The Shabbes Goy

Reading davidseth  and TiaRachel ‘s lovely essays yesterday sent me on a search to find a little tale my Dad wrote & had published on-line last December. The link from his e-mail no longer worked, so I tried the google. Imagine my surprise to find how it had spread…page after page of sites with his story. I already had permission from Dad to do anything I wanted with it, so I thought this would be the perfect time to share it here, with you.

My Dad is a Great Guy, his experiences varied and many… in a ‘Big Fish’ kind of way. He served in WWII and later became the fencing coach of Columbia University in the 1940’s-50s and was an early advocate of civil rights in sports, eventually retiring to California. Not long ago Columbia University honoured him with a lovely (ceremony-dinner-function-thingey)  More about this can be found at Columbia’s web site, I think.

also in orange


The Shabbes Goy by Joe Velarde — a pleasant read in a troubled world

Snow came early in the winter of 1933 when our extended Cuban family moved

into the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. I was ten years old. We were the

first Spanish speakers to arrive, yet we fit more or less easily into that

crowded, multicultural neighborhood. Soon we began learning a little

Italian, a few Greek and Polish words, lots of Yiddish and some heavily

accented English.

I first heard the expression Shabbes is falling when Mr. Rosenthal refused

to open the door of his dry goods store on Bedford Avenue. My mother had

sent me with a dime to buy a pair of black socks for my father. In those

days, men wore mostly black and Navy blue. Brown and gray were somehow

special and cost more. Mr. Rosenthal stood inside the locked door, arms

folded, glaring at me through the thick glass while a heavy snow and

darkness began to fall on a Friday evening. “We’re closed, already”, Mr.

Rosenthal had said, shaking his head, “can’t you see that Shabbes is

? Don’t be a nudnik! Go home.” I could feel the cold wetness covering my head and thought that Shabbes was the Jewish word for snow.

My misperception of Shabbes didn’t last long, however, as the area’s

dominant culture soon became apparent; Gentiles were the minority. From then

on, as Shabbes fell with its immutable regularity and Jewish lore took over

the life of the neighborhood, I came to realize that so many human

activities, ordinarily mundane at any other time, ceased, and a palpable

silence, a pleasant tranquillity, fell over all of us. It was then that a

family with an urgent need would dispatch a youngster to “get the Spanish

boy, and hurry.”

That was me. In time, I stopped being nameless and became Yussel, sometimes

Yuss or Yusseleh. And so began my life as a Shabbes Goy, voluntarily doing

chores for my neighbors on Friday nights and Saturdays: lighting stoves,running errands, getting a prescription for an old tante, stoking coal

furnaces, putting lights on or out, clearing snow and ice from slippery

sidewalks and stoops. Doing just about anything that was forbidden to the

devout by their religious code.

Friday afternoons were special. I’d walk home from school assailed by the

rich aroma emanating from Jewish kitchens preparing that evening’s special

menu. By now, I had developed a list of steady “clients,” Jewish families

who depended on me. Furnaces, in particular, demanded frequent tending

during Brooklyn’s many freezing winters. I shudder remembering brutally cold

winds blowing off the East River. Anticipation ran high as I thought of the

warm home-baked treats I’d bring home that night after my Shabbes rounds

were over. Thanks to me, my entire family had become Jewish pastry junkies.

Moi? I’m still addicted to checkerboard cake, halvah and Egg Creams (made

only with Fox’s Ubet chocolate syrup).

I remember as if it were yesterday how I discovered that Jews were the

smartest people in the world. You see, in our Cuban household we all loved

the ends of bread loaves and, to keep peace, my father always decided who

would get them. One harsh winter night I was rewarded for my Shabbes

ministrations with a loaf of warm challah (we pronounced it “holly”) and I

knew I was witnessing genius! Who else could have invented a bread that had

wonderfully crusted ends all over it — enough for everyone in a large


There was an “International” aspect to my teen years in Williamsburg. The

Sternberg family had two sons who had fought with the Abraham Lincoln

Brigade in Spain. Whenever we kids could get their attention, they’d

spellbind us with tales of hazardous adventures in the Spanish Civil War.

These twenty-something war veterans also introduced us to a novel way of

thinking, one that embraced such humane ideas as ‘From each according to his

means and to each according to his needs’. In retrospect, this innocent

exposure to a different philosophy was the starting point of a journey that

would also incorporate the concept of Tzedakah in my personal guide to the


In what historians would later call The Great Depression, a nickel was a lot

of mazuma and its economic power could buy a brand new Spaldeen, our local name for the pink-colored rubber ball then produced by the Spalding Company. The famous Spaldeen was central to our endless street games: stickball and punchball or the simpler stoopball. On balmy summer evenings our youthful fantasies converted South Tenth Street into Ebbets Field with the Dodgers’ Dolph Camilli swinging a broom handle at a viciously curving Spaldeen thrown by the Giants’ great lefty, Carl Hubbell. We really thought it curved, I


Our neighbors, magically transformed into spectators kibitzing from their

brownstone stoops and windows, were treated to a unique version of major

league baseball. My tenure as the resident Shabbes Goy came to an abrupt end

after Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941. I withdrew from Brooklyn College

the following day and joined the U.S. Army. In June of 1944, the Army Air

Corps shipped me home after flying sixty combat missions over Italy and the

Balkans. I was overwhelmed to find that several of my Jewish friends and

neighbors had set a place for me at their supper tables every Shabbes

throughout my absence, including me in their prayers. What mitzvoth! My

homecoming was highlighted by wonderful invitations to dinner. Can you

imagine the effect after twenty-two months of Army field rations?

As my post-World War II life developed, the nature of the association I’d

had with Jewish families during my formative years became clearer. I had

learned the meaning of friendship, of loyalty, and of honor and respect. I

discovered obedience without subservience. And caring about all living

things had become as natural as breathing. The worth of a strong work ethic

and of purposeful dedication was manifest. Love of learning blossomed and I

began to set higher standards for my developing skills, and loftier goals

for future activities and dreams. Mind, none of this was the result of any

sort of formal instruction; my yeshiva had been the neighborhood. I learned

these things, absorbed them actually says it better, by association and role

modeling, by pursuing curious inquiry, and by what educators called

“incidental learning” in the crucible that was pre-World War II

Williamsburg. It seems many of life’s most elemental lessons are learned

this way.

While my parents’ Cuban home sheltered me with warm, intimate affection and

provided for my well-being and self esteem, the group of Jewish families I

came to know and help in the Williamsburg of the 1930s was a surrogate tribe

that abetted my teenage rite of passage to adulthood. One might even say we

had experienced a special kind of Bar Mitzvah. I couldn’t explain then the

concept of tikkun olam, but I realized as I matured how well I had been

oriented by the Jewish experience to live it and to apply it. What a truly

uplifting outlook on life it is to be genuinely motivated “to repair the


In these twilight years when my good wife is occasionally told, “Your

husband is a funny man,” I’m aware that my humor has its roots in the

shticks of Second Avenue Yiddish Theater, entertainers at Catskill summer

resorts, and their many imitators. And, when I argue issues of human or

civil rights and am cautioned about showing too much zeal, I recall how

chutzpah first flourished on Williamsburg sidewalks, competing for filberts

(hazelnuts) with tough kids wearing payess and yarmulkes. Along the way I played chess and one-wall handball, learned to fence, listened to

Rimsky-Korsakov, ate roasted chestnuts, read Maimonides and studied Saul


I am ever grateful for having had the opportunity to be a Shabbes Goy.  


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    • RiaD on December 5, 2007 at 16:00
    • RiaD on December 5, 2007 at 16:03

    while searching for this one. You might enjoy it also.

    In a small midwest town in the mid-1880s, Jacob Viner and his wife attempted to bring up their children in accordance with Jewish tradition. Shabbos was observed as best as they could in their Missouri village, located just outside Kansas City. One of the few advantages of living in such a setting was the presence of a large stock of people who could be used as a “Shabbos goy.” When it was required, it was the Viners’ young neighbor Harry who was usually called upon. Harry frequently visited the Viner family to help light a fire to warm the house in the frigid midwest winter, or to perform various other Shabbos chores. He was well liked, respected, and always around when you needed him. He eventually came on a regular basis to the Viner family, as his sister Mary Jane had become best friends with her classmate Sarah Viner. Whenever he came, the Viners made sure to reimburse Harry with a small token of their appreciation – a piece of kugel or gefilte fish was always offered. Harry was particularly fond of matzah.

    When Harry returned from duty in World War I, he opened a haberdashery business with a Jew, Eddie Jacobson. When the business venture failed, Harry tried his hand at politics and performed a number of favors for the Jewish community, like surfacing the road to the local Jewish cemetery. The Viner family no doubt took tremendous pride in the friendship they had shown their Missouri neighbor. But in their wildest dreams, they could not have imagined how far the dividends of their Kiddush Hashem would extend.

    The Viner family’s close contact with young Harry may have influenced the course of Jewish, and indeed, world history. Harry’s political aspirations were only beginning. In 1934 he was elected to the United States Senate, serving for two six-year terms. In 1946, President Franklin Delanor Roosevelt inexplicably dropped his vice president, Henry A. Wallace, in favor of a then-unknown Missouri senator, Harry S. Truman. Shortly thereafter, Roosevelt passed away, and Truman became president of the United States.

    One of the major problems for the Truman administration following the end of World War II was the United States policy in regard to the proposed State of Israel. There were many pro-Arab officers within Truman’s cabinet who were vehemently opposed to supporting the proposed State. As Truman later wrote: “The Department of the State’s specialists on the Near East were, almost without exception, unfriendly to the idea of a Jewish state… Like most of the British diplomats, some of our diplomats also thought that the Arabs, on account of their numbers and because of the fact that they controlled such immense oil resources, should be appeased.

    I am sorry to say that there were some of them who were inclined to be anti-Semitic.” In spite of all this, Truman immediately supported the State. As Truman himself put in a personal note: “I recognized Israel immediately… in 1948 … against the advice of my own Secretary of State, George Marshall, who was afraid the Arabs wouldn’t like it… But I felt Israel deserved to be recognized and didn’t give a darn whether the Arabs liked it or not.”

    To this day, historians debate exactly what influenced Truman toward this policy regarding the newly founded State of Israel, a policy of support and aid which has been in place more or less for the past fifty years. His memoirs indicate his desire to help those who experienced the terrible suffering at the hands of the Nazis. Truman was far more sympathetic to the plight of the Jews than his predecessor. The earliest experiences an individual has are often the ones which form the crux of his views for the rest of his life. Is it inconceivable that this stance was ingrained in a young Harry Truman from the Viner family in turn-of-the century Independence, Missouri?

    In this fiftieth eighth year of the founding of the State of Israel, perhaps the populace at large would be interested in knowing that a shomer Shabbos family had some impact on the very existence of the State of Israel.

    • pfiore8 on December 5, 2007 at 16:18

    so many things i love about this piece…

    I was overwhelmed to find that several of my Jewish friends and neighbors had set a place for me at their supper tables every Shabbes throughout my absence, including me in their prayers

    beautiful beautiful piece…

    • pfiore8 on December 5, 2007 at 16:22

    at Orange too RiaD… so many people would love this story.

  1. Thank you for sharing.  I truly do love sharing the world with others and I’m so glad we aren’t all the same, it would be so boring and lifeless.

  2. The UDG award (you done good)

            / )

           / /

         /  (““)




    • documel on December 5, 2007 at 18:42

    Back in the day–“those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end”–Somehow, I think today’s stories would be much more materialistic, much less altruistic.  As a country, we seem to have forgotten it’s better to give than to receive.  I’m thinking of all those people that care only about lowering taxes, not about helping others.  

    Back in the day–I grew up in Brooklyn in the 50s–very lower middle class– and everyone lent a helping hand. I went to Italian football weddings and QuinceaƱeras.  My Italian and Spanish friends knew baruchas (hebrew prayers) because they went to so many bar mitzvahs and I learned to love veal parm and squid (very unkosher–very good).  My Black (Negro, at the time) friends emulated Willie Mays–I was Duke Snider.  My family was proud NY tax money went to help the poor down south.  Back in the day–Bushie doesn’t understand–neither did Reagan.

  3. This story has definitely been a highlight of my day.  Thanks.

  4. It is a wonderful essay.  I don’t know exactly why, but it reminds me of a Frank Cappra movie (& I love Cappra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”)  

  5. Blessed forever, you and your Dad and family!

  6. I took your suggestion and have registered here.  It seems like a friendly neighborhood.

    I thought the folks here would also want to know the identify of the most famous Shabbos goy ever.

  7. I liked the Spanish Civil War part.  Do you know any of the songs from the Spanish Civil War?  Venga Jaleo? “Vive La Quice Brigada?” etc.

    I’m a boomer, but I learned them from various songbooks.  When I sing them for lefties in their ’80s-’90s, they join with a fervor like it’s 1935.

  8. I loved every word!

    • plf515 on December 7, 2007 at 13:45

    of course, as a skeptic raised as a Jew, I find the whole custom of ‘shabbos goy’ to be rather bizarre.  If you believe God told you not to do certain things on certain days, how is it then OK to get other people to do them for you?

    That’s no knock on your father, who was doing what his neighbors wanted him to do, but on the neighbors.

    • plf515 on December 7, 2007 at 13:50

    Just a couple side notes:

    Shabbos (or shabbes, it’s transliterated anyway) comes from the same root as the Hebrew word sheva – meaning seven.

    Shabbos is the only day of the week that has a special name in Hebrew…. e.g. Sunday = Yom Rishon (first day) Monday = Yom Sheni (second day)

    same root (obviously) as sabbath, but also seven, and I think it’s the only Hebrew number word that got into English and the romance languages (well, maybe six as well)

    ehad     one     uno

    shtaim   two     dos

    shalosh  three   tres

    arba     four    quatro

    hamesh   five    cinco

    shesh    six     seis

    sheva    seven   siete

    shmone   eight   ocho

    tesha    nine    nueve

    ezer     ten     dies

    also….the custom of sabbatical in academia

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