Rabbi Mendel, a man in his mid-forties with unforgettable cerulean blue eyes, opened the small black trunk and took out the three stick puppets. There was the evil Haman 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 over two thousand years.
Rabbi Mendel 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 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 boys twice a week after their public school courses.
Bnei Ruven was an orthodox Lubavitcher shul, and although none of us in our family were observant, this synagogue, at 13th and Kedvale, was the only one left to serve the rapidly 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 two-afternoon a week 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. He was called 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. As an adult, 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 and he told me his life story, inspired by the storytelling of his literary hero Singer, who he had been conversing animatedly in Yiddish. It seems that Rabbi Mendel had a nice career with one of the major downtown department stores as a tailor. 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.