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Do Pick the Flowers

Dovid Sussman

As a victim of polio handicapped from an early age, Zusha Frumin could have been forgiven for sinking into apathy or self-pity. Instead his life has been a colorful journey that has taken him from the beaches of California to the sidewalks of Jerusalem, where he is known — by yeshivah bochurim in the know — as “the flower man.”

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Zusha Frumin’s makeshift flower stand is located in front of a barbershop directly across from the main building of Yeshivas Mir. A narrow, rickety wooden table holds the handful of items he needs to run his business: a plastic bag full of rubber bands, a pile of clear plastic sheaths for the bouquets, a pair of clippers for snipping the stems of flowers, and a worn plastic bowl full of spare change. A series of buckets are arrayed around the table, with bundles of tall flowers standing at attention in each. Zusha doesn’t sell ready-made bouquets; he supplies the flowers and allows the customers to assemble their own. But if a customer feels he lacks the artistic flair necessary to fashion his own bouquet, Zusha is more than happy to do it for him. While he works he finds the time to exchange a few words with his customers, many of whom are regulars, and his cheerful mood is even brighter than some of the vibrant colors peeking out of the buckets.

That cheerfulness becomes even more striking when Zusha walks over to his car, where he keeps additional supplies. It is a distance of only a few paces, but his gait is awkward; Zusha walks with a distinct limp and his movements are labored. He also stands significantly shorter than the average adult. Yet instead of complaining about his disability, when Zusha begins to speak about his past, he begins by expressing his hakaras hatov to “the woman who saved my life.”

Despite the numerous Hebrew words that pepper his speech, Zusha’s American accent gives away his true origins. He was born in California in the year 1950 and grew up in a town named Encinitas, located on the beach between Los Angeles and San Diego. His family had absolutely no affiliation with Judaism, and he was not even given a Hebrew name at birth; he was called Bob throughout his youth, and personally selected his current moniker many years later, when he became Torah-observant. He was one of four siblings, including a twin brother, and he remarks ruefully, “I never even saw the inside of a beit knesset until I was in my twenties.”

Zusha’s slight stature and pronounced limp reflect the devastating results of an illness that he contracted in his infancy. At the age of eleven weeks, he became sick with polio, one of many to fall victim to an epidemic that was sweeping through America at the time. He lay in the hospital for months, his muscles weakened and unable to move. The doctors despaired, not knowing how to rehabilitate him.

At that time, an Australian nurse by the name of Sister Elizabeth Kenny was in the process of opening hospitals to treat patients suffering from polio, using a radical new approach. (The term “Sister” is a British title for nurses and does not indicate any sort of religious affiliation.) Her techniques were met with suspicion and scorn by members of the medical community, including the Frumins’ own doctor. But when a hospital opened in Los Angeles where her techniques were employed, Zusha’s parents opted to transfer him to the facility in the hope of rehabilitating him there.

“One of her techniques was to bury a patient in sand up to his neck,” Zusha recalls. “It forced the person to use his muscles to work his way out of the sand.”

Thanks to the hospital’s revolutionary techniques, Zusha’s muscles did improve, and he remembers learning to walk at the age of four. Moreover, the treatment instilled a spirit of resilience within him that was to stand him in good stead for years to come, despite the fact that the physical effects of his illness were not totally eradicated.

“It really did something for me on many levels — for my body, for my neshamah, and for my personality,” he remarks. “Throughout my childhood, I was constantly going for medical checkups. The other children who had suffered from polio were invariably introverted and closed off, but I was exceptionally outgoing. All the other mothers asked my mother how I had come to be so different. I knew that it was because of my experience in Sister Kenny’s hospital.”

The passage of time has not eroded Zusha’s outgoing nature. As a group of boys wanders past his flower stand, marked by their own colorful clothes as visitors to the area, Zusha calls out loudly, “Hey, guys! What’s going on?” When the door to the barbershop behind him opens and a three-year-old boy emerges, fresh from his upsheren and dressed in his Shabbos clothes, the flower vendor gushes, “How nice! Mazel tov! Very, very nice!” And, of course, he continues to connect with his regular customers, proving that the power of his personality can transcend any physical limitations.


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