When I was in 12th grade at L.A. Hebrew High School, our Chumash teacher, Eliezer Slomovic, interrupted a lesson to share with us a little of his anger. He had davened on the previous Shabbat in a friend’s shul — I think to attend a bar mitzvah. Eliezer, as we called him, always got to shul on time and apparently the gabbai wanted to honor him with an aliyah. He came up to our teacher and asked, “Do you keep kosher?”
As he told us this, Eliezer, a learned and humble man, looked down and slowly shook his head in wonder and sorrow. The room full of 16- and 17-year-olds perked up. We stopped passing notes or flirting with the boy across the room. We sensed that Eliezer was about to impart an important life lesson.
In a school full of good teachers, this short man with the kind face and the thick Eastern European accent, stood out. Other teachers had our respect — but it was Eliezer we loved. He looked at us, he saw us, always spoke gently and kindly and, as on this day, he shared with us not just his knowledge, but his life experience, his feelings, sometimes stories of his childhood in his beloved Slovenia.
I remember the words that came out of his mouth next during that important lesson. In his soothing Hungarian singsong he posed a rhetorical question, a question clearly arising from pain.
“Kashrut? They ask me about kashrut? If they had said, ‘Do you keep Shabbat? Do you give tzedakah [charity]?’ OK. I would understand. But kashrut?”
I don’t remember the exact words that came next but I do remember the point: Eliezer was bemoaning the state to which modern Judaism had sunk. Kashrut was important, yes, but it is not, in itself, the measure of the man (or woman). Keeping Shabbat, giving tzedakah — and he probably also mentioned Torah study and refraining from lashon hara — those are far more appropriate tests of character. If the gabbai was going to ask anything at all before honoring a fellow Jew with a request to rise before the congregation and bless the Torah, let it be about things that really make a difference in this world.
Although I never met him, I am fortunate to have had another teacher who modeled these values. In 1888, my grandfather, Rabbi Shlomo Moussaioff, of blessed memory, a pioneer in Jerusalem, built a house around a courtyard in the Bukharian Quarter, leaving two apartments for the poor. He built a synagogue and beit midrash, he collected original kabbalistic manuscripts (now housed at the Bar-Ilan University library). He helped to beautify Jerusalem by planting a garden with species from all over the world.
Even though they never met in this life, Eliezer Slomovic and my grandfather embody what is best in Jewish life — they lived their values; they took actions to make the world a better place.
I called Eliezer to ask him a question and found out that he is not well. A man whose words reached our hearts can barely speak today. A scholar who earned his doctorate while he was teaching us, who loved his subject, cannot read now. Why does a kind man who always had a smile for everyone, a man who spent his life teaching — but really teaching Judaism — to teenagers, why does he have to suffer?
I don’t know. What I do know is that if I merit Gan Eden, as Eliezer surely will, I will meet my old teacher there and we will dance together in joy.
Eliezer’s lesson has stayed with me. We keep a kosher home but when I talk to my kids about important mitzvot, I talk about tzedakah and ma’aser. If we’re going to do teshuvah — a process that may start at Rosh Hashanah but that really goes on all year — it seems to me that we should first and foremost check our behavior toward others. Only after we know we have given our full share of tzedakah, only after we dedicate ourselves to making regular efforts to refrain from lashon hara, only after we try hard to check our anger and speak gently and kindly — as Eliezer always did with us — to our spouses, children, friends, then we can turn to our kitchens and see if our kashrut is up to par.
Human beings, especially westerners in the first part of the 21st century, have limited energy and increasingly limited time. Let’s not spend that time obsessing over details about meat knives accidentally ending up in the milk silverware drawer. Jo Milgrom, another teacher from those years, disparagingly called placing such strong emphasis on kashrut “pots-and-pans Judaism.”
The Midrash tells us that the mashiach may be among us now, disguised as a beggar. Nowhere does it say that he might be disguised as a mashgiach.
Ruth Mason is a native of Los Angeles, mother of three and freelance writer who made aliyah in 1993