While many baby boomers people remember where they were for the Kennedy assassination, I remember where I was during the Hungarian Revolution.
Little Tomika was being let out of kindergarten class because his father had come by to pick him up early. You see, that’s what you do when a revolution breaks out.
My father well aware – as he rushed past the shouting crowds of young Budapest hotheads – that if he did not deliver me home into the smothering arms of my mother, he would be subject to a emotional torrent of invective that would make the revolution look like a minor tiff.
During all the confusion, a few angry fascists had gone on a rampage trying to find some of the neighborhood Communist police who had been their tormentors. As they found their prey, they hanged a few of them, one by one on the nearest tree.
My father told me not to look up. A very obedient little boy, I did what my father told me to do until I could stand it no longer.
When I looked up I saw two policemen high up in the big oak tree in front of the bakery. They looked very sad to me as their heads were rolled completely to the side almost touching their shoulders.
That seemed strange. I knew that policemen were usually very loud and very mean, but these two up in the tree were very quiet. They hardly moved at all. They must be hiding in the tree. I thought, to catch thieves who try to steal something from the bakery.
Years later, when I was in my forties, I could keep an audience spellbound whenever I told this story at the Kiddush, the small reception that followed Sabbath prayer services at the downtown Chabad House shul I attended at the time.
I didn’t always spend my Saturday mornings at the synagogue. Actually I much preferred to get up early, pick up a hefty weekend Globe and Mail and head over to Premiere Moisson for a chocolate croissant and a small vat of café au lait.
My relationship with my Creator was warm and friendly. I would speak to G-d every evening. It was admittedly a brief chat. I would thank Him for everything that had happened. I would apologize for anything I might have done wrong and would make a point of asking G-d to please ensure that my mother and my father and my sister and me – in that order – would be given health and a long life of 120 years. That would pretty much be it.
I would attend seders whenever I was invited which was often. On Passover I would eat matzo as well as matzo brei. I would enjoy the potato pancake latkes and I would light candles on most of the eight nights of Chanukah.
I would also avoid most of my relatives for two reasons. First of all, most of them were far too religious for me and I was always worried that I would do something of which they disapproved.
Secondly, Mom was also known to nurse the occasional grudge for decade or two. Somehow I got it into my head that if I spoke to any relative with whom she was not on good terms, this would be regarded as disloyalty, tantamount to treason.
I would really go all out for Rosh Hashanah High Holiday services where I would spend the entire day at shul. Since the age of 12, I have atoned for my sins by fasting a full 26 hours every single Yom Kippur.
I recall being very content with my relationship with my Creator. I was proud to be Jewish, made a point of reading Commentary magazine and no visit to Chapters was complete without a visit to the Judaica section right after I finished browsing through the novels, bestsellers and recent arrivals.
On occasion upon reading some lofty theological tome, I would make a resolution to become more observant. Perhaps I would start start by going to synagogue every week. This resolution would last a few weeks. But before long I would be back at Premiere Moisson with the croissant and the Globe and Mail.
Then one morning, the phone rang. It was the police telling me that my father had been hit by a Purolator truck, but he was still breathing and had been taken to the Montreal General Hospital. I grabbed a cab and was shaking so much, I could barely tell the driver where I was going.
Dad recovered after a few weeks in the Institut de Readaptation de Montreal on Darlington Avenue. When I was called into a meeting with members of the staff I was overwhelmed by their kindness and consideration.
Even though they were all francophones, they insisted on speaking to us in English. I told them it was perfectly fine if they spoke in French since I would have to translate whatever they said into Hungarian anyway. They would have none of it and insisted on speaking English to make us feel more at home.
One day when I was visiting, the chaplain who was a Catholic priest popped in to visit and started singing the praises of Jesus. My dad interrupted him mid-sentence and said he had been Jewish all his life and wanted to stay that way. But he also proposed to make a deal with the priest.
“How about this? I will promise not to go to the Oratory to convert any of the visitors to Judaism if you promise to spend more time visiting Catholic patients. If there are Jewish patients here, I can help you by visiting them myself. What do you think?”
The priest was most amenable to this suggestion and they parted friends.
Dad spent 10 weeks in hospital. I made a point of visiting him every day because I knew way too much about the Quebec health care system to do otherwise.
A few years later, he was in another car accident that meant several months in hospital.
One day at 5 a.m. the phone rang.
‘’Mr. Schnurmacher? We’re calling about your father. He had an episode in the middle of the night. We know that you did not have a DNR on his chart, so I can assure you that we did everything we could possibly do to save him, but unfortunately we were not able to do so.”
I didn’t hear anything at all after the word unfortunately.
I became convinced that my father was somehow meant to die in a car accident. I was also convinced that he was supposed to have died in the accident with the Purolator truck but that G-d had realized that my mother and I would simply be unable to deal with the loss, and that’s why the Almighty really leaned on his attribute of mercy and gave my dad three more years.
I still had no intention of abandoning Premiere Moisson, but I also had no intention of abandoning my father just because he had died.
I was determined to say Kaddish for him to ease his soul’s journey into the hereafter. The Kaddish is one of the central elements in the Jewish liturgy.
Was I going to say it in English? After all I loved the English language. I had chosen England as the subject of my grade 5 geography scrapbook. I was active in the Anglophone rights movement in Quebec and I had a BA from McGill as an English Drama Major.
All this angophilia notwithstanding, I was not going to say it in English. I was going to do it right. I was going to recite the Kaddish daily not in English, but in the ancient Aramaic. Not once in a while, but ten times a day for 11 months. And not alone, but in a synagogue with a minyan or quorum of ten Jewish men.
This determination to say Kaddish did mean that Saturday mornings at Premiere Moisson were now out of the question, but I had no intention of becoming “religious.”
When I went to synagogue every morning and every afternoon, I would leaf through the prayer book to make sure that I was ready for the next Kaddish.
I did not feel very comfortable in the synagogue and was always worried that I would do something wrong, that I would miss a Kaddish or that I would stand up when I was supposed to sit down or vice versa.
Mr. Rosler, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor with a flowing white beard sat at the same table as I did. He would watch me intently every morning without saying a word until one day, he leaned over.
“You look very nervous. Are you nervous at home?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Well then don’t be nervous here.”
With that, Mr. Rosler flapped both his hands in the air and said, “Over here, you’re home. You’re home. You’re home. And, by the way, you do know there are other things in the prayer book besides the Kaddish, right?”
After a few weeks as a synagogue regular, I fell in love with the black Borsalino hats favored by the flock that attended the Yeshiva on Westbury Avenue which had a convenient 6:30 a.m. prayer service allowing me to get to my job at CJAD.
I was not sure whether one had to reach a certain level of spiritual enlightenment in order to wear such a hat, but decided to go for it.
I really loved that hat. It made me look sharp. It made me look a mafia don if said mafia don were Jewish and wore a beard.
I had always hated shaving and had no problem when I was told that it was customary to grow a beard during the one year mourning period.
A few days after the purchase of the $300 hat, I was about to get in the car to drive to shul. I stopped in my tracks. Wait a second. It would be ridiculous to wear a religious hat like that and drive in a car on the Sabbath.
Maybe I could hide the hat in the trunk and then put it on when I got out of the car. Or maybe I could just hide the hat. Or maybe I would only wear the hat during the week.
Or maybe —it was then and there I decided not to ride in a car on the Sabbath. It was then and there I decided that Premiere Moisson would have to make do without my patronage.
It was then and there I decided to become an observant Jew. After that did everyone just live happily ever after?
Not quite, but that’s another story.