Rabbi Efraim Velvel was neither a rabbi nor a Velvel. Born Fritzy Waxman in Brooklyn, New York, USA, he had shed the Dashiki, faded jeans and open-toe Wedge sandals of his 1970s American life for the dark, somber getup of a bonafide man of faith.
By the time our paths first crossed in the north-eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Eshkol, he had cultivated the look of a standard issue born again Jew: wild, unkempt salt-and-pepper beard, frock coat, high fur hat and kippah.
Yet, similar to the Sand People of Tatooine, Velvel’s severe external accoutrements could not catch, trace or dim the dancing twinkle of his metallic-blue eyes. Along with the perpetually raised eyebrows and ear-to-ear grin, one always got the feeling that Velvel had just heard the punch line to a dirty joke – but was too modest to share in his salty bounty.
Having moved to Israel from New Jersey at the age of 12 and three quarters, my parents were desperate to find me a reputable rabbi who would care for all the Bar Mitzvah ceremony details. A suitable rabbi to lead my Aliya to the Torah was crucial.
Now, Velvel wasn’t a rabbi but sang well and came highly recommended by a close family friend who would in later years go on to be convicted of tax evasion, flee to Los Angeles, California and then flee again to Johannesburg, South Africa – where he would find success as one of the founders of the original ‘Rent-A-Wreck’ used car rental company.
But I digress.
My Bar Mitzvah date was set in stone: Velvel would have to do. Early on, my lessons with the good rabbi seemed to meander, being occasionally punctuated by an outrageous statement – always attributed to an unspecified Spanish Jewish sage from the Middle Ages.
Below, is a sample of a typical exchange:
Velvel: “According to Jewish tradition, a woman’s place is in a man’s bed.”
Me: “That doesn’t sound right…”
Velvel: “Hey, I didn’t write the playbook, son: just giving you the highlights.”
Me: “Are you sure you’re a rabbi?”
Velvel: “Are you sure you want to be Bar-Mitzvahed?”
Me: “Are you answering a question with a question?”
Velvel: “See you next week…punk.”
And so it went. I have to say that Velvel, despite time constraints and a complete lack of training, whipped me into praying shape. My Torah portion, Parashah of Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21: 10-25:19) contained 74 commandments, more mitzvot than any other portion. Some of the commandments discussed: the law of the rebellious son, the obligation to bury the dead without undue delay, the requirement to return a found object, the prohibition against causing pain to any living creature, the prohibition against prostitution, the laws of marriage and divorce, the procedure of the Levirate marriage and the obligation to eradicate the memory of Amalek.
Velvel’s refreshing lack of godly reverence was what resonated with me. To him, the Torah was a playbook for better living – nothing more, nothing less. Though he believed in a Supreme Being, his feet were planted firmly on the floor of his modest fourth floor walk up that housed a stern-looking wife and three boisterous children. If memory serves, Velvel was a part-time unlicensed electrician who moonlighted as a singer in a Klezmer band.
Always on the make, Velvel did not have the luxury of engaging in long, circuitous theological discussions.
His one and only pupil appreciated the no frills approach and blossomed accordingly.
Until Google bought out Waze earlier this week memories of Velvel had long ago receded into the darkest, dustiest corners of my subconscious. In recent days, the global search giant’s purchase of the Israeli navigation app developer for $1.15 billion has been greeted with pride by large swaths of the Israeli population.
Yet, it was a throwaway line of Velvel’s from a hot, steamy September evening in 1986 that helped crystallize my lingering sense of something being amiss in the nationwide rush to congratulate Waze CEO Noam Bardin on the sale of his company.
It was one of my final study sessions with Velvel, who had apologized profusely for arriving late.
Velvel: “Sorry I’m late, kiddo, but I had to repair an oven for a nice old lady on Paran Street.”
Me: “That’s O.K.”
Velvel: “Yeah, these two calloused covered hands are keeping Ramat Eshkol fed, dry and heated. Pretty good for an old hippie with a bad attitude, no?”
Indeed, while Israel prides itself on being the start-up nation, would it not be better off creating its own homegrown multinationals? Velvel may not have taken too kindly to an Israeli corporate culture that encourages and then glorifies the sale of local start ups to foreign concerns that then vanish from Israel’s economic landscape in the interests of making a fast buck.
I’m not familiar with Velvel’s economic worldview – not sure he even had one. But a man who left the life of a freewheeling New York bachelor behind for the hardscrabble existence of a Jerusalem man of faith was probably propelled forward by visions of participating in a grand experiment in Israeli democracy – undergirded by Jewish self-reliance.
Google’s purchase of Waze, underneath the flashy headlines and eye-popping figures, is just the latest and greatest example of a foreign company draining Israel of its chief commodity: brains. If pushed for his opinion, Velvel may well have insisted that Israel’s high-tech sector needs to develop large, stable companies to provide the country with a competitive edge and stable workforce.
And then, Velvel would have patted his wife on her butt, corralled and kissed his three children, thrown back a shot of whiskey, kissed the mezuzah by his apartment door and then gone off to a wedding gig in the French Hill.
Now, that’s what I call an exit…
View this and other articles of mine that have appeared in TLVFaces.com here: http://www.tlvfaces.com/torah-scholar-condemns-google-purchase-of-waze/