Samuel the Shaker
By Burt Baum
Rabbi Gordon Kleinwasser—fifty-one, unhappily married, and unsure of God’s existence—stroked his graying goatee and waited for the storm to erupt as Mrs. Myra Enfeld strode into his office and sat down in front of his desk.
“How are you, Myra, and how’s the family?”
“They’re fine, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about.”
Mrs. Enfeld, a thin, well-tanned woman with dark hair and a long, narrow face, moved forward in her chair. “I know you’re busy so I’ll get right to the point. It’s about Samuel Schiffenbauer. All his shaking and singing when he davens has gotten so out of hand that it’s really detracting from the service.”
Rabbi Kleinwasser stared at the ceiling, as if seeking divine inspiration, and then said in a voice just loud enough to be heard above Mrs. Enfeld’s heavy breathing, “He’s a very devout man and this is the way he speaks to God.”
“There are many people in this congregation who are just as devout—maybe even more devout—and they don’t shout and carry on like he does,” Mrs. Enfeld said.
“Well, we each need to pray in our own way. The Jewish tradition encourages individuality.”
“But we don’t live in the shtetl anymore, rabbi. It’s the twenty-first century, not Poland in 1890. You know that Reed’s bar mitzvah is coming up in two weeks and I’m going to have friends and relatives from all over the U.S.—what am I saying?—from all over the world, and I don’t want Samuel to embarrass us with his carryings on. What are my friends going to think when they see him? That they’re in some sort of weird synagogue in Eastern Europe, not in Pittsburgh?”
Rabbi Kleinwasser smiled. “Come, come, Myra, I think you’re exaggerating slightly. Certainly we have a diverse congregation—we encourage it. Samuel is part of that diversity. Women participate equally, and we try to be unique in other ways, but, on the whole, we still follow the Conservative tradition. Any visitor who attends our services should feel comfortable and once he feels the spirituality of the congregation and absorbs the beauty of our sanctuary, he has to be moved.”
Mrs. Enfeld’s legs in her red and black warm-up suit began to move up and down as if she were about to run a race.
“It used to be that way, but Samuel is spoiling it. He’s out of control. Does he have a problem?”
“I don’t think he has a problem.”
“Well, I’d like you to speak to him,” Mrs. Enfeld said, “to tone it down.”
Rabbi Kleinwasser took off his glasses and began to clean them with his handkerchief. “That’s not something that’s easy to do—to tell someone he’s praying too fervently,” he said.
“Rabbi, this bar mitzvah is very important to me—Reed is our youngest. I’ve been planning it for over a year and I want everything to go well.”
“I’m sure everything will go just right. You’re just feeling a little tense. It’s perfectly natural.” The rabbi was about to get up and move closer to Mrs. Enfeld, perhaps touch her shoulder, but then reconsidered. “I know that this is a very significant event for you and your family, but everyone at the service will be concentrating on Reed. The cantor and I have been working with him—he’ll do well. No one is going to mind Samuel.”
“I beg to differ with you. Maybe you’re not aware of the effect he has on the congregation from your vantage point up there up on the bimah. I’m not the only one who feels this way—many people do, they’re just reluctant to tell you.”
Mrs. Enfeld started tapping the rabbi’s desk with her index finger. “Rabbi, you have to do something. I don’t have to remind you that my grandfather was one of the founders of this congregation and our family has generously supported it over the years.”
“Myra, I appreciate what your family has done.”
“I realize how stressful it is to plan a big bar mitzvah, and I want to allay your anxieties as best I can. This is a simcha and you should derive much naches from Reed. I’ll speak to Samuel in his role as head of our ritual committee, about making sure things go smoothly on Saturday. But I don’t want to get him all riled up. He’s a pillar of our congregation.”
Mrs. Enfeld stood up. “That may be, but he’s ruining it for a lot of the congregants.”
“Samuel, please sit down,” Rabbi Kleinwasser said.
Samuel, dressed in a rumpled black suit and a white shirt open at the collar, sat down. “What’s up?” he asked..
“Well, it’s been a while and I thought it a good idea to get together and talk about our services.”
“Is there a problem?” Samuel’s eyes widened.
“No, not really.”
Samuel leaned forward, put both elbows on the rabbi’s desk and rested his head in his hands. The rabbi could feel Samuel’s blue eyes piercing him like an X-ray.
Blue eyes and blonde hair. If he just shaved off that scraggly beard he’d look like a Lutheran.
“So?” Samuel’s question ended the rabbi’s reverie.
“I want to tell you something that I hope won’t upset you, but I’ve had some complaints about your demeanor during the service.”
Samuel sat back. “What do you mean?”
“It’s just that sometimes you get a little carried away and without realizing it you annoy some of the other worshippers.”
“How do I annoy the others?”
He’s not going to let me off the hook.
“Look, sometimes you sing a little too loudly and at the wrong time. And sometimes your rocking back and forth makes the whole bench shake—”
“It’s that Enfeld lady, isn’t it?” Samuel jumped up.
“I don’t want to get into personalities.”
“I’m being accused without knowing or facing my accusers. I know that woman doesn’t like me.”
“But Samuel, I’ve noticed your behavior, too. I know how deeply you feel the prayers, but I don’t think you’re conscious of how you sometimes affect other people. I’m just asking you to be a little more aware.”
Samuel began shifting his weight from foot to foot. “I know the Enfeld family gives a lot of money, but the truth of the matter is that Myra Enfeld would be more comfortable in a Reform synagogue. If it weren’t for her grandfather, she would have left long ago. So now she’s trying the next best thing—she wants to make our congregation more Reform. Soon we’ll have an organ.”
“Samuel, this isn’t a vendetta against you. I’m happy to see you at services and your fervor makes our worship more meaningful. I’m not asking you to sit silently—”
“OK, rabbi. Anything else?”
“I just want to tell you that I appreciate how much energy you’ve put into your work on the ritual committee. You’ve certainly gotten more congregants involved. I’m very happy that you’re such a devoted member of the congregation.”
Samuel, his face as blank as a new sheet of paper, walked out the door.
The next Saturday, Samuel sat in his customary seat in the third row, but Myra Enfeld was nowhere to be seen. This was not surprising to Rabbi Kleinwasser since Myra attended services sporadically. Whether it was because of Mrs. Enfeld’s absence or not, Samuel was in rare form. He shouted out the Sh’ma, jumped up and down during the Kedusha and rocked so vigorously during the Amidah that the people next to him sought refuge in another row.
The following Monday morning, just after services, Myra Enfeld trotted into the rabbi’s office. “The bar mitzvah is this week; did you speak to him?” she asked before even sitting down.
“Yes, I did,” the rabbi said. He decided to forego any attempts at a greeting.
“Well, my friends tell me he was worse than ever last Saturday. At some points he even drowned out Cantor Morton.”
“I had no trouble hearing the cantor. I think those reports were slightly exaggerated.”
“I’ll tell you something else, Rabbi. Sheila Mirsky was in Dr. Wesson’s office the other day—in his waiting room. It was crowded as usual and Samuel was there.”
“Well, it was about four o’clock and Samuel gets up and announces it’s time for mincha and takes out his siddur andstarts shaking and praying. Doesn’t he have any sense of his surroundings?”
Maybe he just got tired of reading all those old Time magazines, the rabbi mused as he tried to keep a straight face. “I can’t control what he does on the outside. Prayer is very important to him.”
Rabbi Kleinwasser heard Mrs. Enfeld’s breathing grow more rapid. “Why do you keep defending Samuel?” she asked.. “Is he so important that the rights of everyone else in the congregation can be disregarded?”
The rabbi was silent for a full minute. Mrs. Enfeld moved about in her chair. The rabbi began talking slowly, “Myra, everyone is equal before God. Truthfully, you’re the only person who has complained. I have spoken to Samuel. Last Saturday was just a regular service—no bar mitzvah—just the regular worshippers. I’m sure that during Reed’s bar mitzvah, Samuel will be on extra special behavior.”
“I hope so, rabbi. For all our sakes, I hope so.”
Later that evening, Mitchell Enfeld, Myra’s husband, called the rabbi at home.
“Mitchell, it’s good to hear from you,” the rabbi said. “If you’re calling about Reed, don’t worry. I’ve gone over his readings and his talk with him, and he’ll do fine.”
“That’s good to hear, Gordon. You know that Myra has been working very hard on his bar mitzvah and we don’t want any glitches. But I wanted to talk to you about something else.”
“You may not be aware of this, but your contract is up for renewal next year, and in order to get the ball rolling, the executive committee would like to meet with you Tuesday evening. We want to talk about where we’ve been and where we ought to be going.”
“I knew the contract was coming up again but I wasn’t sure when. Tuesday evening should be OK. I’ll tell Sharon to put it on my calendar. The usual time—eight o’clock?”
“Then I’ll see you at services, and reassure Myra that all will go well.”
“Thanks, Gordon. See you then.”
The Saturday of the bar mitzvah was sunny and warm—a beautiful June day. The rabbi was happy. Rain would have meant umbrellas and raincoats, even boots. All of which would have only added to Myra Enfeld’s apprehension.
As usual, worship began at 9 AM with the Shacharit service. Reed, who had a worried look, sat between his parents in the first row of the main section with the rest of the family sitting alongside and in back of them. Samuel sat expressionless in the third row of the side section. It was early and there were comparatively few worshippers present. The rabbi knew that people would keep straggling in, but by 10 AM, when the Torah reading started, everyone would be in place. The rabbi kept taking quick glances at Samuel. Samuel’s face remained blank, and when he recited the series of prayers making up the important Amidah section—there would be a second Amidah section later on—he did so moving his lips silently, and standing very still.
So far, so good.
Now the Torah service began. The Torah scroll was taken out of the ark and carried around the sanctuary. The worshippers crowded around and kissed it with the fringes of their prayer shawls or with their prayer books. Samuel stood off to the side, motionless.
When the procession ended, the rabbi placed the scroll on a table in front of the ark and unrolled it. Murray Wolf, the gabbai, a stooped, silver-haired man, stood at the side of the table and in a hoarse voice called upon the relatives and friends of the Enfelds, often as couples or in small groups, to recite the blessings over each section to be chanted aloud that morning. Finally, Cantor Morton, in deep, sonorous tones, called Reed, the bar mitzvah, to the Torah to say the blessing for the first time in his life. This act would signify that he was now an adult member of the community.
Reed got up. His father patted him on the back, and his mother kissed him. He shuffled to the table as if he were passing through a minefield. He stuttered a few times, and his voice cracked when he said the blessing, but he chanted the last section of the Torah portion in a calm, steady tone. After that he breezed through his haftorah. When all the readings were finished, Reed gave a short talk, thanking everyone and discussing the significance of what he had read. At the end, the grandmothers were crying, Mr. Enfeld was beaming and Mrs. Enfeld was smiling. The rabbi could not remember ever having seen her smile like that before.
The cantor then began singing the Hatzi Kaddish, which transitions between Shacharit and Musaf, the additional service sung on the Sabbath to complete the morning worship. Rabbi Kleinwasser was feeling good. Everything had gone so well, and as he faced the ark he could see the sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows, reinforcing his sense of joy. The rabbi could feel the restlessness of the congregation, however. He knew that they were tired and hungry and he could hear the caterers moving things in the dining rooms. After all the excitement of the Torah reading, the Musaf seemed anti-climactic and the worshippers appeared to just want to get through it.
The congregants stood as Cantor Morton sang the opening lines of the Amidah, but no one else was singing. The cantor’s voice seemed particularly clear and sparkling to the rabbi and he felt it fill the sanctuary and soar beyond it. Rabbi Kleinwasser began rocking rhythmically back and forth—something he seldom did—his voice growing in intensity, as he joined the cantor in singing the first blessing in Hebrew:
“You are the King, who helps, saves and shields.
Blessed are you Lord, shield of Abraham.”
He could hear Samuel’s voice in the background. They were singing as a trio. The other worshippers began to sing, too, in soft, hesitant tones.
Soon the rabbi’s and Samuel’s voices began drowning out the cantor’s, making up in fervor for what they lacked in quality and tonality:
“Who is like you, O Lord, in power?
And who can compare with you?”
The rabbi started to rock even more vigorously, his voice even stronger:
“Praised are you, Lord
Master of life and death.”
With the completion of the initial blessings, the worshippers started to chant the Kedusha prayers aloud:
“Holy, holy, holy God.
The whole world is filled with His glory.”
They raised their heels with each “holy”, the sound reverberating throughout the synagogue. The cantor repeated the chant.
Rabbi Kleinwasser turned his head. He could see Samuel smiling, his whole body shaking. Myra stood, her arms folded, a confused look on her face.
Most of the congregation was now chanting along with the cantor. When they came to the Sh’ma, the congregation roared with one voice:
“Hear O Israel, the Lord is God.
The Lord is One.”
Now the congregation and Cantor Morton were singing together:
“He is our God, Our Father, Our King.”
The rabbi glanced back. Everyone was singing except for the Enfelds and a few of their guests. The rabbi could feel the floor of the bima vibrate and the walls of the sanctuary expand from the force of the voices. With each prayer the voices became more intense and unified.
They were now singing l’dor v’dor, the last refrain of the Kedusha:
“The Lord shall reign through all generations.”
The rabbi turned again. Everyone was standing and swaying. He noticed Myra reaching across and pulling on her husband’s sleeve, and then on Reed’s. Reed pushed her away. She got up and started to rush up the main aisle, her carefully coiffed hair bouncing up and down, her husband scurrying after her. But Reed stayed where he was, singing and rocking from side to side.
When they had finished, the rabbi heard a sweet, angelic tone rising from the congregation. It was Samuel, his eyes closed, shaking gently, singing the refrain again. The cantor and the worshippers followed, their voices purer and more beautiful than before.
If there is a God, he certainly must be hearing this.
Rabbi Kleinwasser wanted the moment to go on and on. Tuesday would come soon enough.
Copyright © Burt Baum 2013
Burt Baum holds a Ph.D. in chemistry, and is a former industrial scientist who began writing when he retired fifteen years ago. His work has appeared in a number of publications, including, recently, the online journals Infective Ink and Fiction on the Web. Burt lives with his wife, Fran, in southern California where he is working on a collection of his stories.