MEMOIR: How my Dad downed a Nazi dirigible and became a "saint"
According to a Jewish legend, each generation produces 36 righteous men--humble, spiritually-gifted individuals scattered throughout the Diaspora, who possess mystic powers that protect Jews from persecution and disaster.
Jewish literature abounds with folk tales about them. They are known as "lamed-vovniks" after two letters in the Hebrew alphabet that have a numerical value of 36. They are described as modest and upright men who conceal their identity and are indistinguishable from simple mortals. Their presence is revealed only in times of crisis.
In the Talmud it is written that "the world must contain not less than 36 righteous men who are vouchsafed the sight of the Divine Presence." In effect, these men are regarded as "secret saints."
My father achieved "sainthood" on May 6, 1937, the day the German dirigible Hindenburg arrived in the U.S. to begin its second season of trans-Atlantic crossings.
My father was educated in a yeshiva, preparing to become a rabbi like his own father, a Polish-born Hasid who came to the U.S. at the turn of the last century. Although my father was no longer religiously observant, he was highly respected in his community for his background as a Talmudic scholar.
As the Hindenburg flew only 600 feet over the Bronx on its way to its destination, the Lakehurst (N.J.) Naval Air Station, my father and a group of his neighborhood friends were standing on a street corner chatting. Staring up at the silver, cigar-shaped airship, they were infuriated at the bright red and black swastikas on the Hindenburg's tail gleaming brilliantly in the sunshine.
The Hindenburg was the technological wonder of its day, an object of awe, and a dazzling symbol of the glory of Nazi Germany. It was now four years since the Nazis had seized power, unleashing a wave of violence against Jews. The persecution of Germany's Jews was being widely reported in the press, and German Jewish refugees arriving in New York brought new horror stories. So to my father and his friends, gazing at the dirigible in the sky, the swastika-bearing Hindenburg was not a symbol of technological glory but an ugly provocation.
"If there is a God in this world," my father suddenly shouted in Yiddish, pointing to the sky, "may He destroy [the German dirigible]. May no trace or memory remain of it." He punctuated his curse by spitting on the ground. My father was normally a mild-mannered man, and his friends were shocked at his violent outburst. But they nodded grimly, putting their stamp of approval on his vehement declaration.
That evening as our family was having dinner, my mother turned on the radio. Through the crackling static, we heard a reporter broadcasting from Lakehurst. He was describing the intricate maneuvers required to bring Hindenburg down. Suddenly he began to scream that the airship had exploded.
While the landing lines were being tied to the mooring mast, the explosion ripped open the dirigible's tail and the Hindenburg burst into flames. In less than a minute, it was reduced to a mass of twisted, burning metal. Twenty-two crewmen, 13 passengers, and a U.S. Navy ground crewman were dead.
My father was horrified by the radio account. He sat as if paralyzed, the memory of the curse fresh in his mind. Many of the victims were Americans, and he had wished them no harm. He did not say a word all evening and went to bed early.
The next day, a Friday, word of my father's curse had circulated throughout the neighborhood. In the evening, as usual, he went out after dinner. As he walked four blocks to the candy store, where his friends gathered regularly, several men returning from Sabbath services at the local synagogue nodded respectfully at him. Other people pointed him out to companions, whispering solemnly that he was the man who had cursed the Hindenburg.
As he waited for the traffic light at a street corner, a man he knew casually came up and said tremulously to him in Yiddish: "We know about people like you from the old country. You are a 'lamed-vovnik'!" My father was bewildered. "What are you talking about?," he asked the man. "Are you crazy?" The man stepped back deferentially, touching his hat.
At first my father was amused by the man's remark. But as he pondered what "lamed-vovniks" mean to pious Jews, he became troubled. When he arrived at the candy store, his friends repeated the claim. "We heard you curse the Hindenburg, and we have seen what happened," one man said.
"What kind of nonsense is this?" my father responded, exasperated. "You know me. How can you believe such religious foolishness." Nevertheless, his friends felt ill at ease in his presence. Despite his protestations, they were convinced that my father was indeed one of the 36 secret saints. After all, he possessed all the attributes. Although he did not attend synagogue regularly, he was a righteous and learned man. He was generous and lived unpretensiously. And had he not performed a miracle, smiting the accursed Nazis before their very eyes?
My father became a marked man. Strangers began to phone him with pleas for assistance--to cure a sick child, to obtain a job, even to find a mate for a husbandless daughter. Helplessly, my father said he could do nothing. Neighbors withdrew respectfully when he passed on the street. Others bowed to him and made entreaties for help with their personal problems. My father was no longer amused. The tribulations of his superstitious neighbors began to wear on him.
To escape, he changed his routine drastically. He used a different subway station to go to work. Held in awe by his cronies in the candy store, he was no longer comfortable socializing with them. Now he remained at home every evening, bemoaning what had happened to him. It was ironic, he complained to my mother, that he, who went to synagogue only on Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kipper and did not observe the Sabbath, should attain such religious fame. He became a recluse.
Weeks passed. My father's absence from his usual neighborhood haunts surprised no one. According to legend, the "lamed-vovniks" resume their anonymity when their tasks have been accomplished. In desperation, my father decided to change his tactics. Nonchalantly he began to walk freely again through the neighborhood, unconcerned that some people still stared at him. And finally he took the ultimate step. He showed up at the candy store one evening.
His friends did not know how to react. "In the old country," my father assured them, "a regular 'lamed-vovnik' would disappear after he was discovered. He didn't hang around any more once he was recognized. So you see I am still here. I have not disappeared. I am not a 'lamed-vovnik'."
His friends reluctantly conceded that they had been foolish. They began to treat my father normally once again. And thus was sainthood in the Bronx--at least for my father--finally terminated.