Religious Studies

 

Religious Studies

By Larry Gerstein

 

In his little Brooklyn synagogue, the retired dentist Howard Sherman had become a complainer:  the chairs are uncomfortable, it takes forever to get a minyan, the cholent is tasteless, the sermons are incoherent, the children are out of control, and on and on. Whenever he gave voice to yet another complaint, his fellow congregants’ eyes would roll, and there might be an occasional “Oh, c’mon, Howie,” but no one would ever speak harshly to him. His wife Sadie had run off with Saul Birnbaum, a kohen, nearly two years before, and Howard had only recently returned to services at the synagogue. It was assumed that ever since Sadie’s departure his emotional health was fragile, and no one wanted to add to his misery.
 
Actually Howard’s emotional health was fine, and he was happy to be back. His litany of complaints was just his way of demonstrating that his spirit had not been broken by Sadie’s departure. In fact, he had been glad to see Sadie go. Sure, he missed her cooking, and she had kept their home in spotless condition. Indeed, he had once bragged that major surgery could be performed anywhere in the house without risk of infection. But his conversations with Sadie had been reduced mostly to listening to her many complaints, and especially her disparaging remarks about their two grandchildren—Jason and Marcie—the children of Howard’s and Sadie’s son Manny and his beautiful but stupid wife Laurel. Sadie had sent them practically a whole library of stimulating books for those kids, as well as a wardrobe of stylish children’s clothing. She doubted that the ungrateful Laurel had even opened the boxes of books, and the kids dressed like the children of hippies and behaved like barbarians. Meanwhile, Sadie believed, Laurel spent hours each day in front of the mirror making unnecessary adjustments to her hair, her makeup, and her nails. For example, each day’s nail polish had to be compatible with her clothing. There were even days on which Laurel’s nails were one color in the morning, another in the afternoon, and a third in the evening. Still, one had to admit that Laurel was a real beauty, and Sadie had bragged to her friends that Manny had done very well for himself.
 
The Sadie/Birnbaum relationship had started innocently with casual remarks during the post-service kiddush one Shabbat, when Birnbaum, standing next to Sadie, expressed some appreciation for the earthy texture and robust flavor of the kishka. Sadie had found this statement arousing, a surprise. Her marriage to Howard had come after virtually no earlier experience with the males of the species, and she was unaccustomed to the attentions of other men. Birnbaum was an independently wealthy bachelor with an unused doctorate in paleoanthropology. (“Not the kind of doctor to do anyone any good,” it was said.)  During that brief kiddush conversation, for the first time Birnbaum became conscious of Sadie’s zaftig pulchritude, especially when she gave him a cheerful lingering squeeze on the arm after his remark about the kishka. For both of them, that physical contact through the sleeve of Birnbaum’s suit jacket was enough to transform their superficial acquaintance into something stronger, though for a while neither of them gave it any conscious thought.
 
Soon came the High Holidays, the culmination of which was the duchening:  the priestly blessing of the congregation by the kohanim on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Birnbaum and the two other kohanim (one a plumber, the other the manager of a local ice cream and yogurt emporium) ascended the stairs and stood in front of the Holy Ark containing the Torahs. Then, partially shrouded in their tallisim, the kohanim turned toward the congregation and raised their arms with their hands in the traditional split-finger configuration. Prompted by the cantor, they blessed the congregation with the sacred words passed down through the millennia from Moses’s brother Aaron, the first high priest. Though Birnbaum’s face was hidden under his tallis, Sadie imagined that his attention was fixed on her, and that she could feel his gaze upon her through the threads of his shawl. His resonant voice thrilled Sadie, and as the three men chanted the final words of the blessing, it seemed to Sadie that the power of the Torah was penetrating her like an electric charge emanating from Birnbaum’s fingers. With that, she fainted and collapsed onto the floor.
 
Despite the limitations of his doctorate, but recalling his work on the First Aid merit badge in Boy Scouts thirty-five years before, Birnbaum rushed down to Sadie’s side from his perch in front of the congregation. He waved away the hysterical women who sat near Sadie in the women’s section, fanned Sadie with a prayer book, and quietly whispered, “Can you hear me, Sadie dear?” into Sadie’s ear. He immediately realized that the “dear” was a mistake, given where they were, but fortunately only Sadie had heard it. He sat Sadie up and—after a brief consultation with the rabbi (after all, this was the middle of the Yom Kippur fast)—gave her a few sips of water. Their eyes met tenderly, and Sadie said, “Thank you, Saul.” At this point he beckoned to the other women to approach and continue the resuscitation process. 
 
Howard had been asleep during the duchening. By the time he was awakened and informed of the goings-on and got over to the women’s section, the crisis was over and Birnbaum was back in the men’s section. Naturally the congregation attributed the fainting episode to Sadie’s fasting rather than to the power of Birnbaum’s religious charisma. Of course Sadie knew the truth. Howard was embarrassed that he had been literally caught napping, and he tacitly blamed Sadie for making a nuisance of herself. The fact that everyone had witnessed Birnbaum coming to her rescue rather than Howard was a further irritation. Nevertheless, he mumbled a facetious “Thanks, doc” to Birnbaum on his way to Sadie’s side. After a brusque “You okay now?” received an affirmative answer from Sadie, Howard took her out of the synagogue for some fresh air and a few calories from a nearby fast-food restaurant. From there they went home, missing the rest of the service and the final blowing of the shofar.
 
Two weeks later Sadie and Birnbaum met downtown quite by accident. There was a delicatessen virtually within arms’ reach, so they went inside and visited over coffee and corned beef sandwiches. With the sandwiches, one of them got coleslaw, the other got fries, and they shared these delicacies, a clear escalation of intimacy. There were then a few subsequent planned get-togethers, eventually leading to their running off together, though it must be added that one wouldn’t ordinarily associate the word “running” with Sadie. Sadie left a note for Howard saying only that she needed a bit of “adventure” and reminding him that there were some things in the refrigerator that “needed to be eaten ASAP.”
 
After Sadie’s departure, Howard stayed away from the synagogue. He was especially furious that a kohen had been a key player in his humiliation. Six weeks later he received a picture postcard from Sadie showing a Caribbean beach punctuated with palm trees and, in the tiny available space on the card, a note reading, “It’s really beautiful here, and I love the water,” as if Sadie were writing to a casual friend. Whenever Howard had taken Sadie to the beach she had refused to put even a toe in the water, saying that she didn’t want to expose herself to “clams and slime.” He was so infuriated that he decided to stop moping around and to launch some “adventure” of his own. He would become involved with other women.
 
His first step with this goal in mind was at a Shabbat service at a large Manhattan synagogue. As in most synagogues, his main opportunity to interact with women came at the kiddush. But to his dismay, most of the women with whom he talked peppered him with an endless barrage of questions: where did he live, why was this his first visit to this synagogue, did he know the Schwartzmans, and so on. (In fact Howard did know the Schwartzmans, but he denied it.) It was as if he was under investigation for a security clearance. The only exception was an attractive and animated woman who was new to the city and had no local connections. But just before chatting with Howard, she had devoured a bagel with a massive mound of lox over a thick layer of cream cheese, and he was repelled by the many creamy strands of lox wedged between her teeth. Though he was retired from his dental practice, he found it difficult to speak in pleasant generalities to this woman when all he could think about was how much she needed to floss. He excused himself and fled, claiming a prior engagement.
 
Howard had grown up in an Orthodox home. His childhood education began in a yeshiva, but after his bar mitzvah he had rebelled and insisted on going to a public high school, saying that he wanted to be a regular guy. He never fully achieved this goal and had only a few friends in school. But he took up the trombone, practiced feverishly, and had some success playing for dances in a band organized by a classmate. Some soaring solos brought him to the attention of several girls, none of them Jewish, and he went on a few awkward dates that were terrifying for him and confusing for the girls.  His parents viewed his foray outside the Jewish community with horror, as if he had been captured by Martians. Eventually, with his nose to the grindstone in college and then dental school, leaving him no time to develop his social skills further, he returned to the fold and—at his parents’ urging—agreed to meet Sadie, an aggressive young woman with a lovely smile thanks to extensive orthodontia. Sadie thought his pursuit of a dental career was wonderful and even romantic, though as it turned out he pursued general dentistry rather than orthodontia. One thing led to another, and they were married. 
 
After Sadie deserted him for a kohen, and after his unpleasant experience at the Manhattan synagogue, Howard decided, to explore the world of non-Jewish women for the first time since high school. He tried his luck at the Forty-Up dance club, a run-down establishment for older adults, where the music blared continuously at high volume, presumably because so many of the patrons had hearing problems. The tunes, like the people, were “oldies,” but they were all new to him. (Perhaps they had been hits while he was in dental school.)  Conversation was virtually impossible; this was fine with him, because he had no idea what to say anyway. Back when he was in high school and most of his classmates were developing their conversational and dancing skills, Howard had been playing in the band. His only extended dancing experience had been in doing the hora at bar mitzvahs and weddings over the years. This was not a successful background for the Forty-Up, and his partners soon asked to be excused in order to nurse their crushed toes and the welts on their shins. The one exception was an older woman who sensed that he was a man of substance and clung fiercely to him despite the injuries he inflicted upon her. But he was sickened by her perfume, which smelled to him like swamp water. And when, during one of the up-tempo tunes, her gyrations caused her upper teeth to fall out, she hastily snatched them off the floor and rushed out of the hall, sobbing.   Of course Howard could have advised her about the optimal use of dental fixatives had she stayed around. But she was gone, and he left soon after. 
 
Howard was becoming discouraged, and—in the absence of Sadie’s nattering—he was starting to find the silence in his house oppressive. So he went into the attic and hauled down his old trombone, untouched for the last forty years, and began to resuscitate his embouchure by playing long tones and scales in front of televised sports events. After several weeks of intense work, when he was again able to play the old Tommy Dorsey theme song with reasonable reliability, he joined a community orchestra. At the break during his first rehearsal with the group, he became entranced with a woman who was the anti-Sadie:  a slim and graceful Afro-Nisei violist from South Carolina named Shemika Nakayama. To Howard, Shemika was a fairy tale princess, as exotic as the Martians in his parents’ fantasies. The brilliance of her smile was practically blinding, and her gloriously lilting speech could have been from the soundtrack of “Gone With the Wind.” Her very name was poetry to him, and throughout the week before the next rehearsal, “She-mi-ka-Na-ka-ya-ma She-mi-ka-Na-ka-ya-ma She-mi-ka-Na-ka-ya-ma” pulsed through his mind like Krupa's drumming in "Sing, Sing, Sing." 
 
At the next rehearsal he arranged a dinner date. He took Shemika to a quiet candle-lit restaurant he had once read about in one of the classier magazines in his waiting room. Over dinner, Shemika explained that she was new to New York, and she was playing in the community orchestra just until she got settled. She expected to soon be auditioning for more serious groups. She was a devout Christian with an intense curiosity about the Jews, and no doubt Howard was as much an extraterrestrial to her as she was to him. She had heard a bit about the Talmud, with its lengthy and carefully reasoned arguments, and she knew the name Maimonides, which she pronounced as Mah-moan-aydes, with an accent on the first syllable, as in “marmalade.” Howard was so enraptured by the sound of her voice that what she said hardly mattered, especially given her extraordinary beauty aglow in the candlelight and the influence of the wine. In all, their evening together would forever be a high point in the meager annals of Howard’s romantic life.
 
They agreed that they would each try to arrange a religious experience for the other in the near future. Their expectation: they would learn that the apparent differences in their religions were really superficial, and that both religions had a foundation of love, compassion, and respect for humanity. This understanding would bring them closer together. 
 
Howard’s first thought was to take Shemika to a small Torah study group, where she could experience the intellectual and compassionate core of Judaism. But just a day after their dinner together, Shemika called to tell him she had learned that there was a Jewish holiday starting that very night, and she insisted that he take her to the massive Temple Beth Somebody-Or-Other, which was in her neighborhood, for the occasion. Without checking the calendar, he agreed.
 
It was Purim. The scene at the temple was bedlam:  mobs of costumed kids running around screaming and throwing hamantaschen at each other, and the rabbi himself in a clown costume, shouting into a megaphone and demanding at least a semblance of order. Eventually the blood-drenched Book of Esther was read, with its many hangings and acts of butchery. This was all accompanied by the frenzied cranking of the groggers—noise-makers of the most obnoxious sort—supposedly to annihilate each mention of the arch-villain’s name, but continuing well beyond that, making it impossible to hear the subsequent sentences from Esther, infuriating the rabbi. 
 
Shemika was quite shaken by the experience, though Howard assured her that what she had witnessed was not a balanced representation of his religion. Despite her misgivings, to fulfill her part in their agreement she invited him to join her for the following Sunday’s service at her church. She was especially proud that though she was newly arrived in the city, she had immediately volunteered to teach a Sunday school class for elementary school students after the service, and Howard agreed to sit in on the class as well.
 
The service started pleasantly, and Howard enjoyed the many hymns. But then came the sermon. The minister, a fire-and-brimstone sort, gave a lengthy rant consisting mostly of gleeful ravings about the grisly fate awaiting the Jews after the Messiah’s eventual return to the Holy Land. Howard, perspiring heavily, was relieved to still be alive after the closing hymn.  
 
In the blessedly peaceful classroom after the service, Shemika erected a felt board on an easel in front of the children, and to that she affixed felt images of Adam and Eve, the serpent, and a couple of trees, and discussed “no-no’s,” her word for sins. To involve Howard, she had him supply the voice of the serpent and, though he didn’t like playing the bad guy, he went along with her whispered instruction to portray the villainous voice with appropriate “Heh-heh-heh” along the way. Then she asked Howard to sit with the children, and she put a felt Jesus up on the board, discussed Jesus’s role in relieving us of our sins, and asked those present to raise their hands if they wanted to sit in Heaven by the side of Jesus after they died. Howard didn’t raise his hand, and some of the children were upset by this. Shemika was furious.
 
“Why didn’t you raise your hand?” she asked him after class.
 
“Jews don’t believe in Jesus,” he said.
 
“I thought everyone believed in Jesus,” she said. Howard knew then that their differences were too great, and that their relationship was kaput. A few days later he returned to his old synagogue, and his friends were glad to see him. 
 
A month later he received an invitation to his grandkids’ “B & B,” their joint bar and bat mitzvahs. In the same week Jason was turning 13 and Marcie was turning 12, so the whole thing would be wrapped up on a single day. Neither child was a scholar, and it seemed miraculous to Howard that they had agreed to go through with the ordeal. But they had been bribed by Manny and Laurel with smartphone accounts that guaranteed them upgrades every few months into perpetuity, and who could resist such an offer?
 
The occasion was a roaring success. The kids did great jobs with their chanting and speeches. Manny was thrilled, and he congratulated himself for having persuaded them to make the effort. The fact that the two children’s rituals could occur on the same day added to his thrill. (“Killing two birds with one stone” was an expression that occurred to him, but fortunately he kept it to himself.)  Laurel’s astonishing beauty was at its peak, and throughout the service she looked around continuously, beaming, perhaps hoping that uninvited Hollywood scouts were present. Of course Sadie was at the great event as well, and she and Howard sat with Manny and Laurel during the service. Howard was surprised to find himself happy to see Sadie. He asked her how she was and “What’s with the so-called doctor?”  Sadie, subdued and a few pounds lighter, explained that Birnbaum had left her for a woman of child-bearing age, telling Sadie that he felt an obligation to do what he could to boost the world’s population of kohanim.
 
Soon after the “B & B” weekend, Sadie too returned to their old synagogue.  As one might expect, things were a bit awkward between Howard and Sadie at first. She rented a studio apartment near the synagogue, and most of her interaction with Howard came during the kiddushes. But after a few weeks he began walking her back to her apartment, leaving her at the door. He was feeling warmer toward her, but the full realization of “forgive and forget” is easier said than done.

 

Then the High Holidays arrived: the time of repentance, renewal, and forgiveness, two years since the holiday season that precipitated their separation.  With Birnbaum gone, there were only two remaining kohanim to do the afternoon Yom Kippur duchening. Still, it was a stirring moment.  After a break, toward evening the congregation reassembled for the closing service. In the final moments of Yom Kippur, as the Heavenly gates are closing, comes the dramatic final blowing of the shofar. In their little synagogue the shofar blowing was to be done by the cantor, as had been the custom for many years. But this year the aging cantor, weakened by his fast and by his emotional efforts on behalf of the congregation over so many hours, ran out of gas. He raised the shofar to his lips and blew with all the force he could muster, his veins bulging, his face a beet. But hiss after hiss was the only result. He was humiliated, and the congregation agonized along with him. Suddenly Howard rushed forward, his embouchure now a powerhouse and his lips full of steel, thanks to his many hours of trombone practice. He gently relieved the cantor of the shofar, raised it to his lips, and produced the most powerful and extended blast of the shofar since Joshua brought down the walls of Jericho. Sadie, her heart swelling with rapture, was heard to say “Oh, Howie, my dear” as she fainted and fell to the floor. This time it was Howard who came to her rescue.         
 
 
Copyright © Larry Gerstein 2016
 
Larry Gerstein, a mathematician, has written mathematics books and research papers, which he hopes were nonfiction. “Religious Studies” is his first published piece of fiction. He grew up in New Hampshire, went to Columbia for college and Notre Dame for graduate school, and then moved to Santa Barbara, where he and his wife live. His writing is part of his desperate attempt to keep up with the creative output of their two sons, who live in New York. He is an amateur musician, and he plays violin and trombone in assorted music groups.


 

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