The beauty of a Baal Shem Tov story is that it does not need to have actually occurred in order for the nugget of wisdom contained within to be true. It’s enough that it could have happened, and given the greatness of the 17th-century sage and founder of the Chasidic Jewish movement, even the miracles attributed to him, if not certain are certainly plausible.
Legend are the tales of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer’s wanderings from town to town in Eastern Europe, stopping off at inns to spread inspiration to the Jewish masses, as well as the non-Jews who happened to be within earshot.
Last week, prevented from reaching the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Main Event by a snow and icefall that seemed to turn this region’s transportation networks into the carriage roads of medieval Ukraine, I experienced my own version of a Baal Shem Tov story when my wife and I decided to go on a date closer to home.
(To be clear, I am not comparing myself to the sainted Baal Shem Tov. He once, it is said, set fire to icicles when he was down a Chanukah menorah; I, on the other hand, couldn’t will SEPTA to run its trains on time last week.)
After having a lovely dinner at a kosher restaurant in Lower Merion, we looked for something to do in the suburbs. On a Thursday night, after a paralyzing snowstorm, there wasn’t much to choose from, but we settled on a game of darts as the only patrons at a dive bar in Havertown. When we had eked as much fun as could be had from that activity, we got back in the car to head home, but quickly turned around when we saw a sign outside McSorley’s Pub advertising karaoke.
When we saw no one belting out tunes — indeed, there were only a handful of people there at the time — we turned around to head back out into the bitter cold. And then I heard a voice from my right, off in the distance.
“Turn around,” the disembodied voice called out from the direction of the bar. “Come back.”
My wife and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders in a collective “Why not?” and headed to the voice, which by now was clear that it was coming from the older gentleman who introduced himself as the owner, Joe. I sat next to Joe at the corner of the bar and ordered a Guinness — what else would you order in an Irish pub? — and when I pointed that out to Joe, he said that he was Polish.
There I was sitting in a Polish-owned Irish bar in Havertown, striking up a conversation with the owner about business, about journalism, about raising children — Joe, one of eight, was floored when we told him we were parents of nine, and bought me another round — and by the time a camouflaged man of about 40 sat down and ordered a bourbon, the discussion turned to the holiday of Thanksgiving.
I pointed out that the idea of giving thanks is very much a Jewish concept, and as in Judaism, should really be practiced by Americans every day of the year. The trick is to first acknowledge what you have — your health, your family, life itself — and then to be thankful for it. It’s a tall order, but the idea had the camouflaged man in tears.
It was then that Joe told me that he had always wanted to talk to a rabbi. Surely I, as editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent, knew a few. I told him I’d do him one better. He was in luck, I said, because I happen to be a rabbi.
By then, it was getting late, and I wanted to sing the longest karaoke hit known to man, Don McLean’s “American Pie,” so we said thank you to Joe and moved over to the sound booth. But it occurred to me that though I’m far from the Baal Shem Tov, it was humbling to be able to spread a little inspiration in a cold corner of Havertown.
The entire experience was a dramatic illustration of the idea that as different as we are — the Poles and the Jews aren’t historically friends, after all — it’s worthwhile to share some humanity with our neighbors down the street. With the din of politics and all those other things that divide us louder than ever, it certainly felt good to unite over the most basic of concepts, of giving thanks for life itself.
Joshua Runyan is the editor- in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]