“The new year starts when the sun sets,” his grandfather says. “And the sun doesn’t wait for Jack Luckman.”
The family has gathered to celebrate Rosh Hashana at the lake house in the Indiana dunes. The new dining room table is covered with a light blue linen cloth. Two tapered Shabbat candles rise above the good china, the reflected flames flickering on the holiday wine goblets. On the crimson trolley next to his grandfather’s seat, an antique shofar lies enshrouded in a fringed, silk cloth.
Jon’s mother is dressed up, in her lacy party blouse and black skirt and his grandmother’s dangly diamond earrings. She stands at the window, arms folded, as though protecting against the cold, gazing at the driveway.
“Sit, Joan,” his grandfather says. “We’re starting.”
Jon’s mother slides in between Jon’s little brother Ben and his Uncle Norm.
“Everyone take a slice of apple,” his grandfather instructs. “And dip it in the honey. So the new year will be sweet.”
The honey is gooey and cold and sticks to the back of Jon’s throat.
His grandfather opens a worn, black leather prayer book and begins softly chanting.
Jon can’t take his eyes off his father’s empty chair. He tries to will his father to appear, straining to catch the sound of the balky old Nash engine wheezing into the space beside his grandfather’s high finned Cadillac. His grandfather’s murmuring sounds soft and far away, like the high summer hum of bees in clover.
His grandfather lifts his wine glass and recites the blessing over the wine.
Jon hears a shuddering engine, brakes squeaking, the thunk of a car door slamming. Ben bolts from his chair and out the screen door. A moment later his father bursts into the room, smiling easily, Ben cradled against his hip.
When his father bends to kiss Jon’s mother, she turns away, offering her cheek.
“What happened?” she asks.
“Archie loaded old man Montrose’s shipment on the wrong truck,” his father says. “I had to pull it off, stick it in the trunk, and deliver it myself.”
“Archie’s weird,” Ben says.
Ben’s only seven, and he’s always saying things he shouldn’t. But he’s right. There’s something wrong with Archie. He’s a grown-up who still can’t read or write, and who sleeps on the sofa at Aunt Ida and Uncle Abram’s little apartment.
“He’s your cousin,” Jon’s father says.
“You’re still using Archie?” his grandfather says. “After all that’s happened?”
“Archie works hard. He’s got a good heart.”
“Let’s talk about it later,” Jon’s mother says.
“But the fire,” his grandfather says.
“It was an accident.”
His grandfather removes his glasses, his hazel eyes peering quizzically at Jon’s father. “Hanging your wool overcoat on a space heater is an accident?”
“He was trying to keep it warm,” his father laughs.
“The space heater or his coat?” his uncle asks.
“Not clear. But we’ve got a sprinkling system now.”
“Your seat’s waiting, Jack,” his grandfather says. “Sit. We’ve just started.”
His grandfather turns back to his prayer book and resumes his rapid murmuring.
After several minutes he pauses and passes the book to Jon, his finger fixed on the yellowing page.
“Let’s see if Mr. Halstuck’s earning the money I’m paying him,” his grandfather says.
Mr. Halstuck is Jon’s Hebrew school teacher, a stocky, pit bull of a man with a thick European accent. He drills Jon and his rowdy classmates two hours a day, four days a week after regular school, teaching them to sound out the old prayers.
“Well done,” his grandfather says when Jon is finished. “It won’t be long, you’ll be taking over from me.”
“When do we say Jewish grace?” Ben asks.
Jon’s father can’t or won’t read Hebrew. Jon doesn’t know which. On regular Friday nights at home, after Jon says the prayers over the wine and the bread, his father likes to ask everyone to hold hands and bow their heads. “Dear God,” he’d say. “Please leave us alone until we’re finished eating.”
Ben knows it’s funny, but he doesn’t know why.
“Jewish grace?” Jon’s grandfather asks.
“A silly family thing,” Jon’s father says. “Not for the High Holidays.”
The cicadas are whirring faintly, a dim echo of their throbbing midsummer din. Through the west windows, Jon sees the rock garden: mums, late blooming phlox, and volunteer Queen Anne’s Lace. He sees a Monarch butterfly, burnt orange with black bunting, its wings erect and still, feeding on the phlox. Three others flutter amid the mums. His blood jumps.
Ben climbs on his father’s lap and begins playing with the silverware. Their uncle takes the last of the apple slices and slathers them in honey. Jon’s grandmother pushes back her chair and retreats to the kitchen. His grandfather murmurs on.
Twilight gives way to dusk. Jon’s grandmother, aproned, her brow glistening, returns carrying a platter laden with steaming brisket. Jon’s grandfather closes the prayer book. His uncle reaches for the platter.
“One more minute, Norm,” his grandfather says. “We’re not quite done.”
His grandfather carefully removes the shofar from its casing. Jon has never before seen it outside the breakfront in his grandparents’ city apartment where it has long been displayed, like one of the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London.
“This,” his grandfather says, “is a ram’s horn, from Poland, where our people are from.”
“We know, Dad,” his uncle says. “We’ve all heard the story.”
Jon’s grandfather likes to talk about the shofar, how it belonged to a synagogue in Vilnius in what was then part of Poland, how the Nazis set fire to the synagogue and shipped the Jews, including two cousins, to be murdered in the camps, how the shofar somehow ended up in a Judaica store in New York where his grandfather purchased it for what he hinted was a large sum.
“Jews heard it blown on the New Year in the old country for centuries,” his grandfather says, handing Jon the mottled horn. “I’m going to pass it around so everyone can hold it.”
It’s heavier than Jon expects, narrow at the mouth and curved like a huge seashell to an open bowl at the end. It is ribbed and worn and cool to the touch.
“It’s a kind of like your clarinet, Dad,” Jon says. “But without finger holes.”
Jon’s dad occasionally plays with musician friends from the old days at a club in the city. Sometimes, on gig nights, he’s still not at home at breakfast, and Jon worries that something bad has happened.
“Wouldn’t it be something to hear Benny Goodman take a turn on that,” his father says.
“Jack’s going to stop playing at the club,” his mother says.
Jon runs his fingers along the horn, smooth and worn by those who have held it before him. Some of them have been shot or taken in cattle cars to the death camps. He imagines his ancestors, dark and serious like his grandfather, carving the horn from the ram’s skull, tearing away its flesh and blood with their fingernails.
“It’s my New Year’s resolution,” his father says.
“Didn’t we have this conversation last year?” his grandfather asks.
“Do you think Al Rosen will play tomorrow?” his uncle asks.
“We were talking about the shofar,” his grandfather says.
“I thought we were talking about Jack,” Norm says.
“The Indians need Rosen,” Jon’s father says. “And it’s the World Series.”
“It would be a shanda,” his grandfather says. “Rosen should be at shul.”
Jon gazes at the shadowed garden. At Rosh Hashana a year ago, he’d seen bands of Monarch butterflies streaming toward the wooded dunes behind the house. He’d followed, and come upon, a single cottonwood tree covered in thousands of shimmering clusters of orange and black. He’d stood still, holding his breath, afraid that if he made a sound he’d disturb the brilliant mosaic.
“Hank Greenberg never played on the High Holidays,” his grandfather says.
“That was a different time,” his uncle says, taking the shofar from Jon’s mother and passing it to Jon’s father.
His father examines the shofar closely, turning it from side to side.
“It’s still disrespectful,” his grandfather says.
“To who?” his uncle asks.
“Whom,” Jon’s mother says.
“Himself. Other Jews. God.”
“I doubt God follows baseball,” Jon’s father says.
Jon wishes his father wouldn’t say things like this. He worries God will hear. He worries it will make his grandfather angry.
His father lifts the shofar, closes one eye, and stares closely at the mouthpiece.
“I’d play,” Ben says. “But I’d go to temple in the morning. And I’d wear a yarmulke under my cap.”
“You don’t need a yarmulke if you’re already wearing a baseball cap,” Jon says.
“Ben’s got a point,” his father says. “A cap and a yarmulke. Belt and suspenders. You can’t be too careful.”
“I think the Giants have a chance tomorrow,” his uncle says.
“More than a chance,” his father says.
Jon doesn’t know whether he’d play if he were Al Rosen. His grandfather wouldn’t like it. But by the time he made the major leagues, his grandfather might not be alive. And he’d be playing for the Cubs, and his dad would be in the stands cheering like crazy.
“I wonder if the bookie is open on Rosh Hashana,” his uncle says.
“Why do you say things like that?” his grandfather asks.
“Wondering’s not a crime,” his uncle says.
His father fingers the ram’s horn as though it were his clarinet. He winks at Ben, lifts the shofar to his lips, and blows a sharp, stunning bleat.
“Jack!” his grandfather scolds. “It’s not a toy.”
His mother takes the horn and hands it to Jon’s grandfather.
Jon’s grandmother scoops the last of the kugel onto his uncle’s plate.
“Maury Katz has pancreatic cancer,” she says.
“He’s not my favorite person,” his uncle says.
“Mine either,” his grandmother says. “But it’s still a shame.”
“That reminds me of a joke,” his uncle says.
“Pancreatic cancer reminds you of a joke?” his grandfather asks.
The joke takes a long time to tell. It’s about a funeral for a guy nobody likes. The rabbi tries to get people to say something nice. Finally, an old man stands up and says: “His brudder was worse.”
Jon doesn’t get it.
“Maury’s brother is actually a nice man,” his grandmother says.
“Jesus, Mom,” his uncle says. “It was a joke.”
“I know that,” his grandmother says.
“Has anyone noticed,” his grandfather asks, “that the lamp at the turn of the stairs is out?”
Jon’s mother and grandmother bring out bowls of ice cream and a ceramic creamer filled with hot chocolate.
“What was the best thing about this summer?” his mother asks. She’s had several glasses of wine and she’s happy again.
“No school,” Ben says.
“Family,” Jon says, knowing it’s what he’s supposed to say, but meaning it. “And building the table with Grandpa.”
On Saturday morning in the summer, when the men returned to the cottage from their jobs in the city, his father would sleep in, and he and his grandfather would observe an unspoken ritual. His grandfather would work at the dining room table, listening to classical music on the old Zenith radio and poring over ledgers. After Jon finished his breakfast, his grandfather would put away his papers and invite him to join in projects. Last summer they built the rock garden. This summer they worked in the basement, sawing, sanding, and beveling the oval table at which they’re now sitting. His grandfather taught Jon about the tools, the way he taught him which fork to use at dinner, how to part his hair, how to organize a three-ringed notebook.
“Jon was terrific,” his grandfather says. “He’s so handy.”
“I demand a paternity test,” his father mutters.
Jon’s confused by the laughter.
“What’s a paternity test?”
“Dad just means he’s not as handy as you are,” his mother says.
“He might be if he ever tried,” his grandfather says.
“If you want me fixing things,” his father says, “you’d better up your homeowner’s insurance.”
“The weather’s crazy,” his uncle says. “It feels more like the dog days of August.”
“It’s got the butterflies fooled,” his father says. “All of a sudden they’re everywhere.”
“It’s not the weather,” Jon says.
Jon’s read everything he can about Monarchs. He recognizes the fat, green and black striped caterpillars, knows that they feed only on milkweed, that the toxins from the sap make them taste bad to birds, that the adult butterflies pass through the dunes from Canada and New England, gliding in the warm thermal updrafts as they migrate to breeding grounds in the South.
“Those are Monarchs migrating from Canada,” he says. “They do it every year at this time.”
“You sure you’re not confusing them with geese?” his father asks.
Jon knows that his father is joking. But the honking flight of a dozen ordinary geese heading south is nothing like the hushed, shimmering beauty of thousands of butterflies fluttering amid the dark green leaves. He doesn’t think he can explain it. He doesn’t want to try.
By the time dessert is eaten and the dishes cleared, it’s time for bed. Tonight they’re lucky, and their father is in charge. That means they skip face-washing and teeth-brushing to listen to stories about a Jewish soldier named Morton Shapiro who spends World War II breaking rules and disregarding orders he dislikes, only to emerge as a hero time after time. Tonight’s installment involves a battle in the Italian woods and Morton’s foiling a Nazi ambush on the eve of Rosh Hashana by borrowing a shofar from a local rabbi and bleating out an SOS to warn his buddies. At first the rabbi thinks Morton wants to borrow the chauffeur, who’s off for the holiday. At the battle, swarms of migrating butterflies obscure the Germans’ vision. The story ends with Morton’s playing “Auld Lang Syne” on the rudimentary horn at the new year’s celebration he organizes after the battle
“Did Morton win a medal?” Ben asks, after all the Nazis are finally captured.
“Of course he did,” his father says. “General Eisenhower presented it himself. He called Morton the Jewish Paul Revere.”
His father turns off the lamp beside Ben’s bed.
“Maybe we can do something together tomorrow,” he says. “When your grandfather’s at temple.”
“Aren’t you going?” Jon asks.
“I don’t think so,” his father says.
“Grandpa wants you to.”
“How come you make me go to Hebrew every day after school,” Jon asks, “and you don’t ever go to temple?”
“Because Jewish boys should suffer,” his father says.
“It’s important to your grandfather.”
“It’s important to Grandpa that you go to temple tomorrow too.”
“You should be a lawyer when you grow up,” his father laughs.
“I’m going to be a clarinet player,” Ben says.
Jon’s father brings an imaginary clarinet to his lips, closes his eyes and mimics a riff, his arms swinging, his fingers twitching.
“How about we take a walk in the woods tomorrow?” his father says. “Just you and me and Ben. You can show me those Canadian butterflies.”
“But you hate the woods,” Ben says.
“I don’t hate the woods. I just have allergies.”
“I don’t know for sure that they’ll be there,” Jon says. “They were last year around this time. You won’t believe how beautiful it is.”
“You can wake me,” his dad says. “If they’re there, we’ll find them.”
In Jon’s nightmare, he’s standing in the meadow by the cottonwood. Soldiers lurk in the trees. The sun glints on their rifles. Someone, somewhere, blows a shofar and startled butterflies dart and dive like bats at dusk. A soldier points the barrel of his rifle at him. Jon tries to run, but his legs won’t move.
He feels a hand on his shoulder. He turns under the covers and sees his grandfather, his thick black hair carefully parted, his double breasted blue suit adorned with a neatly folded handkerchief.
“Do you think you’re old enough to go to shul with me?” his grandfather asks.
It isn’t really a question.
“Shouldn’t we tell my mom and dad?” Jon asks.
“Your mom knows,” his grandfather says. “Your dad won’t care.”
Jon wants to tell his grandfather that his dad will care. He wants to call out to his father, asleep in the adjoining bedroom. But his grandfather will say that going to temple is more important than a walk in the woods. He’s probably right. And anyway, these are the kind of decisions his grandfather makes for them.
Motioning Jon to follow, his grandfather leads him past his parents’ bedroom to the den at the top of the narrow stairs. Jon’s dress grey slacks, a white shirt, red tie, and a new blue blazer lie spread neatly on the couch. His good school shoes gleam with a fresh coat of polish. His grandfather knots Jon’s tie, explaining the steps as he goes. He applies a sweet smelling gel to Jon’s hair and meticulously combs and parts it. When he’s finished, he steps back and stares as though Jon’s a painting he’s just finished.
His grandfather leads him back down the stairs. He hears stirring in his parents’ bedroom as they pass. His grandmother is in the kitchen fixing breakfast.
“Your grandfather’s been looking forward to this forever,” she says. She pours his grandfather a cup of coffee and sets out Jon’s cereal.
They eat quietly. Jon sees through the west window the scudding foam on the roiling lake. He hears the white noise roar of the waves. He feels the hefty weight of his grandfather’s expectations.
“Is anyone else coming?” Jon asks, as his grandmother clears his plate.
“Norm’s coming later,” she says. “And your dad, I think.”
“We’ll see,” his grandfather says.
When they arrive at the synagogue, clusters of people are streaming through the atrium to the sanctuary. His grandfather stands tall in the milling crowd. In a row of black and white photographs of the congregation’s past presidents, Jon sees his grandfather, peering confidently at the camera.
They make their way toward the sanctuary. His grandfather unfurls his tallis and wraps it expertly around his shoulders. The service is mostly call and response, alternating between Hebrew and English. Jon’s grandfather is one of the few who join in the Hebrew portions. Jon takes his cues from his grandfather, standing when he stands, rhythmically bowing when he bows, sitting when he sits.
From time to time, his grandfather glances back at the entrance, checking his watch.
The prayers go on and on.
“Is that Norm?” his grandfather whispers, nodding toward the entrance where a tall man is entering with several others.
Jon imagines his father waking in the cottage, looking for him, realizing that he’s gone. He wishes he’d left a note explaining. He worries that his father will take Ben to the woods without him.
The rabbi begins his sermon. It’s about how it’s sometimes hard to be God’s chosen people. Jon’s dad says God doesn’t choose and play favorites. Jon thinks if He does, it’s better to be chosen than not to be chosen. He wonders whether he’ll get home early enough to go to the meadow with his dad before the game starts. He wonders whether Al Rosen will play. He wonders whether the Indians saw Monarchs, clustered on the cottonwood tree, five thousand years ago when the Jews first began blowing the shofar to herald the new year.
The prayers resume. The rabbi asks the congregation to rise to chant the Shema. Everyone knows it, and the sanctuary swells with the sound of the ancient prayer. Jon feels stirred and grown up, in his jacket and tie, standing side by side with his grandfather, asking God to listen to their prayers. He feels the same prickly chill he’d felt joining in the singing of the national anthem at Wrigley Field on Memorial Day with his dad, his hand over his heart as he’d watched the flag above the scoreboard flapping briskly in the wind.
The rabbi motions the congregation to sit, and closes his prayer book. The cantor strides to the bima, the shofar curled in his right hand. He raises the small, curved horn to his lips. His cheeks puffed grotesquely, he blows a series of raw yawps. The sound is deep and anguished, like an animal baying in fear.
When it’s over, his grandfather nudges him and closes his prayer book.
“Let’s go home,” he says. “There’s no sense waiting for you father and your uncle. We’ll grab lunch. Just the two of us. Brisket’s always better the second day.”
Shafts of brilliant autumn sun reflect off the macadam road as they emerge from the synagogue. His grandfather guides him to the lake side, away from the oncoming traffic. Baby’s breath, asters, and Queen Anne’s Lace line the roadside woods. Several stray Monarchs flutter among gaudy swallowtails and sallow little cabbage butterflies.
“I didn’t really expect your father,” his grandfather says. “But I’m surprised at Norm.”
“Maybe they’re just late,” Jon says.
“Maybe. Maybe they just don’t know what’s right.”
Jon’s not sure about Uncle Norm. But he thinks his father knows what’s right. He wants to explain to his grandfather.
“Thanks for the new jacket,” he says instead.
“I worried it wouldn’t fit,” his grandfather says.
“And for taking me to temple. I liked it.”
Jon’s mostly trying to be nice. But as he says it, he thinks it’s true. He’s heard the shofar blown to herald the new year as his cousins in Vilnius had heard it, as generations of Jews had heard it for thousands of years. He’s made his grandfather happy. And there’s still time for the hike to the cottonwood tree with his dad.
“Liked it?” His grandfather laughs. “It’s just what men do.”
As they make the last turn up the winding tar and gravel road, Jon hears the dull thud of a basketball. At the clearing at the top of the hill, he sees his father and uncle shooting baskets on the makeshift court his father has built at the edge of the woods. Ben chases after loose balls. His father, unshaven and grimed in sweat, wears a t-shirt and baggy, bleach-eaten work pants. His uncle is dressed in gray slacks, a dress shirt and tie, and polished cordovan shoes. His checkered sports coat lies splayed in the weeds off the tarmac.
“I don’t believe it,” his grandfather mutters, quickening his pace.
His uncle dribbles jerkily toward the basket, unsteady on his dress shoes, his shirt untucked, arms and legs crazily out of sync. On another day, at another time, it would be funny.
His uncle and dad see them coming. His dad rolls the ball slowly off the tarmac to the edge of the wood.
“You’re back early, Dad,” Jon’s uncle says.
“Nice jacket, Jon,” Jon’s father says. “You and Grandpa look like a million dollars. Like partners in a big deal law firm.”
“Really, Jack?” his grandfather says, his voice tight. “Playing basketball on Rosh Hashana? And dressed like a bum.”
His father raises his hands, palms extended, as if to ward off a blow.
“Is it too much to ask,” his grandfather asks, “that you and Norm show some respect?”
“Lighten up, Dad,” Norm says. “The Torah doesn’t say anything about playing basketball on Rosh Hashana.”
“What do you know about the Torah, Norm?” his grandfather says.
His grandfather moves a step closer to Jon’s father. His grandfather is two inches taller. But his dad is wiry and young. Jon feels his heart constrict, like a clenched fist.
“You don’t have to study Torah,” his grandfather says, “to know that a father belongs in shul with his son on Rosh Hashana.”
“You took care of that for me, didn’t you?” Jon’s father says.
“Because if I didn’t, no one would.”
“You might have asked me,” his father says.
“What difference would that have made?”
“He’s my son. We could have talked.”
“I’m sorry, Dad,” Jon says. “I thought it was okay.”
“It was okay,” his father says.
“I cannot believe we’re arguing about whether it’s okay to go to temple on Rosh Hashana,” Jon’s grandfather says.
“Let’s talk later,” Jon’s father says. “Just the grown-ups.”
“That would leave you out,” his grandfather says.
“Later, Berman,” his father says evenly. “I mean it.”
“Jon’s only nine, and he knows better,” his grandfather says. “He and I are going to have lunch. You and Norm do what you want.”
His grandfather turns and takes several steps toward the cottage. Jon glances at his father. His blazer and tie suddenly feel like the uniform of the enemy. His legs won’t move. He turns to his grandfather. Their eyes meet. Jon looks away. His grandfather sees, nods once, turns, and strides slowly to the cottage.
“Your mother’s going to kill me,” Jon’s father says as the screen door slams shut.
“He surprised me,” Jon says. “I wanted to wake you. We can still go.”
“Go?” his father asks.
Jon sees his grandfather, silhouetted in the dining room window, sitting alone, still and erect.
His father and uncle start back to the house. Ben follows.
Jon picks up his uncle’s sport coat and folds it carefully. He pictures his mother and father whispering in the bedroom, his mother angry, his father explaining. He knows he should go back to the cottage. He should change out of his holiday clothes. He should tell his grandfather he’ll help fix the lamp at the turn in the stairs in the morning. Later, he can watch the game with his father and his uncle. Maybe he can persuade his grandfather to join them. Still, he stands rooted on the tarmac.
He knows it’s wrong. He’ll get mud on his shoes and burrs on his new jacket. The adults will worry. He promises himself he’ll hurry back. He turns and starts up the leaf strewn path toward the meadow and the cottonwood tree.