In My Mind's I

April has come and gone, taking with it four holidays: ancient Pesach and the modern Yomim trio: HaShoah, HaZikaron, HaAtzmaut. Now we’re in the middle of May, which for the fourth year — thanks to a 2006 proclamation by George W. Bush — is being observed as Jewish American Heritage Month. In its honor, and ours, here’s a story told by a very special man who was already old at the time President Dubya made his declaration:
Joe Velarde was a “Shabbos goy.” Do you know what that is — or, more likely, was? It’s not really P.C. these days for an observant Jew to seek out a Gentile willing to turn lights on and off, and take on other similar tasks s/he will not perform on the Sabbath. But the year was 1933, and Joe was a 10-year-old Catholic. It was winter. His family had just moved from Cuba into a multicultural part of Brooklyn, the first Spanish speakers in a neighborhood already filled with other languages: Greek, Polish, Italian and lots of Yiddish.
Joe says he first encountered the Jewish Sabbath when his mother sent him to Rosenthal’s store one Friday evening, just as the sky was starting to darken, to buy a pair of socks for his father. It was snowing heavily, and Joe was anxious to get inside. But Mr. Rosenthal wouldn’t open the door: “We’re closed already,” he said through the glass. “Can’t you see? Shabbos is falling! Go home!” Joe went home, thinking “Shabbos” was the Yiddish word for “snow.” But he soon learned otherwise, because from then on, Mr. Rosenthal and many of his co-religionists would send for “the Spanish boy” when they needed a furnace stoked, a stove lit, medicine picked up at the drugstore for someone who’d suddenly gotten sick, snow shoveled and ice chipped away to clear an unslippery path to synagogue.
Soon they started to call Joe “Yossel,” and soon after that he became the beloved diminutive “Yossele.”
Nobody gave him money on Shabbat, of course, but after he’d performed the tasks of the day, he’d always get some homemade goodies to take home with him. He decided Jews were the world’s smartest people the first time someone gave him a whole challah: “Who else could have invented a bread that had wonderfully crusted ends all over it — enough for everyone in a large family?”
“I developed a list of steady clients,” Joe remembers, “and thanks to me, my entire family became Jewish pastry junkies!” He admits to a continuing checkerboard cake addiction.
Joe was a Shabbos goy for eight years, all through grade school and high school and even beyond. But on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor when war was declared, he dropped out of Brooklyn College to join the service. In what was then the U.S. Army Air Corps, he flew 60 combat missions over Italy and the Balkans before being shipped home in June 1944. That’s when he found out that all his Jewish neighbors had been setting a place for him at their Shabbat tables the whole time, and saying prayers for his safe return. His memories: “What mitzvot! My homecoming was highlighted by wonderful invitations to dinner. Can you imagine the effect, after months and months of Army field rations?”
Also after the war, a mature Joe began to realize what he’d absorbed from those Jewish families he’d “done for” on Shabbat: The meaning of friendship, loyalty, honor and respect. Obedience without subservience. A strong work ethic. Love of learning. And caring about all living things. “None of this was the result of any sort of formal instruction,” he says as a man now in his 80s. “My yeshiva had been the neighborhood. One might even say I had experienced a special kind of bar mitzvah. Then, I couldn’t explain the concept of tikkun olam, but as I matured, I realized how well I had been oriented to apply it, and to live it … to incorporate the idea of tzedakah in my personal world.”
Joe says his Cuban home gave him shelter and warm affection, provided for his well-being and developed his self-esteem. But his Jewish experience gave him “a truly uplifting outlook on life, a genuine motivation to ‘repair the world.’ And along the way, I played on Williamsburg sidewalks with tough kids wearing payes and yarmulkes, learned chess and read Maimonides. I am ever grateful for having had the opportunity to be a Shabbos goy.”
A Jewish American Heritage, indeed!

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