Yom Kippur in a Gym


Photo: Yaal Herman

Yom Kippur in a Gym

(Excerpt from a Novella)

By Nora Gold


The gym is filling up with people in their finest, fanciest clothes. No, they have not come to work out in their suits, ties, and dresses. They’re here for Yom Kippur. They seat themselves gingerly on uncomfortable folding chairs and glance up warily at the basketball hoops hanging over their heads like swords of Damocles on this Day of Judgment. Higher yet, at the space just below the ceiling (where the Women’s Section might be in one of those old shuls), a running track silently encircles the room. Down on the floor, there are the squares, circles, and parabolas of a basketball court, markings that define the parameters of players’ movements, the way Jewish law does for Jewish lives.
Most people here look chastened, weary, and pale – some faces are as dead white as the concrete walls of this gym – since they’ve been fasting for twenty-four hours. Others betray themselves as non-fasters by their rosy cheeks, bouncy gait, and the absence of any visible exhaustion or strain. But faster or non-faster (or faster or slower), all the individuals in this stifling room – eight hundred souls packed like sardines, a random catch of the Jewish people – are together in the same boat. According to tradition, shortly after sundown tonight, in just one and a half hours, the gates of heaven will close for another year and the fates of everyone here will be sealed. Some will live, some will die. Some will prosper, some will fail. There will be successes and there will be suffering. And all you can do to try and tip the balance in your own favour is pray, admit your mistakes and commit to do better, and donate to the needy. The rest is out of your hands.
A serious business, to be sure. But still you have to admit there is something incongruous, even comical, about holding a Yom Kippur service in a gym. It’s a situation that invites jokes, injecting levity into what would otherwise be an unrelievedly sober, somber day. When the rabbi here (who is not actually a rabbi; only a third-year rabbinical student) told his classmates about the High Holyday gig he’d got for himself, they – rabbis being no crueler than anyone else, but also no kinder – couldn’t restrain their laughter. High Holydays in a gym? They’d been invited to lead, or anyway assist at, services in dignified, pompous shuls with plush seats; this skinny, mousy classmate of theirs was going to officiate in a basketball court!Jokes – told mostly, but not all, behind his back – were perhaps inevitable. For instance: How is what you do in a gym similar to what you do at a High Holyday service?
Answers: In both cases –
The exercise feels like a marathon, an endurance test.
It’s hard, demanding work but worth the effort.
Sometimes you’re operating alone; other times you’re part of a team/collectivity.
Your performance is evaluated by a judge or referee (either in this world or the one above).
And so on.
The rabbinical student – whom almost everyone present assumes is a real, ordained rabbi – is winding up Mincha, the afternoon service. The only sound you can hear, other than a baby’s intermittent crying, is the rabbi singing the prayers.
Listening to him, Ezra (sitting off by himself on the left) thinks: I am a failure.
He knows there are people who would dispute this, but he doesn’t care. To him it’s obvious that by any objective measure he is a failure as an artist. Despite his sizable talent and originality, his paintings don’t sell, he has never won a prize, and no gallery wants him. There are dozens of art festivals in Toronto, as well as open-air fairs, exhibitions, conferences, openings, receptions, galas, fundraisers, and parties. He’s never invited to anything. On the few occasions when, at Mona’s prodding, he has rallied his self-esteem and applied to take part in a festival or conference, he’s never heard back from the organizers, and his follow-up emails have gone unanswered.
He is invisible online, as well. If you google either “Canadian artists”or “Toronto artists”, his name does not appear. He is not part of the scene internationally, nationally, or evenlocally. It is agonizing. He’s never wanted to be anything but an artist. At age six, when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he’d always reply firmly (with the lisp he eventually outgrew), “An artitht.” Yet next week he’ll be sixty-six and he still hasn’t achieved success. And there isn’t much time left. His parents both died at seventy-seven and he figures he’ll probably die around the same age. That leaves only eleven years and eleven years is nothing. When his first-born, Jerry, was two, a friend instructed Ezra to shut his eyes and turn around in a circle. Ezra complied and his friend said, “You’ll shut your eyes and turn around like this, and it’ll all be over. Jerry will be grown up and out of the house. So seize every moment you can to spend with your kids.” He was right. Eleven years later Jerry was bar mitzvahed; and eleven after that, he got married and went to live abroad. He was gone. If I now close my eyes and turn around, Ezra thinks, I’ll be seventy-seven, and that will be that. The gates are closing. I hear them creaking shut.
No one can say he hasn’t tried his best. He did everything he was advised to. He set up a website, joined Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, “networked” to the best of his ability, and even blogged for six months for an online art journal. (What a waste of time that was, stealing whole weeks away from his painting!) He knows these activities are a necessary part of being an artist these days, but he’s no good at marketing himself and he hates doing it. It makes him feel like he’s a thing, an object like a bar of soap or a can of soda, and of about the same value. As he recently told his brother-in-law, a mortician who was urging him to promote himself more actively: “If I were good at, or even interested in, self-promotion, I’d have gone into marketing, not art.”
Nowadays, though, these two things are almost indistinguishable. Today’s art schools, unlike when he was a student, include compulsory courses on “The Business of Art,” where professors teach their students how to sell their work, and themselves.
“You have to develop a narrative about yourself, a compelling life story,” declared a blogger in an online art magazine that Ezra read last week. This blogger, a professor at a well-known art school in Toronto, offered the example of Charma Musk, whose rags-to-riches “narrative” included being born into abject poverty in a dirt-floor shack to an illiterate, heroin-addicted mother, along with twelve other sick and half-starved siblings. “You’re not selling just your art,” this professor-blogger explained. “You’re selling yourself.”
Right, thought Ezra. Selling yourself – the world’s oldest profession. And one I have no intention of joining.
At such moments he is proud of his integrity and disdain for self-promotion. But he also knows that this is at least part of why he is a failure, a nothing and a nobody, in the art world, whereas younger artists like Charma are on everyone’s lips. Charma is a “rising star” – no, an already-risen and ever-rising star, a shooting star who, from her place up in the stratosphere, shoots down all her competitors, picking them off like minor meteoroids, as easily as tin ducks in a shooting gallery. He has seen her paintings and they are okay but nothing extraordinary. What Charma is extraordinary at, though – positively brilliant at – is the online game. She grasped from the get-go that succeeding as an artist is not about the quality of your art; it’s a popularity contest. So for years she worked assiduously to acquire zillions of “followers” and “friends”, who now vote for her in online competitions and nominate her for conferences, juries, and sinecures. He, on the other hand, is not comfortable or skilled at the online game, and for this he is now paying dearly.


Mind you, he’d die before doing most of the things that Charma does to get ahead. He knows all her tricks and tactics because – along with thousands of other people – he is on her listserv, so he’s been targeted over the years for all of her “campaigns”. (This is the word she actually uses. In his mind, campaign is associated with warfare, and it feels like she is waging some kind of war.) At least a dozen times he – not he personally, but he as part of a mass mailing – has received requests from her for help. Just last month she begged him to vote for her in an online contest for “Toronto’s Favourite Artist,” sponsored by Toronto News World (a rag if ever there was one). Whenever he gets an email like this from her, he’s so shocked by its brazenness and crassness that he laughs out loud. But then, on and off during the course of the day, he struggles with himself over how to respond. With her most recent campaign, he struggled even more than usual. It was a matter of principle: she wasn’t the best candidate on the list. Also, he felt manipulated. Yet he was a little afraid not to support her. She had power in the Toronto art scene, and he didn’t want to alienate her. In the end he didn’t vote for anyone at all, but she won the contest anyway. And the next day, in yet another mass mailing (and all over social media, too) she boasted proudly: “Winner: Toronto’s Favourite Artist, 2018! (Runner up: The Group of Seven!)”


How vulgar. How self-serving. He, in a million years, couldn’t imagine doing a “campaign” like that.


All around him now, people are praying the silent Amida, confessing their various sins, large and small. In this intensely confessional atmosphere, he, for the first time, admits to himself that if he could (meaning if he were temperamentally able to – if he had more of a pushy gene or were less mortified by the immodesty of elbowing one’s way forward), he too would try some of Charma’s sleazy tricks. He longs for success – so passionately at times that it is a kind of sickness. Lately he’s felt he would do almost anything in the world to sit with Charma on the top branch of the Canadian art tree, looking down with her at the unsuccessful artists on the ground below, all as faceless, grey, and inanimate as rocks.


His mother’s brother Oscar is a bitter person. Ever since Ezra can remember, Uncle Oscar has complained about not making as much money as his brothers and of having been swindled by a business partner. Whenever he speaks, it is to vent his spleen or spew invective. When Ezra was a teenager, after one of his uncle’s visits he swore to himself that he would never be like that, no matter what happened to him. He would accept with as much graciousness as he could muster whatever life sent his way, and he’d keep all bitterness from his heart and mouth. (As the machzor says, Open your mouth only to declare God’s praise.) But lately he feels uncomfortably like Uncle Oscar. Everywhere he turns – in magazines, newspapers, blogs, flyers, on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn – he sees Charma’s face, her confident, smiling, thirty-something face, taunting him: “I’m better than you. I’m more successful than you. I’ve just won another prize (or grant, jury appointment, conference keynote, interview, great review, or honour). And not only that: I have four or five decades ahead of me to keep collecting more accolades. Whereas you are old and washed-up.” And he, torn with pain and fury, and detesting her smug little face, wants to throw down his paintbrush once and for all, and scream at her and the whole world: “It’s not my fault! It’s not my fault what happened! It’s not my fault!”



Except that it is.


The bitterest thing of all is that it didn’t have to end up this way, and the fact that it has is entirely his own fault. He could have been, like the Marlon Brando character in On The Waterfront, “a contender.” And the only reason he isn’t now, and never will be, is because he screwed up on a snowy winter afternoon forty years ago. For the past four decades he has been tormenting himself about this one little mistake. Perseverating on how different his professional trajectory – his whole life – would have been, if only he hadn’t made this error, this stupid, wrong decision that ruined his career. He can’t stop thinking about this mistake. He goes over it and over it and over it in his mind.


He was twenty-five years old, in his last year of art school. He and one of his classmates had each had a painting selected for a group show of “talented young Toronto artists.” The vernissage took place on a Saturday afternoon toward the end of February at a small museum owned by the city. A handful of gallery owners came, among them Joe Frost. The Frost Gallery was one of the oldest and most well-established in Toronto, and Joe, the founder’s middle-aged grandson, was highly respected. He stood in front of Ezra’s painting for a long time and then turned to Ezra.


“This is very good,” he said. “Are you submitting it for the Clifton Prize?”


The Clifton Prize! The most prestigious art prize in Canada, its winners a Who’s Who of the country’s most celebrated artists. The thought of submitting his painting to the Clifton, when he wasn’t even out of art school yet, hadn’t crossed his mind. “I didn’t think of it,” he said.


“Well, you should.”


Frost was wearing a flamboyant bow tie – lime-green with red polka dots – that mesmerized Ezra, vaguely reminding him of measles. “I’m chairing the jury this year,” Frost said, “and we’re looking for not just the same old thing but some fresh and interesting work. Which yours most definitely is. You must submit this.”


“Okay. I will. Thank you.”


“What’s your name again?” Frost peered at the brochure in his hand.


“Ezra Miller.”


“Right. Okay, Ezra. I’ll keep an eye out for your painting.”


He strode off with Ezra staring at his back. The Clifton Prize! Winning this, or even making its shortlist, would permanently establish his reputation as an artist. No matter what he did or didn’t do after that, he would always be regarded as someone significant, someone to take seriously. No one could ever take this away from him – this recognition, this anointing.


In addition, the Clifton was Canada’s most generous art prize, awarding the winner one hundred thousand dollars, and each runner-up fifty thousand. Even fifty thousand dollars was amazing. Enough for him to live on – frugally, but he was used to frugal – for two years, allowing him to continue painting full-time, instead of having to take on some crappy menial job to support himself. And if he won … A hundred thousand dollars! Enough to start a family on – maybe even a down payment on a house – if he and Mona decided to get married (something he had only just begun to fantasize about).


I’m dreaming, he thought, I’m dreaming, as he sauntered around the exhibition with a stunned smile. Near the door he saw Mike Madison, the head of the school, and told him what had transpired. Mike was thrilled: nothing like this had ever happened before to a student at their school. He was leaving town that night for a few weeks in Europe, so please follow up, he told Ezra, with Heidi Krupp, the school’s newly hired Head of Marketing and Public Relations. She would do all the paperwork and submit his painting for the Clifton. Ezra couldn’t do this himself, Mike explained; submissions had to go through a sponsoring institution. He brought Ezra over to meet Heidi who, looking chic in a tight yellow dress, was laughing with a slick, good-looking man, and holding a half-full flute of champagne. She was young and friendly, and excited about Ezra’s news. It was important for the school to have some “big stars,” she said. At her previous job at Darwin College, one of the students in the cooking and hospitality program won the nation-wide McCain baking competition, and that prize generated a lot of media attention for the college. Similarly, the Clifton Prize could really put Ezra’s art school on the map. She told him that if she needed anything from him like a photo or a bio, she’d be in touch soon, but she assumed that his file contained all the information she’d require for the application.


“I’ll leave you in Heidi’s capable hands,” Mike said, and hurried off to schmooze with a wealthy board member who’d recently made a six-figure donation.



For the rest of that evening and all of the following day, Ezra walked around in a daze. Then he got back to work. For the next three weeks he was deeply immersed in painting. For his final project for school, due at the end of March, he was painting the largest canvas he’d ever done, and the piece was complex and challenging. Often he felt frustrated, anxious, or full of self-doubt, but Mona was always supportive and patient with his dark moods. “I don’t know if I can do this,” he’d say. She would reply calmly, “Of course you can.” And he’d keep going.


When he painted, everything else disappeared. Other than seeing Mona on the weekends, all he did, now that classes were over, was paint alone in the off-campus studio that the school provided for its final-year students. Sometimes he neglected to eat or sleep. He was in the throes of creativity, fully absorbed and occupied. One day, struggling with mixing just the right shade of blue paint, trying to reproduce the colour he’d come up with the day before but unable to get it quite right, it crossed his mind, like a hazy vision from a faraway world, that sometime around now was the deadline for submissions to the Clifton Prize. He wasn’t sure of the exact date – he hadn’t written it down, trusting Heidi to manage all these details – but something made him think of this now. He paused for a moment, his paintbrush in mid-air, while he considered whether or not to call Heidi and remind her. But cell phones didn’t exist forty years ago, and there were no regular phones in the studios. There was a pay phone out in the hallway, but it was cold there, and he hated the long, frigid wait while the students ahead of him engaged in extensive chats with their girlfriends or boyfriends. Even more than that, he didn’t want to lose twenty minutes or a half-hour now from his painting; it would ruin the flow of the work when he was right in the middle of it.


He deliberated. His father, a practical man, had always advised “double sealing” when it came to important matters. An officer during World War II, he had, whenever possible, relayed his orders to subordinates not only through one channel, but two; this he called “double sealing.” Ezra thought of this now. But then his eyes wandered back to his painting. The woman in it was developing a surprising resemblance to Mona, and she needed some blue or green, or maybe a greenish blue, in her skin, to offset the blue-grey eyes. He’d studied Van Gogh’s use of green when painting skin, and he thought it would work well here. He lifted his paintbrush to fix Mona’s cheekbones and the area under her eyes. “I’m leaving you in Heidi’s capable hands,” Mike had said. Then, a week after the exhibition, Ezra had bumped into Heidi in the hallway, and she’d told him she was “on top of everything.” So why doubt her? She’d managed the submission for the prize that baking student had won, hadn’t she? In any case, he wasn’t even certain of the deadline for the Clifton. He couldn’t very well call her and say, “I have this vague feeling the deadline is sometime around now.” He’d look like an idiot. Tonight at home he’ll verify the date, he decided, and tomorrow he’ll give her a call. The woman in the painting – not Mona, he told himself; she just looks like Mona – called out to him like a Siren. He lifted his paintbrush. And immediately he was submerged again into the ocean of art, its silent, separate, subterranean world.



The next day he dropped by the school. The secretary handed him the dog-eared red booklet listing the application details for all of Canada’s main art competitions and grants, and he saw at once that he’d been right: the deadline for the Clifton Prize had indeed been the previous day. But he wasn’t worried. He was sure Heidi had taken care of everything. Just to be on the safe side, though (“Double seal, double seal”), he knocked on her door. There was no answer, so he left her a note.


Three days later he heard back from her. She left a message on his answering machine at home, saying that in ten days she would be leaving her job at the school. She had found a new position, once again in cooking and hospitality, which was her real love. And she was very sorry, but in all the turmoil she’d lost track of time, and the deadline for the Clifton Prize had slipped her mind. “But don’t worry,” she told him. “For someone of your talent, there’s always next year.”



There was no next year. That was his one chance for the brass ring and he’d blown it. By the following year he was no longer part of the school, and he hadn’t been taken on by a gallery or any other institution that could submit his painting, so that was that. Meanwhile he and Mona had decided to get married and start a family. She was an assistant librarian and her salary was very modest, so he took a job painting scenery for the Tom Thumb Young People’s Theatre. Only for a year or two, he told himself. Just till we’re on our feet. Then I’ll return to my art.


That “year or two” became six, then twelve, then eighteen. He had time for his own painting only on the weekends, or in the middle of the night when Mona and the kids were asleep and the house was still. At the end of these eighteen years, the mortgage was paid off and he and Mona had saved enough to put their three kids through college. At last he could leave Tom Thumb and return to his art. By then he was forty-four.


He got off to a good start. He was part of a group exhibit at the local Jewish Community Centre – this centre here, where he is right now – and the review in the Globe and Mail singled him out as particularly worthy of praise. He even sold a few paintings. But just as he started approaching galleries, hoping someone would take him on, the recession hit, and no gallery would take a chance anymore on an unknown artist. Everyone wanted only the big names, the prize winners – safe bets where wealthy art appreciators could be certain that the value of their purchases would appreciate with time. Even so, he continued painting, supported financially and morally by Mona. Until Toronto elected a crack addict mayor who hated intellectuals, artists, and culture. Outraged that the number of libraries in Toronto exceeded that of its donut shops, this donut-loving mayor asked, “Who reads books anyway? Who needs libraries?” and without listening to the answers, closed half the libraries across the city. One of them was Mona’s. For eight months she searched unsuccessfully for another job, and when ultimately she gave up, Ezra returned to Tom Thumb. There went another six years (ages forty-eight to fifty-four).


Finally, around eleven years ago, soon after his fifty-fifth birthday, he quit that job and returned to his art. This was made possible by the unexpected death of both his parents just a few months apart. An eerie convergence for him of searing grief with the searing joy of being able to paint again. It reminded him of the last scenery set he’d painted for Tom Thumb. For their Halloween program, they’d performed the W.W. Jacobs horror story, “The Monkey’s Paw.” In it, a man receives a magic monkey’s paw which he uses to wish for two hundred pounds, the amount he needs in order to cover his final mortgage payment. The next day his son gets killed in a machinery accident at work, and the employer, although denying all responsibility, makes a goodwill payment to the family. Of exactly two hundred pounds. The moral of the story: “Be careful what you wish for.” A valid lesson, even if rather grisly for children aged nine to fourteen, Ezra thought while painting the backdrop: an impoverished, spooky interior of a Gothic house. And then he’d had his own macabre windfall.


Now here he is, after eleven years of painting full-time, and he’s still nowhere as an artist. A nobody. A complete unknown. Meanwhile all these younger artists – Charma and her ilk – zoom past him in their social-media-equipped racing cars, while he, an old man, stands watching them from the side of the road.


He’ll never know if he’d have won the Clifton Prize. He had a good chance, but there was no guarantee, of course. Yet even if he hadn’t, even if he’d just made the shortlist (or even the longlist), everything would have gone differently for him after that. He’d have been in the game. A part of the scene. His friend Sam, a photographer, once commented that in his field you had to win a prize, or at least make a shortlist, right at the beginning of your career, because with rare exceptions, that’s the pool that would be drawn on for prizes, for everything, forever after. If you didn’t get your foot on the bottom rung of the ladder early on, you had no chance of ever getting even halfway up. It’s the same with painting, Ezra thinks now. If I’d made even the longlist of the Clifton back then, a gallery would have taken me on, I’d have had solo shows, not just group ones, and these would have been reviewed in newspapers and magazines and online.


By now he would be on the lists of Toronto artists, Canadian artists, International Jewish artists, and maybe even the general international lists (not just the Jewish ones). He’d have been interviewed in newspapers – in the Globe and perhaps also in the New York Times – as well as on TV, radio, and blog sites. Prominent critics and pundits would have consulted with him on serious, wide-ranging questions about art and his artistic process and listened respectfully to his answers. Afterwards, his incisive replies and clever quips would have been repeated, retweeted, and discussed, part of the national conversation about culture in Canada, and maybe even beyond. He’d have been seen and heard – he’d have been visible and had a voice – instead of being just part of the faceless masses, one of the millions who only watch and listen.


Last but not least, his paintings would have sold. They’d have been purchased by individual collectors and galleries: maybe the Art Gallery of Ontario or the National Gallery, and maybe even some galleries in the United States, Europe, and Asia. For the past forty years, he’d have been able to live, and support his family, through his art, rather than by painting witches’ castles and cartoon animals for children – or mooching off Mona, which filled him with shame. He could have accomplished so much more with all that extra time. He’d have been able to leave behind him a substantial oeuvre.


He’ll never forgive himself for that mistake back then. For being an idiot and messing up his one big chance. He ruined his career, and in a way, his whole life. He can’t sleep at night or properly enjoy his days, for berating himself. Hating himself.


To escape from this now, he lowers his eyes to his machzor. God is patient, compassionate, and kind, it says. God loves for a thousand generations and forgives all mistakes and transgressions.


He flips the pages, searching, without knowing for what. He stops at a prayer he recognizes:


Forgive us. Pardon us. Be kind and merciful to us.


This, he knows, is one of the many collective prayers for Yom Kippur. “Forgive us” – not “Forgive me.” Over and over, everyone in this room has been saying this prayer, requesting forgiveness for the errors and wrongs committed not by them individually, but by the entire Jewish people.


Suddenly, though, this prayer strikes him as more personal than that. As a message directed specifically at him: an injunction, a plea even, to forgive. To forgive himself finally for his long- ago mistake – to pardon, and be kind to, himself – and to move on. To begin, before it’s too late, to live his life fully and with joy, without that old, festering grief.


“Forgive,” he instructs himself in a whisper. “Forgive, forgive, forgive.” And he repeats this under his breath so many times that it starts to sound like a nonsense word: Giffergiffergiffergiffergiffergiffergiff.




 75 Minutes Later


Hail explodes against the upper windows of the gym. It crashes down, attacking the glass loudly like mini bullets. People glance up, startled. Then, as with so many things in life, they get accustomed to it. In less than a minute, the steady pelting has become inoffensive, even comforting in its rhythm, numbing them, lulling them into a deeper level of trance. Already they were entranced, thanks to hour after hour of prayers, music, and the exhaustion of fasting, not to mention the urgent claims of their inner worlds, since they’ve been living for the past twenty-five hours mainly inside their hearts, minds, and souls. In addition, they have been standing now for a long stretch, as this part of the service requires. Though, as Ezra notes, a handful of congregants, the very old or infirm, have claimed the right to remain seated.


Bam! Bam! Bam! – the hail pounds down. There are flashes of lightning. Then, like the lightning, come flashes of memory.


His and Mona’s first baby: a miscarriage. The yellow room they’d painted in anticipation, with a line of waddling baby ducks encircling the walls.


His first orgasm (or anyway the first he can remember). Alone on his bed with the plaid coverlet, a week before his bar mitzvah.


The fragrance of his mother’s cooking on holidays: the mingled aromas of brisket, kugel, tzimmes, and coffee cake.


The smell of Mona after sex. Spicy, musky.


The silky feel of the linens on his father’s bed where he lay dying, when Ezra smoothed the sheet for him.


The wall of acrid cigarette smoke he always had to walk through when visiting his father at the factory where he worked.


The rich deep green of the forest in a fairytale backdrop he painted for Tom Thumb. The exact same green as the real-life forest bordering the cottage his parents rented once for a family vacation.


The rhythmic pounding of the skipping rope – bam bam bam – when his late sister Leanne played skipping on their driveway as a girl.


His oldest child, Jerry, yelling at him: “Why can’t I have a new bike like everyone else? Monty Heller just got one. Why can’t I?” Because there was no money, that’s why. The guilt of his art. Later that afternoon, he and Mona made love. Afterwards she held him, stroking his head while it nestled between her breasts. His wracking guilt. “Never mind,” she said. “You have a gift, and a gift like that exacts a price. He’ll understand when he’s older.”


But did he? Does he even now? All these years later, there’s still a wall between him and Jerry. He tried to paint this wall once, to give it form and thus lessen its torment. But he couldn’t.


Another year gone by. Another mile advanced in his march toward death.


No – don’t think that way. There are things to look forward to still. Philip’s wedding. And then, if all goes well, grandchildren …


And paintings, of course. There will always be more paintings. He’ll paint until he dies.


All around him congregants are pounding their breasts, doing the Ashamnu. It’s the last one for this Yom Kippur, so there is urgency on their faces as they make their final confessions. The gates will be closing soon. It’s now or never to face the truth about yourself.


And what is the truth about him? Right now, the truth about him is that he needs to go to the bathroom. This is his urgency. But he’s holding it in, the way he held in, for all those years, his desire to paint. He had no choice then but to wait, and he has no choice now. You can’t walk out of a Yom Kippur service a quarter of an hour before the end.


What a Yom Kippur this has been! A Yom Kippur from hell, with the rabbi collapsing in the middle of the service. Yet in a way it’s been a comforting Yom Kippur, too. People came together. Like when it rained at his and Mona’s wedding. The ceremony was held outdoors in a park, and when the rain started, everyone scurried under the green-and-white striped awning of a nearby kiosk, rushing then crushing each other and laughing. In that moment (a friend said later), an “instant community” was created, and even people who’d never met before were included in its warm embrace. Someone else, while still under the awning, said that rain at a wedding is good luck. Probably bullshitting to make them feel better. But it’s true – he and Mona have been lucky. And happy, too. Luckier and happier than most.


His art, though, has been neither lucky nor happy. This was rubbed into his face yet again when he escorted the paramedics, who were carrying the rabbi on a stretcher to the front door of the community centre where their ambulance awaited. On his way back to the gym, Ezra passed the lounge-cum-gallery, and wanting a few quiet minutes to himself, stopped in to glance at the latest exhibit. It was atrocious. Displayed on three walls were tacky, imitative paintings, and on the fourth was a Bristol board poster with a glowing review by Charma Musk. The paintings were terrible, total crap, so why was she praising them? Then he saw who the artist was. Her last name belonged to one of Toronto’s wealthiest Jewish families. A ubiquitous name: he’d seen it on university buildings, hospital wings, museum atriums, and concert halls. Of course Charma would gush over this new young artist.


When did he last see Charma? It was about six months ago. They were attending the same vernissage, and she arrived late, smack in the middle of the speeches, and (typical for her) made a grand entrance. Down the main aisle she swaggered with her two young daughters in tow, both of them ridiculously overdressed with crinoline dresses, elaborate bows in their hair, and lipstick. Charma, making a lot of fuss and displacing several other people, organized adjoining seats for herself and her daughters. Not long afterwards the speeches were over, and she was immediately surrounded by admirers. Ezra watched as people dashed over to shake her hand, congratulate her on her latest prize, and compliment her daughters.


Remembering this now, though, oddly he doesn’t feel the usual stab of pain. Most likely he will again at some point – there is an ebb and flow to this anguish of his – but at this moment he doesn’t envy Charma or anything she has. And he couldn’t care less about where he is situated on the tightrope continuum stretching between failure and success. It seems absurd to him, almost comical – it would actually be funny if it weren’t so tragic – how many hours (no, days, weeks, months) during the past three decades he has spent agonizing over this, green with envy and black in mood. So he hasn’t won a prize – big deal. So he’s sold x number of paintings and not ten or a hundred times that. So what? An hour ago a young man nearly died right in front of him. This wasn’t a message from God – he doesn’t believe in that nonsense – but it sure does put things in perspective. He is alive. And he is a lucky man. He has Mona and three terrific kids. Jerry is doing brilliantly at his PhD. Philip and Loretta are in love, happily living together with their cats, and planning a destination wedding. And Carrie’s depression has abated. They finally found meds that work for her, she recently returned to school, and she’s smiling again and going out with friends. So what does he have to grouse about? Look around this room. So many sad, troubled faces. Sick people, lonely people. People going through divorces or mourning the death of someone they loved. People who’ve been laid off and don’t know how they’ll make it till the end of the month. Is he really going to whine away his remaining two or three decades because of a prize he didn’t win and some paintings that didn’t sell?


“You have a great talent,” Mitch Smolensky told him once. This was years before he became a famous art critic in England, where he died in the late ’80s, but it still comforts Ezra on his dark days to remember this praise, along with other accolades he’s received from people he respects. Even without all these, though, he knows how good his paintings are. He knows. And knows, too, that this private knowing may have to suffice.


How much longer is this service going to take? He wants to pee, and he’s tired. Tired of standing. Tired of his thoughts. Tired also of the bitter, unhappy man he’s become. Or anyway, is in the process of becoming. He doesn’t want to end up like Uncle Oscar. Oscar the Grouch, he and Leanne nicknamed him. A puppet of a man who was controlled and manipulated by his puppeteer, Resentment.


I could be a happy man, Ezra thinks, as prayers swirl around him. It’s all a matter of attitude, of approaching life in a certain way. “Happiness is a habit,” Aunt Evelyn used to say. When he was younger, he never knew what she was talking about, but now maybe he does. She married an Argentinian man whose father and sister, back in the late 70s, “disappeared.” There was plenty of darkness in Uncle Emanuel and Aunt Evelyn’s shared life, plenty to be unhappy about. Grief and terror in his homeland, and then their son Ernesto being diagnosed with cerebral palsy. But Aunt Evelyn was always cheerful. She shone, exuding an inner radiance. She smiled easily at everyone, even the mailman and complete strangers. She gave little gifts to her nieces and nephews, just to see them beam. She made peace between warring relatives and convened the whole extended family for delicious multicultural meals. Always with that sunny smile of hers.


People all around him are still pounding their breasts repentantly, and here he is, thinking about happiness. He must be really shallow to be pondering happiness on Yom Kippur, instead of Guilt or God. But no. Yom Kippur is not about self-flagellation – even the rabbi said so. (He hopes the rabbi will be all right. The paramedics who took him away seemed optimistic. After Yom Kippur he should give the hospital a call.) No, happiness is important. It’s his own lack of happiness – his unhappiness, actually – that more than anything else he feels guilty about. It has hurt not only him but those he loves most. When Carrie, in high school, first became depressed, her psychologist told him and Mona that Carrie was “very affected by her father’s moods.” He never forgot that. He never will.


No, happiness is everything. Yesterday morning, as a kind of pre-Yom Kippur gift, Philip emailed him a quote from Reb Nachman that he’d encountered online: “Joy is not incidental to spiritual quest; it is vital.” Was Philip dropping him a hint? Probably not. That is not Philip’s way. But anyway this adage is true. You can’t spiritually grow when you’re depressed. You can’t do anything when you’re depressed. Look at Carrie, who did nothing for a year but lie on her bed. Happiness is the bedrock of any good life.


He sees himself now as in a movie, mooning about for days or weeks on end, full of self-pity: “I haven’t received the recognition I deserve. My dream has not come true.” He feels ashamed and also stupid. Out of the billions of people on this planet, how many of them have gotten what they deserve (or think they deserve) and had their dreams come true? One in a hundred thousand? One in a million? How many charmed Charmas are there in the world, or can there be? After all, if everyone were famous, then there would be no such thing as fame. And who knows if even she is satisfied with her lot? He saw her interviewed once, and after replying to a question about all the prizes she’d won, she said impulsively to her interviewer, a sympathetic man with warm brown eyes: “But it’s never really enough, is it? There’s always another, bigger prize you could win, another honour or accolade to strive for. You’re never really there.”


That’s it exactly. You’re never really there. You spend your whole life chasing success, running after the iridescent, dancing, elusive, illusive bubble, and when you finally reach the magic glade, you discover it’s empty. There’s nothing there.


Suddenly he wants to paint that. That precise image. The magic glade that, like Arden Forest, contains nothing and everything. Only hopes, fantasies, and dreams. He laughs with pleasure. He won’t leave this service yet; he’ll stay till the end. But he’s excited now, and – yes – happy. He can’t wait to get home and start painting. He’ll paint this happiness. He’ll paint his joy.


Copyright © Nora Gold 2023

This is an excerpt from Nora Gold’s forthcoming book, In Sickness and In Health/Yom Kippur in a Gym (two novellas), which will be published on March 1, 2024 by Guernica Editions. You can pre-order this book from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca.

Dr. Nora Gold is a prize-winning author. Her first book, Marrow and Other Stories, won a Vine Canadian Jewish Book Award and was praised by Alice Munro. Her second book, Fields of Exile, won the inaugural Canadian Jewish Literary Award for best novel, and was acclaimed by Ruth Wisse and Irwin Cotler. The Dead Man was honoured with a Canada Council for the Arts translation grant and was published in Hebrew in Israel. Her fourth book, published in October 2023, 18: Jewish Stories Translated from 18 Languagesis an anthology of translated works that was praised by Publishers Weekly, Cynthia Ozick, and Dara Horn, among others. Her latest book, In Sickness and In Health/Yom Kippur in a Gym (two novellas) was published on March 1, 2024.

Gold received her PhD from University of Toronto, was a tenured professor for ten years, and left her academic position to write fiction fulltime. Subsequently she was affiliated with the Centre for Women’s Studies at OISE/University of Toronto, where she was, for six years, its Writer-in-Residence, as well as a Visiting Scholar. In addition, Gold is an activist who co-founded three progressive Zionist organizations, all devoted to strengthening democracy, civil rights, and social justice in Israel. Last but not least, Gold is the founder and editor-in-chief of Jewish Fiction .netFor more info: noragold.com.

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