Me, Mo, Mu, Mod, and Me
Kurt Leviant

Publication December 2021!

 

 
Binding

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252 pages  

ISBN 978-1-60489-294-9, Trade Paper, $18.95

ISBN 978-1-60489-295-6, Hard Cover, $28.95

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Excerpt from Book:

1       Discovery near the Synagogue

 

 

 

That slanted finger-length indentation I had seen on a stone door- post in the famous Ghetto of Venice began it all.

It was a place for a mezuza on the right side of a hewn stone doorpost, a kind of fossil of a mezuza, a space that showed a once- upon-a-time mezuza. A space that cried out: the parchment with the prayer, Hear O Israel, is no longer here. Where is my mezuza?

But this may be a bit romanticized, heightened for maximum effect, for the dream of it.

Here’s the story:

One day I was strolling on a side street in the Venice Ghetto. Remarkably, tourists just walk through the portal at the entrance to the Ghetto, marvel at the sign to the right of the entrance: Porto del Getto (yes, written there without an “h”) and then continue on to Piazza San Marco. Curiosity doesn’t pull them, as it does me. Wherever a little calle, I’m drawn, pulled, can’t resist, as if I, or it, were a magnet.

That calle was near the main synagogue, which impressed me with its history, continuity and sanctity. As I walked on that little side street, eyes wide open, I noticed a house with that inden- tation. A few years back I had discovered something similar in two small houses in Girona,

Spain (the home town of Nachmanides, the renowned thirteenth century Torah commentator and communal leader), just north of Barcelona, which indicated that a Jewish family had lived there before 1401, after which year Jews were no longer permitted to live in the environs of Barcelona. That the house had stood, un- changed, for more than six hundred years is another miracle.

At the door of that house in Venice, in that little calle near the main synagogue, I raised my fist to knock, then held back, thinking: What impertinence, intruding on a stranger’s privacy just to satisfy my interest in Jewish matters. And then I thought: If I don’t knock I may miss a fascinating story and I may regret my politesse. As these thoughts were chasing each other like a fugal melody I knocked before I had a chance to change my mind.

I waited a minute, got no response, and had already turned to leave, when the door opened. I saw before me a short, slight- ly built man wearing an old-fashioned cap, a white, open collar short-sleeved shirt and beige slacks. He had a little beard and ap- peared to be in his mid-thirties. Mid-thirties, yes, but still there was something old about him the strands of white in his beard, the little crinkles at the sides of his brown eyes, and his mottled facial skin. With his head covered and his beard he appeared to be an observant Jew.

I greeted him with Shalom and a few words in Italian. Actu- ally, he didn’t have to be Jewish. Many men have beards and wear a cap. And just because he lived in a house that had a centuries-old indentation of a mezuza, why should I assume he was a Jew?

But he responded amicably with a Hebrew, “Shalom u-ve- rakha,” said a few words in Italian, then asked if I understood English. I said, Yes. As soon as he began to speak I heard a foreign lilt to his words, the music of Spanish in his English words.

I apologized for disturbing him and told him I was intrigued by that mezuza space on his doorpost, for I had seen something similar in Spain.

“Girona, no doubt, where Nachmanides lived. I saw that there too.”

His knowing this rather arcane fact surprised me. “That’s ex- actly where I saw it,” I told him. “And what a thrill it was walking on the same street on which this great man had walked. And that little angled finger-size depression in the stone touched me. Said many silent words to me. And I am moved now too.”

“Come in, come in,” he said. “I see I have met a simpatico man.” Then he stretched out his hand, shook mine warmly, and said, “My name is Mo.”

And I introduced myself, wondering how strange it was that this European had a typical American Jewish name from the 1920’s — Mo.

As if reading my thought, he said, “As you just heard, my name is pronounced with a short European ‘o’, and not long like the American word for ‘so’ or ‘go’.”

Probably short for Moshe, I mused. But since he didn’t offer to explain I didn’t ask further. Then I thought: Mo is also the first syllable of Modena, the Venetian rabbi I wanted to write about. What an interesting confluence.

“Mo. Modena,” I couldn’t help exclaiming.

“No, no,” he said. “No connection. But what makes you say that?”

“Well, I’m planning to write some kind of narrative about this famous man who was born here, served as rabbi here, and died here.”

“Leone da Modena? The gambling rabbi, huh? Matchmaker, parodist, ghost writer? Probably every facet of his life makes for good fiction.”

“Imagine! A rabbi, a card player. Strange combination. So you know Modena?”

Fact is, I was jealous. I thought no one knew about him. I didn’t want anyone else to know about him. Somehow I wanted to have Modena all to myself.

“Leone da Modena? Of course I know him.”

“What do you mean you know him? He lived some four hun- dred years ago.”

Mo laughed. It was a laugh from his mouth, not his eyes.

“I mean, in a manner of speaking. I know his fascinating au- tobiography. When you read a well-written autobiography you get to know a man. I tell you, anyone acquainted with the develop- ment of Hebrew literature should know him. So you’re a writer? Very impressive.”

“Imagine!” I wanted to tell Mo something he probably didn’t know. “At two-and-a-half he chanted the Haftora in the syna- gogue.”

“He mentions this too in his autobiography, but go believe it. It’s probably all self praise. There he also claims that at age three he read and explained Torah verses to a group of people. You can’t believe anyone with anything. Not with fiction, not with non-fic- tion.”

“Then what can you believe?” “Poetry.”

For a moment we looked at each other. Then Mo said:

“But you’ve chosen an ideal, certainly a fascinating, subject.

Good luck with it.”

I made a slight obeisance with my head that signaled thanks.

 I regarded Mo closely. Did he notice my magnifying-glass eyes scanning his thin face, which was pinched just below both cheeks? I now saw that the beard served as a mask to hide pock-marks and scattered whitish discolorations, as if lentil-sized areas of his face had been bleached. Other tiny blemishes marked his forehead, cheeks and chin; perhaps he also had had papules once that were smoothed away by medication or a surgeon’s scalpel. And this is why he no doubt had a little beard — to distract the eye.

During a moment’s silence I looked around and saw there was little furniture in the room — an easy chair, a small writing desk, an inkwell and a quill — a quill? Now that’s unusual, per- haps for decoration some sheets of paper filled with hand-writ- ten lines, and a waist-high bookcase. Then Mo lifted his chin a polite way of saying, What is it you wish? Or, why did you stop by here besides asking about the mezuza?

But I anticipated his gesture and said:

“Are you a member of the community here, Mo?”

“Not really. I’m here on a visit. And since it’s a temporary residence, I’m sure you know that putting the tiny parchment with the Sh’ma Yisrael in the mezuza is not obligatory.”

I waited for him to continue. But he did not tell me what he was doing in Venice. Looking at his cap, I asked:

“Did you choose to live near the synagogue because of the short walk to services?”

“No, I wouldn’t say that,” he said, seemingly with forced patience, as indicated not by the tone of voice but by a slight nar- rowing of the eyes and a twick of the lips. The question, Are you secular? bubbled at the edge of my tongue but I did not articulate it. I admit, when I replayed my questions objectively in my mind, I saw that they could be annoying and a touch obstreperous.

“Yes, a traditional Jew goes to services,” Mo said with a little smile, evidently to mitigate the effect of his earlier remark. “But I’m a loner. Then you might ask me, So why are you here? The answer is that I enjoy the ambience of this place, especially the synagogue’s history, its continuity, its sanctity.”

Hearing the very three words that had earlier gone through my mind, chills ran over me. I was about to tell him this but felt it sounded odd. How could those three words, and in the same order too, that I had said to myself be uttered so precisely by this man standing before me? Had he read my mind, or are such thoughts common to people of similar feelings and sensitivities?

His attitude towards prayer and services also struck me as strange. However, I didn’t want to provoke a person I had just met. Even though I don’t go regularly to the synagogue, it seemed to me that only when Jews gather in shul does sanctity of place become palpable. Otherwise, it’s just a building with history and continuity. But Mo, aside from one testy remark, seemed like a fine man. I did not want to introduce tension into the delicate am- ity that had been created the first few minutes of our encounter.

But then he concluded with a poetic touch:

“Sometimes I go into the synagogue when no one is there and then I feel all three words on the palms of my hands.”

Mo spread his hands as if he were going to show me the words.

A moment later, it dawned on me there’s another reason he doesn’t go to services. Why didn’t I think of that right away? But now it was so obvious. Things you forget and suddenly remember always play out as obvious. Mo didn’t want people staring at him in shul. He was probably embarrassed by the little blotches on his face.

“Have you met people in the community?” I asked, sensing I was straining to make conversation.

“One or two,” Mo said. “Have your been here long?”

“About a month,” he said, “and you?” “I just arrived a few days ago.”

We stood there in silence. I weighed, with some dismay, the banality of our last exchanges. Then, since there was nothing more to say, I thanked him and was about to bid him goodbye.

Then I realized I had one more question and it wasn’t banal. I let it run across the screen of my mind once and concluded it wasn’t just words cast into the air. Actually, Mo himself had giv- en me the opening. I knew the question was personal and that he might refuse to answer. But I decided to risk it anyway.

“Reb Mo,” I said. “I know you might consider this a strange, perhaps even invasive, question. But since you said before that I might ask you, So why are you here, I will ask it in a more meta- physical manner: if you don’t mind, can you tell me what brought you here?”

“Of course,” he said at once, then added cryptically. “There is a reason for everything.” And Mo looked me straight in the eye and wherever else his penetrating medieval glance could enter. “But sometimes we don’t know why we’re here until we’ve been here.”

Now I really bid him goodbye and went outside, trying to un- ravel the enigma of his remark. He had obviously been to Spain, and with the Spanish accent in his English he likely had lived or was raised there.

But then, just as one might expect in good fiction, I heard the door open and Mo called to me. He stood in the doorway and, as I turned to face him, he said:

“You know, when you ask yourself a question it doesn’t have the same ring as when someone else asks you the same question. I answered you before as if I had asked myself the question. But when someone else asks that very question with the exact same words it has a different shape, feel, personality, ambience. So I thought over your question, which isn’t the same as my ques- tion...”

“Excuse me, Mo, for interrupting you, but I’d like to tell you that you have a poet’s sensibility to words and thoughts.”

He half closed his eyes and nodded in gratitude.

“So here is my answer: Sometimes fate determines one’s place in the world, and one has little control over the choices. But, yes, there is a reason why I am here now and it will likely unfold during my visit.”

But these words are as vague as his previous ones, ran through my mind. In fact, they repeat the same thought with slightly differ- ent words.

“But that sounds very bookish,” Mo continued, “as though I’m a character floating between two pages and two tiny curved lines precede and postcede my remarks. So I will amend my re- mark to say only, yes, there is a reason why I’m here.” And he raised his hand and made a scrubbing motion in front of himself as though wiping some letters off a chalkboard.

Not only didn’t I understand his remarks, I had no real an- swer to my, our, his, question. And his gesture was even more puzzling. Did he want to hint that someone, something, would disappear?

In retrospect, it seemed to me we hadn’t said much to each other in our brief encounter — but his pregnant thought that only poetry was credible was fixed in my mind all of which began

with my seeing a mezuza indentation in a door post made of stone more than five hundred years ago.

And I’m glad Mo didn’t turn the tables on me and ask me why, I mean really really, why was I here?