I was Glasgow-January cold, head-down at my ‘Hungry and Homeless’ pitch outside the station; knees under my chin, complete with polystyrene cup, obligatory sad-eyed mongrel at my feet, and a fresh pack of cigarettes in my army surplus satchel. The dog looked up, so I looked up too. “Any spare change, pal?” I said, but the outstretched hand was empty.
“I’m Bob Burns,” the owner of the hand said, “my friends call me the Rabbi”.
I shook the hand. Looking at his clothes, and hearing the Ulster edge in his voice, I thought, “Rabbi is it? More like another dosser”, but instead I said “I don’t do synagogue, and you don’t sound, or look, Jewish – so…..”. I hoped he’d take the hint and go away, but instead he sat on the blanket. The dog raised an eyebrow and half-looked at him, but dropped her head again when he stroked it, and went back to sleep.
“I’ve heard that before”, he said, “the not-looking-Jewish bit anyway…, apart from wearing this.” He fingered a silver Star of David around his neck, hanging on the same chain as a small crucifix, a miniature Buddha, a couple of Chinese-looking symbols and a Hindu Mandala. He went on, “I think it’s the red hair that foxes people. Me Ma was from Larne, and me Da was from Poland. He was a refugee, and Jewish, in that order too – a refugee in his mind all his life, poor man. Of course, technically, that makes me not Jewish at all – since it passes through the mother’s line – so that makes me…”
“A Protestant,” I interrupted, with more than a touch of sectarian sarcasm, and pointing to the laden chain, “but it looks like that’s the only team you’re not playing for; you hedging your bets?”
He smiled. “Aye, Mebee. I like to think of meself as more of an ‘Ecumenical Non-Conformist’,” but while I was mesmerised by the mock-importance of that, he said, “Can I ponce a fag off you?” Something in his grin was disarming, even irresistible: I gave in. “Here, have one of these,” I said, offering not the end of my roll-up, which I kept for the image, but one of my precious Silk Cut, “but do you mind not sitting here with it – the punters are put off if we’re mob handed, you’ll queer my…”, but I didn’t get to finish; the authority of his touch on my sleeve shut me up.
“I was wondering, if you’ve got nowhere to go later, would you come across to the shelter, under the railway arches over there?” His head pointed, with a nod and a flick, to a side street. “We’re doing soup, and some poetry”. And with that he rose, like a snake uncoiling to a charmer’s pipe, and, just as hypnotically, swayed off through the evening rush-hour crowd. He called back over his shoulder, “and tea,” and then, “thanks for the fag,” and finally a fading “see you later.”
I can’t say now, any more than I could then, why near that midnight I was standing under the railway arches, the dog even more nervous than me, looking for a non-Jewish, poetry-reading, Irish Rabbi called Burns. I felt the dog’s string go eager-taut in my hand as she, again, saw him first, this time coming out of an open doorway in a wall. He fussed her: “Hello Gypsy lass, good girl, Good girl,” and then turned to me, his hand on my shoulder. “You made it then – that’s grand. Come on in, we’ve a fire going, the soup’s on – we’ll start the poetry in half an hour or so”. I didn’t remember having told him the dog’s name, but let it pass, and followed him, and the warm air, into the cellar. The smell of damp plaster and brick dust mixed with that of defeat from those sitting hunched on boxes and chairs around the walls, and the kettle of sweet broth on the brazier.
I was the youngest there by a mile. Some seemed so old that they were beyond old: poverty, cold and hopelessness does that, especially the hopelessness: I’d seen it on the streets every day.
We sat. Hunted, weary, and even a little wary, each gripping soup and broken bread in fingerless gloved hands: refugees all, from the world outside. In the dim paraffin-lamp light, and through the steam rising from my cup, I watched the Rabbi. He was a sort-of beachcomber of souls, and we were the flotsam thrown up on his personal shore. He moved around the walls, speaking quietly, refilling cups and offering something to each in turn….offering – I couldn’t hear the words; for all the world it could have been a benediction, absolution even, except for him being a Rabbi of course, but he was offering something – more than soup and bread – I could see it in their faces.
“Well, Ally,” he said, as he got round to me, “let’s get the poetry going before we all fall asleep.” He held out a folded piece of paper, “Here, you can start”. I didn’t remember having told him my name either, but didn’t dwell on it at the time, and so I read. The rest of the night passed well enough, all reading something, and in the morning we left, dispersing our strange fellowship in the early fog.
It was a couple of months later when I did think about it: when I went back to tell him how I’d had a change in my luck, how I had a place to stay now, and a job: crappy, but a job. I wanted to tell him that I didn’t feel hopeless any more, that I had even thought, just once or twice, of going to synagogue again. I was going to ask him how he had known….but…., but I couldn’t find the opening in the wall under the arch, never mind the cellar.
A old man, sweeping the road there, said I must be mistaken: his breathing and words punctuated by his rasping brush strokes. “There hasn’t been a cellar here since the war…………….a raid on the railway yards…………..direct hit……………….a lot of people killed in there…………………….mostly refugees off a train…………….filled in the cellar when the viaduct was rebuilt.” Then I thought about it.
I still had the piece of paper he gave me, and I read it again then, as I do now…
“Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That man to man, the world o’er,
Shall brithers be for a’ that.”
and his handwritten footnote,
“We’re all the same before God, Ally, any religion or none!”
was signed, of course,
Andrew Gold 2014