WANTED: wisdom

I loved old Sam Chusid, the lighthearted caretaker of the synagogue where I went when I was a child. True, he used to drive the rabbi nearly to unholy words with his reading of worldly books when he should have been gardening; his playful teasing of the ladies about their showy hats; his winks mead-liband mock-solemn faces as the rabbi performed his offices. But these little heresies just made me love Sam the more.

He was the first person to show me the human side of God's house. Leading me by the hand through the synagogue, he pointed to where the wood had been scarred and dented by the fists of those carried away in their prayers to some extremity of anguish or joy. He invited me to sniff the earthy odors of vinegar and garlic in prayer books, and even to scoop up and rub between my fingers the dust of heavy footsteps.

How thunderstruck I was, therefore, when, one Saturday as I was looking at wanted posters in the post office (my favorite pastime after services), I suddenly beheld a face the very image of my Sam's. Same gray scalloped-potato locks, knobby forehead, mischievous eyes, and nose that ''grows longer as my life grows shorter, oy vey!'' This face belonged to Louie (Never Leaves Witnesses) Rizzo, who was wanted for grand larceny and murder. How could this be? Could Sam Chusid be an alias for Louie Rizzo? Could a man who read books, made harmless fun, and knew human truths be a criminal?

But why would a criminal masquerade as a synagogue caretaker? Wouldn't he be afraid he'd be recognized?

Unable to endure the tormenting doubt, I ran to Sam's cottage and pounded on the door. When he opened it, I asked fearfully, ''Sam, tell me the truth, are you Louie (Never Leaves Witnesses) Rizzo?''

''Who?'' asked Sam.

I explained about the wanted poster.

''Child,'' he said, ''I am Sam (Never Had Witnesses) Chusid. I've snitched an occasional piece of pie from the rabbi's wife, may her recipes increase! And I've bet on some slow horses. But nothing worse, I swear it.''

''I believe you, Sam,'' I said. ''But why would God make somebody who looked just like you?''

He scratched his hair and lifted his eyes to heaven, as if for help. ''Maybe He wanted you shouldn't judge a book by its cover,'' he said. ''Me and Louie, we got the same cover, the same face, but behind mine is the Good Book, and behind his is the pulpy one.''

''I still don't understand.''

He struggled for a better way to bring a truth to me out of this mystery. ''It's like two houses that look the same, Davie. But out of the chimney of one is coming black smoke, and out of the chimney of the other is coming white smoke. The black smoke is saying that dark deeds are being done inside one house. The white smoke is saying that inside the other house there's a nice fire in the fireplace, making everybody warm and safe and happy.''

''And your face is the house with the white smoke coming out its chimney, Sam?''

He smiled. ''That's right. God didn't want I should just show you about the people in His house. He wanted I should show you about the good house in my own face, too. He wanted I should teach you that what's going on in the soul will show up in the face.''

Then, crouching down, he put his hands on my shoulders, as if to brace me for yet another truth it was time for me to know. ''There's going to be plenty of questions you'll have in your life, Davie. And sometimes people won't be able to help you answer them. But God, He will help you always. You might not understand here,'' he said, tapping his brow, ''but always,'' touching his heart, ''here.''

There's an unsung Solomon, I think, in the life of every child. Sam was mine.

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