Retired millionaire Barney Berkowitz, from the small Massachusetts town of Barnard’s Crossing, invites Rabbi David Small to come to Israel and bar mitzvah him, as Berkowitz never went through the ceremony in his youth. On what should be a joyous occasion—and an all-expenses-paid trip to the Holy Land—the rabbi discovers danger lurking in every corner and a conspiracy that threatens to destroy the state of Israel.
An innocent American has been murdered and when the sleuthing rabbi begins his investigation, he finds the death may have been part of an international conspiracy fueled by religious radicals and an arms-smuggling scheme. Anyone, from a liberal Jewish-American professor to a young religious fundamentalist, could be a suspect—and the rabbi must rely on his Talmudic logic and daring chutzpah to untangle the mystery and prevent an even more deadly attack.
About the Author
Aside from being an award-winning novelist, Kemelman, originally from Boston, was also an English professor.
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One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross
By Harry Kemelman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Harry Kemelman
All rights reserved.
When at sixty-five, Barney Berkowitz decided to retire — why should only wage earners retire? — he sold his small chain of three Army and Navy stores, and entrusted the money, well over two million dollars, to a money management firm. Then, since his employees had not thought of it, he bought himself a gold watch and had the back engraved, "To our beloved B.B., on his retirement, from his grateful employees."
As a person of means, he had always been involved somewhat in the temple in Barnard's Crossing; he had been a member of the Board of Directors for years, but never an officeholder. Whenever it was suggested that his name be put on the list of candidates he would shake his head, lowered and turned to one side, while at the same time wigwagging a hand to express complete negation. "No, boys, no. No honors for old B.B. I'll just stay in the background." Holding office might mean getting involved with one faction or another, whereas he tended to think of himself as an independent, a kind of elder statesman giving advice to all factions.
A little potbellied man with a round head, which was balding and rimmed with sparse, mouse-colored hair, he made a point of going to the Saturday morning services just to show that he could even though his stores were open Saturdays. After his retirement, however, he would sometimes even drop in on the daily minyan. But it was the Saturday services that he particularly enjoyed, especially when a Bar Mitzvah was to be celebrated. He enjoyed mingling with the large crowds, the boy's relatives and friends who crowded the sanctuary on those occasions, and then retired to the vestry for the inevitable collation. It was on one such occasion, a particularly lavish one, that he found himself thinking of his own Bar Mitzvah. His father had taken him to the tenement that served as a house of prayer in their neighborhood. It was on a weekday, and he had gone to school immediately after. His father had whispered to the shammes who was in charge of running the service, and when his name was called during the reading of the Torah, he had gone up to the reading table and recited the blessings he had been taught by an itinerant rebbe. The passage from the Scroll was read by the official reader, after which he gave the second blessing. And that was all. He had not been taught to read the passage for himself, nor did he read the section from the Prophets. There was no party afterward. No celebration. His father, restive and glancing repeatedly at his watch, hurried him out as soon as the service was over, only nodding shortly to the two or three who wished him mazel tov, good luck. Then he went off to school and his father to his job.
That had been his Bar Mitzvah, and he had never been sure that he had actually undergone the rite. Had he really and truly been initiated into the tribe? Well, now he could settle the question once and for all. He would have a real Bar Mitzvah. He came to think of it as his Great Idea. A Bar Mitzvah that one could not possibly cavil at. In Jerusalem. At the Wall.
Characteristically, he went not to David Small, the rabbi of the congregation, but to Alvin Bergson, the president.
"Why don't you check it out with the rabbi?" asked Bergson.
"Well, I had in mind to have it done in Jerusalem, at the Wall, and since you're in the travel business ..."
"I see." Bergson was instantly alert. This was business. "When were you planning on going?"
"I thought maybe July."
"July is a good time," Bergson agreed. "And you'll be able to fly El Al direct from Boston then. So you'll want a ticket to Israel. And Mollie?"
"So that's two round-trip tickets to Israel."
"And the rabbi, I'd want him along to conduct the ceremony. I'll even spring for a ticket for his wife, if he doesn't want to leave her here."
Bergson mentally rubbed his hands. "And a minyan? You'll need eight besides you and the rabbi."
"No. B.B. is no fool. He doesn't go tossing his money around like a drunken sailor. A minyan I'm sure I can get in Jerusalem. Of course, I'm planning a party afterward, and anyone who comes from here is invited, but I'm not picking up the tab for a free vacation for them."
"Oh, sure, no trouble with getting a minyan. I just thought you'd like to have your friends with you. Tell you what, maybe I can get up a charter, and that will cut expenses all around and —"
"Now, that's an idea. And you'll take it up with the rabbi?"
"Leave it to me."
"How would you like a free trip to Israel, David?" was the way in which Bergson introduced Barney Berkowitz's plan to the rabbi. Bergson called the rabbi by his first name, one of the few presidents of the temple who did, partly because they were the same age, but more because he genuinely liked him.
Although his shoulders had a scholarly stoop, his hair was beginning to recede, and he was beginning to develop a middle-aged paunch, Rabbi David Small looked younger than his forty-odd years. His face was unlined and his eyes behind his thick-lensed glasses were innocent and candid.
As he listened to Berkowitz's plan, his face relaxed in a broad smile. "And what am I supposed to do, Alvin? Make a little speech, saying, 'Today, Barney Berkowitz, you are a man'? Didn't you tell him that it was unnecessary, that he was Bar Mitzvah when he reached thirteen, whether he had a ceremony or not? All it means is that he has come of age and is responsible for his own sins, just as in our secular society one comes of age at eighteen."
Bergson grinned. "I'm in the business of selling travel. Here's a guy who is willing to spring for four round-trip tickets to Israel. Am I going to discourage him? I even suggested to him that he'd need a minyan, but the shrewdness that made him such a hotshot in Army and Navy store circles asserted itself, and he turned me down. Look, David, here's a guy who has worked all his life, and now for the first time he has money and leisure and wants to enjoy himself, but he doesn't know how. He wants to travel, but he can't just pick himself up and go. He has to have a reason, a mission. He's made that way. He's willing to give you and Miriam a free trip to justify it. So how about it?"
Still smiling, the rabbi shook his head slowly. "I'd love to go to Israel, to live there for a while, but I can't swing it right now and I can't accept his offer. My conscience wouldn't let me." His smile broadened. "If Barney feels that he has to rededicate himself to his religion, why don't you tell him he became party to our contract with God when he was circumcised, and it would be more in keeping with his plan if he had himself recircumcised."
Bergson laughed heartily. "All right, I will. But look, David, I'm planning on arranging a charter for the occasion. How about coming along as a tour guide? That would give you and Miriam a free ride."
"No, thanks. I don't know the country that well, for one thing. But even if I did, the idea of sleeping in a different hotel every other night for a couple of weeks, and riding on a tour bus every day, doesn't appeal to me."
When Bergson reported the conversation to Berkowitz, he took the rabbi's refusal philosophically. "Well, he doesn't want to, so he doesn't have to. I'm sure we'll be able to find a rabbi in Jerusalem who will officiate."
To the suggestion of recircumcision offered with a straight face, he said, "How can I? The ladies —" And then as Bergson smiled, he said, "Oh, I see. It's a joke. Ha-ha."
Nevertheless, he was annoyed. As he explained to his wife, Mollie, "I offer him and his wife yet a free trip to Israel. So if he couldn't go for some reason or other, couldn't he at least call and explain, and thank me?"
"But you didn't offer him, Barney. You sent Al Bergson. How would he know it wasn't some kind of joke on Al's part?"
"Aw, he knew, all right. But he doesn't like me, so he won't accept a favor from me."CHAPTER 2
The morning service, shachris, was scheduled for seven, and for once, perhaps because it was a bright, sunny June day, there were ten men, the number required for a minyan, present, and they were able to start on time. Half an hour later, Rabbi David Small was back at home for his breakfast while his wife, Miriam, was in the kitchen wrapping sandwiches and filling the thermos for the lunch they would take with them on their journey, since they could not eat in a restaurant and it might be late afternoon before they got back. She was small and quick in her movements, exuding an air of brisk efficiency. Her blond hair (nowadays occasionally "touched up" at the hairdresser's) was piled on top of her head as though she had hastily pinned it up to get it out of the way. In blouse and sweater and jeans, she could have passed for a high school senior, except that there were now tiny lines at the corners of her eyes, and her firm skin showed not only purpose and determination but also maturity.
Upstairs, in her bedroom, their fourteen-year-old daughter, Hepsibah, square-faced and to her despair unmodishly stocky, was still trying to decide whether to wear her relatively new jeans and pack the old ones with a tear on the knee, or to pack the new and wear the old. And whether to wear her badly scuffed sneakers or her new moccasins. They were driving up to New Hampshire to drop her off at summer camp, and it was important that she make the right impression, although that depended on who was already there. She finally settled for the torn jeans and the sneakers and came down to announce that she was ready.
Her father stared blankly. "Are you going like that? With a hole in your pants?"
"Oh, Daddy, it's a camp in the woods. You want me to wear a gown?"
"She can change when she gets there," said Miriam soothingly. "Now, bring your duffel bag out to the car, Siba. Daddy mustn't lift it because of his back. We want to get started right away."
The rabbi did not enjoy driving and regarded with dread any trip of over ten or twenty miles. He constantly worried about a flat tire, the ignition shorting out, losing his way. He reflected morosely as he got behind the wheel that if he had inquired, it might have been possible for Hepsibah to take a bus to a town near the camp, where she could have been met. Or even that he might have arranged matters so that his son, Jonathon, who was a counselor at a camp in New York, could have delayed his departure by a few days so that he could have driven Hepsibah to New Hampshire.
He drove with both hands clutching the wheel, looking straight ahead. Miriam, beside him, did not try to engage him in conversation, speaking only to direct him, from the map on her lap, when to turn and approximately how far they would have to drive before they reached the next point that might present a problem. Hepsibah, in back, had been gazing out of the window and had then dozed off.
They reached the camp well before noon. They made a cursory inspection of the main buildings and the hut to which Hepsibah had been assigned — they were familiar with the place from the year before — refused the offer of lunch by the director, saying it was much too early, and then made their farewells to Hepsibah. She had met a girl who had been there last year, and to their mild disappointment was not at all averse to their leaving.
The rabbi was much more relaxed on the trip back. He had accomplished his mission, and he had the whole long summer day to get back home. Shortly after noon, they found a picnic site by the side of the road, and they stopped to have their sandwiches and coffee. He stretched luxuriously. "Now we've got the whole summer free," he said.
"And what do you plan to do?" Miriam asked.
"Do? We'll do nothing. Just relax. No kids around. No religious school to watch over. No sermons to give."
"And you'll be just as busy as you were last summer, when we also had Hepsibah and Jonathon at camp. People will come to see you with their problems. You'll still have to go to hospitals to visit the sick, and to the homes of the bereaved to sit with them during their shiva. No, David, if you really want to relax and take it easy, you've got to get out of Barnard's Crossing. Because while you're there, people will come to you."
"And when we went to that place up in the mountains, people still came to me. As long as they know you're a rabbi, they come to you with problems."
"We could travel," she suggested.
"You mean drive across the country?"
"I thought we might go abroad."
"One of those twenty-one-day tours? No, thank you. We'd end up exhausted. Even those we've taken to Israel, I've found were more tiring than pleasurable."
"But when you took a sabbatical and we spent the whole winter there —"
"Ah, that was different. But we were able to do that only because your Aunt Gittel managed to get us an apartment. You kept house and we didn't have the expense of a hotel room or eating in restaurants all the time."
"Well, maybe she could get us an apartment again."
He shook his head. "I doubt it. That was in the winter, but now we'd be going in the summer, at the height of the tourist season."
"We could try."
But when they got home, there among the dozen or so letters on the floor under the mail slot was a letter from Gittel. Miriam tore open the envelope and read rapidly, handing over each sheet as she finished it to her husband. He pushed his thick-lensed glasses up on his forehead and peered nearsightedly at the tiny script. It was a typical letter from Gittel.
She gave news of her family, of her son who had married the religious girl and of how meticulous her daughter-in-law was in her observance of the religious regulations; of their young son who was attending a religious school instead of a secular school in spite of all her arguments and protestations —"and, of course, he always sides with his wife"; of the child's precocity —"and I'm not saying this because he's my grandson." She spoke about the economic conditions that prevailed since the "new administration" got in — although it had been in for six years already.
"But the big news" (it was on page three) "is that I am now a Jerusalemite. His Lordship" (by which she obviously meant the prime minister, of whom she disapproved) "has decreed that our office must be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Never mind that most of our work is concerned with the Tel Aviv area. We must establish facts of our presence! It is a beautiful city, I admit it, but it is for Jews, whereas Tel Aviv is for Israelis. If you don't care for synagogue services, what is there to do?
"I managed to rent my apartment in Tel Aviv to an American professor who is teaching at Tel Aviv University for the year. But what do I do next year?" So she had come up to Jerusalem and rented an apartment. The real-estate people had suggested that she sell her apartment in Tel Aviv and use the money to buy one in Jerusalem. "But what do I do when the government falls and the regular government" (by which she meant the Labor Party, of course) "comes back into power and they decide to move my office back to Tel Aviv? So I'll have to sell again and buy again, which means more commissions for them, which is what they're really interested in."
It was not what she had hoped for. It was much too big. What she had wanted was a small, modern apartment that would be easy to take care of, but she had gotten a very good deal on this one — "through a friend "— and so she had taken it for a year. "About next year, we'll see."
"So if you could come for a visit, a few weeks or months, or as long as you wanted, you could stay here and not have to pay the ridiculous prices of the fancy hotels. And I can assure you that everything is strictly kosher, so that your David wouldn't have to worry because if it satisfies my daughter-in-law, believe me, it will satisfy him. I go along with all this foolishness because I am all alone, and if I want my son and his family to come here for a meal on occasion, I have to. Even then, if it were just my son and his wife, believe me, I wouldn't mind if they had only tea or a cup of coffee and maybe some fruit in my house. But can I let my grandson grow up feeling that he must not eat in his grandmother's house?"
Excerpted from One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross by Harry Kemelman. Copyright © 1987 Harry Kemelman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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