They began the seventh cycle of stories at the conclusion of the Sabbath. With experience the cycle had evolved into four sessions, a marathon: Saturday night, Sunday morning, afternoon, and evening, each spanning four sets of stories. Several of the students had made arrangements to stay in the house, either in guest rooms or sleeping bags. Others were commuters or had booked hotel space nearby. Ten students, plus Stephanie and Sidney, gathered in the living room for havdalah, the ritual that separated the Sabbath from the ordinary days of the week.
Six women, four men. Each had submitted an application, necessary because the material was so numinous, not fit for the imbalanced. The application requested a reference from clergy, therapist, or physician, and the references were checked. Sidney wasn't prepared for another Emily.
Stephanie had read through the applications. She knew the makeup of the class and attempted to match the person to the clothes. The man who had lost his wife several months before was likely the one in shorts and sandals, a thin white beard, balding. The three repeats, friends, were the middle-aged women in long folksy cotton skirts. Two young men in jeans, a couple. Two young women in jeans, a couple. That was going to be a challenge for Sidney, because the imagery of the Kabbalah was decidedly heterosexual. One man in dress pants, button-down shirt, sleeves rolled up. The executive. He worked on Saturday, something to note. And a woman, also an executive, in the pantsuit, perhaps a Donna Karan. Stephanie looked for and found the jacket draped across a dining-room chair. She also worked on Saturday. They had singled each other out already, though they sat apart. Two engagements had come out of these storytellings. Perhaps this would be another.
So much for judging a class by its clothes.
The three long skirts came to Stephanie for hugs and kisses. They had wept their way through their first course but still had an appetite for more.
Stephanie had no choice but to begin by asking the gathering for the names she would soon forget. Sidney would remember. Sidney was good with names, Stephanie better with experiences. She asked for names and what each hoped to gain from the storytelling. There were no surprises in the responses. "A connectionwith God; a sense of purpose; a sense of self and my place in the world." No one said, "To surrender unconditionally to an agency beyond my self; to relinquish my beliefs; to risk a transformation of my very being."
Stephanie uttered the standard disclaimer. "There are no guarantees," she said. "We have stories to tell, for you to retell. Each time we do this, the experience is different, different for each of us. You may find what you expect here. You may not. It might be best to have no expectations, to surrender to the stories, and to allow what will happen to happen. That's up to you."
That done, she lowered the lights, lit the braided candle, and began chanting the havdalah blessings. She took care to explain each of the symbols--the wine, the spices, the candle itself--for the students who were not Jewish and for those who were. She knew from her own experience that being Jewish did not guarantee familiarity with the symbols of Judaism.
"We let Shabbat go gracefully," she said. "As we brought her into the house with wine, we let her go with wine. As she entered a house fragrant with spices, we let her go with fragrant spices. And as we greeted her with the light of candles, we let her go with the light of candles, but you see the candles have become braided into one. That's the grace of Shabbat. What was divided in the beginning has become one by the end."
Sidney chanted the blessing separating the Sabbath from the ordinary days of the week. Together they sang Eliahu Ha-navee, an incantation intended to bring Elijah the prophet back into space and time.
Stephanie raised the lights, but not to their full intensity. She sat in one of the deep chairs, looked from student to student, and then surprised herself.
She began with Sidney's words.
Four in the Morning
Four in the morning, too dark for the morning prayers, Moshe Katan descended to his study. At the top of the steps he acknowledged his exposure. With each step down, his anxiety grew. He descended into trepidation.
He needed some light, even though he could navigate the room with his toes through the shag rug. He turned the light up only enough to locate the CA125 chart and unpin it from the corkboard, then sat, not in the swivel chair behind his desk, but in a coffee-table chair, his back to the painting. He didn't want to be distracted. Perhaps that's why he would have preferred the lights not on at all.
The chart appeared ordinary. He knew it, didn't have to look at it. It could have been mistaken for something as benign as the progress of November beans, but CA125 was a cancer marker, not a commodities contract. Moshe closed his eyes and followed the flow of data with a light that emanated from within. It was there. Subtle, but there. Movement. Only a trader would see it. Rivkah's oncologist was not a trader.
Dr. Dowling had held the chart up to the light as if it were an X ray. "I don't see anything," she had reassured him. "What do you see that alarms you? We've had isolated readings this high before." Her patience barely masked her annoyance.
Moshe retrieved the chart from her, smoothed it on her desk, and traced his forefinger along the path of the most recent entries. "The movement has settled into a new pattern. It wasn't doing this before." He traced the line he could see, and she could not.
"I'm sorry, Rabbi, I still don't see anything."
"I chart things all the time. That's my business. I see things that look like they're not there, but are there. What I am seeing here frightens me."
The doctor looked again, shook her head. "I wouldn't take any action because of this," she said. "There's not enough change to justify it."
"If the marker continues to go up, what would you do?"
"If the marker goes up, we'll worry about it then. We'll do some additional tests. But I don't see anything in this that's cause for alarm, Rabbi. If you will excuse me, please, I have patients to see." She left him alone at her desk, an overprotective husband who saw things that were not there.
Maybe Dr. Dowling was right. Maybe there was nothing to worry about. What could he do anyway? Even if there was something he could do, what would Rivkah allow him to do?
Those were the two questions he asked himself at first. Those were the two questions he pondered as he fell asleep that evening. If they had been the only two, if he had not heard the deeper questions in his sleep, there would be no story to tell. The deeper questions awoke him and drove him to his study.
He had asked first what he might do. Was there indeed anything in his power to do? Surely he would never have been troubled to rise from his bed if there weren't within him a notion of something to do, a vague sense of something distant in the Kabbalah.
Then, what would Rivkah allow him to do? He knew how she felt. Rivkah wanted no involvement with the charts, and she had a disdain for the Kabbalah. She had made both abundantly clear. The charts were a reminder she hadbeen ill. And as for the Kabbalah, throughout their marriage any attempt to share with her his passion for Jewish spiritual discipline had been met with an apathy just short of contempt. He had learned to keep his discipline to himself, and then not even to himself. To do away with it, no longer necessary, an impediment to him and to his marriage.
The third question was the deceptive one. Was there any reason to do anything? Might he respond with no response, by doing nothing at all? The doctor saw no cause for alarm. Who was he to disagree? If he did nothing, who would challenge him, even if it turned out something was there? Who would expect anything from him? The very notion he might be able to intervene in any effective way was in itself presumptuous. So rational, such thoughts would have lulled a lesser man into deeper sleep. But for Moshe, the suggestion of denial was an alarm and gave rise to a fourth question.
If he should do nothing, then who was he? What was there to him if he perceived even a hint of a need and failed to respond to it? That he considered no response even for a moment touched an emptiness within him. His life had become comfortable. Actions that would have sprung from urgency years before were impeded by complacence, satisfaction.
Sitting in his study in the early morning darkness, he held the chart in his left hand and opened his right, staring at it as if something were missing.
He summoned his breath back into control, settled in his chair, and allowed his eyes to survey the room, from the bookcase to the left, across the wall of charts, to his desk, the computer, the globe, the wastebasket. The crumpled letter.
The letter was an invitation for him to teach a course about the Kabbalah at the Metropolitan Institute of Expanding Light. He had not offered such a course in years. The synagogues and Jewish organizations had long since stopped asking. Out of habit he had discarded the letter. Yet he had awakened early in the morning to retrieve it.
Moshe positioned himself more comfortably in his chair. He had an exercise to do. Between any two points in the universe, between any two points in any of the worlds, flows a straight line. He would surrender conscious thought so he might be moved by the most subtle of influences, that his perspective might change. The two points, the cancer marker and the invitation to teach, were still separate. He needed to shift his perception until the line disappeared, until one could be seen within the other. At that point he would know the connection for a certainty.
Monitoring his breathing, he inscribed the Hebrew letters of the DivineName on his body. He traced the YOD, HEY, VAV, HEY along the path of breath as it entered his nostrils, inside the lids of his closed eyes, across his forehead, around the curve of his ears. Layer after layer of concentration bound him deeper and deeper to the body of God. He descended gracefully, the world above disappearing. Suspended, frictionless, beyond sense, he asked himself the only question he had ever asked at that depth, "From here, where?"
When he rose to the surface and opened his eyes, he could distinguish the outline of the eucalyptus trees against the predawn sky. The time had come for morning prayers. He ascended from his study to the living room, enveloped himself in his tallit, the ritual prayer shawl, bound the tefillin, the leather cubes containing words of Torah written in the ancient form, to his arm and head, and walked out onto the deck. He wore the uniform for prayer, but prayer did not rise easily from his heart. The flow of words slowed and ceased as images broke through.
He visualized the doctor in her office. She had remembered him as the "Rabbi." The Metropolitan Institute had asked the Rabbi to teach, but the Rabbi had been absent for years. Moshe had exorcised the Rabbi from his system, or so he had thought. The unbidden images were telling him otherwise. Something of the Rabbi needed to return. With a calm acceptance he resumed his prayer and sought comfort under the wings of the Divine Presence.
When the students realized Stephanie's introduction was complete, they began to ask questions. Sidney held up his hand to stop them. "The stories speak for themselves. Rather than ask us questions, ask each other. The stories will be as complete as they need to be. If there are spaces, they are left for you to fill."
Elements of Stephanie's story had taken her by surprise. Moshe's four questions she had never heard before. She realized they had sprung from Moshe's own framework, the Four Worlds.
First a question about what he might do, what action he might take, a question in the World of Action.
Then a question about feelings. Moshe had been angry with Rivkah all those years, angry he had to sacrifice his discipline to preserve his marriage. Was that correct, Stephanie asked herself, or was she projecting her own anger with Sidney onto him? A question in the World of Formation.
And then a question from the world of reason, the World of Creation. Why not just let events take their course? If Rivkah died, she died, and the marriage with it. It wasn't a terrible marriage, but was it so good he should go to any great risk tosave it? Again, was that Rivkah and Moshe or herself and Sidney? The question registered. Stephanie didn't pause to ascertain an answer.
And a last question, from the World of Emanation, concerning the very essence of being. If he did nothing, then what was he? And as for her, Stephanie thought, if she did nothing, then what was she?
She wasn't doing nothing. She was telling the stories, and even the first one had nearly overwhelmed her. She needed time to consider before she could continue.
Sidney provided it by changing the venue, doing just what she didn't want him to do. He drew the students outside onto the deck under the vault of the heavens. She had wanted the first session cozy, confined in the textures of the pillows.
She remained curled deep in her chair, still aware of Sidney saying, "This is where much of the work took place." He gestured to indicate the living room the students were leaving as well as the California redwood planks ahead of them. A bench ran about the perimeter, enclosing four primitive chairs and a glass coffee table. Eucalyptus trees grew out of the hill below and towered above the deck. Several of the students reached out to caress the trees, the parchment bark holy in their hands.
Stephanie succumbed to Sidney's lead and sat in the chair the students had left open for her. She saw him close his eyes, as if searching for a new place for his own beginning. He leaned forward and said, "To Moshe Katan, angels often appeared in the form of winged lions. I suspect these lions had their origin early in his childhood. This was long before his name became Moshe Katan. Then he was known as Michael Kayten."
Young Michael always accompanied his father to shul on the Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They walked, not because they were religious, but because they lived nearby. Michael carried his father's purple velour tallis bag, the rampant lions, embroidered in gold, presented proudly to the world.
Michael and his father sat in the front pew, to the right of the bimah, close enough to lean forward and play with the turned dark maple of the railing. When he leaned back against the soft rose cushion, Michael wrapped himself in his father's tallis and toyed with the fringes. When he became bored, he neededno permission to leave the service to sit with his friends outside on the steps, but he always returned to his father's side for the auction.
"How much am I bid for this aliyah?" In Yiddish the men called out, "Ten dollars, twenty dollars." Aliyahs were honors, the privileges of attending to the Torah. Because writing was forbidden on the Holy Days, records of pledges were kept by folding tabs on cards prepared in advance.
Every year, for twenty-five dollars, an amount befitting a dentist, his father bought hagba, the honor of raising the Torah scroll when the reading was done. After the Torah was dressed, Michael's father would beckon him to the bimah, sit him in a tall chair, and set the Torah scroll in his hands while the haftarah was read. The velour of the Torah mantle felt like the velour of his father's tallis bag, but the embroidered lions were made of a coarser thread and scratched back when he touched them.
The lions sometimes appeared to young Michael in his dreams. He didn't know them yet as angels. They were not yet threatening. No, they were watching and waiting, at a distance.
Stephanie observed Sidney scanning the room. She knew what he was doing. He was sensing how the students responded to the first mention of angels. He had it down to a science. If they flinched, if their faces were puzzled with lack of comprehension, then the task would be easier. Even one such student provided a foil from which to reflect and intensify the learning.
In past tellings Sidney complained that most of the students came from some spiritual discipline outside of Judaism or from the peculiar Western path known as New Age spirituality. They came to confirm their own agenda, to reaffirm some established belief rather than to open themselves to new perspectives and growth. "There is no greater hindrance to growth than belief," Sidney was fond of saying.
So Stephanie followed Sidney's lead and looked into the faces, hoping for blank slates. There were some. Dress slacks and the Donna Karan seemed lost. All four in jeans seemed apprehensive. On the other hand the long skirts were nodding their knowledge, too full of what they knew already to admit any more. Still this was a good grouping, better than average. Each had paid $180, a donation to the Havurah. Some, Stephanie observed, were likely to get their money's worth.
Sidney paused, leaving room for Stephanie to add or comment. When she had nothing to say, he continued the stories of young Michael.
In Michael's shul the women sat in the balcony and the men sat below. Michael noted further divisions. Those men who knew enough Hebrew to be on the correct page he separated from those who did not. Of those who knew the correct page, there were those one could interrupt and ask, "What page are we on?" Michael was proud that his father was in this category. Then there were the very few who were never to be interrupted. They were really praying. He watched them, trying in vain to understand what they experienced.
One man in particular stood apart. Mr. Lieberman came early and secluded himself under his tallis in front of the bimah. He was the only one who wore sneakers on Yom Kippur so as not to have the hide of an animal under his feet. He stood when others sat, swayed when others were still, scowled when the service was interrupted for any reason or when his concentration was broken by the noise of children scurrying between the pews.
Once Michael found Mr. Lieberman's gaze on him. There was neither censure nor approval in his expression, but an acceptance that both pleased and confused Michael.
Again Sidney paused, leaving room for Stephanie, if she had something to say. He had not done so in any of the previous sessions. She realized he, too, sensed something different about this telling.
What might she say? When she was a little girl her mother had taken her to the shul below Fifth Street. They had sat upstairs while the men did whatever it was they did below. The women talked and paid little attention to the prayers. Prayer was a guy thing, she thought, though that's not the way it would have been expressed.
"Men had the obligation to pray," she reminded herself in an internal rabbinic voice she had heard somewhere, not from Moshe. From someone else, years before. "Women were excused from all the obligations fixed in time, except three." The rabbinic voice couldn't recall all three. One was lighting Shabbos candles, she remembered. Her mother didn't light candles.
Twice her mother brought her to the shul. Only twice, when she was a little girl. She had no interest in it, and neither did her mother, so they never went back.
Sensing that Stephanie had nothing to insert, Sidney continued.
The shul had a new Rabbi every year. Michael could not remember the names of any of them except for Rabbi Margolis, who had taken him along with three other children to visit the Israeli destroyer when it came into the harbor.
"Look at this. Look at this!" the Rabbi said over and over with each new wonder. Cannon, anchors, the quarterdeck, the galley, even the sleeping spaces for the crew. "Look at this! Who would have thought we would live to see such a thing! Our own navy!"
When it came time for Michael to prepare for his bar mitzvah, his family joined the Conservative synagogue. There had been no Hebrew school for Michael at the small Orthodox shul. His father found a tutor to prepare him to read his portion. The morning of his bar mitzvah, Michael met the Rabbi for the first time. Michael sang his blessings, chanted his haftarah, read his speech, and became sick at the party afterward. His uncle Bernie had given him a rye and ginger ale to drink because, after all, Michael was now a man.
Within a year Michael had forgotten his Torah portion, the blessings, the chant of the haftarah, and the Rabbi's name.
When Michael was in the ninth grade, his parents were eager for him to be in the company of other Jewish teenagers, so they joined the Reform temple. He attended confirmation class on Monday nights. The boys, except for Michael, did not pay attention. They waited for the class to be over, to light up cigarettes in the bathroom, to joke in the hall and check out the girls.
Michael alone argued with the Rabbi. The Rabbi answered each of Michael's questions with care and patience. The class became a dialogue. The others paid no attention.
"I understand!" Michael proclaimed one evening. "The universe is like a clock, and it was God who wound it up!"
"Aha!" exclaimed the Rabbi. "Yes, but an electric clock, and God is the electricity!"
Michael understood the Rabbi's correction. A wind-up clock once wound no longer had need of the winder. An electric clock was in constant need of electricity.
Several nights later Michael awoke with a question. "But why would electricity need a clock?"
With a start, Stephanie realized she had a story. Before Sidney could continue with Moshe's college career, she raised a finger, just enough for Sidney to notice.
Stephanie had spoken her introduction while seated. She had been much too comfortable seated and had become lost in her own words. This time she rose from her chair. She would not become lost while standing and pacing, not if she kept her eyes open and moving, reading the light reflected back from the eyes of the students. "Moshe was Michael as a child," she explained. "Rivkah was Rebecca. Becky Shapiro."
Becky Shapiro was sick in Sunday school, sick to her stomach and upset she was going to have to leave class just when they were about to make Purim masks. Every year they made masks for Purim, the Jewish Mardi Gras. It was just about the only thing in Sunday school she liked. That was the morning she was tired and sick enough so her teacher noticed and sent her down to the Rabbi's office. The office doubled as the infirmary on Sundays.
"Oh dear!" the volunteer said. "What do we have here?"
"I'm sick," Becky confessed. "But don't call my mother. I'll be better soon."
Becky lay down on the sofa in the reception area. She recognized several of the paintings on the walls. They had similar paintings at home. Her father sold paintings. That was his business. Maybe he had sold these to the synagogue. The paintings were orange, red, and purple. She closed her eyes.
When she opened them, the Rabbi was standing above her. "How do you feel?" he asked. He was in a black suit and so tall his head went up to the ceiling, almost to the light fixture in the center of the room. She squinted, trying to make out his face in the brightness. "You're shivering. Are you cold?"
She was either cold or afraid. All the kids were afraid of the Rabbi.
When she did not answer, he retreated, then returned within a few seconds. "This will keep you warm," he said. He spread his robe over her.
She knew that robe. In the synagogue, when the Rabbi raised his arms, the robe hung massive from his shoulders. Three stripes of black velvet were seared into each sleeve. When those arms were raised, the congregation followed suit, rising collectively to its feet. It was impossible to remain seated when those arms were raised. They commanded. They didn't embrace.
Becky knew a story of Moses. When the children of Israel were fighting in the valley below, Moses stood on a hill above with his arms raised. As long as he held his arms aloft, the children of Israel succeeded. When his arms tired and sagged, the Israelites did not fare well.
The Rabbi tucked the robe about her. The cotton was smooth and thin, not much warmth to it. Under the robe she trembled even more. Still she had the courage to search out the arms for the stripes of black velvet. As long as she touched them, she thought, she would be all right.
She slept until her mother came to take her home.
There were other stories she suddenly wanted to tell, needed to tell, but this wasn't the place. They were stories about herself, not Rivkah, not Moshe. Stories about Stephanie had no place in this telling, she knew. Sidney's only purpose in these stories was to lay the groundwork for the Kabbalah to follow.
Well, screw Sidney's purpose! There was another story to tell, and she could damn well make it work!
To the students she said, "Rivkah grew up in Baltimore. Me, I grew up in Miami. Rivkah and I met once when we were children. We didn't know that for a long time, but later, when we were talking about our childhoods, we realized we had the same grandmother."
Stephanie almost laughed aloud at the confusion in Sidney's face.
Becky on the Beach
I was born in New York, just before my parents moved to Miami. My parents had come to this country from Poland, left weeks before the war. I was supposed to be a boy so I could be named for my father's brother who died in the Holocaust. Everybody on my father's side died. Everybody.
My father's family had been jewelers. Generations of jewelers. My mother loved to tell me about the house in Poland. It wasn't the biggest house, but it was beautiful, in a nice neighborhood. They had a maid. And china, Rosenthal china. I can't tell you how many times I heard about the Rosenthal china.
It took everything my parents owned to get out of Poland. Everything. They came to New York with nothing, and to Miami with even less. A cousin on my mother's side brought us to Miami. My father started a store on Miami Beach, on Washington Avenue, a small store. He sold Jewish stuff, silver plate kiddush cups, shabbos candlesticks, esrog holders, spice boxes for havdalah. Sometimesa sterling piece. Mostly plate. Not old. Nothing really precious. Jewish stuff. His customers were tourists, from the hotels on Collins and Ocean Drive.
My mother crocheted yarmulkes, which my father sold. He wore one in the store. It was good for business. As soon as he got home, he took it off. My father was bald. He preferred bald to the yarmulke.
We lived two blocks away, in an apartment. I had my own room, but I didn't spend much time in it.
I was raised on Washington Avenue. I knew all the shopkeepers. The butcher, the grocer, Al in the corner store who sold newspapers, magazines, and comic books. This was my family. These were my uncles and aunts.
I had lots of grandparents, too, in the hotels. Some came down only for the winter, but some stayed all year. My favorite grandmother was Ida. Ida stayed all year round. Ida had a favorite chair on the porch of the Regency, and I had a favorite place in her lap.
One day I came to visit with her, and there was another girl in her lap. "This is Becky," she said, "my granddaughter." When she saw the look on my face, she added, "My other granddaughter. Becky is my other granddaughter, from Baltimore."
This was Rivkah. We were about the same age. She was down for winter vacation. She and her parents stayed at the Algiers, one of the new hotels, around 34th Street.
We went to the beach together. That was just one block away. I think her parents must have been with us, because we wouldn't have gone to the beach alone. I was allowed to walk all over Washington Avenue, Collins, and Ocean Drive, but I wasn't supposed to go on the beach. We built a sand castle down by the water. I remember it. A breaker came and took it away.
One night, here in this house, right here on this porch, this deck, Rivkah and I were talking about when we were kids. She told me about her one trip to Miami Beach. When she mentioned the name Ida, I knew she was Becky, and we had the same grandmother.
Ida died that year, and Becky never came back to Miami.
Stephanie didn't look toward Sidney. Rivkah had never visited Miami Beach. Sidney knew that. She and Stephanie had never met as children. But they might have, Stephanie thought. She would have liked that. So why not tell the story? She couldn't wait to let Rivie know they had the same grandmother.
The rest of it was true. Ida was true. Mildred and Sophie and Rose, but Ida was the best of all, because she was there year-round, and she madetayglach in her efficiency kitchen, hard balls of dough covered with honey and ginger.
And Al was true. Of all the aunts and uncles, he was the best. Al had the corner news store where she sat and read everything. Everything. First the comics, then the magazines, then the books he would leave for her.
Al also was from Poland. He had known her father there. Al hadn't gotten out in time. Al had blue numbers tattooed on his arm, but he never talked about it. Her father didn't like Al, didn't like that Stephanie spent time in his store. Stephanie went there anyway.
Why didn't she follow her father's wishes? What was it about Al and his store that she liked being there? That her father disapproved of it made it so much more desirable. Why was that? The questions flooded in upon her. How come she had never asked such questions before?
At home Stephanie spoke Yiddish with her parents. In Al's store, they spoke English. He didn't want to talk Yiddish. This was America, they would speak English. He didn't want to be reminded of Poland. Al wanted to be American. Stephanie wanted to be American.
Her father sat all day on the stool behind the counter of his store, never said a word, but Al talked all the time. He talked with everyone who came in, argued politics, always politics, and always a book for Stephanie. Black Stallion was among the first. Mutiny on the Bounty and the rest of the trilogy. Horatio Hornblower stories, she couldn't remember how many of them.
It was probably because of Al she skipped fourth grade, because her reading was at such a high level, or perhaps because she could argue so well. When she wasn't reading they talked about what she was reading. They talked about what she was doing at school. They talked about everything. Al was the very best uncle.
Harry was also a good uncle. He gave her a pickle whenever she came into the deli. And she had aunts, Sally at the clothes store, and Blanche who worked in the fruit market. But Al was the best.
Sidney continued with a story of the young Moshe.
Throughout his years of high school Michael's grades were no better than necessary to keep him in the company of his friends. He applied to Harvardand Yale. The admissions officers had, at least, been courteous. The interview at MIT had been different.
"Your grades are terrible," the admissions officer began, his gaze on the file before him.
"Yes, sir," Michael agreed.
"Do you know any math?"
The admissions officer flipped through the pages. "Your grades say you don't, but your boards say you do. Which tells the truth?"
"The boards, sir. I know my math."
"Your boards are fine, Michael. Your grades aren't."
"Yes, sir. I've been thinking about that. Grades haven't been important to me. Learning has, but not the grades."
The admissions officer closed the file, the interview all but complete. "Do you have any questions for me?" He leaned back in his chair and checked his watch against the clock on the wall.
"Yes, sir." Michael unfolded a map of the campus. "Where is Building Nine? I took the tour this morning. Building Nine is missing."
"Where do you think it is?" the admissions officer countered as he returned to an upright position.
"Here," Michael said, pointing to the empty space in front of Building Ten. MIT was centered about a courtyard. One entered the odd-numbered buildings from Massachusetts Avenue. Across the courtyard were the even-numbered buildings. Connecting them under the dome was Building Ten.
"Over on this side is engineering," Michael said, closing his eyes to draw course titles from his memory. As he named each course, he pointed to the appropriate building. "And this side is science." Again he named courses as his finger moved across the map. "If there's a Building Nine, it's here. It would be where the students from all of the different disciplines meet. Science, Humanities, Engineering. They meet here as they walk from class to class."
Michael waited patiently while the admissions officer tapped his pencil on the desktop. "Okay, that's where Building Nine might be," he conceded. "Now what courses might be taught there?" For twenty minutes they explored the imaginary building and the imaginary courses that might be taught in it.
Michael Kayten received early admission to MIT, even though he had not applied for early admission. He was rejected everywhere else.
Before exams Michael studied through the night in an empty classroom to avoid the distractions of the dormitory. One such night, shortly before dawn, he returned to the dorm to shower and change. His room was dark. He turned on the light. The window shade was open. Most of the light from the fixture in the ceiling remained in the room, but some escaped through the window. He watched it go and wondered where it went. Out, out the window. Away, away from the earth. Deep, deep into space. Beyond, beyond the solar system to the very edge of the universe.
"Does the universe have an edge?" he asked himself. "If it does, the light bounces back, or it is pulled back. If it doesn't, the light escapes, and more light escapes, and it becomes thinner and thinner out there, and nothing relates to anything anymore. There would be no purpose. No relationships, no interactions, no purpose. The light has to come back."
His thoughts followed the light out the window. How long he followed that light he did not know, but when he returned from his reverie, he was excited. He wanted to share his experience with someone, but with whom? He had not yet studied quantum physics or cosmology and had no notion that others before him had followed that light out to the edge of the universe. With whom could he share such thoughts?
He sat at his desk and wrote a letter to his Rabbi.
Stephanie said, "When Michael was beginning college in Cambridge, Rebecca was beginning high school in Baltimore." This wasn't a new story. She had told it twice before.
Every autumn, following Yom Kippur, the men of Becky's synagogue erected an immense sukkah in the courtyard. The structural poles were fixed and remained in place throughout the year. The men strung cables to connect the top of one pole to the next and spread a latticework of wire between thecables. On three sides they erected plywood walls. The fourth side remained open. They threw leafy branches on top of the wire lattice, enough to create the illusion of a roof and a modicum of shade by day, but not so much as to block the stars at night.
At the beginning of the harvest holiday of Sukkot, children brought fruit to hang from the roof. In religious-school classes they made decorations to tack to the walls.
The sukkah was wonderful the first day of the weeklong holiday. By the end of the week, the fruit was rotten.
"Let's build our own," Rebecca suggested to her parents. They were content to celebrate the holiday in the synagogue.
"Let's build our own," she suggested to Sharon. Sharon was thirteen and not about to do anything her older sister suggested.
Rebecca begged lumber scraps from a construction site. She carried them home, found nails in the toolbox, and hammered out the frame of a small sukkah in the backyard. She tacked old sheets to form three walls. She hauled a saw to a nearby woods, cut and dragged branches and brush to throw onto the roof. The space inside was just large enough for the bridge table and four chairs.
"We eat in our sukkah tonight," she proclaimed when her parents returned home.
They rejoiced in their sukkah. The weather remained crisp and clear. They ate outside every night, each night more wonderful than the last.
Even Rebecca's poison ivy was not enough to diminish her delight.
Stephanie paused to harvest the smiles. She had one more story to tell.
Summers Rebecca attended Camp Hadera in the Poconos. Camp Hadera was a few acres of ersatz Israel surrounding a mountain lake. The buildings had Hebrew names. The paths and lanes were named after Israeli boulevards and avenues. Rebecca became Rivkah.
Friday afternoon the campers swept the asphalt of Rehov Ben Yehudah clean. They trimmed the hedges and weeded the flower beds in front of the Hadar Ohel, the dining room. In pairs one washed the windows while the other wiped them clean with balled-up newspaper.
Dressed in white shorts and T-shirts, the campers sang all the way from the cabins to the pavilion that served as the Bayt Knesset, the synagogue. The Shabbat service was led by senior campers. The songs were melodies of their own generation, the words ageless.
Rivkah first attended Camp Hadera for a half session when she was eight. At nine she wanted to stay the entire summer. At ten, she did. At sixteen she was a counselor-in-training, at eighteen a counselor fully trained.
The camp was a miracle.
Rabbis came to teach and talked about the miracles in the Bible--the Red Sea parting, the sun standing still. For Rivkah those were stories, not miracles. The miracle was the camp in the Poconos where people spoke Hebrew. The Hebrew language was a miracle. Israel was a miracle. That after two thousand years Jews had their own land, that an ancient language could be revived to provide a common tongue for people from Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Poland, Germany, Hungary, South Africa, England, and America--those were miracles, the land and the language.
Rivkah had lots of stories about summer camp, the time the boys sneaked over to the girls' side and got caught, the time she and a friend climbed the hill to the highway and the grocery store and brought back ice-cream sandwiches for everyone in the cabin. Those were good stories, but there wasn't any point in telling them.
Stephanie had her own stories, but not about summer camp. She worked summers in Uncle Al's store. It wasn't busy during the summer. She had plenty of time to read. Thomas Mann, Isaac Singer, Henry Miller. Strange stuff, challenging stuff, stuff to talk and argue about. The Henry Miller more than the Isaac Singer. Al didn't like to talk about Isaac Singer.
There was an adult section in the news store where the men went to look at Playboy and Escapade. She had looked, too. Al never stopped her from looking, only said to ask questions if there was something she didn't understand. There was a lot she didn't understand, and sometimes Al admitted he didn't understand either.
She and Al talked about the boys in high school. There was one she kind of liked. All the girls liked him. He had a motorcycle, not a scooter. A Harley-Davidson, a big motorcycle. Al asked why she liked him. She didn't know how to answer. Most of her friends were on the debate team. He was on the football team.
One afternoon, as he was about to get on his bike, she asked if she could have a ride. He didn't know her name, but he couldn't refuse her a ride. Sheliked it. A lot. They began to ride together, over the causeway and south through Coconut Grove and Old Cutler.
They weren't a couple. He dated other girls. They were motorcycle buddies. One trip Stephanie asked if she could ride the front seat, if he would show her how to control the bike. He did. Left foot the shift, right foot rear brake. Left hand the clutch, right hand front brake. Roll back the right hand, the throttle. "Roll back slowly," he cautioned.
She sat up front, he sat behind. She rolled back the throttle not slowly enough. The bike lunged forward, the front wheel coming up, dumping him on the asphalt behind. She wrestled the machine into control, slowed, turned, and found him okay, dusting himself off. She couldn't help but laugh. It took him some time to the see the humor.
They made sex that night, not love. She was curious about it. It was his first time as well, a learning experience. It was the only time for sex, but they enjoyed the motorcycle together until she left Miami.
Stephanie wondered what that had to do with anything. She had shared the story with Rivkah. Rivkah had shared her own first experience. Was there a story in that? Yes, but Stephanie couldn't think of any justification in telling it.
Sidney said, "When Rivkah was finishing her summer at Camp Hadera and contemplating her freshman year at Brown, Michael was considering what his path might be after college."
"To travel and see the world," Michael would say when his friends asked him why he had joined the Navy. There was nothing else he wanted to do when he had finished MIT. He had no desire for graduate studies, nor were his grades adequate in any case. He needed some other space in which to mark time. The Navy seemed a neutral choice, and safe. He enlisted for the romance of the sea a few weeks before the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the escalation of the war in Vietnam.
The Navy sent its MIT grad to Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. The uniforms were blue, the shoes black, the buckles brass, the blankets gray, and the asphalt tiles of the living quarters green. At inspection the uniforms had to be crisp, the creases sharp, the shoes luminous, the buckles molten in their radiance, the bed blankets taut and wrinkle-free, the floorunmarred, a brilliant green. Michael learned to tuck and fold, to polish, buff, and shine. He learned to suspend his intellect, surrender, and submit. He learned to laugh.
His roommate was Chuck Harris, an engineering graduate from Georgia. They sewed creases into their uniforms, walked in socks, slept under the beds, did everything the system required no more than once, if possible. They laughed at the weird world they marched through daily, at every attempt to break their will.
Neither man had to study. Both learned in class at first hearing. During study hours at night they played gin. Moshe won.
"How come you keep winning?" Chuck asked.
"Because it's not important to me," Michael answered.
They played in the drawer of the table they shared as a desk, their books open in front of them. They drilled what they would do should the Officer of the Day enter their room unexpected. They would drop their cards, close the drawer, and pivot toward the books, studious and proper. They played for weeks, every night, and kept a cumulative score. Michael's advantage rose into the thousands.
It had to happen. Michael saw the doorknob turn, dropped his cards, closed the drawer, turned toward the books.
"Attention on deck!" he shouted as the Officer of the Day entered. He sprung to attention, expecting Chuck to do the same.
"Gin," Chuck said, still holding his cards as he came to his feet.
"You're playing cards," the Officer of the Day said.
"Yes, sir," Chuck agreed. "I have gin, sir. I don't often have gin, and I'd rather keep this hand than throw it in."
"You will march, mister," the officer said. "Both of you."
March they did, that weekend, the two of them. No liberty on the town. They marched, and they laughed. Four months of training and they never stopped laughing. Only the laughing made that world bearable.
Ensign Harris wanted to fly. His eyes were such he could not be a pilot. The Navy sent him to learn the second seat of a combat aircraft, to become a Radar Intercept Officer. Ensign Kayten had no notion of what he wanted to do. The navy tested him and found he had a rare ability to see sense in what others saw as a random pattern. They sent him to Combat Information Center training with a specialty in air control.
The navy wasn't stupid. In spite of the folding, tucking, shining, and buffing, it used its talent well.
There was a summer-camp story worth telling, Stephanie realized, and spoke quickly before Sidney could continue. "While Michael was learning the art of war, Rebecca learned to dance."
Above all, Rebecca liked to dance.
She had learned Israeli dance at camp, at age eight. Every camper, every counselor, every staff member danced Hora Hadera. At all major assemblies, outside or inside, the entire camp danced, circles within circles within circles.
At age eighteen Rebecca taught dance at camp. She taught counselors and senior campers how to teach new arrivals. At assemblies, Rebecca set the pace in the center of the circles.
Among the factors that brought her to study at Brown University was Israeli dance. The Hillel Jewish Student Center had a weekly program that became the center of her campus life.
Israeli music had evolved far beyond horas, borrowing from all the cultures contained in the state. The rhythms were Yemenite, Arabic, East European, even American. The sequences of steps had become so complex only those with devotion could master them.
Women were the most likely to be so dedicated. Men seemed to have other uses for their time. The few who attended were in much demand for couples dancing. They had their pick of the women. The remainder of the girls paired off, dancing with each other, taking their turns as pretend boys.
A Rabbi's son was the most talented among the men. His father was a Rabbi, even the Rabbi in Southern California. Rebecca had not heard of that Rabbi, but his name was known among her fellow dancers. He was the Rabbi to the stars. She was flattered when the Rabbi's son asked her to dance, once, then often, then more often still.
The couples dances became an obligation. She had to know every step, every sequence of steps, the bridges between the sequences. She practiced alone, the music humming in her mind as she counted the rhythm. If she should falter and make a mistake, she feared the Rabbi's son would turn to someone else, reducing her to dancing with pretend boys.
He was the Rabbi's son. She wanted to know what it was to be a Rabbi's child, but there were few words between them beyond the dance. When he invited her to walk outside with him, she was eager to go. When he pulled her to him and imposed a kiss, she was too startled to resist and still afraid to offend.When he reached for her breast, she pushed him away. When he reached for her again, she said, "No. I don't want to do this." When he became forceful, she slapped him with her open hand, catching him not flush on the cheek, but awkwardly, against his nose.
That night she did not sleep. All that time she had practiced so as not to disappoint him. He had not practiced so as not to disappoint her.
She was angry, more with herself than with him. He was what he was, but she had been sacrificing herself trying to please him. Had she been faithful to herself, she could have avoided an awkward moment.
Rivkah returned to the dance, taking her turns along with the other women.
Stephanie had a defiant look about her. Sidney had not heard that story before. She wondered how he might respond.
He made time for himself by chanting a soft niggun, a wordless repetitive tune. Moshe had taught them, whenever in doubt about how to continue, chant a little, and that's what Sidney was doing.
In the previous tellings he had mustered Michael quickly out of the Navy. This time he had another Navy story to tell.
A month at a time Lieutenant Kayten's destroyer patrolled a five-mile line between the Communist Chinese island of Hainan to the east and the North Vietnamese city of Haiphong to the west. Two carrier task groups steamed in battle formation two hundred miles to the south.
Lieutenant Kayten's day began with a wake-up call shortly before midnight. Without words he dressed and walked through red-lit passageways up ladders to the Combat Information Center. He sipped coffee as he listened to the briefing of the officer he was about to relieve.
When he sat at the radar console and assumed control of the two F-4 Phantoms circling above, he was fully awake. The safety of the fleet was in his hands.
The carriers launched strikes into North Vietnam day and night. Lieutenant Kayten's task was to be certain that every aircraft that came out of the North to return to the carriers was friendly. Any suspicious contact merited an intercept and an eyeball, if not a missile. There could be no mistakes.
At 0400 his relief appeared. Lieutenant Kayten returned to his quarters, stripped to his underwear, and fell instantly asleep.
At 0615 came a wake-up call. He climbed to the bridge. The quartermaster had the sextant ready. Lieutenant Kayten shot the stars. "Mark," he said, to record the time a particular celestial body was a precise angle above the predawn horizon. Even though the radar painted the mountaintop on Hainan every few seconds, regulations required celestial navigation to fix a ship's position. He worked the tables, drew the lines, recorded the data, ate his breakfast, met with his chief and department head. At 1100 he studied the messages, top secret strike information, how many aircraft, which targets. He ate a sandwich and at noon returned to the Combat Information Center for the afternoon watch, four more hours protecting the fleet.
At 1600 he celebrated the Sabbath.
Seven days a week, a month at a time, the ship steamed that five-mile line. No days off. But one hour a day Lieutenant Kayten separated from the other hours and proclaimed it a Sabbath. He might listen to music or sunbathe on the fantail. The time was holy, inviolate. His division knew not to bother him.
At 1700 the messages came, whatever they were. At 1800 dinner with the captain in the wardroom. At 1845, back on the bridge for the evening stars. Then a few minutes of a movie before going to sleep to be awakened before midnight.
Every day for a month on that five-mile line fatigue was the enemy, more so than any Russian-built MiG.
One day like all the other days Lieutenant Kayten lay on his mat on the fantail soaking up sun. Noise and confusion roused him from his Sabbath. The ship turned and put on steam. "Plane down," a sailor informed him. The recovery team manned its stations. Lieutenant Kayten had no role to play. He remained by the rail in his bathing suit as the ship backed down to coast beside a body dead in the water.
"Oh God," he thought with a sudden dread. "Please, God, don't let it be Chuck. Don't let it be Chuck." The war in that moment became real. Until then all the strikes going into the North had been exercises, no more than training. In that moment the bombs became real. Screams became real. Terror became real. "Please, God, don't let it be Chuck." The Phantoms became real. The airman, dead in the water, real. He was not Chuck, but he was broken, and dead, and ever so real.
The next day, during his Sabbath, he wrote his Rabbi. "I don't know what I'm doing here. Yesterday we fished a dead man out of the sea. The war didn'tbecome real until yesterday. It was only images on a radar screen. I don't know what we're doing here. I don't know anything at all. I don't know what to do. I don't remember the last time I cried. I'm crying now, and I don't know what to do."
At the end of the month Lieutenant Kayten's destroyer steamed into Hong Kong harbor for R&R. The festival of Passover was to begin that evening. One synagogue was listed in the phone book; one call was all he needed. "I am a Jew," he explained, "a United States Navy officer. My ship has just come out of the Gulf of Tonkin. I need a place at a seder table this evening. Can you help me?"
"Yes." The answer was immediate and unequivocal.
Before sunset a taxi brought him to the synagogue, an awesome classical edifice. He wore civilian clothes, a jacket and tie, and sat with the men through the service. A word to the Rabbi led to an introduction to a family--father, mother, and college-age daughter. Their home was an apartment high on the Victoria hillside.
His host was American, the manager of Asian operations for a major corporation, his wife French of Moroccan birth, and his daughter a student at Berkeley, home for the holiday. They read the Haggadah, the Passover seder service, in English and sang the songs in Hebrew. The songs were Ashkenazi, familiar European Jewish melodies Michael remembered. The foods were Moroccan and strange to his palate. But the matzah, the flat bread of freedom, and the sweet red wine were the same.
"You've been to Vietnam?" the daughter asked.
"The Gulf of Tonkin. The waters off of Vietnam, not Vietnam itself."
"What do you do there?"
"You shouldn't be there." The parents looked to quiet her.
Michael didn't ask whether she was referring to him in particular, or to his country.
After dinner they sat in the living room overlooking the harbor. His ship floated at anchor, tiny so far below.
At another time he would have invited the daughter aboard for dinner in the wardroom, but his ship was at war. Even in port his ship was at war, and so was he.
As for the daughter from Berkeley, no relationship was possible. There was a gulf between them. The father drove him to the dock when the time came for him to return to his ship.
"There was a gulf between them."
Stephanie heard the echoes within the words. Sidney knew what was going on. The story was as much for her, for them, as for the students.
Why hadn't Sidney ever told that story before? Perhaps it was her own story of Rivie and the Rabbi's son that opened the way to Moshe and the gulf. Her stories were doing something. They were having an effect. Where they would go, what they might stimulate in Sidney, what they might stimulate in her, she did not know, but she was encouraged by the process.
"Let's return to the living room," she suggested. "We need a different setting for the next collection of stories."
THE SEVENTH TELLING. Copyright © 2001 by Mitchell Chefitz. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.