Comedy | The Mohel’s Assistant: A Montreal Memoir

A Montreal Memoir

The year was 1935. I was 12 and growing fast while everything else had seemed to stop growing. It was six years after the financial walls came tumbling down and the echoes of that blast were still being heard and felt.  The good old depression was still hanging around but at that time I was not really aware of it.

“Suburbs” was not a word in our vocabulary. There were not too many of those around at the time.  Any dwelling,  other than two or three story flats glued together, was a mansion surely owned by a millionaire. The only thing there was a lot of was horses and horseshit. Birds grew fat on the seeds and we, who used the roads as our playground, grew adept at side-stepping the hot piles.

Cars were obviously toys designed for the very rich.  We oohed and aahed over these magnificent machines the odd time we managed to glimpse one. It was the day of the luxurious Packard, seating some nine passengers, the Pierce Arrow, the Whippet, the Lasalle, the Studebaker and the common Ford. It was fine furniture on wheels. In our wildest imaginings none of our gang dreamed of ever having enough money to own a car, any car.

That summer I took a job working for Rabbi Colton, the mohel, who lived up the street in a house very much like all the other ghetto houses in the area.  I remember standing nervously in front of this red bearded giant while he briefed me regarding my phone duties.  His voice was deep and resonant. “You will take down all the phone messages from 10 o’clock in the morning to 3 o’clock in the afternoon.  Here is a paper and pencil near the phone. You will listen carefully boychik, you hear!” I nodded, tongue-tied.  “Tomorrow you start and I will pay you $2 a week. Nu, say something,” he urged as I stood there awestruck at this unheard-of sum. I managed a weak “Thank you Rabbi”, and shot out of there as if catapulted.

I dashed back to my house, carefully and expertly avoiding the line divisions on the sidewalk for good luck. That night, as I lay sleeping in the old brass bed beside my older brother, I dreamed that Rabbi Colton’s six foot frame was bending over me, his red beard massaging my face, and in his Polish/Jewish accent, was saying, “The phone, it’s ringing, answer already.” But I couldn’t move an inch. I awoke in a sweat. It was morning.

My mother insisted, over my protests, that I take a bath. I got into a tub that was perched on four legs ending in lion claws. I lazed in the hot steaming water composing appropriate answers to the calls that would be coming in that day. I began to feel a little nervous.  Could I do it properly, would I hear all the words.  “Come out already Shika, breakfast is ready,” my mother insisted.  As I toweled down, I admired myself in the bathroom mirror — ” not a bad looking boychick”, I said to the mirror.

The mirror said nothing.

Ma had breakfast ready when I got out. I cracked open the raw egg, closed my eyes, pinched my nostrils shut, and swallowed. There was no point protesting, it was a ritual that was enforced.  Then I sat down to a heaping bowl of hot porridge, two slices of pumpernickel toast, and washed it down with a glass of milk.

I started the day all a’tremble, waiting for the first call. Most phones in our area were blessed with party lines, and it was very seldom that I got to use the thing. You might say that this was my baptism. “Don’t think too hard Oscar”, I said out loud to reassure myself.  The phone rang once, twice — I forced myself to answer:  “Rabbi Colton’s personal secretary here, may I help you?,” I said with my best Bell Telephone voice. I took the message down easily. I felt triumphant, I had conquered my fear, I was ten feet tall and growing every second. I waited eagerly for the next call but the minutes ticked by and there were no other calls. I had to do something to pass the time.

I had several options. I could read, explore the house, raid the icebox, or look out the window to see what my friends were up to. I opted for the latter. They were playing touch football with a stuffed stocking. I yearned to join them but I was a paid employee — I could not leave my post.

I saw “Petska”, his real name was Israel but real guys were known by aliases. Mine was “Windy” because of my speed. “Jersey” was there zig-zagging with the football and “Moisha” was killing himself trying to tag him.  “Benjy” was yelling for “Jersey” to pass the ball. I reluctantly tore myself away and went back to my post near the phone.

I had command of the phone. I had command of the house and was not worried about making any noise. The Rabbi’s wife and children, a boy of eleven and a girl of fifteen, were away for the summer and the house was mine, mine. I could do anything I wanted within reason and I reasoned that I was getting very hungry. I could never be too far or too long away from food.

I walked into the large kitchen which led off from the dining room, out the back door, along the gallery,  into the shed and there was the icebox laden with goodies. I helped myself to some chopped liver, a store-bought kasha knish and a leg of chicken, making sure nothing was overly disturbed. I didn’t feel too guilty, after all, the Rabbi did not expressly say that the icebox was out of bounds. Besides, a growing boy, a working boy, needs nourishment. This was beginning to be fun. Satiated, I sat down on my secretarial chair and snoozed off.

There was a ringing in my ear — it seemed to become more and more insistent. I got up with a start. The phone was a living thing, would not let up.  I picked up the receiver and stifling a yawn, said, “Good morning, Rabbi Colton’s residence” I had done it again. I waited, a seasoned professional, my pencil at the ready.

“Who is this?” a woman’s voice asked, actually questioning my authority. “I am Rabbi Colton’s personal telephone receptionist at your service,” I announced with a descending scale of bravado. Unable to further question the authenticity of my position, she left her name and phone number without further ado.

I had been under fire twice and had come out without being wounded. A veteran of the phone wars.  It was time for a little action. I dug up a small two-wheeled bike I’d noticed in the shed and pedalled furiously through the house, narrowly missing a glass cabinet in the dining room. I was the boy avenger tracking down Al Capone and his gang. I made three complete circuits of the house. It was down the hall in and out of the two bedrooms, a bathroom, back through the dining room, on to the kitchen, and into the small back bedroom. Nothing could stop the “Avenger” except the sturdy kitchen table. After the collision, I decided to leave Al Capone alone for the time being.

I’d been in this house once before and was one of four chosen to hold the chuppah (wedding canopy) aloft. The canopy was made of silk, was white in color, and supported by poles at the four corners. The bride and groom stood under this canopy and I, at age 12, found myself towering over the couple who were obviously Lilliputians. They were immaculately attired in all the right clothes and there they stood, level with each other, holding hands while Rabbi stood towering above, the end of his long red beard just inches above the heads of the wedded couple to be, and began intoning the marriage ceremony. It was too much: the giant, the little people, the red beard almost touching the wee couple, and I began to feel the beginnings of an uncontrollable laugh bubbling up, waiting to be released. I put a finger to my mouth and bit down hard. I released a couple of muffled snorts and became serious when the holy giant brought his eyes boring down on me. When the ceremony ended, I ran outside and howled, tears streaming down my face, my hands clutching my sides.

Now here I was, a paid employee, a working man. I began with the kitchen — nothing much there, just four wooden kitchen table chairs, surrounding an oblong table topped with enamel. On the other side stood a huge wood stove, almost a duplicate of the one we owned. There was a small room at the rear of the house boasting a wrought iron single bed and a plain dresser. In going through the drawers I discovered it was the son’s room and I soon lost interest. I tackled the walk-in pantry off the kitchen and found shelves laden with jars of fruit and vegetable preserves, boxes of dry cereals, bags of sugar and flour and a host of other miscellaneous food items. It was time for the next room.

I struck gold in the Rabbi’s bedroom. Among his belongings I unearthed treasures galore. A pair of red flannel gatkas (drawers), a long night shirt, a black skull cap, a talith (prayer shawl), and a marvelous pair of shiny patent leather boots with button up hooks.

I couldn’t resist this splendor. I slipped his red flannels over my clothes, laboriously buttoned up the boots, wrapped the huge prayer shawl over my shoulders and donned the skull cap. I admired this masquerade in the hall mirror. What a Purim outfit it would make, I thought. I paraded up and down the long hallway, stepping frequently in front of a mirror. It’s not every day that a pre-teen can be a Rabbi.

The phone rang and startled me. I felt guilty wearing the Rabbi’s clothes. Surely it was a sin of the first magnitude. I answered the phone contritely. “Hello’, I said meekly and religiously took down the message in print letters.

Back to the bedroom I marched, a nightmare on parade. I carefully replaced everything and stumbled into the next bedroom. It was obviously the girl’s room. Her picture smiled down at me from her dresser —every part of her in the right place and every place was right. Goldie with the curly red hair, and curves she probably was not even aware of. The body of a woman with breasts that stuck out like pineapples.

Here I was again, committing another sin, allowing myself to think this way in the Rabbi’s house yet.  I rationalized my guilt away. God was surely a man and I was nearly one. He would surely understand that men just naturally have dirty minds.

As I looked at her photograph, my dirty mind got busy. I slowly removed her blouse and dress and admired her bare shoulders and arms. I hesitated before taking her slip off, “but why be half dirty”, I said out loud.

I removed the garment and stared awe struck at Goldie in a bra and panties and nothing else. Her shoes and stockings had mysteriously vanished, unbidden by me.  I stopped and began looking through her dresser drawers, keeping her undressed image in my mind as I searched. I knew what I was looking for and I found the items in a bottom drawer — a bra and a pair of white silk panties.

I fingered and sniffed them, and proceeded to stroke my face with the silky softness of the panties.  As I threw the bra aside, Goldie, who was standing demurely before me now, reached back and unsnapped her bra. Her breasts poured out, exposing two pointed cones staring at me shyly. I almost passed out. My mouth had become very dry.

I put her panties back in the drawer. Goldie blushed crimson as she looked into my eyes. Suddenly, her arms reached for mine. “My God, she’s asking me to take them off”, I squeaked triumphantly. I rolled them down with shaking hands and there she stood completely naked, her head turned to one side. Her slim body was as perfect as I had envisioned the odd time I was fortunate enough to see her walking down the street. Her breasts jiggled slightly, and her puckered navel stared saucily at me. My eyes admired the dip of her waist and the flare of her hips. Could I go further? I could.

There was the bush, the burning bush covering the thing. I couldn’t make it out. There was kind of a swelling there but I didn’t see any entrance. I knew there was one. I had four older sisters and had caught glimpses here and there. I also knew that guys put their peckers in there and babies came out from the very same place nine months later. I was no dummy, I was street-wise.

Could it be that the cut or some sort of entrance was not in front but actually in back. I turned Goldie around and saw her tussy, parted just like mine — nothing new there.  I gave up “mind” searching.

Girls were strange creatures. I put a completely dressed Goldie back in her picture frame and left the room kind of reluctantly.

As I sat down near my post, the phone rang. I let it ring four times before picking it up. I said smartly, “Hello, pardon me for keeping you waiting, but we’re very busy today, can the Rabbi’s secretary help you?”

“You’re the Rabbi’s secretary?” a woman’s voice inquired mockingly.

“Certainly”, I answered promptly.  “So tell me how old are you that you should have such an important position?” she persisted. My mind raced, I blurted, “I’ll be eighteen in July.” “What year in July?” She wouldn’t let go. Under my breath I said, ‘God will punish you.” I evaded the question by saying, “How may I help you?” She relented, gave me the message and hung up. I wiped the sweat off my brow and decided to be a good, innocent, virginal twelve year old for a while.

An hour or so later the phone rang again, I picked it up quickly, “This is the home, office, and study of Rabbi Colton, the Mohel,” I said with a broad English accent. There was a long pause at the other end. I waited, I had time on my hands. The voice found it’s tongue. It asked, “This is the home, office and study of Rabbi Colton, all three?” I shuddered, I had recognized the Rabbi’s voice. I needn’t have worried. The Rabbi had a sense of humor. “Tell me boychikal, why didn’t you add also Esplanade street, between Villeneuve and St.Joseph in the City of Montreal?” I laughed nervously but said nothing. The Rabbi continued, “So now give me the messages and I’ll tell you a little secret. It’s enough to say hello, then take the message.” I could almost see the smile on his face. I decided that I loved him.

I dozed off for a while, a man needs his rest. I got up with a start, the grand-father clock registered 3pm.

It would not do for the Rabbi to find me asleep on the job.

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All the details of this memoir come from the hilarious and keenly observant mind of Oscar Colman, who, by his own description is: “Age 87, feels like 97, thinks like 57″.   Some readers might remember Rabbi Colton, the main mohel of Montreal in the first half of the  20th century.  The children in the photograph at the top of the story are Oscar Colman and his two siblings, Phillip and Claire.  The photo was taken in Montreal in 1934. Pictured at left is a more recent photo of Oscar and his wife Marcia.