The Tenth Man


The Tenth Man

By Gerald Tulchinsky


Of course, it was entirely my fault. I should have known what was likely to happen. I had seen this before. So, while innocent, I suppose I was really guilty.
I was in Philadelphia on a research trip to an archive that housed the papers of an eminent rabbi who had corresponded during the mid-nineteenth century with a Montrealer of importance in his city’s Jewish social and political affairs. I had spent two days going through the collection and that morning finished up by ordering photocopies that would be ready around two o’clock. After lunch I planned to review the rest of the rabbi’s letters to see if there were other items of interest. It was Thursday and the archives closed at four. I would then have just enough time to collect my stuff at the hotel and get to the airport for the flight home. Now I was on an extended lunch break walking around the historic Society Hill district which, years before, had been the home turf of many of the city’s Jews and their synagogues.
And it happened. I stopped in front of  an imposing old synagogue and looked up at the inscription carved in the stone lintel above the entrance. It read “Rodeph Shalom” (People pursuing Peace). How fitting, I thought, in this city of brotherly love. The cornerstone’s Hebrew lettering read 1897.
I didn’t see him coming or I would have bolted. But I heard the words and I knew right away that I was done for.
Du bist der tsenter.” He had come right out with it!
This expression literally means “You are the tenth man.” But that is not its full historical, cultural, or religious meaning.
 Oh no! Not by a long shot. Volumes, encyclopedias would be necessary to explain it; but for those readers short of time, I’ll be brief: Ten adult men are required for the recitation of the Kaddish. Do I know why the quorum is ten and not, say, nine or eleven? No, I am a simple historian who scribbles stuff that is of no real account in the big world. So you’ll have to go argue with God about this, if you can find him, though I often wonder how many people he can listen to.
Du bist der tsenter,” he pronounced. Once the words have been spoken, you, me, the solitary wandering  Jew, innocently looking around, are “toast.” You have been nabbed, dragooned, into the group awaiting the required number for prayer.
Run away? Sure, with nine elderly men smiling at you because you are making it possible for them to collectively approach God at that hour. Run away? I dare you. If you have been raised on the Canadian cliché that “he Mounties always get their man,” then you will perhaps understand that nine Jewish men hoping for a tenth are no less relentless than the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. And when they find “der tsenter,” he cannot escape. Guilt beats handcuffs any time.
My captor, a tall, white-haired, portly man supported by a cane in each hand, ushered me into the synagogue and paraded me in front of his friends. And then it started.
Fun vanen kumt a Yid?” he asked.
This is a trick question. Literally translated it means simply “Where does a Jew [you] come from?” But that’s not what the interlocutor is really asking. What he wants from you is a full explanation for your presence there. Not just your last point of origin, but also where you were before that? And where your father and mother came from and where they are now? And what do they do for a living? And, and, and . . .
Get my point?
A wily academic to the core, I began to respond cautiously, economically, sparingly, intending to squelch the expected follow-ups. But the policeman’s “third degree” is nothing compared to the inquisition that comes from a determined interrogator who hails from the shtetl and wants to know . . . everything. So before anyone could say “Yosel pisher” (Joe, the pisspants), I had revealed volumes about my origins, family, wife, children, occupation, research interests, salary, house, car, friends, synagogue, rabbi, and also about the townsfolk, weather, government, antisemitism, economy, politics . . . and where I bought the suit I was wearing and how much it cost! Try keeping things secret when facing men like these. They may look harmless, but . . .
Suddenly my jailor interrupted these proceedings with: “Where’s Rabinovitch?” Rabinovitch, who was always there, who never missed a minyan, was absent at this moment. So instead of nine Philadelphians in the synagogue, there were only eight! I was therefore not the tenth man; I was the ninth, and Rabinovitch would be “der tsenter.” But he was not there! Our little assembly was now in total disarray as it was still one man short.
“Call the wife,” someone offered.
The man with the two canes went to the phone.
“She says he left half an hour ago.”
“Let’s go look for him. Maybe something happened.” This from an ancient fellow. And to me: “You come, too. Maybe you’ll see him. You can’t miss him. He’s ninety-two.”
Just so I’d know.
The nine of us fanned out over the neighbourhood, me in the company of creaky hobblers. And did I know how to recognize an ancient Jew named Rabinovitch? Did I know the streets? What if I got lost and couldn’t find my way back? Then they’d have only eight. Or nine, if in my absence Rabinovitch was found. But if so, and I made it back, I’d be “der tsenter” again. I was getting dizzy.
Here I am walking the streets of Philadelphia: “Excuse me, is your name Rabinovitch?”
“No? Sorry.”
Should I ask this guy? “Excuse me . . .”
After a few such attempts, all futile, I gave up and found my way back to the synagogue, where I was warmly greeted because the other searchers, in the meantime, had located Rabinovitch seated on a park bench. He’d gotten tired while walking from home.  Now I was, of course, again “der tsenter.”
Rabinovitch, too, addressed me with: “Fun vanen kumt a Yid?” But after quickly glancing at my watch, I ignored him. Rude, I know, but . . .
We prayed, they fervently and me secularly and nervously, now that closing time for the archives approached. We finished. I shook hands all round. I was about to make my departure when he-of-the-two-canes said to me, “Okay Canada, now we’ll all go over to Mikveh Israel [another synagogue nearby] because they’re probably short of a minyan. And then there’s Anshe Chesed, and then there’s . . .”
I froze. It was now nearly four and I was about to become part of a travelling minyan moving across the city of Philadelphia, synagogue by synagogue. This prayerful perambulation, along with the accompanying interrogations, would keep me there for hours more.
This threat required firmness. I begged off, guiltily.
He said: “Come back again. We need you.” I smiled evasively, though I recognized that this was only “pursuing peace,” his congregation’s declared specialty.
He said: “Come back again. We need you.” I smiled evasively, though I recognized that this was only “pursuing peace,” his congregation’s declared specialty.

I scooted out the door, raced back to the archives, got my photocopies just before closing, beetled over to the hotel to pick up my bag, and reached the airport just in time to catch my plane. But the departure was delayed for an hour. I was relaxing with eyes closed and a warm cup of coffee in my hand, when nine bearded men wearing wide-brimmed fedoras and long black coats approached. And I heard the words again: “Du bist der tsenter.


Copyright © Gerald Tulchinsky 2015  
Gerald Tulchinsky is a historian at Queen's University, the author of numerous articles and book chapters, and five books on Canadian business and Jewish history, the most recent a biography of Joe Salsberg. Gerald Tulchinsky is an editor of books on immigration and local history, a writer of short stories, and the author of a collection, Shtetl on the Grand, which will appear in 2015.


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