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The Mourning Sexton: A Novel of Suspenseby Michael Baron
Just before sunrise on a cold December weekday, the morning gabbai unlocks the front door of Anshe Emes. He steps inside the small foyer and turns on the light. Squinting in the sudden brightness, he unbuttons his overcoat. The gabbai is a tall handsome man in his late fifties with strong features, salt-and-pepper hair, and somber blue eyes.
He pauses in the main sanctuary to adjust the thermostat and continues along the back corridor to the small shul, the place of worship used for weekday services. He opens the door, turns on the light, and waits as the fluorescent tubes flicker overhead, making the contents of the room seem to jiggle. There are three rows of benches on either side of a narrow center aisle. Seating for eighteen, maybe twenty. He checks to make sure that there is a prayer book and a chumash in each of the slots along the backs of the seats and extras in the first row. A wide podium up front is draped with a blue felt cloth. It faces forward, or east, toward the small ark against the front wall. Mounted along the side walls are several heavy brass memorial plaques, each with two columns of names and a small commemorative light bulb next to each name, some turned on.
Along the north wall is a window facing the parking lot that the small synagogue shares with a 7-Eleven, a dry cleaner, and a Little Caesar's Pizza. The sky has begun to lighten. Through the window he watches a large Dodge pick-up pull into a spot in front of the 7-Eleven. Two construction workers step down from the pickup cab, each carrying a big plastic coffee mug, their breath vaporing in the cold air. Down in the synagogue basement, the furnace rumbles to life. He moves over to the window and closes the shades.
Back in the foyer, he hangs his coat on the rack and places his gray fedora on the shelf above it. Reflexively, his right hand moves to his head to check that his kippah is in place. In his left hand he holds a small blue velvet bag embroidered with gold Hebrew letters. He unzips the bag and removes his tallit. Unfurling the silk prayer shawl, he inspects the ends to make sure that none of the fringes is tangled. As he does this, he quietly recites the Hebrew prayer thanking God for commanding him to wrap himself in the garment. Holding the tallit by the collar, he kisses each end and places it over his shoulders.
Just then the front door opens. He turns as Hyman Kantor enters, his walking cane hooked over his forearm. Kantor is in his late seventies--strong nose, hawk eyes, bald head splotched with brown age spots, posture slightly hunched by age.
"Good morning, Mr. Kantor."
"And a good morning to you, Gabbai."
He waits for the question as he watches as the old man hangs up his coat and arranges his belongings.
Mr. Kantor turns to him. "Will we have a minyan today?"
"There should be twelve."
Mr. Kantor nods, pleased. "Well done."
The gabbai smiles to himself. Mr. Kantor is the first to arrive each weekday morning, and each morning he asks the same question about the minyan, which is the quorum of ten Jewish men required to pray as a community and recite the mourner's Kaddish.
Mr. Kantor thrusts his cane forward and starts toward the shul. "I shall see you inside, sir."
The other men are arriving now, many in their sixties or seventies. They welcome one another as they take off their gloves and unbutton their overcoats and stamp their feet and rub their hands together for warmth. The men greet him warmly--several giving his first name the Yiddish pronunciation, Doovid. A few call him Gabbai.
The lofty title embarrasses him. Unlike the evening gabbai and the Shabbas gabbai of Anshe Emes--and their counterparts in Conservative and Orthodox synagogues around the world--he is not fluent in Hebrew, is not well versed in the Torah, does not call men up to the bima to read from the Torah, does not stand next to them to correct pronunciation and chanting errors, and never himself reads from the Torah. Nor is he a member of longstanding or in any way deserving of the great honor normally associated with the title Gabbai. The men gave it to him out of appreciation for the tasks he's performed since joining the small congregation two years ago. Winter, summer, rain or shine, he opens the building at sunrise each weekday morning and makes sure that there is a minyan for the morning service. On snowy days, he shovels the front walk. These duties place him somewhere closer to custodian than gabbai. He'd prefer no title, but if forced to take one, he'd choose the humbler designation of sexton.
Inside the shul, Mr. Kantor is in his customary pre-service position up at the podium facing the front wall. Bent over, forehead resting on his palms, tallit covering his head, he is softly reciting the preliminary prayers. The other men are scattered among the three rows, each in his usual seat. Some are going through the prayer shawl ritual. Others have progressed to the donning of the tefillin.
The tefillin had intrigued the gabbai at first. Raised a Reform Jew, he'd never heard of the leather contraptions, which on first impression seemed almost kinky. Now, though, he couldn't imagine the morning prayers without them.
He rolls his left shirt sleeve above the elbow, unwraps the leather strap of the arm tefillin, places the black leather box on his left biceps, and silently recites the first prayer. He tightens the tefillin and winds the leather strap seven times around his forearm, ending near his wrist. Next he places the leather box of the head tefillin in the middle of his forehead at his hairline. He recites the second prayer and tightens the straps behind his neck. Each of the leather boxes--the one on his left arm and the one on his forehead--contains a tiny scroll with the four scriptural passages that command Jews to put on the tefillin. As he does every morning, he quietly recites in English one of those passages--today the one from Exodus where God explains to Moses the observance of Passover.
"And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, 'It is because of this that Hashem acted on my behalf when I left Egypt.' And it shall serve you as a sign on your arm and as a reminder between your eyes--so that Hashem's Torah may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand Hashem removed you from Egypt."
He moves to his seat in the second row against the north wall near the window. Mr. Kantor has finished his preliminary prayers and moves to his aisle seat in the front row. Rabbi Zev Saltzman--a slender man in his early forties with a neatly trimmed beard and a wry smile--stands to the side of the podium, his left sleeve rolled up, softly reciting the prayers as he dons his tefillin. Most of the regulars are here this morning, all in their usual spots. In the second and third rows on the far side of the aisle is the group of elderly men that call themselves the Alter Kocker Brigade: Saul Birnbaum, Morris Cohen, Benny Abrams, Sid Shalowitz, Heshie Lipsitz, and Mendel Klein--all retired, all in their seventies, all mumbling the preliminary prayers as they rock back and forth, prayer books open on their laps, tallit covering their heads like shawls on elderly widows. In the front row on the left are the two minyan volunteers for today: a podiatrist in his forties named Bob Finkel and a CPA in his thirties named Gerald Brown. Both are yawning. He'd called them last night to confirm they would be here this morning. Seated behind the gabbai in the back row on his side of the aisle are the two mourners: Sam Gutman, whose 73-year-old wife Sadie died two months ago, and Kenny Rosenberg, whose mother Shirley died of lung cancer seven months ago. They are here today--as they were yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that--to say Kaddish, the special prayer recited every morning during the first eleven months following the death of a loved one and thereafter on every anniversary of the death, known as the yahrzeit.
Rabbi Saltzman glances over at Mr. Kantor and nods. The old man clears his throat and calls out in his reedy quavering voice, "Page twenty-four, the Akeidah."
The rabbi reads the first several Hebrew words aloud and then lowers his voice to a mumble as the rest of the men join in.
This aspect of the service had perplexed the gabbai at first, since it was such a contrast to the Reform services he'd attended a lifetime ago. In temple, every member of the congregation is literally on the same page--indeed, the same line and word, reciting prayers aloud together, doing responsive readings on cue from the rabbi. In shul, each man proceeds at his own pace--gathered together in prayer but praying alone, the only guidance coming from Mr. Kantor, who occasionally calls out the page and prayer.
During his first weeks, the service seemed chaotic, especially on crowded Saturday mornings in the main sanctuary, surrounded by dozens of men chanting and mumbling and rocking and reciting--all at different paces and places in the siddur, or prayer book But gradually, the chaos melded into comfort, the mumbling into meditation--a protective cocoon that allowed many to gather while each spoke to God on his own.
The gabbai follows along--reading a Hebrew passage here or there, otherwise silently mouthing the English translation on the facing page. During a pause in the prayers, he glances around the room. He is surprised to see Abe Shifrin in the back row on other side of the aisle, seated closest to the door. He must have arrived after the service started. Shifrin rarely attended weekday services, showing up only on the yahrzeits of his wife and his daughter. Yesterday had been his daughter's third yahrzeit, and thus he had been there to stand for the mourners' Kaddish. But here he is again, a distracted look on his face, the prayer book closed on his lap. Their eyes meet for a moment before Shifrin turns away with a frown.
"Page 94, the Shema."
The gabbai stands with the others and recites the prayer aloud. As the rest of the men continue in Hebrew, he skims through the English translations of the various texts and commandments that follows the Shema, his eyes catching, as always, on the warning from Deuteronomy:
Beware lest your heart be seduced and you turn astray and serve gods of others and bow down to them. Then the wrath of Hashem will blaze against you.
Head lowered, he stares at the warning. Some mornings the words sting. Some mornings they make him sad. Today, they blur into dark squiggles on the page.
"Page 102," Mr. Kantor announces. He grunts as he pushes up from the bench. "Rise for the Shemoneh Esrei."
The men stand and silently recite the devotional prayer. The gabbai reads along in English. Blessed are you, Hashem, our God and God of our forefathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob.
As the men rock back and forth, Mr. Kantor moves down the center aisle, using his cane for support. He stops before each man and holds out the pushke, which is the small tin box used to collect money for Jewish charities. One of the gabbai's memories from childhood was the blue pushke that his mother's parents--his bobba and zayde--kept on the lace doily in the center of their small kitchen table next to the heavy crystal salt and pepper shakers. Their pushke had a Jewish National Fund logo on the side and a coin slot on top, like a piggy bank. Each night his grandfather emptied his loose change into it. When he had dinner with his grandparents at their house, his zayde would hand him the coins to drop into the slot, one by one.
He sustains the living with kindness, resuscitates the dead with abundant mercy, supports the fallen, heals the sick, releases the confined, and maintains His faith to those asleep in the dust.
At Anshe Emes, the pushke is silver, and Mr. Kantor removes the lid to allow paper currency as well. The gabbai folds and stuffs a five-dollar bill inside.
Forgive us, our Father, for we have erred. Pardon us, our King, for we have willfully sinned; for You are the good and forgiving God. Blessed are You, Hashem, the gracious One Who pardons abundantly.
"Page 176," Mr. Kantor calls out. He glances over at the gabbai. "The Mourner's Kaddish."
The men of Anshe Emes insist that their gabbai have a role in the service, and this is it. As Mendel Klein likes to joke, "Better a mourning gabbai than a silly shammas."
He moves up the aisle toward the podium, where the rabbi is reading aloud the names of those who died in the last eleven months and those whose death occurred at this time in years past.
"Good morning, sexton," the rabbi whispers, giving him a friendly wink.
"Good morning, Rabbi."
He turns to face the minyan. All are seated but Sam Gutman and Kenny Rosenburg. The two mourners stand side by side, heads bowed over their prayer books. Abe Shifrin stares at him from his seat in the back row, eyes blinking rapidly.
The gabbai knows the words by heart, as does every man at the service. The Kaddish is the most familiar prayer in Judaism, and the most peculiar--a memorial prayer in which there is no mention of death or loss or grief.
"Yit-ga-dal v'yit-ka-dash sh'may ra-baw," he begins as the two mourners join in. "B'ol-mo dee-v'ry hir-u-say v'yam-lech mal-hu-say . . ."
Glorified and sanctified be God's great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will . . .
"Yit-bawrach, v'yishtaback, v'yitpaw-ar, v'yit-romaim . . ."
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty, upraised and lauded be the Name of the Holy One . . .
The prayer closes on a gentler note with a simple plea:
"O-se sha-lom bim-ro-mov," he recited, "hu ya-a-se sha-lom o-lay-nu v'al kol yis-ro-ayl v'im-ru o-mayn."
He who makes peace in his high holy places, may he bring peace upon us, and upon all Israel; and let us say Amen.Copyright © 2005 by Michael Baron
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