The Old Days

 

The Old Days

By David Regenspan

 

The High Holiday season came late that year; there was already a nip in the air at night, and the leaves were starting to turn. Dan Finkelstein, president of the dying Congregation B’nei Yeshurun of Millburg, Pennsylvania, was tired. It had been a struggle to find a rabbi for the holidays this time around. Contacting the major seminaries proved useless. In desperation, he had placed an ad on the Internet. The only responses were from a random Israeli who wanted to be flown in from Tel Aviv, and a Jew for Jesus who, he said, was convinced that God had sent him to teach His people the true way.
 
On top of that worry, old Arnie Stern passed away four days before Rosh Hashana. By default, Dan presided at the graveside ceremony. Dan was not an especially religious man, but he had once gone to a yeshiva and still knew Hebrew, more or less. In the cemetery, there were already fallen maple leaves decorating the graves, as if nature itself was paying its respects. The sunlight was almost obscenely cheerful. Dan appreciated the irony.
 
Dan’s eulogy was good, he had to admit it himself, and this despite the fact that the deceased had been a fairly dull man. Arnie had long outlived his friends; there were few mourners present, just the aging son and daughter and three adult grandchildren. At the conclusion of the service, Dan offered them the traditional prayer: May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. Then the family went off to a restaurant for the mourners’ meal; they had invited no one to join them.
 
Dan’s wife Ella patted him on the shoulder.
 
“Nice going. Good sendoff. See you at home.”
 
She was walking quickly to her car before he could say a word, her long white hair lifting in the autumnal breeze. Ella could not get away from cemeteries fast enough.
 
Dan and several men of the congregation filled in the grave; the first clods of dirt hit the coffin with a hollow thud. The sound of death, Dan thought. The cemetery people took over the last stages of filling in the grave. Dan shook hands with the funeral home director, a friendly man with a sour face. He walked to his own car which, to keep out of the way of the mourners, he had parked on the street.
 
Meanwhile, it was a still a workday. Dan returned to his home office—he was a semi-retired accountant. He had a High Holiday prayer book waiting for him on his desk, so that on his work breaks he could prepare to perform the holiday services in lieu of a real rabbi. It was a tough task to lead the High Holidays. He’d done it once, a decade ago when the rabbi hired that year had gotten into a car accident right before Rosh Hashana.  He did not know the correct holiday chants and felt like he was bumbling his way through. During the Yom Kippur fast, standing on his feet for hours, he had nearly fainted. He’d vowed to never do it again.
 
Meanwhile, Dan was dealing with a godawful account, going through the books of a friend who never should have gone into business for himself and had made a mess of everything. It was taking all his waking hours to go through the boxes of receipts and random pieces of paper that had been dropped in his lap. In one box, he found his friend’s son’s elementary school report cards. In another, he uncovered a takeout menu from a Chinese restaurant.
 
Before tackling more boxes he opened his laptop to look at email. There, lo and behold, was a message from an actual rabbi. Her name was Marlene Hoffman. She had been ordained the previous June from a seminary Dan had not heard of, but a quick Internet search revealed that the place did indeed exist. From the looks of her attached resume, she had gone right from college to seminary. In short, she was young and inexperienced. Dan had hoped that, as in past years, a retired rabbi would apply, someone who wanted a little extra income. A newly minted rabbi had never answered the call before.
 
He picked up his land line and punched in the number provided on the resume. It was answered on the first ring. Hello, this is Rabbi Hoffman. A soprano voice with a slight tremor. Particularly when pronouncing the word rabbi.
 
He asked Marlene Hoffman what had inspired her to become a rabbi. He meant the question to be a friendly way to draw her out. There was an uncomfortable pause. It seemed to make sense to go to rabbinical school, she said. Another pause. He asked her to elaborate. She said she liked studying Judaism. Somehow she made Dan feel like he was asking about her sex life. He gave up that line of questioning and asked if she felt ready to lead Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur on such short notice. She said yes, that she had had two student congregations. This last, of course, Dan had seen on her resume.
 
Dan did not ask what he really wanted to: Why didn’t she have a real job? Instead, he asked her if she would be willing to stay with a couple in town who kept a kosher home and had a comfortable guest room. She agreed. She added that she was liberal and didn’t need to eat purely kosher if that wasn’t available, so long as it was not pork or shellfish. “Then you have the job,” Dan said. His next call was to Mark and Bonnie Fuller, the couple who would host the rabbi.
 
At supper, Dan shared his misgivings about the newly minted rabbi with his wife Ella, especially the part about wondering why she did not have a job.
 
“Maybe the job market sucks this year. Anyway, if you’re worried, then why hire a rabbi at all, Daniel? You went to yeshiva. You’re as smart as any rabbi. You’ve done it before.”
 
“I was in yeshiva a thousand years ago. The one time I led the holidays I was miserable.”
 
“Because you worry too much. Who among this crew is going to know if you’re doing it right or not?” Ella said around a mouthful of potatoes. “Who can even follow the damn Torah portions? You could be up there speaking Chinese and they wouldn’t know the difference.”
 
“Now that’s an exaggeration. Anyway, there are the sermons. The High Holidays are not the High Holidays without the sermons.”
 
“Well, you did a bang-up job with Arnie.”
 
“That was a eulogy. Not the same thing.”
 
“Okay. Let me write a sermon for you. Here it goes: ‘We sinned. We repented. We were forgiven. Hurray for God. Now let’s end Yom Kippur and eat.’”
 
“Why are you being like this, Ella?”
 
His wife took another mouthful, not taking her eyes off Dan. He knew the look. He watched his green beans grow cold. He noticed the kitchen wall clock’s ticking.
 
Ella put her fork down on the plate noisily. “You check out, Dan. This time of year you are on some other planet. I can barely talk to you. We haven’t had a real conversation for weeks, not at least until you told me about this rabbi.”
 
The clock ticked on.
 
“My parents died at this time of the year, remember?” he said. “My mother in September and my father in October. It numbs me. It makes me shrink into myself. I felt like I could barely get through that service for Arnie, he should rest in peace.”
 
“All right. Thank you for sharing that. I mean it. Does it really kill you to share your feelings?”
 
“I just did.”
 
“After I pulled teeth.”
 
“Oh, come on. You didn’t say anything until now.”
 
“I try to get your attention in lots of ways, but you don’t see.”
 
Dan listened to several more ticks of the clock.
 
“I need to go over to the temple,” he said.
 
“What the hell for? We’re finally talking.”
 
“We’ve talked. We’ll talk again. Right now I need to roll the Torah to the right spot for Rosh Hashana. I forgot to do that.”
 
“Let the rabbi do it.”
 
“I just want to be nice.”
 
Ella got up, grabbed her plate. “I’m going out.”
 
“Where?”
 
“Don’t know. I just need to get out for a while.”
 
“Fine.”
 
There was a time when Dan would have asked Ella not to go, and that he would forget about rolling the scroll. Now he watched her scrape her leftovers into the compost bin, put her dish in the sink, grab the car key off a hook by the kitchen door, and leave without saying another word.
 
           
The synagogue, as always, smelled faintly of mildew and aging books. Dan shut the door gently behind him: it was an ancient wooden door that was cracked and ought to be replaced. He idly stuck his fingers into the bin full of yarmulkes and lifted up a handful. These too were ancient. The ones that were supposed to be white looked yellow and the blue ones looked green. He looked at the inscription inside one. Bar Mitzvah of David Luft - June 4, 1988. Those were the days. There were at least two hundred members back then, before the last textile mills closed.
 
He walked up the center aisle past the pews. It was now dark outside; the stained-glass windows shone dully in the interior light. Moses holding the tablets looked a little forlorn.
 
Dan heard the door creak open behind him. It gave him a moment of panic. You never knew who might sneak into a synagogue with a gun these days. But when he turned, he saw the synagogue’s neighbor Franklin Washington standing there, his wide brown face in a smile. He had lived across the street for decades.
 
“Hey, Franklin.”
 
“Saw the lights on in here. Wanted to make sure things are okay.”
 
“It’s almost the Jewish New Year. The Torah has to be rolled to the right place for the reading in the morning. You want to help me with that? It’s better if two people do it.”
 
“It’s okay if a black Baptist touches it?”
 
“You haven’t worshipped any idols lately, have you?”
 
“Nope.”
 
“Then you’re in.”
 
The ark was the most unusual part of the synagogue. The doors were made of stained glass, done by the same artist who had done the windows. Dan flipped a switch by the side of the ark and it glowed from the inside. He always enjoyed seeing that.
 
“Sure is pretty,” said Franklin.
 
“Yup.”
 
There were only two Torah scrolls, both from the early days of the synagogue and not in good shape. Truth to tell, they probably were not kosher any longer, but repairing or replacing them made no economic sense. The congregation probably did not have long. No one wanted to say it, but they all knew.
 
Dan carefully removed the Torah, sat in the chair at the side of the ark, and coached Franklin on sliding off its aging cover. He laid it on the reader’s table and opened it. As he expected, it was rolled to the last place it had been on the previous Yom Kippur: Leviticus chapter eighteen, the part about forbidden sexual relations. He had to get the scroll back to Genesis chapter twenty-one, to the story of the birth of Isaac, the reading for Rosh Hashana morning. With a Torah as old as this one he had to be very careful not to tear the places where the sheets were sewn together. He stood at one end of the table and positioned Franklin opposite. While he rolled toward Genesis, Franklin fed it slowly from his end so that some tension was maintained on the parchment. A Torah scroll had to be rolled tightly, but not so tightly that you tore it. It was an art. At last they reached the right place: And Adonai remembered Sarah as he had spoken, and Adonai did to Sarah what he had said.
 
“So you can really read these chicken scratches?” Franklin asked.
 
“Just takes a little study.”
 
“This is cool. Thanks for letting me get this close. I wondered all these years what this Torah thing is about.”
 
Together, they got the scroll dressed and put away.
 
“There. The rabbi should be pleased.”
 
“He any good?”
 
“She.”
 
“She? Didn’t know there were lady rabbis.”
 
“Sure. Lots of them.”
 
“Nice. Gonna go get some sleep time in now.”
 
“Thanks, Franklin.”
 
“No problem. Can I say ‘Happy New Year’?” Is that what you say? I always forget.”
 
“Sure. Thanks.”
 
“Say a prayer for me, okay?”
 
“Will do.”
 
When Dan returned home, Ella’s car was in the driveway. He found her in the den watching an old movie. He recognized it immediately. Holiday with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. He sat on the couch next to her and took her hand. Cary Grant was at the part of the story where he still thought he was marrying Hepburn’s snotty sister. He had not yet seen the light and realized that Hepburn was his true love. Dan and Ella watched until the end, when Cary Grant does a headstand in the corridor of the ship he has boarded to go off on an adventure, and Hepburn shows up to be with him. They kiss. Final credits.
 
“Torah all rolled now?” asked Ella in bed, right before they turned out the bedside light.
 
“All rolled now.” He lay awake a long time, trying to feel relief that he was not responsible for leading the High Holidays, that he was just a congregant.
 
 
On the day of Rosh Hashana Eve, Dan’s phone buzzed at six in the morning. Half asleep, he grabbed for it, wondering if the young rabbi had suddenly taken ill. The thought made his stomach lurch. But it was Bonnie Fuller. She could not host the rabbi after all. Her mother in Florida had died in the middle of the night. Bonnie and Ted Fuller were packing to go down. Bonnie had waited until six to call to at least give Dan some time to sleep. She could offer the rabbi their empty house, of course, but then Marlene Hoffman would have to fend for herself with food. Could someone else take her?
 
Dan offered his condolences, told the bereaved woman not to give it another thought, and wished her a safe journey. He put his phone back on the bedside table and ran through the possibilities. There was no one in the congregation he could imagine being flexible enough to take in the rabbi at the last minute. Just making it to some of the High Holiday services was about all that this crew could handle.
 
Ella somehow had slept through the conversation. Dan woke her and apprised her of the situation.
 
“I am thinking we should take her.”
 
Ella stared at him for a very long moment.
 
“Dan, we’ve got bacon in the refrigerator. The guest room is full of junk. There’s no one else who can take her?”
 
“I don’t want to start calling people now, right before the holiday.”
 
“I really want to be hospitable, Dan, and if it were anyone else I wouldn’t hesitate. But having the rabbi here just feels, I don’t know. Weird.”
 
“It’s just feelings, Ella.”
 
“Well, then, Marlene Hoffman has to understand that this is not a kosher home and that we are not like the Fullers.”
 
“She already said to me that she will eat any food just so long as it isn’t pork or shellfish. As to the bacon, I am sure she won’t root around in our refrigerator, and we just won’t cook it while she’s here. And on Yom Kippur we’ll all be fasting anyway.”
 
“I’ll be drinking water, Dan, and so will you. It is extremely unhealthy to fast but not hydrate yourself. Those old sages didn’t understand that part.”
 
“Whatever. I’ll call now to be sure I get her. Thanks for being understanding, Ella.”
 
“I just hope we’re adequate.”
 
“We’re fine.”
 
Rosh Hashana services were set for seven-thirty that evening. Rabbi Marlene Hoffman was to arrive in town at four. Dan and Ella spent the day emptying the guest room, cleaning house, and shopping for eggs, chicken, and other non-pork non-shellfish items. Ella hid the bacon in the rear of the freezer. The house was as ready as it was ever going to be.
 
 
Daniel had arranged to meet the rabbi at four in front of the synagogue. Almost exactly to the minute, a black Subaru pulled up to the curb. When the rabbi emerged, Dan thought that she was much as he had imagined her. On the short side, a little round but not fat, with short, frizzy black hair. Dark eyes under a prominent brow. Dan himself was over six feet tall and had to look down as he shook her hand.
 
When Dan looked up again, he saw Franklin on his porch. Franklin waved.
 
“See? I told you it was a lady rabbi,” Dan called.
 
“This is Franklin, our neighbor,” Dan said to Marlene Hoffman. She waved weakly.
 
“Good luck, Rabbi,” said Franklin. “Can I say that? Good luck?”
 
“Thank you,” she said.
 
Then Dan led her inside. He gave her the spiel. The building was originally a church. The Jewish community had purchased it about ninety years ago and had changed the stained glass windows to have Jewish themes. The same artist who did the windows made the ark. The textile mills left thirty years ago and the Jewish community dwindled. Etcetera.
 
“The Torah is at the right place for tomorrow. Anything I can do for you here?”
 
“Nothing. I’ll just look over the Torah portion and the service.”
 
“I’ll help you.”
 
“That’s all right. I’ll be fine.”
 
“You want some alone time here? Is that it?”
 
“Please.”
 
Dan fished around in his pocket, pulled out a spare key to the building, and handed it to her.
 
“We live just around the corner. You have the address from my email yesterday, right? Just come over whenever you like, or call me and I’ll escort you. We are eating at six. Lock up when you leave. It’s a deadbolt.”
 
“I’ll be by around ten-of. Thanks.”
 
 
Dinner was pleasant enough. Somehow the conversation turned to music, and it seemed that Marlene Hoffman and Ella shared an interest in jazz. Dan had never particularly liked jazz, especially the contemporary stuff. It didn’t have melodies he could wrap his mind around. Ella always listened to it privately, with headphones. They dropped some names Dan vaguely knew and a bunch more that he didn’t. He ate his pasta in silence, relieved that the burden of making conversation was taken off his shoulders for a while. When they were done eating, Marlene Hoffman insisted on helping to clear the dishes. She and Ella continued their jazz discussion which, Dan was able to ascertain, led to a shared conclusion that Winton Marsalis was too much of a conservative influence on the genre.
 
Dan’s only child, a daughter Rachel who lived in New Jersey, called to wish them a happy New Year. He put his phone on speaker so that Ella could join the conversation. Then Dan and the young rabbi walked over to the synagogue half an hour early; Ella was going to catch up a little later. When they arrived, a congregant was waiting at the door, a red-haired man, perhaps forty years old. His name was Rick Spitzer and Dan always found him annoying. Rick Spitzer wore the expression of a child who has been locked out of the house.
 
“It begins,” Dan whispered to Marlene. He wasn’t sure if she heard him.
 
“Where is everybody?” asked Rick Spitzer.
 
“Services at seven-thirty,” said Dan. “It’s only around seven-ten.”
 
“Thought they were at seven.”
 
“Didn’t you see the email? Anyhow, it’s always been seven-thirty.”
 
“You sure?”
 
“My hand to God. Ah, here I am taking the Lord’s name in vain in front of a rabbi. Rabbi Marlene Hoffman, meet Rick Spitzer.”
 
They shook hands while Dan unlocked the door. As the three walked in, Rick began talking non-stop to the rabbi. There is a certain kind of person that latches onto clergy for dear life, and Rick was one. So far as Dan could tell, Rick was giving a lecture on Maimonides’ interpretations of repentance. Marlene Hoffman bravely smiled but looked around now and then liked a trapped animal.
 
“Let’s let the rabbi go up and get things in order, okay, Rick?”
 
But before Marlene could escape to the bima, several other people walked in. There were the Spiegels, an elderly retired couple, and Susan Wasser, a local journalist. They introduced themselves. Dan, the rabbi, and the congregants made six. Ella, when she came, would make seven. So they were already well on the way to making a minyan, the ten adults needed for a prayer service, despite the absence of the Fullers. Indeed, by the time Marlene Hoffman took her place, fourteen people, including Ella, were in the room.
 
The rabbi began the service by introducing herself and asking if someone would please light the holiday candles. The Rothsteins’ twelve-year-old daughter Sarah, smiling broadly, went to the side of the bima where the large silver candlesticks—the most valuable item the congregation owned besides the Torah scrolls—waited for her. She had some trouble lighting the match, then recited the blessing for the Sabbath. Marlene Hoffman quietly corrected her and Sarah, shaking her head with embarrassment, said the blessing again.
 
Nice save, Dan thought.
 
Marlene Hoffman plunged into the service. Her shyness, Dan thought, gave her an earnest quality. She made decent choices about what to chant in Hebrew and what to read in English. Her singing voice was fetching—a bit wobbly, but in a way that gave it a quality of sincere emotion. Her sermon wasn’t what you would call original (it was all about forgiveness), but the texts she used from the liturgy and the Talmud to support her arguments were well-chosen. More congregants had kept filing in until close to thirty people were there, a very respectable number for poor B’nei Yeshurun.
 
At the end of the service, Marlene Hoffman wished everyone shana tova, a good New Year. There were a number of compliments about the service and the sermon. Even old Arthur Bregman, who insisted that the only true synagogue is an Orthodox synagogue, warmly congratulated her. Rick Spitzer behaved himself and left after a simple “Shana tova” to the rabbi. Soon only Dan, Ella, and the rabbi were left.
 
“Shall we go, Rabbi?” Dan asked.
 
“Call me Marlene.”
 
“You must be tired, Marlene. We have a room all ready for you.”
 
“If you don’t mind, I think I’d like to hang out here a little longer and get my thoughts together. I’ll lock up.”
 
“Okay. Think you’ll be coming back soon?”
 
“Could I just leave it that I’ll come when I come?”
 
“That’s fine, Marlene,” Ella cut in. “You know where we live. If we’re asleep, I’ll leave the door unlocked and a light on. Go upstairs and turn left. Your room is the first door on the right. The door will be open.”
 
“Okay. I appreciate it.”
 
At home, Dan had to fight back the urge to go into his office and take another look at his friend’s business affairs. It would be an embarrassment if the rabbi came home and found him there, violating both the letter and spirit of the holiday laws. Ella, apparently, felt much the same way, because the television was off. The two of them read in the den until ten-thirty. There was still no sign of Marlene Hoffman.
 
“Dan, should we be going over there to see if Marlene’s all right?”
 
“She said she’ll be here when she’ll be here.”
 
“I know, but still.”
 
“She’s not a teenager, Ella. We already had one of those.”
 
“Well, I have to go to sleep. But I’m telling you, if I get up in the middle of the night and she isn’t there, I am going over to the temple.”
 
“Okay, fair enough.”
 
Dan dreamed that he had to read from the Torah in front of a lot of people but could not find the correct spot. He awoke to find that Ella was not in bed. He went to the bathroom, and when he emerged he heard quiet talking coming from the guest room. It appeared that Ella was in there with Marlene. The door was shut. Dan was tempted to eavesdrop but instead went back to bed. He dozed. Finally Ella came back and slid in beside him.
 
“What’s going on? I heard you in the guest room.”
 
Ella remained quiet for a long moment. “When I went to the bathroom, I heard Marlene crying. Softly, but I heard it. So I knocked on her door. We ended up talking for something like an hour.”
 
“Can you tell me what you talked about?”
 
“No.”
 
“No?”
 
“She made me promise that I would not repeat the conversation to anyone. Even you.”
 
“Okay. Then just tell me this, if you can. Is whatever is bothering her something that will interfere with her leading services?”
 
“I don’t think so.”
 
“You don’t think so, or you know for sure?”
 
“Dan, you don’t sound very sympathetic.”
 
“I don’t even know what’s going on.”
 
“But you know the kid was crying.”
 
“Now she’s ‘the kid’?”
 
“She’s all of twenty-six. She’s a kid to me, okay? And I’ll tell you this much. I have tremendous sympathy for her. I’m glad she’s staying with us. I don’t think the Fullers could have dealt with her.”
 
“You’re sure I shouldn’t know more?”
 
“It’s fine, Dan. It’s all good. Let’s go back to sleep. Don’t let on that I talked to you when you see her in the morning. And be nice to her.”
 
“What, I haven’t been nice to her?”
 
“Just keep it up.”
 
To Dan’s relief, Marlene seemed functional in the morning, if not exactly chipper. He made omelets for the three of them, and then the young rabbi left early to have more time in the synagogue by herself to review the service. After she left the house, Ella gave Dan the thumbs up sign.
 
“Steady as she goes,” she said.
 
“Let’s hope.”
 
The morning service, much longer and trickier than Rosh Hashana Eve, went without any major hitches. Dan took charge of handing out honors: saying the blessings over the Torah readings, opening and closing the ark, lifting and dressing the Torah scroll. Everyone performed well except for a couple of the Torah blessers, who had to be helped through. A fourteen-year-old congregant, Michael Schnidman, blew the ram’s horn with great authority. It helped that he played trumpet in his middle school band.  Most of all, Marlene Hoffman handled herself well. She seemed a little grim at times, but then again, the Jewish New Year was all about preparing the soul for the Days of Repentance. Her morning sermon was about facing Jewish identity in the modern world. Dan tried his best to follow her train of thought which was about the fact that there is no direct path to Jewish belief outside of Orthodoxy. Without belief, you were left with feelings. Well, okay, she seemed to say, but what then?
 
The service ended and Marlene Hoffman offered a final prayer. That was it for Rosh Hashana at B’nei Yeshurun, which only celebrated one day the of holiday instead of the traditional two. Dan breathed an inner sigh of relief. Whatever had happened with Marlene Hoffman during the night, she did the job she was hired to do. More power to her. There would be a community luncheon after the service in the fellowship room down in the basement. Marlene Hoffman told Dan that she was going to put her prayer shawl in her car so that she wouldn’t forget it.
 
She never came back.
 
The rabbi-less lunch proceeded as well as it could. Dan found himself covering for her: she’d had a bad headache and needed to go lie down. For all he knew, it might have been the truth. Ella slipped out to check if their guest was at home. She came back to whisper in Dan’s ear that she was not in the house and, more to the point, her car was nowhere to be seen.
 
 
That night, there was a short email from the young rabbi:
 
Dear Dan,
I’m sorry about running out on you. All things considered, I think I was doing you all a favor. I need to tell you that I am not returning for Yom Kippur. Please keep the honorarium. I need to re-evaluate my life. Please thank Ella for putting up with me. She’s a great lady. I wish you all the best.
 
 Sincerely,
Marlene Hoffman
 
Dan showed Ella the message.
 
“Ella, I am trying to understand how to react to this. Could you please give me at least a hint of the things she told you last night?”
 
Ella shook her head slowly.  Then, “You know what, Dan? I will break my promise to her and tell you one thing she said. Without real belief, she said, this is all just Fiddler on the Roof.”
 
“Fiddler on the Roof? What does that mean?”
 
“Think about it.”
 
“Ella, that makes no sense.”
 
“I don’t agree. You want me to call her now? I’m happy to.”
 
“Sure.”
 
Ella took her cell phone and went into the bedroom. She emerged shortly after.
 
“No answer. I left her a message of concern. Also, Dan, don’t you think she should get part of that honorarium?”
 
“Half.”
 
“How about a bit more than half? She’s had a rough time.”
 
“I’ll ask the board members.”
 
“Oh, screw it, Dan, you are the board. You’re the only one who does any real work. So you decide. Tell you what. You can send half and I will chip in a bit more.”
 
“No, I’ll send her, say, sixty per cent. And who knows? Maybe she’ll change her mind and come for Yom Kippur.”
 
“You really think so?”
 
“No.”
 
Dan called Marlene Hoffman the next day and the day after. He emailed. He texted. There was no response. He mailed her a check, sixty percent of the agreed upon honorarium. Two days before Yom Kippur, it came back in the mail with no note attached.
 
Dan somehow slogged through Yom Kippur. To their credit, members of the congregation stepped in to sound out some of the Hebrew themselves, or to offer prayers in English. At the end, at the congregational break-the-fast, he was congratulated.
 
“See, I told you you could do it,” said Ella. “We could have avoided the entire crisis if you’d just listened to me to begin with.”
 
During the following month Dan somehow organized his friend’s business records and ledgers, though it took a bit of imagination. After that, he told his friend he would need to find another accountant. The friend stopped talking to him. Dan decided to wrap up all his remaining accounts and declare his retirement complete as soon as possible. Then he sent an email out to all the members of Congregation B’nei Yeshurun, asking them if it might be time to consider selling the building, dissolving B’nei Yeshurun, and joining Temple Shalom, the nearest Jewish congregation and a twenty-minute drive away. Temple Shalom didn’t have a resident rabbi, either, but they were big enough to hire one who would visit twice a month and who could be depended upon for the High Holidays.
 
The responses arrived that day. Old Arthur Bregman wrote that Dan was a traitor. Other people wrote that it was an idea whose time had come. Still others said they couldn’t decide. There would need to be meetings. A vote.  That was all right. At least people were facing reality now.
 
The next day, Dan sent out another message. He was resigning as president of the congregation. He had carried the responsibility long enough. Others would need to step in now, for as long as the synagogue remained. Arthur Bregman did not respond, to Dan’s relief. Rick Spitzer sent a long message comparing Dan’s synagogue career to that of Maimonides who, in addition to writing his massive legal and philosophical works, had shouldered the vast responsibilities of his Jewish community. Others said they were sorry to see Dan go, as if he were leaving town.
 
During the following weeks he often thought about Marlene Hoffman. Should he email or call yet again? Ella thought of calling the young woman’s seminary to apprise them of the situation—if Marlene Hoffman’s disappearance from a tiny congregation in the middle of nowhere could be called a situation—but Dan suggested that doing this might get her into even more professional trouble than she already seemed to be in. The truth was, there seemed to be nothing for them to do, except to wish her well. Marlene Hoffman was young. There were other things for her to do in the world besides being a rabbi— weren’t there?
 
The autumn leaves glowed with red and yellow fire; then suddenly the branches were bare. The first snow thawed to slush, then froze again. Now and then, Dan and Ella spoke of taking vacations from each other. Perhaps Ella would go to a yoga workshop somewhere warmer. Dan could find an old college friend and go on some kind of road trip. But by the time full winter came on, they still hadn’t gone anywhere. And now it seemed too dark and cold to try.

 

Copyright © David Regenspan 2020

David Regenspan grew up in northern New Jersey but spent most of his life in upstate New York.  He received a masters in English from the University of Rochester, a masters in Near Eastern Studies from Cornell University, and ordination as a Reform rabbi from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio. Over the years he has served as both a congregational and a freelance rabbi. He has published poetry in Seneca Review and fiction in the online journal Amarillo Bay. He has written two novels for which he is in search of a publisher. Meanwhile he enjoys community activism, jazz, blues and classical music, and the company of his wife, emerita professor Barbara Regenspan, and his grown children Ben and Sarah Regenspan.

 



 

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