Short Story: Mottel the Meshuggener

You can see, I hope, that we have a rather interesting congregation, always subject to lively happenings.

311_synagogue painting (photo credit: Courtesty of Nussbaum Museum)
311_synagogue painting
(photo credit: Courtesty of Nussbaum Museum)
‘The hidden things belong to God alone; those revealed are ours forever.’ One of my favorite quotes from our holy Torah, that one is, and I’ll tell you why. It seems to me – though I’m just a simple shammas – that the world is filled with secrets, with mysteries, with obscure and hidden revelations just beyond the border of our knowledge and perception. If one were able to unlock those secrets, he could understand the thorniest questions of existence: justice – or the lack of it; human potential and failings; the power of spiritual energy; why, even the purpose of life itself.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m no expert on these great matters of the universe. I’m so busy picking up after Shabbat kiddush, and turning the siddurim right-side up, and untangling the knots in everyone’s tallit that I haven’t much time to ponder weighty issues or important world problems. But I do listen a lot, and keep both my ears and eyes open, and so I have noticed a thing or two that others may have missed, busy as they are in this crazy treadmill of a world.
I want to tell you a secret, as one example. I want to tell you about the greatest cantor the world never knew, someone you’d pass by a thousand times without so much as a second glance, but someone with a talent that could have moved you from earth to heaven and brought you from smiles to tears in a split second, if only the world had turned just a little more this way or that. It’s a secret I’ve held on to for too long, and I need to share it before... well, let’s just say while all the details are still clear in this cluttered brain of mine.
I’ll get to the cantor in a minute or two. But first, let me begin by asking you: Have you ever noticed that synagogues attract an unusually high number of a certain kind of people? Fringe people, not quite in step with the others, eccentric people, full of strange and quirky behavior, who don’t seem to have families or jobs or regular schedules to keep. (Now, I’m avoiding the word “crazy,” because I try – especially on the High Holy Days – not to make judgments about people.) The shul, it seems to me, attracts a lot of people who inhabit a world slightly distant from our own. I’ve always wondered why that is.
Maybe it’s that the shul is a natural place to run to when you don’t have anywhere else to go. Maybe we’re just more accepting here, never turning anyone away empty-handed – even the occasional non-Jew who comes by for charity or a bite to eat. No one asks for a membership card at the door, and no one checks credentials. I give you a kippa if you don’t have one; I hand you a siddur and a tallit, and there’s almost always room to sit, day or night. We don’t ask too many questions; we’re just glad to have you.
And so we get a lot of unusual folk through the door, who seem to gravitate to the far corners of the synagogue, the object of much speculation, a little derision, and some amusement from the regular congregants. Oh, yes, they tolerate the less normal ones – either from a sense of tzedaka, or the need to say kaddish with 10, any 10 – but they never fully accept them.
THERE’S ONE FELLOW we call the Cabbie, because he’s never without his short-brimmed, round felt hat, pulled down almost over his eyes like the archetypal hack driver. He stays inside a long blue woolen coat, his hands deep in his pockets and his chin resting on his chest most of the time. He doesn’t say much of anything and doesn’t bother a soul. He’s just there, a silent sort, filling a spot on a seat, unmoved and unmoving.
Except for the time one Rosh Hashana when he went out into the street in front of the shul and began to scream at the occasional car: “Stop! Don’t you know it’s the Day of Judgment?! Where are you going in such a hurry? You’re headed in the wrong direction; God is waiting for you in here!” We watched in amazement.
He didn’t care if the drivers were Jewish or not, and he didn’t seem to mind that more than a few cars came awfully near to closing his Book of Life for good. Finally, the police came and wanted to arrest Cabbie, but we managed to talk them out of it. We pulled him back into shul, and promised to keep him off the street. He just melted back into his chair without a word or even a facial expression. But now he had a reputation and a story.
Then there is the Baron. We don’t know his real name, but someone stuck the Baron on him one Yizkor day. A rather large fellow with a love for kiddush wine, and pockets made especially for storing honey cake, he didn’t have two shekels to rub together. In fact, he was a regular recipient of our tzedaka gelt. But he stood up at the annual High Holy Day appeal one year and pledged a million dollars to the shul, in honor of the aliya he hoped to receive. The perplexed financial vice president conducting the appeal was completely unnerved by this intrusion into his well-planned fund-raising ritual. He wanted to evict the Baron right then and there, but the congregation found the break in the solemnity and seriousness of the day so refreshing that they waved it off, laughed a little, and prevailed upon the shul officer to acknowledge the pledge and give the poor nebuch a break.
“One million dollars, then, from the man in the back,” said the VP grudgingly, without a trace of a smile, as the congregants giggled with satisfaction. The Baron sat down, quite satisfied, and has been known as “Baron” ever since, in remembrance of his obvious financial affiliation with Lord Rothschild. The pledge, by the by, is still outstanding.
Another character is Reb Shmiel, a simple Jew with only the barest of Jewish knowledge, yet willing to share every last bit of it with whoever will listen – a small audience indeed. At every class, at every discussion at the kiddush table, from his seat and while waiting for me to open the shul doors, Reb Shmiel voices his opinion long and loud on a world of subjects, Hebrew and secular. He knows why God created things in their specific order; he knows how to bring peace to the Middle East; he has an answer for the most difficult talmudic riddles, even the ones he cannot understand in the least.
REB SHMIEL HATES to be contradicted; those who argue with him merit his eternal anger and hostility – especially if the villain is compelling in his argument and has the facts and figures on his side. Then Reb Shmiel plots and plans his revenge. Like the time he was bested in a debate over the starting time for Shabbat in Russia by one Mr. Cohen. For weeks, Reb Shmiel seethed.
Then on Pessah, when Cohen ascended the bima to deliver the Priestly Blessing, Reb Shmiel stole his shoes, which Cohen had removed in accordance with the custom. In the middle of the blessing, from beneath his outstretched tallit, Cohen spied Reb Shmiel pilfering his loafers and ran down from the bima, out the door and chased Reb Shmiel for several blocks before recovering his footwear.
You can see, I hope, that we have a rather interesting congregation, always subject to lively happenings from the unpredictable few who daven to a different drummer. But the individual I really wanted to talk to you about, if you survived this far, is one Mottel the Meshuggener, so named because he was written off, from day one, as an obvious candidate for mental help.
MOTTEL HAS BEEN in shul for many years, and looks to me to be in his late 60s or early 70s, short, gray hair jutting out from beyond the old, round elevated black kippa he wears religiously. Once, I could tell, he had been rather tall, but now he walked and sat bent over, almost in two, so that he seemed to fit like the Hebrew letter chaf around a table. He had one black suit which he always wore, with a faded gray sweater and brown tie neatly in place. In his suit pocket were wire-rimmed glasses, which I never saw him wear, and a bulging supply of candy, about which I’ll elaborate later.
Up till now, you wouldn’t think Mottel was so unusual. But what earned him the dubious title of Meshuggener was the fact that he never talked to anyone, not even so much as a Shabbat Shalom or Good Yom Tov. In fact, he wouldn’t even talk to God, and never once did I see him open a siddur or a humash. He refused to stand during the Silent Devotion, and he kept his eyes open during the Shema. When the congregation responded “Amen,” or sang as the Torah was taken out of the holy ark, Mottel stared in stony silence as if he were on another planet.
What’s more, Mottel refused to even sit in the shul itself. He always took a seat in the little hall that adjoined the sanctuary, where the kiddush was held after services. He positioned himself directly under the large yahrzeit board, bathed in its light, and only his curved posture prevented him from leaning back directly into the memorial lights. From his chair he could see all the action in the shul, the cantor’s lectern and the reader’s table, and he gazed at the service with a glassy, far-off look of bewilderment, as if he was looking past the davening, into some other time and place.
I often wondered why Mottel would come to shul if he had no interest in praying or following the Torah portion. Why would he walk to synagogue in all kinds of weather and not even sit among the worshipers? Was he, indeed, simply a meshuggener? Two things in particular intrigued me about Mottel. The first was that he brought a large supply of chocolate with him each time he came, and always left with empty pockets. The children surrounded him like wasps in a succa, eagerly reaching into his coat to grab a little Shabbat treat for themselves. Mottel never said anything to them, just watched as they helped themselves to his cache of sweets, before running off to play.
The shul parents were reluctant at first to let their kids take candy from a meshuggener, but after examination, they saw that the chocolate was fresh and kosher, so they let their children “raid” Mottel each week.
Then one day I noticed something else rather amazing about Mottel. If you got really close to him, and he didn’t think you were looking, you could hear him, just barely, mouthing the words to the prayers in an inaudible half-whisper. At first I thought I was imagining things, or that maybe he was just mumbling incoherently, as a meshuggener was wont to do. But as I inched closer to him, on the guise of looking for a missing siddur or kippa clip – who would suspect a shammas of being sneaky? – I was sure that I saw his lips moving in perfect tandem with the liturgy. Even on the High Holy Days, which, after all, come just once each year, I could detect Mottel reciting verbatim the most complex and lengthy portions of the cantorial repetition, all from memory alone. There was no doubt in my mind; Mottel knew the prayers by heart.
ALL OF THIS was very perplexing to me, and my mind was preoccupied with the strangeness of it all as I went about my daily routine. A shammas like me has a lot of time to think, as I set up the wine glasses and shine the silver Torah breastplates and separate the pushka gelt into different denominations. And in the course of all that thinking, I made a resolution to get to know all the congregants a little better, even the fringe ones, to stop looking beyond people, as if their story didn’t really count, as if they began and ended at the shul door.
I discovered, in my subtle investigations, some very amazing things. For instance, I learned that Reb Shmiel had grown up in a home of scholars, the son of a great Talmud teacher who had expected that his son would become a noted educator. Shmiel, however, just didn’t have the tools, and his father didn’t have the patience to work closely with him, merely demanding that he excel.
He eventually cracked under the pressure, spending years in an institution. Now, he remembered bits and pieces of Jewish knowledge and somehow, in his impaired mental state, still felt the need to be that scholar he never became.
And I found out that the Baron had once been a very successful businessman, made wealthy from real-estate transactions. But he had sunk his money into a risky land-development scheme and had lost everything, including his wife, who left him when his fortunes went south. His million-dollar pledge was a throwback to younger days, when he had indeed contributed large sums to charity. The loss of his family and fortune had sent the Baron over the edge, but in his own, sad way, he wanted to come back to a better and more hopeful day.
Still, with all my digging and detective-ing, I could find no clue to the riddle of Mottel the Meshuggener.
Then, some months later, as God would have it, I happened to be visiting my cousin in Florida – where else? – when I happened to meet a nice lady at one of the kosher restaurants. When I told her where I was from, she remarked that she occasionally came to our town to visit her elderly father, who was still living there. To my shock, it was Mottel whom she described! I could barely believe my ears! Our Mottel had family? And normal family, at that.
This was the chance I had prayed for. So I used a bit of hutzpa, pulled my chair over to her table and began to ask questions left and right. Why didn’t Mottel speak? Did he really know the prayers, or was I imagining things? Why would a man come to shul and refuse to enter the sanctuary? Was he always the meshuggener people think he is today? Mottel’s daughter was silent as I showered her with questions. She lowered her head and grabbed her neck with both hands, obviously in some kind of pain both physical and mental. The kind of pain that comes from dredging up painful memories, hauling up the past from the depths to which we’ve buried it long ago. Then, after a few minutes of quiet thought, she finally raised her eyes to mine and began to speak in slow, halting speech.
“The man you see in your shul is far different from the man who once was. Many years ago, my father was a magnificent cantor, a virtuoso of the bima whose voice was the kind few humans are blessed with. He could fill an auditorium with majestic sound, or sing sweet falsetto in perfect pitch, just above a whisper. No one who heard his Kol Nidre or Yizkor service left unmoved, and every holiday was an eagerly-awaited concert for his congregants.
“My father’s shul was in a small town, but his reputation soon spread far and wide. He was often brought into the big cities to perform, and he certainly could have had his choice of pulpits. But he loved the people of his community and so he refused to leave. He worked very hard, singing whenever and wherever he was asked, at every simha and banquet and function, and many were the days when I would not see him until the late hours of the night.”
“What happened to him?” I asked impatiently.
“The worst thing that could happen to a cantor. He lost his voice.”
I felt sick to my stomach as the daughter’s eyes filled with tears.
“In those days, almost 50 years ago, there weren’t great throat specialists or experts in voice usage. Certainly not in our town, anyway. My father must have had a nodule on his vocal chords, aggravated by his heavy schedule and his constant singing without rest, and one day he just lost his ability to hit the notes, high and low.
“It was as if his life ended right then and there. He went into depression. When he stopped singing, he also stopped speaking; if his voice wouldn’t perform, wouldn’t do what he wanted it to do, then he wouldn’t use it at all. He retreated so far into himself, the pain and bitterness and frustration weighing like an anchor on his soul, that he never found his way back. He cut his ties to the world, and would not settle for half a life in place of his former illustrious career. He preferred no life at all, and to even enunciate a prayer was a pain beyond measure for him.”
“But why, then, does he come religiously to shul?” “He is still a Jew, you know. He did not totally abandon God. He hangs on to the shul as the only home he ever knew, surviving on the irony of no one but him knowing who and what sits in the entrance hall.”
“What about the chocolate and candy?” “Have you ever known a cantor who didn’t love kids?” So now I knew. The curiosity was gone, but the frustration was greater. What good is knowing something like this, if you can’t do anything about it? When I thought Mottel was simply meshugge, I shrugged it off as beyond my limited ability to help. But this? It was not easy to see Mottel each day and pass him by as if he was just another ne’er-do-well. He deserved better.
A SHAMMAS IS not a very powerful figure, I’m afraid to say. But we do have certain capabilities, and eventually I arrived at a daring plan. As Yom Kippur approached, I resolved that I must do something to change the equation, to bring Mottel somewhat back to life. After all, we Jews profess a belief in tehiyat hametim, the resurrection of the dead, do we not? The most anxiously awaited moment of Jewish prayer is the thrice-repeated Kol Nidre, which in itself is a call to those who have gone astray to come back to the fold.
Our services were led by our cantor, a gifted singer but a somewhat absent-minded gentleman. Luckily – or perhaps, unluckily – for him he was dependent upon the shammas to keep him informed of the time of services, for by nature he was habitually late.
Could I help it if I got the time wrong that night and told him to come 10 minutes past the appointed time? Kol Nidre is unusual in that it begins an evening service, yet must be said before the sun sets, at precisely the right moment. And so when our cantor did not show up on schedule, the rabbi became exceedingly nervous. He paced up and down, he looked at his watch, he looked at the president of the shul, and then he looked at me. I looked to the heavens for help; this was the moment I had been waiting for.
I held my breath as I walked over to Mottel, who had sat impassively watching this whole scenario unfold. I sat next to him, and began by giving him regards from his daughter. He seemed to stir and give me a half-smile.
Then I asked him if he would consider leading the Kol Nidre, short notice as it was.
Mottel just stared at me, trying to understand if I was serious, my words like a towline cast deep inside his soul.
It was a long way to the top, and he took what seemed like an eternity to answer. Inside, I think, he was reliving the highs and lows of his tempestuous life.
“I don’t sing anymore,” he whispered to me, the first words I had ever heard him utter aloud. “I can’t sing.”
“Don’t worry about that,” I said, reassuringly. “Everyone knows the Kol Nidre. Once you start, we will all join in and pray as a group. We just need someone of your training and knowledge to start us off. We are like an orchestra, in want of a leader. You conduct, and we will play the instruments.”
In our daily prayers, we thank God for “the miracles which accompany us each day.” Now, I prayed hard for just such a miracle. Mottel stared at me, and then he rose to his feet. He seemed to reach for the sky with his body, straightening it to an erect posture which made him tower above the average congregant. Donning the white kittel and tallit which I handed him, he walked into the sanctuary.
The assembled crowd stared incredulously, and was stunned when I banged on the reading table and announced, “Cantor Mottel will now lead us in Kol Nidre!” I had no idea what to expect in those next few seconds.
I hoped that the many decades of inactivity had cured whatever throat problems had afflicted Mottel, and that his voice had regenerated with time. Perhaps it was my imagination, fed by a deep belief in divine providence, but when Mottel opened his mouth to sing, even for that brief second when he began the Kol Nidre, it seemed to me that a chorus of angels was singing with him, and the notes which emerged were the grandest, most sublime sounds I had ever experienced. At once, I joined in, at the top of my lungs, along with the others, and sang from start to finish, never once daring to pause.
Did Mottel ever regain his superior singing form? I only know that when our regular cantor came running in and took his usual spot at the reader’s table to complete the Kol Nidre, Mottel was already being congratulated by the rabbi and officers of the congregation for admirably filling in and starting the service. I did not want to leave the shul. It was like a dream from which you hope you will not soon awaken, and even the puzzled, angry look which our regular cantor shot at me could not spoil the event. This was a moment for the ages, to be stored in the annals and spiritual trophy cases of a people blessed with just such wonders.
The rabbis say that a person can win his eternal reward in just an instant. If I am ever privileged to earn mine, I think I’ll be able to name the moment.

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.