Posted: Thursday, October 26, 2017 – 9:27 PM
Newburgh is on the Hudson River in upstate New York. It had one synagogue, B’nai Israel. After an emergency ulcer operation, my father, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Cutler, was told by his doctor to take a congregation away from the constant unsettling tension of Brooklyn. My father told us it was “God’s will.”
Newburgh was a quiet town in those years. Its only claim to fame was a bungalow on Liberty Street with a sign stating that George Washington had slept there. My older brother Irwin wasn’t impressed as he said that Washington had slept everywhere that’s how he became known as “The father of our country.” For that remark, my brother received a slap on the back of his head from my father.
We lived in a two story wooden framed house on S. Williams Street within walking distance of the synagogue. On the first day of school my father took me to register.
“Your name please,” the woman behind the desk asked.
“Rabbi Cutler,” he answered.
“Anthony?” she innocently asked.
My father’s voice shot up ten octaves. “Anthony? No, it’s Abraham.”
After I was officially registered, my father returned home and I went straight to the assembly in the auditorium.
When I returned home, my father asked, “Nu Jerele, did you learn anything today?” I nodded and innocently started to sing the song I had learned.
“Onward Christian Soldiers marching as to war …With the cross of Jesus Going on before….”
My father clutched his heart and looked up “God in Heaven, for this you brought me to Newburgh? This is what you learned today?”
“Well, forget it!”
The next day we were back at the registration office. “I’m Rabbi Cutler,” he said to the same woman who registered me.
“Yes, I remember. Anthony, right?”
My father nodded his head in resignation, “Yes, Anthony” he replied. “May I speak to the principal?”
Mr. Weikirk invited us into his office. “Rabbi Cutler, I’m honored.”
“Thank you,” my father answered, “and perhaps you will honor my request and excuse my son from all further assemblies.”
“I understand,” Mr. Weikirk said and immediately appointed me as his assistant during all future assemblies.
I received good marks in class as well as a few anti-Semitic slurs.
Being a new student and Mr. Weikirk’s assistant, which didn’t hurt, I was the student selected to walk alongside Mr. Weikirk, the Halloween Parade’s Grand Marshall.
Halloween was the year’s big event in Newburgh. There was a band and everyone in costume walking down their main street, Broadway.
I ran to the Temple to tell my father the good news. “Halloween? Are you Meshugah? It’s a holiday of Saints. Jews do not celebrate Halloween.”
“But, all the Jewish kids wear costumes and march down Broadway.”
He amended his objection. “Rabbi’s children do not celebrate Halloween!”
“But Pa, I was chosen.”
“You are one of the chosen,” he assured me, ”but not for Halloween.” I was not to be deterred. I ran home and dressed as a bum.
I put on an old torn shirt, jacket and baggy pants my brother gave me and one of my father’s fedora’s that covered my ears. I took a broom stick from the closet, tied a red bandana on the end and spread shoe polish on my face.
As I walked out of my front door, there was my father walking in. “Go upstairs, take off the clothing and the shmutz off your face and stay in your room.”
I walked upstairs, opened the window in my room, walked on the roof over our porch and jumped to the ground.
I ran all the way to Broadway and arrived just as the parade was beginning. Standing alongside Mr. Weikirk, we started to march.
It was at that time my father went upstairs to check on me. He called to Irwin, “Your brother, the bum, isn’t in his room and his window is open. Come with me…we’re going to take him home.”
They stood on a corner waiting for the parade to pass by. My father spotted me leading the parade with Mr. Weikirk and the Catholic priest who joined us – whose name was, ironically, Father Anthony. Before a couple of policemen or my brother could stop him, he ran right past them with the cops in pursuit.
Mr. Weikirk saw people running and asked to nobody in particular, “Who is that nut making all the commotion?”
I shyly answered, “That’s my father.”
Mr. Weikirk and Father Anthony both greeted my father exclaiming how honored they were to have the town’s rabbi join them in the name of Brotherhood.
Father Anthony was so overcome that he actually shed some tears as he embraced my father with cameras flashing all over the place.
The next day, with a front page picture of my father embracing Father Anthony, the newspapers played up the fact that although not a Jewish holiday, Rabbi Anthony Cutler of B’nai Israel Synagogue joined his son in a meaningful declaration of brotherly love, harmony and togetherness.
Jerry Cutler, the Courier’s film critic is rabbi at Creative Arts Temple