NEW VILNA REVIEW 2011
June 14, 2012
*Shabbes Goy— A gentile doing physical work for a Jew on the Sabbath.
This Rabbi of my youth, who shall be nameless, not for his protection, but because I swore to myself that I would never utter his name again, called me into his office one Saturday morning. He was tall and powerful looking, with a scraggly beard that I heard some women say made him look younger instead of more mature. In this Orthodox Shul, when only those saying Kaddish stood or even remained in the Shul, the Rabbi would leave the bema during this prayer. His parents were still living and he used this time to take a break from leading the services. This is when he called me into his office.
His office was right off the sanctuary, across from the bema. It was very small and windowless and the walls showed leak marks. His smell was the smell of the room and I felt a little nauseous as I always did when I had to be in his office. The Rabbi’s desk was neat with only a pad and the bottom of a milk carton full of pens and pencils. The floor was littered with books and papers, and there was room left only for the two wooden slatted folding chairs that faced his desk.
I had spent the service sitting against the back wall, next to the bema on the opposite side of his office doing “the pages.” This was a duty of the twelve year olds of the congregation. It was a way for the congregation to know which page of the prayer book was being read from. By pulling strings on a box with three slots about twelve feet off the floor the page numbers could be changed. If I was slow in a page change or was daydreaming, the Rabbi would lean over the railing, smiling, as if to tell me something nice and snarl, “The page, shmendrik, change the page.”
“Sit down,” the Rabbi said once I was in his office. I’d been there many times before, too many, and not once had he asked me to sit. Knees knocking, I sat.
“Reuven, I want you to go to my house and do something for my wife.” He took off his glasses, fogged them with his breath, and wiped them with his handkerchief.
He had never called me by my first name before. I always believed that he thought I only had one name—Mirsky. “Sure, Rabbi. What would you like me to do?”
“I want you to light the gas stove for her.” I noticed his frayed white shirt as he took off his tallis and hung it up. He sat down. His collar was dirty, too. I saw the Rabbi had a bunch of long black hairs growing out of his ears, and his scraggly beard looked knotted up and I thought that maybe his house didn’t have a tub. He seemed even taller in his office.
“It’s Shabbes, Rabbi. What about Mr. Farley?” I asked.
Mr. Farley was the owner of a small variety store across the street from our Shul. He was the person who would always turn on or off the lights on Shabbes. He was our Shabbes Goy, and was relied on heavily. In fact, if he didn’t unlock the door, no one else would. Turning on lights, locking doors, any manual labor was not permitted, so we relied on Mr. Farley.
“Mr. Farley is ill today,” the Rabbi said with a hint of exasperation in his voice. “The first time in over twenty-five years he can’t do his duties. And to think, just last month the congregation presented him with a special “Shabbes Goy Plaque” at a Sunday Men’s Club Brunch. But today, even from his sick bed, he came and opened the Shul, turned on the lights, and only then went home. I would have had him do it, but he can’t, and my wife, who, as you and every one else knows, is a little scatterbrained, forgot to light the stove before sundown yesterday. So I need someone to do this and I’m sending you.”
“Why can’t it wait until sundown today, Rabbi?”
Rising from his chair and leaning over his desk glaring at me, he said, “Don’t question me. Go to my house.”
“But it’s a sin, Rabbi. I don’t want to sin.” I stood in my hand-me-down blue serge suit, hands in coat pockets, shuffling my feet, looking directly at the Rabbi.
“Who are you to tell a Rabbi what is and what isn’t a sin, you little pisher? If I tell you it’s okay to do something than it’s not a sin. Understand?”
“Go now, Mirsky,” he yelled. “Do you need more trouble than you already have in this world?”
I was looking down at my scuffed shoes, realizing I was getting into trouble and turned red. Not moving, I said, “Why doesn’t your wife light the oven, Rabbi?”
“Shame on you for questioning me and mentioning my wife.”
“But . . .”
“If you don’t do this, Reuven, I’ll tell your mother that you don’t know your Hebrew well enough to have a Saturday Bar-Mitzvah. Remember, you don’t pay dues here.” The Rabbi looked satisfied with himself. “You’ll do your Haftorah on a Monday when all of your friends are in school. Do we understand each other?”
He had me do other things in the past because we were poor and couldn’t afford the dues. “Charity cases have to put up with a lot,” the Rabbi had told me more than once. “It’s your way of repaying the Shul. You just can’t take, take, take. You must do some giving,” he said, more than once.
My mother, like every other woman in the congregation, loved the Rabbi. He was young, solicitous, and seemed very wise, especially when he was counseling either an adult or a family. But with the Rebitsin it was a different story. She and the Rabbi never walked together, she always walked or stood behind him and I often heard him call her a klutz, and make fun of her to others while she stood there. When she lost the last baby she didn’t come to Shul for a month. The Rabbi said she felt ashamed for stumbling down the basement stairs and having to stay in the hospital for almost a week. He told his congregants that she had miscarried and to please let her be and not visit her. This made the women love him more and gossip about his wife being a burden on such a fine young man. It was not unusual for him to be invited for dinner at a congregant’s house and not bring his wife along.
So I cleaned the benches, waxed theArk, picked up papers around the Shul and did what no one else wanted to do. But this was different. I didn’t understand why the Rabbi’s wife wasn’t in Shul and sitting in the balcony with the other women, and why she needed the oven turned on during Shabbes.
The Rabbi got up, put on his tallis, and returned to the bema.
I slowly walked to the Rabbi’s house kicking stones ahead of me. I rang the bell and the Rabbi’s wife opened the door a crack and in the dark I could only see her in shadow. She said hurriedly, “Go around to the back door.”
She let me in, and without looking at me, pointed to the stove. “I forgot to light it before Shabbes,” she mumbled. Holding a broom, she stood by the wall as if she was trying to become one with it. I took a wooden match from the box and lit the pilot lights on the burners. “They’re lit,” I told her, sneaking a glance her way. Her wig was slightly off center and she turned away from me, but not before I saw her face was bruised on one side. Her lip hung down and her cheek was swollen. She saw me peeking and moved back deeper into the shadows.
“Oven too,” she mumbled. “I forgot that, too.”
Getting down on my knees in my Shul clothes, I opened the bottom door and lit the oven pilot light. As I was brushing off my knees I saw the counter with peeled potatoes and carrots, and several chickens lying on a board next to the sink. “Go,” she said.
“Mirsky,” I said, and ran out of the house heading back to Shul.
She must have had another fall and didn’t feel up to it today. Cooking is one thing, but cleaning? My Mother did her cleaning always the day before and we had our Shabbes meal on Friday nights after she lit the candles at sunset.
As with many of the women, my Mother left Shul after the first service, not waiting for the second. She would go home and prepare a cold lunch—sandwiches, borscht, and whatever leftovers she could serve from the night before. It would be waiting for my brothers and me when we got home, after we changed clothes.
Leaving the Rabbi’s house running, I rounded the corner one block from Shul and had to stop before slamming into a group of women. They had the sidewalk blocked and I couldn’t cut into the street and go around them because of the parked cars. I could hear them jabbering away as I stopped. “What are you doing out of Shul?” my mother asked moving to the front of the group. The other ladies stood behind my mother and said nothing. “I was on an errand for the Rabbi,” I told her.
“On Shabbes? The Rabbi sent you on an errand? Hah!” my Mother said. The other women whispered to each other and shook their heads. “And did this errand cause you to get your Shabbes clothes dirty?”
“Yes,” I said. “I have to go back to Shul now.” I told her.
“Oh, now you want to go to Shul. Where have you been, tell me?”
“I told you, Mom.”
Surrounded by the women who had crept up around my mother, her lips quivering as they do when she’s really angry, she asked in a very controlled voice, “And what was this errand for our Rabbi that was so important as to take you out of Shul?”
“He sent me to his house,” I said.
“Why did the Rabbi send you to his house?” my Mother asked.
“He needed me to do something for the Rebitsin,” I said.
“What?” she demanded.
I looked down at the sidewalk and pushed a pebble around with my shoe.
“Well?” she demanded.
“To light the oven for the Rebitsin.” I confessed.
“Light the oven on Shabbes? You are going to stand there and tell me that you are taking Mr. Farley’s place as the Shul’s new Shabbes Goy?” my Mother asked, raising both hands to her heart.
I stared at her, knowing that there was no right answer.
The women, some with hands covering their mouths, looked unbelieving and angry.
Her slap across my face sent me into the bushes, where a hole was ripped in my suit coat. Tears welled in my mother’s eyes. “Liar! Wait til I get you home!”
I got up and took off running. At the corner I turned around to see if she was chasing me. She wasn’t. All the other women talked and continued on as one, but my mother, handkerchief in hand, stood alone waiting for the light to change so she could cross to the other side of the street.
It was after dark when I finally succumbed to hunger and fatigue and went home to get “what was coming” to me. I immediately went up to the bedroom I shared with my older brother, Herby and changed out of my Shabbes suit, into dungarees and a polo shirt. Shelley, my younger brother, wasn’t there. I walked slowly down the stairs and into the kitchen, passing the living room where my Mother sat, head in her hands, talking on the phone. Herby looked up from his book and smiled and did a neck slash with his finger. He had probably been waiting hours for me to come home to get my beating. There was a plate on the table with a drumstick, a baked potato, and a mixture of peas and carrots. It wasn’t hot or cold but I ate it down quickly and opened the refrigerator looking for dessert. I took out a small glass bowl of red Jello and ate it standing. Feeling fortified, I went into the living room and sat down on the couch. I could feel its springs pushing into my legs.
“Do you have any idea how much you shamed me in front of the other women?” My mother grabbed a fistful of her hair in each hand. Her face was red and wet, her knuckles white.
“Mom. Please don’t cry.”
“I won’t punish you if you tell the truth,” she lied.
“This time you should tell Mom the truth,” Herby smiled.
“I did. Why don’t you mind your own business?”
She said, “That was Mrs. Levine on the phone, who spoke to Mrs. Cutler, who mentioned to the Rabbi our running into you coming back from his house. The Rabbi said he didn’t know what she was talking about.”
“There's got to be a mistake, Mom. Geez, that’s what happened,” I said.
“He’s calling the Rabbi a liar, Mom.” Herby was smiling.
“I wish God would take me,” my mother pleaded. “I can’t handle this anymore. I can’t face my neighbors and certainly not the Rabbi.”
Mom always knew that her wishing for death was the sure fire way to bring out the truth and apologies. I said nothing. Herby smirked at me when Mom wasn’t looking. I was going to get a beating and my brother put down his book to watch.
“Well?” Mom asked.
“Tell Herby to stop smirking at me,” I said.
Herby had the book back up by the time my Mother turned towards him.
“Don’t change the subject. I asked you a question.”
I said nothing.
Mom turned her back and hung her head. “Where did I go wrong? I tried my best to raise you as good, decent kids and what do I get? I get a son who has no shame and can lie with a straight face. I wish I were dead.”
“Mom. Don’t say that,” Herby said, running over to Mom hugging her. “We need you. Don’t wish that.” I didn’t cry. Herby crossed his eyes at me.
“Other mothers believe their kids.” Kicking the couch until my foot hurt, I said, “I don’t care about a Bar Mitzvah anymore.”
Stomping out of the room, I wished that my mother would die.
I had my Bar Mitzvah on a Monday with none of my friends there—only a bunch of old men smelling of snuff, my mother, grandfather, my brothers Herby and Shelly. Herby didn’t want to take off from school but Mom made him take a half-day. Shelley was too young for school. I chanted my Hebrew but didn’t make a speech. After the service there was a bottle of Four Roses brought by my grandfather, a decanter of wine, and some cookies and strudel my Mother baked. I got no presents.
I never got to stand on a chair, after the blessing over the challah and the wine, with all of my friends surrounding me as I tossed out chocolate bars from a box. I had watched all of my friends do that and always got caught up in the excitement of trying to catch more than one and watching the Bar Mitzvah boy toss extra Hershey Bars towards his closest friends and try to keep them from the kids he really didn’t like. Standing on the chair tossing out chocolates was the culmination of the ceremony—the part where everyone looked up to you. On my Bar Mitzvah day no one looked up to me.
My Grandfather shook my hand as did many of the old timers in the Shul, and they drank shots of Four Roses and ate my Mother’s strudel and cookies.
The Bar Mitzvah ceremony for my own son, Eric, was wonderful. His chanting was the sweet chanting of a voice not yet changed. My wife, Elaine, and I held hands as we walked to the Bema. Together we started our Aliah, but I choked up and Elaine finished for both of us. Before we knew it the ceremony was over and we were heading to the social hall for the prayers over the bread and wine. Herby said the Motze over the challah, and Shelley said the prayer for the wine.
Herby got drunk at Eric’s Bar Mitzvah. We sat together and drank shots of peppermint schnapps and made silly toasts.
“I keep remembering,” Herby said, pouring two more shots, “When you were Eric’s age and got in all that trouble with Mom and the Rabbi . . .”
“Herby, I don’t want to think about that, much less talk about it,” I said.
“When I saw you walk out of Shul that day I followed you to the Rabbi’s house. I was watching through the window when you lit the Rebitsin’s oven.” He laughed, and then burped. “Gotcha good on that one. Mom was so busy tracking you that I could do anything I wanted without getting into trouble. And let me tell you—I did plenty.”
I stood and turned away from Herby and wandered back into the sanctuary. At the wall of memorial plaques, I stared at my mother’s plaque. “Now you know the truth,” I said, trying not to hear her calling me a liar.
Herby came up from behind and clapped me on the shoulder. He touched two fingers to our mother’s plaque and then to his lips. “You should forgive him now, Mom, he’s straightened himself out.” He smirked at me and went back to the party. I started to say something else to my mother, but realized there was nothing left to say.