Rope Walker, the Legend

Rabbi Ranaan Broderick
RFR, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska

Wellington, Kansas. Established: April 4, 1871. Location: Exit 19 on Interstate 35. Population: 8,172. Largest and most attended venue: Wal-Mart. Some people drive right by the interstate exit, without even noticing it. It would be a mere one of 627 incorporated cities in the great state of Kansas with a population over 300. What many people don’t know is that Wellington is quite relevant to hundreds of kosher consumers across the US, and a very important part of my life. This tiny town in Kansas is where the AD Rosenblatt Kosher Meats plant is located. As a Shochet, I spend close to half of every week here. Home; is a two bedroom apartment that I share with a mashgiach. The entire apartment is about the size of our living room in Dallas. No, there is no minyan in town. In fact, the Jewish population grows 600% when the six shochtim and mashgichim arrive weekly.

Depending on the schedule, I will spend an average of 2-3 days a week in Wellington. Of course, during the “busy season”, before Yom Tovim, we will often Shecht through Friday, creating the necessity to bring Shabbos to Wellington. It seems that in every group of schochtim and mashgichim, there is always a chef. When we sit down for the Shabbos Seudah, our table looks like it could have been transported from any home on the East Coast. We are served up wine, challah, fish, soup, salads, pastas, chicken, and you would never guess, meat.  Every once in a while, I can finish work with a bit of time to spare, and will contribute to the feast. I will frantically call my wife (one of the best chefs I know) late on Friday afternoon asking for a recipe that requires no more than four steps to prepare.  I then race around the kitchen in a maddening rush, creating a concoction that never looks quite like the dish I am served at home, but is always appreciated and delicious in its own way.

As the sun sets and our voices blend in unison singing the ancient words of Shalom Aleichem, I hope that although there was no Shul to walk home from, somehow the Malachim can find us in that small apartment in the middle of nowhere Kansas. I know that Hashem is shepping nachas at this very special and unique scene. Together, we represent the myriad of ways that one can serve Hakadosh Baruch Hu. We each sing the same words with a different pronunciation; a Chasid in full garb, an American Litvak, a Lubavicher from Yerushalayim, a Moroccan Sefardi, an Israeli who served in the Army, and a Bochur from Texas. We all live in different states, but as we sit around the same table, we share thoughts from the same Torah. The camaraderie is strong, the Divrei Torah comes in many different flavors, and the Zemiros are an exceptional blend of voices that harmonize and transcend all boundaries.

Besides the Divrei Torah, each person usually has a story to tell, something exceptional that he has experienced.  It was just one of these Shabbosim a few months ago, that I heard a thought-provoking story that I wanted to share with y’all.

The storyteller is a mashgiach who has also served as an Army Chaplin. His story began in Corsicana, Texas. Corsicana is a small town, 21.7 sq. miles to be exact, about 2 hours south of Dallas. He had just finished officiating at a funeral, when the caretaker, an elderly woman in her nineties, and the self-proclaimed only Jew left in Corsicana, eagerly asked if she could show him something. His curiosity piqued, he followed her as she excitedly led him to a tombstone that was marked simply with 2 words “Rope Walker”. That Friday night, he recounted the story that she had shared with him.

In the late 1800’s, as was common then, people would travel from town to town, entertaining the city folks and earning a bit from coins the spectators would throw their way. One day, a man came to Corsicana, he proceeded to string a rope between two buildings high above the main square, and to the onlookers astonishment he walked across the square high above their heads on this rope. Hoping to pull in a bit more money, he raised the ante, by once again attempting to cross the rope, this time hauling a cast iron stove on his back. Unfortunately, mid-way through the act, he lost his balance, and came crashing down, landing under the stove.

The townspeople quickly carried him to a bed in a nearby home, but his injuries appeared to be fatal, and his death was imminent. Quickly the Priest was summoned to the dying man’s bed side, but he didn’t speak a word, not even to state his name. As the minutes ticked by, his breathing became more labored, and just as it seemed he was about to pass, he summoned his final bit of energy and whispered that he was Jewish and asked to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, to quote “with my people”.

Rope Walker article image

The kind folk, wishing to respect his dying wish, quickly called the only Jew in town, a local merchant. The Jew made it to his side just in time to recite the Shema and with that this simple entertainer completed his job in this world. The townspeople fulfilled the visitor’s request, and buried him in the Hebrew Cemetery. A simple tombstone was erected over the grave and on it they engraved the two plain words “Rope Walker”, as that was the only thing they knew about him.

This story may seem unpretentious, but sitting around the table late that Friday night, it touched me deeply. For some reason, I felt a connection to this man who also travelled for a living, who died alone, in a strange town, but whose dying wish was to be connected to his people. I felt the need to honor his neshama in some way and that is when I made the decision that the next time I passed through Corsicana (which I do monthly) I would take the exit and try to find his kever and say some Tehillim.

The next month, I traveled to Houston for Hashgachah work. I visited five plants and proceeded to return home. Usually, between driving and visiting plants, a day like this takes about 14 hours, but I decided to extend it a little bit more. As I returned from Houston, I drove into Corsicana and headed to the cemetery. It looked old and not that well-kept. I parked and began to walk among the graves. I noticed the headstones, most were small stones and had dates from the mid-1800’s. After inspecting quite a few of them, I was saddened to see that there were none that had any Jewish names, and there definitely wasn’t a Jewish section. As I took one last look around, I noticed that beyond a grove of trees, there seemed to be a gated area. As I approached, I observed that within the gates the landscaping was beautiful; there were marble tombstones and a plaque by the entrance that read “Corsicana Hebrew Cemetery”. I was astounded, the Jewish cemetery seemed like it was being managed with great care. To my chagrin, the gate was locked, but I hadn’t come this far to let a locked gate defeat me. My eyes scanned the length of the gate and I found an area where I could slip in. By this time, the sky was darkening and it was getting close to shkia, concerned that time was running out, I began running through the cemetery, carefully sidestepping the graves, searching for the name “Rope Walker”. To my disappointment, sun was setting and the tombstone I was looking for was nowhere to be found. Dejectedly, I headed back to my car, promising myself (and him) that I would be back next month.

The days passed quickly, and sure enough a few weeks later, found me on the road, Houston bound again for my monthly visits. This time I had done some research. Equipped with a picture of the grave that I had found and saved when I googled “Rope Walker”, I was determined to complete my mission this time. Once more, I pulled into the cemetery with about a half hour to shkia and made my way directly to the bais haolam. This time, though, the kever seemed to greet me as soon as I entered. In fact, from its location, it seems I had been standing very close to it the last time, but somehow, I had missed it. There it stood – a plain and simple tombstone. It was surrounded by flowers and an American flag, and it was inscribed with the simple words “Rope Walker, 1884”. I finally found it, and I was  set out to pay my respects to a man I never knew, whose name I would never know, yet despite time and distance, I felt connected to him. I took out my tehillim and began to recite the age-old words that he might have known. As I started to recite, my mind began to wander.  I thought about how in the last moments of his life the Pintele Yid that is in each one of us, that spark that is somehow embedded in our spiritual DNA shone through. I thought about the many people before me that may have stopped to say a prayer at this grave. And I also thought about myself, and asked Hashem to give me the strength to dig deep inside of myself, inspire me, and to open up my heart for Avodas Hakodesh. After a few minutes, my mind shifted back to the words of Tehillim. I closed my Tehillim, and  I made my way back to my car. It was time to leave, darkness was settling in, and it was time to get home, back to “my people”.

OU Kosher Staff