This article originally appeared in the Yiddish Forverts.
One day in the early 1990s, a red-bearded scribe walked into my small corner of the world. Rabbi Yosef Lasdun was a slender man in his thirties, dressed head to toe in the black garb of Jewish men from Washington Heights. He had traveled from his apartment on Bennett Avenue in northern Manhattan to my apartment in the Bronx to collect a damaged set of tefillin that, according to the cantor down the hall from me, only this scribe could restore.
Rabbi Lasdun was determined to find out all he could about the wounded little artifact in my possession. How had these ancient tefillin found their way to me?
I knew that the original owner was a man named Dr. Winter. He had been my mother’s obstetrician, and he brought me into the world. Dr. Winter had died decades ago and now the tefillin belonged to his son, a man about my age. Once they were repaired, they would be passed on as a bar mitzvah gift to Dr. Winter’s grandson.
Rabbi Lasdun spoke with a slight stammer. “Have you ever looked inside?” he asked as he angled the tefillin box at shoulder-height.
He reached into his suit pocket for an X-acto blade the way a magician might pull a dove out of his tuxedo. With deft sleight of hand, Rabbi Lasdun pried the little leather box open and — poof! A cloud of dust shot upward like a tiny nuclear explosion. It was gone within seconds.
“Dust!” I exclaimed, now that it was my turn to stammer. “Nineteenth-century dust! From the scribe’s workshop?”
Rabbi Lasdun raised an eyebrow. Surely, he had presided over this magic many times before, but he looked happy, even thrilled, to see wonder on my face. He did not have to say anything at all.
In fact, Rabbi Lasdun did not lecture me about keeping kosher or lighting Shabbos candles. He accomplished what he came to do and he was glad: He brought me into a world of wonders that included a shtetl scribe, a length of animal hide, the doctor who birthed me and his thirteen-year-old grandson, and, suddenly, the two of us. Like Houdini, Rabbi Lasdun was another rare Jewish conjurer with a talent for prying open the everyday to reveal the mystery inside. I would not have been surprised if he had pulled a rabbit out of his black fedora hat.
My encounter with Yosef Lasdun lasted barely fifteen minutes, yet I experienced his death in May as the dimming of a brilliant light in my life. If truth be told, I did not remember his name at first. I recalled only that I had been in the presence of a great heart, a compassionate mind, and a magical soul. I hope this fine stammering gentleman will find an hour now and then to fix the broken tefillin he unearths in his corner of eternity.
Barbara Finkelstein is a contributor to the Forverts. She is at work on a book about mental illness and housing in the Bronx.