The rabbi was just coming out of the Mecca Mart when the woman went down in front of him. Her cane clattered away and her grocery sack tumbled with her, spilling oranges and apples and exotic green fruits across the sidewalk to the parking lot. She was an elderly Asian woman in a faded brocade dress and sandals, apparel too light for this October evening. There had been no obvious cause—he always looked first for a cause–no clutching of the chest, no sound of a shot fired, no thugs speeding off in another direction–and it seemed to him that she had tripped, or fainted.
A young black woman hurried over from the opposite direction. Others meandered near, squinting in their concern, top-heavy with packages or grocery bags or infants.
“Let’s get her up,” he said to the black woman.
The Asian woman was light and they lifted her very gently, dragging her a little, and set her in the lee of the building. She was agitated and bleeding very redly in the dusk from her knee. The skin there was turned back and flimsy as paper. Affronted by the sight of the wound, the Asian woman spoke directly to it with disgust.
“She’s just off the boat,” said the black woman. She had a purse and set it on the pavement to search through it.
The Asian woman was now looking at the man, looking at the top of his head as he moved closer, extending his hand. He was speaking to her in soothing tones, his palm pressed authoritatively against her wound to staunch the flow of blood.
“I know I know you,” the black woman said to him.
He was keeping even pressure on the Asian woman’s knee. There was a crumpled paper towel on the walk and he almost reached for it. He took issue with himself, regarded himself severely—was he that distracted as to apply garbage to a wound? The black woman produced a clean napkin and he moved out of her way and got up and hurried back inside the market, then returned to the scene with a moistened towel. Now he noticed the blood on his palm. More blood staining his pants, up around the crotch.
“You’re the Jewish man,” she said.
He nodded, smiling at the Asian woman, smiling at the black woman’s work. “You’ve done a good job here. I’ll call an ambulance.”
“I’m a nurse,” she said coolly, taking the towel. “I already called one. While you were inside.”
The man allowed a relieved laugh. He had broad shoulders, was light-complected, and his rigid curly hair crowned by his kippah was well-represented with gray. He moved about to get a better look at the elderly Asian woman, who had begun to moan softly, clutching her hip.
“She needs an ambulance, right? I think she might have broken something.”
The nurse was keeping the woman still, securing her with a confident grip. “Yes, I think so. She’s awfully frail.”
“My cell phone’s in my car,” the man replied apologetically. He knelt and felt his nice new pants, colored by the Asian woman’s blood, now give a little in the crotch. “You’re doing a fine job. Did they say when the ambulance would be here?”
At this word the Asian woman protested. She spoke quickly and tried to struggle to her feet. The nurse spoke soothingly and held her firm. People had come to look. The nurse searched their faces, but the man addressed them.
“Does anybody know this woman? Do you know her? Speak up! Anybody?”
A current went through the air and it felt like watching a dog waiting patiently for a command.
The nurse wiped sweat off her brow then quickly returned to her grip on the other woman’s thigh. Then the nurse smiled at the man. “We sang for you. Actually we sang with you.”
The man nodded, distracted.
“About a month ago. On a Friday night.”
“Of course,” said the man. “I remember. It was very moving.”
“You’re the man. You’re Sal, something, Leftwitz?”
“No, no,” he said with embarrassment. “That’s the name of the man we were honoring. A kind, wise, very community-oriented man. His name was Saul Lefkowitz.”
“Oh, I see. I’m in the choir.”
“The choir was wonderful.”
“Yes. Wonderful singers. We hadn’t heard singing like that in a while.”
They were quiet. The Asian woman had her eyes closed. She had given up protesting. The nurse held the compress steadily. In the parking lot drivers drove by slowly, slowed and craned their necks, then proceeded.
“We’re not known for being the best singers,” the man said.
The nurse laughed abruptly. Then she was quiet. Then she broke out laughing again. “At least you all have nice cars. The ones that showed up.”
The man glanced at her.
“I mean,” she said, sensing the atmosphere shift, “I mean your all singing wasn’t that bad.”
“We have other qualities.”
“Oh, of course. I’m not saying your all singing was bad.”
Without looking at the nurse the man slowly got down into a squat again. He heard his pants giving and rearranged himself so a seam wouldn’t split. All at once a rush of difficult memories took hold of him, of pants torn or split in playgrounds, of accompanying his mother to the tailor’s and having to listen to her embarrassed remarks regarding his propensity to rush headlong into things, and the time when in elementary school a young teacher sewed up his pants right in front of everyone. He felt engulfed in shame. There had always been something painfully moving to him that involved the rent of fabric and its careful reconstruction by expert, patient hands. This did not extend itself to the woman’s wound, which he regarded without passion.
With the nurse holding the compress the man was free to take the Asian woman’s hand but she wouldn’t have it, she pulled away. He got up.
“Can you take it from here?” he said flatly to the nurse.
She looked up at him. “I’ll wait for the ambulance.”
“It takes all kinds of singers to make a good working choir,” he suggested brusquely, and grabbed his Mecca Mart bag. He peered into the parking lot, identified his car, and addressed the nurse. “Of course we didn’t have much of a showing. I’ll admit to that. But people have to work together. We minorities must respect one another in order to prosper, in order to survive, in order to get our fair share of the pie. And more. It’s a matter of survival. Clasp hands and walk tall and proud and free; with your hands in your pockets you’ll fall flat on your face.”
“Those are fine words.”
“They’re not mine. They’re from Saul Lefkowitz.”
The nurse was quiet. In the distance there was a siren but it sounded like a car alarm.
The man cleared his throat. “Just don’t tell me you weren’t accusing us of having bad voices and nice cars.”
“I’m not prejudiced,” the nurse suddenly declared. “What got you in a huff?”
“No offense taken,” he said with brusque finality. “And that’s my car,” he said, pointing with his blood-smeared hand to an old battered minivan with slumping bumpers.
She was starting to say something but he was already walking away. He was finished here.
* * * *
There was a light on at the desk in the modest study whose walls, dimly illuminated, were hidden by bookcases, hanging tan-and–white tourist posters of Galilee vineyard and sea, and, beside the window that looked out on a swing set and sandbox, a block of framed certificates, letters of appreciation, and signed photos. Here was a dusty five-foot-square record of unstinting self-sacrifice, the tokens from a young career including letters from the First Congregational Church, and the Korean Unitarians in Jackson Heights, and the Sisters of Mercy Food Network, all indications of his orientation towards building coalitions. Most prized were two signed photos, one of the Cardinal of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, one of the mayor, accompanied by letters referencing the moment when agitated marchers were persuaded from riotously engaging the Cardinal on the steps of St. Patrick’s over a recent and widely-perceived slight. The inscription under the photo of the Cardinal expressed gratitude to “a young leader with a bright future in bringing people together.”
This leader, not quite young anymore, entered the study, carrying his bag from the Mecca Mart. He had stopped to wash his hands in the hall bathroom but there was nothing he could do about his stained pants. He took from the bag a bottle of glass cleaner and a roll of paper towels and went to work on the dusty frames. As he worked he sensed the presence of another man in the doorway. This was the janitor. He had worked here from the beginning. He drank and his eyes were often unfocused. His face was red when he drank and it was red now. He was gently nudging the keys at his belt.
“I asked you to do this yesterday, Seamus.”
“I can do it for you now, Rabbi.”
The man in the study kept at his task, and finally the janitor drifted away. In the outer office, two very small girls shared a chair at the reception desk. One was working with building blocks. The rabbi thought of both sets of parents. He couldn’t remember seeing them at services for a long time. He was about to enlist both girls for dusting when an old man with an aluminum cane appeared in the doorway.
“Are you supposed to be here, Rabbi?”
Out in the hall two men passed speaking loudly. One began coughing, almost theatrically. This went on several seconds and suddenly stopped, and the two men’s footsteps trailed off down the hall. The old man, a retired carpenter whose name was Joseph Lefkowitz, smirked. “Our esteemed President.”
“You’ve come to vote, Joseph?”
“Don’t tease me,” said the old man. “You know he’s always getting something caught in his throat, our president. His foot maybe.” The old man nodded his head towards the hall. “Du kannst nicht auf meinem rucken pishen unt mir sagen class es regen ist —they’re making a big mistake tonight, with this vote.”
The rabbi went to work on another picture frame.
“You ignore me. Listen, Rabbi, you had to come back to do that tonight?”
The rabbi chuckled softly. “Come in, Joseph. Sit.”
The old man shuffled across the carpet to one of the two chairs out that were in front of the desk, laid his cane across the second one, and sat. “I don’t believe it don’t bother you.”
“Why fret over things we can’t change?” the rabbi finished up and sat at his desk. “The congregation’s made up its mind. Tonight they are expressing their desire.”
The old man’s eyes twinkled. “You don’t believe that. They’re just acting stupid and selfish. This is not the temple I know, rabbi. I built this place with my own two hands—parts of it, anyway—and it’s sometimes like I’m a stranger in my own building. They don’t reach out, these young ones, they keep to themselves. Save the Earth. Singles Night. Computer lessons. Childcare, nursery school. That’s all. They look inward, they are insulated. Like when they didn’t show up to hear the black choir you invited from over in Jamaica. Like when almost no one showed up Christmas morning to deliver meals to the AIDS patients. They don’t reach out. My brother, God rest his soul, wouldn’t see them as expressing their desire.”
“So what are they expressing?”
“Drek mit leber—it’s worth nothing. Stupidity. Laziness too.” The old man was tiredly disgusted. “If they are expressing their desire it is a desire to be stupid and lazy.”
The rabbi looked at the old man with affection. He was a faithful ally with skillful hands and a strong heart but his brain was not a match for his brother’s.
“Look at it this way, Joseph: they want a more nurturing rabbi.”
The old man clearly wanted to spit. “Ingrates,” he managed. “For all you’ve tried to do here. For how you tried to make us all better Jews. They think you’re a bully. All your efforts—and do you think they’ll clean pictures of you when you’re gone?”
The rabbi looked at the wall of pictures. “I was thinking of Saul today.”
“I think of him every day.”
They acknowledged their loss with silence. Then the rabbi spoke up: “So what can I do for you, Joseph?”
“You can go home. Don’t lower yourself by confronting them. I know that’s why you’re here.”
“You’re a good organizer,” the old man continued. “You and my brother, you worked miracles here. Bringing people together.”
“Der rekhtfartik folk fun der velt fareynikt.”
The old man beamed. “Those are nice words. Words to live by. Like that black choir, Rabbi. You getting them here was really something. But how many of us showed up? That was an embarrassment.”
The rabbi thought back to the nurse outside the market. Of course she felt snubbed by coming out to sing and having no one show up. It was incredibly insulting. This could not be denied.
“They had voices like angels, didn’t they?” said the old man.
“Certainly. Though our singing could use help.”
“You got no argument from me there. And you really let everyone have it, too, for not showing up. That letter, I mean, the one you wrote in the newsletter.”
The rabbi looked at his watch. “So, Joseph?”
There was giggling in the outer office. The rabbi got up and shut his door and returned to his desk.
The old man was thoughtful. “I’ll miss you, Rabbi. You’ve done a great job.”
“I guess it wasn’t a good fit,” said the rabbi. “I am glad that I was able to learn from your brother. But we could all see this coming. I’ll go my way, and they will go theirs.”
Hearing his own words, the rabbi was embarrassed. The subterfuge of it, the doubletalk, the dissembling—it was all marvelous to experience, to present, when he really felt much bitterness, yet was there any prize in getting the old man to swallow it? There were bigger fish to fry, and he was getting a little anxious. He needed to gather his thoughts—just in case. Though he wasn’t sure at all about going out there to speak to the congregation. He had clearly not been invited. It was understood that he would keep his distance. Should he decide to go that route, however, and address them, he must present himself clearly and completely. He must leave them with the right impression. They must hear it from him clearly what a mistake they were making.
The two men had been sitting quietly, and now the old man started to get up. He took his cane and headed for the door. He hesitated at the doorway, looking at the wall next to the doorway. There, arranged in a line going up from the floor, were black and white photos of the liberation at Dachau. One of the congregants willed this to the former rabbi. This rabbi kept them up out of respect and as a reminder to his visitors of the need for minorities to work together, to unite and fight effectively as a team against evil; he also tried not to look at the photos for whenever he did he began to feel broken inside.
“A woman,” the old man said, turning. “I mean, a woman, really? A nurturer? They need someone who nurtures?”
“Nurturing is important,” the rabbi offered.
The older man’s mouth twisted in disgust. “Rabbi, let me tell you what I hear. This woman rabbi is smart, yes, she is an excellent scholar, who knows, and she has some fancy degree from somewhere fancy. But what I hear is that during the service for Shabbat, when we listen to you give a speech on some part of Torah or something otherwise motivational and inspiring, do you know what this woman does? Do you know?”
The rabbi knew. He said: “Go ahead.”
“She uses hand puppets! She has puppets that she puts on her hands and has them talk to one another; she does the voices, into the microphone. She says that the children like it, it gets their attention, and all the young mothers out there like it, but my God doesn’t this repulse you Rabbi? Is this what I’ve lived my days for, to be led by some woman with a fancy diploma who talks in voices through hand puppets? The whole image of it makes me sick. I mean, if the children were attentive only to the chopping off of chicken heads, would she bring pardon me a guillotine to the bema?”
“That might not be appropriate.”
“And you know what else, of course.”
The rabbi stiffened.
“You know what I’m trying to say.”
The rabbi held up one hand. “You don’t have to say it, Joseph.”
“I’ll say it. They want a woman who is a rabbi and who is with, you know, she is with, you know, well she’s a lesbian. This is a lesbian rabbi. It’s a perversion.”
The rabbi shook his head. “We discussed this, Joseph.”
The rabbi was firm. “No ‘still’. We’re Reform, and that’s all that needs to be said. I shouldn’t have to say it. You want to think like that then this isn’t the place for you. And you know very well that your brother wouldn’t accept such talk. You can always leave here, Joseph.”
“I built this place,” said the old man defiantly. “I’ll never leave.”
Voices were heard in the outer office. The old man, a little raw from the scolding, looked back at the rabbi and frowned. “Our esteemed kinigl,” he whispered.
The rabbi shook his finger sternly at the old man.
The voices continued but lower.
“He ain’t going to come in. I’ll bet you a dollar.”
The rabbi sighed.
Joseph turned a little towards the doorway. “He’s afraid you’ll bite his head off.”
The rabbi put his finger to his lips. Joseph smiled. “He ain’t coming in.”
“That’s his prerogative.”
“That’s a nice word.”
They listened. The voices trailed off and they heard the scrape of shoes exiting into the hall.
“They got to work out the what do you call it protocol,” Joseph said. “We vote for this and we vote for that and here a motion, there a motion, everywhere a motion.”
“Was that motion or emotion?”
The old man grinned. “Lots of motions, sure. But emotions? I don’t know what theirs are.” Joseph lifted his leathery hand in salute. “I’m voting for you, Rabbi.”
The old man, clutching his cane, wandered off. In the hall, there were warm voices calling his name in greeting.
* * * *
Five minutes later the rabbi left his office. The little girls were gone and there was no one out in the main hall. The dining hall, though, seemed full; the two sets of doors at either end of the cavernous room were now closed and he could hear buzzing and low talking through the doors and a thin female voice over the sound system. This was the chairperson of Sisterhood. She ran the meetings. She was bringing people up to date, announcing events, providing the schedule for services. She wasn’t a bad type, just a little cool, a little too efficient, even for his taste. The rabbi turned and went down a back hall towards the parking lot.
In the back hall he met two younger couples coming his way. They were late of course and quieted when they saw him, and got by him almost without saying hello. He grunted and kept walking. He watched them from the doorway to the kitchen for a few moments with the president’s amplified voice distracting him. The kitchen had been busy earlier—there was coffee and cake and fruit for the gathering—but now it was empty. From the hall where he stood he could see through the kitchen to the doors that led to the meeting hall. There was quite a crowd out there. He couldn’t remember seeing so many folding chairs set up in rows extending all the way to the back, and all of the chairs were filled.
He entered the kitchen and went across to the set of doors, and looked out. He estimated two hundred people in the hall. That was about the capacity. Putting his head against the doors the rabbi could see the area directly in front of the stage. There was the president standing at the microphone. At the table behind him sat the new rabbi. She was small; the vice-president and the secretary sat on either side of her.
The president had been explaining the process by which the rabbi had been identified and brought all the way to this moment as a very strong candidate for the position. He graciously identified members of the Rabbinic Search Committee, including himself, recalled how they had placed blind ads in a Jewish newspaper for a couple of weeks, how they’d contacted the UAHC, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, for recommendations, and so on.
The rabbi brought over a stool to lean upon, and he listened.
“But the problem,” the president was saying, “is that there are too many congregations and too few congregational rabbis. Three or four interviews were conducted over the phone. Out of those, two candidates were asked, by virtue of those interviews, to come for a formal interview before the committee. Rabbi Levy, who was here as the new – and only – candidate, was then asked to send more information about herself. A reference committee was set up, and the search committee arranged to attend a workshop service given by the rabbi. The worship service witnessed by the search committee was a bat mitzvah of a girl who was learning-disabled. The ceremony had taken place in the new rabbi’s present synagogue in Brooklyn. It was reported that Rabbi Levy was gracious and helpful and managed the whole ceremony effortlessly and with grace, all without taking over the event from the girl. The committee was very impressed.”
“It’s a good thing she has grace,” the rabbi said in a low voice, shifting on the stool, moving close again to the doors, watching.
“Then references were sought,” continued the president, when murmuring in the audience alerted him to a withered hand raised in the third row. He respectfully identified the woman using her surname, and described her as a long-standing member of the temple, active for years in Sisterhood. With assistance she struggled to her feet.
“Everyone calls me Sophie,” she said into the microphone. “I’ve been Sophie here for forty years.”
There was polite laughter. Faces turned passively towards one another, and back to her.
“I don’t understand something,” she began, facing the congregation. “I don’t understand why there’s such a rush to replace Rabbi Barsimson. It seems to me that he just got here. He’s a good rabbi, he was hand-picked by our most revered Rabbi Lefkowitz, may he rest in peace. Is he aware that we’re recruiting someone else? Why isn’t there a sincere effort to keep him?”
“That a girl, Sophie,” the rabbi said to the doors.
The old woman was helped into her seat to the rise of furious whispering and the clatter of cups in saucers. Heads inclined towards, and someone in the back row laughed derisively. The president took back the microphone.
“Thank you for your question, uhm, Sophie. Please understand that the rabbi—Rabbi Barsimson, I mean—is not part of our agenda tonight. He is not under discussion. Tonight we are concerned with voting for a new rabbi to lead Temple Sinai. But maybe it would help if I can quickly fill you in on some things you may not be aware of. Many months ago, when informed that we were again beginning a formal search for a new rabbi, Rabbi Barsimson indicated at that time that he would not be a candidate. This was his choice. You remember that last year we went through a formal search, and we decided to extend the rabbi’s contract by a year. But now it’s different. Again, he told us he would not renew his contract, which is up this spring. So, again, let’s keep our questions and comments limited to the matter under discussion. Why yes, Joseph, you may have the floor.”
There was a moment of amplified fumbling, then the voice loud and full of rage: “All this narishkeit! You don’t deserve him! Do you hear? Narishkeit!”
“Well, thank you, Joseph. We all appreciate your input.”
“Stick it to them,” said the rabbi. With his face close to where the doors met, the rabbi suddenly felt as if he were not alone. Standing in the kitchen with him was the janitor, Seamus.
“They’re giving you the boot,” said Seamus.
The rabbi turned and looked very seriously at the other man. “Everyone’s free to choose.”
“Yes, that’s a popular sentiment. Well they’re on their way out anyway.”
The janitor looked pleased and mischievous and a little unfocused. He listened to the voices in the meeting hall, then shrugged. “I’ve got to get back to me work.”
“Seamus, come on now. What do you mean?”
The janitor had a silly smile on his face. “Did the Cardinal get Windex too, Rabbi?”
The rabbi did not like being toyed with, especially by someone who’d had a touch of the strong stuff. The annoyance in his face registered with the janitor, who lifted one hand in acknowledgment. “Yes, as I said, they’re on their way out. They probably won’t be around too much longer. In this building anyway.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means someone else is interested in this building.”
The rabbi squinted. He was waiting for an answer.
“Muslims, rabbi. That’s right.”
“They’ve been making inquiries. They’ve been meeting in corner houses on Jamaica Avenue and need something bigger.”
“How do you know this?”
“I said, they’ve made inquiries. About the building.”
“How do you know?”
“I’m the janitor, amn’t I? Who knows this building better than me?”
The rabbi stood for a moment with his back to the doors. Then he turned and looked out. He was not concerned with hiding his face now. Then he turned back to the janitor.
“Who else knows about this?”
The janitor shrugged. “Some people. Certainly the people at the top. But you didn’t hear it from me.”
The janitor excused himself.
In the meeting hall the president was smoothly making the transition into an enumeration of other details in the process by which the new rabbi was recruited. When the president finished the financial secretary got up to give a quick overview of temple finances, then the president returned to the microphone to announce that time would be given over to questions. The first two queries had to do with the timing of the vote–uneasiness was communicated regarding the fact that they had only met the new candidate tonight, and were expected to immediately vote on whether she would be their new leader. These questions were handled easily by the president, who pointed to the fact that plenty of notice had been given to the congregation at large through the mail, and that there had been plenty of time to ask questions about her before this day. When the floor was yielded to a woman in her nineties, there was a lot of head shaking. It was soon clear that she planned to offer no question but a lengthy solicitation in favor of keeping Rabbi Barsimson, which was tolerated until she began to question the character of the new rabbi.
The rabbi sat on his stool, looking through the doors at the hall.
Then the audience, predominately young and already shifting in their seats, began whispering among themselves, with several young men towards the back half-jokingly calling “enough!” Finally the temple secretary stood and standing too close to the microphone declared in bossy tones her disfavor. Denigrating the character of the candidate was uncalled for and counterproductive, she insisted. “With all due respect, of course,” she added, to which the old woman, still clutching the microphone, wondered aloud why she was being shouted down. It was clear, though—even to the rabbi offstage in the kitchen–that the secretary was right.
Someone in a distant row requested briskly that they go directly now to the comments, and this was quickly seconded, and people moved out of their chairs to form a line to the right of the stage. The first person at the microphone responded heatedly to the older woman before her, but did it in a manner that emphasized her own passion for the qualifications of the candidate; her rant was met with hearty applause from the majority. The second person, older, asked that perhaps a little more work could be done to find more candidates to choose from. This comment was not responded to and the person stalked out of the room to rolling eyes and shaking heads. The next four people, all in their twenties, were enthusiastic over varying lengths of time in support of the candidate, and then someone from the audience asked that the motion be taken for asking the question. It was seconded in lightening time. Those who did not get a chance to speak grudgingly took their seats.
The president took the microphone.
“Will the congregation of Temple Sinai, having gathered here tonight, March 1, 2002, at this special congregational meeting, having witnessed a service conducted by the candidate for rabbi, having received all pertinent information and having no information withheld about the candidate, having had the candidate accepted first by the Rabbinic Search Committee by two-thirds vote, then by the Board of Trustees by two-thirds vote, in accordance with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations bylaws, decide to elect through a majority vote among all those present tonight Rabbi Wendy Levy as the next rabbi to lead Temple Sinai? This is the question put forth to the temple members. We will do a hand count.”
One troublemaker asked for a ballot count. The president consulted with his colleagues and then announced ironically that the vote was now upon the congregation as to whether a ballot would be preferred over a hand count. The majority voted for the hand count and the motion was dismissed. Then, finally, the temple members were asked to decide the big question, and the vast majority shot their hands up for the new rabbi. Squeals of delight and hearty applause broke out as the audience rose to honor the president and the members of the search committee and the other temple administrators. The leaders rose and clapped back at the audience as well as at one another, for conducting themselves so evenly and lawfully and well. Amid the applause the new rabbi stood.
When the doors to the kitchen swung open the general giddiness in the air fell away in waves as row after row of congregants became aware of the rabbi’s presence. The mood of relief and merriment faded. There was excited whispering, a din of murmurs.
The rabbi remained standing before the double doors.
The president tapped the microphone and everyone quieted. “Excuse me, Rabbi Barsimson. I’m surprised to see you. We did not expect to see you here tonight.”
The rabbi went to the desk at the center of the floor before the stage. He faced the president, who backed off. The rabbi took the microphone.
“Good evening to all of you,” he began. “I’m sorry for this interruption, but I was just passing by, on my way out—on my way home, I mean–and I couldn’t help but to stop in to say hello. I know you are in the middle of an important meeting and I won’t take your time.
“How many of you have signed up for the dinner on Friday?” he asked, and raised his hand. There was at first no response, then several tentative arms went up. “I see. A lot of commitment. There are registration forms in the office and as you leave tonight I’d like everybody to fill one out. And I’ll tell you why.
“As you know, I was in Europe a few weeks ago–by the way, what I’m about to tell you is part of the sermon I’m working on for next Friday. So you’re all getting a sneak preview. Anyway, I was in Berlin. Anybody been to Berlin lately? Nobody? It’s really quite remarkable. Such a fine modern city. You walk along the Kurfurstendamm, the main street. And they have a shopping center, a combination Saks—Bendel’s—Macy’s all in one. They have the monuments set up for the Berlin Wall. You can go to wonderful cafes—we went to one, I can’t remember the name, but it was full of literati, the intelligentsia, and the theater people and opera. Oh yes, they’ve redone the opera house. There are wonderful restaurants. It’s all very pretty. You could walk down any one of these beautiful magnificent avenues—and not realize what these people did to us. This is where it started. Not a clue to the horror. Just an attempt at building over.
“So I want you to come to the Thanksgiving dinner. There will be older people there and younger people, intergenerational, and you get to meet your fellow congregants. Your fellow Jews. Were any of you at temple last Friday? Well, those of you who attended got to hear Sophie Marcus speak. She had some very moving remembrances of her life in Germany to share with us. We can benefit by the wisdom she has gained by her experience. I might add, when she spoke a few minutes ago, she wasn’t—she wasn’t greeted entirely with the respect that—that she deserves.”
Something wasn’t right. First he had the sudden feeling that his clothes had been stripped from his body and that he stood naked in front of the congregation. Then he realized it was something he’d said, errant words leaving now like a train out of a station and he could not catch up. He gazed out at the people assembled in the hall. He saw heads bobbing together in conference. He heard someone nearby whisper in an accusatory tone.
Gathering himself he continued, quickly now. “Anyway, Sophie is in her 90s now. She told us what she remembered of Kristallnacht. You know, the night of broken glass. When the Holocaust started. We need to be in touch with our people, with our people who remember, with each other, for we all share the same experience, even if we at times don’t realize it. And, more than that, we need to reach out to other peoples. Those who share our status as minorities. Those whose numbers are small, whose powers are limited. There is strength when peoples come together. We must always keep this in mind.
“Now to the business at hand. A rabbi’s function is to lead.” He paused. They were still whispering among themselves. He wished he had a glass of water. He peered uncertainly over his spectacles at his congregation.
“A rabbi can also facilitate. To act as a liaison, to help build consensus. I’ve tried to do that, and maybe I’ve not been so adept at doing that, and for that I apologize.
“But I’ve not come before you, so unexpectedly, to voice any regrets. On this important evening in the history of Temple Sinai, I want to wish only the best for all of you. You too, of course, Rabbi Levy. Please be assured that I will carry out the rest of my tenure—we have another four months or so together—and will also help your new choice of spiritual leader make the transition.
“All of you, all of you congregants, and especially you younger ones,” he pointed now, and let his arm swing slowly across the width of the room, “all of you will surely experience the future here that you deserve, that you will have earned, that you have wished for.”
He fell silent. There was an uncomfortable murmuring in the crowd.
The moment was his. This moment. He had them, yes, they were all listening. They wanted him to say goodnight and disappear, yes—but right now they all hung on his words. Not one turned his back. Not one let his eyes shift too long away from this figure on the stage standing before them at the microphone. For a moment he thought they might be wondering at his blood-stained pants.
Let them wonder. Let them gossip. They could think or say what they wanted to—he would be a ghost, appearing infrequently, haunting the back rooms. Then an image came to him and it was as if he could see, levitating above the congregants, the seated old mentor Saul Lefkowitz. Was that serene smile on the old ghost indicating approval or displeasure? It was hard to tell. He looked, focused, tried to discern—but the murmuring of the congregants startled him from this vision, and the dead rabbi was gone.
The rabbi swallowed. “Well,” he said into the microphone, and the hall quieted. But he could not come up with anything to say. There were no more gestures to make, no more words to say. He had nothing to impart to them. He would leave them now as they embraced their new leader. He handed the microphone to the president and began towards the kitchen, struck suddenly by the fact that for days afterwards many would gossip about the nature of the stains on his pants.