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The Seal of JosephA novel
By James Major
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 James Major
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt was nearly Sabbath eve and the rest of the house was quiet.
As her eyes lifted from her reading, Marta Cohen's thoughts drifted to the call she had received from her father earlier that morning asking her to come for the family Sabbath dinner. It was unusual for him to make a special effort to invite her.
Marta was seated in one of the leather Morris chairs in her father's library reading the latest issue of Biblical Archeology Review magazine. Strains of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto filled the room.
The room was finished in a deep red mahogany. Beyond the wooden bookcases that lined both sidewalls from floor to ceiling, was a wall filled with rail and stile panels. Each rectangle framed an oil painting, a small light hung above each. A large fireplace occupied the center.
The smell of rich leather mingled with the faint odor of old books. The aroma of elaborate meal preparations wafted in from the kitchen.
Her mother had refused her help in preparing the meal.
"It's my duty," her mother had said. "Besides, dinner is almost ready. You go read or something. I'll finish up."
Marta had felt a slight sting of rejection. She'd grown up in this home and had always helped her mother prepare the Shabbat supper. Many special memories of their working and laughing together were created in that kitchen.
Now she had to accept that her childhood home had once again become her mother's private dominion.
The home of David and Sara Cohen was not pretentious, but nice. Located in the West Hills above Portland just off Skyline Boulevard, most of the rooms had an incredible view of the city in the foreground and Mount Hood to the east. The city lights were coming on, but today, a shroud of low hanging clouds veiled the distant view.
David Cohen made his money manufacturing, marketing and licensing his own David's Bagels throughout the United States and Canada. The business flourished to the point that he no longer had to spend the sixty to eighty hours a week nurturing and prodding production.
Marta allowed the magazine to drop into her lap. I wonder what's so important. It's not like Abba to make such a formal issue out of Sabbath Dinner. She could normally read him well, but tonight he seemed different.
The last special time they were together was Hanukkah two weeks earlier. Family gatherings were becoming less frequent since both offspring had moved away.
Michael graduated last spring with a degree in Business Administration. He was now employed in the family bagel business and served as his father's Administrative Assistant. He was being groomed for greater things.
Marta had received her Juris Doctorate from Lewis and Clark College, and was looking toward taking her bar exam. Her father provided a generous monthly allowance until she reached gainful employment, as he had done for Michael. She enjoyed the additional studies at Pacific Northwest University in Middle East History that included classes in Archaeology. The dedicated study took extra time, but she felt the drive to learn. Returning to a dig at the ancient Philistine city of Lachish was at the top of her summer to-do list.
She took special interest in history because of her heritage and the genealogy maintained by her family. She loved reading the ancient lists and the little notes that had been added along the way.
Her thoughts took her to the painting on the wall that concealed the safe holding her father's important papers, the genealogies and the Seal.
The Seal had always been an important part of the family and it was this that piqued her interest in Mideast History, specifically, the history of ancient Israel. She wanted to know more about her own ancestry and its connection to what this artifact might represent.
The strange inscriptions on the sticks Joseph had used centuries earlier had always captivated her. She hoped to learn enough to translate them someday.
The grandfather clock that stood in the foyer chimed the hour. Six deep tones resounded through the house announcing the eve of Shabbat.
Her mother broke into Marta's thoughts, "I think I hear Michael driving in. He's a little late." She had been standing in the doorway of the library studying her daughter.
Marta looked up in time to see her mother turn and look at the small watch on her wrist.
Sara Cohen was a stickler for serving her meals on time, especially Shabbat. She went to the front entry and opened the door as Michael approached.
Marta grabbed the remote to mute the music, and laughed to herself that he was less than a minute late.
"Hi, Mom." He greeted his mother with a peck on the cheek and, "How's my favorite cook?" He always greeted her with the same wornout line. She loved it.
Marta just shook her head smiling at the scene.
He was the only one in the whole world who dared call her that. They embraced lightly.
"Hi, little brother." That was always her retort.
He was two years younger, yet he'd graduated before Marta. Law school had taken a lot of time. Now she was going for a second degree and enjoying the challenge.
"Why don't you two wash up while I call your father," Sara said as she disappeared toward the kitchen. She would always be Mother—making sure her 'kids' washed before meals no matter what their ages.
* * *
They were seated together around the table in the formal dining room. Automatically, they bowed their heads in unison.
To David, the dinner table was an altar of family worship and he was the priest. He began his priestly duty with prayer, "Most-High-God, blessed be your holy name, thank you for the privilege of our being here together as a family tonight. Thank you for blessing us so much. Please bless our food and we thank you for it."
The multi-voiced "Amen," sounded in agreement.
Marta was keenly aware of her father's informality in his customary duties. It was a different prayer. She took particular notice that he had not put on the tallith, the prayer shawl, which he would normally don for Shabbat. She didn't want to sound critical, so she said nothing. He did wear his yarmulke, commonly called a 'kippah', the skullcap worn in obedience to Jewish custom.
She felt and understood something unspoken, and sensed a preoccupied detachment in her father.
David looked to his wife and exclaimed, "Mamma, what a beautiful looking meal you've set before us."
Sara beamed a response, but Marta noted a veiled pain in her eyes.
Michael noticed that Marta's mind was on something else while she contributed to the conversation. She toyed with her water glass, centering it within the pattern of the tablecloth even while she spoke. She turned it in one position making a ring, lifted the glass several times and replaced it each time precisely into the ring again. He realized that this little action was consistent with her personality. She always noticed the picture that hung out of square before seeing the subject it presented. He had always admired his sister and considered her much smarter than himself.
"Marta, what are you planning next summer?" Her father's attempt at small talk brought her back to the present. "Are you going back to Israel to dig holes in the ground again? It's so dangerous there now."
He kidded her frequently about her digging; it was their joke. He really did enjoy his daughter's talents; it gave him great pride in her successes. He understood the value of 'digging holes'. She is so intelligent, talented and so beautiful, he mused. Such a daughter is rare. At the same time, he was concerned for her welfare.
"Yes, Abba. I'm going back to Israel, and yes, I'm going to dig holes. I want to work there one more summer because I need the credits in archaeology."
As they finished, Sara stood up to gather the empty dishes. Marta scooted her chair back as if to help.
"No, no! Sit. Tonight you are guest." She said lapsing into her Brooklyn-Yiddish accent as she disappeared into the kitchen with an armload of plates.
"I think we can talk business while we are having dessert," David began.
Marta noticed that he held his hands folded and his head slightly bowed. He was either thinking of his next words or stalling until Sara returned with dessert. In either case, it worked. Dessert arrived quickly.
Sara delivered the servings and seated herself, raising her fork as a signal for the others to begin.
"I had my annual physical last week," he began as though he were telling an unimportant routine bit of trivia. "The doctor wanted to do some more testing, so he put me through an MRI. He said that he saw something—questionable. He says there is a suspicious spot." He paused and laid down his fork. "I have already told your mother and now I need to tell you two."
He looked at Michael, then at Marta and said, "He thinks that I may have pancreatic cancer."
Surprised and shocked, they simply looked at him and each other, then at their mother questioningly; a 'why didn't you tell us' kind of look.
"He says he wants to do further testing to determine just how advanced it really is. In a few days he will check it, endoscopically, to look at my duodenum and pancreas. He will be able to tell more then."
Nothing more was said—they all sat, too stunned to speak. Who wanted to finish dessert now?
They left the table for the library and seated themselves in the semicircle of plush leather Morris chairs that faced the gas fireplace where a small fire blazed.
Marta felt herself about to cry. This is so unexpected! This is what was bothering my Abba! She struggled to hold her emotions.
"The main reason I wanted us to talk together is that I need to give you the assurance that I am going to fight this. I may be an old man, but I'm not ready for the grave yet."
"Abba!" Marta broke in. "No! You are not old!" she lovingly scolded.
David smiled a thank you, then continued, "If the prognosis is confirmed, I will probably start on a regimen of radiation plus chemotherapy, but in the meantime, I want all our bases covered. Michael, starting next week, I want you to take over more responsibility for the company. I want you to move into the CEO position. I think you are ready. In addition, Marta, I want you to hurry up and pass that Bar exam. We are going to need your help."
"Abba, did the doctor ..." Marta really wasn't sure what to ask.
David held up his hand as if he understood. "We're going to take this one step at a time. We'll see how things progress. You can be sure that I'll keep you all informed."
He needlessly busied himself with some papers on his lap, not really doing anything with them—preoccupied.
"And by the way, Marta." He went back to his papers as though what he was saying came as an afterthought. "Since you are the eldest, I want you to take responsibility for guardianship of the Seal."
Chapter TwoMax Cohen admired his older brother's wisdom and counsel, though a little jealous of David's success.
Max and David's grandfather, Yacob, emigrated as an orphaned child from Russia in 1905. In the care of his aunt, they were among the last to leave Minsk before the government stopped issuing exit visas. It was near the end of the great Jewish migration from Russia to America.
Yacob's aunt died from pneumonia just days after arriving in New York. Penniless and alone, the ten-year-old boy worked hard at whatever job he could find and did whatever was necessary to survive. He saved his money and by the age of eighteen, started an import business. He married, and raised a large family. The couple felt the number of children reflected the blessings of God. "Oy! Twelve children! Such a blessing!"
One of those twelve, Joel, and his wife, Martha, moved to the Portland area as newlyweds at the end of World War II. Joel worked as an accountant and Martha managed a small restaurant. David and Max were their only children.
David attended New York University where he met Sara, a Brooklyn native. They married upon his completion of school, and moved to Portland to be near his aging parents and to start a new life. There he learned to make bagels.
Max also moved to Portland, where he met and married Elise, a native Oregonian. His only talent seemed to be finding dead-end jobs.
Max and David had talked many times of going to Israel to visit the homeland of their fathers, but David could never take time from raising a family or running his business, and Max was always looking for something new.
Max and his wife Elise went to Israel to investigate the possibilities of a new venture. Now with an opportunity to start a business in Israel, all Max needed was capital.
Elise stayed in Israel while Max came back to Portland to find financial backing.
* * *
Max quietly entered the library where he found David at his desk. He paused just inside the door for a moment, looking at his brother. He could see the change in David's face. The cancer as well as the chemotherapy obviously had taken its toll.
Max felt a twinge of remorse.
To Max, David always seemed the smarter and wiser one who had his life together. David was always more successful and Max seemed to come in second at everything. David made money, but Max could never get his finances in order. He felt he was a failure at everything. Even his marriage was childless.
Now he felt the humiliation of having to ask David for money. He hated the feeling. He had felt it before and now he had to face it again.
David looked up. "Oh! Hi Max. I didn't hear you come in. Come and sit down. Hang on for just a moment while I finish this," David said as he wrote a couple more lines in his ledger.
Max took off his damp coat. He laid it and his briefcase on an adjacent chair.
David put his pen down, folded his hands and asked, "How are you Max? I haven't seen you for a while."
Max replied with, "I'm fine. The better question is how are you doing? I hear you've started chemo. Thank God, the women keep up communications."
To Max, David looked awful, his face gaunt and drawn.
"I had my first treatment yesterday and now I feel like crap. They told me I would."
Max knew what he wanted to say and how to say it before he came in, but now he hesitated. How can I bother my brother while he feels so bad?
"I'm sorry you feel so crummy. I can come back later—when you feel better."
David turned in his swivel chair and bowed his head in his hands and Max could see that he was sick.
"I'm sorry; just a moment." A wave of nausea swept over David as he made a dive for the small bathroom just off the library.
While he waited, Max observed that the painting that normally concealed the safe was hinged open. The door of the safe was open as well. He could see the large copper cases on the top shelf that contained the family genealogies. Below those on the second shelf was the smaller copper box containing the Seal. Without hesitation, he stood up, reached into the safe and withdrew the smaller box. He placed it on the desk.
He could hear his brother's continued retching. Glancing in that direction, he quickly opened the box and took out the ivory case. A pair of cotton gloves fell to the desk as he lifted it. He grabbed the gloves, stuffed them back into the metal box and quietly closed the lid. Anxiously, he returned the box to the safe.
Despite the room's comfortable temperature, Max felt beads of sweat form on his brow. Breathing heavily, he carelessly placed the ivory case within his briefcase and snapped the latches closed. He knew the proper method of handling the artifact. The cotton gloves protected it from further staining, but he realized his careless mistake too late.
He hurriedly sat down just as David entered. Max wiped his forehead with the back of his sleeve.
David wiped his face with a damp washcloth as he walked back to his desk.
"I'm sorry," said David. "That stuff really makes me sick. I don't know which is worse, the disease or the cure."
Max caught his hands shaking and put them on his lap to hide his nervousness. A drop of sweat ran down his temple.
"I should not have come."
Excerpted from The Seal of Joseph by James Major Copyright © 2011 by James Major. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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