A very stiff-necked people
And the Lord said to Moses, "I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them [Exod. 32: 9-10].
In our shul (synagogue) in Johannesburg, South Africa, a small congregation of minor importance within the Jewish community of some forty to fifty thousand souls we were blessed with two men of immense self-importance. Mr. Bloch, the once tailor, who now owned several men’s outfitting businesses, a not incongruent situation, as nearly every corner of the central business district was the site of a men’s outfitters, mostly, if not all, owned by Jews. Bloch was a clean-shaven, short, round man with black hair and a dark complexion. As befits a tailor he always dressed immaculately.
The other dignitary was Mr. Brookes, who had upgraded himself from a simple watchmaker to jeweller. Mr. Brookes was tall and lean. He sported a ginger moustache. He too, dressed well and his height enabled him to carry himself with much more elegance than the shorter, fatter Mr. Bloch.
These two men fought for the presidency of our little shul for years. A modus vivendi came about where each man would serve in alternate years. ‘Floating’ voters who wanted shlom beit (literally, ‘peace in the home) decided the outcome of the yearly election.
Both men had been born in Europe, probably Lithuania, from where most South African Jews originated. The origins of their rivalry are unknown, but looking for a sense of importance and wanting to be a big fish in a small pond, is motive enough. Our shul was indeed one of the very small ponds of the many ponds, which made up the Jewish life of Johannesburg. No doubt that they also genuinely wanted to serve their community. However when it came to deciding who could do a better job, the antagonism and jealousy clouded their better judgment.
It was decided by the committee in the early sixties to modernise and expand our shul. The congregation had grown from when the shul had been built in the thirties. More seating was needed for the High Holy Days.
Who was going to do the job? Fortunately we only had one architect who was a member of the congregation so the choice was obvious. The problem arose with the contractor.
Two members of the congregation were eligible to do the job. Both candidates were interviewed. As usual, if Mr. Bloch wanted Rabinowitz, Mr. Brookes said “No, he’s no good I think we should give the job to Levy.
The arguments continued for several months. Vitriol was the order of the day.
“You trumped up tailor, you, what do you know from building?” asked Mr. Brookes.
“What? You’re just a no-good watchmaker, that’s why you sell jewellery, so you can crook everyone. What do you know about building?”
“Who you calling a crook? You sell tinnif (rubbish) clothes, shmattes (rags). I feel sorry for all the people who buy in your shops. They’re making you rich buying ‘rags’.”
“I tell you, you’re the gonif (thief). You, and your three sons, biggest ganovim (thieves) in Johannesburg, maybe the whole country, who knows?”
At this point the Rabbi, who by chance had also been an outfitter before obtaining smicha (rabbinical ordination) stood up.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, please it is not befitting for us to get so upset. We must have a little decorum.” Rabbis need to use bigger words than their congregants. It is expected for a rabbi to sound learned. “I know that we need to give our members more seats. Thank God, our congregation has been fruitful and has multiplied. But we are not a rich congregation.” He knew that, because he was actually himself on a very modest salary. “We have two candidates, Levy and Rabinowitz. Both are long time members of the congregation, we cannot choose between them. Both are honourable men, men who can be trusted. I suggest we ask Black, our architect, to divide the work into two parts. This will serve to preserve peace.”
And so Black sat down at his drawing board and did the calculations. This was fairly easy as the shul divided down the middle from the Holy Ark straight through the bima, (Holy Ark) to the front door. Women sat on the right and men on the left of the front door. We didn’t even have a mehitzah (partition separating men from women, to avoid distraction during prayer).
Little did those involved know that this “wise” decision was akin to the solutions made in Chelm (a town in Yiddish folklore, where all the residents were intellectually challenged). All hoped, in vain, that the two contractors would cooperate. Black arranged to meet Levy and Rabinowitz in the shul one Sunday morning. He gave them each a copy of the plans and the three of them had a long and friendly discussion.
When the day came to do start the work, Levy showed up some time before Rabinowitz. Levy started to prepare the men’s side of the shul. When Rabinowitz arrived, he was furious.
“Levy, you’re a complete idiot, Black said you were to do the left side of the shul.”
“What do mean, I’m stupid? This is the left side of the shul!”
“No it isn’t, if you stand at the aron kodesh, and look towards the door it’s the right side of the shul. Black was standing at the aron kodesh when he told us which side to work.”
“Don’t be daft, we were standing by the door, not by the aron kodesh.”
“I’m phoning Black, all my equipment, which I brought in Sunday, is already on my side of the shul, I’ll have to get my men to move it all again, didn’t you see it when you came in.”
“Alright, you blockhead, what difference does it make, both sides are the same,” answered Levy who was the more mild mannered.
Rabinowitz, being paranoid, instructed his workmen to close off ‘his side’ of the shul, including the outside front of the shul . He wasn’t going to let Levy see what he was doing and make remarks.
Levy shook his head in amazement and let him get on with it. If Rabinowitz wanted to make more work for himself, so be it.
The architect had ordered all the fixtures and fittings, so uniformity was ensured. The work was planned to continue for about two months. Fortunately the architect doubled the time needed. The shul would be reopened in time for the High Holy Days, the only time when the shul was full.
Over the front of the entrance a large Magen David (Star of David)was planned as usual, to define the building as a shul.
Rabinowitz insisted that he was the man to ‘sculpt’ the Magen David. Even the relatively mild-mannered Levy now decided to put his foot down. Enough is enough, he was not going to let Rabinowitz ride roughshod over him any longer. His patience had been exhausted with all the petty arguments, which had gone on, in spite of the ‘apartheid’ regime imposed by Rabinowitz.
Levy told Black and the Rabbi that there was no way he was going to be left out of helping ‘sculpt’ the piece de resistance. The commission to design the Magen David had been given to a leading Jewish artist, a leading light in the South African art world. She spent many months sweating over the ‘simple’ Magen David. A compromise was again reached. Each team would do the half of the Magen David on ‘their’ side of the building.
Black gave each contractor a drawing showing the dimensions of the work to be done. The plan given to each man was a 1:5 scale drawing. It was too cumbersome to make a full sized replica.
Each team got down to work. Black fearing disaster had supervised the progress from the start, was called away urgently to attend his ailing mother who had retired to Durban, a coastal holiday resort known for it’s mild winters. He went away, knowing that the last stage had been reached. Nothing could go wrong now. But, as the saying goes, “the best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, Gang aft agley.”
When the work had been done, the Chief Rabbi of Johannesburg, the Mayor of Johannesburg, a Jew, and all the committee, gathered for the official dedication of the refurbished shul.
The Chief Rabbi officiated at the ceremony. The relevant prayers were said and several fine speeches were made. The final act before entering the shul was to be the unveiling of the Magen David, which was to be the crowning glory of the newly rebuilt synagogue.
The Mayor stepped up to the podium and pulled at the cord, which held the beautifully embroidered cloth made to commemorate the rededication, covering the Magen David. There was a gasp from those assembled. The artist screamed and burst into tears.
“They’ve ruined my work, I’ll be the laughing stock!” she cried out. “Who are the idiots responsible for this fiasco?”
Black’s face turned white, then the veins on his forehead stood out as his face turned crimson.
“Rabinowitz, Levy, you blithering fools, you idiots, your petty jealousies have ruined the building.”
Rabinowitz and Levy looked down at the ground. Their shame was too great to bear. Each slunk off and went home.
The Magen David was larger and longer on the left side than the right.
The Chief Rabbi, a truly wise and learned man, stood up. “ Ladies and gentlemen, it is my opinion that the Magen David should be left as it is. The lesson we learned today is that petty jealousies and envy can lead to nothing but disaster. In this case the result was not a catastrophe, but an invaluable lesson. Let that lesson become known and passed on to future generations.”