You know Eckvelt. A couple of miles past Yekhupitz on the Golus Turnpike.
The town's Jewish community was founded in 1849 by a traveling button salesman -- let's call him Jakob Altheimer -- whose mule collapsed at just the perfect corner upon which to build a general store. By 1910, say, there were two shuls, a kosher butcher, a burial society, a Jewish newspaper, and the beginnings of the linguistic transformation that would turn "Old Jake" Altheimer's "a gutn Shabbos" into the "Shabbat Shalom, Y'all!" of his great-grandson, Greg. Know the place?
Hundreds of Eckvelts dotted the landscape south of the Mason-Dixon line from Virginia through the Midwest, and on into our own region. Not many are left, their Jewish populations decimated not by pogroms, but by progress. I am happy to say that I lived in one of them from 1980 till 1987, while toiling at the place still known to locals as "Mistah Jeffahson's Universiteh." You may know this particular Eckvelt as Charlottesville, Va.
I arrived one steamy September afternoon a week or so before Rosh Hashanah. Trolling up and down East Jefferson St., looking in vain for the local synagogue (it was camouflaged behind fleur de lys on each of its three steeples, making it appear churchy), I ran into my first Charlottesville Jew. In those days, he was known to the world as Jerry Saffer -- except on Shabbat, when he morphed into Reb Zalman ben Chaim. Now I realize who he really was -- the tzaddik of Eckvelt.
This particular afternoon, he was sitting on the front steps of Congregation Beth Israel (the sign was partially hidden by a strategic bush), wearing a wrinkled linen suit, mopping sweat off his brow, elbow on knee, and eating an ice cream cone.
I called out from my car -- "Excuse me, Sir! Can you tell me where the local Jewish synagogue would be?"
He replied: "It would be right here, under my tuches! Who wants to know?"
I knew then I was as "home" as I would ever get in this particular Eckvelt. What I didn't know was that Jerry Saffer was about to give me -- "Mr. Big Man in His Field," he liked to call me -- an education in yiddishkeit that I never anticipated.
Jerry was professionally accomplished: a Ph.D. in psychology, and a brilliant healer of disturbed children. But he was also, to his distress, a barely literate Jew, his anemic Bar Mitzvah Hebrew garbled by a life-long struggle with dyslexia. His Jewish observance in those days was a totally idiosyncratic hodge-podge of practices -- some half-remembered, others half-invented -- from his childhood in Gowanda, N.Y. (Eckvelt North!).
Shabbat, for example, would find Reb Zalman motoring into town in his battered, green pick-up from his house out in the boonies, humming Shlomo niggunim, with a wool yarmulke the size of a dinner plate on his head, and his two little girls, Amy and Marnie, bouncing on the front seat.
On Pesach he and his wife, Linda (a Reform convert who stayed that way -- the girls had their own mikvah at Bat Mitzvah age) would always have at least two seders: one on the first night, one on the second, and occasionally one on the last night, for late-comers.
"Gosh, I love seders!," he used to say.
Reb Zalman's soul had its root in the great cantorial tradition of Russia. But when the flesh of Saffer bellied up to the shtender at Hillel House (where the "religious" Jews of Charlottesville davened) his golden tones of hazzanut were inflected by the unique version of the Hebrew tongue produced by his dyslexia. It may have been the language of the angels, but if so, only they could understand or reproduce it.
I, unfortunately, caught only the tail end of Jerry Saffer's reign as the tzaddik of Eckvelt. After seven years I'd had it with a minyan in which the Torah could be read on Shabbat by a Jew with a wallet bulging out of his back pocket (but whom we had to tolerate since he sort-of-remembered the parshahs of his Orthodox youth in New York). Enough with Shabbat lunches in a downtown eatery, the hardware store, owned, I'd heard, by the descendants of Charlottesville's original German-Jewish button salesman!
A few years later, Jerry and his family also moved -- to Baltimore. For the yiddishkeit. Jerry "frummed out" in yeshiva, his girls got Torah educations, made excellent shiduchim, and now -- kin eyn horah -- have growing broods of their own.
What I dismissed in the Eckvelt years as "Saffer's meshugas" was something I now recognize as a miracle. Feeling their way by instinct, in a home set in the backwoods of American Jewry, in a world before Artscroll Instant Frum Identities, Inc., Jerry and Linda Saffer created a home full of love for God, Torah, and the people Israel in their own unique way. A home so loving that Amy and Marnie sought out more and deeper Jewish connections outside their parental home, and are creating their own for the next generation.
Eckvelt is disappearing year after year, absorbed either by the surrounding American landscape or, in small victories, by the thriving Jewish communities of larger cities. I am lucky to have seen one in action, and to have known one of the many anonymous tzaddikim of Eckvelt who, in unique ways, improvised a jury-rigged yiddishkeit long enough for a new generation to dismiss it as "assimilated."
Cancer took this particular tzaddik of Eckvelt during the recent sefirah period. I'll miss him. But it's a comfort that, in the end, I'll find his headstone where it belongs -- in the Jewish plot leased by the Jewish community of Charlottesville, Va.