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A Bintel Letter

Posted on Wednesday, July 1, 2009 in Jewish Law, Letters, letters by Stu

Worthy Editor,

I thank you in advance for reading this letter. Right now I am state of terrible despair. I know that in the end that no one can help me. Yet I need to unburden my heart.

Here is my story: My father ___was a highly renowned composer of Yiddish music. During the course of his life, he composed and arranged over 200 original compositions. In addition, he served as the cantor at many temples, both in Cleveland, where we used to live, and Los Angeles, where we moved in 1957.

The last piece my father ever wrote was a cantata entitled “Echoes Of Yiddish Life” It depicts the trials of the Jewish people throughout the course of history. My father had contracted cancer when he began composing this piece. The doctors told him he had six months to live. Despite his great pain, he sat at the piano every day, because he wanted to finish this work before he died.

He was too sick to go the opening nights performance, but luckily a young cantor brought him videotape, which he watched from his hospital bed.

He passed away the following day.

In 1988, four years after my father’s death, a man named ___ contacted my mother and said that he wanted to put my father’s music into an Archive in New York. My mother was reluctant at first, but the man was highly persuasive. He finally succeeded in convincing her to give him my father’s entire collection. The man said that by “donating this gift”, she could be assured that her husband’s memory “would live on through all eternity.”

A week later, the man came to our house. My mother helped him as he packed all of my father’s original handwritten scores, as well as original tapes of many of his performances, into boxes. My mother asked the man to make copies of the tapes and to return the originals to her. He agreed.

I can still see my mother shedding tears as she watched the man walk down the driveway, taking with him my father’s life’s work. One by one, he put the boxes into the trunk of his car. Then he was gone.

One week later, my mother received a letter from the man. He said that the boxes had arrived safely in New York, and that now all that had to be done was to transfer the collection into the Archive. He told my mother that soon she would be able to come to New York and see the Archive for herself.

About a month later, my mother received a letter from the man. He said the project was going a little more slowly than he had expected. “These things take time,” he told her. He also said had not yet made copies of the tapes, but as soon as he did, he would return the originals to my mother.

Nearly two months passed and my mother received no letters, nor did her tapes arrive as promised.

As the months passed, the man’s letters grew farther and farther apart. When he did write, he made elaborate excuses as to why the Archive had not yet materialized. He also told my mother that he had returned the tapes, but when she finally got them, they were the tapes of another musician!

Over a year later, my mother got a letter from the man. He admitted that the Archive had failed to materialize, but—not to worry! He was now embarking on a fund raising campaign to make my father’s archive a reality.

“I assure you,” he wrote “The music is safe.”

That would be the last letter my mother would ever receive from the man.

Up until her death, my mother never ceased trying to get my father’s music back. She grew more and more despondent as the years passed, for she felt that she was responsible for losing her husband’s life’s work.

My mother died in 2000, in a state of abject despair (ye’ush). Several weeks after she died, I discovered a manila folder on which she had scrawled—in a childlike handwriting—(name of man) who took all of M’s music.

The manila folder was empty.

I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened. Fortunately, my mother was a good record keeper. She had saved every single one of the man’s letters.

Reading them, I grew more and more furious. The letters were rank and putrid with falsity and lies. I actually came to the point where I became physically ill when I read them.

One day I simply decided to give up everything I was doing, and devote myself to getting my father’s music back.

I am a newspaper reporter by trade, and I thought it would be easy to track the man down. Once I found him, I was sure I could convince him to return my father’s collection.

But my task was not so easy. The man proved to be highly elusive. I sent registered letters to all of his various addresses (he had a lot of them!). I tried calling him (he changed numbers frequently)—all to no avail. An associate of his told me he spent much time abroad and that he was difficult to locate.

That was a vast understatement. This man was a virtual ghost!

In 2002, I decided to fly to New York to confront the man in person. I went to a class he was teaching at a prominent Jewish University. I waited outside his classroom, but mysteriously, he never showed up. His students seemed surprised.

I kept searching. The years passed. I now had three file boxes full of information about the man, but as yet I had never managed to talk to him in person.

Then one night God granted me a blessing. I called the man at his home at about 1:00 a.m. To my great surprise he picked up the phone.

I didn’t want to give him a chance to get his balance.

“Where is my father’s music?” I asked.

For the next hour, the man stuttered and stammered his way through the conversation. As he went on, his excuses grew more and more elaborate. But I was insistent. Finally, he admitted that the music— still sitting in boxes—was in a storage locker.

“Where is the locker?” I demanded.

“Uhhhhh, I don’t really know. I have people who handle all that. I think it’s either in New York or New Jersey.

“But don’t worry,” he said. “The music is safe.”

I felt a chill go up my back, realizing he’d said those exact same words to my mother 20 years earlier.

And so, dear Editor, the story ends—at least for the moment.

I have not forsaken my quest, but I must tell you, sir, I am beginning to despair that I might fail. Day after day, I think of nothing else. I look at the empty shelves where my father’s music sat, and I weep for hours on end. My doctor tells me that I am depressed. He gave me a lot of pills, but they just make me tired. Sometimes I think about swallowing them all, but I know that God would not want me to do that.

This man haunts me in my dreams. I see his wicked face (he is very ugly) coming at me in the dark, like a scene out of a horror movie. I wake up during the night, sweating and crying.

I went to the store and bought every Yorzheit candle they had. Every night I light two of them—one for my father and one for my mother.

I promise them that somehow…some way…I will succeed in my quest. But honestly, I do not know what to do from here, which is why I am writing you.

Kind sir, I beg of you to print my letter in the hopes your readers will be moved to write to this man’s superiors and demand that he be called to task for his actions. Our family has been irreparably wounded; and though the scar will remain forever—we can only begin to heal when our father’s music is back on the shelves from where it was taken some twenty long years ago.

Gratefully,

Broken Hearted Son

ANSWER:

This man has violated every law of the Torah, and must be brought to justice. I suggest you present your case before a Beth Din, since the Jewish community is where this man makes his living. Hopefully, this will cause the man to return the music to you and your family. If he does not, he will receive a sh’tar seruv—a notice finding him in contempt. Such a notice would advise that this man should be shunned by the entire Jewish Community. This would be just desserts for the evil deed he has committed.

Author’s note: The above account is true. I have not included the names of the involved parties.

Several months ago I was looking through my parents book collection, and I came across an old yellowed copy of “A Bintel Brief.” I had no idea what the book was about, but something caused me to take it from the shelf. I sat down in a chair and opened the book. Eight hours later, I closed it. That book  (which describes the plight of the first Jews who came from Europe to live—under the most atrocious circumstances—in America) was the impetus for writing this letter. I believe that my story is not unlike the tragic tales expressed by the people who opened their souls before the world in the original “Bintel Brief.”

My hope is that in publishing this that the perpetrator will be moved to recognize his wrongdoing. This man, a man who holds a position of power in the Jewish community and who holds himself up as living halachacly, has committed a grievous sin in that he has spit upon the very heart of the Talmud and the Torah. I have tried to forgive this man, but I find myself unable to. When and if the music is returned, perhaps I will be able to do so.

Nothing will bring back the 20 lost years in which my father’s music has been sitting in basements and storage lockers. Those years are have faded into the dustbin of history.

Despite the untold amount of suffering my family has undergone, I believe that God is in control. I do not believe it was an accident that I picked up that old copy of  “A Bintel Brief,” which had been sitting on our bookshelf since the 50’s, nor is it accidental that I find myself writing this story twenty years after the collection was taken. My hope is that in the telling of this tale, people might have their eyes opened to the constant interplay of good and evil in this world, and more importantly—that they understand that even in the midst of the greatest travail, God is with us.

In fact, I did bring a case against this man before a Beth Din. He ignored the summons and has now been issued a sh’tar seruv. This man is now a Mesarev L’Din in the eyes of the Jewish court.

I will end this missive with the following annotation, found on the website “Jewish Law” http://www.jlaw.com/

The Many Sins of a Mesarev L’Din

A Jew that refuses to cooperate with Bais Din is labeled a Mesarev L’Din, one who is in contempt of halacha. The Mesarev transgresses numerous Torah laws including: Al Pi Hatorah Asher Yorucha, Uvasa El Hashofet Asher Yehiyeh Bayamim Hahem, Ad Haelokim Yovo Dvar Shnayhem,Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof (all found in Mishpatim and Shoftim).

One who keeps money or property that is not rightfully his according to Torah law, even if he is entitled to do so according to civil law, is a thief who transgresses, depending on the circumstances, any or all of the following: Lo Signovu Velo Sechachashu Velo Seshakeru Ish Baamiso, Lo Saashok Es Reyacha Velo Sigzol. Lo Salin Peulas Sachir. Lo Saasu Avel Bamishpat Bamida Bamishkal Uvamishura (all in Parshas Kedoshim).

The Rama adds-–“And Bais Din has authority to excommunicate him and declare a cherem against him.”

Is Cherem really all that bad?

The Talmud (Moed Katan 17A) expounds upon the frightening nature of Cherem. Says Rav, “Shamta (The proclamation of Cherem) is a death curse”. Shmuel says, “It bespeaks utter destruction.” Reish Lakish says “The curse of Cherem affects all 248 limbs of the individual as is illustrated by the fact that the letters Ches, Resh, Mem equal in numerology (Gematria) 248. However, when the sinner repents, these same letters may be rearranged to spell Rachem … mercy… as he has freed himself of the curse of Cherem.

The Shulchan Orech (Yoreh Deah Chap. 334) instructs us regarding an individual placed in Niduy (the lesser degree of Cherem) that except for his wife and children, one may not sit next to him within a distance of four amos. One may not share food and drink with him. He is not counted for a Minyan or a Mezumin. He is forbidden to wash his clothing or to wear freshly laundered clothes or to take a haircut, just as though he were in mourning.

Chazal said, “Whomever was boycotted for one day in the lower world, is boycotted in the Upperworld for 30 days; whomever was boycotted in the lower world for 30 days, is boycotted in the Upperworld for a year. Whomever is boycotted in the lower world for one year, is boycotted eternally in the Upper World. There is no ‘medicine’ for this.”

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Author’s note: After 6 years of effort, my family and I…with the aid of the several good souls in the Jewish Community…were able to force this man to return my father’s music. In June of 2008, we received (almost) all of it back. Two full boxes of music remain missing. We are now in the process of helping other families (there were many) whose music was taken from them by use of the same deceptive methods that allowed this man to take my father’s music from our home back in 1988.

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