Sunday, January 18, 2009

A good day for ice

It's been cold here in Washington.  In the old days, besides thoughts of warm gatkes, days like this might be seen as good for business -- if you were in the ice business.

Before electric refrigerators in every house and apartment, food stayed fresh and drinks stayed cold only because of regular deliveries of ice, deposited into your kitchen's "ice box" -- a term that crossed over to modern refrigerators, even as we forget its origins.

But ice harvesting was an important business for a while.  Very rarely, it could even get too cold to harvest (pdf).  And ice delivery was one of the fabric of neighborhood jobs that provided employment for unskilled labor.

All of which brings to mind a partly-remembered story from Shlomo Carlebach.

After his family escaped from the Nazis and came to the U.S., they lived in New York City in the early 1940s.  Like everyone else in the neighborhood, they had an icebox -- the kind that needed real ice.  The ice was delivered regularly by the neighborhood iceman, a good yid (like everyone else in the neighborhood), whom they got to know over the years.

After some time, the war ended, steel production could be devoted to something else besides tanks and airplanes, and Reb Shlomo's family acquired a different icebox -- this one made its own ice.  A modern convenience, true...but also a modern dilemma.  For this new technology threatened to disrupt an old relationship.  What could they tell the ice man?

In fact, they didn't tell him anything.  Shlomo's parents understood the importance of parnasa b'kavod (being able to earn an honorable living).  They put the new electric refrigerator in their bedroom, and kept the old icebox in the kitchen.  The ice man would come, deliver his ice, shmooze a bit, maybe have a cup of tea.  He was getting older, it was hard work to deliver ice, a little break would be nice, yes, another cup of tea would be fine.

This wasn't tzedakah.  If no one bought his ice anymore, then yes, he might need tzedakah, being too old to learn a new trade at that point.  He worked hard at his job -- it's just that Shlomo's family had a different understanding of what his job was.  Since he delivered ice to everyone, he knew everyone.  And he would share news of the community -- not lashon ha-ra, has v'shalom, but the kind of news that a Rav or a Rebbetzin might need to know in order to extend a kind word at the right time, or quietly re-direct some of the community kupa (tzedakah fund) to someone who needed it most.

The ice man wasn't delivering ice.  He was delivering netzutzot!  

Or at least, the opportunity to free those holy sparks from the ice -- for someone who could look past the poverty, the obsolescence, all the klipot that hide us from each other.  He stayed a valued, treasured member of the community, and saw himself as the mensch that he was, until he was zakein, ba-b'yamim (Br. 24:1), and ha-Shem blessed him, so that he could bless everyone else.

Here in Washington, it's often easiest to think in terms of job re-training programs, employment statistics, which component of a stimulus package will have which effect.  But it's also good for a little cold weather, and a story from not so long ago, to remind us of the whole picture.

No comments:

Post a Comment