Momma was from the old school and her children were her life. Her son Murray was going through a severe depression, and Momma was heartsick over it. She couldn’t understand it; all she knew was that he’d dropped his friends and his job, and he went around with a sad, suffering look on his face—not saying a word. Murray never explained to her why a young man of 24, with his whole life ahead of him, should be so bothered. He used to go to dances and parties and on dates, yet now it seemed no one could reach him.
The Passover was approaching and Momma suggested: Murray, why don’t you buy us some kiddush wine on Delancey Street? It’s a beautiful day, a good day to take a walk, and I don’t have the energy to do all my Pesach errands.”
Murray agreed. Delancey Street on the Lower East Side was a long way from their flat in Brooklyn, but he liked to take long, solitary walks. It sometimes distracted him from the dull, aching sense of meaninglessness.
The feeling had been building up inside of him for years. Strange, he had first felt it around Passover time. He was about seven years old at the time, sick in bed with a cold. He’d thought about how moody and restless his father was, and how frantic his mother appeared as Passover approached. There were all the rituals, the pots and pans and dishes to be changed, the housecleaning and the groceries and the shopping. Then there was the managing with the regular cooking and housework until the festival began.
Even at seven, Murray had sensed something excessive about Momma’s devotion to her Orthodoxy. It didn’t seem to fit in with the indifferent world outside their doors nor, for that matter, with the indifference his six older brothers and sisters were beginning to show toward the whole system Momma so passionately defended.
Well, like the rest of the family, Murray had by now outgrown it, too. He had escaped the shtetl life when his immigrant parents had finally realized they couldn’t reproduce it in America. But it had left a vacuum which wasn’t really filled by half-hearted traditions or passionate secular pursuits.
Murray often wondered what their lives would have been like if Momma hadn’t been so entrenched in her Orthodoxy. Maybe it was the only way for her to survive alongside a nervous and insecure husband who was too intimidated by America to jettison his old world Yiddishkeit, (as so many immigrants had done) or to soften its harsh demands.
It was a Sunday, a bright spring day in 1948, when Murray started out for Delancey Street. The first days of spring can be intoxicating, even on New York’s crowded streets. He felt a kind of pleasant languor as he strolled through the diverse quarters of Brooklyn. He passed the Jewish street vendors, hawking their wares in a hybrid Yiddish-English. The pungent odors of Italian meats and cheeses along the way were the signs of another neighborhood. He passed stately old churches, once the property of white, middle-class Anglo-Saxons, now surrendered to well-dressed black worshippers streaming out of church in their Sunday best.
The staccato of Puerto Rican Spanish began to fill the air, a relatively new sound in Brooklyn, part of the postwar “discovery” of America by the teeming masses from the Caribbean. “They’re not about to yield to Anglo-Saxon culture like the rest of us,” Murray mused.
Not too far along the way he was startled by the sound of Hassidic children shouting and play-acting in Murray’s native Yiddish. Once he had thought his generation was the last of American-born Jews who would speak Yiddish to other children. Yiddish was only for the old folks, they had concluded—yet here the shtetl was being reproduced, sidecurls, tzitzit, yarmulkes and all!
Murray was approaching the pedestrian access to the Williamsburg Bridge spanning the river between Brooklyn and the Lower East Side of Manhattan. As he walked along more gingerly, he found himself thinking about the Bible he had bought in England when he served with the U.S. Army medics. It was the first time he had owned a complete English Bible, and furtively he would seek a corner of the base where he could read and reread the New Testament in private. He was no longer Orthodox, but the idea that this was “forbidden fruit” still hovered in the back of his mind. He had come to love the person of a certain Jew whom he ranked as the greatest of all teachers. For a while he had tried to pattern his own life on the teachings of Yeshua (Jesus’ Hebrew name). It gave him a confidence and an identity he had never had before, and the ever-lurking despair retreated. With the new confidence came a desire to prove himself to his military buddies, and then the inevitable failure to walk on two opposite roads. Rabbi Yeshua had truly said: “No man can serve two masters.”1 Murray’s failures had only intensified his despair. “Be not anxious for the morrow…unto the day is the evil thereof.”2 The ancient words echoed in his thoughts with new force, as if he were hearing them for the first time. “Sell that thou hast and give to the poor…and come follow me.“3 Yeshua’s challenge to a rich young ruler on the pages of Murray’s New Testament suddenly seemed to be a direct challenge to him. It linked up to what he had remembered from the Sermon on the Mount and Murray experienced a strange headiness and joy. The words were not simply shreds of memory haphazardly trailing in and out of his reverie. They were a personal message to illuminate his spiritual darkness!
What if he were to make a fresh start in life, he asked himself, with these two texts as a springboard? He had few possessions, and he could easily dispose of them and go out on a day-to-day basis with the mustard-seed faith he had. He would seek a purpose for his life away from this drift into total meaninglessness. He resolved to do so after the holidays.
For the second year since his father’s death, Murray conducted the festive Seder ceremonies. The sweet sacramental wine, the crackly unleavened bread, the feast of holiday foods, the ancient liturgy, the congenial family gathering, the familiar faces—all combined to reduce the tension he felt at what seemed to be an approaching crossroads in his life.
The Passover soon ended. Pots and pans and dishes were exchanged, but Murray was the same. He knew he had to set a date for winding up his affairs and beginning his journey. Suddenly the whole idea seemed too romantic and hazardous: going out like Abraham, leaving home and family in pursuit of the Word of God! But his despair persisted, and no other solution was at hand.
Finally, early in May, he turned over what savings he had to his mother, disposed of his movable possessions, and went out in search of a reason to live.
Immediately he was confronted with the problems of survival. He had to find food, a place to stay, and something to occupy himself. Each day brought a new crisis, a battle to find an answer to the nagging, pitiless question: “Why go on?” Agonizing doubts often overcame him. Sometimes Murray felt he was tottering on the brink of a spiritual abyss, as waves of despair pounded away at his will to live.
He began to pray regularly, and he could feel an intimacy with God during this time. Prayer worked to bring him out of his shell to face the world around him. Had not his teacher, Yeshua, linked the commandments of love for God and neighbor? And neighbors were all around him, struggling in a sea of problems. He was even able to help others despite his feeling of helplessness.
He earned a little money at odd jobs in factories and restaurants. Keeping his own expenses to a minimum, he used the balance to feed, clothe and find shelter for homeless men and women he met on the city streets. As he encountered people in their daily struggles, his own came into a more realistic perspective.
A strong urge to go to sea took hold of Murray, so he applied to New York shipping companies for work. Nothing developed, so with three pennies in his pocket he arrived in Philadelphia one rainy night, hungry and drenched. He walked all night to answer an ad for a dishwasher in Germantown. Paddy, a fatherly Irish-Catholic snack shop owner took him in, gave him dry clothes, food and a job.
“Son, you can’t run away from yourself,” Paddy remarked, as Murray told his benefactor that he had to push on after a week in Philly. He hadn’t lost his desire to go to sea, and decided to make one more attempt to find work at New York Harbor. He applied for a course in basic seamanship. A naval officer interviewed him for a possible stint as a merchant marine trainee in Florida. After scanning his application, the officer looked up and asked him:
“Why do you want to go to sea?”
Murray didn’t want to conceal his emotional turmoil, but neither did he want to share what he was sure would seem outlandish in the secular world: the religious fanaticism of a modern person following Yeshua and the Word of God! So he replied cryptically: “It’s for personal rehabilitation, sir.”
The officer didn’t press him, but commented, “You wouldn’t want to go in for this course; you’ve been through it in your Army basic training, anyway.”
The officer was silent for a moment, and then mused out loud: “So you want to go to sea.” Murray nodded.
“I see you were a medic in the army,” the officer continued.
“For three years.”
“Let me make a phone call; meanwhile, you go out and have some lunch. Come back in half an hour.”
When Murray returned, the officer crisply handed him an envelope. “Take this over to Moe Kay at the Brooklyn Port of Embarkation,” he said. “Moe has agreed to get you a berth as a medical orderly on a U.S. transport, working for the U.N. International Refugee Organization. Would that suit you?”
“Sure, sure!” Murray replied excitedly, shaken by the answer to his prayers. “Thanks a lot, sir.”
Hurrying out of the office, he heard the officer call after him, “Good luck, son.”
Within a few days Murray had joined the crew of the “General Black” on a voyage to Bremerhaven in what was then Occupied West Germany. The ship’s complement consisted of American seamen, U.S. military aides and United Nations civilian personnel. On the first voyage a group of Polish refugees from Mexico were taken on at the port for repatriation to their homeland.
Because of his flair for languages, Murray was often used as a translator for the medical officer in charge and for other staff members. Most of the time he worked in the ship’s hospital and kitchen. When the hospital was unoccupied, he worked at chipping, painting and cleaning up on deck.
When Murray reached Bremerhaven, another wave of despair hit him. He looked back at the experiences of the preceding months, and decided that it was hopeless to try to change the basic emotional and thought patterns of his life. He always returned to his despair. Like a fly caught in a spider’s web, he must inevitably succumb to the awful emptiness of his soul’s death. No, there was no escape.
Murray took shore leave to go into Bremen. He took one of his solitary walks and brooded for a long while. Finally he sat down, alone and exhausted, in the midst of some still uncleared war-time rubble. “Oh, God,” he prayed, “let me die. Tomorrow, when we sail again, let me slip out quietly into the sea and find rest. I’m just worn out with this struggle.”
When he boarded ship the next day, so did a large contingent of East European refugees. They were offered asylum in several Latin American countries. He was again put in charge of the hospital kitchen and had to arrange meals for patients as well as supervise the general area. Murray became completely absorbed in the work at hand.
Some 36 hours after he had voiced his prayer for death, it suddenly came to mind again. “What a strange thing that I should pray that way!” he thought; and then an afterthought occurred to him. “My prayer has been answered—the despair and all the pull it had on my life have died—and I feel alive.”
During the months that followed, as they moved back and forth between Germany and South America, Murray had ample opportunity to confirm that the crisis had passed; and that, for him, life had been renewed.
One night, after a tiring day in the ship’s hospital, he slipped up onto the deck. The vessel swayed gently to the steady rhythm of the brooding sea. The fresh, tangy air revived him. He climbed one of the ship’s ladders up to the crow’s nest, drinking in the beauty of the inky night and the spangled heavens. It was an ecstasy of life and faith more intoxicating than any wine he had ever tasted.
Strange how that long walk to buy the Passover wine for Momma had led him on this journey of reconciliation. He had followed Yeshua as his ancestors had followed Moshe out of Egyptian slavery. He knew now that the same liberating God behind the Passover story had set him on the road to freedom through Yeshua. Murray realized there was no other way.
Endnotes 1Matthew 6:24