I sat in a chair outside the office while Mama went inside and spoke to the rabbi. I’d been sitting there since Hebrew school let out—which I attended on Tuesdays and Sundays—and when Mama had gotten there, she’d asked what I was thinking, mouthing off to the rabbi like I had. Now I stared at my dangling feet and tried to ignore the muffled conversation through the wall. When the door opened, she walked out with a clenched jaw. She lifted my chin with her slender hand and looked at the redness on my cheek. I told her that I was never going back to Hebrew school, ever. Once on the sidewalk, she demanded an explanation. Everything I meant to say swam through my mind. It started with Jacob. The previous month, the fact that he was the rabbi’s son must have sunk in, because the Monday after he turned ten he started taking his bar mitzvah studies more seriously and paraded himself around the other Jewish kids at primary school. “You know,” he’d said to a girl who’d just fallen off the swing, “you should hope that cut doesn’t leave a scar. Leviticus says we can’t have tattoos on our skin.” The next day, he told a flock of kids, “My papa, the rabbi, says that it’s my job to set an example. Come pray with me at the eastern fence of the ball court.” And they followed him to nod their heads back and forth while murmuring to themselves. On this went the whole month.
If Jacob’s cult was a nuisance at primary school, it was an infection at Hebrew school. While the rabbi lectured on the history of our people, Jacob sat amidst his little colony. Their eyes darted from Jacob to the rabbi, and back again, each kid fawning before them both. When we were on our own to do crafts or to study Torah, the other kids threw questions at Jacob, one after the other. I burned to tell them how full of crap he was.
The rabbi returned and began his lecture on the rules for keeping the Sabbath.
“Everything must be prepared before sundown on Friday,” he said. “Toilet paper must be torn into individual squares for the next day. Food must be prepared. If you need to boil an egg, it must be on the lowest possible setting.” On he went, rule after rule. “No driving. No electricity or power of any kind. And candles must be lit before Sabbath begins.”
The other kids were taking notes. One of them even drew pictures of the jobs we weren’t to do, with a line struck through each. The look in their eyes, I realized, was the same that they had when following Jacob at primary school.
“Why?” I blurted out.
The others looked to me for a moment before turning to Jacob and the rabbi.
“We must save all energy for worshipping—”
“But don’t you think it takes more energy to move your back, leg, and arm muscles just to get out of bed than it does to flip a switch with your finger?”
The rabbi walked to me through the sea of children. “We avoid what we can, and pray for what we can’t.”
“But,” I said, “Wouldn’t it make more sense to—”
The sting of his hand against my cheek.
All of this I thought of as I walked with Mama, but “He shouldn’t have hit me” was all I said.
She shook her head, and by the way she pursed her lips, I knew she’d tell Papa once home. We walked the rest of the way in silence. From windows in observant homes, I felt the eyes of every Jewish mother drilling into me.
“Your son,” Mama announced as we walked into the house, “has something to tell you.” She turned to me, adding, “And he’d better tell it all.”
I found Papa in the kitchen. He was pouring coffee beans into a grinder. Since we’d moved to New Jersey two years before, he’d become obsessed with coffee. Plenty of Jews drank it back home—some even considered it worthy of devotion—but Papa never did. Inside the wire (a border of that orthodox community, to tell us the limits of where we were allowed to go), the coffee, according to Papa, was bland and it all tasted the same. In New Jersey, though, the varieties were endless. The first month after moving, he’d often come home with two or three cups of different brews, asking me to help him discern the differences. To me, that was like trying to find the difference in Papa without his payos—his long curly sideburns. Was there truly any change? As for the coffee, I found them all to be too bitter. He told me I’d grow to appreciate that bitterness one day. “Till then,” he’d said, “add more sugar.” Coffee was new to me, as were many things, like going to public school. Back home, I’d only known home schooling and lessons from the rabbi, like all orthodox children. In this new home, even simple things like math were alien to me. It would take time to adjust to being away from my hometown, with our old neighbors who’d come over for barbeques. None visited more than Frank, who’d lived down the street with his mother even into his thirties. He’d often come by early, and leave late after a beer or two with Papa, though Papa didn’t really like the taste. Not wanting to think about Frank, I would simply take Papa’s advice and focus on telling the coffees apart. As I looked at the coffee now, I doubted I’d ever really understand what it was about the drink that Papa liked so much.
“Come, Danny. Help me with the brew.” He smiled and moved aside. I placed my hand on the small lever and began grinding the beans. The smell of the coffee filled my nose, mixed with the scent of Papa’s tobacco. “Put your muscle into it, boy.” He poked at my arm, tickling me and forcing a reluctant giggle from my lips. When the grinding was done, we poured the coffee into a filter and Papa took the boiling water from the stove. “The key,” he said as he began pouring in a slow circle, “is to take your time; breathe in the brew.” When we finished, we sat at the table with our cups, mine with plenty of sugar.
“What did your mother want you to tell me?” As he said this, he was opening a tiny canister of strong-smelling ointment. He dipped his fingertip into it and rubbed it gently against my bruised cheek. I tried not to breathe it in because it made me cough. It wasn’t just the liniment but the look he gave me that had me convinced he’d already received a call from the rabbi, and that telling him of the events myself was a formality. He put the ointment away and sat patiently. I told him what happened, everything. I told him how I wanted to show the other kids that it’s nothing to be the rabbi’s son because even the rabbi was wrong sometimes. Papa sat in silence throughout my story, drinking his coffee.
When I’d finished, he considered the bottom of his cup for a few moments, then looked back at me.
“Did I ever tell you about when I was stationed on the Saratoga?” Papa asked. “Big ship, the Saratoga. Bigger than me.” He laughed and pat his large stomach. “The lieutenant tells me one day, ‘I want this deck spotless.’ Tells me, ‘I want to see my face in it.’ An impossible task for one sailor. He thinks he’ll have me working myself to the bone, but do you know what I did?” I shook my head and took a sip of my sugar-coffee. “Well, the lieutenant had it out for me since day one; had me in the boiler room any chance he got. He was a real ball bust—well he liked to bust your papa’s chops. See, I was the cantor on the ship, and he didn’t much like that.”
“Papa,” I interrupted; his stories often veered off topic.
“Right, right. So, what I do is I take some cans of shoe polish and wipe down the whole deck, real smooth and shiny like.”
“Shush, you.” Papa leaned over to inspect my bruise. “Start rubbing your hand against the other side of your face,” he said.
“This one?” I pointed to my unmarked side and he nodded. “Why?” I asked, but this he ignored.
“The lieutenant comes back after a while…”
I began rubbing my cheek.
“…and he starts hollering about the deck. ‘You idiot,’ he tells me. ‘You’ll give away our position!’ And he starts cursing and screaming. Calls me a kike.”
“Um…” he scratched his head, his yarmulke shifting between his thick fingertips and scalp. “Means dirty Jew. Well, my temper gets the better of me and I throw him down a flight of stairs. He’s bumping and crashing to the bottom of the steps, and before I know it I’m standing in front of a military judge facing a court-martial. The lieutenant wants me kicked out.
“You can stop rubbing your cheek now.”
I stopped. My cheek felt like it had a small rash.
“Long story short, I was lucky that the Judge was Jewish.”
“Then it all worked out,” I said.
“No, Danny. You miss the point.” He sighed, and tipped the last of his coffee into his mouth. “The Lieutenant deserved what he got, but I deserved to be kicked out of the Navy for giving it to him.”
Mama walked into the kitchen and looked at my bruised cheek before turning my head and looking at the side I’d been rubbing. She kissed the top of my head, and said to Papa, “Did you have to hit him so hard?” As she left, Papa gave me a wink and brought our cups to the sink.
Monday at school, Jacob’s followers clung to his side whenever possible. Those who were in class with him sat as close as they could; in the hallways, they huddled behind him. During recess, though, I noticed two girls sitting on the steps outside the cafeteria door: one shorter with long braids, both wearing yellow dresses. They were watching Jacob as he gave his little lessons. It took a minute, but I recognized that they had been his followers at Hebrew school the day before. They looked at me and whispered to one another from their end of the courtyard. I could see their thoughts unravelling before me. They were there to watch me, I decided. Jacob must have been angry that I’d called out his papa, and now, as they made their way over to me, these two girls were meant to rough me up for it. But when they approached, they simply sat at the bench and looked at me. I thought it odd to just sit there and be looked at for what felt like such a long time.
“Is it true,” the shorter girl finally said, “that it takes more energy to get out of bed?” The other girl nodded as if to repeat the question in silence. From what they went on to tell me, they’d asked Jacob about this earlier that morning and he’d gotten angry with them. He’d called them “bad Jews,” saying they were an embarrassment unto their fathers for asking such a question of the rabbi’s son. As we sat, several of the other Jews in Jacob’s group were stealing glances our way, even as they made their way to the eastern fence to get in their prayers before heading to their 11am classes. Looking at them, I could feel the Sun’s heat at my back. I hadn’t realized until then that the Sun was on this side of the courtyard, and it dawned on me what I must do. I told the girls I’d be right back, got up from my seat, and went to where his group was. When I got there, I whispered to one of the boys, and told him of my discovery, and asked how they could follow such a hack. Before getting even halfway back, they’d begun saying (one after the other, louder and louder), “This isn’t the east! We’re at the wrong fence!” I couldn’t help smiling as I imagined Jacob standing alone by the fence, each member abandoning him for his error and stupidity. But as I sat back at my bench beside the two girls, Jacob was making his way to the correct fence with the other Jews in tow. As they passed by, each of them turned their nose from me.
Looking to the girls in the yellow dresses, I said, “I don’t understand. Why are they with him still? It’s like they want to follow a schmuck!”
Both girls were already standing up. “You’re a real jerk,” the shorter one said, “you know that?”
For the remainder of recess, none of the kids would so much as look at me. If I stood on one side, they all turned their faces the other way. If I said something, their murmuring to the eastern fence grew louder to block out my words. I hadn’t felt this alone since just before my family moved to New Jersey, after word had gotten out about what Frank—from down the street—had been doing. And after Frank did what he’d done, I’d scrubbed and scrubbed in the bath, but the feeling was still there; it would be for years. Before long, I was in such a severe depression, and was being so tormented by the other kids—and by some who were not kids—that my parents packed our things in the middle of the night, and we left the wire behind and fled to New Jersey, with this new school and these new Jews, who now seemed so much like the old ones.
In this moment, I refused to go through that anymore. I would expose Jacob for the fraud and liar that he was. I went to where he stood at the fence, planning a debate as I walked. I had every argument planned, every rebuttal and every counterpoint. I grabbed his shoulder and spun him to face me and he simply smiled at me. I didn’t expect it, that smug, calm expression, and it reminded me of the way Frank had smiled, the way one corner of his mouth had lifted slightly higher than the other. I wanted to remove that smile forever. I threw Jacob against the fence so hard that his teeth clacked together. Then I punched him.
Home was eerily quiet, even from the outside. I half expected something to jump out at me when I opened the door, but was instead met with the brooding figure of Mama, arms crossed and mouth tight. I would have preferred if something jumped out at me. We stood in the living room a long moment, waiting—for what? When I opened my mouth, she smacked me. When I tried to apologize, she did it again. Tears stung my eyes.
I spent the rest of the evening in bed. I wasn’t allowed to come out from my room, and I probably wouldn’t have anyway. I just cried into my pillow like I used to before we moved from home. There were days back home when I would get back from synagogue and just go straight to my pillow for hours. And now, when I finally ran out of tears and the last rays of light were spying through my window blinds, I couldn’t help but think back to the aftermath of Frank. When Papa found out, he didn’t say a word. As Mama squeezed me in her arms, Papa went down the street to Frank’s house, knocked on the door, and when Frank answered, beat him unconscious. It was the only time I’d known Papa to lose his temper like that. That might have also had something to do with why we’d moved. Although, I doubted anyone would give Papa up to the police; to call the authorities on a fellow Jew is to break Jewish law. I wiped my eyes now, pushed the memory from my mind and slept.
I awoke the next morning to Papa sitting at the edge of my bed.
“Come, I need your help,” he said.
We went downstairs to the kitchen and he stood at the counter, tapping his finger against the linoleum and staring at the coffee brewer. When he didn’t move, I took up the grinds and poured them in. When I finished, I turned to ask why we were doing this. “Don’t speak,” he said, “just do.” I took the water from the stovetop and began to pour it into the grind. Papa placed his hand on mine and guided it in a circle. His skin felt thick, calloused, warm. He let go and I kept pouring. “Not so fast,” he said, “take your time. Breathe in; be the moment.” But instead, I put the kettle down.
“What’s the point, Papa?”
For a moment, there was a hopelessness in his eyes I’d never seen before. It was like he didn’t have an answer for once, and it made me feel like we were one person in that second, one helplessly lost person. When the moment passed, he finished brewing the coffee. We sat down, cups on the table, and he scratched his thumb at his forehead.
“Did I ever tell you how your uncle died?”
I didn’t expect this. Papa had never spoken of his brother before. All I knew of my uncle was what I could see in a photo of him on the fireplace. He was thin, seemed tall, and looked like an older version of me. I shook my head at Papa’s question.
“He was nineteen when he went into the Marines. Believe it or not, he wanted to be a cantor—’He had an angel’s voice,’ your grandmama would say. I was maybe sixteen at the time, and I think he was probably part of the reason that I ended up being a cantor in the navy. Anyway, none of us wanted him to go. Not me; not our parents or friends. This was during Vietnam, you see, and it was frowned upon in our community to enlist. But your uncle Bernard was a proud man who loved this country, and he “wouldn’t listen to reason,” as your grandmama put it. He went away and we were left to wonder every day if we’d ever see him again. Though we thought our worrying wouldn’t really start until after he’d finish boot camp, until after he deployed. I prayed to God every night that my brother would fail his training, that he’d come home to us. But I knew better than to expect this kind of miracle.” Papa rubbed his hands against his face and sat still for so long I thought he was trying to remember the rest of the story. Then he continued. “So, imagine my shock when my prayer was answered.”
“Really?” I interrupted, but he waved his hand in dismissal.
“My mama,” Papa said. “She answered the door thirty-four days after Bernard left, to find two marines there wearing white gloves. There’d been an accident, they told her. The Kaiser-Jeep he was riding on slipped on black ice and spun out. He fell onto the ground, and before they could stop the truck, it ran over his chest. I never prayed for anything again.”
When Papa was done, we both sat in silence and stared at our untouched coffees. He grabbed the edge of my seat and dragged me over to him, and he placed his hand against my back. I could feel his warmth and sadness radiating through me. I wanted to ask why he was telling me this now, but I didn’t.
“I blamed myself for so long for what happened. I thought, somehow, that my prayers were the cause of his death. And it ate me up inside. We’ve both had horrible things happen to us, son. And I don’t want it to tear at you the way it has to me. That’s something you must learn to deal with.”
For the next while, we sat in silence and drank our coffees. I’d forgotten to put extra sugar in mine, but I drank it anyway. When we were finished, I asked, “Papa? When did you stop blaming yourself?” He stared at me like he’d never considered that before. He pulled me against his side and pressed his head against mine.
Later that morning, I felt sick in my gut. The drive to Hebrew school was quiet, and I felt as though I’d vomit every time I thought about having to face the other kids, the rabbi…Jacob. On the sidewalk, the goyim walked carefree. I imagined what it must be like to be one of them, perhaps waking up one morning in a Christian home, Bugs Bunny blaring from the television, and shoveling pork into my mouth by the crateful. I wondered how it would taste, like chicken? Maybe; everything tasted like chicken. Why not ham, too? The thought passed as our car moved along, and I almost turned in my seat to wave at a goyish boy about my age. It was another ten long minutes—ten nauseating minutes—before Mama broke the silence.
“Tell me you’ll apologize to the rabbi, and to his son,” she said.
She looked at me briefly, her knuckles soft against the steering wheel, her eyes pleading under the bangs of her wig. It occurred to me that I’d never seen Mama without a sheitel or scarf. For a moment, I longed to brush back the thing and look at her natural scalp. Tradition, I thought, alarmed at how I sounded in my own head, as though I was no longer a child; it frightened me. What good is bar mitzvah, then? I looked past the thought. In my mind, I reached across the armrest and grabbed the wig, tossing it out the window and pressed my cheek to Mama’s shaven head—I imagined it still shaven. In my mind, Mama held me tight and threw away our traditions and burdens. In my mind, Mama turned the car around.
“Yes, Mama,” I said, staring up at the sheitel’s brown bangs.
For the remainder of the drive, I thought about Uncle Bernard, and what life would be like had he been around. I pictured my ever-lost uncle as an older man. I envisioned him with grey hair and a long beard, unsure of why. In my mind, he came over for Shabbat and played chess with Papa as I sat on his lap and watched. He carved a brisket for seder and shared wartime stories with Papa by the fire as Mama taught me to bake challah bread. Now in the car, I turned my head into my shoulder and wiped away a tear, somehow missing a man I never met—missing a relationship I wish I’d had the chance to have.
Mama patted my knee, squeezing it, and said, “It won’t be as bad as you think. Just be sincere and say sorry from the heart.”
For a moment, I didn’t know what she meant, then I realized that she must have noticed me weeping and that she must’ve mistaken it for nerves about Jacob and the rabbi. I didn’t say anything, just leaned my head against her arm.
At Hebrew school, the kids who’d witnessed the punch the day prior were now stealing scowled glanced at me. Nobody was sitting near me, and those who hadn’t been in the courtyard on Monday now judged based on what they were told. I sat at the far table at the back of the room as the rabbi spoke, never once looking at me. Was he pretending I didn’t exist? Was this my punishment for hitting his son? Some form of social exile? Or, I hoped against hope, had Jacob not told his papa of what happened? I pushed that thought aside. Surely the rabbi had seen the bruise on his son’s lip; I could see it clearly from where I sat.
The entire first hour went like this, ignored completely save for accusatory eyes from my peers. The rabbi game lessons on how to keep a kosher house, such as hanging a mezuzah on a door’s frame no lower than a third from the top. For a moment, I felt the urge to question this. Why not hang it lower so that children may reach it? Why should children climb stools to kiss a mezuzah when it could be hung lower? Wouldn’t that make more sense? But I felt the eyes of my classmates on me, and stuffed the thought down. On this went until it was time for break. The other kids gathered around Jacob as the rabbi went to his office. Jacob, like his papa, would not look at me. I stared at him a long while, determined to ignore the whispering and sneers from the others. I didn’t realize it at first, but I’d been watching Jacob in anticipation—of what? The other kids seemed to be waiting, too. It was as though we were all on the verge of expectation, water at the edge of a tipping glass.
When the rabbi returned, it dawned on me. The other kids had been waiting for one of Jacob’s little sermons. Was that what I was waiting for? Had I been seeking Jacob’s performance? Absurd. Absolutely not. And yet, I waited and watched for Jacob’s black-and-blue lips to move.
“Who can recite the first verse of The Shema?” the rabbi asked.
When nobody answered, the rabbi repeated the question with his head turned toward Jacob, who stared at the floor. The room was quiet, and I thought that if I listened hard enough, I could imagine the wind against the window as a chord of calling, some angel urging for a hymn. The whole while, I kept thinking about what Mama said in the car, that I was to apologize for what I did the day before. To the rabbi, I didn’t know if I could, or would. To Jacob, I didn’t know how. Would his flock even allow me within arm’s reach if I tried? Would my feet budge if I forced them to move? Still, the rabbi demanded a prayer. I thought of Papa and Uncle Bernard, and of how much power Papa placed in prayer. After a long while, and with my gut turning in on itself, my mouth opened before I knew what I was doing.
I sang, slow and quietly, “Yesimcha Elohim k’Ephraim v’chi-Menashe.”
“The Shema,” the rabbi said. “That’s not The Shema.”
I sang louder, with my hands over my eyes as though at a funeral, peering out through parted fingers. “Yivarechecha Adonai v’yishmerecha.” I didn’t fully understand the prayer, just that it was a prayer for children, but it felt right. And I didn’t know why, but my chin trembled. I stared at Jacob, who’s shoulder was nudged by one of the girls. He looked up at me. I continued. “Ya’er Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka. Yisa Adonai panav eilecha v’yasem lecha shalom.”
As I sang, I wasn’t sure who my prayer was aimed at—me; Jacob; none of us or all of us—but when I finished, every eye was on me, watching and listening. When I’d finished, the air felt dense, as though it had absorbed my meaning whether I knew what it was or not. After I’d finished, the Rabbi looked from me to the other kids, and back again, and he sat without a word.
Brian Feller is an MFA student in fiction at Emerson College. He currently has work published in Canyon Voices Literary Magazine, Adelaide Literary Magazine, and Palm-Sized Press, as well as a story in an upcoming issue of Stork Magazine. He was the winner of FIU’s 2018 Student Literary Award in fiction. In his spare time, he’s an avid tabletop gamer and pen collector. He hopes to work as a professor of creative writing after completing his MFA in the Fall of 2020.