One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross (4 page)

BOOK: One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross
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“Yeah, something like that. Of course, I realize that from your point of view, that's all to the good. And maybe if he got to be a rabbi, that would be all right. But you don't know my Jordon. He takes on things, but he doesn't stick to them. So what happens if after a few years he gets tired of it? So then where will he be? A man has to have a trade or a profession—”

Rose took up the argument. “We're ordinary people, Rabbi. We want him to get married and make a living and have a family.”

“Oh, they'll see to it that he gets married and has a family,” said the rabbi. “They're strong on these things, and they arrange them. Have no fear on that score. But tell me about him. How old is he? What's his previous training?”

“He's twenty-four. Growing up, he was a good boy, never gave us any trouble, got good marks in school. He even got a scholarship to go to college, to Northhaven, which was nice because it was near so he could live at home. Naturally, we were proud. Maybe he'd become a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist. So everything is going along fine, and then in his third year, everything falls apart. He gets into some kind of trouble at the school, and first thing we know, he's dropping out and he's going out West where some friend of his from college, his folks have a mine, a gold mine, which it is now—at that time—worthwhile on account gold is up to eight hundred dollars an ounce.

“So it seems crazy, but he's got all kinds of figures and statistics, and a boy twenty years old, you can hold him if he wants to leave? Well, gold didn't stay at eight hundred dollars an ounce, and between you, I, and that lamp over there, maybe even a thousand dollars an ounce wouldn't be enough to make that mine workable. So next we hear he's in Utah, and then in California. You understand, we don't hear more than once in four, five months. Once, he's with a group that's getting back to the soil. Another time, he's with a group that call themselves Children of the Sun on account everything comes from the sun. And he sends us a picture yet showing him wearing a long white gown with a yellow sun with rays on the chest. Then he's someplace where they live according to the wisdom of the East. By East, you understand, he doesn't mean here in New England, but India or Japan, maybe. Next we hear he's waiting for a passport, he's going to South America.

“If I could, I would have gone to see him. But never an address or a phone number. And how could I leave Rose to handle the store alone? And how do I know he'd be there when I got there?”

“And could I leave Louis alone to look out for himself while
I
went?” asked Rose.

“Next thing, we get this letter from Israel. He's in a yeshiva.” He stopped abruptly and looked at the rabbi expectantly.

“Do you know where the yeshiva is? What's it called?”

“It's called the American Yeshiva, and it's in the Abu Tor section of Jerusalem.”

“How much Jewish education did your son have?”

Rose answered. “He went to Hebrew School in Salem, where we used to live, until he was Bar Mitzvahed. How much he learned, or how much he remembers, I wouldn't know.”

Louis felt it was up to him to explain. “We're not religious, Rabbi. I mean, we're not pious. My wife keeps a kosher home because that's what she was brought up to. When we go out to a restaurant, we're not so careful. We go to the Orthodox shul in Salem because that's where we always went. That's where we go on Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur, and on some of the other holidays, but not all, I admit it.”

“I understand.”

“When I go, I
daven
because that's how I was brought up. I don't know what the words mean, but I say them anyway because you're supposed to. When I was a kid, I had a rebbe come in a couple of times a week to teach me how to read, and to prepare me for my Bar Mitzvah. I would have done the same for my Jordan, but all the neighbors were sending their kids to the Hebrew School, so I did the same. But from what I could tell, he didn't learn much Hebrew there. Oh, they taught him some stories from the Bible, and about the holidays, and to read in Hebrew. But that was all. So when he wanted to quit after he was thirteen, I didn't object. What good would it have done where he wasn't interested?”

The rabbi nodded. “I get the picture. All right, I'll look him up and have a talk with him.”

“Ask him if he's happy, Rabbi,” Rose urged. “And if he wants to come home. If he needs money for the plane, tell him we'll send him.”

It was at the Goodman store, while waiting her turn at the delicatessen counter, that Mollie Berkowitz heard of the rabbi's intended trip to Israel. When she mentioned it to her husband, he was outraged. He shook his head in disbelief. “Are you sure? He and his wife, the both of them are going? My offer of a couple of free tickets, and all expenses paid, he wouldn't accept. He was afraid maybe I might ask him to pay it back with interest someday?”

“Oh, Barney, I'm sure it's nothing like that. I heard they were planning to stay all summer.”

“So?”

“So you were offering a trip for ten days, two weeks maybe. So naturally he wasn't interested.”

“So he couldn't talk to me about it? He couldn't say, ‘I'm planning to spend the whole summer, Mr. Berkowitz, so how about I swap your ticket for one I can return in September. I'll pay the difference.' So I would have said, ‘No, you got to return the same time I do?' Forty years, forty-two years, I was a successful businessman. Somebody would come in to sell me a bunch merchandise. Say he tells me it's five hundred a gross. So do I show him to the door because I think the price is too high? No, I tell him it's very nice merchandise, but I can't pay more than four hundred. So then, does he walk out? No, he says he can maybe shave the price to four seventy-five. And I say maybe I can see my way to paying four and a quarter. So he comes down a little more, and I come up a little, and we finally settle for four-fifty. That's how you deal with people.”

In the days that followed, he reverted to the subject again and again. While at table with his wife, he might say, “I keep hearing he's such a great scholar.” There was no need for her to ask whom he was referring to. “So I figure when he turns down my offer, must be he's planning to spend the summer studying, take a course at Harvard, maybe, or go into Boston every day to the library. No. Turns out he's going for vacation. To the same place I invited him. Go figure it.”

Or, “Time to time, on the Board, over the years, we kept hearing how we weren't paying him enough. How other synagogues were paying their rabbis more. He never looked to me like he was hungry. His wife, she always dressed nice. But every time was a vote for a raise, I went along. Why? Because a rabbi needs more than food and clothing. Like I said to some of the members of the Board, ‘Boys, he's got to buy a book sometime or go to maybe a conference of rabbis in New York, for instance, or even take a trip to Israel to like recharge his batteries.' And when the vote was close, believe me my vote didn't do him no harm. So when I offered to finance a trip to Jerusalem, what I had in mind …”

And in the Small household, Miriam said, “Don't you think, David, you ought to call Mr. Berkowitz and thank him for offering to pay our …” She trailed off as the rabbi shook his head vigorously. “Why not?”

“In the first place, Miriam, Berkowitz didn't offer it. Al Bergson did, or rather he said Berkowitz was making the offer. As far as I'm concerned, it's only hearsay.”

“Still, I think you ought to call him.”

“Then he'd invite me to the celebration, and I want no part of it.”

“Still …”

The rabbi shook his head.

5

At forty-two Abraham Grenish was made full professor of history at Northhaven College and felt that at last he had arrived. To be sure, Northhaven was not Harvard, nor even Tufts or Boston University, but as he explained, not for him were the dryasdust scholarship and the publish-or-perish syndrome of the larger universities. He was a teacher, by God, and he preferred a leisurely life-style.

When he had first come to Northhaven as an assistant professor, he had managed to find lodging with a family in the vicinity. It was far from ideal; there were children, and it was noisy. But there were no more desirable accommodations in the area, and ultimately he was forced to go to Barnard's Crossing, about twenty-five miles away. There he was able to rent a small cottage and engage a woman to come in every day. She cleaned, and she cooked his dinner. Breakfast, coffee and a roll, he prepared himself, and his lunch he ate in the faculty cafeteria at school. But the rent of the house and paying the woman strained his resources, and he found it necessary to piece out his salary by teaching in the Summer Session and in the Late Afternoon Classes and even going to Boston to give lectures for the Lowell Institute of Education.

As he advanced in rank, his salary was increased accordingly, and he was able to drop first the Late Afternoon Classes, then the Summer Session, and finally, when he was made full professor, the Lowell Institute lectures. And now at last he was able to afford and had the time to travel.

And then trouble started. He had his annual physical checkup and the doctor discovered he had an aneurysm of the abdominal aorta. The doctor arranged for an ultrasound of the abdomen and afterward reported, “It's about four and a half centimeters. We don't usually do anything if it's under five except watch it.”

“And if it's five centimeters?”

“Ah, then we have to operate.”

“There's no medication or—”

“That will shrink it?” The doctor shook his head. “But while it's a major operation, the success rate is somewhere between ninety-five and ninety-eight percent. However, no need to worry about it at the moment.”

“But I've had no symptoms, no pain, nothing.”

The doctor nodded. “No, it's usually discovered on routine medical examination. If you feel pain, bellyache or backache, it means there's seepage or a rupture. Then it's usually too late, unless you're very near a hospital and a competent surgeon at the time. We'll look at it in another four or five months—”

“And I don't have to do anything about it? No special diet?”

The doctor shook his head. Then he chuckled. “I don't suppose you do any boxing, do you?”

“Hardly. Why?”

“Well, a punch in the belly probably wouldn't do you any good.”

“All right. I'll avoid fisticuffs.” Grenish managed to smile.

The feeling of uncertainty and dread was lessened a few months later when he had another ultrasound taken and it was found that there had been no appreciable increase in the size of the aneurysm. And with each successive examination, taken at three-month intervals, over the course of the year, there was no change and his fear had practically dissipated. But now he wondered if it would be wise to take the trip to the Mideast that he had planned. He put the matter up to the doctor.

“How long are you planning to be gone?”

“About a month.”

“Oh, I think it would be all right. Where are you planning to go?”

“The Mideast, Greece, and Israel.”

“Well, I can give you a report on your condition that you can show to a doctor there. I don't imagine you'd have difficulty getting competent medical help in Greece, at least not in Athens, and also in Israel. Are you going to Jerusalem? I can give you the name of a doctor there.”

So Grenish confirmed his arrangements with his travel agent, who gave him further assurance that adequate medical assistance was always available.

A couple of days before he was scheduled to depart, he got a call from El Dhamouri.

“Abe? El Dhamouri. You all packed and ready to go?”

“Not all packed. I've got all day tomorrow, but I've taken care of everything else.”

“And this business in the belly you told me about?”

“You mean my triple A?”

“Triple A?”

“Yes, that's what I call it, aneurysm of the abdominal aorta. It's fine. I was examined only a few days ago. No change.”

“And you can eat everything? You're not on a diet of any kind?”

“No, no restrictions at all.”

“Good. Do you know the Château on Route Ninety-three? It's a very nice restaurant. I'll pick you up.”

“But I'm going to be here at Northhaven and it's out of your way. I could meet you there.”

“No, Abe, I'll pick you up. I thought we'd have a few drinks, and we might get carried away, in which case it might not be wise for either of us to drive. I'll pick you up.”

Of course, Grenish felt pleased and flattered at this evidence of El Dhamouri's regard for him. And his pride was almost bursting when El Dhamouri's chauffeur-driven limousine drew up to the Northhaven Faculty Club and several of his colleagues saw him enter as the uniformed chauffeur held the door for him.

They ate leisurely, sipping at the wines El Dhamouri ordered, so that at no time did Grenish have the feeling of uncomfortable fullness. They talked largely of academia and of their problems with their respective administrations and colleagues. In the back of his mind, Grenish had the sense that it was not purely out of friendship that El Dhamouri was giving him dinner at this obviously very expensive restaurant, that he wanted something of him, perhaps to deliver the letter he had mentioned in an earlier meeting. But El Dhamouri said nothing, and it was Grenish himself who finally brought it up over their coffee.

“Was there a letter you wanted me to deliver to someone in Jerusalem? You mentioned it a couple of weeks ago.”

“Oh, yes, to my cousin. But I haven't received the information I need as yet. It may take another week or two.”

“Then you'll just mail it to him?”

“No-o, I can't do that. My cousin thinks his mail is being intercepted”—he chuckled—“by his wife's sister, who lives with them and who he claims has the evil eye, and perhaps by one or more of his clerks, whom he thinks she might have subverted, and maybe even by his wife. You see, this is a matter of clan lands and …” He broke off as a thought struck him. “Look, according to that itinerary you showed me, you are planning to be in Jerusalem for about a week at the Excelsior, I think you said. So why can't I send it to you?”

BOOK: One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross
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