There I was, holding my suitcase in one hand and my Tallis bag in the other, waiting to embark onto the JetFoil.
We were queuing slowly towards the front desk, where a lady in uniform was checking the boarding cards. By now, I was already familiar with the ins and outs of getting the most out of this time saving service. Back in the nineties, when this was the fastest way to cross the channel, we used to travel with this now-defunct vessel.
I presented my boarding card to the stewardess who stamped my loyalty card and wrote “A’pen” next to the stamp, meaning that my destination is Antwerp (us Antwerpenaren didn’t like this abbreviated form, as it also means “monkeys” in Flemish…).
We all entered the waiting hall and watched as the vessel inched its way towards us, finally docking and letting its London-bound passengers off. We then proceeded to board the hydrofoil, which was slowly but surely filling up with travellers. I found my seat at the rear of the cabin, in a row of double seats, with a window view overlooking the sea. Behind me I noticed two Bochurim, in their mid-teens, who busied themselves with their luggage, familiarising themselves with their new surroundings. The seat next to me was occupied by an older person, of nondescript appearance. He wore a cap and a jacket, both of which looked as if they came straight from a second hand shop. I noticed that he is one of those passengers with whom one could hardly lead a lengthy conversation with. I decided to keep to myself, leaving him to his own devices – not before giving him an obligatory nod as a sign of greeting.
The boat started shuddering as the whirring of the main propeller started up, making itself heard over the collective din of travellers’ voices, the captain’s welcome broadcast over the tannoy and other noises emanating from the docks. Finally, we were seaborne and making good progress towards Oostende, from where I was to catch a connecting train to Antwerp. The reading material came out – if I remember correctly, it was a computer magazine, which I kept for just such an occasion – and I settled down to spend the rest of the 100 minutes (the amount of time advertised that this journey would take) busy reading. The guy next to me was looking out through the window, apparently admiring the seagulls arching their way through the sky. The two Heimishe boys behind were rummaging through their bags rather noisily, making themselves stand out even more than their peculiar appearance.
No sooner did I make this mental observation, when I felt a jab in my back. I spun around and saw the younger of the two boys with a pack of nosh in his hand, holding it in front of me. He offered it to me, as I was ‘one of theirs’ so to speak. I accepted the candy and then politely pointed out to the man sitting next to me, advising them to also share with him. The older Bochur piped up: “for this Nazi, why should I bother?!” I kept my composure and explained to them that they should never make assumptions and regardless of what they think about him, they should offer him the same as they did with me, so as not to upset our fellow passenger. Accepting my rebuke, they grudgingly offered him a candy, which he declined with a wave of his hand. However before he returned his gaze to the window, he made a statement which made us three frummers startle as if hit with a broom stick. He told me - in a spicy Yiddish - “zog zay az zey zollen nisht fargessen tzu machen a broche”*. We were so dumbstruck, that we couldn’t utter a word. I turned round and gave the two boys a nod, as if to say “it’s damage-control time”. The older one recovered first, stretching out his hand with a candy towards my neighbour. He declined, waving away the gesture and returned to his pensive state. After a couple of minutes I started up a conversation with him, which I managed to turn into a real schmooze. Turns out that he lives in Brussels, attends Shul on a daily basis and – as it is when two Jews meet – even knows my wife’s Zeide. This connection went back some decades, from the time when he used to peddle his merchandise to mineworkers. My mother in law filled me in with some details, explaining that the Belgian mine labourers spent their days underground in the mines. When they finished their shift they would emerge from the shafts completely covered in soot. It was a luxury to encounter a refreshing smell of soap and clean towels, for which they paid handsomely. This gave them an opportunity to clean themselves and come back to civilisation in a more respectable state. Zeidy would be on the ready with his wares - soap and haberdashery - which earned him barely enough to put bread on the table. This was at a time before he had the shop in Schulen - a small hamlet in the Belgian province of Limburg. My new friend then proceeded to explain how he ended up in Belgium, after spending the war in a forced labour camp, barely making it out alive. And these boys called him a Nazi! I was ashamed beyond belief but could only apologise, that their family must also have endured the same hell as he and therefore these boys didn’t know any better: whenever a person didn’t fit their liking, they labelled him as such, without realising the irony of it. Indeed, when I arrived home (to Antwerp that is) my father confirmed my theory, by filling me in on the background of these youngsters. It appears that their father married very late in life, having suffered in the war he didn’t feel like starting a family until a Rebbe advised him to stop worrying and to start Shepping Naches. These two sons of him were born to him when he was already in his fifties, which ensured that their upbringing was full of grandfatherly love and without lacking anything. Whilst this suited them fine, there may have been some other people who had to suffer the consequences of such a laissez faire Chinuch – our travelling companion being a prime example.
Moral of the story: kabdehu, kabdehu vechashdehu – in this order. Respect him, share with him, and be on your guard nonetheless. If we instil such behaviour in our offspring, we will surely merit that our children will be Ahuvim lemato and nechmodim lemato amen.
*Tell them not to forget to make a blessing