Visible Music
Visible Music
Volume 3 , Issue 3

It took her several minutes to take me in, a wraith in black jacket, black trousers, black shoes, and black satin yarmulke. Despite the passing of years, I immediately recognized the slender figure standing hesitantly in my doorway. Heather Pasternak. Toney, grave “– the only one of my captive Sunday morning charges whose smile at my jokey efforts had been targeted at the joke behind the nervous smile.

“Come in, come in. Damn, Heather,” I exploded. “How on earth did you find me here?”

“May I really come in?” Her voice was more cautious than timid, and her glance embraced my dim cubicle. No answer was necessary. I closed the door behind her.

She sat at the low, wooden table where I study, eat, and doze. From the narrow Jerusalem street below, giggles of little girls in dark‑pleated skirts jumping rope filtered through my shutters. A narrow shaft of late afternoon sun darted across the table between us. Heather's chin still tilted at an introspective angle. Since I'd fled, Heather “– of course it would be she “– was the first witness to climb from the mineshaft of the past. The silence that hung between us was thick but delectable.

“Tea?” she nodded. “It's seven years since I left, isn't it? You look wonderful... grown up,” I added needlessly.

“I heard that you were in Jerusalem,” she began. “The truth is, I wanted to find you. One American here leads to another. Especially in this queer neighborhood of yours. Someone named Gershon “– tall with a limp; he wouldn't look me full in the face “– led me to your door.” She laughed. “I could have walked right past Mr. Jerry Brownstein in the street and not looked back. What a terrific rig!”

“It's a costume that suits me just fine these days.” She smiled while I pointedly took her in from peasant blouse with intricate borders of Arabic embroidery and full, floor‑length skirt and sandals. “There's no getting away from costumes.”

We sipped herb tea. Heather must have been 15 when I'd last seen her. Daughter to Nate Pasternak, Swifton's largest Dodge and Datsun dealer (D & D Nate), my own special student at Temple Beth Shalom's Sunday School. Here she sat, a cool, downy 22 or 3, who, true daughter of Nate, had dodged me down in dim Mea Shearim. Upon what sunbright California embassy was she engaged?

“Does anyone remember what happened?”

“Only everyone.” She grinned broadly, looking so pretty I looked down at my mug of tea. “Who could forget? You carved yourself an indelible place in Swifton's High Holiday folklore, and dented Glazer's act for all time. He still goes through his annual motions, the old trooper, but you're there too, hovering over his head like a New Year's curse.”

We both laughed and self‑consciousness fell away. Old Glazer! Beth Shalom. And Rabbi Stan‑the‑Dancer. Embalmed on the deep freeze of memory and bone, Swifton stretched out like a cadaver. Had this lively witness searched me out at the center of the earth to declare that that corpse still breathed?

If pressed, as many as 2000 inhabitants of Swifton would have declared themselves to be Jewish “– a wobbly 2% of the populace. A great many of these good Jews showed little inclination to pass through the portals of either Beth Shalom (zestfully Reform) or Congregation Brit Shalom (brittily Conservative) for 12 months at a time save, like heavy, aromatic, autumnal blooms, to burst forth for the Holidays. Perhaps an equal number had tossed over even these twinges of vestigial sentiment.

I surely was not the first newcomer to Swifton from the East who, setting out for Brit, accidentally strayed within the orbit of Beth. The Shalom sister congregations were friendly, but still rivals. Ideology isn't all serious under Western skies, but business is business.

Over the years first the one, then the other of the Jewish congregations had exercised dominion. Located very near to Swifton's downtown, from the triumphal times in the late 1950's when it burned its mortgage in festive immolation, Brit Shalom had been increasingly in eclipse. By the time I arrived on the scene, it was sadly reconciled to playing a walk‑on part in Jewish communal life. Bar Mitvzot had become rare; its communal bread and butter was now funerals. Its mortgage‑free, center city location held it in a mortal vise.

The roster of bulwarks at Beth Shalom included Messrs. Gonzalez, Paretti, and Ingersoll. Among the more active on Temple committees sat several who had not troubled to convert formally from their pre‑marital persuasions. Other congregants with uncertain antecedents, among the most conspicuous wearers of Jewish amulets and golden dangles, were “feelees”: they simply “felt Jewish.” Indeed, it was unimpeachably Chinese Samuel Chong, importer and stalwart of the Education Committee, who had liked me enough to hire me. With amiable finesse, he'd overridden Rabbi Dancer's qualms that my traditional background might render me over‑qualified, out‑of‑tune with Beth Shalom's progressive philosophy for teaching its 8th grade Sunday morning scholars.

“No need for apprehension, Stanley,” Chong declared before I could expound upon my Jewish imperfections. “The young man seems no fanatic to me.” I needed the job. The other Shalom's educational program was just a one‑room operation where their part‑time rabbi schoolmarmed all comers. Smiling compliance, I was hired. Later I learned that no one else had applied.

Committing AB4CFG2MNPSWZ to memory, even years later I could retrieve my 8th grade roster at will: Apple, Berger, Bernadin, Blumstein, Burns, Cowan, Fischer, Greene, Gutierrez, Martinez, Neumann, Pasternak, Sloan, Walter, and Zweig. Heather was dumbstruck. How had a Blumstein slipped into that assemblage.

“You can stop wondering, “ volunteered Heather‑the‑P princess. “When he slipped out on me two years ago, Mark Blumstein slithered away to Nepal.”

“I can remember you exactly as you looked my first Sunday on the job.”

“And you think I haven't changed a bit?” she asked coyly. “Oh, how wrong, Jerry Brownstein, you would be. But how different you were! You never came back after that crazy Rosh Hashana show you put on. You just checked out on us. Didn't it occur to you that some of us needed you?”

I was flattered. “I couldn't stay. From then on, everything changed for me.”

I used to arrive at that glassy, angular structure on Swifton's fashionable North End one‑half hour before class. Beth Shalom, beneficiary of a heavy mortgage that energized the talents of is problem‑solving congregants, boasted the spiritual guidance rabbi‑pillar Stanley Dancer, my instinctive adversary. Yet one more genuine distinction: Beth Shalom held title to the third oldest Jewish cemetery west of the Mississippi, a certified historical landmark. It was a large, square block enclosed by a heavy fence. It was studded by tall cypresses and crabapple trees heavy much of the time with overripe fruit. Dates on the ornate tombstones carved with German‑sounding names went back to the Gold Rush days.

The only visible cloud in Stanley Dancer's heaven “– I counted for the merest whisp “– was the vigorous shadow of his predecessor in Shalom's pulpit, Rabbi Seymour Glazer, who retained a toehold on community affairs through his office at U.J.A. and his weekly column of inter‑denominational uplift in the Swifton Owl‑Democrat. He seemed a wholly benign figure, but Dancer felt uneasy about the presence of this cagey focus for free‑floating, never‑quelled congregational hostility. The situation was less than ideal, but there was nothing for it.

“Glazer's now too old to matter. Dancer has survived,” Heather noted briskly.

But he wasn't then. Not then.

On the morning of Rosh Hashana, with his Temple crammed to capacity, for more years than most congregants could remember, Rabbi Glazer had prefaced the annual appeal for funds with a homiletic fable that year after year proved inordinately popular...and productive. When during his premiere Rabbi Dancer had unwittingly bypassed his elderly colleague, he sensed that his poignant account of the Binding of Isaac (“Never Despair” he had called it) made leaner appeal than anticipated. Taking a cue from perspicacious Chong, Dancer, this year, had strategically relinquished the pulpit to permit his senior colleague the opportunity to recast his seasonal spell. The noble gesture was noted and appreciated.

But what chasidic tale could possibly speak to so many of the progressive Jews of Swifton, most of whom would grimly cringe were they to glance through my narrow Jerusalem window to a street scene where dark‑suited figures never tire of their music‑box scurrying? It's one that's very rich in variants, but this is how Rabbi Glazer, after pausing until the only other sound in the building was the thought‑provoking hum of the air conditioners, made his resinous delivery:

“Many years ago, my dear friends, in the Pale of Settlement of Russia, in the tiny hamlet of Plotsk, not far from where my very own grandparents of blessed memory once lived, there was a community of notably pious Jews. They were poor in material possessions, but rich in things of the spirit; in particular, their special pride was their rabbi who was renowned in all of Russia for his goodness. These Jews were content with their lot. We must bear in mind, of course, that in those days our forefathers were more superstitious than we are today.

“One year, at the time of Rosh Hashana, they all stood in their humble synagogue silently praying, praying prayers so silently you could almost trace their progress in the shape of each man's breath as it rose to Heaven. Among them was a young lad whose attention was diverted by the shadow of a branch of a stunted tree that grew just outside a window of the small wooden synagogue. Perhaps, like many Jewish children down through the ages, perhaps like you yourselves were as children...” The old rabbi paused a moment to smile benevolently, then swept on. “...perhaps the spirited youngster was a trifle bored. Whatever the cause, he slipped from his pocket a simple wooden flute”–quite forbidden”–and, to everyone's astonishment, he proceeded to play the piercing lilt of Kaddosh, Kaddosh, Kaddosh “– Holy, Holy, Holy”– a melody he knew well.

“His father was mortified, and you can well imagine the congregation's consternation. Nevertheless, they were so struck, so gripped by the sheer loveliness of his playing that until he finished his tune, no one moved to interfere.

“For five minutes the lad's instrument besought God's favor and mercy. Then, like a knife, his father's palm cut the melodic strain. He wrenched the offending flute from his son's hands, and started to drag the tearful but unresisting boy from the crowded, humble building.

Everyone was aghast and cried out wildly, but above all the din resounded the piercing command of their aged rabbi: “Don't touch the lad! His visible music is the purest of prayer. It ascends straight to Heaven's Ear and has opened the very gates of mercy. Surely G‑d is more pleased with the lad, who doesn't know all the prayers but whose heart is pure, than with the prayers of all the rest of us together.”

Rabbi Glazer would deliver this annual homily with head aloft and eyes, almost as if reading the underside of his lids, firmly shut. Only towards the end would he look out seemingly to decipher the engraving on the very heart of each congregant. Every man and woman was touched. Intuitively, Glazer had appropriated something ambiguous, something profound in each beckoning soul that gravitated toward his tale. Then, as the Temple organ intoned “Holy, Holy, Holy,” attendants distributed pledge envelopes for the coming year. Rosh Hashana in Swifton was not Rosh Hashana without the strangely moving story of the boy and the flute.

Stealthily, the Jerusalem evening had warmed us in its purple shadows like a blanket. In spite of ourselves, the very aura of the tale seemed to have evoked an independent vein of sympathy and power. We were quiet and keenly aware of each other's presence. I looked closely at the young woman who sat across the table from me and finally wondered aloud what had brought her to search me out in this inner quarter of the City of Peace.

“It was the time,” she began, then stopped and started again.

“I wanted to. I also had something to give to you...though it seems almost foolish now.” She produced from a bag a simple, dark flute “– a shepherd's halil “– and set it gravely on the table between us. “I got it for you the same day that I bought these native clothes.” I held it in my hands, felt its smoothness and taper, set it down.

“Thank you,” I muttered, then waited.

“Also, there is something you should know, that I have to tell you...but not yet.”

There was another agitated silence. “Put up some water please while I daven ma'ariv <193> say evening prayers,” I amended hastily.

I moved to a corner of the room. “There are some crackers and jam on the shelf above the sink. Open a fresh jar.” As I prayed, I was achingly aware of Heather moving about my tiny slash of a kitchen.

In a short while we resumed our former positions at the table now set with tea, crackers, strawberry jam, and margarine. “Look!” she exclaimed. “Something for you from the Old Country.”

I took from her hands an old‑fashioned box of raisins, a Sun Maiden in my palms. (Where was the flute? There, set on the bookshelf behind her.) We laughed, then ate almost in silence before taking up the thread of recollection.

The New Year period of introspection had fallen upon the Jewish community of Swifton: greeting cards were exchanged, synagogue tickets sold, both Shaloms scrubbed and tidied. I had returned to college from my summer vacation in the East to a freshly painted classroom. Once again I was hired to tend to the spiritual growth of the AB4CFG2MNPSWZ link in the golden chain of generations. My 8th graders had grown into well brash 9th grade gigglers. But among them sat Heather: poised, regal, pre‑sexy, my Sunday secret portion.

Having imbibed all they could usefully absorb about their native Judaism, the 9th graders were thought ready to be shepherded about the map of ecumenical Swifton. The purpose: to observe their peers at Christian Science, U/U, Buddhist, liberal Methodist, and Mormon worship. Each of these youth groups scheduled reciprocal visits to take in the spectacle of Jewish adolescents at our prayer “– actually doing it. Since Friday evening was..well...inexpedient, once a month my class arranged “alternative services” for young visitors. While I was trying to prepare the class for their opening performance, Rabbi Stanley D. moseyed over. After listening for a while, he suddenly intervened; his apprehensions had been confirmed.

“You know, guys, that mitzvot theology is really out‑of‑date. It's just not our bag. Nowadays we follow traditions that each of us find meaningful. Our Jewish thing is meaning and people and uh values.”

My three‑hour stint was just about over anyway. I just packed a few books in my pack and pedalled home. I was obviously subversive as hell, and Dancer, finally on to me, would try to undercut anything I might possibly achieve. Still, I needed this job to pay for “extras,” and we both knew that there was no one to replace me with. I liked the kids and thought I could hold on, but as things were to work out, I was never to make it past the minions of Mary Baker Eddy and the third Sunday. The shadow of judgment fell over the calendar together with the High Holidays.

The morning of Rosh Hashana broke warm and pleasant. The evening before had been sonorous and brief. Rabbi Dancer tossed up something about the Jewish home being a universal bank of traditions from which the Jews drew interest, dividends, interest‑free loans “– all this deftly counterpointed to the Days of Awe, the Crash of '29, and the rising rate of divorce. This last was a daring stroke of realism: of my fair sampling, fully two‑thirds of AB2FGNWZ issued from divorced homes. But Dancer closed on an elevated pitch likely to cancel all vendetta: “And as we enter upon these ten most sacred of days, we all search our hearts and ask forgiveness for our shortcomings and imbalances in the certainty that His bank of compassion and understanding is without end, is fully insured against forgetfulness and default.” His eyes swept the crowded room. “He is our God. There is none else.”

Morning services began promptly at 9. I arrived a bit early and took my seat near the back. By a quarter after, Temple Beth Shalom, a bride in new‑cut flowers, new‑bought jackets, suits and dresses, shafts of shimmering purple and gold that stained the cut‑glass windows, and a mixed chorus of Swifton's finest interdenominational voices was nearly filled with natty professors, smart merchants (there sat gold‑ringed P, pere to the prim princess), dapper accountants, a range of medical expertise, exuberant entrepreneurs, attorneys and all their wives and beloved. On the raised platform sat Sol Shiffer (seemingly for decades, esteemed President of the Congregation), the two esteemed rabbis, and a cantor (loser of no esteem for being an emigrant from Israel). Rabbi Glazer, whose special turn would soon come, was indeterminably meditating, over‑medicated, or asleep.

(“When I waved at you,” she said, “you were too much in your own funny world to notice.”)

I gripped my siddur and, with the rest, performed as I was directed: I rose; I sat; responsively, I read a psalm; I turned to page 42; I rose again; I recited; I touched down again to my chair; I was appreciative of Swifton's finest choir, no”–I didn't wave back. My siddur slipped through my fingers to the floor (do I wake or sleep?). I retrieved it, kissed its cover automatically, looked about in embarrassment, and speedily turned to the right page. Rabbi Glazer floated forward to speak. Substantial community figures in bright plaid jackets approached the Torah. Daughter of Nate looked very grown up. Cantor of Israel graciously aided a community pillar recite the benediction. Everything, everyone diminished, shrank; then threatened to fade entirely into blackness, then blank whiteness. And then I heard nothing at all. Like a silent comedy. I smelled licorice. Lips twisted and distorted, and arms jerked like the limbs of a dazed puppet.

Something queer was happening around me, a quickening of attention. Dancer gestured broadly toward Glazer whose flow of words had damned at the source. His lips pulsed, his eyes were turned toward Heaven; it was I on my feet, my lips that moved. Why, at that startling moment, did the microphone choose to lapse into a din of hums and EEEEZ? Then silence. Glazer had shed his mystic calm. White‑maned, red‑faced, he clutched at the mute instrument as if it were the neck of chicken; he was pointing in fury towards me. All the while, I was reciting “– yelling? “– the verses that follow the shema “– wrong, I sensed vaguely, for the occasion. But I was implacable, a great black whale propelled by marvelous momentum.

At my left, an elderly woman seemed to sink into the waves, but in the distance, others navigated towards me. Dancer, weird accompanyist, was gesticulating garishly from the dais. He looked completely out of his mind, but Good Ol' Sam Chong had pushed his way past immobilized bodies to my side. I flashed him a conspiratorial wink, but kept up the beat of the Shema to its very close. Then gold and purple motes exploded from Dancer's ears, his hair, his mouth.

“Don't touch him! Give him air.” That was funny, and I rocked until, with three ballet‑like steps, I collapsed into the arms of attorney Chong. As if a zipper scratched across my lids, the world turned black.

“You looked like you were modeling for a Mexican crucifix,” laughed Heather.

In the bathroom they didn't know whether to treat me as disorderly or demented. Water splashed on my face; then a cup was passed for me to drink. I think I was laughing. Finally they seated me on a toilet seat. I could tell from the hummy beeps that the order of service for Rosh Hashana had picked up from the point it had been rudely interrupted. The words were indistinct, but the tones were surely those of recomposed Rabbi Seymour Glazer. I was permitted to make my departure in peace. I've travelled pretty far.

Divorced (not from Blumstein), Heather Pastenak Peterman (still a P princess) was doing graduate work at UC Santa Barbara: history and Jewish studies “– a cross disciplinarian. “You were, of course, my favorite, my pet Sunday scholar: very intense, serious. I'm very pleased that you came. But...?”

Yes, there was a reason. Reasons. Something queer but noteworthy to communicate. It had arisen from research on her dissertation: “Jewish Swifton “– An Exemplary History.”

“Jerry, until two days after Rosh Hashana the year after your...uh...outburst, something unprecedented happened, or rather, didn't happen in Swifton. It's an inexplicable, quirky datum that at first I tended to discount, but later I had to take pains to verify. It checked out. For 12 months not one overweight dentist died from heart failure; not one tired, old Jew at Cedars of Kineret from cancer, stroke, or desuetude; not a single teenaged Goldman or Jewish Martinez rollicking home soused or high in his dad's Volvo “– not a single one of Swifton's prudent Jews who'd reserved a plot in the Jewish cemetery actually occupied it.

“The odds against that, Jerry, are simply prohibitive. There's no way to demonstrate a negative, but statistically it's more like impossible than improbable. When I found out, I had to see you again “– call it research, if you like “– but also to see you again to tell you what did not happen. No, no one there made any connection, though it was Sam Chong “– he asked me to send warm regards “– who first clued me into the peculiarity. He called it a blip. It's probably the only really significant finding in all the 376 pages of my thesis, but I suppose the best I can do is to mention it as a blippin' aberration in a footnote. No other way to fit it in. But you. Jerry Brownstein, will be a cameo player in the definitive history of the Jews of Swifton. How does that touch you?”

I really couldn't say. Surely every year, as the High Holidays descend upon them, the bulwarks of Swifton Jewry will scarcely help but inwardly recalling the gaucherie that once I visited upon them. That very next year, as the ghosts of the Jews of Plotsk were invoked by Rabbi Glazer to entertain and to instruct their Jewish, fractionally Jewish, or problematically non‑Jewish great‑grandchildren of Swifton,did neither rabbi apprehend the shocking absence of seats emptied by the toils of the Angel of Death? Did neither wonder even passingly whether it might have been for a blessing after all? And can it truly be that Rabbi Glazer has not ever pondered the grounds of the peculiar officiousness of his parable of the boy and flute, a tale which, at the very least, helped to extend his own career by nearly a decade?

I, for one, still cannot say. The further wonder, however, is that prim Heather, my special charge, pursued the scent of the mystery by a route of her own devising to somber Jerusalem. That is good enough. Tomorrow night we plan to attend an organ recital “– a piece of unfinished business from the 9th grade curriculum. She talks of enrolling “for a spell” in one of the women's yeshivot.

O Nate, Fate, Venerable Rabbi of Plotsk, smooth Sam Chong, Holy One of Jerusalem, and...yes...Rabbi survivors Dancer & Glazer”–all that have played a riff or measure in this life of my mine, I vow not ever again to yield up my heart either to the blankness of temptation or the black ditty of despair.

Haim Chertok made aliyah in 1977 and lives in Yeroham, Israel. His book, Stealing Home, was awarded a National Jewish Book award for 1989. His most recent work, We Are All Close: Conversations with Israeli Writers, was published by Fordham University Press.

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