Snow had fallen since morning, leaving the roads useless by dusk, and was still
falling heavily. The city’s snowplows – though deployed in full force to clear
the streets, sow them with sand and salt and pile snow into residential
driveways – were helpless in the face of such a downfall. The surface of the
city stood like the fluffy interior of an immense cloud. Above the empty streets
and sidewalks, the bare branches of oak trees and maples sagged beneath their
white weight, while the ropy electrical wires suspended between utility poles
groaned in the wind. Snug within their homes, children, teenagers and teachers
delighted in the knowledge that school would be canceled tomorrow, or at least
At the back of Mishkan Tefila’s smaller sanctuary – the larger
one, upstairs, was reserved for Shabbat and holiday services – Judah Cohen stood
huddled with six others who had braved the storm by foot. It was his wife’s
yahrzeit.These seven, like most of the synagogue’s members, were elderly
men who lived nearby, for whom attendance at the shul was part of a daily
routine. You woke up, located your slippers, had a cup of coffee and
headed to prayers. And you reversed the order before going to bed, perhaps
substituting tea or warm milk for the morning’s beverage.
They were few,
these old men, but they managed to gather a morning and evening minyan on most
weekdays, as well as on Shabbat and holidays. During the winter, though, several
of them vacationed in Florida. Others, whether because of their own inclinations
or because their wives forbade them, did not venture outside their homes on
particularly cold, snowy nights. Occasionally, they prayed with fewer than
Puddles of melted snow had formed by the feet of the seven
congregants. Having shaken off the cold and finished Minha, they stood at the
back of the sanctuary, huddled around a table piled with prayer books and
Gemaras, on which Judah had placed a vodka bottle.
Seated before his
Rolodex in an adjoining office, the gabbai continued making calls. It seemed
unlikely he could assemble 10 men. Several members were out of town, including
the rabbi. Jews who attended the city’s other Orthodox synagogues were sometimes
summoned to Mishkan Tefila to assist with the minyan, especially if a yahrzeit
was involved,but this was a storm to keep even the devout away.
Greene says he’s coming,” the gabbai informed the waiting men when he returned
to the sanctuary. “No one else can show.”
“That’s only nine,” said Judah.
“What about Schwartz?”
“No answer. I left a message.”
“Did you call Rabbi
“On a night like this? With his health?”
For five decades, before
finally retiring, Rabbi Leon Westel had headed Beth Shalom, the city’s sizable
Reform congregation. Over the years, as both he and the members of Mishkan
Tefila had aged, and as many of them began passing away with increasing
frequency, he had more than once been the 10th man at the shul. He lived little
more than a block away. Still, to ask the aged rabbi to venture out on such an
“If we need him, we need him,” said Judah.
“To guard against thieves, use a dog, but it’s the cat that keeps mice away,”
added Jacob Gelder. He was inclined to aphoristic pronouncements, the meaning
and relevance of which were usually unapparent to his listeners, and often
uncertain even to himself.
“What are you blabbing about? Now it’s dogs
and cats?” shouted Morris Kupot. Half a century of synagogue association had
fostered in Kupot a deep aversion to Gelder’s philosophical
Once, some 10 years ago, overwhelmed by irritation, he had
even stooped to hiding Gelder’s favorite book, Lewis Henry’s Five Thousand
Quotations for All Occasions, which Gelder kept perpetually beside his seat in
the smaller sanctuary and thumbed through during services. As the book’s absence
seemed only to worsen Gelder’s proverbial predilections, however, Kupot
reluctantly returned it. The passing decade had not undone the damage resulting
from Gelder’s discovery during those weeks when the book was missing that he
need not rely on external sources, but could craft his own dictums for all
“It’s the cat that keeps mice away. The cat,” Gelder
“Greene’s here!” Izzi Greene announced his own arrival as he
entered the synagogue. “Whew! So cold outside.” He rubbed his hands
together vigorously, but paused upon noticing the vodka bottle. “Ah, good!
Vodka!” He reached for the bottle.
“You keep away from that until after
“With Greene this makes nine.”
“We have no choice. Call Rabbi
The gabbai went to his office to summon the Reform
“Rabbi Westel? Why? What for?” Greene’s attention gradually
drifted from the bottle back to his surroundings. “Outside I ran into a young
Yid looking for the shul,” he said, turning toward the door. “We have a
As if on cue, a stocky youth in his early 20s entered the
sanctuary. He opened the door hesitantly with one hand, and with the other
placed a shiny, purple yarmulke on his head, the relic of a long-ago bar mitzva
now left as a spare in the synagogue.
Relief coursed through the room
like rain in a desert.
“Kum arayn, kum arayn,” Gelder
“So we have a minyan!” Kupot shouted. “Judah can say
kaddish! Someone tell Lenny not to bother Rabbi Westel.”
Judah shook hands with the youth. “It’s good you came.” “Jonathan Singer,” he
“After, we have some vodka, warm you up a little,
Jonathan,” Greene said, his attention once more drifting towards the bottle.
Then he turned to the others. “This boy needs to say kaddish, too.”
gabbai was fetched from his office. “I was about to drag an old rabbi into this
storm. You’re the 10th – you made the minyan,” he told the boy. To Judah he
said, “That Rabbi Westel’s a trooper. In this weather he was going to come out and help us.”
“He’s no spring chicken, either.
“A good man, always willing to help. A real
The men were happy. Judah was elated. They had succeeded
in assembling a minyan after all.
“Are you talking about Rabbi Westel
from Beth Shalom?” the youth asked.
“Of course. Who else? He’s a scholar.
A real scholar. Studied in the Mir Yeshiva. Wrote a couple of books,
“Very learned, in spite of being Reform.”
“I know him,” the
boy said. “He was at my circumcision. He taught me for my
“Ha! You see? It’s a small world with big men,” declared
Gelder, seizing the opportunity to indulge himself in an axiom. “People think
it’s the other way around, but no.”
“It’s also full of small men with big
mouths, talking all the time about cats and dogs and birds and chickens,” Kupot
“Rabbi Westel even converted my mother,” the youth continued.
“And married my parents.”
Judah looked nervously around, but no one else
seemed to have heard. “Is that so?”
“How old is he now? Eighty-nine, you said?”
Judah ignored the boy’s question. “Did he convert your father, too, Rabbi
A puddle of melted snow had formed at the boy’s feet.
“Just my mother. They met at college.”
“Oh, at college.” Judah and the
gabbai’s eyes met. Now all of the men realized there was a problem. They glanced
at one another uncomfortably.
“I’ll need some help with the kaddish,” the
No one responded.
“Who – who are you saying kaddish
for?” the gabbai asked.
“My father. He passed away four years ago this
evening. Beth Shalom was closed and I wasn’t sure anyone would be here either
with this snow, but I figured I’d give it a try. I saw your notice at The
Cho-Zen about services every morning and every night.”
He paused. “I had
a bit of a hard time finding the place, though. You should get a neon sign out
there or something.” He chuckled at his own joke. “Good thing I ran into
Izzi Greene stared at the puddle beneath his boots.
He felt somehow responsible for the situation. He had been the one to encounter
the boy outside the shul and bring him in. The other men looked uneasily
at one another, none sure what to do.
“It’s lucky I found this place at
all,” the boy said. He checked his watch. “When do we start?” Silence swayed in
the sanctuary like pine trees in a gale. Gradually, the men’s eyes settled on
the gabbai. He saw to the day-today administration of the shul. They expected he
would handle this matter, too.
“We – we can’t have a minyan, son. I’m
sorry,” the gabbai said.
Jonathan had begun to sense the room’s unease.
“Is it too late? I really wanted to say kaddish for my father.” “I’m afraid it
is now, yes. It’s too late. You see, it’s –” the gabbai began, but then stopped
and sighed. “Come. Come.” He grasped the boy’s hand and led him gently to
Judah sat silently on a pew, disappointed and tired. He knew
others who had sprung back from a spouse’s loss to find new love, but for him it
had been a vast sadness of 30 years without his wife. As happened often, and on
every yahrzeit, memories of Rachelle’s funeral swept over him. Nephews and
cousins carrying her casket to the grave site. Her remains slowly lowered into
the cemetery ground. One shovel-full of earth after another piled on by
relatives and friends. When her casket was no longer visible, the grave almost
full, he had crumbled. They had had to hold him from either side while he said
kaddish, the words as though coming out of another man’s mouth. The
gabbai gestured for the boy to sit and wheeled his desk chair over to him,
close, so that their feet were almost touching. He rubbed his eyes with the
backs of both hands.
“What’s going on?” the boy asked.
Too much is going on.” The gabbai continued rubbing his eyes. He had two
grandsons about the boy’s age, fine kids, handsome, though not as
sturdy-looking, not as tall or broad-shouldered as Jonathan. Both were in
school. The older one was in graduate school, studying journalism, and worked as
an usher at a Jewish funeral home. The younger one was in college, and wanted to
be a playwright – to invent plays for a living. Someone had allowed him
to think that this was a wise career choice – probably his mother. His
father, for his part, was not guiltless, either. He had been lax with both
children’s upbringing. They could barely read Rashi. A blatt
of Gemara was like
Chinese to them. They probably had not seen the inside of a shul since
going off to college. The gabbai looked at Jonathan. He seemed smart and
sensible, someone studying chemistry or accounting maybe, not trying to be
another William Shakespeare.
“How do I say this? You know what is
matrilineal descent, Jonathan?” The gabbai didn’t wait for a reply. “This means
we – Orthodox Jews – consider the religion of a child by the mother. You
understand? The mother must be Jewish. A woman can convert – of course. Your
mother converted. But she was converted by Rabbi Westel. He converted her. We
don’t accept Reform conversions.”
“I’m not sure I –”
Leaning forward, the
gabbai took the youth’s hand. “I don’t mean to offend you in any way. You
seem like a very nice boy. Not everyone would come say kaddish for his father,
much less in a storm. You are a good son. I’m only telling you how it is. For us
your mother isn’t Jewish and because of this –”
“My father was born Jewish. He
“Yes, but we go by the mother. I’m sorry, Jonathan. We
can’t count you for a minyan because even though you are a nice boy, a good son,
you aren’t Jewish.”
Jonathan thought for a moment. “I don’t know what
you’re talking about. I was born a Jew. I was raised a Jew. All my life I’ve
been a Jew. My mother is Jewish.”
“Not you or your mother. I’m
Jonathan avoided the gabbai’s eyes, glancing instead around the
office, at the Rolodex beside the rotary phone, at the faded green carpet
beneath his feet. He tried to work himself into a quick, justifiable rage, but
the gabbai was still holding his hand, leaning towards him, and Jonathan could
not manage it, though he was hurt.
Who were these people? he wondered.
One minute they welcomed him, the next they wouldn’t pray with him because his
mother was a convert. They didn’t look like the blackclad, bearded, medieval
Jews joked about at Beth Shalom, the Jews rumored to have sex through a sheet
and refuse to bury bodies with tattoos. But the centuries had skipped over these
more modern-seeming men all the same. They were breathing museum relics, most of
them ancient enough to warrant carbon dating. If they asked him to go, he would
refuse. No one would prevent him from saying kaddish for his
“What now? Am I supposed to leave?”
“Of course not,
The gabbai was holding the boy’s arm when they returned to the
sanctuary. Jonathan was pale and shaken, and the eyes of both men were red.
Although they had not yet prayed Ma’ariv, Izzi Greene opened the bottle and
poured the vodka generously into plastic cups. All 10 took a cup and sat down in
silence on the pews. Jonathan, asserting his right to remain, sipped his vodka
too, feeling it burn in his stomach with each swallow.
The bottle was
nearly empty and still no man had stirred from the sanctuary. Worried women
began ringing Mishkan Tefila in search of their husbands. The wives of six of
those present were still alive and nagging. Occasionally enlisting the
support of a daughter or daughter-in-law, they reminded their husbands of the
inclement weather and the dangers of walking the dark streets on such a night.
They foretold how their husbands might die of pneumonia contracted during the
cold stroll home, if they did not crack their skulls on the slippery ice first,
leaving them lonely and destitute widows. With each call, Judah grew more
“I can’t stay much longer,” Greene finally whispered. “It’s
not fair to Susie. Let’s just daven without a minyan. We all need to get home.”
Judah turned to the gabbai. “Call Westel.” “It’s late already. He might be
sleeping.” “Good. Wake him up.” “When the sun has set, foxes walk by the
light of the moon,” Gelder said.
Kupot rolled his eyes. “This you already
told us yesterday – foxes and the moon. It doesn’t make any more sense tonight
and it won’t make any more sense tomorrow.” “Ah? You heard that one? I have to
be careful then. When a dog starts chasing his tail, the weasels make to
steal the chickens.”
The gabbai called Rabbi Westel, informing him that
they needed him for the minyan after all. Rabbi Westel acquiesced
immediately. The gabbai did not mention the boy.
Nearly half an
hour elapsed before Rabbi Westel arrived – impeccably dressed, as for a wedding,
but for his brown galoshes. He wore a black suit and tie, a starched white shirt
with gold cuff links. Leaning on his brass-topped cane, he looked frail but
“You are a trooper, Rabbi. Thank you for coming,” said the
Always clever at math, the rabbi looked around the room and
quickly calculated that 10 men were already present in the
shul. Exhausted from the difficult walk, and annoyed at having been
unnecessarily troubled, he intended to promptly excuse himself and go
“Rabbosai, I am glad to assist, as you know. But as the hour
is late and I am a tired old man, and seeing as you already have a minyan, I
will retire to bed.”
“We do not have a minyan,” Judah said.
rabbi counted once more. “You have 10 here without me.”
“We have no
Rabbi Westel noted the nearly empty bottle on the table and the
plastic cups strewn about the sanctuary. “This room stinks of
vodka. Perhaps you are all a little too drunk to count, eh? Let me show
Reciting a biblical verse of 10 words, he pointed an arthritic
finger around the room, assigning one to each of the congregants. “Hoshia
es amecha, uvarech es nachalasecha, urem venasem ad
” – he ended loudly with the
boy – “ha’olam
! There. With the young fellow, you have a minyan. I bid you good
“We have 10, yes. But we have no minyan, Rabbi,” Judah said,
disappointment and anger in his voice. “You don’t know this boy?”
familiar. Who are you?” The boy’s voice cracked.
“I’m Jonathan Singer,
Rabbi Westel searched the pages of his mind. “Jonathan? Marty and
Kathleen’s son?” The boy had filled out and grown since he had last seen him,
become a man. By the time of his father’s funeral, the rabbi had already been
retired for several years, but he had delivered a eulogy at Kathleen’s
request. Jonathan had been in the final confirmation class he had run at
Beth Shalom. They had been such an attractive couple, Jonathan’s parents, like
French movie stars, the mother a lovely blonde, an utterly beautiful
“You must stay, Rabbi,” said the gabbai, remaining near the
“You see, Rabbi, they don’t consider me a Jew.” Jonathan wanted to
give full vent to his anger, to have it rise and be seen, but his voice emerged
wounded and high pitched. “I’m not enough of a Jew to count for their
“The rabbi can say kaddish for your father,” the gabbai
“I’m his son! His son should say kaddish!” Jonathan was close
to tears. “I’m a Jew!”
“Not to them,” Rabbi Westel said.
you’ve done, Westel. Look what you’ve caused this boy and everyone
here. Look!” Judah shook as he spoke.
“Me? I have caused? Who
refuses to accord this young man and his father proper respect? Tell
“We can’t just pretend he’s Jewish if he’s not.” The rabbi struck
the floor with his cane. “My conversions are real. He’s not a Jew? Maybe
I’m not a Jew either?”
“No one said this, Rabbi.”
Rabbi Westel turned for
the door. He knew what Mishkan Tefila’s members thought of his denomination. On
a personal level, they admired his scholarship and erudition, and were grateful
for his help with their minyan.
Yet his denomination lacked legitimacy in
their eyes. Reform Judaism was to them nothing more than the 150-year-old
invention of yekisher
assimilationists who, finding they lacked sufficient
courage to convert to Christianity out and out and be done with it, had settled
instead on making Judaism as close to a Protestant Church as possible. Their
physical descendents, however misled, were Jews – but who could accept their
What did the men here make of his decision – him, raised and educated
Orthodox, a former student of the Mir Yeshiva – to become a Reform rabbi? He
thought of this often when he came to the shul and interacted with its members.
Perhaps, in their minds, it had been a career move, rather than a philosophical
one – his departure from Orthodoxy born of the desire to integrate more easily
into America, and done for the benefits of money and prestige attendant to
heading a large, well-to-do Reform congregation. Every so often, surveying his
life, he wondered if these, in fact, had not been the actual reasons for his
decision. Forward-looking and progressive though he was, he realized he
had not entirely shaken his shtetl roots.
But he felt that this wholesale
dismissal tonight of the beliefs by which he had chosen to lead his congregation
and his life, this rejection of his right to oversee conversions, this refusal
to count Jonathan for the minyan, was too much.
“The times change and you
go on thinking like you are still in Europe.” The rabbi pushed open the
“Wait,” the gabbai called. “What’s the good in storming off? You
walk out, we have no minyan. No one will say kaddish. Not Judah, not Jonathan.
If you stay, Jonathan and Judah can say kaddish together. It’s the only
“After this he asks me to stay. After such insults he wants me to
make a minyan,” the rabbi grumbled. But he did not leave the shul.
haven’t missed a kaddish in the 30 years since Rachelle was niftar
, Judah. You
show the boy. Help him say kaddish for his father.” Firmly holding a hand of
each, the gabbai stood between the two and brought them together. “Jonathan, he
will help you.” Judah opened a siddur and handed it to Jonathan as the
gabbai donned a tallit and began intoning the evening prayers. Rabbi Westel,
standing by the now-closed door, prepared to answer amen.Shai Afsai is a
teacher and writer living in Providence, Rhode Island.
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