Thursday, September 24, 1964
“Yow!” I exclaimed as I examined the strange-looking structure in the Bonpere’s backyard.
“This thing looks like your marriage.”
Eli barked a laugh. “Exactly, Made the outside all by my lonesome. Leah did the inside.”
“Well, thank God for Leah,” I said. The outside was definitely his. With its polyglot of old doors, corrugated steel, and plywood sections, the structure looked like something you’d find in the swamps of Louisiana, perhaps after a hurricane had destroyed all the permanent buildings. The inside was right out of 1001 Arabian Nights. It was a cozy riot of color, patterns, and soft material. Exotic pillows surrounded a low circular table, itself on a Persian rug. The four walls, with a tent-like opening in the front were hung with batik and paisley drapes.
This remarkable blend of wildness and domesticity was a sukkah, the centerpiece of the eight-day celebration of Sukkot that Eli, Leah, and their two children were in the midst of celebrating. The sukkah, Eli explained, evoked the temporary living quarters of the Israelites during their sojourn in the wilderness as well as the temporary shelters for harvest workers in biblical times. Sukkot was like most Jewish festivals a celebration of liberation but also a harvest bash. The Bonpere’s sukkah was decorated with a cornucopia of Midwestern and Middle Eastern produce—pumpkins, squash, Indian corn, pomegranates, along with strings of figs and dates.
“You like it?” asked Leah.
I said yes, of course, adding that the blend of Bayou and Morocco was quite charming.
“Oh, good, I’m so glad,” said Leah. “But I confess that I miss the palm branches. In Morocco, we covered the roof with palm branches.”
“Palm branches are hard to come by in northern Indiana,” Eli added, as he spread some coals around the grill. “Leah has to settle for a centerpiece composed of her tropical houseplants.”
“And don’t forget the children’s drawings,” she said, pointing to the crayola and finger-paint décor on the walls. “See, they all have palms. Yosi and Yehudah both remember palm branches from their visit to Israel …”
“More likely from their visit to Disneyland,” Eli mumbled.
“I heard that, Eli,” Leah said. “Do you see any Disneyland rides on these pictures?”
“One of them sure looks like a picture of the Matterhorn,” Eli said.
“That happens to be a portrait of you and your pointy little head,” Leah said as she rattled the silverware onto the table.
Eli uncovered skewers of lamb kabobs, a trace of a grin on his face.
“How did you ever become a successful courtroom lawyer?” I said. “You’re getting hammered.”
“Fortunately, I never had to face Leah,” Eli said. “Besides, we’ve worked out a system. I give her just enough grief to keep the Morroccan fire burning, and then I let her have the last word.”
“Always?” I asked.
“Always,” Eli said, removing the kabobs from the fire. “I’m just a guest inside her tent, and frankly I rather like it that way.”
“Yeah,” I said. “What’s the reward?”
“That Moroccan fire I mentioned,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “This life you see—it’s because of her.”
And a good life it seemed to me. Eli's house, set inside one of the better sections of the city, was less ostentatious than its neighbors on the outside but more comfortable, I guessed, on the inside. Because of Leah. She was born in Morocco to Jewish parents, who had immigrated to Chicago before the war. This would become Eli's good fortune.
Eli, born in Louisiana to Creole parents, had grown up in Chicago. His working-class parents had moved north during the depression in hopes of finding work. They settled into the Lawndale neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. Eli’s father found janitorial work in a factory, squirreled away enough money to send his only child to Blessed Sacrament Elementary School, St. Ignatius High School, and Loyola University. In spite of his impeccable Jesuit Education, Eli had a lifelong attraction to Judaism, owing he said to the influence of a particular Jewish storekeeper in his Lawndale neighborhood. Abe, owner of a Jewish deli, was a kindly olive-skinned man who seemed to take a natural interest in children of all races and creeds. They in turn gravitated to the store, both for its array of candy and snack food and the good-natured ribbing by the man with the funny accent and a memory for every child’s name. The store was closed on Saturdays, which the adults but not the children had gotten used to. When the store occasionally closed on other days of the week, the children were bereft and wanted to know why. Only then did Abe mention his religion—the store was closed, he explained, because it was Passover, or Sukkot, or the High Holy Days and he could not work. They all asked questions, but young Eli asked far more than the others.
One time, young Eli came to the store with his mother and, noticing the sign that said the store would be closed for two days, began drilling Abe with questions. Eli’s mother was embarrassed and tried to shush him, but Abe admitted to her that he was flattered by the questions and admired the boy’s intelligence. In fact, he wondered out loud with uncharacteristic shyness, if Eli and his mother would be interested in coming to his house the next afternoon for a little show-and-tell. The holiday was Sukkot, which was a particularly fun festival. Eli's mother was reluctant, but Eli begged until she relented and agreed to take him for a visit after school the next day.
To young Eli, Abe’s sukkah was magical, a tree house on the ground. Eli asked a dozen questions, which embarrassed his mother and charmed old Abe. Eli never forgot that visit, citing it as the dawning of his interest in Judaism.
When WWII came around, Eli would have served a military hitch in 1944 if he hadn’t been a Negro. Knowing through the grapevine that Negroes were taken for service only grudgingly and then mostly deployed for the duration to places like Alabama, Eli opted for college. His draft board was all too happy to accommodate. Feeling only the slightest bit guilty, Eli got his sociology degree from Loyola University and then went to Marshall for a law degree. He began studying Judaism casually during college and got more serious during law school as he discovered that Judaism was, at least in part, a legal system. By the time he passed the bar, he was praying regularly at an Orthodox synagogue. Two years later, he began taking a conversion course. Three years after that, Eliyahu Ben-Avraham (nee Eliyahu Bonpere) was fully converted to Judaism and living in Rogers Park within walking distance of a Sephardi synagogue.
In 1956, he provided some legal help to a visitor to the synagogue, a Moroccan Jew who had escaped with his family from Paris in 1942 and was living in South Bend, Indiana. The man’s name was Joe—or more precisely Yosef. He had four daughters, one of whom was Leah.
Eli’s legal help was invaluable, his Louisiana French hardly understandable, and his attentions to Leah proper but insistent, especially considering the 100 miles between the north side of Chicago and South Bend. In the end, Avraham came to see this Eliyahu Ben-Avraham, in spite of his exotic background, as a good match for his daughter. Eli’s willingness to move to South Bend sealed the deal, especially with Leah’s mother.
This was the seventh sukkot that Eli and Leah had celebrated together.
Considering that Sukkot was a religious festival, the meal was blessedly light on religious fru-fru, except for an after-dinner blessing in Hebrew that seemed to go on forever. The children were part of the meal, and I guessed that no one could get away with too much piety while the little ones were carrying on.
The food was exotic and tasty. Leah started with tabouleh, a blend of mostly parsley and bulghur that she called a “salad” but which bore little resemblance to the iceberg lettuce creations I was used to. When we had finished this off, she brought out bowls of soup.
“This is delicious,” I said, after trying a couple of spoonfuls. “I’ve never had anything like it.”
“Well, I’m not surprised,” said Eli with a chuckle. “For lack of a better description, it’s Moroccan seafood gumbo. I tried to get Leah to do a kosher version of the gumbo I grew up with, but she insisted on adding lentils, cinnamon, coriander, and who knows what all Moroccan spices.”
“Well, it works,” I said, sopping up the soup with pita bread. “And look, there’s some okra right here.”
“Laissez les bontemps roulez,” said Leah, with a twisted grin and in Morrocan French.
Eli’s kabobs were terrific, though I allowed as how the spicing seemed to come from a different place than that of the soup.
Um-uh,” grunted Eli. “They were marinated in what amounts to Louisiana crab boil. I can’t have the crab, but there’s no reason I can’t have the spice. Especially, when I’m doing the grilling.”
“I thought I tasted a hint of cinnamon though,” I said.
“You know, I did too,” said Eli. “I think my lovely wife frenched the marinade.”
“Just a little,” laughed Leah. “To tie it together with my dishes.”
We finished with fruit cocktail, which combined dates, bananas, and grapes. After the closing prayer, Leah began to clear the table—the kids had long disappeared into the house—and Eli brought out a couple of fat cigars.
“Don’t ask me what these are,” he said. “I only smoke these things in the middle days of sukkot. With the barbecue and this delicious cigar smoke, I’m reminding myself of the Temple. Anyway, every year I go into Iwan Ries and ask for their most expensive cigars. When they tell me what they cost, I ask for an alternative that costs half that. These are a bit less expensive but still good.”
“This is the second time I’ve heard about Iwan Ries,” I said, lighting up my cigar and inhaling deeply. I coughed—and thought I had died and gone to heaven.
“You aren’t supposed to inhale these things,” Eli said. “They are food. They have a taste.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I have gone three hours without a cigarette.”
“You didn’t have to,” Eli said, blowing a cloud of smoke into the air.
“I know,” I said. “But you served grape juice when I happen to know you dearly love wine and liquor. If you can do that for me, I can resist blowing cigarette smoke in your family’s face.”
“So how’s it going,” Eli asked, “as a seminary spy?”
“There are complications,” I admitted, filling him in on some of the details of the suicide. “Let me ask you a legal and ethical question.”
“I’m your attorney,” he said. “Ask away.”
“Okay, but I’m going to keep this hypothetical for now,” I said. “Suppose someone took some, uh, evidence from a, uh …”
“Well, that’s the thing. It’s not an exactly a crime scene. There’s a pro-forma investigation, but the police are pretty sure they are looking at a suicide.”
“And this someone took something before the police arrive for a keepsake? Or to protect someone?”
“Either. Let’s say to protect someone.”
“No, almost surely not. But maybe the victim had a relationship with this person that, if known, would have led to further investigation by the police and complication and …”
“Let me get this straight. Someone took something from a crime scene. You may not want to call it a crime scene, but if the police are investigating, it’s a crime scene until they clear it. This someone didn’t take this something to cover up a murder but to cover up an embarrassing relationship.”
“That’s about it.”
“Well, as an attorney, I’d have to say it’s wrong.”
“Here’s the moral complication,” I said. “They didn’t do it out of malice, in my hypothetical example, but to protect someone from gossip that might contaminate their own internal investigation of this person.”
“You’re making this up.”
“I’m pleased that you think so.”
“Well, it is an interesting dilemma,” he said. “In Judaism, gossip is a big deal. We call it lashon hora, which means ‘evil tongue.’ In most cases, you can’t even spread tales that are true if it it will injure the person. We go to great lengths to avoid lashon hora. There is a well known story that illustrates the issue.
"A man spreads gossip about a member of his community and realizes that in doing so he had damaged the man's reputation. He regrets what he did and goes to a great rabbi and asks how he can make amends for his misdeed.
" ‘Here’s how,’ the rabbi tells him. ‘I want you to take a pillow, cut it open, and shake it in the wind until all the feathers escape.’
"The man was puzzled, but he did as he was told and went back to the rabbi. 'I don’t see how this exercise makes amends for my misdeed,’ the man said.
" 'Oh, but you’re not done,’ the rabbi said. ‘Now you must put all the feathers back in the pillow.’
" ‘But that’s impossible,’ the man said.
" ‘Ah, now you see,’ said the rabbi."
“So you shouldn't spread tales about another person," I said, "even if the tales are true."
“Unless ... ” said Eli.
"Doing so would protect innocent people from serious harm.”
“… in which case tale-bearing is required by Torah. Moreover, not spreading the tale in such instances could put a person in legal jeopardy for tampering with a crime scene and obstructing justice,” Eli said. “Good thing this is just a hypothetical.”