Friday, August 16, 2013

Too Many Funerals: Jewish Fiction

            For the young rabbi in the little southern congregation, even one funeral was too many. But the last few weeks had been particularly awful, with one member dying after another: bing, bing, bing.
Like clay ducks, he thought. Within the space of two weeks, he had buried two prominent members.
            The first was a man who had never come to services. He hated his son, his son hated him back, and so, with no love lost, with both father and son working in the plant—which made—what? Fencing? Corrugated iron? The rabbi couldn’t remember, though he had mentioned it in the eulogy—the old man had lived to work, and had made a large pile of money in the process. The irony of it all was that, for a man who never came to services, even on the High Holy Days, he had left the temple one hundred thousand dollars.
            The second was a man who had been a pillar of the temple, and the general community as well. He had been fortunate: escaping from Nazi Germany just before the war, finding himself penniless in Paris with no one but the Quakers to help him—well, he never forgot that. When he came to America and did well for himself in business, he became the benefactor, not only of the temple, but of the Quakers, as well.
            Two funerals, but then, there were more. Lots more. The rabbi would just turn around, and there would be that phone call, saying that So-and-So had died. They had both, the manufacturer and the refugee, died in their sleep: one at home (a happy death), but totally unexpected, the other while in the hospital for tests, but, sadly, again unexpected. And more irony: yet another member (yes, the small Jewish community was, it appeared, filling the hospitals too) had been in the hospital (and a very fine hospital it was, too), for a long, long time, with large and small parts of him either not functioning, or, if they were, just barely. What a surprise when this man lived, and continued to do so, with machines beeping and booping and performing his vital functions for him, while the other man—just in for tests, you understand, just an overnight, and then home, all well again, that is, God willing—had up and passed on—in his sleep. The only way to pass away, people told one another, but (of course) so much harder on the family.
            The manufacturer’s funeral had been small—he had not had a large family, and fewer friends, so dedicated was he to his work—but there were a great many bank representatives. One member of the Chevra Kadisha, the temple’s burial society, pointed out to the rabbi that the six black-suited, uncomfortable-looking men in the back row of the sanctuary had been sent by Dixie Banking & Trust—whether out of professional gratitude for a longtime customer, or just keeping an eye on the estate, one couldn’t say, but there they were, in the back, six solemn bankers in pinstripe suits.
            The second funeral had been larger, with the temple’s sanctuary full to the brim, with more people there than even on the High Holies. There were employees, friends, relatives (in the front row; the rabbi had used masking tape and Magic Marker’d signs, taking construction paper from the Hebrew School supplies—to reserve the first three pews), and all the sundry humanity which Mr. Flax had befriended throughout his life. He was a good man—both the present rabbi and the rabbi emeritus said so—feisty, couldn’t be contradicted, stubborn as they came, but good-hearted, nevertheless. Not religious, though he liked to come to temple. He would hang his cane on the seat alongside his own, chat with his friends, and eventually fall asleep, unless the rabbi’s sermon was particularly good, or, at least, short. It was a supreme compliment when he stayed awake during the entire service. And he was a pillar of the temple.
            And then there were the shiva minyans, the daily memorial services in Mr. Flax’s house. The rabbi would get up early—the services had to accommodate people with “real jobs,” as the congregants kidded him—drive to pick up the rabbi emeritus, and then heigh-ho to the shiva house, where the two rabbis would don tallit and tefillin, prayer shawl and phylacteries. The other men would wear only tallitote. The service lasted a half-hour, and was dull as dishwater—it had to be quick and to the point, existing only to allow Mr. Flax’s family to say the Mourner’s Kaddish. The men went off to their jobs, and the rabbi went back home to his wife and baby daughter, until he taught Hebrew School in the afternoon or went back for the Evening Service—they had that, too. After the morning service, if the emeritus caught a ride home with someone else, the rabbi liked to open his car sunroof and both front windows in his little red sportster, turn up the radio volume, and floor the gas, tearing a little ass on the road on the way home. Yes.
A cleansing drive, he would think.
            The year was changing during the time of the second funeral. Days were getting longer, Shabbat lasted longer—he didn’t use the phone on Shabbat, which meant that people couldn’t phone him with their illnesses or deaths. He got one day off a week, Thursday, and he and his wife and baby daughter would pile into the car and drive to a different city—there weren’t too many within reach—and spend the day tramping around a shopping mall. Anything to forget the rabbinate for a while.
            He had had it with funerals. When he finished the service and was standing outside the temple waiting for the family to get into the limo, congregants would come up to him to compliment his eulogy—he did give a good eulogy.
He would quip, “I do weddings better.”
But people weren’t marrying, people were dying. It was a small Southern town, he had just signed a contract for two more years, he had a beautiful parsonage and the congregation paid for a late-model car, and he was doing all right for a rabbi.
            The days wore on: he was the entire Hebrew School faculty, teaching three classes of Hebrew, the weather was hot, and there were the kids whom he put through bar-bat mitzvah and who never returned. The funerals didn’t help his mood, though they made him feel needed. There was also the Chevra Kadisha, the Burial Society, the congregants who prepared the body for burial by tenderly washing it, dressing it in shrouds, and placing it in the casket. It was just the overwhelming nature of the thing. Too many funerals.
            He began to dread the phone ringing. One night, he and his wife were eating dinner, frozen eggplant parmigiana (he wasn’t watching his weight, he was getting tubby, but it was a pleasure to eat) and the phone rang. The caller asked for the head of the house: he was selling some kind of long-lasting lightbulb made by handicapped people, but the rabbi hung up on them in mid-sentence. He promptly felt bad about it: handicapped people had to make a living, too.
            The next day, the rabbi wearily plodded toward the temple to teach Hebrew School. He had three bar mitzvahs coming up, and the boy who was soonest did not want to go on for confirmation. The kid was smart, but he was lazy, and his parents spoiled him. They had already decided that they weren’t going to schlep Johnny to confirmation classes if he wasn’t interested. The kid asked the rabbi if you had to go on for confirmation in order to be a Good Jew. And the rabbi answered that he had yet to meet a really Good Jew, but he had met plenty of ignorant Jews, and confirmation was one way to get more Jewish knowledge, and that was the reason for it. Not a convincing argument, but a sincere one.
            The kid didn’t seem to buy it.
            Well, there was only one more class session to go before summer vacation. The rabbi dismissed the class, who ran out, yelling like hoodlums, smarmy adolescents, every one of them, and this depressed him further: he had taught these kids from Day One, four years earlier, and had once been able to impress upon them the importance of bringing in their pencils and doing their homework, but it was too late for that now: they were too big and too clever. He sighed, picked up his books and his thermos, and went out the front door of the temple, stifling an impulse to sneak out the side door like a thief leaving Eden.
            “Rabbi, Rabbi, look! Come quick! Baby birds in the tree!”
The kids were calling him. He went over to look. And there, in a hole in a hollow tree, that had been cut down that afternoon, smelling like the fresh lumber he recalled from the Division Street Lumber Yard in his old neighborhood, were four tiny baby birds, newly hatched—the eggshells were still in the nest. The birds were helpless, blind, with scrawny necks and featherless bodies. They had been hatched by a woodpecker, probably, and their mother had flown off to get them food. Meanwhile, the yard man and his sons, after signing a contract to clean up the temple grounds, and then disappearing for a month to spend the money on whiskey, had come back and chopped down a perfectly respectable tree that had stood for years, or centuries, overlooking the main driveway to the temple. They had made a dreadful racket doing so, stomping back and forth in high boots and yellow helmets, arousing the children’s curiosity and distracting them from the alef-bet.
A small girl in the rabbi’s first class had asked, “Rabbi, why are you cutting down all the trees?”
And he had answered that he was not cutting them down, the temple was, they were not his trees, but it was necessary to thin them out so that the bigger ones could have light and air and soil for their roots, unencumbered by the older, dead trees.
So now we need a funeral for a tree, he thought.
            The birds were heart-rending—one had fallen onto the ground, and a little boy panicked, and stepped on the poor thing while bending over to pick it up. As he replaced it in the nest, the others stretched out their necks and peeped for the food they felt their mother was bringing them. It was agonizing to see the big black ants parading around the base of the stump—the tree’s downfall had disturbed their nest, too—licking their chops or mandibles and thinking of the baby-bird dinner they would enjoy. And there was nothing the rabbi could do, nor anyone else, while the children stood and asked him to help. His wife had come over with the baby, and she was fanning away the mosquitoes from the baby’s chubby and delectable legs and face. The birds peeped, more weakly now.
            The rabbi, his wife, and one of the parents went into his office to phone the Humane Society. They said that they would call back, but never did. The rabbi called a few congregants who were known for their compassion for animals. Everyone said that the birds were far too young to be fed with an eyedropper; it was best to leave them alone. A father who drove his Chevy truck around the temple corner at breakneck speed to pick up his twins made a remark about Nature’s inexorable law, survival of the fittest, and so forth. The tiny birds lay in a small pile in the hollow of the stump and peeped feebly. The rabbi and his wife and baby went home.
            After dinner, the rabbi and his wife watched a TV movie starring a young comic they had seen in Atlanta while on vacation. The rabbi laughed loudly at the gags, although he had seen the movie twice before. His wife was bored, but politely said nothing; she knew her husband’s moods. The baby cried a little, took a bottle, and was put to bed.
            The rabbi put on jeans and a sweatshirt and rolled the garbage can to the curb for the next day’s pickup. He thought of the birds. Taking a flashlight, he told his wife that he was going to take a walk.
            At the temple, he took a shovel and pick out of the storage closet. As he shone it on the stump, the birds peeped weakly. The smell from the stump, of fresh-cut wood, was cloying and sickening. The birds lay in a pile, not moving. The rabbi walked a little way into the woods and used the pick to dig a shallow hole. With a stick, he gently nudged the birds out of the stump, into a grocery bag he had found in the temple kitchen. He rolled the top of the bag tightly closed.
            As he dug the hole, he remembered the funerals: as the casket hung suspended on the trestle over the grave, he would take a shovel and scoop dirt into the grave three times:
                                                Dust thou art
                                                To dust thou must return
                                                Dust thou art
                                                To dust thou must return
                                                Dust thou art
                                                To dust thou must return
            The rabbi held the brown paper bag with the birds in it, close to his ear. He laid the bag on the ground and struck it once, hard, with the flat of the shovel. He stuffed the bag into the hole, and covered it with dirt. Looking up at the moon, he said the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer, bowing where God was supposed to be.
            He put the shovel and pick into the temple storeroom, and scrubbed his hands with the strong chemical-smelling liquid soap that the caretaker put into the bathrooms.

Too many funerals, he thought, as he walked slowly up the path to his house behind the temple, Too many.