of the Hasidim.

Known among Baltimore's Orthodox Jews as a peacemaker adept at mending broken relationships, my subject said he was the son of a rabbi, the grandson of a rabbi, the great-grandson of a rabbi, and on and on; rabbis begetting rabbis all the way back before the advent of Judaism's Hasidic movement in the mid-18th century. Born in Czechoslovakia between the Great War and the Good War, the rabbi's earliest memory was the celebration, at age 3, that accompanied the shearing of all his hair except for long sidelocks. By 5, he would begin a formal, lifelong study of the Torah.

It was a community-wide upbringing in religious ritual ''so natural I wouldn't consider myself successful if I didn't become a rabbi,'' and through it he grew wise to erratic beatings of the human heart without ever owning a television or stepping inside a movie theater.

''The main thing is to love people, to speak nice to them even when they're not so nice,'' he explained. ''It's hard sometimes.''

He remembered how the circus wagons would pass through his village once a year and, like the Yeshiva boys who love God but can't break free of baseball box scores, how tempting it was to peek at the acrobats and the animals.

''I could go and look if I wanted,'' he said, ''but I wouldn't be praised for it.''

Though today there are Orthodox Jews who encourage the joyful escape provided by dancing bears and juggling clowns, it is still rare. It certainly was not the case when the rabbi was a young boy in eastern Europe. He came to accept this frowning upon the frivolous in the same spirit that Hasidic Jews aspire to ''accepting everything in a happy way, to believe that everything is from God.''

And then the Nazis passed through his village and emptied it of Jews.

Sent to his first concentration camp in his mid-20s, he lost three siblings. His mother and father. A wife and all five of their children. The last stop was Auschwitz.

No mercy, not for a moment

''We prayed constantly,'' he said. ''Our prayers were like the Psalms of David, not knowing what to ask for, only to save us. Our hope was so strong, but there was no mercy, not for a moment.''

To vanish from the newsroom and fall before the next installment of this story became my secret vocation that August. Straining to discern the rabbi's gently broken English over his wheezing air conditioner had the feel of gathering stones that other people couldn't see.

One humid afternoon, I raced up Park Heights Avenue without noticing that I was more appropriately dressed for the Ramones than a holy man. Over torn blue jeans and ragged gym shoes, I wore a black T-shirt showing a black man holding an electric guitar.

As I picked up his story after the liberation of the death camps (recently married a third time, he'd been blessed with children and grandchildren from a second wife who'd passed away), the rabbi noticed the musician on my shirt and asked his name.

''It's B.B. King, rebbe.''

''Who is B.B. King?''

''He sings the blues.''

''What is this blues?''

While I can fall as blue as the next middle-class crybaby every now and again, I found myself explaining an experience I only know through words that rhyme.

''The blues are songs American slaves made up from their suffering,'' I said. ''How their souls cried while they were worked to death. They way they watched their people die without being able to do anything about it. Making songs out of the misery helped them get through another day.''

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