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The Story of Davening Joe

From the day he was born great things were predicted for Joseph Kuperman. He came from a long line of scholars which included rabbis, teachers and perpetual students of the Torah. There was also a wealthy businessman in his lineage, an amiable character known ironically as Clever Benny. In truth, Benny was one of the dimmer stars in the family firmament but a master at the art of making money and a generous soul to boot. Clever Benny took pleasure in funding his more intellectually well-endowed relatives, thus freeing them to pursue their scholarly studies untroubled by worldly considerations. Thanks to Benny, Joseph’s future seemed assured.

Joseph had been a much longed for child. Like Hannah, the mother of Samuel, Joseph’s mother had almost given up hope of becoming a mother when, lo and behold, she received an unexpected visitation from an angel of the Lord in the form of an itinerant clothing salesman who happened to be passing through the town. This divine being in human form whispered in her ear that it was still possible for the Holy Spirit to enter her and fulfil her longing to conceive. And so it came to pass. Well into her forties, Hetty Kuperman fell pregnant and was delivered of a healthy male child. Shouts of “Baruch Ha-Shem!” resounded throughout the community.

Mr and Mrs Kuperman made a solemn vow that the child would continue in the family tradition and reinforced their vow by naming him Joseph. He would begin his schooling in the rabbinic arts as soon as he could point a chubby finger at the Hebrew letters painted onto the blocks in his playpen. That is what happened. In no time at all Joseph was mouthing the sounds of the alphabet and putting together phrases like ‘Shana Tova’ and ‘Baruch atah Adonai’, to the intense admiration of his parents.

As he progressed from infancy to childhood, Joseph’s precocity amazed all who came to dote on him. Before you could say Jacob Rabinowitz, he was singing the Friday night kiddush in a dulcet voice which brought tears to the eyes more readily than his mother’s gefilte fish and horseradish. Even more astonishing than his ability to recite and retain passages from the Hebrew prayer book was his mature body language: a dismissive shrug of the shoulders, a quizzical raising of the eyebrows, a stern wagging of the forefinger to signify disapproval. By the age of twelve he had turned into a little old man.

Joseph attended Cheder classes for a short while but quickly outstripped his peers in his mastery of the set tasks. To his teacher’s disappointment he expressed a wish to be exempted from Cheder so that he could pursue his own preferred course of study. The finger-wagging and the frowns of disapproval were directed at erring adults and children alike. He had become a veritable tyrant, a miniature rabbi breathing fire and brimstone. The other children disliked his prissiness and found his presence intimidating. For his part, Joseph scolded them for their frivolity. “Here comes Davening Joe”, called out Sammy Feinblum by way of warning whenever he saw Joseph approaching. The children gave him a wide berth and the name stuck. Occasionally, two or three of the children would provoke him by chanting, “Baruch atah Adonai melech ha-olam” at him before dashing away to escape his fury.

Ultimately, by mutual consent, Joseph was left to his own devices. He spent most of his waking hours immersed in his religious texts, murmuring prayers and rocking back and forth like a metronome. The joy of his parents at his marvellous erudition was washed away by a rising tide of apprehension. “It’s not good for the child”, said his mother, the more empathic of the two parents. “He gets everyone’s back up. Even a great scholar must learn to mix with others.” His father concurred but Joseph refused to be civil to those who transgressed the laws of Moses and of Israel. Tension mounted in the Kuperman household.

When he reached adolescence, Joseph discovered the Kabbalah and spent hours pacing the streets of the neighbourhood, pondering its mystical teachings. “It’s not normal”, was the consensus within the community. “The boy needs help”. But Joseph’s mother bridled at the suggestion. “He’s a genius”, she said defensively. “What do you expect?” But whether her son was a genius or not, she too had the uneasy feeling that there was some truth in the community’s concerns.

One day, matters came to a head. Davening Joe had woken that morning with a headache. For the first time in his life, he decided to forego the morning prayers. He quietly got dressed and went out into the street, where he announced, to the consternation of passers-by, that he had seen the light. “Satan is among our people!”, he shouted, “and I have been chosen to lead the community away from evil!”

The scales dropped from the eyes of Mr and Mrs Kuperman. A line had been crossed and it dawned on them that their son did in fact need professional help. But where to turn? And how could they cope with the shame of acknowledging that Joseph was a mental case? They felt helpless. Joseph had stomped off down the road in search of converts to his mission and was soon accosting members of the public and haranguing them to convert to his religion before it was too late. One such potential convert foolishly became embroiled in an argument with Joseph, who struck out at him and then challenged the growing assembly of onlookers to stone the sinner. The police were called, and Joseph was arrested on charges of assault and disturbing the peace. By the time Mr and Mrs Kuperman had caught up with their errant son at the police station the arresting officer, too, had seen the light and brought him to the attention of a friendly doctor who in turn referred him to an equally friendly psychiatrist. Joseph’s short-lived pilgrimage ended in the admissions ward of the local mental hospital.

I would like to be able to tell you that the story of Davening Joe had a happy ending. Sadly, this was not the case. After a short course of electroconvulsive therapy and a sedating dose of tranquillizers he still remained intractably attached to the belief that he had been sent by the Lord to save the world from sin and it was deemed unsound to release him back into the community. The wisdom of this decision was strengthened after Joseph pronounced a visiting Rabbi to be one of Satan’s henchmen and flung a cup of tea over the shocked clergyman.

Fortunately, the strength of Joseph’s belief in his Messianic role faded with time. The consistent friendliness of the professional staff allowed a gentler side of his nature to emerge. He even undertook to tutor one or two of his fellow patients in basic Hebrew, showing admirable patience with their clumsy efforts. A faint smile of recognition crossed his face whenever his parents visited him, but otherwise their visits were marked by long silences. “The boy has found peace at last”, said his father philosophically. His mother nodded slowly but said nothing. Words were beyond her.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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