“He said I should be conducting services in a pig sty,” the aging gabbai said.
At first, I thought it shocking. After all, there’s nothing worse than calling a Jew a “pig”. But, as I watched him, framed by the rustling palm fronds visible through the large windows, dispassionately recite the incident, I nearly laughed.
“That’s not very nice,” I offered.
“That’s not all,” the man continued. “He chased Milton into the parking lot and threatened him. He said that Milton mispronounced Resnick’s Hebrew name when he gave him an aliya.”
Now, I was laughing. Inwardly, of course. Grandfathers, battling in the sub-tropical sun, I thought.
“That’s terrible,” I responded. “They could get a heart attack.”
“I went in another door,” he offered. “I didn’t want to run into him.”
I knew the man of whom he spoke. Lemelman, the paint manufacturer. He was high strung. From narrow lips, my mother used to say, one should flee. There were rumors about him. I, myself had had the misfortune to be the target of one of his outbursts one Sabbath, as he marched around the synagogue, carrying the sacred sefer torah scrolls, covered in maroon velvet and decorated with gold embroidered crowns and lions. He passed me, solemnly standing, filled with spiritual peace, when, from under his tallis, draped piously on his head, he hissed, “There’s that goddamn Abraham Schuster! Why is your husband talking to him?” I was startled out of my reverie, plucked from my sojourn with Joseph and his brothers in the land of Goshen where they had settled seeking isolation from Egypt’s decadence, idolatry, excess and lack of a personal relationship with the Eternal One.
“What have I got to do with whom he speaks?” I whispered.
I immediately regretted my response. I should have said “It is improper to use such words in schul.”
“Look at him,” he spat.
I was unsure if he was referring to my husband, with whom I had had my own disputes or Schuster, who parenthetically was worthy of the worst invectives. I refused to turn around and gaze in the direction in which Lemelman was glaring.
“I don’t understand how grown men could act like this,” I responded to the gabbai. “And they say women are emotional.”
He nodded. He appeared to wish to share more information but I didn’t encourage him. I was mindful of the restriction against gossip. People said that Lemelman was in the Mafia but I would not repeat it. After all, it was loshen hora.
“What’s the matter with your husband?” another man asked as I walked over to the kiddish table to spoon some tuna fish salad on a paper plate for my two-year old daughter.
I thought. “He was here, you know. He left. His back.”
“Yes, it’s serious. He was in the hospital.” I omitted the fact that he had been hospitalized several months ago.
The man nodded. “It’s serious,” he said.
“He had a shot of cortisone. But we think he’ll get better. They recommended that he start physical therapy. He’ll be getting better,” I assured him, guiltily. Yes, his back hurt but his real problem was that he was a was unable to enter Goshen, the Sinai camp, Beersheba or any other land of our forefathers. It was his manner. He had been a surfer. The beach had been his cheder. His surfboard was his schulan aruch. He had spent half his life sunburned and wet. He loved ketchup and sugary cola drinks and ate pies piled high with pasty looking, artificial whipped cream. He drove a boat and fished. In the ocean. My parents had refused to believe that he was a Jew even after I showed them his bar mitzvah photographs.
“Bar mitzvah pictures can be faked,” my mother said.
I was incredulous. How could bar mitzvah pictures be faked? I didn’t know it then, but my mother was a prophet.
“Hopefully, he’ll be back next week,” I offered.
“Do you know where the rabbi is?” someone asked.
“No. Probably on vacation,” I said.
“It’s not the same when he’s not here,” she commented, between bites of cholent.
“Ladies and Gentlemen.” The gabbai stood up. “I’m not going to ask for a show of hands but I want a minyun tomorrow morning, not a minyunette. Please be here. You’ll be out in forty-five minutes.” He sat down.
“He should say ‘Gentlemen’, a woman announced. “Ladies don’t count.”
I sighed. No sermon. No comments on the completion of the Book of Leviticus. Earlier, the reader had chanted a list of rules concerning agriculture but like all rules of the torah were also aimed at conditioning human behavior, uplifting us from a self-directedness to a consciousness of natural resources, the distinction between work and servitude and a recognition of one’s unique role in communal life. Fields were to lie fallow after seven years. Land returned to its owners. The Jubilee year. As was the custom, upon finishing one of the five Books of Moses, we had all stood and shouted “Chazek! Chazek! Venischazeik!” confirming ourselves to “Be Strong! Be Strong! And may we grow in strength!”
“You know,” I said to the Israeli artist. “I finally understand one of my father’s expression. He used to say, ‘Vie sieben, vie siebitsk’. I used to think he didn’t like children, saying that as you are at seven you will be at seventy but today’s torah portion says that many things in Jewish life are measured in terms of seven because that’s how long it took God to create the world. Including Shabbos, of course.”
He looked at me blankly.
“I mean no phrase in Jewish life is used idly. It was a reference to Genesis.”
“Do you get any inspiration from biblical sources?”
“Oh.” He drank from his Styrofoam cup.
“Have you ever read Isaac Bashevis Singer?”
“I don’t like to read.”
“Morris,” I said to the estate jeweler, a Holocaust survivor from a hamlet near my mother’s, “Did the Jews in Europe work the land in the seventh year?”
“No,” he said, reaching for a piece of bobka.
“Would you like some tuna fish?” I asked.
“I don’t eat that chazerai.”
“Well, if they didn’t work the fields, what did they do? They didn’t just sit around for a year.”
“No, of course not,” he said. “They worked.”
“Maybe they became jewelers.”
He smiled. “Could be,” he said, finishing the cake.
My daughter refused to eat the tuna fish. “Too hot,” she said.
Hot? Hot tuna fish? I looked in her eyes, the color of onyx pebbles, so like her father’s. She gazed back at me inquiringly. She giggled and slid off the chair. Hopping joyfully, her head bobbing from side to side, she skipped to the other end of the table to join her older sister and her friends.
“There’s really no role for women in Orthodox Judaism.”
It was the woman who had spoken earlier. She was a stranger. “It’s got to change with the times or its going to be extinguished,” she said to no one in particular. “It says in the torah,” she said excitedly, “that women are lower than slaves.”
The gabbai turned to look at her as did the Israeli artist and the estate jeweler.
“Excuse me,” said the baal torah. “It doesn’t say that at all. What you may be referring to are the morning prayers, which by the way you are misinterpreting.”
“Well, I don’t think so. It’s medieval. It has to change or a revolution will change it! And people like me are going to lead it. We will be heard. We’ve davened at the Kotel. We’re going to take over the bimah! We’re not going to sit back and take it any longer! And that mehitzah has to go. What’s with this separating men from women. It’s discrimination!”
There was silence in the room.
“Oh, where is that mamzer Lemelman now when we need him?” sighed the gabbai.
My Mother’s Prophecy has appeared in jewishmag.com.