And on the Eighth
The fanfare for Chaim's eighth birthday was far greater than that for his seventh. This time his favorite Bubbie came down to his grand Pikesville home to help prepare it for the party. Hired men set up a big round tent in the backyard, and his parents bickered about why their receipt showed payment for four dozen eggs when the shopping bags held only three. For days the house clattered with the moving of creaky tables and chairs, the chopping of vegetables, and the piling and unpiling of clutter that had never been assigned a proper place. Each day his father ferried more aunts and cousins back from BWI until the house was overfull and Chaim bumped to a cot down in the basement between the washing machine and the second refrigerator. The boy complied without complaining for he was expected to take any sacrifice like a man. Everyone said that sacrifices would please Hashem and that he should be thankful for every opportunity to make one.
On the day of the party, dozens of grown-ups Chaim had never seen outside of shul were laughing and singing songs around the edges of the tent. They stomped the grass into hard mud, and brushed up against the banner that read MAZEL TOV in huge shiny letters until it drooped. The whole yard was a cram of people except for under the peak of the tent. There a makeshift stage had been arranged, and on it was a clean, child-sized bed someone had decked out in black and white checkered sheets. A fat man with a hoary oval mole under his wrinkly left eye had just placed a silver tray embossed with old Hebrew prayers on the pillow. He was carefully extracting metal tools from an old leather bag, holding them in both hands very near his face, and then setting each one gently on the tray.
Though no one had noticed yet, Chaim was not enjoying his birthday party. He was not even taking part. His courage and resolve had flagged during his restless night, and, when the first guest had arrived, he had hid himself in terror behind the prickly holly bushes separating their yard from a park and pool. He ignored the mosquitoes because, even though no one could see him, he had a great view of the fat man and the stage. The man looked impossibly huge and his measured movements struck the boy as sinister. Chaim began to tremble and set a few leaves to shaking.
His Bubbie, standing alone at the vegetable table at the edge of the yard, noticed the moving bush. Chuckling, she came over to comfort him. When she leaned over the bush to pat the boy's head her long earrings swayed back and forth and her comforting smell of lemon drops and old mothballs wafted down.
"Boychick," she said kindly. "What's the matter?"
Chaim flicked a beetle off his already grass-stained pants. He said nothing.
"Nervous for your bris?"
"Aww, I know you are but, come now, it's going to be ok, just let your Bubbie tell you the story behind itI promise you don't know everything I know about itand you'll cheer right up good as new, big and brave, like a man, just go be a good boy and get me a sherry first, I'm thirsty and my feet hurt. I'll meet you inside."
Chaim slowly rose to his feet and brushed off the dirt. He wanted to flee but Bubbie's stories were always better than his Dad's. Perhaps her version would give him the courage he had lost in the night.
He plodded through the guests and entered the kitchen. He climbed heavily onto the counter where he could reach into the cupboard above the sink. Carefully, he lowered the sherry bottle with both hands and poured a glass, scrunching up his face at the stink. When he went to find his Bubbie she was already waiting for him in the living room in her armchair by the unlit electric fireplace. Chaim carefully set the glass on the low metal mantle beside her and lay down on the floor before her. He held up his chin with his fists and splayed his legs out behind like their dog Esther. Esther, so old her moods and sleep were indifferent to the weather and the passing of seasons, pushed her grayed muzzle into Chaim's armpit. The boy, however, kept his eyes right on his Bubbie.
His Bubbie wore big glasses and intensely patterned shirts. Her hair had been dyed brown for so many years nobody pretended to know her true age, which of course she had not told since childhood. She savored a long sip of sherry with her eyes closed. Then she spoke.
"Feh, that fake stove is terrible, a farce that mocks me and the cold I grew up with. What's wrong with a real stove? Someone needs to tell your dad to get rid of it, it's an eyesore and it's bad taste. No, not you, not now, sit down, it's your birthday, I'll tell him later myself. I've got a story to tell you, about your Zadie. About your whole family and why today is special."
"But I already know why today is special."
"No, you only know what your dad told you and he wasn't there. Besides, I have to tell you because when your Zadie learned he wasn't going to live until your eighth birthday, he made me promise him I'd tell you this story even though it's rightfully his story to tell. He asked me to tell you on your eighth birthday to give you strength, and I promised I would. That's today. Happy birthday, boychick. Andeh!genug, stop futzing with your payes!
"That's better. Years ago, on a muggy July afternoon like this one, a couple of weeks after your Zadie and I got married, your Zadie came home one day from Torah study and refused to eat, not even a nibble. I'd made his favorite, tongue onion soup, you could have smelled it all over town it was so good, but he just wouldn't touch it. Wouldn't look at it neither. But soon that was nothing because he stopped speaking to me. Then he refused to sleep. He just bulged his eyes like a cow while he muttered at the table all night like an idiot. I tried leaving him be and I tried nagging. Nothing reached him and I was sure I'd have to have him carted away for medical experiments. I asked Rabbi Finkel if he'd been hit on the head with a prayer book or something, but he didn't think so.
"So then I thought maybe a good whack would fix him good, and one night I resolved to do it. He was muttering in the kitchen, frail as anything, trying to stare through the wooden table. I snuck out the back door and went right to the woodshed where I found a good round log to whack him with. But when I came back in he was gone! He had stolen away into the darkness, taking only his Torah, scraps of bread and cheese from the pantry, and his"
"What's 'stolen away' mean?"
"Means he left, now shh. Anyway I was very worried about him, of course. I looked everywhere, all over town, in gutters and closets, cellars and attics. I thought he was crazy enough to be anywhere, you know? But no luck, he wasn't anywhere, he was nowhere. So I went back to Rabbi Finkel, told him my husband was missing. They sent out some men to look for him. At each town they came to the local rabbi would say he had indeed met with your Zadie, but that he had left just the evening before. Each rabbi would say he didn't know why your Zadie had come, all he'd done was ask to see their Torahs a moment and of course they had said yes. Your Zadie would thank them, look something up, and then leave without a word. Everyone thought he was just another town's harmless fool and let him be.
"Weeks passed. The neighbors whispered about how I had been abandoned. Would I petition for divorce, they asked. When they felt guilty for it they brought me gifts. Like these earrings. Aren't they nice? I was really starting to get used to being a single woman. What a blessing I decided! I didn't have to cook for anyone, mend socks, or do much else for that matter. People pitied me, of course, and then gave me whatever I wanted. Remember that, boychick.
"Then, the day before Yom Kippur, it was gray and I was walking around town taking care of some loose ends and errands near the synagogue, when people shrieked and pointed down the road behind me. What was there? I'll tell you! It was your Zadie! He had appeared over the hill down the east road, all alone, near the old crabapple tree where we used to picnic. His robes were in tatters and no longer covered his ankles. When he came closer we saw his beard was dry and twisted into coils. He leaned on a walking stick carved all over in strange symbols of the Kabbalists. It was the only time he'd ever been seen with his head uncovered and I noticed he had lost hair. He went straight to the synagogue, giving me only a stiff nod of his head. He took the steps head-on, one at a time, until he claimed the top in front of the big double doors. He was silent, watching the town swarm him and waiting for the stragglers to arrive. His gaze could have withered stone. The cantor whispered a prayer and nervously laid a spare kippah on your Zadie's cold skull. A howling wind rose and people later said Hashem, blessed be his name, made dead oak leaves spin round and round him in a whirling column.
"The town Elders rushed to him from the study room. Rabbi Finkel embraced him and held his palm to the crowd for silence. He shouted, 'What is it Reb Levi?'that's how people called your Zadie, you knowand the crowd stood in thrall. Your Zadie rapped his stick twice on the stone step and thrust up his arms as if he himself could heave the sky. And then he shouted . Do you know what he shouted?"
This was not what Chaim had been taught and his fear had been displaced by suspense. He sat up straight and said, "No! What? Tell me!"
"Are you sure you want to know?"
"Yes, Bubbie, yes!"
"Nah. I don't believe you."
"What! Tell me now! Bubbie, you have to, please please!"
His Bubbie looked down skeptically and crossed her arms. "Well," she said, trailing off. She took a long, drawn-out sip of sherry and noisily licked her lips. "I guess that'll do. But consider yourself lucky that I promised your Zadie, you hear? Anyway, so your Zadie is there, arms stretched out to heaven, and he shouts, 'A miracle has been revealed to me in the Torah!" Rabbi Finkel shouts back, 'What? What is this miracle?' And then your Zadie really got going.
"'We have been doing it wrong, all wrong!' he announced. 'Our fathers did it wrong, all wrong, their fathers did it wrong, all wrong, and their fathers' fathers did it wrong, all wrong,' and so on, you get the idea, he could really go on sometimes, your Zadie. Anyway, Rabbi Finkel says back to him, 'How, Reb Levi? How have we been doing it all wrong? Oh tell us so that we may please the Lord, blessed is His kingdom!' So then your Zadie pulled his torah out of his robes and opened to a page he had marked with a red, threadbare ribbon. He addressed the town and called out loud and clear. 'During the eighth year, foreskin shall be circumcised!' And then your Zadie closed the book and gave it a kiss.
"Nobody moved. Nobody made a sound. I think the wind even stopped. Laughter suddenly gushed out from the Elders, laughter like we'd never heard from educated men. They pointed at him, slapped their old knees, and informed him no, no, the word was day, and what a putz your Zadie was, and just between you and me he really could be a schmuck, but I'll stop before I lose my way. Anyway, and so then the venerablefeh!the venerable Reb Liebowicz pulled out his own worn pocket Torah and opened it to Leviticus. He licked his lips to read" she mimed this, sipping more sherry"but the rabbi did not read. He shook and spittled. He stomped his foot and clawed at his ear. When he at last found his tongue he shouted, "Mine too says year!" Then the dodderer fainted and nearly cracked his skull on the stone, may he rest in peace.
"The crowd was in an uproar. Old quarrels were rediscovered and new ones contrived. Punches were thrown and some hit old ladies. The Elders scrambled inside to check their own holy books and quickly came out shouting that theirs, too, read year, all of them, as clear as if they had never said anything else. The wealthy men rushed home to check their Torahs and soon every Torah in town had been checked. All of them, each and every one, bore the new text Hashem had revealed to your Zadie.
"Yom Kippur was forgotten and an emergency meeting was scheduled in the synagogue at sundown. News of it flowed through the town like water. Somehow the whole town squeezed inside that little building. I was smushed against a wall and a bench but I had a good view of the whole room. It was so full in there a child like you could have hopped all the way across the room on the sweaty heads like on dry stones in a river. In front of the ark the council table had been arranged. Your Zadie sat up there with the others of the seven Elders. Your Zadie was by far the youngest, you know, he was just such a gifted Torah student they had felt compelled to let him on. Let's see if I can remember who else was there, they've all been dead for so long. There was Yankel, the mohel. His daughter ended up running off with the tailor's son, a nudnik who believed in in what the hell was it? oh, right materialism, though he never explained what it was the same way twice. Nobody would hire the idiot so the couple left town to live with the goyim in some city somewhere. Once in a while they sent letters asking for money. How those two didn't starve I couldn't say.
"There was also Yankel's friend, Anshel. Not much to say about him, he was bupkis. There were Fayvel and Mendel, they were the nebbishe twins, same fool, two bodies. It's a miracle they found their way out of the womb. And there was Zalman, the part-time scribe who claimed to speak French but we knew he was faking it becauseaww, boychick, you're not even paying attention anymore! I'm sorry, I'll move on to the good stuff."
Indeed, the boy's attention had been distracted by the guests who had found their way inside looking for the bathroom, and had stayed to hear the rest of the story. They stood behind the boy and one of them massaged his shoulders. This unwelcome touch reminded him of what was coming.
"Let's see here, good stuff. Where was I? Ah right. The council. Rabbi Finkel was at the center of the table in a big chair. He was really quite old already, but he could still hold a room, even when it was so stuffy I could hear the sweat streaming out of the woman next to me.
"Rabbi Finkel spoke. 'Good people of our village. We must not be overhasty in making sense of this amazing news. We must find out all the facts we can. Reb Levi. Where have you been? Why did you leave us? Why do you return to us in such a miserable state? Please explain that we may be the wiser for it.'
"Your Zadie answers, 'My beloved rabbi. I have been going to synagogues and shuls across our land. I have been to the mountains where men eat pork and still call themselves Jews. I have been to the western river where the weather is said to be fair in February and unmarried Jews dance together on the holy shabbos. I have even been to see the city Jews who are always late to something but never to shul. In all these places I have checked their Torahs and I observed their ways: their holy books still say day and the bris is done as it has always been done. It is only our books that have changed. This leaves only one conclusion. Hashem, blessed be His glory, has revealed His miracle only to us! We, humble men and women of the village, we are His saving remnant! We must follow His new commandment and reaffirm our covenant with Abraham at the newly appointed time!'
"All agreed that your Zadie spoke well, but Rabbi Finkel was not convinced. He said, 'This is indeed strong evidence that you present, but how can we be sure that Hashem Himself has made the change? Could it not be Satan's demons bent on making us displease Hashem? Or perhaps Hashem is testing us. Does it not say in the eleventh psalm that Hashem doth test the righteous? As we are so obviously righteous, I say it is a test of our faith from Hashem, blessed be He who gives the chance to show our worthiness!'
"Rabbi Finkel beamed after that one, let me tell you. Everyone saw he had already made up his mind to ignore this miracle, and when his toadies started talking it was clear they had been rehearsed. Yankelhe was the mohel, rememberhe went on at great lengths about how, though nobody could be a humbler servant than he, surely nobody could deny that it was much, much more sensible to perform the ritual on little guys when they can't kick and bite and otherwise fight back? He was a coward, Yankel was. And then Anshel and Zalman went on and on about the history of demons in the Torah and then I think they just made stuff up on the spot because I don't think even Rabbi Finkel had any idea what the hell they were talking about, and then they concluded by saying how even though it could possibly be a message from Hashem, there was just no way of knowing for sure, and so obviously the best thing to do would be to do nothing, nothing at all, even though doing nothing seemed to me like doing something, if you see what I mean.
"But your Zadie was not to be outdone. He let nothing slide. He shouted and shook with reverent testimony, calling forth the legacy of Hashem choosing the worthy to serve Him through challenges, that this was a modern Torah miracle that could perhaps usher the coming of the Messiah, and, at the very least, he was the enlightened prophet who would lead them to divine mercy, as had been foretold long ago!
"Yet no agreement could be found and arguing became shouting. The council disbanded within the hour. The Elders parted with curses and hurtful words. By Chanukah the town had fixed itself into two camps, the Testers and the Miraclists, though these were not the names they always used for each other, of course, but those names aren't suitable for you with that cute little punim of yours!"
"Bubbie! Ow! Don't pinch me!"
"Shh, you like it, listen. No. Wait a minute."
Her glass of sherry was empty. Chaim's papa was bringing dirty dishes into the kitchen from the yard. She hailed him holding up and shaking her empty glass, and he brought over the bottle. He took a turn massaging Chaim's clenched shoulders and stayed to listen to the rest of the story. Chaim, however, had stopped listening entirely and was staring at his lap.
"Every day a fight broke out in the name of serving Hashem's holy word. Families were divided. Young sons yelled at their fathers for spoiling their covenant with Abraham and thereby their chance at future resurrection. My Bubbie, may she rest in peace, she was the matchmaker, she couldn't make a single match because she couldn't find two whole families on speaking terms. Thankfully she could live off of your Zadie's generosity, but my poor friend Faigle, she was a dressmaker, and she had to leave for the godless streets of the capital where people still got married, often several times. Your Zadie refused to attend Rabbi Finkel's services so he began to hold his own each Shabbos in a barn he rented from a dimwitted barrel maker. The men who attended his services sewed eight-pointed stars onto their kippahs to show their loyalty to your Zadie and to Hashem."
"Not everyone took sides, Ma," interrupted Chaim's father.
"Of course not everyone took sides! That nogoodnik who herded the goats and owed your dad money, what was his name? Feh, I can't remember, but anyway, he was too busy sneaking around stealing kaddish wine to get involved, and most of the really old people couldn't even figure out the problem. And then the faithless! It seemed the only thing the Testers and Miraclists could agree about was that the faithless did not belong in town.
"But I'm losing the way. Here's what's important. One day the next spring the shoemaker died in his sleep. He left two sons, Jacob and Joseph, but no will. Jacob was a Miraclist and Joseph was a Tester. Of course they could not agree who would get the house and the cobbling shop or even which rabbi should settle the dispute. For several days they lived in separate rooms of that house, slamming doors but never speaking, and it was said they even locked and barricaded their rooms at night. You won't be surprised to learn that one morning Jacob was found dead in his bed, thin bruises wrapped around his throat.
"Joseph was immediately arrested. Who else had a motive? But Rabbi Finkel stood up for Joseph. There was no proof, he said, no witnesses either. How could we be sure that it wasn't somebody else who had done it? Some crazed traveler sneaking through town in the night, perhaps, interested in killing but not in stealing? Well, Rabbi Finkel was a powerful man and Joseph was released and given the house and workshop.
"You can imagine how the Miraclists took that! We were outraged, but not shocked. Your Zadie declared it yet another persecution of the true Jews, and that we shouldn't be surprised by such a gross miscarriage of the Holy Law. It was persecution plain and simple and anyone could be next, that was just the way of the world. The only thing for it was to separate the town in two to let us live our own way.
"But who to build the wall? And where to build it? Rabbi Finkel and your Zadie met with their faithful one night at the synagogue to discuss plans. They didn't trust each other to organize the project or build the thing. How could anyone be sure no one would build secret doors into the wall, or passages under it, and then sabotage the other community by mixing meat dishes with dairy? How could they be sure the wall divided the land fairly and evenly? They decided to pool their money and bring in a neutral professional from the city.
"A man named Adalbert came promptly with several shiny trunks in his carriage. He wore a different hat each day, fine fabrics, and granted his beard only a small but tidy patch of his chin. Like all men back then he smoked a pipe, but his tobaccos smelled of honey, vanilla, and flower petals. Your Zadie and Rabbi Finkel did anything for just a pinch of it. Adalbert never asked why they wanted the wall built, he just took his many measurements and then calmly set the town's young men to work. He would come in the morning and mark out lines in the dirt with a cane he always had, though he did not hide from us that he could walk perfectly well without one. The wall went up quickly and cleanly because everyone contributed stones from their yards, and the children pitched in with the small pebbles they carried using their shirts as buckets. The wall went all the way from the river to the gorge, with only one guarded door where the main road used to pass through.
"At last it only needed to be joined to the synagogue, which miraculously had been built straddling the middle of town. At least that's what Adalbert said. The big wall was joined to the walls of the synagogue and then fine bricks were laid up the middle aisle, layered slowly on, one by one all the way up to the ceiling. Since I was your Zadie's wife they let me lay one. Nearly everyone was there to watch the laying of the final bricks and to say goodbye to the others. We all cheered on our side, and I imagine the Testers did too, but we couldn't hear them of course. Adalbert did not stick around for either party that night."
She trailed off. "And then what happened?" asked Chaim's father.
"What? Oh, sorry, where was I? Oh! Well then we got to live in accordance with Hashem's word! Chaim, pay attention! Your Zadie started a new community, trained a cantor and a mohel, made trade connections with the capital, lead services on Shabbos, and everything else. Things were great, but it lasted only a couple years. Then the war came and we fled to America with nothing. Your Zadie and I made a life in Brooklyn and he continued praising Hashem's new, true word in his own tiny synagogue right off Eastern Parkway. We raised beautiful sons there, like your Dad, and taught them how to honor Hashem. Look around you. They've scattered around the country but they're all here today because these people you never see believed in your Zadie, believed in his prophecy, and they believe in the sacrifices Hashem asks us to make. The question is: do you?"
"Do I what?"
"Do you believe in the word of Hashem?"
"Yeah, of course."
"And do you believe in the covenant you are about to make with Abraham and Hashem?"
"The covenant! The contract that makes you one of the chosen people!"
"I guess, yeah."
"And you want to be a man and keep Hashem happy?"
"Good. I think they're almost ready for you over there under the tent."
"Yeah, that's right," Chaim's papa added.
"What Wait," said Chaim.
"The mohel's ready to perform your bris, boychick," said Chaim's papa.
Chaim sat stock-still. He looked down at his pants. The question he had silenced for days was raging: why did Hashem want that? He stood up and whispered something in his papa's ear.
"That's exactly right, boychick, and that man there will fix it," his papa answered.
The party's conversations were ended. All the guests watched Chaim, but only the mohel stood alone. He was under the tent, next to the bed. He held a slender scalpel at his side in his left hand. It shone yellow.
The phone rang but went unanswered. Chaim's father pulled the boy to his feet, "Come on, boychick, for Hashem." He did not let go of his son once he stood. They walked hand in hand out the sliding glass doors and into the yard. The guests gave them a far wider berth than was required.
Chaim's father stopped at the foot of the stage. They stood still a moment, and then his father nudged his back. "Come on, boychick, you'll be fine." Chaim took a wobbly step onto the stage, his senses disjointed and hot. He saw a ring of faces around the stage, but could not make out a single one. The crowd began to clap and sing a song he did not understand because it was in Hebrew.
The ugly mohel pointed to the bed with the blade. Chaim, silently crying, lay down on his back, and slid his pants down to his shoes. When the mohel saw that the boy trembled, he leaned against the boy's chest to hold him still. Some cries filled the air and at last the celebrations began in earnest.