Many people have asked me how I got involved with Chabad in the first place.
It all started one morning more than a quarter of a century ago when I was quietly perusing the pages of the Montreal Gazette. I spotted an ad with a picture of a man in a black hat with a huge flowing white beard that looked like it had never been cut or trimmed.
The ad said that Bob Dylan’s rabbi, one Manis Friedman, author of Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore? was set to speak at the Leacock 132 auditorium of McGill University.
I had not the slightest interest in going to see this man, but Leacock 132? They have got to be kidding. Why on earth did they rent such a large venue? Nobody could possibly be interested in whatever this bearded rabbi from another era might have to say.
My guess was that only a handful of people would show up and the cavernous auditorium would look completely empty. I felt so sorry for the guy. I decided I would do my part and show up to make it slightly less embarrassing for the man.
Talk about being wrong! When I got there, far from being empty the place looked like a rock concert. The auditorium was packed to the rafters. Security guards were doing their best to hold back impatient crowds who were actually pushing and shoving trying to enter the auditorium.
I had to dig in my pockets for my press card which enabled me to get in and sit on the floor in the aisle leading to the stage – the same stage where I had gone to see everyone from W. H. Auden to Germaine Greer when I was a student at McGill.
Following his lecture which I found interesting enough, someone came up to me to ask a question.
“There is a reception for Rabbi Friedman at the @Chabad House on Peel. Would you like to go”
“No thank you.”
“It’s going to be a really great reception. Kosher food. Lots of food.”
“Rabbi Friedman will be there. You can talk to him if you like.”
“Still not interested.”
“The rabbi there says that the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Messiah.”
“Come on. You’re making that up.”
“No, it’s true. He says that the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Messiah.”
“Okay. You got me. I will go to the reception. This I gotta see.”
When I arrived, I sailed right past the buffet. I wanted to talk to this rabbi. I was introduced to Rabbi Ronnie Fine, who was a McGill University chaplain at the time.”
“Is it true that you actually think the Lubavicher Rebbe is the Messiah? “
“Yes I do. I see him as a leader of the Jewish people.”
“What makes him the leader? He was not elected to the position.”
“True,” says Rabbi Fine. “Who do you see as the leader of the Jewish people?”
I was stumped. I could not think of anyone else to even nominate. It was not the prime minister of Israel. It was not one of the Bronfmans. It was not any other rabbi and it certainly wasn’t Barbra Streisand.
If being leader meant caring for all Jewish people around the world regardless of affiliation or level of observance, the Rebbe would certainly fit the bill.
I was intrigued by our conversation. Intrigued enough to start hanging out at Chabad which I still do to this day.
As I tap away at the keyboard writing this 30th piece, I am thinking about suspending operations and heading straight to Amazon to buy some more books. The writing process can be very frustrating. It feels great when the words just flow, but it can be so nerve-wracking and annoying when they do not.
But all that does not matter. Plumbers don’t have plumber’s block. Writers have no business using writer’s block as an excuse. All the books on writing speak with one voice. They all say just keep writing.
Maybe I should write about my old high school chum Lilian. I have such a vivid memory of her walking along Cote des Neiges pushing a baby carriage. I peered inside to see a tiny smiling baby in an adorable white bonnet.
That was Lilian’s daughter whom I dubbed Baby Regine. I still call her baby Regine even though she is now married and has three children of her own.
I was at her wedding and could not understand why everyone was paying attention to baby Regine clad all in white and a handsome young man in a tux. How come my friend Lilian and her husband Ron were not the centre of attention?
Then it came to me. They were now but minor players. It was not their wedding. It was Baby Regine’s big day. Her parents were no longer the focus of attention and neither are people in their sixties.
As soon as I start to think or write about age I am reminded of the magnificent line in one of Philip Roth’s books. The main character was annoyed at a strong, virile and much younger man. Roth described him as “armed to the teeth in years.”
Wow. It doesn’t get any better than that. It was amazing for me to see how Roth who at the time was getting sick and old had no problems churning out novel after novel about being sick and old.
When I am not reading Roth. I am reading any book thing set in NYC. Just reading or hearing New York street names makes me feel good. I daydream about sitting in the lobby of the 70 Park Avenue Hotel, taking notes and walking people rush by on their way to work. I daydream about sitting on a bench on Philosopher’s Walk in Central Park on a sunny autumn day.
Philip Roth used to write standing up. CJAD newscaster Jason Mayoff still does. I write hunched over sitting down.
One day when I went to visit Mom in hospital her voice sounded very soft, but she was very coherent. She recited a Hungarian anthem without missing a beat and then asked me to bring her grapes. I took a 4-minute video of that recital to have to remember at some future date. She then turned to her imaginary friend and said that she wished that I would go and I did.
I showed her the video on my iPhone and she said that she looked better than that. Do we all feel that way? That we look better than what we see ourselves in some picture or video?
Mom had been taking her meds and fortunately she still had most of her appetite. How did I deal with her noncompliance when it came to taking meds? Simple. I lied.
I told her that the meds were not meds. They were vitamins designed for young people to make them stronger. The success rate for this deception was an impressive 95 per cent.
Mom’s imaginary friend is Mermelstein and apparently he wants to marry her. Often she tells me to leave because she would rather speak to him than to me.
She occasionally asks me who I am, but more often her eyes light up when I visit. Not bad strictly speaking, for someone with mild to moderate dementia. I almost said medium dementia as it if were some kind of sweater-vest set.
“I vant to marry Mermelstein. Get out of here. I vant grapes.”
“OK Mom. I will leave and go buy you grapes. Red or green?”
“See you later.”
“Thank you my son. I love you.”
Mom often talks out loud to herself as I write. I use her stream of consciousness comments as a writing prompt. Is that allowed? Is that creative or disgusting or both?
I tell Mom she looks young and beautiful. Her dementia is advancing. She often asks visitors if they want to get married. She sometimes tells me that she will marry a man called Behrenfeld. Other times she tells me she will marry the prime minister of Israel on Tuesday because it is a lucky day.
In the past she has said I should marry Cindy. When I told her Cindy was my sister, she said I was crazy.
Sometimes when I visit, she asks if I have come empty-handed. She is always thrilled whenever I bring grapes or flowers, This past week I bought her a yellow and black dress on a whim for $12.99 at Jean Coutu.
Mom liked the dress so much that Jhonas her beloved caregiver told me she did not want to take it off. Jhonas also told me that Mom no longer knows the difference between jam and ketchup.
Maybe Mom is right. Maybe there is not much difference. Think about it. They are both red, they are both sweet and they are both sticky.
Mom blesses me and tells me have a happy life whenever I visit which is on most Fridays and Sundays with an occasional surprise visit.
When I arrive she smiles. I wonder how long the smiles will last. I want them to last forever. I want her to last forever. And that is why I often take picture after picture of her to remind me of the smiling moments.