The Kaddish

A short, poignant story about the differences amongst us. A story that could happen in almost any town with a small Jewish community.

east coast snow 311 (photo credit: Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
east coast snow 311
(photo credit: Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
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 delayed.
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 10.
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.
“Izzi 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 Westel?”
“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 evening…
“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 outbursts.
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 occasions.
“It’s the cat that keeps mice away. The cat,” Gelder reiterated.
“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 davening!”
“With Greene this makes nine.”
“We have no choice. Call Rabbi Westel.”
The gabbai went to his office to summon the Reform rabbi.
“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 minyan.”
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 beckoned.
“So we have a minyan!” Kupot shouted. “Judah can say kaddish! Someone tell Lenny not to bother Rabbi Westel.”
All smiles, Judah shook hands with the youth. “It’s good you came.” “Jonathan Singer,” he introduced himself.
“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.”
The 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. Eighty-nine now.”
“A good man, always willing to help. A real mensch.”
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, too.”
“Very learned, in spite of being Reform.”
“I know him,” the boy said. “He was at my circumcision. He taught me for my confirmation.”
“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 scoffed.
“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 Westel?”
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 boy said.
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 Mr. Greene.”
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 the office.
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. 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 never converted.”
“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 sorry.”
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 father.
“What now? Am I supposed to leave?”
“Of course not, Jonathan.”
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 despondent.
“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 significant.
“You are a trooper, Rabbi. Thank you for coming,” said the gabbai.
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 home.
“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.
The rabbi counted once more. “You have 10 here without me.”
“We have no minyan.”
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 you.”
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 night.”
“We have 10, yes. But we have no minyan, Rabbi,” Judah said, disappointment and anger in his voice. “You don’t know this boy?”
“He looks familiar. Who are you?” The boy’s voice cracked.
“I’m Jonathan Singer, Rabbi.”
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 bride.
“You must stay, Rabbi,” said the gabbai, remaining near the boy.
“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 minyan.”
“The rabbi can say kaddish for your father,” the gabbai attempted.
“I’m his son! His son should say kaddish!” Jonathan was close to tears. “I’m a Jew!”
“Not to them,” Rabbi Westel said.
“Look what 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 me.”
“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 converts?
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 door.
“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 way.”
“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.
“You 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.