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A Short Story
by Gene Grabiner
Nathan Solomon Goldstein arrived at Temple Beth‑Shalom in Crestwood by 4:10 PM, as he did every Wednesday.
Hebrew School: Cantor Moskowitz would teach him what was forgotten in the move from the Bronx to Westchester, or left earlier in Poland, in Latvia, in Romania, in Russia, or abandoned through Diasporas and kidnappings, or lost in the Holocaust.
Everyone called him Nate, never Sol or Solomon.
His family had moved to Westchester. They got the right address, their skin lightened, their noses grew short, their hair got straighter.
With Moskowitz, ten pubescent boys joined into this weekly voyage of reminiscence, discovery, and rediscovery in Rabbi Levine’s study, overlooking Alfonso’s service station, next door.
In Alfonso’s parking lot, with its massive nose practically touching the temple’s west wall, was a shiny red Cadillac El Dorado convertible. This scarlet vision was always parked at Alfonso’s on Wednesdays. The expanse of its front windshield gleamed thirty feet below the Rabbi’s window.
THE CANTOR BOMBARDED his charges with the sacrifices of Masada, the bravery of the Maccabees, the Wisdom of Solomon.
Nate, Sammy, Bobby, Jeff, Fat Barry and five other bar mitsve students got a serialized crash course in Jewish lore and Hebrew memorization sufficiently elegant to dazzle relatives and outlast all the carved ice‑swans at their upcoming receptions. And, of course, there was moral teaching; life lessons based on heroes and heroines, and marvelous young people, the burning bush, and the Jews’ special deal with God.
“You are Jews, which makes you different. Daniel was a captive Jew in Babylon. But he would not take a Babylonian name. And because he remained a Jew, only Daniel could read God’s language. So when God wrote ‘mene mene tekel upharsin’ on King Belshazzar’s palace wall, only Daniel understood the judgment, ‘thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.’ When you say your haftorahs on your bar mitsve day, you will be men. You will become responsible. And then we will say your Hebrew names.”
Outstanding in this litany, in this universe of merit and glory, was wise King Solomon. “Do you think he really would have sliced that baby in two?” Nathan asked. “What if neither woman gave in? What if it was twins? What if they were Siamese twins, joined at the head? What about that David and Bathsheba story? Wasn’t Solomon their son? Wouldn’t they have stoned Bathsheba back then?”
“Nathan,” Cantor Moskowitz said, “these questions really don’t apply to today’s lesson. And we haven’t even spoken about David and Bathseba. You’ve been reading too much on your own.”
IN JUNE, ground was broken for a new wing to Temple Beth Shalom. The boys lingered outside the building for awhile to watch the driver of the Curto Brothers Construction Company truck unload three pallets of bricks with one of those hydraulic piston lift platforms.
The minyan trooped in for further improvement.
It was hot. And it was Wednesday. Cantor Moskowitz was usually late on Wednesday afternoons — sometimes as much as forty-five minutes late. He gave private singing lessons to plump blond, Mrs. Kane in a basement office on Wednesdays.
Preoccupied, Moskowitz left the young men to fantasy and idleness.
The twelve‑year‑olds lounged in the sweltering study, just below the temple’s roof. With no air-conditioning, windows usually closed, and little air space above Rabbi Levine’s ceiling, the study became a near‑sauna.
They opened the west window of the study. And, as many as together could poke their heads out, all smelled the season’s change. All saw the early pale green oak and maple leaves. All mused on the long, late afternoon light dancing off the Bronx River just two hundred feet away through the trees — across the street from Alfonso’s SUNOCO. All dreamed of fishing or baseball or yo‑yo’s.
Tearing notebook pages filled with Hebrew letters all made and flew paper airplanes and helicopters out the window. An airplane hit the thermals, floated up a bit and then, caught in a small downdraft, began a series of broad, slow circles toward that huge car. And a paper helicopter began its lazy, twisting descent, to land on the gleaming hood of the Cadillac.
“Watch this!” A smuggled Curto Brothers brick was produced. With no gliding grace, no lazy flight, the brick plummeted through the compound-curved windshield, landing in the driver’s seat and littering the car’s white leather with sparkling bits of safety glass.
Moskowitz entered the study, ordered the window closed and began the lesson of David and Bathsheba.
ENOUGH TORAH: This afternoon’s lesson was a Talmudic practicum, as, after some discussion, Alfonso, Rabbi Levine, and Cantor Moskowitz reasoned that the brick could only have come from the west window of the rabbi’s study. Alfonso returned to brake jobs, pumping gas and parking cars. The cantor ordered the bar mitsve boys to stay after class and called their parents. Then he brought them into the study, where the rabbi waited.
It was still hot. The window was closed. The students were told to line up. Rabbi Levine’s black eyes bored into the very souls of his bar mitsve boys. He paced in front of the lineup, his stiff, bushy beard accusing all. And as he paced, he panned the group; the very point of his beard, like God’s finger in Babylon, wrote “mene mene...” in front of each quivering chin.
He was the bearded Assyrian warrior-king in those ancient bas reliefs, or the vengeful priest, or the prophets of all the ancient Hebrews rolled into one. The rabbi as judge. Fat Barry shook, his downcast eyes flooding fearfully.
“Who dropped the brick? The offender must be punished!”
Almost two minutes passed in silence. Barry cried audibly and mumbled, “It wasn’t me rabbi, it wasn’t me.” Finally, Nathan spoke prophetically; “No one will say who did it. Besides, Jews should never tell on each other. There are too many people ready to blame us as it is. So, we are all responsible. We all did it. Each of us should contribute something from his allowance every week until we have paid to replace the car’s windshield.”
All the boys agreed. It was too late for terrorized Barry, though. A slow stain was spreading down the front of his chinos. Still, even he looked relieved. Levine and Moskowitz stepped into the hall. After some time, they returned and accepted Nathan’s suggestion.
AND SO IT WAS that collective guilt and collective responsibility were fixed by Nathan S. Goldstein and borne by the bar mitsve class for the shattered windshield in Lottie Kane’s Cadillac El Dorado convertible.
Both the rabbi and the cantor officiated at Nathan’s bar mitsve. Rabbi Levine presented him to the assembly — but just before his introduction, Levine offered the congregation a powerful lesson.
“This young person enters manhood today. His middle name is Shlomo, Solomon. And this is as it should be, for he is wise! In a situation where none would bear responsibility, he stepped forward and took responsibility — not just for himself, but for the whole group. He suggested that all were responsible. And all agreed. He came up with a wise solution to a thorny problem. Truly, he understands what it means to be a Jew. So today, we call him Solomon. Today, he is a man.”
As he adjusted his yarmulke and stepped up on the box so that he could just about look over the top of the podium and see the crowd seated in front of him in Temple Beth Shalom, Solomon Goldstein thought, “Today I am a man.”
Solomon also thought about his brick. Wisely, he smiled at the congregation and launched into his haftorah, memorized in Hebrew — none of which he could understand.
Gene Grabiner’s poetry has appeared in Connecticut River Review, Counterpunch, Green Prints, Jewish Currents, Passager, Naugatuck River Review, Rosebud, Ilya’s Honey, Blue Collar Review, J Journal, HazMat Review, and other journals and anthologies. He was an award winner in the 2014 Connecticut Poetry Society competition, a semi-finalist in the 2013 Passager competition, a runner-up in the 2012 William Stafford Award Competition, and a semi-finalist in the 2002 “Discover”/The Nation poetry competition. Grabiner also occasionally writes short stories. He lives in Buffalo, New York.