Rabbi

by

 

Kate Mende-Fridkis

 

 

“David,” said Aba, “Your coat. Fix it.”

I pushed the top silver snap into its catch. He held the door for me, and I walked slowly under his arm. I wanted to collect another few moment’s worth of warmth from the indoors before the cold crawled under my clothes. Aba was walking briskly, his hands in the old gray gloves clasped behind his back. He hummed the kiddush melody. Cars spilled from the neck of the shul’s parking lot, like ants rushing out of a bottle. I could see people waving from the corners of my eyes, but we were quickly past them, with the wind building around us. The carcass of a deer rose up on the shoulder of the road. First it was a lump, then I could see where the intestines had fallen from its belly, and when we were very close, I noticed the pale blankness of its eyes.

“Don’t look, David,” said Aba. “You’ll have nightmares.” He stepped onto the grass and I followed.

“I hope it died right away, when someone hit it,” I said, then added, “If God cares about animals He would have made it die quickly.” I knew vaguely that I was challenging him, but pretended to myself that it was only an observation. I felt his sharp eyes turn on me.

“Have you forgotten the teachings of parshat ki tetze?” he asked in a soft voice.

I winced inwardly. Of course he would think of that. “Ki tetze tells us to care for animals,” I said. “It doesn’t say anything about God caring for them.”

He smiled. I didn’t have to look at him; I could feel it. “If God instructs us to care for the animals, David, is God’s own care not implicit?”

I wasn’t sure what implicit meant, but I knew from his tone that he had explained something obvious to me and I was quiet. I didn’t want him to talk about how I would be Bar Mitzvah in a little over a year, and should consider the words of the Torah more carefully.

We walked past developments of identical tan houses. Ima called them “cardboard boxes.” I imagined a stove at the center of each box, filling the space with heat. The children inside the boxes would be watching television, and eating goyish foods like cheeseburgers and pepperoni pizza. When one of their parents asked them to turn the volume down, they would laugh and say, “Get real, Mom.” Later on, when they went out to a party or a sport’s game, they would drive right by the deer and never even see it. People who drive on Shabbat never notice dead deer.

The cold had wormed up my sleeves and spread over my chest. It had plastered across my face, and wrapped around all of my fingers. Aba was humming again. This time mizmor shir.

“When will Ima come home?” I asked.

He finished a piece of the prayer and then said, “You already know the answer, David. Tomorrow afternoon.”

We walked by the house with the plastic playground on the side. Ten minutes until home.

At home, Aba prepared a little meal, poured himself wine and me grape juice, and began kiddush. I was hungry, and I hit my feet impatiently against each other under the table. He always took so long to sing through the brachot. We lifted our glasses and said “bore peri hagafen” together, and just as we tilted them back to drink, the phone rang. I jumped, and some grape juice washed over the lip of my glass and splattered on the white tablecloth. Aba scowled. He glared at the phone.

“Someone is not heeding the Sabbath,” he said quietly, then took a long breath as if to settle himself, and raised the challah.

On Sunday I got a ride home with the Cohens after Torah Study. I didn’t know how to joke around like Josh and Gabe, who were about my age, so I just listened to them and smiled. I could tell they thought I was strange. Mrs. Cohen told me to say hello to my parents for her, and then they drove away. I walked inside and put my books on the table. I was reaching for a bagel, when I heard Aba’s breath. He was sitting on the couch, perfectly still, and his hands hung open over his knees. I was frozen in place, my arm extended. His eyes were the eyes of the dead deer. They were completely blank.

Aba,” I said. My voice trembled.

“David,” he said. “Your mother has died.” He didn’t look at me. He didn’t look at anything. I stood still. My mind didn’t work.

“Friday afternoon, a teenaged boy turned without looking, and hit her car,” said Aba softly. “He is fine. His arm is only broken. And some ribs, I think. But Ima lost too much blood, and she died, yesterday.” His voice faded to a whisper. “Oh god, oh god,” he whispered, “Adonai…” I waited. I waited for the world to start again.

“In a hospital in New Jersey,” he said. “Alone.”

Something pushed itself up in the haze of my mind. I said, “Who called, Aba? During kiddush, who called?”

And his eyes lifted dully into mine. “That was your mother, David. That was Ima. She called, although it was Shabbat, and there is a message on the machine for me.”

“May I listen to it?”

His fingers fluttered. I walked to the phone and pressed the buttons that connected to the machine. My mother was not really dead. I didn’t believe it at all. Mothers don’t just die without you knowing it, during Shabbat, and never come home. The voice said, “You have one new message. To listen to the message, press one.” I pressed one. I heard my mother breathing. Her breath was broken and wrong sounding. Then her voice. She said, “I forgive you,” and that was all. The message ended. The voice said, “To replay this message, press four, to delete it—“ I pressed four, my fingers claws, grappling at the phone.

“I forgive you,” said my mother’s voice. Again, again. “I forgive you, I forgive you.”

I threw the phone down, “Why didn’t you pick up the phone?” I screamed. “Why didn’t you pick up the phone?”

My father didn’t move, but tears slipped down his cheeks. “It was God’s will,” he said. “We cannot always understand God’s ways.”

I stared at him. His image wobbled, bent. Snot was spilling from my nostrils, I was crying so hard. My face was breaking.

“She forgives you, Aba,” I said. “For not picking up the phone.”

He rocked slowly back and forth, back and forth again. “There is no need,” he whispered. “Only God can grant true forgiveness. The Sabbath must be kept. There is nothing to forgive, David. There is nothing—“he stood abruptly, his body sharp. He moved towards me. He reached, and I lurched backwards, away from him.

“I forgive you,” said my mother’s voice in my ears.

And my father said, “There is nothing—“

 

 

 

 

 

 

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