The rainbow

In that whole tenement-packed neighborhood of Brooklyn where I grew up there wasn't a finer milkman than Moshe Halpern. Every morning but the Sabbath, no matter how tired he might be, or how raw the weather, he would arrive on time to make his deliveries.

And unlike other milkmen he never rushed through his route, sitting in a modern milk truck and gripping a chilly wheel linked to hundreds of horsepower. His customers, most of whom had come to America from the old country, would not have have felt comfortable with that. In what can only be called Old World style , Moshe rumbled through his route, sitting on an uncovered wooden wagon and gripping chilly reins linked to one donkey.

And what a donkey! Yellow-eyed, burry-hided, with a tail sparser than the tail feathers of an aged eagle, this devoted beast may have looked little enough to squeeze through the Pearly Gates, but he could pull over ten times his weight in milk.

I loved to wave at them both on my way to school. Always Moshe would rise as he rumbled by, a short, bearded man with a kindly, wrinkled face, and wave his hat and smile. Even the donkey seemed to smile, as if proud to belong to such a tradition.

Once, on a morning in spring, Moshe stopped and called out, ''Come, David, I'll give you a ride!''

I hopped onto the seat beside him. As a surprise, he handed me the reins. The donkey looked back over his shoulder as if to say, ''It's all right, I know the way.'' And off we went.

''Do you know, David,'' Moshe asked, ''what makes the trees to bloom?'' He pointed at the sidewalk trees brightening the sad, sleepy window-eyes of the tenements.

I shook my head.

''Spring comes down from the sky and breathes love into them.''

''Breathes love into them?''

''Spring kisses the trees, and this makes them feel so good they just burst into blossoms. It's the same with people, and all God's creatures. When they feel loved, they blossom too. They become good and happy and beautiful to see.'' He called to the donkey, ''Is it not so, my little friend?'' And the donkey nodded gravely.

Moshe laughed, stopping the wagon to make a delivery. I helped him, then hurried off to school to tell how I'd gotten to be an honorary milkman that morning.

I could not imagine the streets being without Moshe and his donkey. It would have been like imagining the sky being without the Milky Way. But one morning only a few weeks after my ride, the unimaginable happened. Moshe collapsed during his route and went to his fathers. The whole neighborhood was stunned, and the very streets looked stricken. People could only think: Moshe has done all he could for this world, and now he's gone to do for the next.

He was greatly mourned, and even more greatly missed. In the refrigerated milk brought by the modern service that took over his territory, people tasted only progress. In Moshe's at-best lukewarm milk, gotten from who-knows-what ancient cows, they had tasted a lost world.

Thanks to the goodness of the people, as well as to the fact that there was no such thing as a donkey pound where old, unemployed donkeys were put to sleep, Moshe's donkey was tethered to a pole in the courtyard behind the synagogue to live out his days.

Morning and night a dish of oats, and a bowl of buttermilk, his favorite, were provided for him. At first he hardly touched them. He just stood in the shadowy courtyard, swinging his lanternlike head at people, as if trying to see a trace of Moshe in them.

But then, with encouragement and coaxing, he began to take his meals, and before long he was leaving nothing in dish or bowl. The somberness fell from him , and he grew restless, as if he missed his work. The people of the courtyard hitched him back up to the milk wagon, and he entered on a new career - pulling the children, on free rides, all around the streets of his old route. Every morning he would roll on the ground, limbering up, and then go to work again, honored and loved by everybody. I rememered what Moshe had said about love, and I saw the donkey blossom anew, like a tree in spring.

But the best thing of all was that the bond between him and Moshe was not broken.

One rainy morning I awoke from a dream in which Moshe had appeared to me, shrugged, and said, ''A man has to work. Down below I was in the milk business. Up above I'm in the rainbow business. But if somebody doesn't stop the sky from falling, the rainbow I've delivered this morning will be lost.''

Leaping out of bed, I ran to seek the rabbi for an explanation, but before I found him I spotted the donkey. He had stopped in the middle of his morning roll on the ground and was lying perfectly still on his back, propping up with his four strong legs a sky in which a fragile rainbow was shimmering.

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