Authors: Howard Fast
For the stranger, the newcomer, Benjamin Isaac Grace Fast,
welcome to this very curious world.
I greet you with love and I wish you joy and fulfillment.
abbi David Hartman came to Leighton Ridge in the spring of 1946, six months after his discharge from the United States Army, where he had served as a chaplain in the infantry. The six months had been a mixed bag of sadness and happiness. His discharge, quickened by news of his mother's illness, brought him to her bedside only hours before her death. His father had died when he was a small boy, and his mother had raised him, cared for him, and adored him.
Five months later, he married Lucy Spendler, whom he had met a few weeks after his mother's death. Lucy was a volunteer worker in a U.S.O. coffee and doughnut store on Broadway in the Seventies. David came there to conduct evening prayers, a convenience for Jewish servicemen who desired to say the mourner's
He met Lucy, a slender, pretty girl with rich brown hair and huge brown eyes, and saw something in her that reminded him poignantly of his mother. As for Lucy, she saw a tall, lean man, sunburned, with a pair of bright blue eyes, decent features, and a smile half-sad and half-delightful. He had a wide mouth, a high, strong nose, and a thick shock of brown hair, and the fact that he was still in uniform, with important-looking ribbons on his blouse, made him as romantic as a rabbi might be â at least to Lucy.
Lucy's father was a printer â more correctly, a Linotype operator â at the
New York Times.
Her mother worked as a typist at City Hall, again, more correctly, the Municipal Building; and both her father and her mother were militant Jewish atheists. In spite of this bias toward God â for a Jewish atheist is more fervent in his anger and disagreement with God than in his disbelief â they embraced David Hartman and gave their blessing to the marriage. Which did not lessen their skepticism about David's ability to earn a living and support their daughter.
Talking with Rabbi Belsen, who headed the placement committee at the Jewish Institute of Religion, the seminary David had attended, David began to share the doubts of Herbert and Sally Spendler. “The trouble is, David,” Rabbi Belsen explained, “that you are a very young man, not even thirty. Believe me, I would treasure that problem. Still and all, in this case, it creates certain difficulties for you. I know you're just married, and that calls for some sort of income. Certainly, we should have made provision for young men coming out of the service, but we were not equipped for that. I have three older men, men with families and children. So if you'll be patient, in perhaps another month â”
David nodded. He could exercise patience, but what he needed very quickly was a job.
“â unless,” Rabbi Belsen added.
“Yes?” David asked eagerly.
“If you can live with this, David, there is a place. I can't put an established rabbi with a family in there. That's out of the question. But a young man like yourself, right out of the service, which was no picnic, I'm sure. You didn't sleep on silk sheets in the Normandy invasion.”
David smiled. “No, I don't think so.”
“All right. So listen. There's a town in Fairfield County called Leighton Ridge. In this town there are fourteen Jewish families, and they decided they want a synagogue and a rabbi. Now I must tell you, David, that for two weeks we have been trying to find someone to accept this assignment. It is no blessing. They will provide a house, which may or may not be fit to live in, and they will pay a salary of twelve hundred dollars a year. We might get that up to fourteen or fifteen hundred, but not any more than that, because, as they tell me, they will have to put down two thousand dollars cash for the house, with a mortgage of eight thousand more, and also another thousand dollars in cash for a synagogue, against four thousand dollars, although what kind of a synagogue you buy for four thousand dollars, I don't know.”
“Where's Fairfield County?” David asked. His New York childhood in the thirties was devoid of any knowledge of Connecticut.
“Ah-hah, you don't say no immediately. A good sign. Fairfield County is in Connecticut. It runs north and east from the New York border maybe thirty, forty miles, and the way I understand it, Leighton Ridge is a town of perhaps four thousand people. You should know the worst. In the fourteen families, there are two Orthodox families and two Conservative families. They go along with the Reform movement because it's the only way they can have a synagogue. If there were three Orthodox families, they'd build a synagogue of their own. That's a joke, David.”
“Yes. You know, Rabbi Belsen, when I went into the service, I had half-decided to give up the rabbinate, possibly to get into medical school. But then, after what I saw. I saw Dachau â I saw other camps â well, the pay doesn't matter. I told myself that I'd never question the pay.”
Rabbi Belsen looked at David Hartman with new interest. He recalled David Hartman the student, vaguely, one among many students; the young man who stood in front of him was something else, a strong face but not without innocence, and as if graven and carved into the sharp angles of the face, eyes of great sorrow. He was quiet without being humble. He asked nothing.
“Yes,” Rabbi Belsen said after a long moment, “this may be something right for you.”
“I'd have to discuss it with Lucy. But â only fourteen Jewish families â is it one of those places where they bar Jews?”
“Not the way I understand it. America is a very large place, David, and there are a limited number of Jews. Fourteen is reasonable for a place like Leighton Ridge.”
“You know, Rabbi Belsen,” David said, “I'm only twenty-nine years old and I was born in New York, and do you know I've never been to Connecticut.”
“Since you spent the past six years in the service and in school and in the Institute before that, it's understandable.”
“Still, it's peculiar. I mean I feel very strange. I have been to North Africa, England, France, and Germany â but never to Connecticut. I suppose I'd need a car?”
“I would think so.”
“I never learned to drive. I think Lucy can drive. I've never discussed it with her.”
“Talk to her, David, and then we'll talk some more about Leighton Ridge.”
But before David brought the proposal back to Lucy, who was still living with her mother and father, he stopped at the New York Public Library, found a history of Connecticut, and located the single paragraph devoted to Leighton Ridge. Historically speaking, Leighton Ridge was not terribly important. David discovered that it was one of the smaller Fair-field townships located in the northeastern section of the county, that it had been founded by Captain Egbert Leighton in 1771, at which time he was given a royal grant of eleven hundred acres for his service in the French and Indian War, that it was located on the high ridge of lower Connecticut, that its winters were cold and its summers salubrious.
“But can we live on twelve hundred dollars a year?” Lucy wondered. “That's only twenty-five dollars a week. They paid you more than that in the service.”
“I had a larger congregation in the service.”
“Fourteen families â”
“According to the custom, all we'd need would be ten. That would constitute a community according to Jewish law.”
“It doesn't frighten you, does it?” Lucy asked him. “It scares me. I have to tell you that.”
“A little. I mean not the way things overseas scared me. You know, I didn't expect them to hand me the Temple Emanu-El or anything like that, but I thought at the worst I could come in as assistant to some place in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles.”
“I was there once. I love Los Angeles,” Lucy said. “It's mostly always warm there. Leighton Ridge sounds cold. Even the name sounds cold.”
“According to the book I looked at in the library, the temperature in Leighton Ridge varies in the winter between thirty-six degrees to a low of five above zero. But it's not the cold I mind. It's just that I never thought of anything like this. You know, you spend a lot of time in the service dreaming about how things will turn out afterward, when you get home. But this is so far removed from anything I ever dreamed of.”
“You don't have to take it,” Lucy said. “After three years with the U.S.O., I'm as good as any professional waitress or counter girl. I can get a job and so can you. And you told me they had offered you an instructorship in history at N.Y.U. We could get an apartment â”
“I'm a rabbi, Lucy.”
“I know. I'm not asking you to be something else, David, but just to fill in with a temporary job until something good comes along in the rabbinate.”
He kissed her. He did care for her a great deal. She was sweet and she was clever, and under the sweetness she had a hard core of determination. But she was also young and very much New York City born and bred, and it was not easy to explain to her what his experience in Europe added up to. He had not yet reached a point where he could talk about what he had seen in the camps.
“I think I have to take this thing on Leighton Ridge â if you agree,” he added.
“I'll agree to whatever you want, David. But why?”
“I don't know. But it's been offered, and I don't think I can say no to Rabbi Belsen. And there's at least one positive thing. I'll be my own boss, not someone's assistant.”
“Thank heaven for that.”
“And you can drive a car, can't you? I remember you mentioning something about it.”
“David, I drove a U.S.O. panel truck for six months.”
“Good, good. You must teach me. There's no real railroad station closer than Westport or Fairfield, and they're both miles away.”
The following day, David returned to the Institute and knocked at the door to Rabbi Belsen's office. The rabbi, whose white beard matched David's childhood notion of God, opened the door, stared at David moodily, and then motioned him into his office.
“Is something wrong?” David wondered.
“I hope not. You came to tell me you're accepting the post in Leighton. I'm worried. I went to a grocery store this morning. I haven't been to a grocery store since before the war. My wife does the shopping. I don't know how you're going to live on twenty-five dollars a week. It's not the same as it was in the thirties. I was thinking maybe we should establish some sort of minimum wage. A rabbi is human. I'll bring it up before the board.”
“We'll manage,” David said. “I have my discharge pay and some savings and Lucy has some, and there were the wedding presents, so we have almost five thousand dollars between us, and we can manage for at least a couple of years, and with all the guys coming out of the service and getting married and looking for a place to raise their children, the Jewish community up there has to grow. Who knows, in a few years I might have a congregation of a hundred families.”
“I've seen stranger things,” Rabbi Belsen said. “So you'll go to Leighton Ridge. At least there's plenty of fresh air up there. David, usually I don't give advice, but just a word or two. You must try to love your congregation even when they're least lovable â which can be frequently. Don't expect righteousness or even integrity. You teach it. And don't expect gratitude. It is very precious and in time it will come, but don't expect it. And when you come into New York, come to see me and tell me what's happening up there. I'll be filled with curiosity.”
“Good. Now I have some notes here that I had typed up for you. First of all, the president of the congregation. There are only fourteen families up there, but unless you can live and work with and remain a friend of the president of your congregation, the fourteen families will be as troublesome as a hundred. His name is Jacob Osner â Jack, he calls himself. We had lunch when he came to the seminary to talk about organizing a synagogue â an intelligent and forceful man, but without sentiment, possibly a totally pragmatic man. German-Jewish grandparents, early forties. An advantage, David, you were both in the service. He was a colonel with the Judge Advocate. He has a boy of twelve years and a girl, I think, nine. Maybe part of what pushed him is that he wants the boy
right there in Leighton Ridge. You're young, he's middle-aged, and maybe he isn't as tolerant as he should be. Maybe he is. I don't know. But, David, you must have him as your ally, never your adversary.”