Rabbi Mendel, a man in his mid-forties with unforgettable cerulean blue eyes, opened the small black trunk and took out three stick puppets. The evil Haman was wearing a tiny felt, three-cornered hat affixed to his head. Brave Mordecai looked august in a diminutive robe made from corduroy. Beautiful Queen Esther looked stunning with orange hair made from knitting yarn, topped by a cardboard diadem.
Our Hebrew class Purim party was about to begin. Rabbi Mendel skillfully manipulated the stick puppets as he related to us the Purim story in his heavily Yiddish-inflected English. We all cheered and rattled our groggers in glee when Mordecai knocked down Haman and dragged him across Rabbi Mendel’s desk to the toy gallows to be hanged. Good was once again triumphing over evil in a story told by Jews for more than two thousand years.
Rabbi Mendel had stared evil straight in the eye just a few years before in Poland. The Nazis spared him from immediate execution because he was a master tailor, and they needed him to make uniforms for the German Army. He survived Auschwitz because of his needling skills, but his wife, two daughters, and parents were all put to death in the gas chambers there. Underneath his cot in the concentration camp barracks, he had hid the Purim stick puppets that he had made for his daughters in better times.
After Auschwitz was liberated, Rabbi Mendel lived in a displaced persons camp in Germany where he taught tailoring at an ORT school. He came to Chicago in 1949, sponsored by a second cousin. He got a job as a tailor in a men’s clothing store on Roosevelt Road, and, to make a little extra money, he was hired by Congregation Bnei Ruven to teach Hebrew to young Jewish boys twice a week after their public school courses.
Bnei Ruven was an orthodox Lubavitcher shul, and although no one in our family was observant, this synagogue at 13th and Kedvale was the only one left to serve the dwindling Lawndale Jewish community. My parents wanted me to have a sound foundation in Judaism and the Hebrew language, so I was enrolled in the Hebrew school at Bnei Ruven. I had Rabbi Mendel as a teacher, and, although he was not officially a rabbi, he had been a former Yeshiva student and was steeped in the knowledge of Torah and Talmud. Everyone called him Rabbi Mendel out of respect.
I enjoyed Rabbi Mendel’s class and learned much from him, but two months after the Purim party, in May 1955, my family moved to West Rogers Park. I often thought fondly about Rabbi Mendel and his puppets, especially at Purim time. Many years later in 1978, I was attending a book signing of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Shosha at the old Barbara’s Bookstore on North Clark, when I glanced at a man of perhaps seventy who looked somewhat familiar. As I approached him, I knew by those cerulean eyes that it was Rabbi Mendel.
He remembered me, and after the book signing we went out for a cup of coffee. He told me his life story, inspired by the storytelling of his literary hero Singer, with whom he had been conversing animatedly in Yiddish earlier that evening. It seems that Rabbi Mendel had a nice career as a tailor with one of the major downtown department stores. He remarried and had a son and a daughter, both of whom as children delighted each Purim in watching their father perform his stick puppet show.