While at the Couvent St. Joseph I had often thought about the problem of the multiplicity of religions. I was faced with the fact that my family believed in their Judaism, while the nuns and the priest fervently believed in theirs, and each denied the validity of the other. I saw it as one having to be right and the other wrong, but which was which? Admittedly, I was somewhat young for such speculations, but the environment lent itself to that sort of thing. What it really did was leave me skeptical about religion in general, the kind of thing resorted to when faced by a paradox. It was about to get more complicated.
Shortly after I had left the Catholic orphanage life had become somewhat normal again. I was living with my mother, eating regularly and spending the days at my Aunt Paula’s, taking part in whatever was going on there. However, this was not going to last. My mother explained to me that she couldn’t keep me with her; she simply wasn’t making enough money to support both of us, that she needed time to get her life in order, and that therefore she had found a place for me, a very nice place, where I would be able to live for awhile. That was how I wound up living in Rabbi Bamberger’s orphanage for Jewish boys.
The Rabbi’s orphanage was a nondescript building located not far from the center of Brussels. The Rabbi himself was a young man in his thirties, with a reddish goatee, with thinning hair and an advancing forehead. He was self assured and never in doubt as to what God wanted from us. Mostly God wanted us to be good Jews and pray, and pray we did. At the Couvent St. Joseph, we had also prayed, but it was only done in school or at mass, possibly at meals. At Rabbi Bamberger’s orphanage, praying and ritual went on all the time. Not only was there a lot of praying, but there were elaborate rules for almost everything. For example, for some of the prayers you had to face a wall, not any wall, but always the eastern wall, because that was the direction of Jerusalem. So it became important to know which way you were facing at all times, and which way was East in particular.
This may be irrelevant here, but too much fun not to share. In his “Pseudodoxia Epidemica,” (first edition 1646) Sir Thomas Brown investigated a belief among Christians of that time, that if you suspended a dead chicken from a string and attached the string to a nail in the ceiling, and then proceeded to give the chicken and the string thirteen turns, when released, chicken and string would unwind, and at the end of the process the chicken’s head would always point East, the direction of Jerusalem. Brown tried it, and I could tell you the result of the experiment, but I’d rather have you guess or read Thomas Brown.
I loved living in the middle of such complications. I loved the rules. There were always things to remember and do, among which waiting for the appearance of the first three stars Friday evenings to usher in the beginning of the Sabbath was among my favorites.