If you wander the streets of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter long enough, there’s a good chance you’ll stumble upon a sight that may at first seem out of place. Don’t let appearances fool you. The pistol-toting cowboy in the Stetson is as much a part of that neighborhood as the Jerusalem stone that lines its narrow alleyways.
If you know Natie Charles even casually, you’ll know what to expect next: A trademark smile that can light up the darkest day, a warm pat on the back, and “How you doing buddy!” that will leave you certain you’re the most special person in the universe. When you see him, there’s a good chance that this 89 year old man with the energy of a 20 year old will be on his way to the Beit Midrash (House of Torah Study). Once again, don’t let appearances fool you. This cowboy’s career as a Jewish scholar may be the latest chapter of his life, but this ain’t his first rodeo.
Natie Charles has led about as interesting and colorful a life as anyone can wish for, which is what makes his recently published memoir, Charles, Prince of Tales such an easy read, filled with entertaining stories about airplanes, knife throwing, crop dusting, juvenile pranks, brushes with the mafia; even a hilarious anecdote involving a cow and an open convertible. But behind the action-packed exploits of this hard-working, successful entrepreneur is the touching story of a simple Jew, who although religiously unaffiliated, never loses sight of his roots, until a near fatal head-on collision prompts him to leave it all behind for a new life in the Promised Land.
To me, the story of Natie Charles goes way beyond simple entertainment. It’s personal. In fact, there’s even a chapter about me and my family in his book. I met Natie and his late wife “Bubby” Irma when I moved to Israel to study in Yeshivat Aish HaTorah in 1983, and it didn’t take long for me to become a full-fledged member of their household. I still lived in the dorm like everyone else, but the House of Charles, as it was fondly known, became my home away from home. It was more than just a place where I could hang out, shmooze and eat a home-cooked meal. It was a place where I could feel accepted, loved and special. It was also a place where I would learn first-hand what it means to build a Jewish home.
The sages in Pirkei Avot state: “Let your house be open wide, and treat the poor as members of your household.” (Avot- 1:5) The House of Charles was certainly open wide. By the time I arrived on the scene, it was already filled with an assortment of American, Canadian and British students who had recently relocated to Israel. But what was far more impressive was how we all literally became members of their household. This was no small feat, especially when it came to me, because I was somewhat shy and could easily feel like I was imposing. But in the House of Charles, I didn’t just feel at home; I felt downright entitled - and I have no doubt this was true for all of us.
Natie and Irma’s selfless vision of us as family was so deep and congruent that it literally forged us into one. In fact to this very day, almost 30 years later, when I see one of my former “brothers or sisters,” I still feel that connection. I am in awe of their remarkable ability to create that bond. My wife and I have hosted countless numbers of guests over the past 20 years, but we’ve never produced that sense of belonging and camaraderie. In fact, I’ve never experienced anything like it anywhere else.
The house of Charles exemplifies what the Jewish home is meant to be. The true power of the Jewish home is not its material wealth or even the shelter that it bestows. Rather, it is to be found in the love, warmth and acceptance that it can provide to those who are in need of it. Our home and our possessions can make a tremendous impact on the world when used in the service of something higher than our own personal needs. In fact, Judaism teaches that our home can and should be a place where God’s presence can be tangibly felt. In spite of all of the adventures Natie and Irma lived through over all these years, the house that they built in Jerusalem is truly the greatest chapter in their lives.