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by Jeff Greenberg
HOW HE CAME to be locked into the sanctuary alone overnight was a story he would tell over and over. In truth it was a mix of serendipity and stupidity. The evening was late. The absent-minded caretaker left at 7:00; the heavy walnut door of the hall was double-bolted.
It was only a moment before he realized his cell phone was pocketed in his overcoat in the cloakroom, outside. And now he was alone with the ghosts of his people.
The serendipity, however, he appreciated.
Of course he had options. He could pull the fire alarm. He could break a window. But when again would he have the chance to spend a silent night in such a space?
The old scroll was open on the reader’s table. He had been photographing it before the door was shut, for a restoration project.
He went back to it. Its parchment edges curled like the toes of a woman in coitus. He remembered from some distant corner that that was a mitsve, a good thing. Or was that about lovemaking on the Sabbath? His learning was far from adequate, a jangle of disconnected phrases and disjointed commentaries. In company, he would keep it to himself.
The scroll had come from somewhere in the old country. A survivor of the Holocaust, it had no known origin. But it had been given a number in lieu. On a hangtag.
Fragments of it had been written in the 1700s by different scribes and stitched together from several scrolls. The calligraphy gave them away, a signature where no signature was permitted.
Now he was hovering over the parchment, staring at the words that made no earthly sense to him. The decorated letters rose from the animal skin like a parade of soldiers, crowned in plumes.
He had heard that once on the holiest day of the year, a learned rebbe raised his eyes to the heavens, fully expecting a reward for his piety.
“I dressed in my best linen,” he said. “Confessed until I was bleeding sin. Read these texts until my eyes teared. I haven’t touched a woman in a week. What have I done to anger you?”
And an angel looked down and smiled. “Save your virtue for your wife.”
He was shocked.
“You haven’t impressed us. But someone in your congregation has.”
The chastened rebbe stormed through his congregation, asking, “So what did you have to say to God today? Did you tell Him your faith had wavered at the sight of a woman? Did you blame it on someone else? Did you bellow ‘I’m only human?’ What was your defense before the celestial court?”
The rebbe himself was enough of a poseur to know his fellows’ fraudulent answers, until he came to the poorest, most unlettered member of the tribe — who told him, “You know, rebbe, I cannot read the prayers. All I know are the first ten letters of the alphabet. So I just repeated those letters over and over and over. And asked God Himself to make them into words that will please Him. Do you think He has?”
THE PHOTOGRAPHER now tried the incantation himself, a recipe from the patron saint of the simple and uncomplicated, which had reduced two thousand years of ritual and commentary to an alphabet soup.
There was boredom and indeed power in the spell. Not enough to spin the room around, though it got a little fuzzy along the edges.
A rustling at the great walnut door. It swung open. Somebody had come back. For a late meeting. A forgotten umbrella.
He was a short, funny-looking man who resembled a bowling pin turned on its head. Someone he didn’t know.
“I saw a light on.”
“Ahhh. Yes,” without a hint of irony, “the old man locked you in?”
“Not a bad place to spend a night.”
“Doing some reading?”
“I never learned.” Glancing down at the scroll, his failing came back to him from his childhood.
He remembered a hapless teacher of Hebrew ABCs describing a great scholar. He held up the primer they were using and said the scholar could memorize this book in one sitting. The ABCs.
One of his fellow students was an angry boy he didn’t like. One day on his way home from the old shul, the boy got into a fight, hit his head on the curb, and died. The class was told how in his memory they would name the closet after him, where they hung their coats.
He remembered those Saturday mornings in the dim sanctuary with their veil of ritual, language, and the very private and cloistered ecstasy of wobbling old men, wrapped in stained silk, muttering incoherently. To this he was not invited. He had wondered what they knew and he did not.
Perhaps now it was in front of him.
The stranger moved closer to the table where the scroll lay open. “The calligraphy. Nice.”
A smile from the stranger. “You know, Moses once stumbled on God designing crowns for the letters.”
“He was doodling?”
“That’s something, isn’t it? “
“It would explain the way things have gone since.”
“Do you know what the mystics believed? Look. Here.” The stranger bent over the scroll, searching for something. He leaned back, took the spindles that held the parchment and began rolling up one while unrolling the other. Then he leaned back in, searched the text, leaned back out and repeated the rite. Two or three times he looked as though he found whatever he was searching for.
When he finally did, he raised a bony finger like a yad and pointed to a single letter.
THE SLEEVE of the stranger’s jacket slid a few inches down his arm, showing the tattoo. The photographer remembered the first time he had seen the fading blue numbers on freckled flesh. In a lamp part shop on Grand Street. Grand Brass. You walked in. The smell of decay was the first thing you noticed. You had left Little Italy and were transported back fifty years to Lodz, a dying Polish world, to be erased by war.
It was a crowded, dusty storefront, perhaps twelve feet across. The shelves reached to the tin ceiling, packed with water-stained cardboard boxes, numbers scrawled on them in black marker.
There was a counter and a disagreeable old man, a gaunt spectral being, a shade of a person. You waited in line and then dutifully handed over your broken lamp. When he turned it over in his hands you saw the number. The old man made no effort to hide the tattoo. He wore it matter-of-factly. He would bark at the Puerto Rican helper who would reach up onto a shelf and invariably bring down the right part.
The old man charged him very little or nothing. He didn’t recall. Was it because he saw that he too was a Jew? And giving him the lamp part made him complicit in the survivor’s pain and anger? Was that the true cost of membership in the tribe? The goyim, he would, of course, charge.
The tribe. The photographer saw their anger everywhere. The shul where his parents had belonged when he was older had built a swimming pool. One day he brought along a blonde-haired friend to swim. His name was Hansson, Han’s son. On the way into the locker room, he was stopped by the old man in charge. “Why are you bringing him here?” “He’s my friend.” “He’s not Jewish. He wouldn’t do this for you.”
The stranger ran a hand over the page, not touching the parchment. He half expected the scroll to rise from the table. The stranger reached into his pocket, removed and opened a penknife. With its point he found the letter he was looking for. A lamed. An L. To its elegant crown, the calligrapher had attached a stick figure a child might have drawn. A tiny devil clinging to the crown of the letter. The book has no mention of the devil. Was the sorcerer correcting the oversight?
The stranger told him the mystics believed the world began not in fire but on paper. With these very letters, laid this way and that. Combined, refined, mixed and matched like some insane animation until they were fashioned into an approximate cosmos.
“It makes it easy. All the secrets are here. Locked in these letters.” He traced the letter with the point of the knife, slicing through the parchment and, like a surgeon, lifted the letter from the scroll.
“Remove one letter though and the world will crumble,” he said.
They both looked up, but nothing around them had changed.
“You expected the earth to tremble? It never does.”
The stranger lifted the letter from the blade and handed it to him. Pointing to the scroll, he said, “One errant word, even one letter touching another, and the whole thing can’t be used.”
“You ruined the scroll.”
“And He never lifts a finger.”
“You’re filled with hate,” the photographer said to the stranger.
“And you’re not? You’re the privileged generation of Jews. Thank God,” he said again without irony. “You have no right to be indignant. You can’t know what I know. See what I’ve seen.”
“You wear it like a badge of honor. Your own private hell.”
“Do you want to know what I find in here?” He rolled the scroll closed. “Stories a father tells his child. Myths. Tales. Superstition. Squibs of legend. Tantalizing fragments from a time when gods walked the earth, men cowered in the shadows and women harangued the deities. Is there any truth to it? That’s hardly important. I’m no longer a believer. How can anyone ask me to be?”
The stranger let his heresy hang there in the silence.
A thought came to the photographer that perhaps the Nazis had achieved what they intended, after all. They had saved this scroll, supposedly as an artifact. But the experience of the camps had turned so many who survived away from it anyway. And from its God.
“Keep the letter as a souvenir.” The stranger turned away.
The photographer slipped the letter into his pocket.
WHEN HE LOOKED UP again the stranger was gone. In his place stood a young boy, no more than 7 or 8. He had a haunting face, like a beautiful full moon, his pale skin like an angel’s. He wore a beanie. He was remarkably well-dressed, in knickers with suspenders and a checkered cloth coat with one large dark button at the neck. His shoes were high-topped, reaching to his shins, with black lacing on white uppers.
Parents don’t dress their children this way any more. Today it is jeans and a tee shirt with a cute saying.
He is smiling, He has a name. Robika, the diminutive of Robert. The photographer knew that because he had seen him before in photographs. The older brother of a friend born of survivors after the war. She, of course, would never meet her brother, but this is how he still looks to her, from a photograph frozen in memory, saying goodbye at the platform. There is no number on his arm because there is no need to catalogue him. He would shortly be gone. Every time the photographer would see his friend, she would be shivering from the cold.
The boy reaches out a hand and says, “Kérjük hová megyünk?”
By now he had lost all track of time. He wandered over to a pew and sat down and closed his eyes. And when he opened them again a cold, early morning light came through the windows. The light was shower-curtain grey.
The door to the sanctuary was now unlocked and he went out.
He spent the rest of the morning in the routines that had become his day. The cleaners. The green market. Cat food. At one o’clock, he found himself at Ray’s Famous. He had never been sure whether this really was Ray’s Famous. But it too had become part of his routine.
He found the only empty booth and with his two slices of pizza, he sat down on the yellow plastic bench. When he looked up an impeccably groomed African-American woman was standing there.
“Would you mind if we sat down?”
With her was her son, perhaps twenty. He too was neatly dressed. He had a soft, innocent smile, took a bite of his slice and looked over to his mom. “This is a blessed pizza.”
His mother said, “Yes. Yes it is.”
He took a sip of his Coke. “This is a blessed drink, Momma.”
“Yes it is.”
He continued eating and when he finished, his mother gathered up his paper plate and cup, turned to the photographer as they were about to leave and said, with that same simple sad smile of her child, “Have a blessed day.”
He reached into his pocket and felt for the letter from the scroll.
And he thought, well yes. I will.
Jeff Greenberg is an advertising copywriter/creative director. Son of two journalists, he’s also written columns for Esquire and Metropolitan Home Magazine, and short stories and screenplays.