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The Handy Hazzan Gets In Over His Head As We Learn from Jewish Prayer and Values

by Cantor Harris Shore, The Handy Hazzan

March 23, 2011 | 12:15 am

My Friend Vivian Florian, Piano Virtuoso

In Judaism, the prayer for rain (Geshem) is chanted by the Hazzan in the Musaf Amidah on Sh’mini Atzeret, which is also the last day of Sukkot. In fact, Geshem is inserted right where, on every day thereafter in winter, we insert the phrase Mashiv ha-ruach oo-morid ha-geshem (You cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall). What crystal ball last Fall could predict that our prayers would be answered to such generous proportions? This week it poured while plants and trees swayed and danced with the wind. I contemplated building an ark, as if I didn’t have enough to do! Geshem pounded our roofs, soaked our burgeoning landscapes and boosted L.A’s dwindling water reserves.  This week I had planned to install that whole house water filter, which arrived just a few days ago.  But instead….

I got an urgent call from my pal, Vivian Florian - 87-year-old piano virtuoso who studied with the great Paderewski and committed all of Chopin and many of the other great, classical composers to memory while she was still wet behind the ears.  Vivian played for three presidents at the White House (at different times), and tinkled with Eugene Ormandy at the Hollywood Bowl.  I could flood you with more name-dropping. Now Vivian walks to the bench with a cane, and when she sits down to play the grand piano that lurks in her modest living room, it still explodes with a display of melodious fireworks as she plies her exquisite renditions of classical and musical theatre repertoire.  Alas, even a great queen like Vivian, and I certainly don’t mean to be disrespectful – even a great artiste and all the presidents for whom she has played…. all need use of a certain, shiny (white) throne that resides in an adjoining room known as the bathroom.

Fancy Nancy would say that “Vivian’s commode is in disrepair.”  Bubba, the plumber would say, “The toilet’s broke.”  Whatever you want to call it, this hopper was installed forty years before and its flushing days were over.  The two main things that can cause this are 1.  Calcium deposits build up in the passageway inside the bowl or 2. Over the years, objects like little toys or a comb get stuck in the john’s passageway as well.  Do not confuse this with a clogged sewage line.  We remedy the latter most easily by grabbing a good quality plunger if the clog is more localized.  In Los Angeles, most of the older construction included clay and ceramic sewage pipes that cracked over the years due to earth movement and then filled up with wandering roots from adjoining foliage.  That’s one of the things that can happen further down the sewage line. There might well be a lot of that come Spring after the amount of rain we’ve had.  Plumbing pros replace those cracked pipes with a plastic type known as ABS.
Not only wandering roots cause this clogging.  Sometimes people drop items other than bathroom tissue in the bowl and they pass through, only to collect way down the line, perhaps catching on a root or two as described above.  Then we use what is called an electrical “snake” to “snake” the line.  It’s usually best to call a plumber for that, although you can rent an electrical snake and learn how to do it yourself.  There are lots of videos online to show you how.  My last venture with an electrical snake revealed baby wipes in the sewage line.  That’s a no-no in the potty.

Back to Vivian: Clearly we had to replace the toilet, and I was the one to do it.  I bought a qualifying water saver at Home Depot. (In the County of Los Angeles, you can make application for a rebate through one or more programs listed in the internet.  Try this link: http://www.socalwatersmart.com/.) Remember that this particular commode had been serving Viv’s family for forty years.  Believe it or not, removing it was a breeze:  Tools and materials needed: large sponge, bucket, small disposal plastic cup, work gloves to protect from anything broken or rusted, rubber gloves to protect from bacteria, eye protection, scraper, utility knife, adjustable wrench, mini-hack saw (for later when trimming new closet bolts), large rag (to place in sewage pipe opening to keep sewage gases from wafting up into house), flat screwdriver, wax ring, sealant

HOW TO REMOVE AND REPLACE A TOILET – HERE’S WHAT I DID:

1. Put on rubber gloves and then turn off the water supply.  2. Flush once to remove most of the water from the tank. 3.  Use sponge/cup/bucket to remove rest of water from tank and bowl 4. Remove decorative covers from closet (floor) bolts and PUT ON WORK GLOVES 5.  Break old caulk seal between base of bowl and floor with utility knife.  6.  Rock commode side to side until you loosen old wax ring 7. Keeping back straight, lift old bowl/tank up over the protruding bolts and remove it from the room.  8.  Scrape away remaining wax from old wax ring and dispose in trash.  Remove ….

OH NO!! I came to replace Vivian’s old toilet and suddenly I was in over my head.! The old closet bolts were rusted and broken, which by itself is no problem.  However, the metal flange – a round, metal ring which surrounds the lip of the sewage pipe and/or is bolted into the floor …. the steel flange (probably made in Phoenixville sixty years ago) was rusted and broken - totally unusable.  It is (9) through the sides of the flange that you attach the heads of the two closet bolts that hold the commode to the floor.  I couldn’t remove the disintegrating flange.  Otherwise I would have simply bolted a new one to the floor.  It was time to call in my friend and plumber extraordinaire, Ramon Chavez.  But Ramon was indisposed at the time, and couldn’t make it until Monday, which then become today, Tuesday.  I (10) put together the new toilet, (11) added the new wax ring, and (12) set the whole thing over the sewage hole, rocking the toilet gently to see if I could seal it a little bit, even though the commode was in no way secure to the floor.  Before (13) sealing the area around the bottom of the bowl we flushed once.  A teeny bit of water seeped out.  I dried the area and emptied a full tube of caulk around the perimeter.  Vivian said she was afraid to use the commode.  She’d rather sit at the piano.  Sometimes stuff happens just when you think everything is going well.  My good deed went down the tubes, and I was disappointed. Ramon would bring his Fancy Nancy equipment tomorrow morning and I would meet him to complete the job. It’s now the next day and this morning “we” had to chip out the old metal flange, as I expected, to make room for the new.  Out with the old and in with the new ….. and it wasn’t even Rosh Hashanah.  Vivian now has her new toilet.  Voila!

For those of you who think it undignified for a Hazzan to talk toilets, let’s associate this episode with our Jewish prayers and values.  My dear mother, Martha (z”l) once told me that “even the Queen of England goes to the bathroom.”  I guess this was her way of saying that we are all equal in the eyes of G-d…. and that’s because we are all created in His image.  Just something to think about…
Among the many prayers for giving thanks in our daily morning davening, we chant the Asher Yatzar in Birchot Hashachar right before the prayer expressing our gratefulness for the gift of our sacred Torah!  The Asher Yatzar translates: “Praised are You, Lord our G-d, Sovereign of the Universe who with wisdom fashioned the human body, creating openings, arteries, glands and organs, marvelous in structure, intricate in design.  Should but one of them by being blocked or opened, fail to function, it would be impossible to exist.  Praised are You, Lord, healer of all flesh who sustains our bodies in wondrous ways.”  Our bodies are sacred, a gift loaned to us by G-d before we return to the earth, we pray, in very old age. However, because the bathroom or rest room is associated with cleansing our bodies, it is therefore considered an unclean place.  It follows that we leave all holy objects - tallit, siddur, tefillin - outside the rest room at home or at synagogue.  It’s the only room on whose doorway most people do not place a mezuzah. 

The following is not to in any way credit myself, but rather to illustrate living Torah.  Of our Jewish Middot (values or pillars of virtue), replacing an elderly friend’s toilet is clearly living Torah through the Amudim (pillars) of Chesed (caring) and Kehillah (citizenship/community).  Our chesed is specific when we perform Gemilut Chasadim (acts of loving kindness) and even more particular when we visit the sick (bikur holim).  Our act of Kehillah is in respecting our elders (kibud zekenim) by helping them.  Replacing a toilet facilitates our natural bodily functions for which we express our gratitude in the Asher Yatzar, and doing it for someone else and particularly an elderly person could be considered an act of Kedusha (holiness), which is the umbrella amud for all the other virtues. 

This was a frustrating and humbling experience.  Humility is an essential human quality. I can’t help but think of Ralph Kramden in “The Honeymooners” as played by the incredibly gifted Jackie Gleason on live TV when I was a little boy.  My brother, Stevie, and I used to roll on the floor, LOL.  One episode Ralph’s wife, Alice tells him he needs to be humble.  Ralph immediately swells out his chest and strides around the kitchen declaring, “I am humble!  I am humble!”  And I am serious.  One midrash teaches us to walk around with two pieces of paper, one in each pocket.  On the first one is written, “I am nothing;” on the second, “The world was created for me alone.”  The right blend of humility and healthy self - esteem can take us far in life.  After a failed attempt at replacing the toilet, I felt like number one.  Then I remembered that my intention was to assist my elderly friend and fellow artist, that I really had accomplished something, and that I would responsibly return in a couple days with Ramon Chavez, plumber extraordinaire;  and I felt a little bit like number two. 

If you are planning to replace your old toilet, you can do it yourself especially if it’s a routine situation and you have enough koiyich (Yiddish for “strength”) to lift the whole unit.  Enlist spouse, partner or pal to assist you. The water conservation with the 2.8 or less gallons per flush really does make a difference…on our pockets and the environment.  Be sure to get a model with a flush rating of 10.  Some of the lesser models (8 rating) require flushing twice, which of course defeats the whole purpose.  Contact me on the blog or offline if you have any questions. Next week I just might convince Vivian to play for us, and maybe I’ll sing along. Tikkun Olam starts at home.  You can fix it! - HH

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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CANTOR HARRIS SHORE most recently served as Hazzan for Hollywood Temple Beth El in West Hollywood, and for two years at the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda...

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