Read an Excerpt
By Noah Gordon
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1965 Lise Gordon, Michael Seay Gordon and The Jamie Gordon Trust
All rights reserved.
Woodborough, Massachusetts November 1964
On the winter morning of Rabbi Michael Kind's forty-fifth birthday he lay alone in the oversized brass bed that had once belonged to his grandfather, clinging to the numbness of sleep but listening against his will to the noises made by the woman in the kitchen below.
For the first time in years he had dreamed of Isaac Rivkind. Once when Michael was a little boy the old man had told him that when the living think of the dead, in paradise the dead know that they are loved and they rejoice.
"I love you, Zaydeh," he said.
It didn't occur to Michael that he had spoken aloud until his ear caught a momentary halt in the noises below. Mrs. Moscowitz wouldn't understand that a man who had just crossed the line into middle age could find comfort in talking to a man who had been dead for almost thirty years.
Rachel was already seated at the old-fashioned dining-room table when he came downstairs. It was a family custom that birthday mornings were celebrated with cards and small gifts piled on the breakfast table. But the perpetuating force behind the custom was Leslie, the Rabbi's wife, and she had been away nearly three months. The place by his plate was empty.
Rachel was slouched forward with her chin buried in the linen tablecloth, her eyes steadily following the text of the book she had propped against the sugar bowl. She had on her blue sailor. All the buttons were buttoned and she wore clean white socks, but as usual her thick blonde hair had been too much for her eight-year-old patience. She was reading with furious concentration, her eyes darting from line to line as she tried to cram in as much as she could before the interruption she knew was inevitable. She gained a few seconds through the entrance into the dining room of Mrs. Moscowitz with the orange juice.
"Good morning, Rabbi!" the housekeeper said warmly.
"Good morning, Mrs. Moscowitz." He pretended not to notice her frown. For weeks she had been urging him to call her Lena. Mrs. Moscowitz was the fourth housekeeper they had had in the eleven weeks Leslie had been gone. She kept a dusty house, she made rubbery fried eggs, she disregarded their pleadings for tsimmis andkugel, and everything she baked came from packaged mixes, for which she expected lavish praise.
"How do you want your eggs, Rabbi?" she asked, setting before him a glass of frozen orange juice he knew would be watery and improperly diluted.
"Soft-boiled, Mrs. Moscowitz, if you please." He focused his attention on his daughter, who had gained two pages in the interval.
"Good morning. I had better brush your hair for you."
"Morning." She turned a page.
"How's the book?"
He lifted it up and looked at the title and she sighed, knowing that the game was over. It was a juvenile mystery. The Rabbi placed it on the floor beneath his chair. From upstairs a burst of sweet sound indicated that Max had awakened sufficiently to reach for his harmonica. When there was time, Rabbi Kind enjoyed playing Saul to his sixteen-year-old son's David, but he knew that unless he interrupted, Max would eat no breakfast.
He called and the music stopped in the middle of one of those ersatz folk songs. A couple of minutes later Max was sitting with them at the table, his face scrubbed shiny and his hair wet.
"Somehow this morning I feel like an old man," the Rabbi said.
Max grinned. "Hey, Pop, you're still a kid," he said, reaching for the underdone toast.
The Rabbi tapped his eggshell with a spoon while self-pity settled around him like Mrs. Moscowitz' perfume. The soft-boiled eggs were hard. The children ate theirs without complaint, satisfying their hunger, and he ate his own without tasting, content to watch them. Fortunately, he thought, they resembled their mother, with hair the soft color of candlelight on copper, good white teeth and complexions that demanded the freckles. For the first time he noticed that Rachel was pale. He reached over and took her face in his hand and she nuzzled against his palm.
"Go outside this afternoon," he said. "Climb a tree. Sit on the ground. Get some cold air in your lungs." He looked at his son. "Maybe your brother will even take you skating, the big athlete?"
Max shook his head. "No chance. Scooter cuts the team this afternoon and gives permanent positions. Hey, can I get some hockey skates when my Chanukah check comes from Grandpa Abe?"
"You haven't got it yet. If it comes, then ask me."
"Poppa, can I be Mary in our Christmas pageant?"
"That's what I told Miss Emmons you'd say."
He pushed back his chair. "Run upstairs and get your brush, Rachel, so I can part your hair the right way. Hurry up, I don't want to keep them from having a minyan at the temple."
He drove through the town in the gray morning light of Massachusetts winter. Beth Sholom lay just two blocks north of the Woodborough business district. It was a twenty-eight-year-old building, old-fashioned and well-constructed, and so far he had managed to fend off those in the congregation who wished to build a more modern temple in the suburbs.
He parked under the maple trees and walked from the tiny parking lot up the red brick stairs and into the temple, as he had done every morning for eight years. In his study he traded his overcoat for black robes and his old brown fedora for a black skullcap. Then, murmuring the blessing, he touched the fringes of his tallis to his lips, threw the prayer shawl around his shoulders, and walked down the deep-shadowed corridor to the sanctuary, automatically counting with his eyes as he said good morning to the men seated on the white benches. Six, including the two mourners, Joel Price, who had just lost his mother, and Dan Levine, whose father had died six months before.
The Rabbi made seven.
Even as he mounted the bema two more men came through the front door, stamping the snow from their shoes.
"One more," said Joel, sighing.
Michael knew he was nervous about the possibility that they wouldn't assemble the ten men necessary to say Kaddish, the prayer pious Jews offer each morning and evening for a year following the death of a parent. The tenth man was the one he always sweated out himself.
He looked out over the empty temple.
Hello God, he thought.
Please Lord make this the day she improves. She is deserving of you. I love her so.
Help her, Lord. Please God. Amen.
He started the service with the morning blessings, which are not community prayers and do not require a minyan of ten men: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast given to the cock intelligence to distinguish between day and night...." Together they blessed God for granting them faith, freedom, masculinity, and strength. They were praising him for removing sleep from their eyes and slumber from their eyelids when the tenth man arrived—Jake Lazarus, the cantor, with sleep still in his eyes and slumber on his eyelids—and the men grinned at the Rabbi and relaxed.
When the service was over and the other nine men had dropped coins into the pushkeh for indigent transients and said good-by and hurried off to their businesses and jobs, Michael left the bema and sat on the white bench in the first row. A shaft of sunlight came through a high window and struck the spot; when he had arrived at Beth Sholom the illuminating ray had appealed to him because of its beauty and melodrama; now he liked it because sitting in its warmth on a winter morning was better than the sunlamp at the YMHA.
He sat for five minutes watching the motes of dust dance up and down the long sun-column. It was quiet in the empty temple, and he closed his eyes and thought of the slow surf in Florida and of the orange trees budding tight and green in California, then of the other places they had been, of deep snow drifting in the Ozarks and of the sound of katydids in Georgia fields and of the woods wet with rain in Pennsylvania. If nothing else, he told himself, failure in many places gives a rabbi a good geographic background.
Then, feeling guilty, he jumped up and set out to make his pastoral calls.
His first stop concerned his wife.
The grounds of Woodborough State Hospital were sometimes mistaken by strangers for a college campus, but halfway down the long, winding driveway the presence of Herman left no doubt about the hospital's identity.
Michael had a crowded morning schedule, and Herman would see to it that it took him ten minutes to negotiate the rest of the driveway and ease his car into a parking space, a process that otherwise would have taken about sixty seconds.
Herman wore bell-bottomed dungarees, an old pea coat, an Orioles baseball cap, and fluffy earmuffs that had once been white. In each hand he carried an orange ping-pong paddle, the kind covered with tiny rubber pips. He walked backward, guiding the car's progress with a fierce intentness, conscious that the Rabbi's life and the fate of an expensive government aircraft were on his shoulders. Twenty years before, Herman had been flight operations officer on a wartime aircraft carrier. He had chosen to continue the assignment. For the past four years he had been meeting cars and guiding drivers in to landings on the hospital parking lot. He was an annoyance, but an appealing one. No matter how hurried Michael was, he found himself acting out a role that made him a willing part of Herman's illness.
Michael was the hospital's Jewish chaplain, a post that occupied half a day of his weekly routine, and he had arranged to work in the chaplain's office until notified that Dan Bernstein, Leslie's psychiatrist, was free.
But Dan was waiting for him.
"I'm sorry I'm late," he said. "I always forget to leave a couple of extra minutes for Herman."
"He bothers me," the psychiatrist said. "What will you do if some day he decides to wave you off at the last minute and signals you to fly around and make a new approach?"
"I'll pull back hard on the stick and my station wagon will roar up over the administration building."
Dr. Bernstein settled himself in the one comfortable chair in the room, slipped off his brown loafers and wiggled his toes. Then he sighed and lit a cigarette.
"How's my wife?"
He had hoped for better news. "Is she talking?"
"Very little. She's waiting."
"For her sadness to go away," Dr. Bernstein said, rubbing his stockinged toes with fat, blunt fingers. "Something grew too strong to face, so she withdrew. It's not uncommon. If she reaches understanding she'll come out and face it, and allow herself to forget what is causing her depression.
"We had hoped to help her to do this with psychotherapy. But she doesn't talk. I think electric shock is indicated."
Michael's stomach twisted. Dr. Bernstein looked at his face and snorted in undisguised contempt. "You call yourself a mental hospital chaplain? Why the hell should shock frighten you?"
"Sometimes they thrash around. Broken bones."
"Not for years, not since we've had muscle-paralyzing drugs. Today it's a humane treatment. You've seen it, haven't you?"
He nodded. "Will she experience aftereffects?"
"Of the treatments? Probably some slight amnesia, partial loss of memory. Nothing serious. She'll remember everything that's important in her life. Little things, things that don't matter, will be gone."
"What kinds of things?"
"Perhaps the title of a movie she's seen recently, or the name of the film's leading man. Or the address of a slight aquaintance. But these will be isolated incidents. Most of her memory will be retained."
"Can't you attempt to make progress with psychotherapy for a little while longer before you try the shock?"
Dr. Bernstein allowed himself the luxury of mild annoyance. "But she's not talking! How can therapy be conducted without communication? I have no idea what'sreally making her depressed. Have you?"
"She's a convert, as you know. But she's been completely Jewish for a long time."
"We moved around a lot before we came here. Sometimes we lived in situations that were difficult."
Dan Bernstein lit another cigarette. "Do all rabbis move around that much?"
Michael shrugged. "Some men go to one temple and stay there for the rest of their lives. Others keep traveling. Most rabbis are on short-term contracts. If you struggle too hard, break too many lances in the congregation's tender skin, or if they break too many in yours, you move on."
"You think that's why you've moved so often?" Dr. Bernstein asked in a flat, impersonal way. Michael knew intuitively that the tone was part of his session technique. "Have you broken the lances, or received them?"
He took a cigarette from the pack Dan had left on the desk between them. He noticed with annoyance that his hand trembled slightly as he held the match. "A little of both," he said.
Dr. Bernstein's eyes were on his face, gray and direct. They made him uncomfortable. The psychiatrist pocketed his cigarettes. "I think electric shock is your wife's best bet. We could start her on a course of twelve treatments, three times a week. I've seen marvelous results."
Michael nodded in reluctant agreement. "If you think it's best. What can I do for her?"
"Be patient. You can't reach out to her. You can only wait for her to reach out to you. When she does, you'll know she's taken her first step toward recovery."
"Thank you, Dan."
He rose to his feet and Michael shook his hand. "Why don't you drop around the temple some Friday night? You might get some therapy out of my shabbos service. Or are you another atheistic man of science?"
"I'm not an atheist, Rabbi." He pushed first one pudgy foot into a loafer, then the other. "I'm a Unitarian," he said.
On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings of the following week Michael was very irritable whenever approached. He silently cursed the fact that he had ever become a chaplain; it would have been so much easier if the details were shrouded in mystery.
But he knew that by seven the treatments would begin in Templeton Ward.
His Leslie would wait in an anteroom with other patients until her turn came. Then the nurses would lead her to a bed and she would lie down. The attendant would take off her shoes and slip them under the thin mattress. The anesthetist would slip a canula into her vein.
Each time he had watched the treatments there had been several patients whose veins were so small they could not be pierced, and the doctor had sweated and grumbled and cursed. Leslie's veins would give them no trouble, he thought thankfully. They were narrow but distinct. When you touched them with your lips you could feel the blood pumping up strong and clean from the core of her body.
The canula would drip a barbiturate into her bloodstream, and thank you, God, his wife would fall asleep. Then the anesthetist would inject a muscle relaxant, and the tensions that kept her functioning as a living machine would slacken. Her chest muscles would grow flaccid, no longer operating the lovely bellows of her chest. Instead, from time to time a black cup would be fitted over her mouth and nose and the anesthetist would force oxygen into her lungs, breathing for her. A rubber wedge would be placed between her jaws to protect her tongue from her fine white teeth. The attendant would rub her temples with electrode jelly and then the electrodes, the size of half-dollars, would be pressed into her skull.
The anesthetist would say "All right," in a bored voice, and the resident psychiatrist would press his fingertip down on a button in a little black box. The alternating current would surge silently into her head for five seconds, an electrical storm that in the tonic stage would jolt her arms rigid despite the relaxant, and then in the clonic stage would leave her limbs twitching and jerking like those of the victim of an epileptic fit.
He drew books from the library and read whatever he could find about electric-shock treatments. He realized with a slow horror that Dan Bernstein and every other psychiatrist in the world didn't know exactly what happened when they buffeted his wife's brain with electric bombardment. All they had were theories, and the knowledge that the treatments got results. One of these theories said that the electrical charge burned out abnormal circuits in the switchboard of the brain. Another said that the shock was close enough to the death experience to satisfy the patient's need for punishment and assuage the guilt feelings that had plunged him into despair.
That was enough; he stopped his reading exercises.
Excerpted from The Rabbi by Noah Gordon. Copyright © 1965 Lise Gordon, Michael Seay Gordon and The Jamie Gordon Trust. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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