What a mistake it was, and the kind of the Jewish tradition: an almost (almost) inconsequential misstep. Friday evening, a year before the temple was gutted and redone, the spaces between the aisles of Kol Ami were almost (almost) too narrow—at least too narrow for heavy davening, for using one’s body as a tool for the atonement of a mass of people. The pews were too wide, made of glossed wood of what looked like beech but was probably oak. The cushions were ribbed with the fabric of the Chinese fabric store on Fletcher, where the woman who cut the thriftier pieces of cloth screamed at her customers so loud that it must have rubbed right into the thread. It frayed easily, the temple’s turquoise fabric, like it was on edge. The pilling of it—like a sweater—had a cat-scratch quality, but with more nervousness to it. The frayed fabric was more nervous looking than a cat.
The Cantor Eli Mesenbach was observing the cloth from high on the bimah, Friday evening, Erev services. In two weeks, he would have to maneuver between those pews, the tatter-all, for high holidays, Yom Kippur. To walk the aisles and sing the Hineni, the cantor’s prayer.
Four months ago, he had moved to this new temple in North Carolina from Eilat. He was still new, hadn’t known people, forged real bonds in the community. No one knows people like people know people, and the cantor was not people, at least not yet in Asheville. His beautiful wife blamed it on his laziness. He didn’t attend many of the community events, at least not yet. They were early and unless he was praying, it was rare and difficult for him to wake before 11:30.
“You rack my brain with your sleepiness,” she’d say, lying on top of his warm body, over her mother’s gifted blanket.
“You’re still young and the day has given us a head’s up on its plans, and you slap it in the face, snoring away. You owe it to your new congregation!”
Lina was industrial—a Jew born in Giza, her family moved to Eilat before she was walking to start a flower nursery in the sandiest region in Israel. Lina and her family were like that. Why squeeze water from a stone when you can try to squeeze honey? Entertain the ridiculous only so long, so your preoccupations don’t get caught up in the dreaming. And then real beauty happens—in every market till Be’er Sheva too.
When the U.S. invaded Iraq, Lina was done with flowers and encouraged her family to move. It was a sensitive issue, but she’d had enough of the “commotion” of Israel, it’s centrality to the faint bombs and combustions. She was not like other Israelis in that her home was less stationary, less holy. Home was wherever felt safest. And while the common listless feeling of danger they’d both had since the late 1980s had numbed to concern, concern was still the cousin of danger—September 11th helped her remember that. She wasn’t sure the U.S. was better, but it was bigger. Shadows were allowed to creep over homes, hiding them. And, she argued, if far from cities, home was not a target. Israel was just one giant shining city, all sparkle on top of a pencil point. They were sitting ducks there, so Eli found a cantor position in North Carolina. It was more than enough obscurity for them, and they said goodbye to their bright, easily spotted temple and flew into Charlotte, and drove to Asheville under trees.
“Ay, Lina! The days aren’t always big planners like you, sometimes they are like me—slow to start!” Eli yawned.
“They could be like me, if they tried.”
Hineni: “Here I stand.” The traditional Yom Kippur prayer of the Hazzan for the congregation, offered as an appeal to God, to enable us all to share in the meaning of the occasion. In two weeks, he would offer his body up as a vessel, holding the wrongdoing of an entire congregation on his back, atoning for them and himself. He would have to become people by then.
But Lord, tonight! Friday night! What had it been, a hundred years? Two hundred? Halfway through and it only felt like the first leg. The cantor attributed the lagging schedule to the rabbi’s two scotches before Erev services, his trick for turning the house into a Baptist church, alive with the glory of a God far different than theirs. But, Eli thought, it was what kept people coming back, especially the reformed.
On the bimah, she, Sylvia Greenblatt, and he, Eli Mesenbach, were sitting patiently on the left of the Ark, the Rabbi Joel Wasser talking it up on the right. The two seated had been, for a long time, almost perfectly still. But before the two of them sat to listen to the words of their spiritual leader, the cantor’s dark-haired, light-skinned companion had led the first half of services incredibly well.
Sylvia had sang like she meant more than every word, and what’s more was that she looked ready to take it as her own, to vouch for it on all fours if she was met, somehow, with the swords of the apocalypse. If someone asked her to take blame for it, even accountability, she would. Her voice bit the air and was pure, increasing intensity, inconsistently pitched as she sang the oldest poems written for God.
She wore a deep crimson, and when she prayed, she bent low in the knees like she knew the redness of wine. She had turned around to face the Ark and the congregation was with her. Spirit washed over all of them on a breeze, over and under every tallit and kippah, whispering to the very bare places of body where there was no wind ever, at all. Men and women were attentive to her. Shel Berkowitz, the one who appointed his wife as head of the community newsletter, seemed particularly taken with the young lady. He swayed like it was his first dance, and at that dance, the Kedem was flowing, was swishing out of the punch bowl.
Va’anachnu korim, u’mishtachavim, u’modim, lifnei melech, malchei ham’lachim, hakadosh baruch Hu! Together we bow, lifting our heads for the one King, He who is Blessed, Baruch Hu!
Baruch, who? Tonight, it was like they believed in Him because He made someone like her so devout.
“You may be seated,” the rabbi called out after the first half, and the Friday night congregation sat instantly. They kept their heads alert and mushed the navy of their dark-colored pants against the teal fabric behind them, which hardly budged with new weight. The cantor was happily exhausted of spirit, milked of feeling. It felt good—he was taken with “Carolinian” prayer for the first time since his arrival.
“Tonight, as we are weeks away from a great holiday, and less than a week into a struggle in the Middle East for justice, I am recalling Joshua, and Moses, and Israel’s fight with the Amalekites.” The rabbi intoned, his hands always moving, always finding places to rest on the dark podium wood.
The cantor looked to Sylvia. He gave her a look to show her he was incredibly bored. She looked back at him, almost in agreement, before turning her head to face away. She had a small, amused face and cow’s lashes. The cantor leaned over his armchair discreetly.
“You’ve done a marvelous job tonight.”
“Thank you, Cantor!” she whispered.
“I wonder why I don’t recognize you. It’s true, I’m new, but I have a feeling most of us have not seen you in a while—the congregation, I mean. I, at least, have not seen you before. It’s a shame, with such a voice!”
She thought this statement over for a minute. “Oh, I guess my parents and I haven’t been around in shul so often. I’ve been really busy with school, I guess. I wish you had seen me before.”
The cantor looked around him before continuing to whisper. He kept a plain, happy face as the rabbi worked himself into a charming fervor, a froth.
“Tonight, as we grieve with a constancy that has not budged for three years and begin a new struggle toward justice in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, I remember the story of our Jews in exodus, in the land of Marah. As the Israelites wandered toward their homeland, you may remember that as the Amelekites attacked the Jews in Marah, Moses urged Joshua to lead the people to fight as Moses stood on a hillside, lifting his arms. For as the Lord told him, as long as Moses held up his arms during this fight, the Israelites would continue to defeat the Amalekites,”
“Wow, school. I remember it. It was a great time. Really, relish it. We had a little bit of partying in Tel Aviv, when I went to rabbinical school there. Nothing excessive, of course. But don’t tell anyone, huh? I think I still remember how to enjoy myself too, and at my age,” said the cantor.
But that was Tel Aviv—brimming with life, but only for a couple blocks. For a couple shekels he and his chaverim would shove off for the night on a discothèque boat. The dinghy had a dance floor and throbbed around their little scar of soil, pumping song. They scooted around the saltier shores of the Mediterranean for a few hours, then home, their eyes pooling in big drunken Hula-Hoops of feeling. They had the eyes of magicians, of Magellans. Of Wunderkind explorers.
“But you seem like a smart girl—you keep your head above water, don’t you?”
Her face was now completely in profile to him, one ear cocked to the rabbi’s voice, growing more impassioned all the time.
“I like to think so.” Her eyes flickered to his side. “I try not to get too deep into trouble, if that’s what you mean.”
The cantor brought his hands to his lap. Who had made her? Baruch Ha’Shem!
“You’ve really grown up.You’ve done well tonight.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Grown into a really beautiful lady.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“ —and as Moses grew tired and began to lower his arms in exhaustion, Aaron and Hur came near to him and held his arms aloft until the bitter end. And the Amalekites were defeated.”
“Well, I mean it, you’re truly a sight. So—you’re quite welcome,” said the cantor.
“Congregation, I ask you not to forget. When attacks are made on our countries, our country, maybe this nation will look to the American Jews for renewed strength, like Moses did Aaron and Hur. The American Jews—the ones who have built their lives from tragedy before, and are full of the power to rebuild again. And so forth and so on, as we approach our high holidays this September, I urge you to remember not only to grieve and atone on one day but everyday, to never forget, and to realize the sensitivities of your presence in not only strangers’ lives but the lives of your families. We are all responsible for our justices and injustices, and it is up to us to defend this responsibility. It is our first duty as Jews.”
Suddenly, with an interest she’d not shown him the whole night, Sylvia turned to Eli. “But, Cantor, sometimes I get into trouble.”
“What’s that?” The cantor said, turning to meet her. Her gaze looked deep into his face, immovable, for some eternal seconds. She shifted her weight to cross her legs and slipped her hands around her prayer book.
“Sometimes, Cantor, I can get into really a lot of trouble.”
Blessed is He who has marred nothing on this Earth, the one whose name cannot be spoken, all blessed, remember him always, Baruch Ha’Shem! Praise the Lord! He is our Rock, in Whom there is no flaw.
Having not eaten since morning, the cantor quickly felt the intensity of acid in his stomach. Turning away from her, he tried quietly to clear his throat.
“Thank you. Before our services come to a close, I’d like to give a big thanks to Cantor Eli Mesenbach, who has recently come into our lives as a body of guidance during this strange and violent time. I’d also like to thank Sylvia Greenblatt for helping lead us in this Friday night’s Erev services. I’ve been asked to remind you that Sylvia will be starring in the eighth grade production of Fiddler on the Roof as Tzeitel at Washington Carver Middle School this coming Saturday. If you’re interested, tickets go on sale tonight, we have some tickets for purchase at the front doors as you exit. Sylvia, we wish you one more mazel tov as we ask you to end our evening services with the Shabbat blessings.”
Sylvia smiled back at the crowd and looked to the first row in front of her. To the people that were ostensibly her parents, she smiled. They looked young, no older than the cantor, and as they beamed back at her she leapt onto her feet and took her place at the bimah once again.
The cantor looked on, drenched in shock and guilt. Which way could anyone ever believe his mistake? He could see now the graceless indentations of an in-between child: her few scabs, round shoulders, the skimpy, unbalanced inhale of breath before each new line in the Aleinu. Unmeasured breath from the female lead, a rushed and quick-cavorting, young Tzeitel. Now on stage, practicing her belt for the school play!
And then he realized the congregation supporting her. They listened and responded to Sylvia like she was a little girl breathing other people’s prayers and not her own, a tiny public amplifier and a vessel still full of baby fat. These Carolinians who had confused him! Who had mashed up faiths to tailor them to their nascent nation-pain. Oh, God! The Exceptional! God the unwavering! He had seen the exchange; had it even been His test?
Sylvia ended her prayers. She led the congregation through Adon Olam. Adon Olam: the only world is the world God has made. When she ended, it was the cantor’s voice that shot out the first “Amen” of the crowd, and the people echoed it. It was one of the louder affirmations of his life.
After the service’s celebratory end, rabbi, cantor and girl descended the bimah. Sylvia slipped away without looking back, engulfed in warm hands and sweeping gestures. As her figure fell into the care of others, a beige sea against the teal pews, the rabbi grabbed Eli Mesenbach by the elbow.
What had he seen? The cantor was not sure where or why his cabled hands were leading him away from people, down the hall, to the far annals of the temple where his office sat. They walked in silence until the rabbi shut the door behind him.
“Forgive me for bringing you all the way here, Cantor, but I had to speak to you.”
“Rabbi, is there a problem?”
“Oh, nothing. Just one of the worst dilemmas I’ve been faced with in recent days. But really, no tragedies, no.”
“That’s good then, Rabbi. Good.”
“I’ve just been upset since this morning—Amy was a mess this morning, and I knew something was off-kilter. Frazzled. I sat down to breakfast this morning and said nothing. I just sensed this upset, so I didn’t open my hole and ask what’s wrong. They say a good man likes to speak, but a better man weighs out his options first. Poker, Eli, have you played it? I’m an admitted gambling man. It’s a sin, but of course it teaches you, mum’s the word. After some silence Amy finally said it was about our Shayna. I said, ‘What is it? Is she sick?’ I start thinking about the doctors I know, doctors here at the temple. Lieberman’s son is young, just got his degree, but good. But she says, ‘No, she’s not sick. Nobody here is sick with anything. It’s about Shayna’s stay at Emily Reeder’s house, the Pentecostal.’ Amy’s quiet for a minute and I start grinding my gears—what happened? Why keep this from me? I don’t understand. And then she bursts into tears: ‘Shayna ate an omelet! A sausage mushroom omelet!’ Emily’s mother told Amy it was an accident, that she forgot to not give our daughter milk and meat—let alone pig—together.”
He touched the cantor’s dark suit with his left hand and the cantor’s body visibly protested. He did not want to be a part of this club where men coalesced into community positions. Clean roles in life like that shouldn’t be muddied like this, he thought. What were they together, Cantor and Rabbi? Leaders who should be revered—painted in oils—but instead were cloudy with watercolor conflict.
“Well, Rabbi, she mustn’t have known—”
“She knew, Eli. She absolutely knew what she was eating—they told her what was for breakfast. She was curious.”
“Certainly none more curious than you and I ever were.”
The rabbi took a half step away from the cantor as he said this. He eyed him over, looping his oversized cream tallis closer to his body, folding it at an angle to the shoulders. The gauzy fabric swung into the lamplight of his office as he folded. Its arc was slow and the rabbi’s gesturing reminded the cantor of baking, of pulling at dough. As the prayer shawl moved, it swung particles of dust from the air—bits of grey and inexplicable feathers were taken into the prayer shawl’s strands.
“She was more curious than I was, than I am. At least when it comes to the explicit guidelines.”
Then the rabbi grew doubtful—for a moment a conciliatory look spread across him before turning serious. He straightened his posture, letting his shoulder blades stretch and touch.
“Let me be clear: we’re not so upset. Amy and I told her to go to her room, no sleepovers, for a few days, maximum. She’s curious for the world, Eli. I know that, we all are. But before our tragedy, it was so much easier to discover the world and paste our findings into our hearts. But it hurts me—as I’m up here preaching and singing, my kids are asleep in the audience. When will they be—when will Shayna be—curious for God? I guess I’m upset because I have a feeling this is one incident of many with her. Our old ideas don’t hold up next to their phones and what—computer games. But I—we have seen in these few years a glimpse of the end of the world! Don’t you feel that? I feel the need to sell these stories to her, to my children—they need to believe in them more than anyone. We need them to articulate the grace of God, to annihilate those bastards who tried to destroy us with the truth. I don’t know, Cantor! I want to shake the passion in them, like salt.”
What were these big feelings, nu? These explosions. I have all the passion here, right here! the cantor thought. People wanted to put their passions in the bombs, though. Maybe because it was exciting they could have the passion there at all. It is comforting, he thought, to act like these horrors are unnatural, that they’re rare and can be accounted for. All that had to be accounted for—Hineni! All the talk of bombs in the U.S. had left him a bit disoriented—he wasn’t expecting it. In Israel, bombs were around. Unaccountable, they were only prepared for. The signs had been big on billboards since the 1980s: If you see something unattended, call the authorities. Bombs back home were simple—big packages, cardboard. Old woven suitcases, locked. Here, bombs seemed smaller—they could hide in shoes and next to skin. They were strapped under shirts; they were closer to people’s hearts.
As the cantor stood wordless, the rabbi continued. “And I saw that girl Sylvia tonight, singing like Gabriel taught her how. She’s truly been touched. It just doesn’t happen anymore, when the Spiritual can transform a little girl like that.”
What is Hineni, in its mutation and edit? Confounded love song, from the stock, one flag raised. It is the cry that our revolution has gone another year misunderstood, and misunderstanding. The Cantor found his moment with the people around him. For the first time he felt the spirit wasn’t breathing in him, and that it wasn’t chosen for everyone. Disco had died in ’78, and he could not account for these people, nyloned and navy-ed. Hineni. He stood with an olive face that felt the long sojourn of mourning for who and what he cannot feel for—a big mass of people, his body and soul, and for Sylvia, and his grave, organic mistake in seeing flesh in her.
“These things—they exist when we don’t see them, and they exist when we do. Who sees us? With what eyes?”
“I don’t know, Rabbi. I just hope that when we’re blown up, we reach heaven, not somewhere else. I hope it’s more domestic than we ever imagined. Like a mall. Let it be totally boring! What am I saying? Let heaven be our mothers nagging us to buy new shoes. Let it be filled with escalators and fountain drinks, full of our old neighbors who have learned now to be careful with us. And I hope there are huge caravans of people being dropped off outside, sleepy as ducklings. Because I am sick of these bombs and these ecstasies.”