THE MIRACLE OF ESTELLE
by Joram Piatigorsky
For the third time in a row Benjamin didn’t have a single matching pair in the cards he held in his hands. His frustration doubled when Estelle flashed her triumphant smile announcing. “Gin!”
“It’s not all luck, you know,” she said in a self-satisfied way that rubbed Benjamin the wrong way.
Every Wednesday night, Benjamin accompanied Melinda, his wife of forty-two years, when she visited “poor crippled Estelle.” Melinda was more charitable than he was, always willing to help those in need, which is one of traits he loved about her. But, no matter how needy Estelle was, he was irritated watching precious time escape as he played gin rummy with ungrateful and annoying Estelle rather than attend to his unfinished work. The scientific manuscript of his postdoctoral student needed revision, he hadn’t prepared his upcoming lecture at Harvard, and his never-ending list of administrative duties for Georgetown University weighed heavily on him.
“Larry didn’t come to see me again this week, as if he’s too busy to have lunch with his sick mother,” Estelle whined, “and my TV flickers so much I can’t even see Oprah without getting seasick. The repairman won’t come for another week. I’m always last on the list.”
“Come on, Estelle,” said Benjamin. “Give it a rest.”
Melinda shot him a disapproving glance.
Shit, thought Benjamin. I can’t win.
“My legs are cold today,” Estelle continued, ignoring Benjamin’s comment and straightening her back in the wheel chair. She was paralyzed from the waist down and extremely sensitive to temperature changes ever since the onset of a baffling nerve degenerative disease three years ago. She had moved from Chicago to Bethesda to receive medical treatment by a well-known neurologist at the National Institutes of Health. None of her doctors knew if and when this mysterious ailment would stop progressing.
Benjamin asked Estelle about her illness as she dealt another round of cards. “It’s God’s will,” she said, with an astonishing lack of anger that she expressed for other subjects.
“Have courage, Estelle. Maybe Dr. Jensen can help you,” said Melinda.
It’s not God’s will, thought Benjamin. It’s got nothing to do with God. It’s genetic or viral or maybe something else here on solid earth.
Although Melinda spoke kindly to Estelle, Benjamin wondered what she was really thinking. Two hours ago before coming to play cards that evening, Melinda had said, “Here we go again, dear. It does get tiring, doesn’t it?”
Once again, he had suppressed asking why they had to keep going to Estelle’s every Wednesday night, like robots. Instead he asked, “How do you think God will reward us for our ‘Estelle mitzvahs’?”
“Perhaps by a surprise or two, who knows?”
Melinda had learned to side step his sarcasm. Also, the Jewish New Year was in two days, which pacified her. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were the only religious observances that Benjamin shared with her. He claimed he was a High Holy Day specialist.
Estelle looked more in her late sixties than her fifty-two years. She had aged overnight when her husband abandoned her a few months after she lost the use of her legs. He had claimed it had nothing to do with her disease, but Melinda didn’t believe that. Gray roots bridged Estelle’s white scalp to thinning, dyed brown hair, her one effort to appear presentable. Since her sickness, she’d neglected caring for home or body. Her clothes were often stained and her shoes dirty; scattered objects, old newspapers and unwashed dishes lay around her small apartment. She had gained at least twenty pounds on her short thick body since she had joined the temple six months ago. Her pudgy face lacked expression, even when complaining, and her tiresome monotone triggered a defensive reaction in Benjamin. However, he fought his instinct to strike back, not always successfully, since he knew she had not attacked him personally. He was doing this principally for Melinda.
Benjamin did have a forgiving nature. He saw Estelle’s fingernails coated with dull red, peeling polish as worn weapons that had lost their threat, unlike claws of a predator, calming his desire to snipe at her. It was not what she said or her appearance that irked him most, but rather it was her certainty about everything. Always the academic scientist, he rebelled against opinions stated as facts or beliefs not supported by evidence.
Benjamin walked into temple the following Friday morning clutching his prayer book but thinking about the lecture he was missing at the university on stem cells. “Nice day,” he said to Melinda, then gazed at the cloudless blue sky.
“Yes,” she answered as she passed the entrance of the temple.
As the Rosh Hashanah service started and the empty seats disappeared, he noticed a thin diagonal scratch in the back of the polished pew before him. He leaned forward to see a tiny heart at its base etched into the wood from the same sharp point. LN + PDU were printed in pencil underneath the heart. He speculated these as initials of imaginary people Lynn Nussbaum + Peter Denon Ukevitch? Why not, thought. Everything we hear in Temple is imaginary. Then he wondered whether ‘Lynn’ or ‘Peter’ made the scratches, and whether they really loved each other, or maybe someone just imagined phantom people like he did to entertain the old guys, like him, doing their duty on Rosh Hashanah.
“Look, young lovers,” he whispered to Melinda as he pointed to the heart.
“Shhh. Not so loud.” She abruptly turned the page of her prayer book and he got the message.
“Rise as the Arc is opened,” commanded the new rabbi, who had just replaced Rabbi Magnum on his retirement. Young Rabbi Fraenkel was the future: the changing of the guards to continue the never-ending cycle that kept treading back on itself.
“Please be seated,” the rabbi said after the Arc was closed.
“All rise and turn to page 93 in your prayer book. Let us read responsively,” said the rabbi a little later.
O Lord, You have been our refuge
From generation to generation.
The rabbi motioned for the congregants to be seated again.
Up and down, up and down, won’t need to go to the gym today, thought Benjamin. A trickle of sweat slid down his cheek. He wiped off the perspiration with his fingers and rubbed his eye with his knuckle. The September heat was oppressive in Bethesda.
Practicing his speed-reading skills Benjamin skimmed forward in his prayer book, blocking out the background voice of the rabbi.
The Lord is King, The Lord was King,
The Lord shall be King throughout all time.
He was baffled why so many smart people repeated such nonsense over and over. If they meant the King is Nature, why didn’t they say so? If they meant there is a supernatural force out there protecting people or directing events…well…how could anyone really believe that? He questioned for the umpteenth time what he was doing here, and then reminded himself of Melinda’s devotion and his vows so many years ago “…in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”
His leg touched hers and she smiled.
Up again. Benjamin noticed strangers of all ages studying their books, standing as instructed, like soldiers, except for the girl in the stroller next to her young parents. Benjamin looked down at his feet and wiggled his toes. Obedient little fellows, he told himself, feeling disconnected from his body. I guess we all do what we’re told, he thought, becoming strangely angry at his toes.
His mood mellowed as the congregants’ joined the Cantor’s deep voice in song and he saw Melinda swaying with the tune. The age-old melodies had become familiar over the years that he had attended Rosh Hashanah services with Melinda and were separate in his mind from the mechanical religious observances. It was as if the music and prayers, although under the same roof, had little to do with one another.
Benjamin tried to sing along with Melinda and the rest of the congregation but couldn’t maintain the melody for more than a few moments, adding to his frustration at the service. He had difficulty pronouncing and didn’t know the meaning of the Hebrew words, which often made him feel as an outsider, instead of imagining, as he usually did, that the others were chained within. It was as if he had not earned entrance into the privileged inner sanctum of Jews, or that birthright was insufficient to join this holy setting. Yet, he didn’t feel rejected either. Rather, he felt that he had an illicit membership to an exclusive club.
A sense of estrangement was not new to Benjamin. He was the first American citizen of his family, having been born in New York a few months after his French mother and Russian father emigrated from France just in time to escape Hitler. His parents neither sent him to Hebrew school nor attended services themselves as he grew up assimilating new customs in a foreign land that they now called home. He was an American/European/non-observant Jewish refugee raised in a peaceful country. He felt no more a ritualistic Jew clinging to past traditions than he a felt a target of Jewish persecution and Nazi extermination. Singing itself was difficult for him personally as well. His father was a musician, but Benjamin was tone-deaf and self-conscious when he sang. He imagined himself a deficient mutant when singing among others. His lips attempted to form words without sound for the rest of the song.
Benjamin, bored, started thinking about Estelle. He assumed that she was at the service and wondered who brought her to the temple or where she was sitting. He hoped Melinda wouldn’t ask her to join them for lunch after the sermon, a tradition he had with her every year. Also, he didn’t want to be stuck with Estelle that afternoon. He was looking forward to catching up on his work. He scanned the crowd looking for her didn’t see her anywhere. The wheelchair should have been easy to spot.
“Where’s Estelle?” he asked Melinda.
She shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Benjamin’s attention was diverted to the Cantor starting his journey up the aisle carrying the Torah. Many congregants shuffled along their rows in his direction. A gray-haired man eager to reach the Torah maneuvered across Benjamin and Melinda’s row to reach the aisle. The end of his tallit, tassels dangling, was clutched in his fingertips and his arm extended towards the on-coming Torah. A changing flux of hands holding either prayer books or edges of tallits danced around the ancient Torah as it proceeded down the aisle. Golden rings, jeweled bracelets and cuff links screamed opulence while the act begged humility. No icons allowed, said the Jews. Yet, Benjamin saw them tied to ritual and the Torah. Were those not icons of a kind?
The books and tallits touched the Torah, ever so lightly, so lovingly, so reverently, and quickly receded to the lips of their owners for spiritual nourishment, a taste of honey.
Benjamin recoiled from the programmed bonding between Torah and Jew. He found the subservience as unpalatable as the evangelists on television Sunday mornings praising Jesus Christ. Save for the rare scholar, why kiss a book or cloth after it touched a scroll that he had neither read nor understood? Why use lips; why kiss? It has nothing to do with the passion of lovers with moist lips, open, or with lips nuzzling on an infant’s neck, or even with the social masquerade of lips smacking air as cheeks brushed past each other. To Benjamin, this Jewish kiss meant, “I’ll obey, I’m yours,” less like the fearful kissing of the Godfather’s ring than the obsequious kissing of the Pope’s. He would have preferred to touch the silver case of the Torah with his fingers. But, it was so distant, he thought, to touch but not to feel, so unsatisfying, like the near contact of a gentleman’s lips meeting a lady’s hand.
He could not bring himself to extend his arm, to tap the Torah and touch his lips. Apart from the hypocrisy for him, it was an ostentatious performance, like yelling “Bravo!” at a concert, to stand out as a connoisseur, a true music lover, one who belongs, yet plays no instrument and cannot sing in tune. He looked at the other congregants touching and kissing, avoiding each other’s eyes to make it all more sincere. The bowing, the swaying, the yarmulke and tallit, the reaching to touch the Torah in a mass frenzy – all distasteful public displays and badges of belonging – thought Benjamin. Was all that necessary?
What about the others, like himself, who were born members of the so-called Chosen People (chosen by whom?), but chose to look forward, not backward, and settled with being a member of the human race, despite their flaws, the product of eons of evolution, rather than being confined to an encapsulated group, special, claiming a singular privilege to misery? Every year it was the same: he watched, a peeping Tom, a Jewish peeping Tom, watching Jews.
But then other nagging questions rattled around in Benjamin’s mind and confused him. Am I participating in earnest? I’m here, aren’t I? I’m always here on Rosh Hashanah. I’m a Jew with a Jewish wife celebrating the New Year with other Jews. Don’t people need family? Don’t I? I am a product of history as everyone else here. He responded to the songs, rose to the call, read, on cue, that God is one, all-powerful, benevolent, never to be doubted, always to be honored. Did it really matter that he did not believe the voice of certainty in the prayer book, or that his hand was not among those seeking the Torah, or that his lips were not brushing against the object made holy by contact with the Torah, or that he was an Atheist, with a capital A? He was there, willingly, wearing his talllit and yarmulke. Doesn’t the uniform define the person? Wouldn’t a person camouflaged in a white sheet and sporting a pointed hat listening to the Grand Wizard be branded a member of the Ku Klux Klan whatever his private beliefs? Do thoughts trump actions? No. The messy informal appearance of a research scientist, like himself, was part of that person. He was there all right. With Melinda. If a modern day Gestapo invaded the temple at that very moment he would be incarcerated with her and the others.
He re-centered his light brown yarmulke (left over from the Bar-Mitzvah of Danny Shapiro, a friend of his daughter) and re-arranged his white and blue tallit to cover the full expanse of his shoulders, which sagged a bit with advancing years. He gazed at the Cantor walking along the aisle at the far left of the chapel heading back to the bima. Few remained around the Torah, a touch here, a tap there, kiss, kiss, the bees quieting as the hive prepared for the next phase.
Various members of the congregation went to the bima to read their assigned words of Hebrew, a plea was made to buy Israel bonds, more chants, up, down, yawns, the chapel door opened, closed with congregants taking breaks to sip water from the fountain or relieve themselves or maybe just chat with a friend and express condolences for a sick family member, or congratulations for a promotion, whatever, and then back to the sanctuary, the rituals, the service that put all lives on hold for the day, playing guiltless hooky from work, with pride and comfort and sense of community. It was their tribe, after all, for centuries, and it was Rosh Hashanah.
Happy New Year! Last year was wonderful, a blessing. Touch wood; touch again. Next year in Jerusalem! Maybe next year all our dreams will come true. Maybe. Maybe.
Benjamin pondered what thoughts filled the minds of the other congregants at this very instant. His six foot, four inch frame allowed him to see over the heads in front of him (except for one very ugly purple hat that blocked his view) and it all looked ordinary, a group of people observing the Jewish New Year, as expected of them. His thoughts turned more scientific and he wondered how many of the strangers in this holy chamber would be dead next year, how many malignant tumors were in the room, how much anxiety, how many would hear devastating news within the week about their health, or their jobs, or their children (God forbid). Then he gave himself a break and wondered how many orgasms would they generate today, and how many conceptions, wanted and unwanted, occurred last night?
This scene may have appeared commonplace, but so do tragedy and ecstasy from afar. A room full of people is high drama, he thought, the stuff of literature and life, just notice, think, imagine. His thoughts returned to the contradictions of authenticity: was it mind or body, beliefs or actions? Could he be religious and not religious at the same time? Who wins the battle of competing truths?
And then Benjamin heard a human voice that put aside his tiresome conflicts. It had a wondrous quality, like the first chirp of a bird at dawn. The tapestry of suits, dresses, jewelry, hair shades, scarves, the background of people that had distracted him, surrendered to the feminine melody so fine that it sounded like a single violin string caressed by a bow containing a hair plucked from the head of a child-angel. The voice was not powerful or tutored like that of a soprano’s trained for opera, but free like air filling the sanctuary, entering his body with every breath.
Benjamin’s invisible shield melted. He glanced at Melinda beside him and took her hand in his. She squeezed his fingers. He closed his eyes and imagined the ebb and flow of tides in a calm sea where life originated. His face relaxed and the creases lining his forehead disappeared. The warmth of that single voice made him shiver in the September heat. It didn’t matter anymore whether there was a God that was good or powerful or existed at all. With Benjamin’s hand in Melinda’s in his private dark space of closed eyes, there was no inner or outer group; that one human voice kidnapped his conflicts.
Benjamin leaned close to Melinda and asked, “Who is singing?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Where is it coming from?”
“The choir, I think.”
Benjamin scrutinized each person within the choir standing at the front of the chapel. No lips were moving, yet the spellbinding voice. He searched the congregants for the woman who sang, but found none. Again he examined the choir carefully, and then he noticed a space between two women standing in the second row. A metallic flash caught his attention. He squinted and thought he may have identified the source of the voice. He shifted in his seat trying to see her more clearly.
Estelle! Yes, he was sure now. She was trapped in her wheelchair as usual. Her eyes were shut and except for her lips, she was perfectly still. Oh my, Estelle! Benjamin wondered whether she plucked the notes out of the heavens and blew them gently to the audience. This was not Estelle’s gin-rummy voice Benjamin heard on Wednesday nights.
The older couple in front of him stopped whispering to each other. The rabbi stopped fiddling with his tallit. Even the baby stopped fidgeting in the stroller. The occasional coughs, the muffled chatter, the turning of pages, the restlessness all ceased. This voice was for listening, not joining or interrupting. It demanded no action and claimed no certainty; it was from another world where understanding came simply from being a part of it. Estelle was singing purely and beautifully. That was all. The preaching of the rabbi, the chanting of the cantor and the rituals of the congregants seemed insignificant. Benjamin’s desire to prove his identity to himself or to anyone else dissolved. He imagined symphonies playing in the heads of the deaf. And then as Estelle’s voice had permeated the sanctuary, it eased to its conclusion without fanfare.
A solemn hush lingered. There was no applause, no bow. There would be no headline in tomorrow’s newspaper: “Estelle Changes Lives: Jews Honor the New Year”. A lady in a wheelchair had sung her song to a congregation at Rosh Hashanah. But Benjamin knew that he would carry this sound with him when the sun set that evening.
Rabbi Fraenkel broke the magic of the moment with a mundane sermon about the importance of retaining Jewish roots through observance.
After the service he saw Estelle being wheeled to the lobby by her son Larry. She was criticizing him for pushing the wheelchair recklessly. Benjamin saw that her purple-red lipstick, too heavily applied, spread unevenly beyond the boundaries of her parched lips.
“Estelle,” said Melinda. “That was wonderful. I had no idea…what a voice you have.”
“Yes, yes, absolutely, amazing. I didn’t know. You never said anything,” added Benjamin.
“Thanks,” she said. “God, it’s hot in here. Do they think we’re made of plastic or something?”
She laughed coarsely, as usual, starring straight ahead with her deadpan bug-eyes. Her blue sweater was rumpled and her canvas shoes stained. Her earrings were too small for her big ears, and she was wearing a gauche necklace with large blue, glass beads.
Such a mess, thought Benjamin. She was as obnoxious as ever. Just seeing her in her wheelchair made him shy away. That her divine voice had returned to some mysterious place within her haunted him.
“Good singing,” said a passing congregant as he raced out the front door. “Happy New Year!”
“Yes,” said Larry to no one in particular. “Good singing.”
Benjamin moved close to Melinda as they left the Temple. He removed his yarmulke and tallit; the service was over, the New Year had officially begun. Larry wheeled his mother out behind them. Benjamin turned as bright sunrays filtered through the leaves of a nearby tree and brightened Estelle’s face. A slight breeze made shadows dance on her cheeks. He took a step in her direction and touched her arm.
“Thanks, Estelle. We’ll see you next Wednesday?” he said.
He could not be sure, but hoped that the small movement of Estelle’s lips was a smile.
“I guess,” she said. “Wednesday.”
Melinda took Benjamin’s arm and they headed together towards their favorite small Greek restaurant where they always ate lunch after Rosh Hashanah services to usher in the Jewish New Year.
About the Author:
During his 50-year career at the National Institutes of Health, Joram Piatigorsky has published some 300 scientific articles and a book, Gene Sharing and Evolution (Harvard University Press, 2007), lectured worldwide, received numerous research awards, including the prestigious Helen Keller Prize for vision research, served on scientific editorial boards, advisory boards and funding panels, and trained a generation of scientists. Presently an emeritus scientist, he collects Inuit art, is on the Board of Directors of The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, blogs (JoramP.com), and has published a series of personal essays in the journal Lived Experience and a novel, Jellyfish Have Eyes (IPBooks, 2014) and a memoir The Speed of Dark (Adelaide Books, 2018). He has two sons, five grandchildren, and lives with his wife in Bethesda, Maryland. He can be contacted at email@example.com.