Paul Greenberg: He was just a bum passing through

By XxxxDecember 20, 2012 

So little time, so much to do, what with Christmas almost here. Cards to mail, last-minute presents to buy, stockings to hang. ... It must have been like that the day they found him out by the railroad tracks. That was long ago in little Pine Bluff, Ark. -- but he still comes to mind every time the calendar flips to the 21st of December.

Unbidden, untended, unnoticed, he lay there. For who knows how long. He'd come at a most inconvenient time -- just four days before all Christendom celebrates the birth of Him who said, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren ye have done it unto me."

He was just another bum riding the rails, and an ailing one at that. What was to be done with him? He wasn't sick enough for the hospital to take him in, but he was too sick for the Salvation Army to put him up.

And so, all through the short, waning hours of the shortest day of the year, he was trundled back and forth, from one station of his cross to the next, until by nightfall there was no place for him but the county jail. Not because he belonged there, but because he didn't belong anywhere else.

And night fell.

That cell would be the last place he would know in this life. Alone, unattended, in the darkness, some time during that longest night of the year, he would die. When they found him next morning, they shipped out the body quickly, no questions asked, even before an autopsy could be performed. And he was gone, as silent as when he had arrived.

Somehow the local paper got wind of the story, and did what a local paper is supposed to do: ask questions, unearth the facts, let people know what had happened in their town.

Thanks to a reporter named Harry Pearson at the Pine Bluff Commercial, more would be known about how this wayfarer had died, hour by hour, than how he had lived, year after unrecorded year.

It took the longest time just to discover his name: Joe Telles, as in Tell Us. He had passed through town like a messenger unheeded, yet his message would be remembered every December 21st afterward. Somebody would see to that.

"There are no coincidences," a rabbi once told me. Maybe I'm not here to think Deep Thoughts and write about Big Issues despite all my pretenses. Maybe I'm just here to say kaddish, the prayer on the anniversary of a death, for the Joe Telleses of the world. All I know for sure is that, as long as I breathe, I can't let a December 21st pass without remembering Joe Telles.

Why? That's what an irate reader in Pine Bluff wanted to know. A local businessman, he came to see me at the paper one day to object. Heatedly. He felt what I was doing was bad public relations for the town. Why did I have to bring up this up every year? The guy was just a bum passing through.

I couldn't give him a good answer; I wasn't sure why I did it myself, at least not till years later. That's when I heard a story about a young rabbi in the old country, a brilliant student who'd graduated at the top of his class at the yeshiva, the rabbinical seminary. Naturally, with his record, he was appointed junior rabbi at the most prestigious synagogue in the biggest city around -- Warsaw itself. And when the time came for him to deliver his first sermon, the sanctuary was packed. But all he did was say the same old things: Love thy neighbor as thyself. Don't hold grudges. Be kind to one another. Forgive each other as we hope to be forgiven. Do not do unto your neighbor what is hateful to yourself. ... All that old stuff. Boring.

The president of the congregation had to take the young rabbi aside and explain that the comfortable pews here at the Grand Synagogue were full of well-educated people, prosperous and sophisticated. They were accustomed to hearing rabbis who were up to date, who linked Scripture to important things like Current Events, or gave book reviews of the latest hit novel. In short, maybe he would be happier someplace else till he got a little more seasoning. So he moved on.

But the same thing happened wherever he landed. He would just recite the same lessons from Scripture, neither adding nor detracting from it, and he would be told the same thing: Maybe he would be happier elsewhere. Till finally he found himself a pulpit in the back of beyond -- a little wooden hut of a synagogue deep in the Siberian snows. And even there an elder took him aside one day to explain that he really needed to update his sermons. Because even out here people had heard that stuff before. And the rabbi explained: "Oh, I'm not saying these things to teach you fine people anything you don't already know. I'm saying these things so I shouldn't forget."

Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was editorial page editor of the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial in 1967, and has told Joe Telles's story every Dec. 21st since.

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