The song “Oh, My Papa” was popularized by singer Eddie Fisher more than a few years ago! In the beautiful melody and words, Eddie praised his “wonderful” father. Recently, I heard the tune again on the radio. It begins like this:
Oh, my papa, to me he was so wonderful,
Oh, my papa, to me he was so good.
No one could be so gentle and so lovable,
Oh, my papa, he always understood.
While listening, I thought of my own papa Reb Hersz Fishel Kinek. If you are a Baltimorean and are “over 39,” I’m sure you’ve heard of Reverend Kinek as he was called. In fact, if you are an over-39 Baltimore male, chances are that he was your mohel. (His bris records were given to the Baltimore Jewish museum.)
In addition to being a mohel, my father was the chazan for the Bais Hamedresh Hagadol congregation, which was located in East Baltimore. In later years he was a chazan for the early Park Heights Shaarei Zion congregation.
His ad in the Baltimore Jewish Times read, “Mohel Mumche (expert mohel) and the words: “Frei fahr dee noytigeh – free for the needy.” And there were many needy! Incidentally, the fee for a bris was 10 dollars!
My father soon became the most sought-after mohel in the city because he performed each bris quickly and skillfully. In addition, he had an outgoing, friendly personality. He was available for every Yid requesting his services, ranging from members of Ner Israel Yeshiva to the Reform.
A Reform rabbi once attended a bris, and he was without any head covering. When presented with a yarmulke, he stated that he held by “nusach Reform”: no head covering. My papa’s response was that he, the mohel was not a Reform Yid and that he would not proceed until heads were covered. The rabbi thus broke Reform protocol and put on a yarmulke.
My papa had many letters of recommendation, including one from “the Rav,” Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, father-in-law of my cousin Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, whose children he circumcised.
As you can imagine, I heard an earful of stories pertaining to brisim that he performed. Here are a few:
My papa received his training as a mohel in Austria. He accompanied his teacher, an accomplished mohel to each bris. One day, the nurse brought the wrong baby to the bris area, and my father performed the bris. To add fuel to the fire, so to speak, the baby was not Jewish! And in those years, such a happening to an Austrian gentile was a family calamity. The infant was returned to his mother, and after being told what occurred, she began screaming, “Ach der liber, mehn hawt mein Franz fahr Jude gemacht – Good grief, they made my Franz a Jew!” Whether she sued the hospital is a good question. Franz did not object – at that time.
Another hospital miseh: Sinai Hospital was located in East Baltimore. There was a bris room which was used exclusively for circumcisions. The room had a large glass pane that separated the guests from the bris area and allowed them to see the ceremony. One morning a baby was brought into the bris room, where everyone oohed and ahhed as the mohel pronounced “Boruch habaw” welcoming the child’s arrival. He was placed on the lap of the sandik and the diaper was removed. Suddenly the crowd was aghast, because the fahrtumult (confused) nurse mistakenly brought in a female baby!
My papa had a good sense of humor, and once he began laughing, it was hard for him to stop. So he and the guests went into laughing hysterics for several minutes. The baby girl was returned to the mom, and the real baby boy was brought in. What happened to the embarrassed nurse? Vehr vais (who knows)?
As for his early life, my papa was born in Lodz, Poland. His father, Reb Moshe Chaim, was an Aleksander chosid. When he was a young child, my papa’s father took him along to the Aleksander Rebbe’s “tish,” which consisted of the Rebbeh sitting in front of a long table with eager chasidim listening to his dvar Torah. Following his presentation, the chasidim awaited a special treat from the Rebbeh, a morsel of bread or kugel, called “sherayim.”
So what chance does a child have of receiving sherayim? A baseball fan (lehavdil) has a better chance catching a fly ball at a stadium! In order to obtain sherayim, the young Fishel crawled under the table until he reached the Rebbeh. He then suddenly jumped up next to the Rebbeh!
Nu, as you can imagine the chasidim’s reactions! They were in a frenzy, and they were ready to clobber the young chutzpanik. He was saved by the kindhearted Rebbeh, who place him nearby, and he probably got a piece of the sherayim. Whether he attended any more tish sessions, ich vais nisht (I don’t know), but I doubt it.
Another story that my papa told: At a very young age, he was taken to the mikva by his father. Bayomim hahaym (in those days), young kids used fish lungs to float in the water. That’s what he used, and along came a Yiddisher villain and pierced the fish lungs! He began to sink until a mikvah participant observed what was happening and rescued him. My guess is that he did not accompany his father on other visits to the mikvah.
At times, my papa spoke about the extreme poverty that existed in Poland. He had many siblings and often told about the hunger in the family – to the extent of fighting over potato peels! He also told about the hardship of purchasing a loaf of bread. On one occasion, he and his brother went to the bakery and waited in a long line. They finally received the bread and began walking home. Suddenly, some ruffians ran towards them and demanded the bread. The brothers instantly began running, and my father’s brother Aaron ran across the street. Like a football player, my dad tossed the loaf to his brother, who caught it, and they ran like deer. I do not know whether there were more tosses of the loaf as they were being pursued, but they outran the ruffians and got home safely.
The years passed, and one day my papa received a letter from the Polish draft board directing him to register for the military. He was very leery about registering, but it was an ayn brayrah (no choice) situation. He therefore took the letter and went to the military station to register.
He stood in a long line to enter the building when a Polish enlistee suddenly walloped him across the face, an occurrence that was quite common when a Pole met a Yid. My papa reported the incident to the head Pole, but instead of reprimanding the attacker, the officer verbally abused my father and told him to go to the back of the line! He concluded that he would not survive in the Polish army. He completed his registration, but his thoughts were how to escape from Poland.
The plan was to escape by crossing a waterway that divided Poland from Austria. Arrangements were made with Poles who smuggled Yidden for a price, and in one evening he waded across a stream carrying his most cherished possession, his tefilin. He was spotted, and shots were fired in his direction. But Hashem was with him, and his escape was successful. His tefilin made it, too, and whenever my papa related the happening, he gleefully mentioned that his tefilin were later examined and they remained kosher.
My papa, who was raised in Poland, migrated to Italy, learned the Sefardic nusach and became a chazan in Milan. He maintained the position for 15 years until Benito Mussolini, yimach shmo, expelled Jews who were not born in Italy.
Obtaining a visa to the United States was next to impossible because of the anti-Semitic State Department that limited migration to the U.S. and insisted that immigrants have a job in the United States. With the assistance of my uncle, Reb Mordechai Lichtenstein, a congregation in the South, and the Ribono Shel Olam (G-d) our mishpacha received visas and entered the U.S.A. in 1939. We settled in Baltimore Maryland. Stories about our life in Baltimore can be found in the online archives of the WWW magazine.
After residing in Baltimore for many years, my papa’s lifelong dream of living in Israel finally came true. He and my mother made aliyah and lived in Israel for seven years. Before he was niftar, my papa told members of the mishpacha that, although there were some disappointments, he was glad that he had made aliyah. He was niftar on Shevat 22. 5737.
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The last stanza of the “Oh, My Papa” melody goes like this:
Gone are the days when he could take me on his knee,
And with a smile he’d change my tears to laughter.
Oh, my papa, to me he was so wonderful,
Oh, my papa, I miss him so today.
Although my papa passed away many years ago, I still miss him. Yehi zichro boruch, may his memory be for a blessing.