THE LAST FOUR DIGITS

THE LAST FOUR DIGITS

From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

The Last Four Digits

The long arm of coincidence.

Haddon Chambers

As a child growing up in the Bronx, the last four digits of Terry Noble’s phone number were 7401. Coincidence: When Terry got a Social Security number, the last four digits were 7401. And years later when he found himself as a volunteer on a kibbutz in Israel, he now called himself Tuvia Ariel, he worked with a carpenter whom he respected. The carpenter was a wiry, solid man, dedicated, the silent type. Tuvia learned that he was one of the few who had escaped Auschwitz alive, that he then joined the Polish partisans, then the British Army. He was sent to Palestine, where he deserted to join the Palmach and help Israel win her independence in 1948.

Quite a history.

But more than awe piqued Tuvia Ariel’s curiosity about this survivor’s experiences in the Holocaust. Tuvia had read the number tattooed on his arm. Its last four digits were 7401.

“Don’t talk about it!” Tuvia recalls the carpenter telling him forcefully and painfully. “I lost my whole family, my mother, my father; there was a brother in back of me, a brother in front of me—I’m the only one left. Don’t bring it up again!”

Tuvia didn’t.

Except once.

Tuvia Ariel is a man with many stories. In fact he is a story: the man who was Bob Dylan’s adviser for some time, who arranged kaddish to be recited for Abbie Hoffman, who put in a stint at Yale Law School, the man who, as a soldier in the U.S. Army, arrived in Israel during the 1956 Sinai war, tore the “USA” from his uniform and, looking just like an Israeli, hitched his way down to the Sinai Peninsula, ready to fight, only to find that the war had ended just two hours before.

I was told in advance how colorful Tuvia was, but nothing prepared me for the likes of a comment he made an hour after I met him last Friday afternoon. I knew he had a new leg. I knew it was a breakthrough for him. But who gives thought and thanks to such things? Who wonders what it’s like without a leg or with a new one?

Praying in shul, I sensed nothing unusual as the afternoon service came to an end. Suddenly, Tuvia approached me, almost in tears. “This was the first time in my life I prayed Shemoneh Esrei standing up in a minyan. I have never been able to address the Almighty like any other Jew, standing up, three steps forward, three steps backward. . . .”

Tuvia was raised in a non-observant home, in which the Shemoneh Esrei was not recited. Then he went to Israel in 1963 to volunteer on kibbutzim. In 1967, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, he saved his life by cutting his own leg off as it accidentally got caught in the machine he operated on a kibbutz—a machine that sucked his leg into its grinder and from which the rest of him escaped only by his quick and courageous self-amputation. A little over ten years later he became observant, but by then he was rotating between a wheelchair, crutches and artificial legs which, however, could never keep him aloft long enough to daven Shemoneh Esrei (Hebrew prayer which requires recitation while standing).

One Friday he did it.

After walking home (only three blocks), he choked up again, “That’s the furthest I’ve walked in twenty-two years.”

He was fitted with a new leg only shortly before the day the Berlin Wall crumbled.

Whence this living miracle?

It began innocently enough. Tuvia was in the United States at the beginning of 1989 on a business trip. He saw a television commercial by DuPont. It featured a new kind of plastic developed for spacecraft and also used for artificial limbs. The commercial featured amputees engaged in vigorous basketball, not from wheelchairs, but standing up, running, passing, even jump-shooting. A regular game.

And not with people amputated below the knee, but above the knee.

Tuvia thought to himself that seeing this was as if seeing your grandmother who had died years ago suddenly walking down the street. When he lost his leg twenty-two years ago he never thought he would see himself live normally again—and here were people just like him, playing basketball!

He called DuPont. They directed him to an advanced prosthetic clinic in Oklahoma City. He called immediately, “When can you make me a leg, how long does it take and how much does it cost?”

It seems that for above-the-knee amputees the old system had the stump rest on the prosthesis, which caused pain and circulatory problems and often didn’t work well, sometimes not at all. Using DuPont’s flexible, rubberlike plastic, the new system grips the stump, which not only relieves pain and circulatory problems, but also better channels the energy and movement of the stump in natural leglike movement.

Even in advance of receiving his leg, Tuvia Ariel was not satisfied to give himself new life. He wanted it for the above-the-knee amputees in Israel. So he had a long talk with an American expert in this field, John Sabolovitch, about the special merit of bringing this technology to the Holy Land. Sabolovitch agreed to do so in two ways. First, to train Israeli prosthesists in Oklahoma City (he has already trained his first); second, to travel to Israel with his staff to train Israeli prosthesists there. Tuvia only needed to provide the plane tickets.

A man whose history included the likes of trying to bring Bob Dylan to his Jewish heritage, not to mention saving his own life with supreme courage and pain, does not shy away from the innovative. But his goal reached even beyond making the technology available in Israel. He wanted to establish a “Hebrew Free Limb Society.” This will provide a limb to the amputee as a loan, until, only an amputee like Tuvia has the right to make this pun, “the amputee gets back on his feet.”

Strictly speaking, it is not idealism that motivates Tuvia. It is something more: his sense that he has been designated a messenger of the Almighty. He had reason to think this happened once before. The way he sees it, his years of suffering now make him a messenger again to help those whom the world forgets. Why is he certain he had been a messenger once before and thus able to be one again?

Tuvia volunteered on two kibbutzim. The one where he lost his leg preferred him to leave the country. He was an embarrassment. But Tuvia wouldn’t leave Israel, no matter what. It took him about five years of various struggles to get into tourism school; somehow, between cars, crutches and artificial limbs, which kept him in pain and then went bad altogether, he remained a tour guide for fifteen years.

Toward the beginning of his career, when he was low man on the totem pole, he was assigned to pick up tourists at the airport in Lod and bring them to the main office, whereupon an experienced guide would take over.

One day he picked up an American, ostentatiously wealthy, ostentatiously dressed and mannered. Even crude. Tuvia could not bring himself to be friendly, so he was formal. Halfway from Lod to Jerusalem, the tourist, a perceptive man, yelled, “Pull over!” Tuvia pulled over. The man barked, “You think I’m just a materialistic, superficial American tourist, don’t you? Well, I’ve paid my dues!” He yanked up his sleeve to show Tuvia the number tattooed on his arm. Tuvia looked, almost went into shock, and before he knew what was happening the tourist was saying, “I lost my whole family . . . a brother in front of me, a brother in back of me. . . .“ Tuvia’s mind burned.

The man’s face was florid. Tuvia calmed himself, saying simply: “Was your brother’s name Shimon?” The red face turned white. “We’re turning around, I’m not taking you to Jerusalem.”

Tuvia made a U-turn and drove one and a half hours to the kibbutz where he had worked with the wiry carpenter, near Afula. The psychic noise in the car was palpable. Tuvia finally reached the kibbutz, then the carpenter shed, saw his former supervisor for the first time in ten years. Without introduction, he said simply: “Was your brother’s name Reuven?”

His face turned white.

Tuvia returned to the taxi, unloaded it, told his American tourist, “Come, I am bringing you to your brother.”

He led him to the carpenter shed, did not enter, did not want to infringe on the privacy of the moment—then made a U-turn and drove to the entrance of the kibbutz. He stopped, he cried.

Why?

When he had looked at the number tattooed on the tourist’s arm, the last four digits were 7-4-0-2.

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg

More stories from our partners