Short story: Comfort (III)

Wait for it… wait for…

The tall blonde’s thin cotton skirt swished as she walked by the loquat trees not far from the edge of the sidewalk. Behind her the sun continued its descent towards the distant Mediterranean, its beams piercing through the branches. The Star of David hanging from the her tanned neck sparkled.

Osnat trained her lens upon the Star of David, noting the small beads of sweat glistening on the young woman’s bronze skin. She seemed a wistful beauty, a perfect subject for Osnat’s new sunset photo series. Zooming in and out as the blonde glided around the corner, the older woman let her camera do the work, capturing the pinks and purples of the sky behind the young lady as she made her way to the nearby Jerusalem bus stop. Yosef would have so appreciated the girl’s air of pensiveness…

The middle aged woman traced the camera’s edges with her fingers, remembering how her husband had once held his beloved instrument, one hand under the lens, the other steadily gripping it along the side. In the years before his death, Yosef had taken such pride and pleasure in his hobby, presenting his work at local fairs and framing his favorites for friends and family. In those later years, he was hardly ever without his camera, always looking for graceful birds in flight or unsuspecting children at play. His photography still remained, lining the walls of their house.

After Yosef’s abrupt death, Osnat had taken to emptying out his bedroom and office, unable to gaze at his bookshelves and assorted tchotchkes without sobbing. It was thus she came upon his camera equipment in the office closet. At first, she couldn’t bear look at it, but as the weeks had gradually turned into months, Osnat eventually found herself laying Yosef’s many camera lenses, tripods, flashes and more out on her husband’s bare desk. The bird photographs on the walls looked at her.

It was then that Osnat had decided to teach herself photography. Their son Ephie’s daily kaddish recitation for his father at shul brought her great comfort, knowing that Yosef would have expected and wanted that traditional honor, but she, as a woman, felt out of place among the stern, bearded prayer-goers. Osnat would honor Yosef’s memory through the lens of his own camera.

* * *

Mincha, the afternoon prayer, ended with the recitation of the mourner’s kaddish, which Ephie always stood for. Even after he’d completed his year of kaddish, the young man had continued coming to shul, just as his father had done before him. Ephraim wasn’t much of a believer, but he respected those who somehow managed to find and hold on to faith, including his Abba who had continued attending services long after he’d completed his year of mourning for his father.

He glanced out the window at the sky as its pinks and oranges darkened to purples. Eema was probably out with her camera somewhere, looking for new subjects to capture for her new Jerusalem Sunset series. He knew that she didn’t feel entirely comfortable at shul because of its male-centeredness, which bothered him also. That’s why she’d been so glad that he’d been the one to recite kaddish for Abba.

Of course, some ladies did occasionally come to services to recite kaddish for their parents from the women’s section in the back, but they were hard to see, seated behind the deliberately tall latticed mechitza that separated them from the men’s section. Also, many were self-conscious about their secondary role in the gendered public prayer space and didn’t recite their kaddishes loudly enough for the men to hear them and respond. They were largely unheard and invisible.

Since completing his own year of kaddish, Ephie had come to feel very strongly, as Yosef had before him, about supporting other mourners in the community with a firm, resounding response to their kaddishes; and his seat happened to be in the back, just in front of the women’s section.

Conscientiously, the young man always made sure to time his response with the female mourners behind him: “Yehe shmeh rabba mevarakh leʻalam ulʻalme ʻalmaya!”

* * *

Osnat stood and stretched her legs as the young woman’s bus drove off.

Ephie would soon be praying ma’ariv, the evening prayer service. His Abba’s shul had practically become a second home to him, ever since Yosef died. It pained her to see that the young man was still grieving so deeply, but he had to know that no amount of kaddishes would ever bring Abba back. “At some point, she sighed, “we all have to start living again. The old men at shul were undoubtedly kind souls, but how would Ephie ever meet a young lady if he couldn’t leave the past behind him?

Quietly, Osnat turned in the direction of the Old City, seeing the Western Wall in her mind. Hashem, I’m not a religious woman, but surely You know my heart. Please – help my Ephie heal… it’s already been four years since his Abba died. Please – help my baby move on from his Abba’s death. Please. Please, my Lord. Help him.”

* * *

The young man completed his prayers and glanced around the sanctuary. Were there any mourners present to recite the kaddish? No, it seemed not, he thought sadly. Ephie always felt a sense of incompleteness when no mourners were available to recite the kaddish after services. Somehow, he felt that tradition had actually intended people’s personal kaddishes for the entire community, including the souls of Abba and Saba.

Suddenly, the sound of a door swinging at the back of the women’s section caught his attention, and Ephie made out the sound of somebody walking quickly, nearly running, towards the mechitza. Through the latticework, he could barely make out a female worshipper and heard her clear her throat nervously. Softly, she began reciting the kaddish, muffled through her tears.

None of the other men had noticed the woman’s entrance, and they were too far away to hear her… the necessary prayer quorum was already dispersing!

Ephie stood in place, seriously, deliberately, and intoned his response loudly for all the rest to hear: “Yehe shmeh rabba mevarakh leʻalam ulʻalme ʻalmaya!” The elderly petitioners stopped and looked around the room, trying to figure out whom Ephie was responding to. Through the stillness, they finally heard the woman’s kaddish and crying. Collectively, the men moved closer towards the mechitza to better hear her kaddish.

B’rich hu, they responded together, and then: Amen; Amen!

The mourner completed her recitation, and the men smiled at Ephie as they threw on their jackets and headed for the exit. The sexton patted Ephie on his shoulder; “Tzaddik,” he whispered.

Ephraim shrugged shyly and returned his siddur to the bookshelf, before reaching for the light switch. As he made his way down the corridor, he heard a woman’s voice behind him: “Excuse me? Were you the one standing next to the mechitza?

The young man turned to see a beautiful blonde with tear stained cheeks standing before him. I’m Nechama, she told him, “And I just wanted to say ‘thank you.’”

Short story: Serious (II)

The old men in their prayer shawls looked exactly as they did in that photograph that Eema had taken from the women’s section of the synagogue when she’d come to services for Abba’s first yahrzeit. Looking at the picture, one could almost hear the petitioners chanting softly to themselves as they swayed back and forth to their internal rhythms.

He had never been interested in photography himself, but he’d seen enough of Abba’s photography to know a good shot when he saw it. The lighting in the sanctuary was a soft gold, and the stern-looking bearded Jews, viewed through the lattice work of the mechitzah, had a distant, yet reassuring air of wisdom about them. “Why do so many people prefer to admire ‘wisdom’ from a comfortable distance?” Ephraim mused.

“Kaddish!”

The young man snapped out of his reverie and closed his eyes tightly, readying himself. The prayer leader, who had lost his mother just two weeks ago, and another elderly gentleman who had shuffled over to the lectern solemnly began reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish together. From the very back of the room, he could hear them chanting.

* * *

Almost four years. Almost four years. Almost four years. It never got easier. “I miss you so much, Abba… and I’m still coming to shul for Kaddish. I think you would have been proud of me.” Ephraim wiped his eyes. This was something he hoped that Abba would have appreciated. He was bearing Yosef’s vow.

Abba had always been a believer but never a synagogue-goer until Saba had died. Then, at the shiva, Yosef had gingerly taken his father’s worn, leather-bound prayerbook off of the oaken bookshelf in the small, stuffy study where Saba had kept his Judaica library. He flipped reverently through the old siddur, turning to Ephraim with glistening eyes. “It’s time for Kaddish. Please gather the guests for minyan, Ephie.”

Dutifully, Abba led services and recited Kaddish thrice daily at Saba’s home for the seven days of shiva. Then he started praying every day at Saba’s synagogue: morning, afternoon, and evening. Kaddish for Saba became his project, and he took it seriously, scribbling notes in the margins and underlining the words of the old prayerbook in pencil, as he researched the history and meanings that underpinned the ancient doxology. The old men at shul had been very impressed with Abba’s seriousness. “Yosef is a good son,” they nodded approvingly. “Yaakov would have been proud.”

When Abba’s year of mourning had ended, he’d vowed to continue attending services to ensure that other mourners would have a minyan to recite Kaddish. He’d felt it was the least he could do for Saba’s community. “Also,” thought Ephie, “Abba hadn’t been ready to stop. One year of kaddish hadn’t felt enough.”

Whenever a mourner recited Kaddish, Yosef would close his eyes tightly, readying himself for the response. In keeping with a Talmudic text that he’d learned during his year of mourning, Yosef would shout his response to the mourners from his seat at the back of the sanctuary: “Yehe shmeh rabba mevarakh leʻalam ulʻalme ʻalmaya.” He’d actually written out the rabbinic text on the inside cover of the siddur:

אריב”ל כל העונה אמן יהא שמיה רבא מברך בכל כחו קורעין לו גזר דינו R. Joshua b. Levi said: He who responds, ‘Amen, May His great Name be blessed,’ with all his might, his decreed sentence is torn up
Tractate Shabbat 119b

* * *

It was only several years later that Abba unexpectedly died after a bout of severe pneumonia. He’d been so looking forward to marking his father’s fourth yahrzeit at shul, but he’d never made it out of Sha’are Zedek Medical Center, and just like that, Ephie found himself leafing through his father’s scribbles in the margins of Saba’s beloved prayerbook. Yaakov and Yosef would both have wanted him to take Kaddish seriously.

Despite his profound skepticism, Ephie went through the motions. He attended daily services at Saba’s synagogue, leading the prayers and reciting Kaddish for his father. The old men, he knew, believed that he was elevating Yosef’s soul, or redeeming it somehow, but he rejected such archaic superstitions. Kaddish only mattered because Abba believed in it… and also… The old men at shul were so damned endearing and supportive. They’d been truly devastated when Yosef died, just as they’d been upon Ya’akov’s death four years prior.

When his year of mourning ended, and despite his deep inner resistance, Ephie realized that his task wasn’t over. From the first, his Kaddish had never been intended only for Abba; it had been for everyone. His Eema had committed to learning how to use Abba’s photography equipment, and Ephie had somehow naturally taken over Yosef’s Kaddish.

Short story: Shadows (I)

The heat was blistering, but the backs of his ankles felt particularly blistered. Sweat seemed to be beading up beneath his sandal straps, rubbing the skin raw beneath; and the sun’s rays were roasting relentlessly. When was the last time he’d gone for a walk like this?

Also, his clothes were drenched. Later, he’d probably be struggling them off into the laundry machine, hoping that a quick cycle would get the stench out. Maybe he should pick up some white vinegar at the grocery store.

He was going shopping for the first time in… forever. At Sha’are Zedek Medical Center, Doc Negev had been very stern with him about not wandering too far from his apartment. “Your body is still weak. You must recuperate. So, don’t go too far from home for two weeks, at least, and schedule a checkup with Tzipporah.” Finally, after his third checkup, Doc was satisfied, and he was given shopping privileges. Still, that piercing sunlit afternoon, Osnat had attempted to discourage him.

But he was long past stir-crazy.

Of course, in his eagerness to go out and be useful, he’d forgotten his sunglasses. Figured. He was always leaving his personal effects behind. “Son, you’d forget your shadow if only that were possible,” his father used to tell him. Abba hard to believe that almost four years had gone by. “I miss you so much, Abba… but, B’ezrat HaShem, I’m well enough to go to shul next week for Kaddish. I’ll bring a good scotch in your honor.”

Squinting through the sun and sweat, he could hardly make out the faces of other pedestrians as he made his way down the sidewalk. Their bodies blurred in the light waves, and he decided to pretend that he was passing by the souls of his loves ones. “Hi, Saba… Nana… Bubbe… I wish you were still around… next week I’ll be marking Abba’s fourth yahrzeit. Can you believe it? Sometimes I imagine that he’s still here in Jerusalem. God knows he loved this city.”

Finally, Yosef had to cast his eyes down to the pavement under the weight of the sun’s blaze. At least the air-conditioned store was only one more block ahead.

And then- SuperDeal!

The store was bigger than the average local minimarket, but more manageable than certain enormous supermarkets in Jerusalem, and the customer service was notably better- practically American. Breathing heavily, Yosef entered the comfortably cool store and pulled out a shopping cart from next to the doorway, resting his forearms on the bar. Apparently, even now, weeks after his release, he was weaker than he’d expected.

He slowly pushed the cart towards the dairy aisle on the left, past the cashiers, and noted their new, crisp blue uniforms. “Very nice, guys, very professional,” he thought. The air conditioning was refreshing, but his legs felt unsteady. Best to finish up here as soon as possible. Hmn… maybe he should call Osnat to pick him up with the car.

Yosef put several strawberry yogurts, cottage cheese, and a carton of goat milk into his cart. Next, frozen salmon and imitation crab meat. Osnat’s salmon patties and seafood salad were to die for. Mayonnaise, canned corn, sweet pickles, red onion… what else had she needed?

As he swiveled his cart, he nearly bumped into a plumpish, gray-haired elderly gentleman with a beige, flat golf cap… Abba! “Hey! Watch it!” Stunned, Yosef turned to look at the fleshy, wrinkled face staring back in consternation. The portly customer was about the right age and build, but otherwise bore little resemblance to Abba. Just his imagination, again. “I’m so sorry, Sir!”

Lately, he’d been talking to Abba in his mind, visualizing him, and hearing his throaty voice around every corner. A tremble went through him, and his skin suddenly felt cold and clammy. The air conditioning was too strong. Realization dawned, and Yosef reached into his pocket to call Osnat, but he’d forgotten his cellphone on the table next to the sunglasses, which used to belong to Abba. Damn. This was bad.

“I need to go home.”

Yosef wheeled his groceries towards the checkout, his attention drawn to the rhythmic beep, beep, beeping of the scanners. His body was shivering and the cashiers looked at him under the white ceiling lamps. Light was filling his vision, as the blue uniforms began to blur. Beep, beep… beep… …. …. beep… … beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee…

From somewhere in the distance, he heard Doctor Negev’s voice. “Yosef! Can you hear me? Stay with us! Yosef! Can you…”

In the spreading chill, he understood- numbly.

There weren’t any shadows.