Parsha Achrei Mot: Looking for Mr. Munk
Looking For Mr. Munk
Here I am again
Back on the corner again
Back where I belong
Where I’ve always been
Like most young Jewish boys growing up in Toronto, I began to attend Hebrew school at about the age of seven. Hebrew school at the local Conservative synagogue was two hours each day after public school from Monday through Thursday and two hours on Sunday mornings. I cannot tell you the number of great street-hockey games that were abruptly ended with, “Harvey, time for Hebrew school.”
Being the youngest of four boys, with only six years between my oldest brother and myself, I was already primed for the Hebrew school experience that awaited me. I had heard from my brothers about the horror stories, the boredom, the terrible teachers and of the gum-stuck desks. I had endured many years of “I hate Hebrew school and I’m not going back” from Reuben and Sid. Yes, Hebrew school was something I was really looking forward to.
I remember the first day like it was yesterday. I can still recall the walk from my father’s car in the parking lot to the school entrance; the same walk a prisoner must experience as he begins serving his sentence. My sentence was to last until my Bar Mitzvah.
We met the principal, Mr. Frankel – a short bald man with beady eyes and a mole on his left cheek. A sinister smile came over his lips as I was passed over to his mentorship. I was placed in Mrs. Kahanavitch’s first grade class and on that first day, when it came my turn to read, not ever seeing a word of Hebrew before in my life, I looked down at the script which just as well could have been Chinese and promptly broke out into tears. This reaction elicited a return visit by Mr. Frankel who now put me into Mr. Goodman’s class, which in my mind was the class for dummies. I stayed there until I was then transferred into Mr. Togman’s class. I guess I wasn’t as dumb as they thought.
I endured the deathly, daily ritual of learning to read Hebrew. We were expected to somehow fight sheer boredom and always know the spot in the Siddur to answer, at any time, the most-oft asked question in the class, “Nightingale, where are we?” And heaven help you if you didn’t know the place. Then you would be subjected to the corporal punishment of Mr. Togman’s yellow stick, an act that would land him in jail and slapped with a lawsuit were it to be inflicted today.
My greatest achievement that year came one Sunday morning before Mr. Togman arrived. I went to the cupboard where he kept that feared yellow stick and tossed it out of the second story window into the snowy alleyway below where it was immediately buried in a white coffin of powder, never to be seen again. The look of confusion when he went to retrieve his weapon is something I still cherish. Even more special was the loyalty the class exhibited when he asked where it was. Not one person, not even the goody-goody in the class, said a word.
In second grade I was put into Mr. Jacobs’ class. Mr. Jacobs was a sweet, short man who had no control over the kids. He was the opposite of Mr. Togman. The charade in Mr. Jacobs’ class was the request to use the bathroom. “Ani rotzeh latzeit” – I wish to go out (to the bathroom) – was the only Hebrew sentence that every little Jewish child was adept at. It was your ticket to a short reprieve from the boredom where you could wander the halls for the most allowable time that could be construed as really taking care of your needs.
And then came Grade 3 taught by the dreaded Mr. Munk. I had heard the stories of Mr. Munk from my brothers. He was stern. He would take no guff (that’s what we used to say in those days) from anyone. Step out of line in Mr. Munk’s class and he plays piano on your fingers. Ouch. Whereas Mr. Togman was reviled and Mr. Jacobs almost pitied, Mr. Munk was feared.
And this is when everything about Hebrew school changed for me. Mr. Munk was feared all right. He was tall, had a German accent, gold teeth that glistened when he spoke, was very proud and stood erect. But there was something different about him. In Mr. Munk’s class, Judaism was not a bore. He taught with passion, love and intensity. He did not teach like he was a caretaker of misbehaving kids in a zoo for two hours daily. He taught like he was going to make an impression on us. And impress he did.
I came to love and look forward to his classes. I can still hear him tell us that if the Almighty could redeem the Jewish people from Egypt, did we really have to fear the Arab armies? I remember learning the Book of Joshua, and even recall him teaching us Rashi. I remember how proud I felt when I was awarded for going to shul, or knowing the most answers of an assignment. I still can sing the songs he taught us from Hallel, songs that he said the Israeli soldiers used to sing as they prepared for battle.
Mr. Munk loved being Jewish, was proud of being Jewish, and conveyed that love and pride. He became my first true rebbe and because of him I began to go to synagogue every week.
I continued attending synagogue well after my Bar Mitzvah. At about the age of fifteen I started to read novels by Chaim Potok and that inspired me even more to learn about Judaism. Potok painted a picture of learning Torah and living a Jewish life that I knew all my grandparents were keenly aware of, but that I had missed out on. For innumerable generations Jews were living the way Potok was describing and I was not about to let that end with me.
I ended up meeting a high school student at an Orthodox shul I began attending who invited me to study at Ner Yisrael Yeshiva in Toronto. There I met a couple of young rabbis who taught me until I heard of Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem, where I began studying in the summer of ’79, received rabbinic ordination in ’85 and the rest is history.
Over the years it had crossed my mind to try to contact Mr. Munk and to tell him what had become of me. I had no idea where he might be, or if he was even still alive. I never really followed through however, until one day I picked up a book translated by an Eliyahu Munk. I read the back flap about the translator and it mentioned that he was living in Israel and had been an educator in Toronto for many years. I was not sure if it was the same man. I never knew his first name – he was always Mr. Munk. I googled him and found Eliyahu Munk that did the translations and the email address of his publishing house. They replied that they would forward my email to him. A little while later I received the following email:
Dear Rabbi Nightingale
I was thrilled to hear from you. I am indeed the person you were looking for. During the past 25 years I have been a resident of Jerusalem with my wife. We have been blessed with 20 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. Needless to add, that all of these, as well as our four children, are all in Israel. We just celebrated our 60th anniversary surrounded by them all. My “literary” career began when I made aliyah, one of the motives being to spread Torah to a larger audience than merely in a classroom of children who did not really look for Torah in the first place in their after-public school hours. I’d love to hear more about you, or better still meet you again on your next trip to Israel.
Sincerely, Eliyahu Munk
I immediately emailed him back and told him what had become of me, and the impact that he had on my life choices and career. He was quite pleased and said that it had made his day, nay his week. He informed me that he would be in Miami in January for a couple of weeks.
I pulled up to the Best Western motel in Surfside and climbed the steps of the 60’s-style, bright yellow motel that had not yet been met with a wrecking ball for a high-rise like those being built around it all over North Beach. Outside of Room 426 an elderly lady sat reading in the sun. I approached, but before I said a word, she looked up at me and asked, “Rabbi Nightingale?” I replied, “Yes and you must be Mrs. Munk.”
She led me into the motel room and Mr. Munk came out looking quite casual in his three-button polo shirt. After 33 years Mr. Munk was not so tall, not so imposing, and not so stern. We chatted and exchanged family pictures. We went to lunch at a nearby cafe and talked some more. I told him what I was doing, the types of programs we run, how we conduct the Shabbat educational service and about other innovations Aish has created in Jewish education. We talked about the old Hebrew school, how long he had been there, his teaching career in Israel the past number of years and of his writings and classes.
The conversation turned to Torah and Mr. Munk began to cite halacha (Jewish law), quoting medieval commentaries and verses of Torah. He gave his insights and novel understandings of all kinds of things including the Sin of the Golden Calf.
As I sat there listening to him, a strange thing happened. His words faded into the background. Time had stopped and began retreating backwards. There it was again. His passion, his love, his pride – of Torah, of Judaism, of being Jewish. There it was once again in front of my eyes. That same energy that he had when he stood in front of our Grade 3 class on those cold winter evenings in Toronto was there again in front of me, 33 years later, in a café in sunny Miami Beach. His face again lit up, his piercing eyes, his mouth curling with words of Torah – it was all identical to those days in Hebrew school so long ago. And I sat, once again, enraptured by it.
His wife indicated that maybe he was going on too long but I said, “No, no, don’t you see…?” I could not hold back the tears. It was too overwhelming. To be a 10-year-old boy and a 43-year-old man all at the same moment. To be at the beginning of a life journey and well into it at the same time.
We left the café, walked back to the motel and said our goodbyes. I told them I would bring my family by on the Sunday before they left, which I did. Before we had gone to lunch they gave me a gift that I put in my car. I opened it after I had pulled away from the motel. It was a pretty glass and metal artwork with Birkat HaBayit – the Blessing for the Home.
Was the gift intentional? Didn’t he already know that he had given me that gift? Were it not for Mr. Munk, I would not have the Jewish home I have today. A home with my wife and six children [now seven] keeping Shabbat, keeping Kosher, talking about the weekly Torah portion with the kid’s parsha sheets. A home with Shabbat guests where we share the beauty, the wisdom and the greatness of being Jewish. A home where I try to pass on my love and passion for Judaism to others, the way that Mr. Munk had passed it onto to me so many, many years ago.
Down those ancient streets
Down those ancient roads
Where nobody knows
Where nobody goes
I’m back on the corner again