Letters of Iron

by David P. Stern

    The cool dry air of a Saturday morning promised a perfect weekend. Tree leaves and blades of grass were a pale shade of green, the first new green of spring, and Mike stood across the street from the synagogue building--what used to be the synagogue building--just watching.

    At about this hour, he thought, the scrolls would be lifted out of the ark. Children impatient with the services would play outside the entranceway. Now only gentiles are here, fixing up their new church.

    His eyes lit on the large Hebrew letters across the front wall, still proclaiming "Beth Israel." Two men--one in a plaid jacket, the other in overalls--were carrying out tables and arranging them as a makeshift scaffolding beneath the letters. A boy of perhaps twelve was helping.

    Those letters,  thought Mike.   I designed those letters. Eli made them, and together we fixed them onto this wall, on a sunny afternoon years ago.

    Times have changed, he reflected. I was president then, the congregation was in a crisis, and we badly needed something proclaiming to the world  "Here we stand, a small island of Jews, isolated, stressed, but surviving!".   And so the idea of these letters arose, designed around the font of quarter-inch letters on an Israeli calendar. They looked different when expanded to fourteen inches and modified, a result of patient but untrained draftsmanship. Small changes gave them character of their own--angular, defiant letters, the "shin" shaped like a menorah and the "yod" jutting out like a small shofar.

    Templates were cut out of construction paper, and the question arose of the material to be used. Brass seemed best, the choice of fancy synagogues, but castings were much too expensive and the one member who promised to make brass letters himself, a metalworker by trade, gave excuses for delaying the job until the idea was dropped. Then one evening Mike brought it up with his wife and she said, "How about iron? It is durable, strong and cheap. It can be painted, and Eli the welder could cut it out with his torch."

    Eli was a short dark-haired Israeli with large gentle eyes who had joined the congregation the previous summer. He never attended any social meeting or function, a quiet fellow, slightly shy. When Mike raised the idea with him, he just said, "OK, I will try it," and had to be reminded to take the templates with him. But a week later he arrived at Mike's home, led Mike to the rear of his car, and as the lid of the trunk snapped open, one saw inside a jumble of rust-colored letters cut from thick boilerplate, bearing white chalk marks and still spattered with droplets of metal.

    Long pins were welded to their backs, and they felt heavy when lifted out by hand. Lovely letters, Mike thought, as he ran his finger over fire-seared edges, as he untangled them and helped carry them in one by one. Beautiful letters,  our  letters.

    The following week Mike's children took over. The letters now lay on a bed of old newspapers on the porch, and every day the children would tend to them after school, while Mike and Lily just watched. First, with a big screwdriver as a makeshift chisel, they sheared loose metal droplets off the surface. Then they sanded the rust off the front and back, cleaned the letters and applied paint--two coats of yellow primer, then three of glossy black enamel. Each coat needed a full day to dry, and when all was done Mike arranged the letters on the porch floor to spell out "Beth Israel." The entire family now could visualize how they would appear high up on the front of the synagogue. But it took three more weeks before Eli had a free Sunday afternoon to put them in place.

    "No, they won't come off easily" thought Mike. One of the men was now standing on the topmost table, grasping the "bet", the Hebrew "B," trying to wrench it off without success. "They were meant to last a long time!"

    Actually, attaching them to the wall was mostly Eli's work: his was the heavy-duty drill, and he was the one who pressed it to the wall, his body shaken by the vibrating machinery and his hair gradually turning grey with fine brick dust. More dust clogged the holes and was cleaned out with an old toothbrush from Eli's toolbox.

    After the holes for each letter were drilled, its pins were glued in place with epoxy cement for masonry. Mike mixed it in a paper cup, and Eli took it out pinch by pinch, then pressed it into the holes with bare fingers. The first time he did so, Mike yelled to him  "don't!"--he had brought popsicle sticks for the job, and the instructions on the can explicitly warned "do not allow to touch skin." Eli just laughed and said in his Israeli accent, "don't worry Mike, I have used this stuff before, nothing will happen to me."

    The job took several hours and it was already dinnertime when it was finished: up there, on the wall, the letters no longer seemed as big as they did on the ground. The two stood back for one last view: Mike turned to Eli and quietly said "thank you," and Eli shrugged and replied (that accent again) "no problem"; then each went to his car and drove home. A week later Eli came back with a ladder and sawed away some large branches which had blocked the view of the letters--and it was done, the letters had become part of the synagogue building, part of its solidity, even as the cement set to rock hardness.

    No wonder they refuse to come off.   Mike was now engrossed in watching the workers struggle with the letters. Pushing and shoving failed to move the "bet." A large hammer appeared and soon loud clanging could be heard throughout the neighborhood, but the letter did not budge. Finally the man with the hammer stopped, slowly climbed down and disappeared indoors. Soon he returned with an older man who patiently climbed up the scaffolding and closely examined the letters.

    Just like the legend of the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem,   Mike thought. Four walls surrounded the temple: one donated by kings, one by priests, one by merchants and one, the western wall, by plain people who, lacking money, built it themselves. When Roman soldiers destroyed the rest of the temple, a host of angels descended from heaven (or so the legend claimed) and guarded it, which is why the western wall became the lone survivor, a solitary memorial of the temple to this very day.   Those iron letters are our western wall.

    The man who had attacked the "bet" was back now, he gave up on it and moved to the "yod" next to it, smaller and only held by two pins. He beat upon it from various directions with the hammer, trying to loosen it, but instead one of the pins broke off and the other gradually bent over, until the letter stuck out at a crazy angle. Then a chunk of brick got dislodged and dropped, at which point the man laid down the hammer and spoke to the helper below, who searched a toolbox on the ground, then pulled out a hacksaw and handed it over.

    Thoughts bubbled to the surface of Mike's mind:   All this should never have happened!   Maintaining even a small Jewish congregation in the area was not easy, but it could be done. Even if they were a dispersed minority, a few thousand Jews still lived within easy driving distance. Working people, no rich benefactors lived here, but in an earlier generation, they were the ones who had created this center. Just a bit more leadership, just a little more imagination and initiative, and the life of a Jewish community could have continued within these walls, instead of new owners trying to erase all signs of what had been here.

    Vain dreams, lost chances. The system was locked up by a clique of people who insisted on control, even though they had no plan doing much with it. Smart and witty people with no vision, they gradually alienated anyone who could have supplied it. The agony lasted a long time, he thought, and it may be just as good it is over now. Bitter board meetings, members shouting, members storming out in anger, fighting over skimpy pieces of a shrinking pie, without realizing the futility of anger. Why couldn't those energies be devoted instead to a counterattack against the continuing shrinkage, to a concerted effort to break this siege, seek more activity and more content, and through them, gain members and strength?

    It did not happen. Membership stagnated, dues rose, appeals grew more passionate and frequent, one president even locked the doors at Kol Nidrei.   If only we had a real plan instead of a patchwork of improvisations, "Beth Israel" would still exist.   And the rabbi--no, better not. A product of a system which did not adapt to the age, the rabbi was intimidated by the endless bickering and kept away from what he named "the business of the temple." Every Sabbath and holiday he faithfully led services, up to the week when he packed his bags and left, as the newsletter put it, "for wider opportunities".   Like the last helicopter out of Saigon.

    The "yod" suddenly clattered down as the hacksaw finished cutting it off. The man next turned to the ends of the pins sticking out of the wall, but soon gave up and went back to the hammer. Mike knew that Eli had used hardened rebars, and was not surprised when a pin suddenly snapped, leaving a short unmanageable stub sticking out.

    After that the men gave up and began packing their tools. By the time Mike turned to go home several teen-agers had joined them and were dismantling the stack of tables.
* * * *

    A week later, when Mike drove past the former synagogue, the letters were no longer visible. In the same place hung a large rectangular sign proclaiming "Mount Olivet Lutheran Church," but Mike noted that it stood out about four inches away from the wall and did not touch it. Unseen but holding up the sign, he knew, were large Hebrew letters of iron, spelling "B th Israel."


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern     
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david  ("at" symbol)  phy6.org      .

written 8 July 1975, edited update 27 May 2012